Modern “Monotheism” not an Ancient Concept

Here is some more by Mark Smith:

As a result, monotheism has apparently achieved a status in modern discourse that it never held in ancient Israel, where it functioned as a rhetoric expressing and advancing the cause of Israelite monolatrous practice. The specifics of the practice and the accompanying dimensions of belief were considered every bit as important, if not more so, as the monotheistic rhetoric. (pg. 12)

Because of this great historical divide, it is difficult to remember that comparing ancient polytheistic religions with a monotheistic one is anachronistic, as the term “polytheism” only has any meaning or sense because it is contrasted with monotheism. Accordingly, monotheism and polytheism in themselves hold little meaning for the ancients apart from the identity of the deities whom they revered and served. No polytheist thought of his belief-system as polytheistic per se. If you asked ancient Mesopotamians if they were polytheists, they question would make no sense. If you asked them if they or other people they knew acknowledge a variety of deities, that’s a different question, because for them the deities in question mattered, not the theoretical position of polytheism. This point applies to monotheism as well. If you asked ancient Israelites around the Exilic period (587-538) if they were monotheists, they would not have understood the question. If you asked them if there is any deity apart from Yahweh, then that’s also another question, because for them what mattered was the exclusive claim and relationship of the Israelite people and their deity. (pg. 11)

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 11 & 12

This link takes you to a post by The Yellow Dart at Faith Promoting Rumor, in which he has some excellent quotes from Evangelical scholar Larry Hurtado on the subject:

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