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Monotheism’s Dirty Secret




The Bible does not represent the whole of the history of Israel, of Judah, or of monotheism. It is a historical product that reflects the social-political anxieties of individuals and groups usually on the margins of power (this is largely the case for the Persian-period literature). Taking the Bible as good historiography has resulted in a sordid history of problematic reconstructions–such as that Persian-period Judah was a theocracy, that all of Israel went into exile, that there was a singular event Exile, that Israel and Judah were largely religious and Yahwistic nations, and that there has been a singular strand of historical development from the “birth” (another problematic issue) of Israel and Judah as social-political kingdoms through the Persian and Hellenistic Periods.



See Also: Breaking Monotheism: Yehud and the Material Formation of Monotheistic Identity, vol. 565, LHBOTS (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)



By Jeremiah Cataldo
Assistant Professor of History
Frederik Meijer Honors College
Grand Valley State University
December 2013


Let me begin with a proposal that will likely invoke a passionate response: monotheism is a consequence of a historical contest for social-political authority. Not one that will be easily accepted, this proposal challenges long-held, but largely inaccurate, conventions regarding monotheism. Within scholarly discourse, it has been assumed, among other things, that monotheism was a superior evolutionary stage in religious development to its lesser, more uncivilized polytheistic cousin. Such positions assume, however, (1) that the more civilized ways of religious thinking are monotheistic, and (2) that all religions will eventually develop into different forms of monotheism. In addition, these have typically presupposed (1) that monotheism was an intellectual activity supporting ideologies tending toward exclusion and universalism, (2) that monotheism reflected or approached near to the culmination of higher-order ethical thought (think Axial Age theories), and (3) that it owed its genealogical heritage to polytheism. But what if the origin of monotheism was not as some intellectual achievement, some glorious enlightenment, of “advanced” forms of culture? What if instead the origin of monotheism was more accidental and dirty; that it began not as a product of human beings striving for perfection–a strongly modernist, view–but that it began as a response to paranoia over social-political instability brought on by conflict? And what if the so-called “ethical monotheisms,” which reflected later developments of complex theologies that were constructed to meet the changing needs of growing monotheistic communities, still owed their origins to that dirty origin?

I explained elsewhere my starting point for this line of inquiry, and perhaps it may offer some clarity here.

On both a personal and academic levels, I have become increasingly interested in understanding the influence that strict monotheistic religions have upon social-political institutions in the societies in which they can be observed. This interest has stemmed in part from both a curiosity and a concern regarding monotheism’s seemingly ever-present anxiety over the nature of political powers. In this, modern monotheisms are nearly identical to their more ancient counterparts. Acceptance of the very idea of a universal and absolute God, and so also a corresponding absolute power, demands that political powers be understood as subservient to a greater force symbolized in and by the monotheistic community. This demand in itself reflects a fundamental contest that resides at the heart of every monotheistic religion: a contest for land and authority, where land, first material and later in the ideological sense, represents the basis of power and authority, including control over material resources.

A social-scientific analysis of the anxieties, paranoias, and even prejudices1 that shape much of the Persian-period biblical literature is rather revealing.

In the Persian-period literature, for example, they reveal insecurities over the “remnant” community’s social-political position. This point is clearer if we understand what social-psychologists have long accepted: living organisms are driven fundamentally by a fear of death.2 By “living organisms” we mean groups as well as individuals. While groups cannot die in the same sense that individuals do, the “death” of a group may mean also the dissolution of the group or also its social-political irrelevance. Both possibilities reflect the break down of the productive activity of external and internal legitimation. In short, the group is no longer externally recognized as a group, and that undermines the capability of the group to define itself internally. This emphasis upon internal and external group definition is a fundamental issue in Ezra-Nehemiah among other biblical texts.

Motivations and Perspectives

In general, biblical interpretation has often tended to be a positivistic enterprise, which prompted the works of scholars such as Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson, Mario Liverani, Philip Davies, and others, who push against the historical veracity and honesty of the biblical text.3 This tendency toward happy positivism is a relic of biblical interpretation’s heritage within the enterprising framework of Judeo-Christianity. And contrary to some of the criticisms leveled against the previously mentioned scholars and their works, their intent has been to ask a rather important question that levels a challenge against convention, what would biblical studies look like as a truly scientific discipline not beholden to any theological heritage? My work has been motivated similarly.

Until recently, scholarship has accepted the Persian-period biblical literature, for example, as a fairly faithful representation of Yehud (the province of Judah in the Persian Period). In other words, it is has been taken at face value as historiography upon which the social-political and religious context could be accurately reconstructed. We have had as a result elaborate histories, biblical theologies, sociological surveys, and the like, based on the presumption that Yehud was a theocracy governed by the high priests of the Jerusalem cult. But such interpretations ignore the “dirtiness” of the text. The tensions, paranoias, anxieties, and outright conflicts in, for example, Ezra-Nehemiah have been relatively white-washed as merely the “growing pains” of a society effectively undergoing restoration. But those tensions et al. and the biblical obsession with restoration, if properly understood in social-scientific terms, are more consistent with the attitudinal positions of a minority on the margins of power rather than any dominant social-political, or even religious,4 position. What this means for such biblical texts is not that they are devoid of any historical merit but that whatever such merit they have has been heavily filtered through the agenda of a minority seeking the right to rule. And it is in that context, and shaped so colorfully by the same agenda, that we see the strict form of Judeo-Christian monotheism take its nascent steps. It was not in its origins bothered by the ethics, philosophies, and theologies we attribute to its modern, more “complex” forms. It was selfish: my authority, my god, my land, etc.; “‘foreigners’ (more likely an expression of prejudice rather than a dispassionate description [cf. Neh 9:1-5; 13:1-3, 23-30; Ezra 10:6-44]) are not allowed!”

At the center of Ezra-Nehemiah’s guilty historiography–or perhaps we should say “historiography” with double quotation marks–is the intriguing assertion that the Judeans who had been exiled (primarily those in Babylonia, but Judeans could be found in other locations also, such as Egypt) became the social and political center of the province, and so also the basis upon which the institutions and hierarchies of authority were based. This conclusion is based largely on the assumption that either (1) all Judeans had been exiled or had departed the territory, leaving a virtual “vacuum,” or “empty” land; or (2) that the people who had been left behind had neither the knowledge nor the capability of organizing themselves in the form of a functioning society (both of which may be implied by 2 Kgs 25:8-12). Either assumption presupposes from the author’s perspective that the land was empty, that it was tabula rasa, an essential vacuum yearning for a restored society. There is in that a constructivist, or utopian, strategy. Ezra-Nehemiah’s emphasis upon the centrality of the remnant (returnee, or golah) community, as though that were the actual state of affairs, is revisionist in that it attempts to construct a new normative order by describing an alternative to what was in place at the time. The conflicts between the community and the people of the land are all part of this strategy. Henri Tajfel put it well when he declared of general social-psychological behavior, “There can be no intergroup behavior unless there is some ‘outside’ consensus that the group exists.”5 By describing resistance to the rebuilding projects, all of which are for Ezra-Nehemiah symbolic of authority, the text seeks to externally validate that restoration was in process and that the group, the remnant, was effectively real.

A substantial amount of our understanding of both the Bible and of monotheism changes, however, if we accept that what Ezra-Nehemiah (and related Persian-period biblical literature) describes was not the perspective of the social-political majority in Yehud but a minority on the margins of power and under threat of the loss of its collective identity. Assimilation would have been a productive development in social group relations. The biblical texts, however, describe it as akin to a collective death, which prompts rigid boundary strategies as defensive mechanisms. The dramatic distinction–one that foreshadows so well the rigid, monotheistic dichotomy between member and non-member–between the returnee community and the people already in the land was, let us agree here, entirely the product of the biblical author and the golah community.

Heretofore, Monotheism?

What I have found unconvincing are traditional definitions or understandings of monotheism that have presumed either (1) the existence of God or (2) the existence of some singular, unified force that can be readily identified as God (an “All-Father” or the like). Such definitions have tended to assume that human beings were first religious then social, not that religion is entirely the product of human social-political engagement. This “centrality in meaning,” or this “universally objective Other”–in the sense that Zizek and Lacan define the term–superimposes later monotheistic refinements upon historical social, political, and religious contexts. More importantly, it shackles itself to the belief that what human beings want most of all is a “return” to a religious ideal–that human beings mimic an ideal, or the Ideal, in their behavior rather than the ideal emerging through the constructive–world building–activities of human beings. Where this becomes highly problematic is in biblical interpretation that festoons itself to the historical and religious centrality of the Bible (which often betrays a quiet dependence upon the Bible as a product of revelation, partial, full, or otherwise). We need to finally be clear: the Bible does not represent the whole of the history of Israel, of Judah, or of monotheism.6 It is a historical product that reflects the social-political anxieties of individuals and groups usually on the margins of power (this is largely the case for the Persian-period literature). Taking the Bible as good historiography has resulted in a sordid history of problematic reconstructions–such as that Persian-period Judah was a theocracy, that all of Israel went into exile, that there was a singular event Exile, that Israel and Judah were largely religious and Yahwistic nations, and that there has been a singular strand of historical development from the “birth” (another problematic issue) of Israel and Judah as social-political kingdoms through the Persian and Hellenistic Periods.

Let me put it colorfully, monotheism is the product of a contest for authority. In Persian-period Judah, for example, the golah community developed strict monotheistic ideals as mechanisms through which to delegitimate the am ha’aretz (people who were already in the land) as members of the social-political body, therefore to dissolve any claim to the land or to social-political authority offered by individuals of the am ha’aretz (cf. Neh 2:20). In the absence of any dominant control over the land–in this historical context, control over the land and its surplus was the basis for social-political authority and the measure of one’s aristocratic status–members of the golah community could only appeal to religion, and a shared religious tradition, to attempt any justification of the community’s desired status. That, after all, is the framework of Neh 8-9, which begins with Ezra’s introduction of “the law,” the ritual celebration of Passover, and those followed by the so-called “national confession” that links the remnant community to the heritage of the land.

What I am proposing is that biblical monotheism is best understood not as a predetermined, or inevitable, evolutionary stage in religious development. It was not a self-perfecting change in religion. It was not primarily a religious argument, or a contest over religious ideologies or perceptions of (T/t)ruth, or a glorious stage of intellectual achievement. Monotheism was first and foremost an anxious and paranoid social-political response, or argument, to a perceivably unfriendly situation using religious ideology to justify the corresponding group’s (the golah community, in our case here) social-political position. The golah community was not monotheistic because it “got it right.” It was not monotheistic because it saw “failure” in the Babylonian polytheistic context, and sought consequently to shore up ideological defenses against a similar failure. And it was not monotheistic because of the exile–as though this were a watershed moment that demanded religious transformation. (But that is also not to say that the events of the exiles did not create the right environment for the advent of strict monotheism.) At its beginnings, monotheism was not a religious expression out of confidence but one out of insecurity. The golah community was not monotheistic because it believed in one God. It believed in one God, Yahweh, because that god was the god of the land over which the community desired authority. Within academic and even popular discourse, we must cease to define monotheism simply as the “belief in one God.” That definition is woefully insufficient. Monotheism is not the “belief in one God.” Conviction that there exists one God is a monotheistic belief. And the exclusion that is an innate quality of monotheism is not the result of some abstract ideal of “sacred,” or the need to protect it, but a direct consequence of social-political anxieties. Consumed with the anxiety of its own possible irrelevance within the social-political makeup of the province and the stabilizing comfort that social-political authority could offer, the golah community doggedly emphasized boundaries between it and the people already in the land. Ezra-Nehemiah identified intermarriage as the reason behind the exiles. Haggai blamed the lack of a rebuilt Jerusalem temple on cultural assimilation. With that said, to better understand what monotheism is as a religious system, we must better understand the qualities of its beginning and how later forms monotheism (Judeo-Christian in this discussion) have built upon that “dirty” beginning.

It should probably be emphasized that my argument is not one to dismiss the validity of monotheism as a religious practice. To arrive at a better understanding of something is not synonymous with dismissing it. And it should also be stated that while my focus is on the original development of strict monotheism within the Persian-period my concern is more long-term. By understanding the role that conflict plays in the formation of monotheistic thinking we can hopefully find and develop effective strategies for peaceful, inter-religious dialogue on the basis of mutual understanding and benefit.



Notes

1 My inclusion of “prejudice” here is not intended as a slur but only a recognition, as Crandall and Eshleman, following Gordon Allport, point out, that all people and groups have prejudice (Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958); Christian S. Crandall, and Amy Eshleman, “A Justification-suppression Model of the Expression and Experience of Prejudice,” Psychological Bulletin 129, no. 3 (2003): 414-46).

2 Cf. Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude, and Other Works, 1946-1963 (New York: Vintage Digital, 2011).

3 Cf. Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘ancient Israel’ (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992); Niels Peter. Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition, vol. Library of ancient Israel, (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past : Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 1999); Niels Peter Lemche, “On the Problems of Reconstructing Pre-hellenistic Israelite (palestinian) History,” JHebS 3 (2000); Mario Liverani, Israel’s History and the History of Israel, trans. Chiara Peri, and Philip R. Davies (London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2005); Philip R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: an Introduction to Biblical History - Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).

4 But we can’t really talk about religion as a distinct thing in the way that Western-thinking moderns like to see in the “separation of Church and State.”

5 This point has been convincingly argued by Henri Tajfel (cf. “Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations,” Annu.Rev.Psychol. 33, no. 1 [1982]).

6 I am not alone in thinking this (cf. Davies, In Search of ‘ancient Israel’; Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts [New York: Free Press, 2001]; Zvi Ben, Ehud, History, Literature and Theology in the Book of Chronicles [London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub., 2006]).





Comments (10)


All our ideas are influenced by the whole of our situation, very much including our fears, anxieties and need to compete for resources. This does mean that they all express the dirtier as well as the purer side of our personalities. But there's still the possibility that amid all these difficulties there is a chance, even a tendency, for the better idea - one whose appeal is more universal, more improving morally - to prevail. So the earliest advocates of monotheism may not have been disinterested, may not even have been very nice, but they may still have scored the success they did because the idea they championed was the best in the sense of surviving critical argument and promoting better lives. I do not say that this was so, only that the claim that they were unpleasant,even untruthful, even mentally unbalanced, people does not prove that their idea was not 'the best' in the competition of ideas.
A couple of other,heterogeneous points. The distinction between mono and poly is not completely clear - mono often has many supernatural beings, poly often has one like Zeus who is effectively supreme. For this reason, the Jewish source of mono may not be the only significant one.
Biblical texts set or even substantially composed in the Persian period may have been significantly edited later on, of course.
#1 - Martin - 12/18/2013 - 14:18



It seems this piece is more an introduction to a monograph than a self-contained piece. Also, it is interesting that the author does not acknowledge the evidence presented by Israel Finkelstein that Ezra-Nehemiah was composed in the Hasmonean, not Persian, period.
#2 - E. Harding - 12/18/2013 - 16:40



I would be very surprised if there was no significant editing of Ezra-Nehemiah in the Hellenistic era. The foundation of the Temple would have been far too important a topic for the contending forces of that time to neglect. But they would have preferred, I suppose, not to compose from whole cloth but to produce better versions of texts (if they could find such) that already had some reputation. That's to say that substantial composition and final or near-final editing may be rather different things.
What bearing would this point have on dirt and secrecy? Well, it would seem that by Hellenistic times the monotheistic or somewhat monotheistic element in Platonism and the theology of some of the poets was gaining strength. So the secret of how mono developed may not be quite so closely tied to E-N, important as they are.
#3 - Martin - 12/19/2013 - 18:10



Martin, thank you for your comments. You've certainly identified some important points. I'm definitely not opposed to later redactions (in fact, I'm confident of them). But I also think there is value on investigating the cultural memory, and its heritage, surrounding group identity formation preserved within the biblical texts. There is no reason not to assume that the conflict between an immigrating community and a landed one as described in Ezra-Nehemiah did not occur when Judeans started returning (which would have been preserved within cultural memory). What I am doing is looking at strict monotheism within Yehud as a sociological process (or response) to group conflict, and the reasons for that conflict. (And a process that was likely not confined to arbitrary historical periods.) I am convinced that approaching any sociological analysis of religion starting with the religion's god(s) as an objective facticity is backwards (or more charitably, a bit like reverse engineering conducted with more modern expectations of religion). I'm not convinced that the absolute rejection of all gods save one within a predominantly polytheistic context (ANE) is a natural evolution. There must be a catalyst within society/culture (even Axial-Age theorists, notably S. Eisenstadt, have begun looking for more historically contingent and relative explanations). My position is that the strict monotheistic ideologies expressed in the Persian and preserved within the Hasmonean Periods emphasize, to the absolute rejection and de-identification of others already in the land, the centrality of a single community that was not in a position of social-political power (which is evident, for example, in Ezra-Nehemiah's persistent focus on rebuilding, warding off enemies, articulating group boundaries, bringing in religious law, which the text states must be taught, and establishing a normative social order that would ease anxieties over disruption, as was experienced/remembered in the events of the exiles). Exposing the social-political reasons for that emphasis sheds greater clarity on a significantly misunderstood social-political context, one that is often read as primarily a religious context in which space is made for social-political institutions. I would like to see more scholarly emphasis upon the reverse, toward defining the social-political context of Yehud (and also Palestine) and then tracing out the sociological development of religion as one shaped by that context.

**As I'm finishing my comment now**, I see your second response. (I just refreshed my browser.) So perhaps a brief statement here: I definitely think that we can see the religious-sociological conditions in Yehud create a structure in a compact form for monotheism, which would have been incorporated into later philosophical thinking--through cultural memory, traditions, social organization--and which would have begun a different process of monotheistic development into its more "complex" forms ("ethical" monotheisms et al.).
#4 - Jeremiah - 12/20/2013 - 11:12



For reasons which you don't explain, you do not refer to the evidence of pre-exilic ,extra - biblical seals and bullae. A great deal was said and written on the subject.




Likewise you do not mention, nor discuss, evidence pointing towards monotheism in the entire ANE. May I refer you only to the name of chapter 3. in De Moor's important book: "The Crisis of Polytheism".



For religion in Israel , see Israelite Religions by Richard S. Hess.



As for the general argument in your paper above, I must use the medieval Hebrew expression: my inability to understand it is caused by 'limited comprehension' (Qotzer Hamasig).



Happy New Year,



Uri Hurwitz
#5 - Uri Hurwitz - 12/25/2013 - 19:48



I appreciate your general interest in undermining a simplistic narrative. But this (see quote below) is simply overstated, and basically wrong in my opinion. Monotheism is about unity, consolidation, etc. Not authority. And your reading of Ezra-Nehemiah is problematic, IMO. (I say this as a EN expert.)

"Let me put it colorfully, monotheism is the product of a contest for authority. In Persian-period Judah, for example, the golah community developed strict monotheistic ideals as mechanisms through which to delegitimate the am ha’aretz (people who were already in the land) as members of the social-political body, therefore to dissolve any claim to the land or to social-political authority offered by individuals of the am ha’aretz (cf. Neh 2:20). In the absence of any dominant control over the land–in this historical context, control over the land and its surplus was the basis for social-political authority and the measure of one’s aristocratic status–members of the golah community could only appeal to religion, and a shared religious tradition, to attempt any justification of the community’s desired status. That, after all, is the framework of Neh 8-9, which begins with Ezra’s introduction of “the law,” the ritual celebration of Passover, and those followed by the so-called “national confession” that links the remnant community to the heritage of the land".
#6 - Jacob L. Wright - 01/03/2014 - 12:41



Jacob, I may be mistaken, but I think that you may be conflating what monotheism became with how it started. But perhaps more importantly, if you read my statement carefully you will see that I am not claiming that monotheism is not "about unity." The golah community's desire for authority, evidence for which is prevalent throughout the entirety of Ezra-Nehemiah (and the so-called letter from Artaxerxes is but one example), was a *shared goal/desire*, in a social-psychological sense, that helped shape what EN portrayed as characteristic of the community. That desire was, for the community, productive of "unity, consolidation, etc." So it is not, in my statement/argument, one or the other.
#7 - Jeremiah - 01/03/2014 - 22:53



I don't see how religious belief can be 'not about authority'. If there's a divine being the person who knows about that being has at least some divinely based authority. If there's only one God that authority becomes all the more impressive.
#8 - Martin - 01/06/2014 - 11:39



Oh well. I was wrong about contrasting the opening of Ezra to Zechariah and Haggai. All of them begin w a reference to the reign year of the Persian king. I confused the opening of Ezra with Malachi, which conspicuously lacks such dating. But my observations about the opposition between Haggai and EN stand.
#9 - Scott novins - 01/07/2014 - 03:09



Haggai gives an account of the foundation of the second temple where am haartez are INCLUDED (2:4). We clearly have a layer prior to EN where integration w am haaretz was expected. We can find this sentiment in Chronicles' w a messianic like Hezekiah bringing back lost northern Israel. This can also be found in the book of Jeremiah at Gedaliiah's Mizpeh where northern pilgrims appear(41:5) .How does an earlier, varied and more inclusive conception of Israel fit in with your poltical take on monotheism in Yehud? This layer has been ignored because scholars tend to focus on the parochial features of the Jewish polity which traditional rabbinic and Christian points of view reinforce.
#10 - Scott novins - 01/08/2014 - 06:18






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