Posted by: Ken Brown | July 7, 2011

Is the Old Testament “Monotheistic”?

To such a question it seems that most scholars today would give a short answer of “No” and a slightly longer answer of “Absolutely not!” The problem is not just that the “Old Testament” is no uniform thing to which we can attribute any one theological viewpoint, monotheistic or otherwise, but that “monotheism” itself is a highly problematic term in its own right.  As the papers in the “Monotheism” sessions at International SBL this week have reemphasized, the definition and applicability of “monotheism” as a category are always controversial and often rejected. “Monotheism” is not an ancient term at all, but a modern one, burdened with ideological baggage that limits its usefulness as a description of any part of the Hebrew Bible, much less the whole taken together.

For instance, Isaiah 40-55 is often considered the preeminent example of “monotheism” in the Hebrew Bible, even forming the climax of many treatments of the subject (as Nathan MacDonald argued, though not without some vigorous protestations from the audience!). This is, after all, one of the few places in the Old Testament to claim “there is no other” besides YHWH. Yet even here it is doubtful that Isaiah can be fit entirely comfortably into modern definitions of “monotheism,” particularly if that term is linked to the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omnibenevolence, or the absolute exclusion of all other divine beings.

In one paper this week, Saul Olyan argued that even Isaiah is willing to set its denials of other gods as incomparable to YHWH alongside explicit and implicit references to just such deities. So where 45:5 claims “I am the LORD, there is no other; beside me there is no God,” 40:26 also admits that YHWH knows the heavenly hosts “by name,” and 51:9 refers to YHWH’s defeat of the divine monster Rahab. This is not, Olyan insists, a “monotheistic” text, at least in the sense in which that term is normally used. Indeed, he claims that even the most exclusive claims are not unprecedented in the ancient near eastern world, with similar things being said of other national deities by people who clearly accepted a wider pantheon. “Apart from me there is no god” is rhetoric, not philosophical description. That this is the preeminent example of “monotheism” in the Old Testament leaves it doubtful, for Olyan and others, that any of the Old Testament can be helpfully described as “monotheistic,” however we define that term.

Certainly we must be careful not to distort these texts, either by reading later conceptions of Christian belief about God into them, or by comparing them negatively to such beliefs. To most people today, “monotheism” carries a variety of associations that are simply irrelevant and inappropriate in an ancient near eastern context, no matter how we understand the Old Testament. Ancient Jewish religion was extremely diverse, but as other papers insisted, always far more concerned with how one acts towards God and others (ethically and ritually) than with what one thinks about the existence of other divine beings. Even at its most monotheistic-sounding, the emphasis remains on who you trust, not whether your conceptual universe includes one rather than two deities. On that score, the Old Testament is not so far from its “polytheistic” neighbors as we sometimes imagine.

All of these are important cautions, and leave the area of research extremely difficult to navigate, as we not only must seek in a sense to examine and even get behind the more direct interests of the texts in light of their ancient contexts, but also to keep in hand difficult modern controversies that cloud the issues when using terms like monotheism, polytheism, monolatry, and so on.

And yet, the conversation can at times seem to be pressing too hard in the other direction, no doubt in reaction, underrecognizing the distinctiveness of the Old Testament in its final form. A couple of papers (by Mark S. Smith among others) rightly stressed that while perhaps no text in the Hebrew Bible exactly expresses “monotheism” as someone on the street today would tend to define it (would the average person on the street be able to define “monotheism”?), there is something new and distinctive in texts like Isaiah that we must seek to understand, even if we lack a term to precisely define it.

In fact, I wonder if this point could even be expanded. To be sure, the Old Testament preserves many “relics” of non-monotheistic religion, but the text as we have it still never approaches the kinds of depictions of the divine pantheon that we find in so many “polytheistic” ancient near eastern texts of a variety of genres. Everywhere in the ANE we find lists of deities identified by name, sometimes as characters in a narrative, sometimes as recipients of praise, blame or sacrifice, sometimes to reinforce blessings and curses in treaties, other times as the resident deities of various temples, and so on and so forth. This is an extremely important way of speaking about the divine that recurs constantly, yet as far as I know we lack a single real parallel to it in the Old Testament.

To give just one example: This week I had the great privilege of visiting the British Museum, where I spent the bulk of my time in their collection of Assyrian wall reliefs (I think I took about 400 pictures, including the one above). One of those is the so-called “Standard Inscription” of Ashurnasirpal pictured above (produced around 865-860 BCE), which decorated his palace. Now Ashurnasirpal clearly worshipped one deity above all others–Ashur, whose name is reflected in his own–and the text singles out Ashur in particular for praise, as the one who supported his rise to kingship. Yet the same text is also generous in its praise of many other deities, beginning:

“Palace of Ashurnasirpal, priest of Ashur, favorite of Ehlil and Nimurta, beloved of Anu and Dagon, the weapon of the great gods, the mighty king.”

He later goes on:

“When Ashur, the lord who called me by my name and has made my kingdom great, entrusted his merciless weapon to my lordly arms, I overthrew the widespread troops of the land of Lullume in battle. With the assistance of Shamash and Adad, the gods who help me, I thundered like Adad the destroyer over the troops of the Nairi lands, Habhi, Shubaru, and Nirib.”

There is simply no parallel to this kind of thing in the Old Testament, where even texts that clearly accept the existence of other deities besides YHWH tend to only mention one or two, and virtually always in polemical contexts. True, only a small handful of texts explicitly claim that YHWH is the only god, and even those can easily be read as exalted rhetoric in praise of one’s primary, national deity, but a great many other texts reflect an implicit but equally powerful assumption that only one god, YHWH, needs or even ought to be invoked, while other divine beings, if they exist at all, stand somewhere on the outside or fade from view entirely.

No, the Old Testament as a whole is not “monotheistic,” and given its frequent polemics against other gods, the ancient Israelite culture from which it grew certainly was not “monotheistic.” But the term does at least get at a real and important tendency seen across much of the Old Testament (not just Isaiah 40-55). Therefore however much we need to nuance our definitions to avoid imposing later categories onto the text, we should not let that danger blind us to the distancing developments that are to be found there. Indeed, as James McGrath and Mark Smith both noted, many of the terms we must use–religion, culture, gender, Bible–are later and difficult to define precisely, but should not therefore be abandoned.

Then again, maybe the more important point is simply this: Any attempt to reduce so complex a reality as our beliefs about ultimate reality to a single term is bound to end in failure. This is as true of our various names and terms for “god” as for our attempts to categorize them.


  1. i think I might be more inclined to say that the Old Testament is not ONLY monotheistic I take the general point, though. It’s yet another confirmation that our ways of describing God are provisional. Just when we’re thinking this is a ‘God of the hills’, God pops up on the plain. I have increasing time for Christian mysticism. It’s a welcome release from rigid orthodoxies.

  2. […] July 7, 2011 by James F. McGrath GA_googleAddAttr("author", "JamesFMcGrath"); ShareKen Brown has posted a summary of the three sessions on the term monotheism and whether it should co… […]

  3. Ken, thanks so much for posting this. The session looked excellent, and I am glad to get this little snippet. Do you know if they plan to publish the papers?

  4. Ken, this is the topic of my TWU thesis. You can understand my frustration at not being able to attend this week. I will argue along the same lines as Saul, but I will also point out that there are very clear ideological steps in the direction of monotheism in Deuteronomy and Deutero-Isaiah. Ultimately, I will argue the modern “man on the street” and most conservative theologians would defend their monotheism on the grounds that the other deities mentioned in the Bible are “just angels/created/contingent/subordinate beings,” and thus not problematic. With this view as a tentative definition of monotheism I look into antiquity to see if such a view is extant and if so, when it starts. I will argue it begins rather clearly in the Hellenistic period. That period, I will conclude, should be considered the threshold of modern monotheism.

  5. […] be retained as a useful heuristic lens to study the biblical literature (see Ken Brown’s review).  I enjoyed all the papers in my own session on Catholic Epistles  which reflected a number of […]

  6. Joseph,

    I don’t know if they plan to publish the papers, but hopefully.


    That is an interesting perspective for which I’d have a lot of sympathy.

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