Monotheism or Monolatry

Conference held to locate origin of a "Jewish" idea
Beit Alpha

"How is it that Israel, a small nation living in polytheistic environment, brought Monotheism to the world?" With that challenge, Frederick L. Simmons opened the symposium he had sponsored with the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, January 10, 2010. Simmons charged the participants that he was not prepared to accept an answer of “God willed it.” Rather he demanded a rational explanation for the origin.

Ziony Zevit, Professor of Biblical Literature and Semitic Languages at AJU-LA, had assembled a panel under the rubric of “A Day of Archaeological Insight: What Do We Mean When We Say Monotheism?” To address the subject, Zevit had brought together several notable archaeologists and biblical studies experts from the East Coast. Drs. Barry Gittlen from Towson University and Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, New York, discussed the archaeological evidence while Mark Smith from New York University and Jeffrey Tigay from the University of Pennsylvania discussed the biblical aspects. Some three hundred people assembled to hear their deliberations as part of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education program and AJU.

Professor Zevit made it abundantly clear from the outset that we were dealing with a difficult term and that the audience should expect some surprises. Tracing the usage of the term Monotheism as presented in the Oxford English Dictionary (the second most quoted source of the day after the Tanakh), he suggested that “atheists like the idea of Monotheism as it gives only one target to shoot at.”  But in a way, that almost provided a summary of the day. He continued by asking where one should go to find about polytheism, countering his own suggestion of the Hindu culture in India by showing that Hindu scholars see all the different emanations of Hinduism as simply different manifestations of the one Hindu deity. As a result they claim that Hinduism is also monotheistic.

Jewish Kabbalistic lore likewise has emanations of God not dissimilar to those of Hinduism. Thus, he concluded his introduction by suggesting that the terms we use are so problematic that they are almost meaningless.

Professor Gittlen provided an “Archaeological Introduction to Biblical Cult Places and Images,” graphically illustrated from his own field work in Israel and other sources. He appropriately described the prize of archaeology as coming to understand how and why people did things—understanding the context of their actions. Yet so much of the archaeological evidence is of practices that appear contrary to the instruction of Scripture. 

Professor Mark Smith was the only person to attempt to respond to Frederick Simmons's challenge. Accepting the limitation of the ideas of monotheism that Ziony Zevit had established at the beginning of the presentation, he still felt that monotheism had a place in Israel. After presenting a diachronic overview of worship in Israel, he posited that the idea of monotheism was developed as a response to the imperial powers of Assyria and Babylon that came to dominate Israel and Judah. However his own reasoning left holes in his argument. Noting that polemics are wars fought with words, and that polemics rightly help us appreciate the argument being combated, he failed to recognize that the rabbis some 1,000 years later were still involved in polemics against those who were seen as against their monotheistic ideas.  If the idea of monotheism had been developed in the 6th or 7th century BCE, why were the Rabbis still fighting to have it established as the ideal of Judaism a millennia later? This question was never considered in Smith's argument.

Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay's background in Deuteronomy equipped him to address the subject of “Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible.” He noted in opening that YHWH was a personal name and that the issue of monotheism is not that of "one god," but of "the only god." He opined that monotheism as commonly understood had no real part in Scripture. He showed that the Shema, contained in Deuteronomy 6:4 is not a monotheistic statement. Its claim to be a monotheistic statement was post-biblical. The scriptures normally used to support monotheism in the Hebrew Bible are not philosophical statements, but rather statements of historical reality to the authors and audience. To Professor Tigay, any solution to the quest of Fred Simmons lay outside the realm of Scripture.

Steve Fine moved the time scale forward to the archaeological evidences from the first centuries of the current era. With presentations providing visits to synagogues in Dura-Europos, and in the Galilee, Steve Fine raised questions about the Jewish rejection of representative art, either from the biblical record or the pagan world. Why was the synagogue in Dura-Europos decorated with art depicting biblical stories and accounts? The art was clearly presented to show that biblical and not pagan ideas were being presented. And why should synagogues in the Galilee from the same period have zodiacs so prominently displayed? They clearly were not for the purpose of a calendar as they mixed the signs of the zodiac and seasons from the normal order. What we accept as being normal has not always been the case. Such is true with our current ideas of monotheism.

Overall, the event presented a portrait to the audience that all was not as we would like to think it was. It created a challenge to the normally accepted and unquestioned views that underpin both Judaism and Christianity.

Upon reflection, the conclusion of the matter at the end of the day was that the original challenge of Frederick Simmons was not worded correctly. Rather than asking why Israel gave rise to Monotheism, he should have asked why Israel gave rise to Monolatry. Only Israel worshipped a single God. Monotheism as we use it today was a construct of the Greek philosophers—most likely Antithenes, a pupil of Socrates—and then of subsequent Christian church fathers as well as the Rabbis of the current era.

John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament at Yale, summed up the situation described in the Dead Sea Scrolls at the start of the Christian era. This is a fitting description of the early followers of Jesus Christ as well.

[M]onotheism hardly seems the right word to describe the religion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To be sure, the supremacy of the Most High is never in doubt. But this is not a God who dwells alone. He is surrounded by ’elim and ’elohim, holy ones and angels. Some of these angels (Michael, Melchizedek, and the Prince of Light) are exalted above their fellows (Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2000, 27).

Given that conclusion, the ideas of the timing of the rise of monotheism within Judaism by Professor Mark Smith seem patently misplaced.

Tags: Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Church, Monotheism, Deuteronomy, Monolatry, Shema, Tigay

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