Tag Archives: Paul

On Monotheism as a Restrictive Interpretive Framework

In reading literature on early Jewish and Christian monotheism (and especially the latter), I frequently run across attempts to reconcile ideas about other divinities with statements of God’s oneness by imposing a strict monotheistic rubric on the texts that then necessitates some kind of tricky ontological rationalization. The most explicit example I can think of is from Hurtado’s essay on first-century Jewish monotheism (published here and here; I will cite the latter). In it he argues for an inductive approach to evaluating monotheism (113):

The first methodological point to emphasize is the importance of proceeding inductively in forming and using analytical categories such as “monotheism.” On both sides of the issue (to varying degrees among individual studies) there has been a tendency to proceed deductively from a priori presumptions of what “monotheism” must mean, instead of building up a view inductively from the evidence of the thought and practice of ancient Jews (and earliest Christians). It is mistaken to assume that we can evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs in terms of whether or how closely they meet our own preconceived idea of “pure” monotheism.

He goes on to state that we have to let self-identification determine who was monotheistic (114):

If we are to avoid a priori definitions and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists, however much their religion varies and may seem “complicated” with other beings in addition to the one God.

The words “monotheism” and “monotheist,” however, did not exist during the Greco-Roman period. They first appear in philosophical treatises of the seventeenth century CE. We will never find an ancient Jewish or Christian text in which an author explicitly professes to be a “monotheist.” In order to identify “monotheism” in antiquity we have no choice but to retroject into the texts, to some degree, our own definitions of what a monotheist is. Hurtado does exactly this, but observe a qualification (114):

our policy should be to take people as monotheistic if that is what they profess to be, in spite of what we might be inclined to regard at first as anomalies in their beliefs and religious practices.

Basically, any ostensible claim to monotheism (based on “one God” language, presumably) will overrule any potential preclusion of it (such as might problematize a modern claim to monotheism). As an example, Hurtado highlights 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he asserts uses “monotheistic language” while at the same time “accommodating devotion to Christ in terms and actions characteristically deemed by them as otherwise reserved for God.”

I suggest that Hurtado is here allowing the ostensible presence of monotheism in 1 Cor 8:4–6, which he identifies based on vernacular today considered monotheistic, to govern his interpretation of the explicit acknowledgment of a divine being other than God. In other words, of the two apparently conflicting concepts, he is using monotheism as the constant or the reference point, and deciding how devotion to Christ should be understood in relation to it. But the statement “there is no other God but one” may not have meant to the author of Corinthians what it means to believers today. Ulrich Mauser made this very point twenty years ago:

It is my thesis that the Biblical insistence on the oneness of God is so different from the monotheistic consciousness of our time that the almost universal procedure of reading the Bible through the spectacles of a modern monotheist must result in a serious misreading of its message” (“One God Alone: A Pillar of Biblical Theology,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 12.3 [1991]: 257, emphasis in original).

I suggest that Hurtado’s approach shackles the text and only lets it use “one God” language to mean what it means to us today. What would be the outcome if we were to turn the tables and seek a way to understand the language of 1 Cor 8:4–6 not in light of modern monotheism, but in light of devotion to a being other than God? Instead of asking how Christ can be worshipped and how there can be many that are “called gods” in light of the fact that the text is monotheistic, let us ask how the author can say there is only one God in light of the fact that Christ is worshipped and there are many that are “called gods.” This allows us to define their view of God’s oneness according to the text, rather than presuppose it and then try to fit their view of God’s plurality into that presupposition. After all, it’s monotheism we’re looking to define, isn’t it?


James White on Rob Bell on Mithra and Attis

James White has a video up on his blog responding to an older video by Rob Bell which apparently discusses the relationship of the Jesus tradition to the traditions of Mithra and Attis. I haven’t seen Bell’s video, beyond what White shares in his video, and don’t know where he’s going with his discussion, but his characterization is poor and highly rhetorical, and it seems to rely on old Golden Bough ideas about genetic relationships between these ideologies. Irrespective, White takes issue with Bell’s discussion and makes the following comment, which is what I’d like to address today:

We don’t have to look outside of the context that the Bible itself provides for us to look for Jesus and a proper explanation of who Jesus was and what he did.

This statement is demonstrably false and promotes an incredibly naive approach to the New Testament. It seems to me to be a bit too aggressive a reaction to those who assert the dependency of the Christ tradition on Greco-Roman religion. The significance of the gospels to Christianity, and the existence of an historical Jesus, is in no way compromised by the notion that they were written to interact in some capacity with religious ideas current during the time period. Additionally, asserting that there’s no relationship whatsoever between the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus and Greco-Roman religion is simply uninformed. In Acts 17 Paul repeatedly and explicitly couches his presentation of God in vernacular he pulled from Greek literature and cult. He points to their altar to the unknown god and identifies that god with the Jewish God. Then he cites two Greek poets. The first quotation likely comes from Epimenides or other poets who quote or allude to him, and the second clearly comes from Aratus’ Phaenomena. In both instances, Paul presents the poets’ statements as legitimate expositions of his theology. Does he mean to entirely identify their presentation of God with his? No, of course not, but he recognizes the currency of those ideas among the demographic to which he is speaking, so he couches his presentation in terms that will resonate with them and will provide a bridge from their ideology to his.

If Paul can do this, why can’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Their books were written in Greek, meaning their target audiences were either Greek speaking Jews, Greek speaking non-Jews, or both. Either James White rejects the notion that the gospels had any non-Jews as intended readers, or they had non-Jews as intended readers, but for some reason or another intentionally avoided accommodating them at all in their literary conceptualization of Christ. There’s absolutely no evidence for either, and plenty of evidence against both. It’s no coincidence that “God Most High” is a term common to both Jewish and Greco-Roman ideology (if Paul was on the Areopagus in Acts 17 he would have been in front of the cult place of the “Most High God,” who was “not admitting of a name, known by many names”). I think it’s no coincidence that the word we translate “gospel” is used in parallel ways in reference to Jesus in Mark 1:1 and in reference to Augustus in the Priene inscription. I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus is presented as a god that is not recognized as such when he comes to visit his people, just like Dionysus. I would also point out that ancient Christians and Jews also didn’t think it a coincidence. Philo spends quite a bit of time in De Vita Contemplativa describing the Therapeutae as a Jewish analogue to Dionysus. The author of the Letter of Aristeas has Demetrius describe the Jewish God as Zeus known by another name. Justin Martyr recognizes that the relationship is not coincidental. We’ve already seen the example of Paul. In light of all this, there’s simply no support for White’s assertion outside of naive dogmatism. The notion that the Christian tradition developed absolutely independent of the culture in which the transmitters of that tradition lived is absolutely indefensible. To best understand the Jesus presented in the gospels, you have to understand the culture into which they were published.