Monotheism in the Ancient World

b22f947f59521aaed4c64566c5352ebe_clip-art-numbers-1-10-cliparts-free-clipart-the-number-1_1026-616One issue which I am very interested in exploring is that of monotheism. When did monotheism first exist? Many people would quickly say that ancient Israel was a monotheistic people-group. The Hebrew Bible, though, says otherwise. Even in the Hebrew Bible we see evidence of Judeans and Israelites worshiping gods who are not Yahweh. Likewise, we have many inscriptions attesting to the existence and worship of other deities by Judeans. Some inscriptions reach back to the 10th century BCE. Finally, archaeological evidence from the region suggests that Yahweh was not the only god worshiped. [1]

 

We should likewise be cautious when assuming that early Christians were monotheistic. While they surely believed in one god, our category of monotheism still limits them. According to our category of monotheism, one is a monotheist if they believe in the existence of one god. Ancient Christian views of god, particularly that of gnostics, was more nuanced, though. David Brakke notes an important nuance to considering to when calling early Christians or Christian gnostics “monotheists”:

No ancient person (even one who was a Jew or Christian) was a monotheist in our sense, that is, someone who believes that one and only one God exists. Instead, ancient “monotheists” simply believed that a single High God stood atop a hierarchy of gods, daemons, and other spiritual beings. Neither were the Gnostics alone in their multiplication of divine aspects of the ultimate God. Christians such as Basilides and the Valentinians also imagined a complex godhead with multiple aeons.

Brakke, David. The Gnostics. Harvard University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost. Pp. 61-62.

In other words, monotheism existed; however, it was not understood in the way we understand it in the modern period. Monotheism still allowed for other gods, daemons, and spiritual being in antiquity. In Gnostic theology, everything came out of one primary deity. While a single deity was at the top of the ladder, there were other deities below him. Though lesser in power, they were arguably still deities.

[1] I am in the processing of writing a definition of Judean and Israelite Religion for Ancient History Encyclopedia. This is the basic outline for how I will attempt to “define” religion of the ancient Judeans and Israelites.

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6 thoughts on “Monotheism in the Ancient World

  1. How are we understanding monotheism if it can refer both to the belief in the existence of only one god as well as to the belief that other gods existed? The notion of worshipping one ruling god without denying the existence of other subordinate deities has long and widely been understood as monolatry, and it is a feature of numerous worldviews. On what grounds do we say it is monotheism, and particularly if we are arguing that it violates the single necessary and sufficient feature of modern monotheism?

    • I’ll try to put more thought into this question over the summer. As for Brakke, I am not exactly sure why he refers to it as “monotheism” rather than monolatry. Perhaps it has something to do with his audience. According to the description on the Harvard Press webpage, he wants, in part, to offer an accessible introduction to Gnosticism. With this in mind, throwing in an uncommon word like monolatry may go against what he is trying to do.

      • Thanks for the response! I think that question of accessibility may be one of the main issues to consider. How much is our use of monotheism in describing early Judaism and Christianity an accommodation of groups whose contemporary faiths must be seen as ideologically contiguous with ancient Israel and Christianity. I’ve been asking myself this question for some time.

  2. We certainly see an evolving idea of God in the Old Testament. And it should be accepted as an established standard that Yahweh was, for quite a time, one of several gods worshipped by Judeans/Israelites. The transition to monotheism emerges clearly in the exilic/postexilic period with Deutero-Isaiah: „I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no god“ (Isaiah 45,5) and the Book of Job. This is a tough discussion of the spiritual validity of a faith with one God and no one else to turn to or to blame if this God decides to crush you (Satan, which starts the story rolling, is not later not even mentioned by Job, his friends or God himself).
    Daemons, like angels, are no gods, only members of the spirit world under God. And Gnostics are not Christians, even „Gnostic Christians“ as (perhaps) Marcion, obfuscating the idea of one God by introducing the demiurg. An indication of how serious the one God was taken by early Christians was the life-and-death discussion of the Trinity, especially the west tending to monarchianism with the claim that everything else violated monotheism and with it the central idea of their faith.

    • A relevant fact I forgot to mention: Isaiah and Job both fall into the Axial Age, that period of Eurasia-wide emergence of new thoughts and new ways of thinking, including, but not limited to, Buddha, Confucius, Zarathustra and Parmenides.

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