Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Monotheism II

Blogger is really playing up today – deleting posts and doubling them, so I'll keep this short.

I noted in my previous post on monotheism that Paula Fredriksen argues that: "In antiquity, all monotheists were polytheists". I think such a conclusion is simply the result of a sickly intellectualised version of monotheism anachronistically thrust back on the ancient texts, and, not finding its modernist counterpart, cries 'polytheism'. MacDonald (in Deuteronomy and the Meaning of 'Monotheism')
shows clearly why modernist intellectualised notions of monotheism fail to deal with the 'monotheism' of Deuteronomy – and implicitly also the rest of the OT. Modern notions of 'monotheism' banded about among much OT scholarship represent a call 'to recognize the objective state of metaphysical affairs'. Deuteronomic 'monotheism', on the other hand, emphasises '"love" as the appropriate human response to the oneness of Yahweh' (210).

Bauckham writes:

'The essential element in what I have called Jewish monotheism, the element that makes it a kind of monotheism, is not the denial of the existence of other "gods", but an understanding of the uniqueness of YHWH that puts him in a class of his own, a wholly different class from any other heavenly or supernatural beings, even if these are called "gods". I call this YHWH's transcendent uniqueness ' ("Biblical theology and the problems of monotheism," in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, eds Craig Bartholomew, et al., [Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004], 210)

I would prefer to define biblical 'monotheism', and certainly that of the Pauline variety, along these lines – as transcendent uniqueness, albeit with a strong relational spin (which has ontological implications when such questions are raised). To say that second Temple Judaism is monotheistic is to say something about the uniqueness of the one God in terms of his relationship to his people and all creation. Jewish monotheism, and Paul's too, states that 'you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart ...', that this one true God is to be related to in an utterly unique way. It is a claim upon life and devotion, not merely an intellectual insight. It is to say that 'yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist' (1 Cor 8:6).

If I write another post in this little series, I may try to show how insights in both Bultmann and Barth strongly collaborate these arguments.


At 11/07/2007 12:03 AM, Anonymous Jacob Paul Breeze said...

Good posts Chris.

Thought I'd let some of Slavoj Žižek's thoughts spark with yours:

"Furthermore, is not so-called exclusionary monotheist violence secretly polytheist? Does not the fanatical hatred of believers in a different god bear witness to the fact that the monotheist secretly thinks that he is not simply fighting false believers, but that his struggle is a struggle between different gods,the struggle of his god against “false gods”who exist as gods? Such a monotheism is effectively exclusive:it has to exclude other gods. For that reason, true monotheists are tolerant:for them, others are not objects of hatred, but simply people who, although they are not enlightened by the true belief, should nonetheless be respected, since they are not inherently evil." From The Puppet and the Dwarf, pg. 26.

Would you say this is another example of the kind of mistake that Fredriksen made?

At 11/07/2007 3:42 AM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

I don't find Bauckham's claims about the rigidity of the dividing line between God and all else persuasive - or perhaps I should say that there was a clear dividing line, but the 'line' was the Logos (or similar concepts), which was blurry on both sides. Philo of Alexandria put it best when he said that the Word is "neither uncreated like God, nor created like you, but between the two extremes..."

At 11/07/2007 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this called monolatry? (As per Hurtado, others)

At 11/08/2007 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a "handicapped layman", I'm really not sure what this is about, but will ask if I'm getting the point that Fredriksen believes man has always believed in many gods, McDonald doesn't,Bauckham believes in "many gods...and Chris, you believe that Paul notes many gods, but God (YHWH)is the one true God...Am I tracking with you?

At 11/08/2007 6:39 PM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

I'm with anonymous, wanting a clarification vis-à-vis monolatry. Bauckham's view seems to envision a kind of pantheon, albeit one where YHWH is extraordinarily far "above" the other gods.

I probably shouldn't presume to correct you on Paul, particularly on a verse that I know you've studied closely. But isn't it possible that Paul is merely acknowledging that pagans worship many gods, without agreeing that those gods have an actual existence?

"We know that 'an idol has no real existence,' and that 'there is no God but one'" (1Co. 8:4, ESV). Thus Paul speaks of "so-called gods" adding, "but some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled" (vs. 7). It's a complex paragraph, typical of Paul, but the point seems clear enough.

I agree that the ancient Israelites believed in more than one god, and only later (with Deutero-Isaiah) arrived at the conviction that YHWH was the only God. But Paul? You've shocked me a little with that assertion!

At 11/08/2007 9:43 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Fascinating quotation, Jacob, thanks for that!

James, I understand. Andrew Chester’s recent critique of Bauckham along those lines was pretty impressive in terms of Paul.

The reason why I don’t think what Bauckham urges is monolatry is because he still wants to say something about the uniqueness of YHWH, not just how he is treated. YHWH is not merely another god, just worship exclusively, but is of an entirely different type – no family likeness. This is more than monolatry.

Hi Anon2,
Not quite. I would especially say that Bauckham doesn’t believe in many gods – his point is to deny the divinity of all other gods apart from YHWH. They may exist, as demons, but are not worthy of the name ‘god’. As for me, Paul does note the existence of many gods but not to affirm they are gods. Quite the opposite – they are nothing. They are demons. Only YHWH is God. This is Bauckham’S position too.
Hi Stephen ,
Bauckham’s point is that YHWH isn’t merely of the same kind but much higher, but of an entirely different classification. Transcendently unique.
As to my post, it seems I have mislead! There is a debate as to whether Paul really acknowledged the existence of other gods. If he did, they were only demons (1 Cor 10:19f), and not worthy of being called ‘god’. Others deny Paul envisaged their ontological ‘there-ness’ at all.
You wrote: “I agree that the ancient Israelites believed in more than one god, and only later (with Deutero-Isaiah) arrived at the conviction that YHWH was the only God. But Paul? You've shocked me a little with that assertion!”

Sorry for the shock! This is due to my lack of clarity! I don’t think Israelites ever ‘believed’ in other gods, to later discover monotheism. It was the call of YHWH, in Deuteronomy, to believe in and love this one God, and to practice spiritual disciplines so that they didn’t fall back into idolatry. We find the same in the ‘latter’ layers of Jewish scriptural tradition. I refer to MacDonald for more on this, though also Bauckham’s qualifications as one could misunderstand this to mean that the scriptures affirmed the existence of other gods as gods. This is certainly not Paul’s point. If they exist, it is as demons. Does that clear things up? And thanks for your comment!

At 11/09/2007 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would seem to me, that the meaning of god or gods would need to be understood before you could come up with anything. If I'm wrong in this, I'm sure many of you will let me know...or just ignore me!

The term elohim seems to refer to the true God or false gods. "I am the Lord (Yahweh) your GOD (elohim, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods (elohim) before me." Ex. 20:2-3

elohim from what I understand literally means "subjector" one who is in a position of authority.

Elohim: (el)-aleph - means an ox and signifies strength or the idea of being first.(ohim) - lamed - means an ox goad and is a symbol of authority. So elohim seems to be translated (strong authority or first authority).

Ex. 21:6 KJV reads: "then his master shall bring him unto the judges (elohim).
v.8 If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges (elohim).

Ex.7:1 God tells Moses "See, I have made you a god (elohim) to Pharaoh.

Jesus said "ye are gods" and Paul expresses the understanding of gods...but I think it might be a little more like Yahweh is the one True God (Ultimate authority) and Adam was elohim over the earth...and many are given the god status which just seems to be a position of authority. From the beginning, Yahweh God established Himself as the One true God and Paul being a student of scripture understood this perfectly. Of course the word God/gods in greek is theoi - theou.

John 10:34 "Jesus answered them, "has it not been written in your law, 'I said you are gods (theoi)? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God(theou)came, (and the scripture can't be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world,'You are blaspheming because I said, "I am the Son of God (theou)?

All that to say, I think there are those who want other gods...like God (Yahweh) who is in some type of authority over man, Paul seems to know there is but One true God.

At 11/09/2007 12:41 AM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Chris, the historical evidence suggests that what you don't think happened is precisely what happened. The earliest layers of the Bible have all those awkward elements - Joshua's direct address to the sun and moon (which were viewed as deities in those times), David's terabinth in the bed incident, Saul's sons with Ba'al as the theophoric element in their names, and all the indication that no one prior to Hezekiah actually followed the rules that were supposedly well-known since Moses' time. The 'reforms' of the eighth century BCE seem to have been, in all likelihood, more of a 'revolution'.

At 11/09/2007 3:27 AM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

To provide a specific example: there's a remarkable passage in 2Ki. 3. (1) The king of Moab sees that Israel is decimating his army. (2) He offers his eldest son as a burnt offering. (3) "And there came great wrath against Israel", and Israel withdrew.

It sure looks like the god of Moab was moved to act by the sacrifice of the king's eldest son. And when the god acted, his intervention was effectual in changing the course of the battle.

I think this is an exceptionally clear example of the phenomenon James notes. The biblical text preserves certain indications that the Israelites took the existence of other gods for granted until well into their history. Whether we call them "demons" or "gods" seems to be a difference merely of degree.

At 11/09/2007 4:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

aka q: There doesn't seem to be any mention of a god...seems like this is reading more into it than what it is. It just looks like the Israelites took off after witnessing a wacked man burn his son.

At 11/09/2007 8:10 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi James,
I don't know what came over me when I wrote that comment. I have nothing to say. You are right, of coure - it was my rhetoric getting slightly out of hand at a point.

I was (badly) trying to have a hack at the development models that work with a modern understanding of monotheism as the rule. This, MacDonald argues, has obscured matters.

At 11/09/2007 8:12 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

You going to be SBLing it, by the way?

At 11/09/2007 11:03 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Ann,
Certainly the word for 'god' needs to be understood, you are right. It cannot be done by analysis of etymology alone, i.e. the words history and development, because that is not how language works. It needs to be understood always in context. So, for example, calling satan the 'god of this world' in 2 Cor 4:4 is understood not to mean God, as in God the Father. Context informs us as to what we mean by "god" - which is not always consistent. Thanks for your comment!

At 11/09/2007 11:04 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

James, I've just discovered your 'reading list', published in "Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism". Very useful. Why didn't you mention it before?!

This needs a Monotheism III post ...

At 11/09/2007 1:35 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Alas, I'm not making it to SBL this year. I blew this year's conference budget on a conference on religion and science in Romania. So leave an empty seat with a pint of Guinness at the table and say 'Next Year In Boston!'

At 11/11/2007 7:06 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

"Monotheism" may only be our mind's inability to perceive the infinite in all things and through all things.

And of course, whatever tibal god grew to be so loved by the Israelites probably doesn't matter so much as people having love for one another.


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