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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.

Comments (7)

It is not often that I can side with Richard Hess, but this time he has a case. Monotheism is a very loaded word, and the alternative henotheism and monolatry are poor substitutes, used by people who will not face the idea of an early monotheism.

People should try to read Herbert Niehr's twenty year old book, Der Höchste Gott. It is the trust of that important study that the ANE was fastly moving towards monotheism during the first half of the 1st millennium, so the development i Juda was not extraordinary. On the other hand, when the Middle east became monotheistic, it never turned away again. That created problems for the European form of Christianity and also paved the way for Islam, considered by many oriental Christians to be true Christianity, i.e., true monotheism.

Monotheism does not say that there was a fully developed form of monotheism say c. 500 BCE (or even earlier). Not at all, Deutero-Isaiah's God who is the creator of good and evil shows how they had to struggle with the concept.
#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 12/07/2010 - 10:30

Somewhat in support of Richard's opinion here would be the discussion of Herbert Niehr on Ba'al Shamem (Der höchste Gott, BZAW 190, de Gruyter, 1990)and in the volume edited by Diana Edelman, The Triumph of Elohim (Kok Pharos, 1995). The understanding of an intrinsic conflict and dichotomy between polytheism and monotheism has been all too much exagerated and overvalued as this kind of religious monotheism is a evolutionary development from forms of ancient Near Eastern universalism which seem to come out of imperial ideology on the one hand and the kind of royal ideology that has its roots in political forms of patronage on the other. I would also question the deification of the "fertility figurines," but the scholarly understanding of a female deity in Iron Age Palestine seems to have more to do with the inscription from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud, with the reference to "Yahweh's Ashera," rather than to these figuringes. Ideologically and theologically, however, a female consort of the divine patron does not seem to undermine the kind of inclusive monotheism that seems to be supported.


Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#2 - Thomas L. Thompson - 12/07/2010 - 11:04

'Behind this [the view that Josiah's activities are fictional] lay the argument that monotheism did not exist in the pre-exilic period.'

Wrong. The argument is actually both more simple and more complex. The simple version is that we have no extra-biblical evidence relating directly or indirectly to the reign of Josiah, while the biblical evidence (Kings, Chronicles) itself is contradictory regarding the sequence of lawbook discovery and reform, character of the lawbook, and circumstances of Josiah's death. yet a huge legend has been created by biblical scholars around this figure - the 'lost messiah', the patron of a revolution in literacy (Schniedewind's book is one of the silliest ave ever read and least informed by social-scientific common sense). Even Finkelstein, who prides himself on putting archaeology before Bible, falls into this pit, right to the bottom.

On the definition of monotheism as worship of a single god - of course this goes back a long way, though probably only as a description of formal theological systems. The usual practice was always a hierarchy of cults, domestic, city, royal, personal, whatever. But it seems reasonable to conclude that the patron deity of Jerusalem in the late monarchic era was Yhwh sbwt, so the predominance of the name is hot exactly surprising in the city. Before making any claims about Judeans, let alone Israelites, we should consider a rather better rage of evidence, if it exists.
#3 - philip davies - 12/07/2010 - 14:12

“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.”

I don't know what I could possible add after those comments, but I would stress that the definitions of the words we use play a part in how we interpret the evidence--especially, as Philip notes, with such a broad spectrum of available evidence (such as we have it, anyway). Oversimplification is sometimes helpful, but I am not so certain it is helpful in instances involving socio-cultural milieux. I believe we can all learn a lesson from Gruen and Barclay; even with the available evidence, it is difficult to make sweeping claims. As one of my friends noted: Did Job really believe in a God?

When we use words like "monotheism" or "polytheism", even "henotheism", it is not hard to reflect anachronistically our own modern constructs of such a "religious" (to use a word with way too many modern synchronic connotations) mindset into the past. It is difficult to say, one way or another, how “religiously” one followed “religion” in antiquity, any more than someone might “religiously” follow it today. I believe Emanuel Pfoh’s anthropological arguments about the ancient mythic mind have a play here; after all, regardless of the theological decrees of Akhenaten, it is unlikely that Egyptians were monotheistic in the sense you define it here. I would hesitate to be so sure that the late antiquity Judaisms, even the early Christianities, were truly monotheistic.

But I suppose that is the point. Formalistic language is difficult to construct a social meme from; what does it really offer us? Does praising YHWH give us any more cultural evidence than 'Life! Prosperity! Health!'? Can either really give us evidence of worshiping practices?

Also, I have to ask why one would lump henotheism into the spectrum of monotheism? Arguably the two are not equal nor do they share the same definition. If the term ‘monotheism’ is used incorrectly, then the problem lies there. Redefining or combining definitions can only work towards confusing the problem rather than bringing it clarity. I would dare not say that monotheism did not exist, but I wonder if it has ever existed. When we define monotheism, even for today’s religions, are we really talking about singular worship or, rather, a plethora of deities which we, as creatures of habit, combine as we see fit, depending on mood and temperance? I am not brave enough to offer an answer.
#4 - T.S. Verenna - 12/07/2010 - 18:11

Don Richardson, in "Eternity in Their Hearts: Startling Evidence of Belief in the One True God in Hundreds of Cultures Throughout the World" presents a clear argument that unlike the expectations generated through many theoretical considerations, in a great many parts of the world, research actually reveals that monotheism (even a Supreme Creator sky/heaven dwelling God) very frequently precedes a break down into polytheism or departmental gods. Well worth exploring.
#5 - Paul Norman - 12/08/2010 - 00:03

It seems to me that defining "monotheism" in terms of worship is an attempt to skirt the fact that it's troublesome trying to define it in terms of belief while still having it apply to Judaism or Christianity, given our recognition of the existence of divine beings in both worldviews. The term was coined as a description of contemporary belief, though. If we are to use it, I think it helpful to find out how it applies to belief. After all, that's how the vast, vast majority of Christians and Jews will define it.

Looking at formative Judaism, we do find a point at which the assertion begins to be made that Jews (and later Christians) only believe in one God, and that point is the Hellenistic Period. Around this time we can also identify a shift in the identification of the other divine beings which inhabited the Jewish and Christian heavens. With the translation of the Septuagint we see a pattern emerging in the increasing use of αγγελοι θεου as an equivalent for בני אלהים, an identification not made prior to that point. That identification then spreads to most generic uses of the plural אלהים.

Later commentators, and even modern believers, don't feel the existence of other divine beings violates the notion that only one God exists because those divine beings are created, are contingent, or are subordinate. In other words, they are ontologically inferior. It seems to me this ontological distinction occurs first in the Hellenistic period and marks the beginning of a belief that ancient and modern Jews and Christians would more readily identify as monotheism than the worship of one deity without denying the existence of others.

I have a larger discussion on my blog, if I may make a shameless plug:
#6 - Daniel O. McClellan - 12/08/2010 - 03:57

Reading through the article and comments to date, is monolatry really more problematic than monotheism, and does use of such a distinction really indicate some sort of 'avoidance' of admitting monotheism in the first half of the first millennium BC? Is the distinction between allegiance to one divine patron and believing that only he (probably not she) exists not still a useful one?
What is the consensus among Egyptologists regarding Akhenaton these days? - I thought Akhenaton's innovations were usually described as monolatry, with Assmann as a notable exception (cf. John Baines). And in Mesopotamia in the first half of the first millennium BC, do we really have belief in a single god in a way that is exclusive of the independent existence other gods, despite the case made by Parpola who seems to find monotheism on every high hill and under every green tree? I'm just asking...
#7 - Deane Galbraith - 12/13/2010 - 16:33

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