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Friday, October 26, 2007

Moses and Monotheism

Part of the function of the/a blog is self-promotion. Naturally, then, I’ll point to a new publication to which I contributed, T. Römer (ed.), La construction de la figure de Moïse (Paris: Gabalda, 2007). My contribution was ‘Moses and Pagan Monotheism’, pp. 319-339. Aside from self-promotion, there is almost an intellectual reason for mentioning this article, namely the discussion on Mark Goodacre’s blog concerning the definition of monotheism. Often I find definitional issues largely a waste of time (mostly the argument could go ahead if x, y or z was called x, y or z) but ‘monotheism’ is an exception. One reason is that monotheism is an exception is because there is often a scholarly distinction made between Judeo-Christian ‘monotheism(s)’, on the one hand, and pagan polytheism on the other. This is a mistake, I think, because if we use one definition of monotheism for early Judaism (with the necessary qualifications made for Christianity) then it applies to much of pagan thought at the time of Christian origins.

Here is one possible definition I work with in the above article and I paraphrase here: the idea of one God who ruled the universe and is distinct from all other beings in the cosmic hierarchy. This definition recognises that there were figures that can be generally described as ‘divine’, ‘supernatural’, exalted human beings, or some-one or -thing holding a significant role in the cosmic hierarchy. These figures might include angels and archangels or named figures such as Melchizedek, Metatron, Moses, Michael, messiah, and Enoch. Although Wisdom and the Word of God are kind of divine emanations they also have roles that sometimes appear distinct from God. Others too could be thought to have an extremely ‘high’ role in the divine cosmology or even take on some of God’s characteristics, coming close perhaps to full divinity but not quite. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Bible texts referring to God as elohim (Ps. 82.1) and el (Ps. 7.8-9) can be re-interpreted at Qumran to refer to Melichizedek (11Q13 2.10-11) and elsewhere similar divine language can refer to angels (4Q405). Yet it is the divine/linguistic category which is re-interpreted without entertaining the idea that God’s overall role is compromised as the scrolls obviously show. Monotheism therefore functions a restraining factor. Likewise Philo has no problem with the idea of Moses, God’s partner in the ownership of creation, being named ‘god and king of the whole nation’ (Life of Moses 1.155-158). THEOS/Elohim is not technically God’s name, and that is important to remember (and maybe that old idea of Matthew avoiding kingdom of God and using kingdom of heaven is not really much of an issue after all).

In ‘orthodox’ Christian thought of course Jesus and the spirit are incorporated into the role of God and, with its own particular definitions, may also be defined as ‘monotheism’. Like known early Jewish thought, Christians were able to retain the idea of supernatural or elevated figures which did not necessarily compromise their particular view of monotheism. In many ways the generalised Jewish and Christian views of monotheism remain and should be generally familiar. For example, there are many people who believe in angels, saints and/or an elevated role of the Virgin Mary without compromising the idea that God is the ultimate ruler.
So monotheism could be defined as follows: ‘God is above all; there may be some kind of emanations of this God in some form; and there are beings which can be labelled divine but who do not compromise the overarching God’. If we take this view of ancient monotheism as having an overarching ruler while allowing the concept of other divine beings (of which theos/elohim can be used) then we must include much of pagan thought. Of course we could define this kind of pagan thought as something else (henotheism, polytheism etc.) but as it is structurally very similar to Jewish and Christian thought then if we do use alternative definitions we should really be using such definitions of Judaism and Christianity. Now we can call it x, y, or z.

A few examples. Celsus, for instance, claimed with reference to Jewish views of God, ‘that it makes no difference whether you call the highest being Zeus, or Zen, or Adonai, or Sabaoth, or Ammoun like the Egyptians, or Pappaeus like the Scythians’ (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.41). In fact the Platonic tradition can be called monotheistic as defined above, as church fathers knew. I particularly like the unknown philosopher cited by Macarius Magnes and look at the similarities:
At any rate, if you say that angels stand before God who are not subject to feeling and death, and immortal in their nature, whom we ourselves speak of as gods, because they are close to the Godhead, why do we dispute about a name? … The difference therefore is not great, whether a man calls them gods or angels, since their divine nature bears witness to them… (Monogenes 4.21)
Many more examples could be cited but I just refer people to P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede (eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 1999) which discusses this issue in detail and which I use in the above mentioned essay and in Why Christianity Happened.

The rest of my essay also gives more examples but the focus gets a bit different. It looks at the role of ‘monotheism’ in pagan discussions of Moses. Moses’ monotheistic credentials are consistently tested by pagan writers when analyzing Moses’ views on the divine. The article shows this with reference to Julian the Apostate, Numenius, Ps. Longinus, Celsus, the Greek Magical Papyri, and Strabo. Sometimes Moses is a good monotheist, sometimes he is deemed bad. There is also some confusion over the particular god of Judaism being God of the world (this is one ‘failure’ of Jewish monotheism) etc. etc and other things. Throughout ‘monotheism’ was a regular assumption of the pagan viewers of Judaism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

monotheism: belief in a supreme being whose baggage you have to carry wherever you go.

October 26, 2007

Blogger James Crossley said...

Now that definitely would work...

October 26, 2007

Blogger James F. McGrath said...

Do you think the doctrine of creation out of nothing comes in later, and that it is the absolute distinction between God and all else that we take for granted, but which is not articulated in these ancient sources, that leads to the tension when we read ancient sources and ask questions about 'monotheism'?

October 26, 2007

Blogger James Crossley said...

Now there's a question! There is one issue that comes through in such sources, namely the problems with a creator being linked to this corrupt world so to speak (some pagans see this as a problem with Judaism) and try to make a significant difference.. I don't know enough about the history of the Xn doctrine of creation to make an informed point but, yes, our conception of the doctrine of creation could be the reason for not seeing ancient 'monotheism'.

That's not a great answer, I know.

October 29, 2007

Blogger ANONYMOUS said...

Could it be that, the KJV Biblical account is factual, emphasized in places by figures of speech, parables and the like? Passed down by word of mouth until the written Word was given to Moses, and he began to record it? Could it be, that the "nephilim", were actual offspring of angelic beings and flesh bodies, "demi-gods" if you will, and that having been seen of men, the stories of whom were passed down through time became legend? Could it be, that the "gods" of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and various others, are all corruptions of ancient truth?

May 13, 2008

Blogger James F. McGrath said...


It is not possible that Moses wrote the King James Version.

Is it possible, as many fundamentalists like to claim, that the Bible "gets it right" while all their neighbors mythology is perverted forms of their original? Sure, in the same sense that it is possible that the Greeks got it right and the Hebrews have the twisted version, or that the original version results from some ancient peoples who were allowed by time travellers to watch the movie Clash of the Titans.

Historical critical study, on the other hand, isn't about asking whether one's own preferred views are "possible". It is about going further and asking what view best fits the evidence. It is about what is probable. If you have the honesty and courage to ask those sorts of questions, then do come back and learn more!

May 13, 2008


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