Part 1: Larry Hurtado and 2nd Temple Jewish Monotheism

This post will be a bit long, as I quote extensively from an essay. The reader is invited to read all of the fantastic quotes, or to simply read the summary given in the first quote. 

A fellow I frequently run into at CARM (goes by the moniker Weaver) recently stated, in reference to an essay by Larry Hurtado about 2nd Temple Jewish monotheism (I paraphrase), “Any Mormon who reads this essay will immediately be forced to cease being a Mormon.” That is pretty strong language. Larry Hurtado is a scholar of 1st century Christianity and Judaism at Edinburgh University. Weaver apparently feels that Hurtado’s findings utterly refute the LDS view of God. I beg to differ.

Hurtado describes late 2nd Temple Jewish monotheism as a monotheism defined by the worship of only one god/divine being, while recognizing various lesser divine beings which are part of God’s retinue. Monotheism here is determined by studying how many divine beings are worshipped, not by how many divine beings are recognized.

In a 1993 seminar paper of the Society of Biblical Literature, Hurtado has a paper entitled “What do we mean by First Century Jewish Monotheism?” The following are 5 summary points that Hurtado makes at the very end of his paper. The reader can decide for themselves if this is problematic for LDS Christianity. I believe it is exactly the opposite, as it mirrors LDS views quite well.

We may summarize this discussion of first-century Jewish monotheism in the following points. 

 (1) Definitions of monotheism must be formed on the basis of the beliefs and practices of those who describe themselves in monotheistic terms.  This means that there will likely be varieties within and among monotheistic traditions, and that it is inappropriate for historical purposes to impose one definition or to use one definition as a standard of “strict” or “pure” monotheism in a facile manner.

(2) “First-century Jewish monotheism” represents the religious commitment to the universal sovereignty and uniqueness of the one God of Israel, a commitment widely expressed in religious rhetoric of Jewish texts of the entire second-Temple period and reflected also in the NT.

(3) This commitment to the one God of Israel accommodated a large retinue of heavenly beings distinguished from God more in degree than kind as to their attributes, some of these beings portrayed as in fact sharing quite directly in God’s powers and even his name.  The monotheism of ancient Jews was thus characteristically “monarchial” and may be seen as a significant adaptation of the “high god” belief structure of the ancientworld.  Among God’s entourage, there is often a particular principal agent or vizier, who can be likened to God in appearance, name and attributes/functions.  This too was not apparently seen as a problem, for the principal agent was not characteristically given cultic devotion.  Early Christian cultic devotion to Christ alongside God, though indebted conceptually to pre-Christian Jewish traditions of principal agent figures,apparently represents an extraordinary adaptation of Jewish monotheistic tradition.<77>

(4) In their own eyes, early Christians offered cultic devotion to Christ in obedience to the one God and saw their binitarian devotion as legitimate, indeed, required. As, however, rabbinic authorities sought to consolidate Judaism in the post-70 C.E. period, they succeeded more effectively in identifying the Jewish-Christian binitarian adaptation as an unacceptable form of Jewish monotheistic tradition.

(5) There are distinguishing features of Greco-Roman Jewish monotheism, over against the more prevalent religious structures of the ancient world.  There are theological distinctives:  The high god has in fact revealed himself in Scripture, is known and can be characterized, and can and must be approached quite directly in prayer and worship.  There are additional important distinctives in scruples about religious practice:  Worship isrestricted to the one God and it is forbidden to offer devotion to other beings, even God’s own glorious angelic ministers. First-century Jewish monotheism was, thus, an exclusivist, monarchial view of God, manifested particularly in “orthopraxy” in cultic/liturgical matters.

Here are some more notable quotes from that essay, given in the order in which they came:

 That is, on both sides there is a tendency to proceed as if we can know in advance what “monotheism” must mean, which turns out to be a very modern, monistic form of monotheism, and can accordingly evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs as to whether or how closely they meet an a priori standard of “pure” monotheism.  Interestingly, Hayman disavows any such intention, but it seems to me that he in fact winds up doing this very thing.<27>

 In place of this rather Aristotelian approach, I urge us to work more inductively, gathering what “monotheism” is on the ground, so to speak, from the evidence of what self-professed monotheists believe and practice.  In fact, I suggest that for historical investigation our policy should be to take people as monotheistic if that is how they describe themselves, in spite of what we might be inclined to regard at first as anomalies in their beliefs.  Such “anomalies,” I suggest in fact are extremely valuable data in shaping our understanding of monotheism out of the actual beliefs of actual people and traditions who describe themselves in monotheistic language.

Though I have not found another fully analogous example of quite such a robust and programmatic binitarian monotheistic devotion in first-century Jewish tradition, with other scholars I have illustrated the sometimes astonishingly exalted ways divine agents can be described in Jewish texts which exhibit a strong monotheistic orientation.<28> In particular, we should note the cases where a principal angel is given God’s name (e.g., Yahoel) and is visually described in theophanic language, sometimes causing the human who encounters the angel to confuse the angel initially with God.<29>  These data illustrate the variety and flexibility in ancient Jewish monotheistic tradition, especially the ability to accommodate “divine” figures in addition to the God of Israel in the belief structure and religious outlook.

And another:

As I have argued in One God, One Lord, and as I shall reiterate again below, it is precisely with reference to worship that ancient Jewish religious tradition most clearly distinguished the unique one God from other beings, even those described as “divine” and clothed with god-like attributes.

And another:

 I have suggested for a working principle that we should take as “monotheism” the religious beliefs and practices of people who describe themselves as monotheistic.  Otherwise, we implicitly import a definition from the sphere of theological polemics in an attempt to do historical analysis.  Protestants, for example, might find some forms of Roman Catholic or Orthodox piety involving the saints and the Virgin problematic forms of monotheism, and this might constitute a fully valid theological issue to be explored.  But scholars interested in historical analysis, I suggest, should take the various Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions as representing varying forms of Christian monotheism.  If we are to avoid a priori definitions and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists, however, much their religion varies and may seem “complicated” with other beings in addition to the one God.

And another:

 The point I wish to emphasize is that all these data show how important cultic/liturgical practice was as an expression of monotheistic scruples.  Jews were quite willing to imagine beings who bear the divine name within them and can be referred to by one or more of God’s titles (e.g., Yahoel or Melchizedek as elohim or, later, Metatron as yahweh ha-katon), beings so endowed with divine attributes as to make it difficult to distinguish them descriptively from God, beings who are very direct personal extensions of God’s powers and sovereignty.  About this, there is clear evidence.  This clothing of servants of God with God’s attributes and even his name will seem “theologically very confusing” if we go looking for a “strict monotheism” of relatively modern distinctions of “ontological status” between God and these figures, and expect such distinctions to be expressed in terms of “attributes and functions.”  By such definitions of the term, Greco-Roman Jews seem to have been quite ready to accommodate various divine beings.<69>  The evidence we have surveyed here shows that it is in fact in the area of worship that we find “the decisive criterion” by which Jews maintained the uniqueness of God over against both idols and God’s own deputies.  I may also add that the characteristic willingness of Greco-Roman Jews to endure the opprobrium of non-Jews over their refusal to worship the other deities, even to the point of martyrdom, seems to me to constitute a fairly “strict monotheism.”<70>  Their strictness, however, was expressed more in cultic scruples rather than in a theological monism or the kind verbal and of conceptual distinctions modern scholars might more readily appreciate.

To summarize this point, God’s sovereignty was imagined as including many figures, some of them in quite prominent roles. There was a plurality in the operation of the divine as characteristically described by ancient Jews. God was distinguished from other beings most clearly in this:  It is required to offer God worship; it is inappropriate to offer worship to any other.

And another:

 I propose that Jewish monotheism can be taken as constituting a distinctive version of the commonly-attested belief structure described by Nilsson as involving a “high god” who presides over other deities.<71>  The God ofIsrael presides over a court of heavenly beings who are likened to him (as is reflected in, e.g., the OT term for them “sons of God”).

And another:

In basic structure, their view of the divine involved a principal deity distinguished from all other divine/heavenly beings, but characteristically accompanied by them, a “high-god” or “monarchial” theology not completely unlike other high-god beliefs of the ancient world. But in the identification of the high god specifically as the God revealed in the Bible, and, even more emphatically, in their characteristic reservation of worship to this one God, their religion demonstrates what we can call “exclusivist monotheism.”


I have referred to Hurtado before here, where I link to a discussion about him at The Yellow Dart’s website.

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10 comments on “Part 1: Larry Hurtado and 2nd Temple Jewish Monotheism

  1. […] monotheism today, and we should be careful about judging others' for their concept of monotheism. You can read James' blog here. In essence, Hurtado explains that early Jews and Christians, while believing in the one great God, […]

  2. Rameumptom says:

    Great article. Too bad so many others just do not wish to do the real studying and research to find out this stuff.

    Hurtado basically gives a warning about dismissing others’ views of monotheism, simply because it differs from our own. Those Trinitarians who attack Mormonism’s Godhead should take note.

  3. James says:

    Thanks Rameumpton. Kerry Shirts has some good material on 2nd Temple Judaism too, which I might try to dig up and either add to this post or make a new post about.

  4. Rameumptom says:

    Kerry DOES have some good research on this. Once again, it is a shame that such research seems to be missed by so many out there.

    How are current, incorrect paradigms ever to be corrected, if people do not venture outside their sandbox?

  5. jondh says:

    So what do you think Weaver originally meant? Was he asleep at the wheel? Did he have another essay in mind and referred to this by mistake?

  6. James says:

    Hi Jondh. Weaver certainly had reference to another essay, but it is an essay by the same author on the same subject, and as far as I can tell it is almost the exact same essay with minor differences. I used the version I did simply because I don’t know how to get access to the other one.

    I honestly don’t know why Weaver would think that this was problematic to LDS. I wonder if he really understands Mormonism.

  7. James says:

    I should add, this description of monotheism by Hurtado is not a perfect parallel to Mormonism. The obvious fact that we throw Jesus into the mix complicates it. As a religion which is founded on continuing revelation, we wouldn’t expect it to.

    But, the overall themes are in keeping with Mormonism. I would argue that while Mormonism is not an exact match to 2nd Temple Judaism, it is a far better match then anything found in modern mainstream Christianity. Catholicism might come in second.

  8. Blake says:

    I have a chapter on 2nd temple judaism in my 3rd vol. I believe that what Hurtado says is supportive of a Mormon view. There are multiple divine beings with one Head God. That is precisely what Joseph Smith taught. If Weaver thinks that Hurtado’s writings somehow challenge Mormonism then I believe he is unable to assess the evidence. In fact, his writings are and have been a challenge to the traditional evangelical assertions of strict monotheism which Hurtado rejects.

  9. James says:

    Thanks Blake. I read that exact chapter about a month ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is an important comment by Hurtado that supports your thesis, which I don’t think made it into your chapter (though I could be mistaken):

    “This commitment to the one God of Israel accommodated a large retinue of heavenly beings distinguished from God more in degree than kind as to their attributes…”

  10. James says:

    It turns out that Weaver was originally insisting on a different work by Hurtado, a chapter on the same subject in his 2003 book “Lord Jesus Christ.” I’ve read that chapter and it is almost exactly the same in its message. I’ll be posting those notes soon.

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