Larry Hurtado and the gods

I do not understand what Larry Hurtado, summarizing a forthcoming scholarly article, means when he writes of the 2nd Temple period:

I engage the terminological issue of whether and/or how “monotheism” can be a suitable term for ancient Jewish religious tradition. As the typical dictionary meaning of the term = belief that only one god exists, “monotheism” obviously is problematic. It’s hard to find ancient Jews (or Christians) who denied the existence of all other divine beings. Instead, for them the issue was the validity of worshipping any deity other than the one deity of the biblical tradition.

What does “divine” mean in this context? In response to my question about the relation between YHWH and other divine beings, Hurtado replied: “Whenever Isaiah 40-55 is to be dated (likely sometime during the 6th century?), you have there already the assertion that one deity (YHWH) created all else, including other heavenly beings (esp. Isa 45:12). YHWH is creator, never created, and YHWH there is ascribed universal creator role.” Are we to think, therefore, that 2nd Temple Jews conceived of a pantheon of deities, with YHWH being the top, and only worship-worthy, god? Did they understand these “divine” beings as gods or as created supernatural servants of YHWH? I think there’s a difference, but perhaps the explicit formulation of the difference is a later development. As Richard Bauckham might phrase it, was the monotheism of 2nd Temple Judaism inclusive or exclusive?

Regardless, it’s clear why Christianity, and later Judaism, were compelled to clarify its understanding of God and the doctrine of creation through the creatio ex nihilo. Creation from out of nothing represents the decisive philosophical break from all mythological understandings of divinity and the world. Only until the Church made this break was it possible for her to properly articulate her faith in the Theanthropos and the One God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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8 Responses to Larry Hurtado and the gods

  1. brian says:

    I wonder if Hurtado is influenced by Margaret Barker’s Old Testament studies? I don’t have the specialist background to properly judge the value of her speculations. I gather she is both insightful and a bit of a loose cannon. In any event, her work argues for a less settled monotheism in Judaism than has been traditionally held.


  2. There is a lot to like about Margaret Barker, especially her work in the cultic area, but much of her work about the so-called “mother of the Lord” and the alleged divine triad is quite speculative or, if I might say so, manipulative with the evidence. Michael Heiser tends to dismantle her arguments regarding the so-called consort pretty decisively. As for gods, it seems largely a question of semantics. What constitutes a “god”? Yes, other gods existed if by “god” one means a highly powerful and numinous being. Heiser does a good job with explaining that. That being said, Judaism, as you said, redefined the word “god” to mean precisely that Being – not one being among a class – which alone can create…out of nothing, this last part being at least as old as the Second Temple. The gods instead are called “not-gods” or “so-called gods and lords” – acknowledged as existent but weak and ephemeral, not pure enough to stand before the true God Who exemplifies Godliness to the point where such a label is properly denied the sons of God (Job 15:15). The created-uncreated distinction seems to me to be far older, perhaps Mosaic. My bet is fairly firm on the latter regarding them being created servants, whether or not the term “elohim” is used, without a sense of a tiered pantheon.

    Of course, this was all pointed out above. I guess I’m slightly confused. They are gods only if “god” is given a wider range of meanings than today since the word simply meant “mighty” in Hebrew with the “Elohim” being the superlative “mightiest” but without the clumsy sense of gradiation in divinity that creates.


    • I guess the simplest answer is that Dr. Hurtado is agreeing insofar as “gods” in a philosophical sense they were not but linguistically they were called “gods” in belonging to the numinous side of reality.


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Richard Bauckham left the following comment over at Dr Hurtado’s blog:

    “It’s hard to find ancient Jews (or Christians) who denied the existence of all other divine beings.” It’s true they believed there were other supernatural beings, some of them worshipped as gods by non-Jews. Actually all “monotheists” down to at least the 19th century believed in lots of supernatural beings (angels and demons) and so do the majority of monotheists today. (Some Christians don’t, but I’d be pretty sure all Muslims do.) So are modern liberal Christians the only true “monotheists”?

    It depends, of course, on what “divine” means. For Jews all supernatural beings were created by the one God. Ancient terminology varied and created beings could be called gods. But it is notable that through the Second Temple period in general use in Jewish literature (with some specific exceptions) ‘elohim and theos came to be very largely restricted to the one God. Even in the OT there are passages where the gods of the nations are called ‘no gods.’ But what makes ‘early Jewish monotheism’ a form of monotheism is that only the one God was Creator of all things and supreme Ruler of all things. The restriction of worship to this one God made sense because he was regarded as actually unique in those ways.

    Great minds think alike. 🙂 I do not know when Bauckham posted this comment, but can say that I saw it for the first time only a few minutes ago.
    Even though the 2nd Temple literature speaks of “gods,” if these beings have all been created by YHWH, then it is probably misleading for us to refer to them as “divine beings.” The fundamental category is uncreated/created, with divinity belonging exclusively to the uncreated side. To speak of created divine beings is confusing.


  4. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    This is indeed a very important differentiation!


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dr Bauckham has offered another comment at Hurtado’s blog:

    The trouble with focusing exclusively on cultic worship is that it makes the limitation of worship to YHWH seem arbitrary, as though if you had asked a Jew, “What is there about your God that makes it appropriate to limit worship to him alone?,” the Jew would have no answer. The literature of 2nd Temple Judaism (I’m not speaking of the OT) makes it abundantly clear that there were widely known answers to this question. Jews had beliefs about God and the world, and when these core beliefs are as widely scattered through all the different types of Judaism as our literature evidences it really is inadequate to say simply that some Jewish texts don’t mention these points and so we can’t be sure. These core beliefs (YHWH the only Creator and only sovereign Ruler of all things) are just as widely evidenced as the requirement not to worship other gods and as the evidence that Jews didn’t worship other gods. It makes sense therefore to connect the beliefs with the cultic practice, as some of the texts explicitly do. Is there anything at all about Judaism that is mentioned in every Jewish text from the 2nd Temple period? The book of Esther doesn’t even mention God! It’s quite unrealistic to say that the only beliefs all Jews shared are ones mentioned in every single text. This would not be true of any religious community from which we have a wide range of literature. If a belief is very widely evidenced then, to say not all Jews shared it, we need positive evidence of people denying it or stating something incompatible with it. Polemic in the texts against Jews who differed on these points would also be evidence, but do we have anything like that before the “two powers” in rabbinic literature, by which time Christianity and Gnosticism had appeared on the scene?

    Hurtado offers this rejoinder:

    Richard: You pose two quite distinguishable matters. The one has to do with the exclusivity of cultic practice. Yes, Jewish texts proclaim that YHWH is the sole creator and ultimate sovereign. And, yes, Jewish texts also demand exclusive worhip of YHWH. The tight connection of the two, cultic exclusivity a corollary of the belief in YHWH as creator/sovereign, isn’t as clear to me in Jewish texts as it seems to be to you. What would Jews answer if asked about their cultic exclusivity? One answer might well be simply that YHWH commands it, and that other spiritual beings are simply unworthy, imposters who claim worship wrongly. Other people believed that there was one creator (e.g., El), but didn’t see this as demanding that El alone be worshipped. So, in the “logic” of the ancient near east, it’s not so clear that the belief warrants cultic exclusivity by itself. In any case, both Jewish texts and pagan witnesses agree that Jewish cultic exclusivity was the observable (and to pagans objectionable) feature that distinguished Jewish religion.

    The other matter you raise is the extent to which we can generalize Jewish beliefs on the basis of extant evidence. I actually agree that we can posit some things as pretty widely shared (e.g., the Torah as God’s unique revelation, Israel as special people, YHWH as sole legitimate recipient of worship, etc.). But I simply want also to allow for variation. E.g., apparently, some Jews believed in personal resurrection and others didn’t.

    One reason I find this discussion so illuminating as it highlights for me the churchly impossibility of sola scriptura. If Hurtado is correct in his reading of history (and he may well be), and if we are restricted to sola scriptura, then we would be required to read the New Testament in the light of “Second Temple monotheism” and to imitate that; and that is precisely what we find some evangelicals trying to do. The result is a deep alienation from the faith and life of the Church.


    • I find Hurtado’s point a bit weak. Yes, the Ancient Near East (and Egypt, for that matter, who had gone farther than the ANE to demarcate the creator god and father of things) did not see creation alone and sovereignty as reasons for denying worship to other gods and cultic exclusivity. But Jews and Christians did. Certainly such ANE beliefs did not require aniconism either, but Jews and Christians did see this as part of the package. They wrapped 1. “creatio ex nihilo” (by the Second Temple Period at least and possibly earlier), 2. universal sovereignty over all things, including created “gods” and other heavenly powers uncontestably, 3. aniconism based at least by Deuteronomy, Wisdom, and the Apocalypse of Abraham in God’s incomparability together into a single matrix of interdependent beliefs. For them, this merited exclusive worship in addition to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants (Hurtado’s point that “God commands it”). Indeed, at least by the Second Temple Period, these covenants are posterior to these three points and only justified in existence by them, God’s answer to a messy world (i.e., Tower of Babel and Abraham called out of that situation of cosmic slavery and the apocryphal stories of Abraham destroying idolatry first in the Books of Jubilees, Judith, and alluded to Daniel). Why must we be beholden to the “logic of the ancient near east”?

      Jews and Christians were not understood by Romans precisely because the Romans understood this common “logic” of the ancient world which Jews and Christians did not. Hence Celsus and others asked what worshipping YHWH as Creator has to do with not honoring His created gods – befuddled at their intransigence.


  6. Too bad comments are closed on Hurtado’s page; i’d have posted this there since it’s upstream. But here’s something from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress, 1992) pp 166-169:

    Social Structure and Monotheism, 28.16-20

    For a fundamental religious perspective to permeate a society, there has to be some social structure to serve as an analogy for the religious perspective.

    For example, take a society with the social structure of “lordship” and the social role of “lord.” A first-century Mediter-ranean “lord” is a male with total authority over and control of all persons, animals, and objects within his purview (se Mt 18.23-35; a king has this role). To call the God of Israel “Lord of heaven and earth,” as does Jesus (Mt 11.25), re-quires the existence and experience of the role of “lord.” Given the social reality labeled by the word, “lord” can now serve as a meaningful analogy for the God of Israel. Similarly “grace” makes sense in a society characterized by “favors,” as in any patron-client social structure.

    In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a theological image of God rooted in the social structure of Israelite monarchy. Since this is a monarchy confined to a single ethnic group, the image of God is one of henotheism rather than monotheism. Henotheism means “one-God-ism,” while monotheism means “only-one-God-ism.” Henotheism refers to loyalty to one God from among a large number of gods. It means each ethic group or even each subgroup gave allegiance to its own supreme God, while not denying the existence of other groups and their gods. The king of Israel is one king among many other kings, so too the God of Israel is one God among the many gods of other nations. The label “chosen people,” in turn, replicates a henotheistic conception of God: one God with preeminence over other gods with one people with preeminence over other peoples. In this case, the God of Israel is named YHWH or Elohim or Adonai (Lord) YHWH/Elohim. The commandment requiring “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20.3; Dt 5.7) insists on precedence and preeminence for the God of Israel, not uniqueness. Similarly, the creed of Israel under-scored this henotheism in a polytheistic world: “Hear, O Israel: Yhwh is our God; Yhwh is one; and you shall love Yhwh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might!” (Dt 6.4-5;* Mt 22.37). Paul, in turn, states: “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth— as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 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” (1Co 8.5-6).

    Perhaps the first social structure to serve as an analogy for a monotheistic God was the Persian empire. For the way monotheism, both as a practical religious orientation and as an abstract philosophical system, came to permeate the awareness of some Middle Eastern people was through a monarchy that embraced the whole known world. The first monarcy to have this impact over the ancient world seems to have been the Persian. Like Zoroaster, Israel’s prophets too were helped to see the oneness and uniqueness of God thanks to the Persian experience. However the Greek “catholic” experience of Alexander and its later fragmentation left only another set of “henotheistic” monarchies and a reversion to henotheism.

    From Israel’s postexilic period on, there was no social structure to serve

    as an analogy for a monotheistic God until the Roman Empire. This empire, of course, came to serve as the all-embracing social structure in the circum-Mediterranean. And it is this empire that is so well in evidence in the Gospel stories. As we find in the final edict of Matthew (28.16-20), the God who gives Jesus “all authority in heaven and on earth” is no longer simply YHWH–God of Israel, but the unique and single God of all humankind. Discipleship is for “all nations,” not for a “chosen people.”

    Thus the profound significance of the spread of faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah in the first century is intimately bound up with the realization of monotheism. With the diffusion of Christianity into the Roman Empire, with the proclamation of Jesus (Christ) as unique mediator, unique Son of God, and with the proclamation of one God in the Roman imperial setting, the monotheistic Christian tradition begins to develop. This monotheism was perhaps the radical way in which the Christian tradition differed from the other development of Israelite Yahwism, the traditional henotheism that eventually took the shape of Judaism (fourth century A.D.).

    Appendix: The Jewish Tradition and the Christian Tradition

    Matthew is often called the most “Jewish” of all the Gospels. Many would se Matthew’s Gospel as the starting point of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. By way of an appendix, we would like to note that such designations are simply false. There was nothing “Jewish” in the first-century Meditarranean world, and surely nothing that might be called a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” We make these claims not to be perverse, but for the sake of historical accuracy, especially given the propaganda value this label “Judeo-Christian” is forced to bear in the United States.

    Nor can the European monotheism emerging in early Christianity and articulated so well in medieval Christendom be called a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, if only because “normative Judaism”— hence the distinctively “Jewish” tradition— does not emerge until at leaast the fourth century A.D. (Jacob Neusner). Judaism originates at the same time Christian elites were debating about the relationship of Jesus to God, the so-called christological controversies. Both traditions, of course, are rooted in the postexilic Israelite world of first-century Palestine.

    Since words, like language itself, derive their meanings from social systems, Bible translators and interpreters are esentially anachronistic when they assert that the New Testament Greek word Ioudaios means “Jew” and that Ioudaismos means “Judaism” in the sense of Jewishness. Actually, Ioudaios means “of or pertaining to Judea”; Ioudaismos means the behavior typical of and particular to those from Judea.

    “Jewishness” and those espousing it,

    “Jews,” are a post-fourth-century phenomenon at the base of the Jewish tradition with its Talmud and rabbinical structure.

    Furthermore, to develop a Judeo-Christian tradition, there must be traditional Christian interaction with Jews and vice-versa. But any such interaction in any positive, constructive sense that might have formed a Judeo-Christian tradition did not occur until after the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment. Finally, the actual reference to a common Jewish-Christian tradition emerges only in ninetheenth-century northern Europe.

    The fact is that for better or worse the prevailing religious tradition of the United States is Euro-Christian. At its root stands the mnotheism facilitated by Roman imperial monarchy, the social structure that served as an analogy for this fundamental Christian religious perspective. Thus, the God revealed with the advent of Jesus of Nazaareth, a Galilean of the house of Israel, is the God of all humankind, once understood in Israelite tradition with the analogy of an ethnic God, YHWH.

    * [I have substituted my own translation of the Shema for Malina & Rohrbaugh’s because I think it’s more accurate and I think it makes their point even more clear.]


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