Questions about Monotheism

Here is another post from my friend Larry Hurtado’s blog.  See what you think.  What follows is verbatim from Larry.


Having used the expression “ancient Jewish monotheism” in the sub-title of my 1988 book (One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism), it’s been interesting thereafter to note the apparently rising interest in “monotheism” in ancient religion.  E.g., there is now a programme unit on the topic in the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, and Nathan MacDonald directs a major, funded research project on the topic:

On the other hand, a number of scholars have rightly noted the problem in using the term “monotheism” for any of the traditional religious traditions to which it has often been applied.  Per most dictionaries, “monotheism” means denying the existence of any but one deity.  But it is not clear that ancient Jews and Christians denied the absolute existence of other gods, and in at least some texts it seems clear that they did acknowledge that other gods exist.  So “monotheism” as typically defined is dubiously applied to these traditions.

Since my 1988 book, I’ve urged that if “monotheism” is used at all it has to be informed by the specifics of the beliefs and practices of those to whom we apply the term, and I’ve also contended that there are varieties of “monotheism”.  So, e.g., I proposed that the chronological data require us to see the eruption of a remarkable Jesus-devotion originating as a religious innovation within Roman-era Jewish tradition, producing a novel “mutation” in ancient Jewish monotheism in which two distinguishable figures (God and Jesus) are programmatically treated as unique recipients of devotion.

In two more recent essays (not yet published), I’ve noted that scholars now frequently refer to “pagan monotheism”, typically meaning by that expression ideas of a single “high-god” over a pantheon, or a single divine substance of which all the particular deities are manifestations.  So long as we use the full expression “pagan monotheism” and note that it is quite different from ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, that’s fine.  It’s not “monotheism”, it’s “pagan monotheism”.

On this premise, I’ve then also argued that we can use the expression “ancient Jewish monotheism” to designate the well-known  exclusivist stance characteristic of second-temple Jewish tradition:  the insistence that only the one biblical deity is worthy of worship, and that worship of any other being (including heavenly/divine beings) constitutes idolatry.  This isn’t “monotheism” (as Englightenment thinkers imagined it), it’s “ancient Jewish monotheism”.

And in my most recent essay on this matter (presented at a recent mini-conference in Lausanne), I’ve proposed that we use the expression “early Christian monotheism” to designate the distinctive exclusivist stance characteristic of early Christianity.  This involved a rejection of the worship of “the gods” in favor of the one biblical deity (as in the parent tradition of second-temple Judaism), but with the distinguishing new element of including the glorified Jesus as also rightful (even required) object of faith and co-recipient of worship.  Again, this isn’t “monotheism” of the dictionaries; it’s “early Christian monotheism”.

Finally, because my use of the term “binitarian” to describe earliest Christian devotion has drawn so much misunderstanding, I’ve dropped it in favor of referring to the shape of earliest Christian devotion as a “structured dyad”:  God (“the Father”) and Jesus, with Jesus defined and reverenced typically with reference to God (i.e., not as a second deity, but as the unique expression and agent of the one deity).  So, we could refer to earliest Christian devotion as “dyadic” in shape.  Hopefully, this term will occasion less misunderstanding, and fewer accusations of trying to import later conceptions into the earliest expressions of Jesus-devotion.

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  • David

    Something seems to have happened to your “LAYING IT ON THE LINE: THE ROLE OF LAITY IN MINISTRY THEN AND NOW (A Lecture Given in Houston)” post May 16, 2011. I read it yesterday and now it appears to have disappeared.

    An excellent lecture.

  • ben witherington

    Hi David. It got bumped up to June 4.


  • Jonathan

    Is the term “henotheism” out of vogue to describe the worship of one god without necessarily denying the existence of other gods?

  • Watchman

    Can one believe in a monotheistic God (big G), and ascribe to the belief there are many little gods (little g)? Furthermore, can we equate anything or anyone that is placed in higher perspective than God as being a god? Or, is this simply idolatry?

    On another note, theologian and Yale professor, Miroslav Volf claims that the God of the Bible and the god of the Koran can indeed be the same god. If this is true, then Muslims would have to drop the claim that we Christians are polytheistic in our beliefs. Jesus seems to the be obstacle to reconcile this claim.

  • Matthew Barlow

    “So, we could refer to earliest Christian devotion as “dyadic” in shape. Hopefully, this term will occasion less misunderstanding, and fewer accusations of trying to import later conceptions into the earliest expressions of Jesus-devotion.”

    I don’t understand this conclusion at all. Was not earliest Christian devotion triadic in shape? Among many examples, see Ephesians 3:14-21, especially 3:14-17: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

  • Marc Leger
  • Adam Scheidegger

    Hey BW3!

    Recently our church has been looking at “worship” and one of the sources used in this discussion was a lesson by Dr Arturo Azurdia of Western Seminary. In it he makes the case for a model of worship service based on Revelation 4-5 and calling for the service to be exclusively about/to God. He also makes a comment in his lecture that John did not write Jesus very much into Revelation because he was concerned his readers would stray from monotheism in their worship. In your study is that statement accurate?

    On another note, unless you have already posted on the topic I’d enjoy reading a biblical theology of worship from you. Thanks!

  • ben witherington

    Marc this page is full of all sorts of contradictory conjectures. Perhaps the most laughable is the one that says there is evidence of civilization and religion in Africa from 70,000 years ago—- Not. Most anthropologists are clear enough that we can only trace civilization back to about 10,000 B.C. max. The dating of Abraham to 1800 B.C. is probably too recent, even if the Exodus is dated 1290 B.C, which it usually is.


  • graham veale

    Prof Hutardo put up a subsequent post which I found clarified the issues further.

    I’m a little concerned with the focus on “worship” and “devotional practice” when defining ancient monotheism. A “positivist” view of religion which focuses on observable practices could be priveleged.


  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Ben,

    I question the use of “dyad” for early Christian monotheism. It is apparent from the Gospels, especially from Acts 5:1-11 (vss. 3, 4, 9), Philippians 2:6-8, and Titus 2:10-13, 3:5 that the early Church was already Trinitarian. It was not until late 2nd Century – 4th Century AD that it was formulated in Greek philosophical language to reflect Biblical language, but it did exist in the early Church.

    Now, it is also true that Ancient Jewish Monotheism (rabbinic?) and Islam Monotheism reflect an “absolute One,” but it reflects more their objection to the Person and Work Jesus.

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

  • Matthew Barlow


    RE: your statement that “Most anthropologists are clear enough that we can only trace civilization back to about 10,000 B.C. max.,” you may want to consider the work of such scholars as Graham Hancock, Robert Schoch, and others, who provide compelling evidence of civilization dating back at least that far but probably farther. Hancock and his wife have gone on hundreds of dives all over the world, in places like Japan and India, and found underwater pyramids which would have been above water 12,500 years ago or more. Hancock also points to 1) ancient pyramids found underwater near Cuba that the history channel was going to do a special on which ended up being mysteriously cancelled which also date back at least that far, 2) ancient maps that show the world as it looked 12,500 years ago, and 3) hieroglyphs in an Egyptian pyramid that show a line of pharoahs stretching back, not only to the earliest pharoahs most historians and archaeologists accept, but much further. And Schoch’s groundbreaking work on the water damage to the Sphinx dates it back at least to the end of the last ice age 12,500 years ago. So I am obviously highlighting your use of the words “most” and “max.” and pointing out that there is compelling evidence from “some” that it may be “min.” :)

  • Melvin

    “But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim for you shall not worship any other God, for YAHWEH, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14).

    Who do you honestly think spoke those words in the above verse? (1) Jesus’ Father? Or, (2) a three person being?

    The Trinity is a false doctrine for several reasons. Here we can briefly look at three main reasons. First, the Bible never ever once mentions a three person God nor does it anywhere indicate that such a being even exists. Second, the doctrine of the Trinity is manufactured by first creating a hypothesis out of thin air (that a three person God exists) and then manipulating the data to reach the desired outcome. Third, the true identity of the one true God is actually given to us in the Bible even to the point of God the Father explicitly exluding absolutely everyone else.

    Continue reading…

    The Trinity Delusion


  • Matthew Barlow

    At 12 above I shouldn’t have said underwater pyramids near India and Japan but huge underwater rock structures that are clearly not natural formations.

  • Matthew Barlow

    At 12 I also should have said National Geographic rather than the History Channel.

  • Brianisha

    Absolute power corrupts absoutely.
    I know, im no preacher, reverend, or any of that, but I learn from experiences.

    Sure the bible says the heart can be decieving, it also says seek and you shall find.

    People make up their own minds, but if they did some very extensive research, they would realize that Religions used to be polytheistic and pantheistic, Monotheism is a relatively new concept, according to history books that arent biased. Still convinced that Christianity is the true religion? well thats your choice, until too many christians evangelize to non christians, then we go ballistic trying to convince people that the religion/relationship of Jesus is not a healthy endeavor.

  • hotshot bald cop

    I simply said that a few days in the past!!!

  • hotshot bald cop

    Thank you for a great post.