Monotheism and the Bible: Origins, Issues, and the Status Quaestionis – Hebrew Bible/OT Part 1

FIrst Interview of two in the “Monotheism and the Hebrew Bible” Series

Interviewee: Dr. Nathan MacDonald

– Reader in Old Testament at University of St. Andrews and Sofja-Kovalevskaja-Preis Team Leader, Georg-August Universität Göttingen

– Author of Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’

1. How do we define “monotheism”?

The dictionary definition of monotheism is “the belief that there is only one God”. So far so good, but this is where the difficulties begin, as we can see if we examine the different parts of the definition.

First, “the belief”. The focus on beliefs rather than practices is striking and suggests that the conceptuality of monotheism may better capture intellectual paradigms than the larger religious framework, which consists of more than beliefs. Practices and beliefs are linked in a complex manner, of course, but some of the evidence we have about ancient Israel is much more readily related to practice rather than belief.

Second, “there is”. The issue becomes primarily, if not entirely, one of ontology. Issues of response are marginalized, if not excluded entirely. These issues of response are of much greater weight for the ancient authors and editors of the Old Testament.

Third, “one God”. What do we mean by a God, especially if we are going to deny that others exist? Is belief in other supernatural beings, such as angels or demons, not monotheistic? (Supernatural is itself a problematic category, of course).

Fourth, “only”. The “only” in such a definition is usually taken to mean the denial of the existence of other gods. Where this is not present, do we still have monotheism? (And if no, have we narrowed down our texts with what is merely a formal category?) How do we judge if such denials are rhetorical?

All of this suggests that monotheism is a remarkably difficult concept. That doesn’t mean barring its use as some have suggested – such strictures would be readily ignored anyhow! But in describing the beliefs and practices in the ancient Near East, including the Levant, we need to ensure we know what we are doing when we employ such categories, and most particularly ensure we don’t smuggle things into our description of ancient religions. In other words, the hermeneutical issues that circle around the monotheism debate are rather complex.

2. In the text of the Hebrew Bible, do you see a progression or development to monotheism? If so, is that progression a development in kind or a development of degree (or both)?

The question of progression or development is more naturally suited to a discussion of Israelite religious history, rather than the ‘text of the Hebrew Bible’ per se. The texts of the Hebrew Bible evidence an insistent monolatry, or call it monotheism if you wish. These take a variety of different forms, such that I have occasionally spoken of early Jewish monotheisms, a coinage that is meant to parallel the use of Judaisms in recent scholarship on the Second Temple period. Thus, the monotheism of Deutero-Isaiah and the priestly document look very different from one another, even if they stem from the late neo-Babylonian or early Persian period. This diversity only increases if we consider Jewish wisdom literature or Jewish apocalyptic. These are also arguably monotheistic, but quite different from Deutero-Isaiah and P. In this sense, I would like to speak of the variety of monotheism in the Hebrew Bible, rather than its progression or development.

3. (If yes to the previous question) Are there distinct periods in which you see these developments (a timeline of sorts) and how would you characterize or describe the shifts in thinking or praxis?

This sounds to my ears like a different issue: one relating to religious history. The biblical texts are some of the evidence one might utilize, but sits alongside archaeological finds, inscriptions, finds from Mesopotamia etc. The biblical text can provide some evidence of earlier beliefs and practices – this is perhaps what you were looking for in the previous question. By critical analysis earlier perceptions and ideas may be discernible behind the final monolatrous or, if you prefer, monotheistic perspective of the Hebrew Bible.

I do think there are noticeable shifts at certain periods, but these should not be over-exaggerated. In particular, there may be more continuity between practice and belief before and after the neo-Babylonian period (the “exile”). I also think that the kind of diversity that I see in the Persian period makes it difficult to construct timelines of the sort you request. 

It makes most sense to work back from latest to earliest. I am persuaded by Larry Hurtado that the Maccabean revolt marks an important step in the consciousness of Jewish uniqueness vis-à-vis Greek and other Levantine religions. That is, there is a strong sense amongst Jews and non-Jews that Judaism is other, particularly in its aniconic practice and cultic devotion to one God. Earlier in the Second Temple period there is more willingness to relate YHWH to other chief deities, although programmatic aniconism and insistence on YHWH-alone devotion are already strong. The significant changes in this period probably relate to a growing scripturalization – including the move towards harmonization as consistent with the revelation of one deity – and the emphasis on YHWH as Torah giver. In the neo-Babylonian period and earlier there are monolatrous tendencies, but these do not result in the exclusion of other deities in the religious practice of some. For earlier periods we are more and more reliant on archaeological and comparative evidence. It seems likely that worship of YHWH and El predominated, though it is uncertain when they were seen as the same deity. There was probably a pantheon, though on a far small scale than could be found in Mesopotamia.

4. Is the distinction between “polytheism” and “henotheism” necessary or helpful?

Henotheism is a difficult term precisely because it has been used by a variety of people in a variety of ways. I would need to know what idea of henotheism was being deployed before determining if this could be helpfully distinguished from polytheism. It should be said, of course, that many issues have been raised about the application of the term polytheism. Not least of these, is that polytheism is an inner-monotheistic way of characterizing other religions and does not accord that well to what “polytheists” hold to be important about their practices and beliefs. Max Müller’s coinage of henotheism (“there is a god”, rather than “there is one god”) was a partial attempt to address this issue, though I think its success was decidedly limited.

5. What major texts are central to your view and why?

My own interests are in describing the religious practices and beliefs of biblical writers in the round. In that sense there is no text that is not important. In particular, I’d want to say that there may be dangers in focusing on only the classic texts, such as Deut 6.4; Isa 40-48; Deut 32.8-9; Judg 11; Ps 82. These are much discussed because they are complex and interesting texts with a fascinating history of research. Nevertheless, it is here that our definition of monotheism may have overly determined the material for analysis. Our definition focuses on particular issues, and so narrows down the texts we examine.

6. What major texts are the most problematic to your view and why?

Sorry, I don’t understand the question.

More seriously, one tries to work with models that integrate all the material. When other scholars raise problematic texts it is necessary to go back and see how they might fit, or how the models need to change. My speaking of early Jewish monotheisms is at least partially an attempt to recognize the complexity of the evidence with which we are presented. It seeks to offer a comprehensive model, without being reduced to a linear development.

7. What would be the top 3 books you would recommend to students interested in the study of characterizing the kind of theism in the Hebrew bible/OT and ancient Israelite religion?

Mark Smith – The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. Smith’s work is very widely informed, but also depends upon careful, close reading of biblical and non-biblical texts. The first few chapters of Origins I think are particularly important for the penetrating questions they ask. I’m a little hard pressed here to choose between it and God in Translation, which I think breaks significant new ground. For orientating students to the debate about monotheism Origins gets the vote with the encouragement to go on and read God in Translation.

Fritz Stolz – Einführung in den biblischen Monotheismus. Like Smith has a broad canvas which is especially helpful for those orientating themselves to this debate. I think his reflections on post-exilic monotheism at the end of the book point out where new work needs to be done. It would also be a good introduction to the world of German scholarship where so much important scholarship is to be found: I think of the early work in the 1980s that brought the subject of monotheism into the centre of academic discussion, as well as the work of the Fribourg School on iconography.

Benjamin Sommer – The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. A lengthy appendix provides a synthetic overview of monotheism in ancient Israel. Sommer reflects the influence of Yehezkel Kaufmann and so views the discussion rather differently from many other scholars. This would give students a sense of the different flavors of scholarship, which would be no bad thing. It might also encourage them to read Kaufmann who puts his finger on significant issues, even if his proposals were so often implausible.

New Upcoming Interview Series: “Monotheism and the Bible: Origins, Issues, and the Status Quaestionis”

Questions on the origins of monotheism, the nature of ancient Israelite religion(s), and debates over early christology in relation to monotheism have been the topic of much of biblical scholarship as of late. There has been much ink spilled over inquiries and proposals attempting to best characterize or understand the type of theism the earliest Israelites and the earliest Christians actually had. There are a great deal of incredibly interesting and paradigm-shifting studies out there but where do we begin? Those who are interested in looking into these questions from a historical-critical perspective may find themselves overwhelmed and possibly discouraged, especially when attempting to find what is worth reading and what isn’t. We are beginning a new interview series here at The Time Has Been Shortened to deal with precisely this problem.

The series is entitled “Monotheism and the Bible: Origins, Issues, and the Status Quaestionis“. We will be interviewing scholars who have written extensively and are considered authorities in their respective fields who will be giving us the status quaestionis (or the state of the investigation) regarding monotheism and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the complex relationship between Christology and Monotheism in the New Testament. The series will consist of four interviews: two interviews on Monotheism and the Hebrew Bible and two interviews on Christology and Monotheism in the New Testament. The interviews will be most likely split up into two parts each due to breadth of a few of the questions.

First two interviewees in the Hebrew Bible section are as follows:

Nathan MacDonald

– PhD in Theology, University of Durham; MA, University of Cambridge (Honorary); MPhil in Classical Hebrew Studies, University of Cambridge; BA (honors, 1st class), University of Cambridge

– Sofja-Kovalevskaja-Preis Team Leader, Georg-August Universität Göttingen

– Reader in Old Testament, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews

– Author of “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’” and “Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament


Michael S. Heiser

– PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; MA in Hebrew and Semitics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; MA in Ancient History – Ancient Egypt and Syria-Palestine, University of Pennsylvania

– Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA

– Dissertation entitled “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature

– Authors the blog entitled: “The Naked Bible: Biblical Theology, Stripped Bare of Denominational Confessions and Theological Systems


Second two interviewees in the New Testament Section are as follows:

James F. McGrath

– PhD in Theology, University of Durham; BDiv (honors), University of London; Diploma in Religious Studies, University of Cambridge.

– Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature, Butler University

– Author of “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context” and “John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology

– Authors the blog entitled: “Exploring Our Matrix


Larry W. Hurtado

– PhD in New Testament, Case Western Reserve University; MA in New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; BA in Biblical Studies, Central Bible College

– Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology, University of Edinburgh

– Director of the Center for the Study of Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh

– Author of “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity“, “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus“, and “One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism

– Authors the blog entitled “Larry Hurtado’s Blog: Comments on the New Testament and Early Christianity


We are excited about the interview series. Be sure to subscribe to follow the conversation.

James G. Crossley “Mark, Paul and the Question of Influence”

One of my main interests in New Testament studies is the relationship between Paul and the Gospels. So in the next few posts I will be summarizing and commenting on each article that is found in the new book (surprisingly) titled Paul and the Gospels. A day or so after I post the summary I will post my comments on the article.


I. Introduction

James G. Crossley starts his article by noting that the scholarly consensus on the potential influence between Mark’s Gospel and Paul has changed. In the past hundred years notable scholars have gone from believing that Paul did not influence Mark to believing that Paul did, at least partially, influence Mark.

He then pauses for just a second to define what is meant by “influence.” By this term, he does not mean, “Mark could have been in some sense allegorizing Pauline theology, adapting ideas floating around the Pauline churches, or, indirectly acknowledging the theologian he could not completely ignore, but whose theology he did not fully approve of.’” He also details another possible view, Paul and Mark are both part of the same general Christian movement and therefore draw from the same pool of resources. This (supposed) reality would give the allusion of dependence. Finally, he also notes that it is possible for Mark to have influenced Paul given that he (soli) has argued for a very early date for Mark’s Gospel. He then turns to briefly noting the main texts that scholars have forwarded as evidence for Paul’s influence on Mark.


II. Mark interpreting and/or advocating Paul or Pauline thought? Some precise examples

1. Mark 4:1–20/Romans 9–11 and Mark 14:22–25/1 Cor. 11:23–25

On these supposedly parallels Dr. Crossley points out that the ideas in the texts are parallel but none of the important theological terms are the same. Therefore, there is not enough evidence to link the Romans 9–11 as having influenced Mark.

2. Romans 14:14/Mark 7:19

Here Dr. Crossley notes that this supposed parallel (“all foods being clean”) is claimed by many to be one of the clearest examples of Pauline influence on Mark. This is because most scholars assume that 1) Paul is earlier than Mark and 2) Paul’s gospel is unique because of its negative (or, flippant) view toward the law which, has been nicely summed up in Joel Marcus’s words, “the law was passé for Christians.” Crossley points out that he and a few other notable scholars have shown that this text and Mark only need to be understood as Jesus claiming that the Torah, properly interpreted, never taught that dirty hands made food unclean (therefore Matthew’s interpretation of the pericope is faithful to Mark’s intent).


III. Paul and Mark (unsurprisingly) faced similar issues: Jesus’s death and suffering

In this section Dr. Crossley focuses on the supposed  influence that Paul’s atonement theology had on Mark. Again, he rejects this supposed link because none of the important theological terminology is present (e.g., λυτρον, or ὁ ὑιος τοῦ άνθρώπου). He also then points out that the two atonement theories could depend on the president Maccabean martyr theology that was present and formative Judaism.


IV. Paul and Mark (unsurprisingly) faced similar issues: Gentiles

In this section, he notes that too much is made of Mark’s Gospel being directed towards gentiles. Crossley takes the view, noting an intriguing PhD thesis, that Mark was merely dealing with the possibility of Gentiles entering the movement which is what any other “Christian” text would’ve had to do. In other words, Mark does not appear to be “concerned” with the Gentile mission at all and this supposed “mission” definitely is not fundamental to Mark like it is for Paul’s ministry. He does agree that the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the subsequent feeding narratives cohere nicely with Paul’s theology of “to the Jew first and then the Gentile.”  Again, he points out that there is no linking terminology used in either of these supposed links. He also points out that acts (and maybe Luke) share the same pattern. Next, he discusses the use of the “supposed” Pauline term εὐαγγελιον.  While here Crossley cannot deny the use of the same theological term, he does point out that this term could have been taken independently from the LXX (he notes five occurrences in Isaiah alone) . So, needless to say, Dr. Crossley finds this term to be unpersuasive in showing Pauline influence on Mark.


V. Paul and Mark faced different problems: The Torah

Here Crossley claims that there is not enough evidence to prove that Paul and Mark’s comments regarding the law are a result of the same problem. His main point is, while some believe Mark’s gospel to be evidence of a law free Christian community, the Gospel of Mark never clearly depicts Jesus as breaking the Torah. If this is true, then Mark doesn’t depict Jesus as having an uninterested view of the Torah, like Paul. Instead, Mark depicts Jesus as being interested in the Torah, especially its proper interpretation.


VI. Christology in conflict

Many have read Mark’s Gospel and claimed that it contains what some scholars have called a “corrective Christology.” Dr. Crossley then gives the thesis of Joseph Tyson as being representative of this reading. Tyson’s reading can be boiled into these two antitheses: 1) Jesus’ Messiahship is not to be confused with conventional Jewish nationalistic royal Messiahship (and thus little is done with the phrase “son of David”). 2)  The Early Church that did understand Jesus in conventional, militaristic terms.


Crossley shows that this view is based on little evidence and is therefore mostly conjecture. Not only that, Crossley goes on to show that there are plenty of texts in the New Testament that fly in the face of this supposed view of the Early Church.


As for the lack of use of the title “son of David,” Crossley shows that we are not able to be certain what this term should mean so it shouldn’t play a fundament part in one’s argument. He then moves on to the term “son of God.” Again, he notes that there is a major debate in how this term is to be understood; does this term denote “high Christology” or should it be understood as indicating a “low Christology?”  The purpose for pointing this out is that if scholarship cannot come to a firm consensus on Mark’s Christology then we cannot in any way say that Mark is “correcting” anything.


VII. Concluding remarks

Not surprisingly, Dr. Crossley does not find enough evidence to merit the view that Paul influenced Mark. He does agree that there are definitely overlaps in their theology, but, these overlaps are not enough to suggest that Mark aware of the Paul.


Edit: My comments may be found here.

Is the Presence of the Criteria of Multiple Attestation and Embarrassment a Contradiction?

Over at the NT Blog, Mark Goodacre posted on a relevant issue regarding an apparent contradiction between the combination of the criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment. I did however find myself disagreeing with the conclusion. Because my disagreement lies in the way in which the issue is portrayed, I have decided not to respond on his blog, but rather flesh out the issue more thoroughly in a post. Before I continue, though, I need to say that I do not find the criterion of multiple attestation helpful for identifying historical events. It seems that it only demonstrates that a tradition goes back to the early church, not necessarily a historical event. For many this criterion performs double duty by also affirming events that are singly attested, but as soon as a singly attested tradition is deemed historical or plausible (e.g., Mark 8.22–26), the validity of the criterion comes into question (but this is by no means a death knell for the criterion). Furthermore, and more to the point of this post, I believe these shortcomings show that it cannot function on its own, but functions best in corroboration with other criteria. In the same way that (singular) attestation and embarrassment work together to suggest the historicity of Jesus spitting in the blind man’s eyes, so multiple attestation also needs the corroboration of another criterion. Thus, the purpose of this post is not to provide a defense for multiple attestation, but to show that both the criteria in question (attestation and embarrassment) can define the same event without contradiction. In fact, I would hypothesize more strongly that if multiple attestation is isolated from other criteria, it ceases to be a valid indicator of historicity.

Dr. Goodacre’s post can be found here (a followup post can be found here) and can be summed up in this quote:

I can’t help thinking that one cancels out the other. If everyone, Q, an independent Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke all have this same material, who is embarrassed about it? The multiple attestation is itself an argument against embarrassment.

This may be the case in some instances, but the example of Jesus’ baptism by John––which Goodacre provides as an example in the same post––I feel does not provide an adequate example of this “cancellation.”

Regarding John’s baptism of Jesus, it is too simplistic to say that everyone has the same material. While this baptism is retained through multiple traditions (Q [maybe], Mark 1.9–11, John 1.29–34 [?]; Acts 1.21–22 [Peter would be the separate source], Gos. Heb. 2 [?], Ign. Smy. 1.1; and possibly others), each retention is altered in some way, which suggests, in this case, that there was something unsettling about the event. While there are three accounts which explicitly identify John as the baptizer of Jesus (Mark 1.9–11; Acts 1.21–22; Gos. Eb. 4), other traditions are not so eager to portray John as directly baptizing Jesus. Matthew (following Mark, Q, or M) alters the event by having John protest the baptism and by failing to explicitly identify John as the one who preformed the act. In Luke’s account John is in prison (narratively speaking) when Jesus is baptized (3.19–21). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is never really baptized; rather, John functions as a “witness” to the person and character of Jesus rather than a source of his baptism (1:19, 34). The Gos. Heb. 2, like the Gospel of John, forgoes the baptism and focuses on the theophany. Thus, while the baptism tradition is retained in each of these accounts, each account is altered in such a way as to take the focus away from John and place more attention on Jesus and the theophany.

Noticing a trajectory of the baptismal/theophany event, Robert Webb suggests that there is a gradual ennoblement of the theophany while downplaying the baptism (Baptizer and Prophet, 106). If this is the case, it does not follow that the recurrence of the baptismal event in multiple traditions invalidates the criterion of embarrassment, or vice versa. In other words, while the baptism is a retained Jesus tradition found in numerous accounts from various traditions, it is not promulgated or “celebrated” (a word Dr. Goodacre uses in his post, which I find curious), but instead is quietly and sometimes reluctantly remembered as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Nevertheless, the Baptist must be remembered as he functions as the precursor (Elijah) to Jesus (Messiah).

It seems that the baptism might exemplify other traditions that are multiply attested and ostensibly embarrassing. That is, just because an event is attested by multiple traditions doesn’t mean it is retold in the same way. If, like the baptism, a given event is retold in such a way as to extenuate a particular action or saying within the larger event, then something about the event is demonstrated to be embarrassing as well. Thus, the presence of the two criteria do not necessarily contradict, but rather the presence of multiple attestation can serve (though certainly not always) to define an event as embarrassing. It all depends on how the event is retold.

Thom Stark on Heiser’s reading of Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82

Over at the blog Religion at the Margins, there is an appealing discussion of an article from Michael Heiser, Academic Editor for Logos and friend, on whether YHWH and Elyon are distinct deities in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82. The post is by Thom Stark, cleverly titled “The Most Heiser: Yahweh and Elyon in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32” and you can find it here. You may want to read Heiser’s article first (you can download it here: Heiser on Deut 32 & Ps 82). The main contention is over the differing exegesis of the passages in question. For Deuteronomy 32:8-9 the question is whether עליוו (Most High) and יהוה (YHWH) are distinct deities alluding to a similar view of a divine council to that of the Canaanite pantheon of El. A similar quandary remains in Psalm 82 between the use of אלהים (god, God, or YHWH) and the use of עדת-אל (the council/assembly of El, the divine council, or YHWH’s own council) and their original meaning. Heiser maintains that in the Deuteronomy text Elyon and YHWH are the same deity and that in Psalm 82 the adat-el is YHWH’s own council. I have been dialoguing with Stark regarding his critique of Heiser and have had some good responses (you can read them here). I have some disagreements with Starks critique but overall it is a very thorough and engaging read that would be very helpful for those new to the question of the existence of a divine council in the Hebrew scriptures and the contours of the ancient Israelites’ brand of theism. For those more well versed in Hebrew and ANE backgrounds, this will provide a stimulating conversation and further reflection on these intriguing texts. Enjoy.

On a further note, Heiser was asked on his blog (in the bottom of the comment area of the post here) if he had seen the critique of his exegesis of Deut 32 and Ps 82. You will see his response there immediately after the question. After Stark saw the response Heiser gave, he in turn wrote a whole other post responding to Heiser’s disinterest back at Religion in the Margins which can be found here.