Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Early Jewish and Christian polytheism?

N.T. Wrong (who I hope will one day reveal his/her real identity) is again right. His/her question reveals that he/she knows what he/she is talking about. Here is his/her question:
Well, because you asked. I've often wondered to what extent and in what ways Christian doctrine concerning the divine was influenced by the emerging Rabbinic orthodoxy (ca. AD 200). That is, Rabbinic orthodoxy seems to have introduced a stricter monotheism to the matrix of Judaisms that included Christianities. Did that part of Christendom which is now called 'proto-orthodox' Christianity likewise, and in response, seek to 'tone down' its polytheistic understandings of divinized humanity, a divinized Christ, angelic and demonic beings, and a Most High God? How do the discussions going on in Rabbinic Judaism provide a normative influence on Christianities which previously seemed quite open to a hierarchy of divinities, even in its 'proto-orthodox' quarters, as is evidenced in the Epistle of the Apostles, or the Odes of Solomon, or Mileto, or the Gospels of John and Thomas?
I don't have a great deal of time these days since I've become involved in writing another article on the Gospel of Judas (you won't believe what I have been finding!) and trying to get prepared to fly to Amherst this weekend to give a lecture on the Gospel of Judas on Friday night to a CSSR group.

Here's my quick take on Wrong's question. It is undeniable in my opinion that Judaism and Christianity before Nicaea were not monotheistic religions (as we define it today). In fact, one can question whether Christianity ever really became monotheistic - all depends on how convinced you are that the doctrine of the Trinity actually resolves the polytheism of a Father and Son being worshiped. Of course there is absolute resistance to this idea, especially among scholars who want early Judaism and Christianity to be monotheistic. So they have come up with all kinds of ways to contort the sources and their readings of them to make it look otherwise, including playing the heresy card.

But here are the facts as I see them. The first Christians were Jews. They had no problem worshiping Jesus alongside the father god almost from the start. I think that this worship was pre-Pauline, and centered in Antioch, although I do not rule out Jerusalem (see my paper in the book Israel's God and Rebecca's Children, "How we talk about Christology Matters"). They thought that Jesus was God's great angel who came to earth as a human being and was exalted to the angelic status of the NAME angel at his resurrection. The Jews in the Second Temple period from Philo to Qumran to all the Jewish apocalyptic texts believed that God manifested himself as the NAME angel on earth. This NAME angel, because he was invested with God's NAME, was essentially GOD. The Samaritans had various sectarian movements in the first century that played on this theme. Simon the Samaritan taught that he was the manifestation of this POWER of God, and that he had been sent to earth from the father in order to save the lost soul. The Jewish gnostics in the first century were able to develop the demiurge myth because they relied on these same ideas - that God had a NAMED angel YAHWEH who was distinct from GOD yet was the GOD who created the world.

Then there are all the polemics among late first and second century Christians about who is worshiping angels, who is asking angels for intercessory favors. Christians or Jews? Then we add to this all the polemics that developed in the late second and third centuries among the rabbis about the TWO POWERS heresy and how authentic Jews only worship YAHWEH. Then we find poor Arius caught in a ferocious battle over whether or not it is desirable to continue to call Jesus an angel and worship him as second in command.

I could go on and on. My point is this. Early Judaism and Christianity were not monotheistic religions, but were at best monalotrous (=worshiped one god but allowed for the existence of other gods). It was because of this that Christianity was able to be born out of Judaism as a Jewish expression of a new form of Yahwehism, and Gnosticism could become the fancy of Jewish intellectuals living in first-century Alexandria. This must mean that the program of some of the post-exilic priests to make Judaism a monotheistic religion DID NOT WORK, as in fact the wisdom literature and Sophia traditions prove in my opinion. This had to wait until the rabbis came along and created what many consider the basis for modern Judaism, and insisted that all forms of worship other than YAHWEH be banned. Whether or not the bishops and church theologians ever really made Christianity monotheistic depends on how well one thinks that the Nicaea decision and later the doctrine of the Trinity really worked.

As an aside, this scenario is not new stuff, nor is Boyarin the first to discuss some of these issues in his book Borderlines (2004). In fact, Alan Segal in Two Powers in Heaven (1977), and Jarl Fossum in The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord (1985) and The Image of the Invisible God (1995) were the two scholars who made the case initially, and wrote about it brilliantly.


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for blogging about this, April! In my forthcoming book The Only True God, I actually argue that, on the one hand, Jewish "monotheism" in the first century did not correspond precisely to either later Jewish monotheism or later Christian Trinitarian monotheism; but on the other hand, there was something distinctive about the Jews, since others recognized them as having distinctive beliefs and scruples.

The one commonly agreed upon point that most or all Jews seem to have accepted was the exclusive sacrificial worship of one God alone. On other points there was room for disagreement - including, not least, on the existence of a second "figure" that blurred into that of God most high.

April DeConick said...

Great! I can't wait to see your book.


N T Wrong said...

Thank you for your answer, April.

I think there is a neat economy in this type of explanation, which makes the 'monotheistic' explanation appear both problematic and anachronistic in contrast.

Rebecca said...

And even after the rise of rabbinic Judaism, we still find Jewish mystical texts that are very questionably monotheistic - see the treatment of Metatron in 3 Enoch, among other Hekhalot literature. (Some of the texts call him Metatron YHWH, after all). I sometimes think that it's only because of medieval rationalist philosophers like Maimonides that Judaism became truly monotheistic (and that's only if you focus on the rationalist tradition). The doctrine of the Sefirot in the medieval kabbalah is questionably monotheistic in the same way that the doctrine of the Trinity in Christianity is questionable.

Unknown said...

I'd be curious to know how the concept of the Shekinah would play into all this.

From my limited understanding, Second Temple Judaism seems to have been aware of the fact that the Presence of the Lord manifested as the Divine Consort was lacking, compared to the First Temple.

If one contrasts this with the concept of the Church as a feminine figure, containing the Spirit of the Lord, you could easily wander down some interesting lines of thought.

N T Wrong said...

That's a good qualification, Rebecca. While there were monotheistic trajectories in early Rabbinic Judaism, these weren't the only trajectories, were they? It's interesting how the big names of Rabbinic Judaism are also the heroes of mystical practices. On the one hand, these mystical practices were censured, but on the other hand they existed in order to be censured. I wonder if there's a veridical memory of association of such practices with rabbinic heroes of the past, or if it is only instructional. I remember reading an insightful scholarly explanation of a literary pattern in some Hekhalot literature which involved, first, a narrative relating the mystical experiences of a rabbi, and then, the issuing of instructions for the same experience directly to the adept. Were these stories about rabbinic mystical experiences merely pseudepigraphic and heuristic, or do they reflect actual experiences and long-transmitted stories?

I wonder how much the emphasis on monotheism in Islam influenced Jewish and Christian formulations of monotheism? Mind you, it is doubtful that the earliest Islam of Muhammed was quite as monotheistic as that of the current copies of the Qur'an. The 'satanic verses episode' at least shows that divine intermediaries (in this case the angelic 'Mrs Allah', 'Allat') were a continuing issue for early Islam. Should we push back 'monotheism' to the Middle Ages?

James F. McGrath said...

On the one hand, I'm tempted to say that the Middle Ages sounds about right, for Judaism especially, since that's when the doctrine of creation out of nothing becomes part of Jewish orthodoxy. Prior to that, the line between God and everything else cannot but be blurry.

On the other hand, I think it is important to emphasize that Jews were viewed by non-Jews as distinctive in their adherence to one God alone, and so any approach that suggests that "Jewish polytheism" was simply one more brand of ancient religion with nothing distinctive about it is unlikely to do justice to this aspect of the evidence.

If we rule out angels, personified divine attributes, the Trinity, pre-existent revelations and sacred texts, and many other ideas as incompatible with monotheism, might we not end up at the odd conclusion that there have never been any monotheists, really? :)

N T Wrong said...

Is all revealed in your new book?

Maybe it's not monotheism that made Jews distinctive to Romans amongst their neighbours, but their exclusivity. Isn't that what the Romans were moaning about? The entire ancient Near East since the time of Homer and the Assyrian Empire managed to assimilate the plurality of gods into one single Most High god, and also managed to 'translate' other nations' Most High gods into their own (Zeus for Jupiter, etc). The Judeans seemed to have held out on this second trend. For Judeans, Yahweh was their god, but the so-called Most High gods of other nations were angelic beings appointed by Yahweh, or, alternatively, angelic beings in rebellion against Yahweh, or altenatively again, imaginary beings. It's exclusivity that is truly distinctive, isn't it? A belief in the essential oneness of the divinity, by contrast, is ubiquitous.

Jim Deardorff said...

Thanks for acquainting me with the word "monolatrous" (you had misspelled it a little, which Google was able to correct). However, one might also use the word "henotheistic."

I think you're correct to say that Jewish henotheism persisted into the Christian era. The existence of a key angel, like Gabriel, besides the other angels, suggests this to me. Also, 1 Cor 8:5-6 suggests this, that there are indeed many gods but only one God for early Christianity.

James F. McGrath said...

There is a discussion of the famous inscription relating to a Jewish worshipper in a temple of Pan. Does that count as All being revealed? :)

I'm not sure if the exclusive vs. inclusive monotheism is the key to the distinction. In the Letter of Aristeas the view is expressed (by a pagan character, but the Jewish author nevertheless chose to have him say it and not have another character correct it) that Jews worship the same God as others do, just under a different name. I think it was the exclusive sacrificial worship of God Most High that was the key defining factor. Others may have felt additional issues were important, but this particular issue was the central defining factor. And of course, we could debate whether that means we should be speaking of "monolatry" rather than "monotheism".

N T Wrong said...

Terrible pun, James. I like it.

David said...

As I enjoy this thread, I can't help but wonder if monotheism may not be another modern invention, like "gnosticism". A label that serves to obscure.

Also, I find it hard to view Catholicism as monotheistic, partly because of the Trinity, but also because of the veneration of Mary and the saints, etc. In Christianity, we seem to hear more about Jesus and less about God, so where the focus is lies the emphasis. said...

James Mcgrath wrote:

"The one commonly agreed upon point that most or all Jews seem to have accepted was the exclusive sacrificial worship of one God alone."

I dispute that sacrificial worship was generally accepted by first century Jews, and even in the preceeding two centuries. A certain Jewish community called 'Essenes', who lived in every village, comparable to the priests in numbers, (of the same order of magnitude at least), rejected animal sacrifice. Pliny describes them at one stage as 'flourishing'. This group was very much like what the early 'christians' developed into. And like the priests, would have had influence in the wider community. 'Essenes' were at the focus of Josephus's texts. But Vespasian saw to it that they were annihilated - he took what was left of them for his falsely claimed triumph, after destroying the temple sanctuary. And he knew all about misclaimed triumphs, because he had declared one for Claudius. From then on, the course of both Judaism and Christianity was under Rome.

James F. McGrath said...

It is certainly true that a significant number of Jews, whether due to ideological or practical reasons, would not have participated in the Jerusalem temple's worship. It was abstention from other worship, rather than participation in worship in the Jerusalem temple, that most clearly distinguished Jews and non-Jews in practice. said...

James Mcgrath wrote:

"It was abstention from other worship, rather than participation in worship in the Jerusalem temple, that most clearly distinguished Jews and non-Jews in practice."

As you know, there were two altars in the temple. How do you also know that those who you say abstained from 'other' worship, did not abstain from worship in the sanctuary where the altar of incense was, but did abstain from worship at the altar for animal sacrifice? If this was the case, it would have distinguished one Jew (the priests and their supporters) from another (whoever it was, and their supporters). It would have muddied your waters. I am talking here of the period up to the end of the Jewish war.

Boxxxer123 said...

The first commandment says: "You shall have no other gods before me" God also explains why he said that:"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." This is clear-cut admitting the existence of other gods. In my understanding, those 'Gods' weren't the real creators of the cosmos. Just as an architect doesn't 'create' a building, in the sense of giving it existence. Rather, those gods were themselves the sentient beings of the cosmos. With the materials and abilities inherent in them, different gods created different human races in their own image. The people of a race or of a particular region were only allowed to worship the Lord that originally created them. They were forbidden to worship foreign gods. Thats becoz the God that did not create me will not take care of me, nor can he provide salvation to me(becoz that'd be encroaching upon other god's domain). Only a Demon Lord (a demon powerful enough to be counted among the Gods as their equal) would dare to act like that. Therefore Yahweh strictly forbids his created beings from worshipping other gods. This is my understanding.

Chase200mph said...

LOL...If I was wrong and a Christian god appeared before me, he would be forced to turn around in shame as apologetics attend to the ignorance this god would not make him my equal. Chase200mph

Chase200mph said...

If I was wrong and a Christian god appeared before me, he would be forced to turn around in shame as apologetics attend to the ignorance this god would not make him my equal.