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Are Jews and Christians Monotheists? Mailbag October 15, 2017

I will be dealing with an unusually important question in this week’s mailbag:  is it right to consider Judaism and Christianity monotheistic?



Aren’t Judaism and Christianity really henotheistic rather than monotheistic? For example, even in the 10 Commandments it merely says YHWH is the only god to be worshiped, not that He is the only god. And in Christianity there is the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, Satan, angels and demons, and in some sects, Mary the queen of heaven. And I would think all the pagans coming into the church would bring along their polytheistic thinking – perhaps that is part of the reason Jesus was elevated to the status of God.



This is a very good question, and as you might imagine, a lot of it comes down to how one defines one’s terms.   One set of definitions involves the actual terms themselves.  Normally “Monotheism” is understood to be the belief that there is only one God, no other; “Henotheism” is the belief that there are other gods, but only one of them is to be worshiped.   The other set of definitions is more a matter of categories: what constitutes a “god”?  Are all supernatural and superhuman beings who dwell in heaven to be considered gods?  For example, are archangels a kind of god?   Some people (ancient and modern) would say yes, others would say no.

And so, is it better to call Judaism and Christianity monotheistic or henotheistic?

My view is …

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How Do We Know What Jesus Said or Did? The Criterion of Dissimilarity in Practice
Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection? A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    RVBlake  October 15, 2017

    On the subject of minor gods, Catholics are encouraged to pray to saints ( individuals whose earthly lives have been adjudged by the Church to be of sufficient holiness to warrant entry into heaven) for intercession with God. Each saint is assigned an area of specialty, i. e. Saint Anthony for lost articles, e.g. They are also encouraged to pray to their guardian angels, each person being assigned one.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 18, 2017

      As I said below, that is not considered worship. Obviously it’s a thin line, since you do revere saints, but you can revere living people without worshiping them as gods.

      There are certain practices within the global structure of the church, such as Santeria, where older pagan practices continue under the guise of Christianity, and the saints are standing in for African tribal gods, such as Chango of the Yoruba tribe (oh, so many good songs from Cuba about him).

      That would qualify as henotheism, I believe. But standard Catholic prayers to saints, not being worship per se, are probably not–though I must make this mental reservation–an individual Catholic might well feel such a devotion to (for example) Mary that it amounts to worship. And as long as you don’t say that’s what it is, nobody pays you any mind.

      A purely monotheistic faith, where there are no supernatural entities other than ‘God’ is, I think we must confess, rather boring. Even Muslims believe in djinn. And even Hindus can believe in a higher god. It’s a rich tapestry.

      • Avatar
        GregLogan  November 3, 2017

        Thin line indeed – goes back to defining one’s terms. My recent foray into a local convent (a quite place for prayer and meditation) I observed various vaticanist enter and come before the statues – leave flowers, pray to them….

        Looks like “worship” in any meaningful sense to me….

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  April 23, 2018

        Sango not chango

  2. Avatar
    DavidNeale  October 15, 2017

    Your quote from 1 Cor 8:5 surprised me, so I looked. I noticed that the NIV puts scare-quotes around “gods” and “lords”, while the NRSV doesn’t. Is this another example of the NIV translators’ theological bias influencing their choices?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      Every translation is necessarily an interpretation — no way around it. So yeah, the thing is full of biases based on previous interpretation, as is true of every translation.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 15, 2017

    Since I was in my twenties, I’ve thought Christianity – especially, perhaps, Catholicism – is a thinly-disguised polytheism. (The most outrageous part of it being those “guardian angels.” Yuck!)

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  October 16, 2017

      I once heard the host of a Catholic radio show advise bereaved parents to pray to their dead infants. Utterly revolting.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 19, 2017

        There is no such doctrine in Catholicism, and never once, growing up, was anything remotely similar to this ever mentioned. People used to say all kinds of things about the beliefs of Catholics that were not true, mainly as a veiled form of bigotry against immigrants from Catholic countries.

        Who was this host of which you speak? Just FYI, ANYBODY can host a radio show these days, and pretty much anyone does. Protestants and even atheists have been known to say some truly bizarre things in drive time. Competitive media market.

        But all this is assuming you are correctly recounting what you heard, and that you understood what this person was saying.

        Why don’t you just stick with the idol-worshiping thing? Or hey, nuns are the priest’s harem?

        The thing about child sexual abuse was actually true, but weirdly, none of the nattering nabobs of Nativism talked about that, back in the golden age of Anti-Popery.

        (I’m guessing because a lot of them were doing it too)

  4. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  October 15, 2017

    Dr Bart. The gospel of Mathew narrates a case in which Herod thought Jesus was resurrected John the Baptist based on the rumours that was flying around. again in the Gospel of John there several instances in which the resurrected Jesus was not recognised until he broke bread with them. considering there were many apocalyptic preacher before, during and after Jesus.
    1. Is this not an indication that the stories of the gospels might have been woven together from different figures since they will most likely have the same nature?
    2. is it not possible that the person thought to be Jesus as in the case of John’s gospel was just another apocalyptic preacher confused to be Jesus? which I think would have fuel the idea of Jesus resurrection

    • Avatar
      John Uzoigwe  October 15, 2017

      (In connection to my 2nd question) since the people were found of misrepresenting new apocalyptic preacher as old one. There seem to be a pattern right there. And it also indicate that the people were not new to the concept of resurrection.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      1. It’s possible, but seems unlikely; 2. If Jesus wasn’t an actual person, why would someone else be confused to be him?

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  October 16, 2017

        That’s the point. They were not so much concern if Jesus was john the Baptist or not as it were. Plus they were having problem recognizing him he appears. is it not possible that its the same people that confused Jesus for resurrected John the baptist also confused these new men popping up in John’s gospel as Jesus and promoted the idea of his resurrection

  5. Avatar
    ask21771  October 15, 2017

    Did the authors of the gospels actually care whether or not the stories actually happened

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      One would assume so! Especially, e.g., given Luke 1:1-4

  6. Avatar
    darren  October 15, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    If I may, I have a question about the fate of Jesus’s body. I have read the arguments about why a common grave was the most likely final resting place, because it was part of the punishment. But if the Romans really didn’t allow victims to be buried, wouldn’t readers of the early gospels have known that? Just as they knew Jesus was from Nazareth, and so stories had to be included to explain that he was somehow born in Bethlehem, wouldn’t have readers of Mark have been aware that crucifixion victims didn’t get a burial?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      Yes, that’s probalby why they go out of their way to give an “unusual” explanation (a very wealthy person with connections made a special request for the body)

      • Avatar
        darren  October 18, 2017

        But wouldn’t gospel readers have been aware that the Romans didn’t surrender bodies to anyone, not even rich Arimatheans?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 20, 2017

          They probably thought exceptions could be made. See today’s post.

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  May 6, 2018

            We have Josephus story about how he interceded for 2 crucified friends of his and actually got them down from their crosses, and one of them survived. Josephus had a special position within the Roman hierarchy, as we know, and I’m not sure that any of Jesus’s followers had any clout with the Romans. I suppose if Herod had asked for Jesus’s body (dead or alive), the Romans might have done him that favor, except that as far as we know Herod despised Jesus as the reincarnation of John the Baptist, his “enemy.” Right?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2018

            Yes. None of jesus’ followers had any connedtion with any of the elite, let alone with herod or pilate.

    • Avatar
      ftbond  February 13, 2018

      I made that same point many months ago in a different thread. If Romans never allowed crucified victims to be buried, then everybody would know that. The contentions of the gospels – that Jesus had been taken off the cross – would have immediately been seen as “bogus”.

      Everybody knows “pigs don’t fly”, so as soon as you throw that into your otherwise-credible appearing story, all credibility goes out the window.

      My guess is that it was common knowledge that, in Judea at least, Romans allowed crucified victims to be taken off the cross, except in times of war or insurgencies.

  7. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 15, 2017

    How in practice, might the earliest Israelites have followed the commandment to the letter “have no other god before me” by having other gods AFTER Yahweh?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      They weren’t ordered to have other gods after Yahweh!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 6, 2018

        It all depends on what was meant by saying “Have no other gods before me.” In my Hebrew School days (75 years ago), I thought this meant that there was no such thing as another “real” god, but rather idols or fanciful inventions of the pagans. In other words there really wasn’t any other “true” god, just fairy tales. Isn’t that still a possible interpretation of what you call the henotheistic version?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2018

          I don’t think so — it is not a command to believe in only one God.

    • Avatar
      themojofilter  December 14, 2018

      I actually know a guy who understands the verse that way. He thinks there are gods after Yahweh. He has some ither very strange beliefs as well. Every three months or so he tells me Jesus is about to come back and every three months or so he has to recalculate. I don’t wanna say I’ve given up hope on someone but I’ve given up hope on him.

  8. Avatar
    godspell  October 15, 2017

    Catholics are often accused of being polytheistic by praying to saints (the standard response is to say that you are praying with the saint, not to him/her, and the saint intercedes on your behalf with God, kind of like a celestial shyster lawyer).

    I think most if not all religions tend to vacillate between monotheism and polytheism, and henotheism is the midway point where the two extremes meet. Polytheistic faiths can, at times, show montheistic tendencies–Native Americans clearly had many gods, but still some of them talked about ‘The Great Spirit.’ There’s usually some notion of a higher form of the godhead, the creator figure, the divine overseer, more enigmatic, less involved in our daily existences, and far less human–much harder to tell good stories about. Tricksters like Raven and Coyote are a lot more fun, because they’re standing in for us.

    You couldn’t tell an interesting story about the All-knowing All-powerful God of the Israelites. Not without somebody else stirring the pot–a serpent in the garden. Or Lilith. And a religion that can’t tell interesting stories isn’t going to last very long. Tellingly, most of the stories in the Old and New Testament only tantentially deal with Yahweh. They’re about humans. Some of whom are so powerful and/or long-lived, they might as well be gods. Even in Job, where God really is treated as a character with a POV of His own, you need the Adversary.

    I will say, my ancestors seemed to be as polytheistic as they come–I’ve studied a lot of their mythology, and I see no indication they believed in any form of higher deity who created Everything. And yet, when Christianity arrived in Ireland, unarmed and defenseless–they embraced it in a few generations. While still holding onto a lot of the old beliefs. Weird. Well, that’s the Irish for you.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 16, 2017

      I apologize for referring to Native Americans and their (in many cases) still extant religions in the past tense.

  9. Avatar
    ardeare  October 15, 2017

    If Jesus was God in the flesh, then was the spirit of the Father inside his body? If the Father’s spirit was in his body, then did heaven go a period without any God? For this and many other reasons it seems impossible to reconcile the Trinity. One plus one plus one equals three. Ironically, I think most Christians would say it’s the Spirit that has borne witness to them that Christianity is true. Yet, this same Spirit gets virtually no gratitude.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      That would be a set of questions for theologians, not for a lowly historian like me!

  10. Avatar
    Tony  October 15, 2017

    “The Jewish author, Philo, for example, thought that the “Word” (LOGOS) of God was a distinct being from God the Father”

    An opinion shared by the Gospel of John author(s) who, in the opening verses, turn the pre-existent “Word” into an earthly Jesus. Similar to Paul’s son of God who was killed and resurrected in the lower heaven.

  11. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  October 16, 2017

    The “Trinity” is an attempt by Christianity to define and package what can’t be defined or packaged. The key of understanding all of this begins at Genesis 2:4, as has been emphasized. (The Gospel of Thomas is an important element in the grand understanding as well). We have come from Genesis 1:1. Genesis 2:4 cast us into the matrix. It is now time to return home, and reign.

    • Avatar
      Tobit  October 17, 2017

      The trinity is an attempt to explain the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, it’s got very little to do with Genesis 1 or 2, aside from the general theme of God’s nature.

  12. Avatar
    Apocryphile  October 16, 2017

    As you indicate, these terms are pretty fuzzy and blurred to begin with, but I would argue that the archaeology supports the view that the earliest forms of Israelite religion were fully polytheistic, not henotheistic. Even Yahweh himself was originally a subordinate deity to El, the supreme god in the Canaanite pantheon, which was basically the cosmogony of the ancient Israelites as well. The Hebrew scriptures, which much later were compiled into what we know today as the Hebrew Bible, has Yahweh as the supreme god, with the prophets inveighing against lesser divinities or ‘consorts’ such as Asherah, but this henothestic view was a later development, and throughout it all, the vast majority of the population held fast to their ancient polytheistic folk beliefs and practices.

    Two great sources for further exploration I would recommend are:

    Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel Jul 23, 2008
    by William G. Dever

    The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications) Jun 26, 2000
    by Judith M. Hadley

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 6, 2018

      Largely, this Asherah and other polytheistic stuff is garbage. It’s clear that the Israelites (not to mention, today’s Israelis) struggled with the idea of the one and only “God.” The ancient prophets were always railing at the people for falling away from the true faith and appealing to other deities, including little clay statues of household gods. But that was heresy, and they knew there was really only one true God. And the prophets and kings always brought the people back to monotheism.

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  May 10, 2018

        I refer you to William Dever’s book I listed above. The authors of the texts that came to be included in the Hebrew Bible were writing centuries after the events they purport to describe, and they are projecting their own values backward onto a time long before they were born. They inveigh against what they knew to be the polytheism of their ancestors by using the prophets as a literary device. If you don’t have the patience to read Dever’s book, here is an informative video lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hjx1c3NAVTQ

  13. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  October 16, 2017

    The signs of awakening are all over the Bible as we awaken to what they’ve meant all along. Genesis 38 features Jesus’ lineage. Whether it is literal or not does not matter. Tamar birthed twins from which “Jesus,” the Christ, would come into the world. Zerah (light) partially, then Perez (breach), then the full manifestation of Zerah – the light.

    Zerah > Perez > Zerah

    Christ in the world > Dark ages > Triumphant return

    Have the eyes to see this.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  October 17, 2017

      Do you mind if I ask, how many others agree with your interpretation of scriptures? It is somewhat interesting but I always have problems with a text that has been analyzed for centuries but an awful lot of brilliant people (and some not so much) yet you are the one that finally has figured out the secret code of the Bible. Humans are very good at pattern seeking and finding, even when there is no pattern there. This would cause me to question myself and ask if I am just creating these “obvious” revelations. Maybe it’s me, but I see none of your patterns.

  14. Avatar
    Silver  October 16, 2017

    I am currently working through the thread for July 2014 which you recently highlighted. For July 19th you note that Evans argues that ‘Pilate would not do something so opposed to Jewish custom as allow a body unburied on the day of a person’s death.’ If that were the case, would this not mean that there would be NO Jew left hanging on the cross at the mercy of scavengers after death? Surely this could not simply apply to Jesus. Thus, is it known if the accounts of leaving rotting corpses hanging originate only from non Jewish areas or have we details which specifically indicate that this practice was applied to Jewish criminals?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      Right! It kind of boggles the mind….

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 6, 2018

        There was an uprising after the death of Herod the Great, and thousands of Jews were slaughtered, including hundreds (or possibly thousands) who were crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. In that case, I don’t see how it would be possible for the Jews to take down so many corpses or soon-to-be corpses. The Romans would never have permitted it. You might get permission to take down 1, or 2 or 3 bodies, but not hundreds. They must have ended up in mass graves. Isn’t that the most likely result?

  15. John4
    John4  October 16, 2017

    I believe, Bart, that it was through reading Ramsay MacMullen that I first came to realize that even Augustine believed in the existence of the pagan gods. Augustine thought them to be “deceitful demons” inferior to the one true God:

    “…the false gods, whom they [the pagan “enemies” of the city of God] openly worshipped, or still worship in secret, are most unclean spirits, and most malignant and deceitful demons….”

    City of God, Book IV, Chapter I

    Many thanks! 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Evyatar  October 16, 2017

    It would have been more exact to speak specifically about ANCIENT Judaism here. What happens later is yet another story, with the medieval appearance of, on the one hand, figures like Maimonides, who pushed for very extreme monotheism, and the Kabbalah, on the other hand, who had easier time speaking about a certain multiplicity in the divine realms.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 16, 2017

      RIGHT! I stand corrected. (Although these tensions are found earlier as well, in both religions…)

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  October 16, 2017

    It also doesn’t help that the semi-official Jewish profession of faith — The Shema — is somewhat ambiguous itself. In the Hebrew — שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד — it says, literally, “Listen, Israel, YHWH our god, YHWH only.” It doesn’t help that Hebrew, like most Semitic languages, often drops the “to be” verb in the present tense, so it’s not clear whether this declaration is trying to say “our god YHWH” or “our god *is* YHWH”. More importantly, it’s unclear whether the last phrase is saying “YHWH is [our] only god,” or “YHWH is [the] only god”. My guess would be that the Shema is trying to say: “Listen, Israel. Our god is YHWH, and only YHWH.” The implication is that there are other gods out there, but the one and only god of Israel is YHWH.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 6, 2018

      I (and others) translate the Shema, “Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” You’ve given what might be called the “groovy” translation, which, indeed, is plausible, but the one I prefer is both more assertive and more indefinite. I subscribe to the belief that this means there is no such thing as another “God.” The henotheistic interpretation is really more ideological than historical, although our leader claims the opposite.

  18. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 16, 2017

    Bart, here’s one for the mailbag. Have you ever come across any evidence that Peter’s bones are buried under the Vatican? Don’t want to put you on the spot, so you can skip this if you want.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 16, 2017

    To readers of this blog, I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God.” One thing I learned from the book is that Jesus being considered to be God is not as unique a claim as I had originally thought.

  20. Avatar
    jdh5879  October 16, 2017

    Yehezkel Kaufmann argued that the true difference between polytheism and monotheism is that in monotheism there is no metadivine realm. There is nothing outside of God. Sin is simply a choice.
    Would you agree that Paul seemed to believe that sin was a metaphysical force that was defeated by the sacrifice of Jesus?
    If that were the case, then Paul was not a monotheist, at least by Kaufmann’s standard.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2017

      That’s a rather unusual view of the meaning of “monotheism”! And yes, Paul saw sin as a demonic force.

      • Avatar
        ftbond  February 12, 2018

        is that an historic, or a theologic position? It kinda looks theologic to me.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 13, 2018

          Paul’s view was definitely theological. There can’t be a historical view that subscribes to demonic forces (since it requires a certain religious belief)

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