I argue in this essay that monotheism, more so than polytheism, involves a certain danger of spilling over into religious imperialism, that is, the impetus to suppress other forms of religious expression. I understand that this is a rather challenging claim, but I believe I make a valid argument. As I note, I offer this essay more as a warning than a critique.
I recently had an interesting and challenging experience. I’ve been attending a back-yard Shabbat morning worship service that includes a rather lively and lengthy Torah discussion. I have no recollection exactly how this topic arose, but I made the comment that polytheism was a far more tolerant approach to divinity than monotheism; that monotheism is a stepping stone to religious imperialism.
Needless to say, I was set upon by my fellow worshippers, challenged to provide evidence of such an outlandish and possibly anti-Semitic statement. The fact is, I’m not real fast on my feet. I might define myself as a cerebral plodder. I need to think about things, crystalize my thinking. In fact, that’s why I write this blog: not so much to bring what I might consider my pearls of wisdom to my not so vast audience, but to afford myself the opportunity to crystalize and articulate my thinking. So herewith I offer evidence to support my statement with the understanding that this is less a critique than a warning.
Before continuing I should acknowledge that I am writing this during the celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates the defeat by the Hasmonean family in Judea of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, a successor of Alexander the Great, who sought to thoroughly Hellenize his kingdom, including the Jews of Judea. Here is a clear example of a polytheistic imperial power exercising a form of religious imperialism over a monotheistic people. I would suggest that this was anomaly and will deal with it toward the end of this essay.
I would begin defending my initial premise by pointing to Deuteronomy 12:1-3 which reads:
“1 These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places”
“For all the gods of the peoples are idols (אלילים = “worthless”), but the Lord made the heavens.” (Psalm 96:5)
Not only that, but those non-gods are a snare and a trap to those who worship the only true God (Exodus 23:33; Exodus 34:12 Joshua 23:13 and elsewhere). Therefore, the only way to assure the true worship of the only true God is to demolish the places where the fake, worthless gods are worshipped.
After announcing this requirement, Deuteronomy 12 continues:
“4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. 5 But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; 6 there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.”
This is understood to mean the centralization of worship; the idea that not only must you worship only the one true God, but there is only one place where you may offer sacrifices and other offerings to this deity.
It becomes clear in II Kings that what is meant by this singular place is the king’s royal capital Jerusalem and the temple built by King Solomon. Scholars consider the book of II Kings to be part of what they term the Deuteronomic History, written under the influence of the ideology of the book of Deuteronomy. That this centralization of worship was apparently enacted late in the Judean monarchy is indicated in at least two passages from II Kings, passages that refer to events of the late 8th century BCE and the late 7th century BCE respectively.
According to II Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah of Judah instituted what appears to be a religious reform:
“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan.”
What exactly was being undermined here—high places, sacred stones, Asherah poles, Nehushtan—is a complex issue. However, the implication is that people were engaging in some form of worship that the king considered illegitimate, a violation of the principle that the one true God could only be worshipped in the one true place, and therefore, these worship sites and their religious accoutrements had to be demolished.
About a century later the Judean king Josiah instituted an even more sweeping religious reform. According to II Kings 23:
“4 The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron Valley and took the ashes to Bethel. 5 He did away with the idolatrous priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts. 6 He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the Lord to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. 7 He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the Lord, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah. 8 Josiah brought all the priests from the towns of Judah and desecrated the high places, from Geba to Beersheba, where the priests had burned incense. He broke down the gateway at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua, the city governor, which was on the left of the city gate. 9 Although the priests of the high places did not serve at the altar of the Lord in Jerusalem, they ate unleavened bread with their fellow priests.”
The implications of this passage are actually quite astounding. Apparently what Jewish tradition would call avodah zarah, “foreign worship,” was actually taking place not only on the high places, but within the Jerusalem temple itself. At the same time, archeology has revealed that there were sanctuaries in towns like Lachish in the shefelah/lowlands region of Israel and in the northern Negev towns of Arad and Beersheva. The religious accoutrements discovered there would indicate that these were sites for the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. However, they appeared to have been destroyed under Josiah in his effort to implement the centralization of worship.
What about the priests at these sanctuaries? Well, they were effectively decommissioned. They were brought to Jerusalem, but couldn’t share in the portion of the offerings relegated to the priest. However, they apparently had to maintain their priestly purity by eating unleavened bread with their colleagues.
Yet, there is more to the story when it comes to the priesthood in Jerusalem. Numbers 18 insists that only descendants of Aaron the High Priest were authorized to offer the sacrifices in the temple, and any person not so authorized who performed these sacrifices would be subject to death along with the High Priest. However, we are told in II Samuel 6 that King David appointed two priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to be priests. (It also says that he appointed his sons to be priests, for which they were not eligible, since they were Judahites, not Levites, and therefore certainly not descendants of Aaron.) Abiathar was eventually banished from Jerusalem for his support of Adoniyahu over his brother Solomon (I Kings 2:26), but Zadok and his descendants remained, according to Jewish tradition, the only legitimate heirs to the Aaronid priesthood.
It appears, therefore, that within the development of ancient Israelite religion, a religious ideology emerged that not only insisted that there is only one true God and that all of the other cards are fake and are nothing but traps and snares to deceive the people of Israel, but also there is only one place in which offerings to this God were to be made and only the descendants of one man were eligible to offer those sacrifices. Moreover, all other sites of worship, even sites where Yahweh, the God of Israel was worshipped, were to be destroyed. Is that not a form of religious imperialism?
Now let’s take a look at what was happening in contemporary polytheistic religions. We can begin with the fate of the Jews who were exiled from Judea by the Babylonians at the beginning of the 6th century BCE. It is true that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 586 BCE, but this was not a religious act, but a politico-military act. Babylonia was an empire, an imperial power intent on politically subjugating other nations. However, there is no indication that they applied any type of religious coercion. In fact, the Babylonians actually first conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, taking the king and all of his royal retinue as prisoners to Babylon. However, as far as we know from the Bible, the temple and its personnel continued to function unimpeded.
Moreover, there is significant evidence from ancient Babylonia that the even after 586, the Jewish exiles not only continued to maintain communal cohesion, but seemed to have integrated quite well into the social and economic structure of Babylonia, both under Babylonian and Persian kings. Two ancient archives—from Al Yahudu from the 6th century and the archive of the sons of Murashu from the 5th century—show Jews with Judeans names significantly integrated into local society.
Once the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, he issued a proclamation, a copy of which is now housed in the British Museum, restoring the shrines scattered throughout his realm. He castigates King Nabonides, the last Babylonian king, for bringing the images of the gods of those shrines to Babylon and announces their return to their restored shrines. A version of this proclamation announcing the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem is recorded at the beginning of the book of Ezra. Chapter 6 of Ezra records a decree from Cyrus’ successor Darius assuring the rebuilding, which took place in 515 BCE after some delay. What all of this amounts to is that the polytheistic Babylonians and Persians seemed not only to recognize local religious traditions, but, particularly in the case of the Persians, appeared to have supported and encouraged them.
Now, however, we have to take a look at the Hellenistic kingdom of the Seleucids who ruled Syria and Palestine in the second century BCE and imposed a forcible Hellenization of their kingdom, including over the Jews. These events are recorded in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees. King Antiochus IV, who used the eponym “Epiphanes,” or manifestation of divinity, overthrew the worship of the God of Israel in the temple in Jerusalem and installed an altar dedicated to head of the Greek pantheon Zeus. The priestly family of the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee, revolted, threw the Seleucids out of Judea and rededicated the temple, an event recalled to this day in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
That’s certainly what I learned in Hebrew School, and this broad sketch is borne out by ancient records referred to as I and II Maccabees, apocryphal books that are considered to be relatively accurate portrayals of these events. At the same time, this broad sketch is a bit over-simplified. To begin, the first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the Seleucid kingdom, afforded complete citizenship upon the Jews of his kingdom.
“The Jews also obtained honors from the kings of Asia when they became auxiliaries; for Seleucus Nicator made them citizens in those cities which he built in Asia, and in lower Syria, and in the metropolis itself, Antioch; and gave them privileges equal to those of the Macedonians and Greeks, who were the inhabitants, insomuch that these privileges continue to this very day...”
(Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XII, iii, 1)
Moreover, the book of II Maccabees makes it fairly clear that the whole issue of the Hellenization of Judea was as much an internal struggle as it was a form of religious imperialism undertaken by Antiochus. It seems that a certain Jason, brother of the Jewish High Priest Onias, convinced Antiochus to oust Onias and appoint him High Priest in return for—you guessed it—money. It was Jason who began the Hellenization of Judea (II Maccabees 4). Antiochus, it would seem, was simply siding with and encouraging his Hellenized client.
Now for the Romans, which is actually where my Shabbat morning interaction began and ended. It is the case that the Romans, particularly following the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), engaged in what is referred to as the cult of the emperor. When Augustus’ adopted father, Julius Caesar, died, he was declared a deity, and his son struck coins with the motto divi filius, “son of god.”
The argument of my Shabbat colleagues was that polytheistic Rome was religiously imperialistic in that Roman subjects were forced to participate in the cult of the emperor. Therefore, the introduction of monotheistic Christianity into the Roman state was not the cause of Christian religious imperialism, since this religious imperialism was already part of the Roman state before the state adopted Christianity. However, this is an entirely simplistic way of understanding the cult of the Roman emperor.
According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. “Emperor’s Cult”:
“Ruler worship was a characteristic statement of Greco-Roman paganism, reflecting its definition of godhead as a power capable of rendering benefits to the community of worshipers, and its ability to create an endless supply of cults in honor of new and specifically entitled manifestations of such beneficent divine power. The granting of cult honors to a ruler, living or deceased, was an act of homage made in return for his bestowal of specific benefits upon the community. It recognized him as the possessor of supernormal power and sought to regularize his beneficent relationship with the community by establishing the formal elements of cult, including feast days, festivals, priesthoods, and shrines.”
In other words, it’s not that subject peoples were forced to recognize the cult of the emperor; rather, it was a common phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world to recognize the emperor as the source of beneficence to the community, and that beneficence was seen as emanating from a divine source thereby inspiring the worship of the emperor as a channel of divine beneficence.
But there is even more to it than that. Since polytheistic religions recognize a multiplicity of gods, it was quite natural for members of one nation to recognize the gods of other nations. After all, the Romans recognized and worshipped what was essentially the Greek pantheon; they simply changed the names of the gods to reflect local traditions. Zeus became Jupiter; Hera became Juno; Aphrodite became Venus.
Perhaps to put at least one nail in the coffin here, I would point to the ruins of a town along the middle Euphrates river that was known in ancient times as Dura-Europos. In the 3rd century CE, Dura-Europos was a Roman garrison town sitting along the border with Persia. Indeed, it was finally captured and destroyed by the Sassanian Persians in the middle of that century. Before that, however, this Roman garrison town housed not only a synagogue and a church, but also a number of temples dedicated to various pagan deities, including local Syrian deities.
Among these was a temple dedicated to the Palmyrene god Bel. Palmyra was a major town in northern Syria, and it seems that the Roman garrison housed Palmyrene mercenary soldiers, who erected a temple to the worship of their god. Most impressive is a fresco discovered in the temple that portrays the Roman commander of the garrison offering an incense offering to the god Bel in the temple of Bel. So while the Palmyrene residents of Dura-Europos may have been making offerings to the emperor, the emperor’s general was making offerings to the Palmyrene god, perhaps an ancient version of “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
That was the mid-3rd century. At the end of the 4th century, by which time the empire had adopted Christianity, the law code of the Emperor Theodosius reads:
“It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation and the second the punishment of our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven shall decide to inflict.”(Theodosian Code XVI.1.2, promulgated in 380; https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/theodcodeXVI.asp)
This section is among others that suppress synagogues and pagan temples. What is most oppressive about this particular section is that it also suppresses expressions of Christianity that do not conform to Roman orthodoxy.
So what happened between the 3rd century, when a Roman general was offering incense to a Palmyrene god, and the fourth century, when the Roman state was suppressing all but Orthodox Roman expressions of religion? Rome ceased to be a polytheistic state and became a monotheistic state.As I said at the beginning, I offer this analysis not as a critique, but as a warning. After all, some of my best friends are monotheists. But I would stand by my statement that there is a danger in the notion that there is only a single divinity and that all other expressions of attachment to any other divinity or to any divinity called by some other name is fake, phony, fallacious, even dangerous. Unfortunately, this way of thinking and believing can easily lead to the call to have those expressions of religious attachment eliminated, i.e., religious imperialism.
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