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Did Anyone Believe in One God before the Greeks?

By Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
December 2010

The critical view of Israelite religion has traditionally understood that monotheism was present in Israel at the time of Josiah in the late seventh century. This view has been an important one in defining the role of Josiah in his policy of centralization of the cult and other matters reflecting his ambitions for the creation of a greater kingdom.

However, recent studies have argued that the life of Josiah as described in the book of Kings is a fictional creation from the post-exilic period or later that has been retrojected into the earlier period. Behind this lay the argument that monotheism did not exist in the pre-exilic period. Instead, it is to be found only in subsequent ages, perhaps the Persian or Hellenistic periods. It should be noted that this evaluation does not attempt to distinguish a philosophical monotheism such as emerged in the world of Classical Greece with its philosophers. Rather, the term monotheism is here understood simply as worship by the adherents of the religion of a single deity. Other terms, such as monolatry or henotheism, may describe aspects of this, but the term monotheism continues to be used broadly and will serve the purposes of this note.

Thus, the religion of the fourteenth-century Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten and his family may be described as monotheistic. They worshiped a single deity, the Aten. The point here is that there is no logical necessity for monotheism to have developed only after the sixth century.

If this is the case, then is it possible that monotheistic belief existed in Judah at the end of the seventh century? What would be the evidence for such belief, especially if the biblical record is excluded on the assumption of its late date? Evidence might come from two directions, both written. First, there is the matter of the written inscriptions. There are dozens of ostraca from Lachish and Arad that preserve written correspondence of an official sort and exemplify the sort of governmental exchanges that took place throughout the Judean state. Much was written in the final years and even in the final months of the kingdom’s independence. Many of these letters follow a formulaic introduction that wishes the blessings of the deity upon the recipient. In every case, the only divine figure mentioned is Yahweh. The same is true of all inscriptions with reference to any deity associated with Judah from this period. Where a god is mentioned, it is only Yahweh.

To this evidence should be added that of the personal names. Names from all inscriptions, seals, and bullae from this period in Judah attest to a dominance of Yahweh as the theophoric element. Of special interest is the burnt archive from the City of David in Jerusalem. Here up to 56 names are attested. Of these, four contain the general title for “god,” ’el. Some 27 or 29 different names are formed with the theophoric element Yahweh. No other god is attested. The other names contain no explicit divine name. Thus, Yahweh is the only theophoric element found in these personal names that can be identified with a specific deity.

The primary source of extrabiblical evidence that has been raised to challenge this is not textual. Rather, it is the presence of hundreds of clay female figurines found in private homes and elsewhere and identified with the goddess Asherah. However, even if Asherah were believed by some Judeans to be their goddess, it is far from certain that these figurines must be identified as that goddess. Both the cheap material and the indications of mass production do not support the view of a divine image. Other explanations are just as possible and even more likely. For example, these clay figurines may be votive offerings expressing prayers to a deity for concerns, perhaps related to matters of giving birth.

The textual evidence from outside the Bible provides a uniform witness that only Yahweh was officially worshiped in Judah and its capital. This of course does not prove that monotheism existed in Judah at the end of the monarchy. However, it comports well with the biblical claims for a Josianic monotheism. In fact, it promotes this understanding far better than the witness of the neighboring states such as Ammon. For example, the personal names in the Ammonite land are much more mixed. Less than half of these that contain theophoric elements used the name of Milkom, god of the Ammonites. Thus the textual evidence both within Judah and in contrast to its neighbors supports the claim of a distinctive process taking place where the chief god Yahweh is given special place as a unique deity.

Of course, it is not necessary to demonstrate that everyone in Judah worshiped a single deity. This is most unlikely, given the nature of human religion. However, it is not at all unlikely that many did recognize Yahweh alone as their god.