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.

Pseudepigrapha Saturday: The Apocryphon of Ezekiel

Introduction to the Text:

A complete extant of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel does not exist; however, it does appear in five fragments, one fragment of the apocryphon and four fragments in secondary usages. It was originally written in Greek or Hebrew between the the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E. Consequently, it appears in writing from Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.), the First Epistle of Clement (circa 95 C.E.), Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (2nd century C.E.), the works of Tertullian, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, Acts of Peter, and in the Babylonian Talmud. Josephus also references two books of Ezekiel (94 C.E.).

The core of the story consists of two men, one blind and lame, who are uninvited to the kings banquet. Out of anger, they lame man and blind man work together to enter the garden of the king and either eat the fruit or damage the garden. Resulting, the wise king places the lame man on the shoulders on the blind man. Because he demonstrates that they are both responsible, they are both flogged, with each accusing the other of primary responsibility (read the full text here from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanehdria 91a-b: the last paragraph and then continue onto the next page). Theologically the story is meant to illustrate how “man is neither a spirit in a body, nor a body with a spirit, but both a body and a spirit” (OTP, 489). In this case, the spirit in a body is like the blind man, and the body with a spirit is like the lame man. Thus, the story shows how the two are intrinsically connected two each other. One cannot act without the other.

The Apocryphon of Ezekiel and Development of Traditions

In biblical studies, and any academic studies, interpretation of certain materials is often one of the most problematic struggles. It is like the aphorism “three Jews, five opinions”. This aphorism, of course, can be applied to any person or group of people. Perhaps it would be correct to say “one text, four interpretations”. And that is what is so intriguing about the Apocryphon of Ezekiel. Patristic literature references the apocryphon, as does the Acts of Peter, Gnostic literature, and the Babylonian Talmud. More concisely, three traditions appropriate the apocryphon for their purposes: “Orthodox” Christianity (Christianities?), Gnosticism, and Rabbinic Judaism.

Each tradition interprets the Apocryphon of Ezekiel to fit within their own preconceived ideological frameworks. Unfortunately, as Orthodoxy developed throughout church history and Rabbinic Judaism developed its own theological frameworks, the common denominator of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel was forgotten. Even though both Orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism drew from the apocryphon, Orthodox Christianity, through heresiological discourse, established Gnosticism as the heretical Other. Likewise, Orthodox Christianity also established Judaism as the Other.

I wonder, though, what would happen if people began to explore those common roots? While the academic world has been attempting to do so for quite a while now, what if the average Joe did so? Being informed and well-learned is no difficulty in the 21st century. With ease of access to libraries, anybody can request an ILL (Inter-Library Loan) and read, not to mention the internet. People can explore the similarities between the foundations of their own traditions and the foundations of others. Like I’ve mentioned previously, this isn’t for the sake of become a large pluralistic faith community; rather, it is for the purposes of engaging in multi-faith dialogue to find the common denominators and common humanity.


J. R. Mueller and S. E. Robinson. “Apocryphon of Ezekiel”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume I. Hendrickson Publishers, 1983: 487-495.