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?