Monday, October 22, 2007

Was Paul a monotheist?

Is the pope catholic? Do bears poo in the woods? I would have treated the above question like that until recently. I mentioned Paula Fredriksen's on-line articles surge last week and in spare moments I have been enjoying working through ones that are new to me. One theme of interest in her research over the last few years has been the question of how appropriate the term "monotheism" is for ancient Jews and Christians. Note first her Bible Review article (February 2003), Gods and the One God with the tag-line, "In antiquity, all monotheists were polytheists", and on Paul the following:
The world was filled with other gods, and ancient Jews knew this. Paul complains about their negative effect on his mission. Astral forces (stoicheia) previously enslaved his formerly pagan converts in Galatia (Galatians 4.8). "The god of this cosmos" blinded believers so that they cannot see "the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God" (2 Corinthians 4.4). Paul writes, "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth -- as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords' -- yet for us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 8.5-6). Paul and his Gentile readers do not doubt the existence of many gods. They just do not worship them.
In her more recent (2006) article, "Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins whose Time Has Come to Go”, Fredriksen goes a step further and proposes to "retire" the term "monotheism". With respect to Paul, she mentions the same texts as above, but adds (242):
These lower cosmic powers whom the nations worship through cultic acts performed before idols will themselves acknowledge the superior authority of the god of Israel once Christ returns to defeat them and establish his father's kingdom (1 Cor. 15.24-27). They too will bend their knees to Jesus (Phil. 2.10).
Fredriksen goes on briefly to deal with 1 Thess. 1.9-10.

In the same vein, Fredriksen's review of Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ criticizes the latter's dependence on a concept of "scrupulous Jewish monotheism", which, she says, "did not exist in antiquity" (539).

I am intrigued by Fredriksen's developing views here, and will be watching eagerly to see if they are to be expounded in greater detail in forthcoming works. Of course to focus on Paul, as I am doing in this post, obscures Fredriksen's broader point about the inappropriateness of the term "monotheism" in antiquity, but the general point is ideally tested in the specifics of a character like Paul, a very well travelled diaspora Jew. One of the things I like about articles like these is that they make you rethink your assumptions and re-read the texts accordingly. The sticking points for me, at the moment, are the following:

(1) 2 Cor. 4.4, "the god of this world" (ὁ θεὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος, could be referring to Israel's god, as Frances Young and David Ford argue in their Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians. If this text is absented from the list of those where Paul may be referring to other theoi, we have a much narrower basis for contesting Paul's monotheism.

(2) A related point: the other texts Fredriksen mentions certainly witness to a rich cosmology, with angels, demons and powers, but it seems that Paul resists calling these theoi. It's worth bearing in mind that many contemporary Christians, who regard themselves as monotheists, have a similarly rich cosmology, with Satan, demons, principalities and powers.

(3) Fredriksen refers to 1 Thess. 1.9-10 but does not mention that here Paul uses the Deutero-Isaianic style language about a "true and living" god who is contrasted with those idols who are, by implication, false and dead. Is not Paul therefore modifying the language of polytheism to make the point that there is only one, true, living god?

On the other hand, though, I don't know what to make of 1 Cor. 8.5-6. Paul speaks of those who are called gods (λεγόμενοι θεοί). Does this qualify the connected ". . . many gods and many lords"? Or is the latter clear evidence of what Fredriksen is claiming?


Jim Deardorff said...

It does seem that Paul acknowledged the continuing existence of henotheism in his time.

Geoff Hudson said...

Somehow, I think that 1 Cor 8 was once entirely in a Jewish context about animals sacrificed to God, not about 'food sacrificed to idols'. (8.1)

jbyron said...


I think Frederickson is correct and that a better description of Judaism would be monolatry (the worship of only one God). However, I do note that in 1 Corinthians 8:7 Paul concedes that not all have this “knowledge” about the “one God”. So perhaps Paul was a monotheist and thought everyone else was deluded. Moreover, Philo marks out the Jewish relationship with God as service to God on behalf of all humanity. According to Philo, Jews are intended to serve as intermediaries between God and all humanity by praying for the nations and serving () God as prophet and priest on behalf of these nations. By performing this service to God, Jews not only act as priest for the world, but they also correct the false worship of the other nations. In On the Special laws 2.164–67, Philo says that while some nations venerate and honor different gods, the Jewish nation regards these as not being gods and rejects them in favor of worshiping God the maker of the universe. So perhaps monotheism is correct in that while Jews may acknowledge the practice of worshipping other gods, they do not acknowledge them as actually existing.


Geoff Hudson said...

'Turning to God' 'to serve the living and true God' (1 Thess 1.9) is tautology, possibly suggesting the latter is a later interpolation, since in a Jewish context, the tautology would be a nonsense. I further suggest that it was originally about Jews, turning to the Spirit of God from sacrifices, not idols.

Peter Nathan said...

One of Paula's articles that I can't find listed was from a 1992 BR in which she wrote:
“… something of a puzzle to explain how a group of Jews, known best of all in antiquity for their absolute insistence on the oneness of God and their refusal to grant worship to any other, should come in the middle of the first century to worship the man Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Messiah. The question becomes even more puzzling when you consider that those Jews who believed in Jesus gave him titles apparently ascribing to him qualities and actions previously reserved for God alone” (Paula Fredriksen, Bible Review, December 1992, 14-15).

Most of the subsequent articles you reference are an attempt to answer this question.

James F. McGrath said...

I wish my forthcoming book were already out - this would have been a great opportunity to plug it! Alas, The Only True God will not be out for many months yet.

Nevertheless, this is a topic I've been giving a lot of thought to in recent years. I am completely persuaded that Paul fits as well into the category of 'Jewish monotheist' as any of his contemporaries - i.e. his formulation of his belief in Jesus did not involve a departure from or reformulation of the 'monotheistic' beliefs he already held.

The question of course then becomes whether Jewish belief in 'one God' meant the same thing as what we today would call 'monotheism'. I don't think the latter term is inappropriate, provided we note the following:

1) Jews generally seem to have had no problem using 'gods' in the plural. Their 'monotheism' was focused on the fact that there is one supreme God upon whom all else ultimately depends, and who is alone to be worshipped through sacrifice.

2) There was some blurring at the 'edge' of God. The debate that led up to the Council of Nicaea was sparked by the attempt to draw a clear dividing line between God and creation. In earlier times, the Logos and similar concepts was the 'dividing line' and was blurry on both sides. Philo put it in this way: the Word is "neither uncreated like God, nor created like you, but between the two extremes..."

Michael Kremer said...

I'm somewhat puzzled by why this is interesting. It seems to all turn on the meaning of the words "God" and "monotheism".

Isn't the key point that even though lots of people thought there were many supernatural powers, some people thought only one of these was worthy of human worship and that worship offered to any other was wrong; while others thought that many (all?) of these powers were worthy of worship, and tolerated a diversity of worship of different such powers?

If we mean by "God" a supernatural being who is worthy of worship, then Paul is a monotheist. If we mean by "God" any supernatural power that some choose to worship, then he's not a monotheist. But the interesting distinction is surely closer to that which one of your commentators marked using "monolatory".

One could say that "god" is ambiguous -- in one sense designating any supernatural power that is in fact worshiped and in another sense designating any supernatural power that is worthy of worship -- and mark the distinction with a device like capitalizing some uses of "god" -- and view phrases like "the true and living god" as having a similar function to this disambiguating device. This gives us two meanings of "monotheism" -- big G monotheism according to which there is only one God, one supernatural being worthy of worship, and little g monotheism according to which there is only one god, only one supernatural being who is in fact worshiped. Paul could be a big G monotheist and not a little g monotheist (to be a little g monotheist he'd have to deny that the supernatural beings other people worship really exist at all).

I guess to me Fredriksen's point as it's been explained here looks pretty much like playing with words. I don't see the revolution in our understanding that's introduced by all this. Am I just confused?

Anonymous said...

Back in the middle of the last century (when I was in graduate school at Union in New York), I took a course from Sam Terrien who at that time introduced us (or at least me) to the concept of "monolatry" as the more apt word to describe Judaism, a word and concept more accurate that the bland and usual "monotheism"! Thus, I am delighted that at least some others are now catching up to this insight! (Smile!) For me, the important point is not just Paul but rather our understanding of the Judaism within which he was reared - that Israel worshiped (i.e. submitted to the authority of) just one deity is the result of their binding contract with him, not because "he is the only one that is," something we find only "later on" when Jewish monolatry is married to Greek monism! So I say,
"Welcome aboard!" Frank

Geoff Hudson said...

'The God of this world' who blinds minds (2 Cor.4.4) may well have been a Pauline editor's backhander aimed at Israel's God. If so, the Pauline editor overlooked the extant 4.6 where Israel's God also 'made his light shine in our hearts'. This was the 'light' about which God said at the creation, "Let light shine out of darkness". That light can only be the Spirit of God.

So 4.4 must originally have had 'darkened the hearts', not 'blinded the minds'. We are in a Jewish milieu.
The 'God of this Age' was a later Pauline substitution for the Jewish spirit of deceit or spirit of darkness - a spirit that darkened hearts.

Timothy Schmoyer said...

i guess she forgot that false gods are unreal. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 "What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." (NASB). Is it significant that Paul uses no article in verse 20 when he says "not to God"? In other words "they really sacrifice to demons and not to a god." I don't want to put too much weight on that translation because often the NT uses theos without an article and it still means "the God."

My whole point on the passage i quoted is: Paul doesn't ever communicate that there are other gods, but he does communicate that there are "so-called-gods." No one would call Satan a god, but Paul calls him the god of this world. Baal, Asherah, Neptune, Zeus are so-called-gods and their images command the consciences of the pagans. But the idol is nothing and the god is nothing. Paul tells us in my quote that there is still a real, tangible power behind that object, the power is demons, satan.

A Christian must never worship another god not because there are other real gods (there aren't) but because we would be worshipping Satan, the enemy of the only true God.

eklektekuria said...

Re 1 Cor. 8, I once left a message on this blog that suggests that Paul's use of the term QEOI there has a precedent in Deutero-Isaiah's satire on idolatry (ch. 44), which uses QEOS to refer to idols (e.g. PLASSONTES QEON in v. 10, EIRGASANTO QEOUS in v. 15, QEON GLUPTON in v. 17), while at the same time explicitly rejecting the existence of other gods, affirming "Is there any other God besides me; there is no Rock, there is none" (v. 8), which has an echo in 1 Cor. 8:4 ("there is no idol in the world and there is no God but one").