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Michael Mach

ABSTRACT: "JEWISH MONOTHEISM?"

Michael Mach

The last years have seen some important discussions regarding the question of Jewish monotheism(s). Biblical<1> scholarship has stressed the relatively late introduction of a basic monotheistic belief and, yet, mostly confirmed the view of an on-going development in this direction at least from the Babylonian exile onwards.

Scholars of Judaism in its distinguished fields have sometimes challenged the monotheistic character of later Judaism(s) whereas others attempted to defend it even in light of the quite developed angelology of late Second Temple period and onwards.

The pointed statements made so far have basically rested upon one kind of proof-texts or the other, i.e., either Second Isaiah has been taken as starting point up to later works like the Wisdom of Solomon or else the rich angelology of the apocalypses and following Jewish mystical works have been quoted in order to challenge the definition of Judaism as monotheism. Again others have tried to reconcile Jewish monotheistic devotion with this rich angelology and even put the question of an angel veneration as not necessarily opposed to otherwise confirmed monotheism.

The more recent trend to postdate biblical works (e.g., we have no biblical writing that was not re-phrased during the Persian or even Hellenistic period) has contributed to a certain confusion of concepts. This confusion was the more furthered by another otherwise justifiable trend to overcome the old distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism.

A more balanced view, it seems, would allow to discriminate a polemical-apologetic stress of Jewish monotheism exactly when confronting the polytheistic outer world. This may be shown from Second Isaiah via EpJer, Ps-Aristeas up to the Wisdom of Solomon and related Jewish-Hellenistic literature. Especially in the Greek writings of this cultural setting the formulations come quite close to monotheistic language, though they remain miles apart from later medieval concepts.

However, the better these texts are preserved (i.e., the moment we do have a full text and not only fragmentary quotations by the fathers) the monotheism of these authors becomes at times questionable, as may be shown by the figure of death in Wisdom, the heavenly visitor of Aseneth and the divine powers in Philo's writings.

On the other side of the literary remains of the period are those writings that are not really confronted with the same polemical situation against a non-Jewish majority. Without discussing the inner polemics that have originated at least part of this literature, one may consider the development of the new angelology once in a different light: at least in the apocalypses and related works the hosts of heaven stand against the forces of evil, Mastema, the fallen angels, etc. What unifies this demonologization and consequently angelologization of reality is a common feeling that--the one and only--God is not really governing this world at the moment. He might be the creator and ultimately judge of history, yet for the present it is other forces that dictate the ongoing well-being (or not) of the different parts of humanity. No doubt that evil brought by demonic powers must be fought by other super-human powers, namely the angels. However, what are we to conclude concerning the question of actual monotheism when the drama of human history is only framed by God's acts and the middle place is taken by other powers, for a part independent of God?

<1>Throughout the following text "biblical" is understood as reflecting the Hebrew-Aramaic canon of the "Old Testament."


Summary of response by Loren Stuckenbruck:

Mach has written a helpful paper which draws attention to several issues that are important in any consideration concerning the nature of "monotheism" in Early Judaism.

First, he reminds us that the term "monotheism" itself is very much a modern creation and so should be used only sparingly and carefully. He is certainly right that one should beware of reading a belief in the existence of only one God into the texts of the Hebrew scriptures (e.g. Deut. 4:19), and that the very monotheizing ideas in Deutero-Isaiah should not be simply taken as a point of departure from which to read many later early Jewish materials in relation to the topic. However, Mach does go on to apply the expression later on in the paper without then supplying us with a proper working definition, something one might expect of one who urges caution (and rightly so) with regard to its application. Would it not be helpful to say that the term functions for him as one pole of an ideological continuum, on the other side of which might be polytheism? This would seem to work well with some of his other points.

Second, Mach offers some important suggestions concerning sociological context and the extent to which Jews during the Second Temple period articulated their adherence to one God. This, I think, is clearly the most helpful part of Mach's argument: in an environment away from "the land" there would have been a tendency for Jews to attempt to define their identity vis-a-vis their Gentile neighbours. This, in turn, led often to more strictly ''monotheistic" statements, in order to underscore the distinctiveness of their community. On the other hand, in an environment where there is a greater presence of Jews, monotheistic ideas could be taken for granted to a greater degree, and so there is less of an attempt to be strictly "monotheistic" in such literature. One strength of Mach's thesis is that he recognizes that not all the literature will fit into his scheme; it remains nevertheless significant if even such a tendency can be verified.

Third, Mach's discussion raises the question of dualism in relation to the problem of "monotheism". Mach devotes discussion in this vein to dualistic ideas in, e.g., Jubilees and the Qumran literature. Mach reminds us that the notion of supernatural beings other than God not necessarily under God's control (cf. Peter Hayman's JJS article) is itself something which puts a strict "monotheism" in question. It is here that Mach's article may have benefited from further nuancing. For example, exactly what kind of dualism (or dualisms) do we encounter in the Qumran texts? Do the various formulations in 1QS, the War Scroll (in my opinion, not necessarily Qumranic in origin), and Jubilees imply a phenomenological dualism which is intended to explain the way life is experienced by some faithful Jews in relation to the problem of sin; if so, should one best distinguish between such functional dualism (I think the term "dualistic" is, as a conceptual category, itself problematic) and more cosmological "dualism" (granted the term can be used) such as is known through Zoroastrianism? It is further important to note that the various texts cited by Mach do not necessarily reflect the same ideas. While Mach's comments concerning dualistic ideas in relation to "monotheism" (which is weakened by them) are important for understanding what is happening in Jewish circles during the Second Temple period, the question left open is what this has to do with the question posed by the symposium: the origins of the worship of Jesus. For in the latter, one is surely not looking for antecedent notions to a figure which is potentially not allied with the purposes of God.

Mach's attempt to take seriously Judaism in antiquity on its own terms is commendable, and he is certainly correct in implying (as I understand his paper) that the questions of one God as discussed and dealt with in early Jewish texts should not be read and interpreted through the filter of a specifically "Christian" perspective. Reflections, though, on just how such a move from Jewish to Christian ideas would have been welcome in his paper, if one may take seriously at all the essentially ongoing Jewish identity of many early Christian groups.


(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the authors.

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