Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Defining First Century Jewish Monotheism

After years of some general hunches and vague feelings, I believe I am finally ready to formulate a positioned statement on what I think Jewish monotheism was at the time of Christ. This should appear in print with refinement and extensive footnotes in one or two places next year.

A word of preface is in order. The very term monotheism is a product of the Enlightenment and, as we will see, tends to smuggle in anachronistic notions into the discussion. Ancient Judaism was clearly a religion of "one God," but this notion must be defined on their terms, not on modern philosophical or theological terms.

First, Jewish monotheism at the time of Christ was, first and foremost, a statement of God's sovereign power. Power, more than any other thing, was the defining characteristic of a god in the ancient world. (Immortality was the other) The notion that the divine is transcendent, ontologically distinct and unknowable from human categories, is largely anachronistic for the ancient world. Only Philo seems to approach such a view. We should more think in terms of a scale of being, with gods on the top.

So for some Jews at the time of Christ, monotheism might more aptly be described as "monarchism," the idea that there is one sovereign God who is more powerful than any other god or spiritual power. God is the King who reigns supreme over all the other gods.

Artapanus perhaps represents the last outpost of first century monotheism in that he does not seem to deny the existence of other gods or to condemn the other nations from worshipping them. But he presumably would not worship them himself and his God is of course the "master of the universe."

Other Jews took a more adversarial position between the one God and these other spiritual powers. The War Scroll at Qumran looks to a final battle between the sons of darkness and the sons of light. And it uses the word gods in reference to the spiritual forces among the sons of darkness. God will of course defeat them, an aspect of God's sovereignty that Richard Bauckham aptly calls "eschatological monotheism."

God is thus unique not least because He is the most powerful, the supreme deity. One expression of this unique sovereignty is His role as creator, which Richard Bauckham aptly calls "creational monotheism." But God's unique role of creator is really an expression of his sovereignty.

Here it's important to recognize that the Jews of this time had no sense of creation out of nothing, an idea that didn't seem to emerge until the late second century AD. We should think of creation at this time more in terms of giving order to chaos and formlessness than the generation of material.

Presumably, however, God as sole creator means that He created all parent beings. Certainly he created the human parents. But he also created all the angels, some of whom rebelled, whether the watchers at the time of the Flood in the Enoch tradition or Satan with the creation of Adam in the Life of Adam and Eve. Their rebellion was subsequent to their creation.

The second key aspect of monotheism corresponded to God's supreme sovereignty, namely, his exclusive rights to human worship. Again, there were apparently those like Artapanus that did not have a problem with other nations worshipping other (inferior) gods. Meanwhile, they served the "one supreme God" and their "one God." They "had no other gods before Him." Perhaps many of the anonymous and silent Diaspora Jews scattered throughout the world had such a view.

But by far the vast majority of the Jewish literature we have from this period sees YHWH as the sole legitimate God and thus the only God that should be worshipped. Bauckham calls this "cultic monotheism" and Larry Hurtado and others put a big premium on this element in the equation.

In my opinion, however, the way Bauckham and others treat worship in this period is slightly anachronistic in the same way that thinking of God's transcendence often is. To give worship is to honor and reverence a superior power. Since God is the superior power and the legitimate power, He is obviously in a category all its own when it comes to worship.

It is also true that there is a strong tradition within Jewish apocalyptic in which angels refuse worship in deference to the one God. In the words of Hebrews, angels are "ministering spirits." They are servants. You do not worship servants.

Where the line gets blurry is when we are talking about kings of various types. An earthly king is a "son of God," a divine son, not least because a king exerts over humans a power and authority analogous to the sovereignty of God over the cosmos. Indeed, the king mediates God's sovereignty. One can thus "bow the knee" or "worship" a human king as long as this reverence is properly subordinated to the glory of God the Father.

God made Moses "like a god to Pharaoh"--he gave him Godlike power and authority. Satan is told to "worship" Adam in the garden in the Life of Adam and Eve because Adam is his superior and an image of God, while Satan is merely a servant of God. And of course Moses in Ezekiel the Tragedian is worshipped on a heavenly throne in a way analogous, but almost certainly subordinate to the worship of Moses' God. The fact that this is a dream does not obviate the basic dynamic of this uncomfortable example.

Things get even blurrier when the "royal" figure is a heavenly being. The Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch is a heavenly king. He is thus worthy of "worship" as long as such worship is clearly subordinated to and a function of the glory of God. Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham similarly occupies an ambiguous space between being a subject of God and participating in God's throne.

In my opinion, Bauckham is "making up the rules" when he assumes that participation in creation and God's throne were absolutely off limits as a function of monotheism. What ancient evidence is there for this other than his definitions? Certainly many if not most ancient Jews might agree with him. But on what basis can he imply that an ancient Jew who did not agree with these parameters was thereby disloyal to the idea of "one God"? As Hurtado has argued, we must let them set the parameters for what we allow under the heading of "monotheism."

We might finally mention the matter of sacrifice. It seems doubtful that--perhaps except for some Diaspora Jews on the fridge of what we call Judaism at the time--Jews offered sacrifices to other gods. As far as I can tell, even in those instances where veneration is given to "royal" subordinates of God, they are never given sacrifice.

And why would they? The purpose of sacrifice was to secure the favor of God, including the deflection of God's wrath. Since YHWH was the ultimate sovereign in question even in those instances where other "royal" figures were in play, He would clearly be the one who needed propitiated.

"Cultic monotheism" would thus seem to apply most properly, then, to the fact that no other being was the proper recipient of sacrifice. On this score, therefore, I would suggest that Hurtado is the one who "makes up the rules" as to where non-sacrificial "cultic veneration" could or could not apply to figures other than the one God.

Ancient Jewish "monotheism" was thus primarily a matter of God's superior, sovereign power and rule, a power and position captured most clearly in his role as sole creator. Accordingly, He was the only God appropriate to worship. However, kings and heavenly beings that participate in His throne might also be said worthy of a reverence or "worship" as long as it is clearly subordinated to Him. Few Jews, of course, had any notion of such a being. Those that did were by far the exception rather than the rule.


Jared Calaway said...

Wow! Highly nuanced. I think a very responsible handling of the evidence. I could sign on to this...well, obviously this is all just grist for my mill.

Jared Calaway said...

Oh, by the way, 2 Maccabees is usually considered the first instance of a conception of creation ex nihilo, although one might quibble with that. So the idea is probably already around by the first century CE, but how widespread it would be is a different matter.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for thinking through these things with me, Jared. I can tell you're a shining star!

I tend to go the other way with the 2 Maccabees quote and see the idea of ex nihilo mainly arising in the context of combating Gnosticism.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks, Ken, for this brilliant summary of your understanding, which has a lot in common with the case I argue for in The Only True God, due out in 2009.

To give just a foretaste, I think that Hurtado and Bauckham are right to posit worship as a key dividing line, but for most Jewish monotheists it was specifically sacrificial worship that marked the ultimate distinction (that and being at the top of the chain of being, but with the boundary occupied by Word/Wisdom/Spirit blurry on the edges on both sides).

Ken Schenck said...

I think we're largely on the same page, James. Maybe you're book will be out in time for me to dialog with it a little in my own current project.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean that Jews(including Jesus in his humanity) and Paul)believed that there were other lesser gods or did they believe that other religions were demonic in nature?
Were they henotheists? Were the early Christians then not monotheists and were they also henotheists?
John Gardner

Anonymous said...

Have you seen, Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism, which was edited by Loren Stuckenbruck and Wendy North? It interacts with much of what you express and argues for nearly the same conclusions; although, your definition is much more succinct and palatable in comparison.

Ken Schenck said...

John, Paul doesn't call them gods ("so called gods," 1 Cor. 8), but he does refer to them as demons.

Carl, I have read Bauckham's article in that volume, but I haven't read the whole thing. Thanks for reminding me of it

Angie Van De Merwe said...

God does not rule, except through people. It is when people do not represent God in the proper way that is the question.

Individuals in our country are respected as separate and distinct and their personal interests are valued. I believe that this a a "proper ideal", but because our traditions have all but dissolved (except in the "South" !), we have no understanding of the "collective". It is only when the "collective's ideals are challenged that we "pull together" and understand our values more fully. That is what happened intially with 9/11, because our freedoms were undermined.

I do believe that the family does create the environment for the development of the child and that it does produce images and values for the child to deal with life. In America, even as "Christians", families differ as to the values that will be empahsized. Freedom of religion after all was what our country was founded on...But, even the Puritans had a "government". And they believed that there government was "more pure" than the Anglican Church. Was it? It was certainly based upon "the rule of law", but was it truly "just" in persecuting those that were outside their definition of "righteous"?

Because there will always be conflict in values when it comes to individual commitments, freedom must be protected by law, but within the bounds of "group idenification". Our country's unity is in diversity. The problem becomes when the diversity of convictions become too wide to bring any unity...

Chris Larimer said...

What an excellent piece of reflection! I do hope you'll put a link to your sourced product when it is published.

Do you think that this trend of sacrificial cultus could be behind some of the early attempts (say among the Antiochene community) at equating the Eucharist with a sacrifice? (cf. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, ch. viii)

Mario Gallego said...

En cuanto a la creación ex-nihilo en el Pastor de Hermas, Mandamiento I y en otros párrafos, enseña con claridad este concepto. En mi opinión Hermas escribió en la década de los 90 d.C Lamentablemente mucha literatura del siglo I esta perdida y ese es el gran problema.