Bart Ehrman on 2nd Temple Monotheism

I find a nice little summary of the nature of 2nd Temple monotheism in Bart Ehrman’s “A Brief Introduction to the New Testament”, (2004) pp 32. Speaking of the Roman empire Ehrman notes:

As we have seen, virtually all of the religions in the empire were polytheistic. Before Christianity, Judaism alone was committed to the notion that there was one and only one true God who was to be worshipped and praised. To be sure, the difference between Jews and pagans on this score should not be blown out of proportion, as if they were absolutely dissimilar. We have already observed that some pagans, chiefly some philosophers and their followers, also believed that there was one chief deity who was ultimately responsible for the world and what happens within it, whether Zeus, Jupiter, or whoever else was thought to occupy the peak of the divine pyramid. The other gods, including the daimonia and the demigods, were of less power and eminence. Jews, too, believed that there were immortal beings, far greater in power than humans, who existed somewhere between them and the true God. In the modern world we might call these beings angels and archangels; for ancient Jews they also included such beings as the “cherubim” and “seraphim”.

The key difference between Jews and persons of other religions, then, was not that Jews denied the existence of a hierarchy of supernatural beings; the difference was that Jews as a rule insisted that only the one Creator God, the supreme deity himself, was to be worshiped.

The reader can decide how this applies to Mormonism. My thoughts will be in the comments below.

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4 comments on “Bart Ehrman on 2nd Temple Monotheism

  1. James says:

    This is interesting to me because Ehrman identifies the key difference between polytheism and monotheism. The key difference is that while polytheism is the worship of more than one god, monotheism is the worship of only one god. It is a question of how many (and which) divine beings are considered worthy of worship, not how many divine beings are recognized as existing. The Jews recognized a hierarchy of divine beings, but only one was considered worthy of devotion. The rest were subservient to the one most powerful God. The other divine beings were not competing for the attention of humans, and they only served the one God.

    This is precisely how Mormonism envisions the hierarchy of divine beings, at least as I understand it. While we refer to all exalted beings as “gods” we do not attach to that appellation a sense of worship-worthiness.

    What of Christ? Christians wrestled for centuries trying to figure out how to fit him into the hierarchy of divine beings. They eventually settled on the Nicene Creed which describes the Father and the Son as “one substance”, or in other words as the same being (not person!). Mormonism finds another solution by describing the Father and Son as being united in purpose, will, and love. Thus we refer to the members of the Godhead as “one God” though we understand their unity differently than mainstream Trinitarians. Christ is so much a part of the Father that one really can’t be worshipped without worshipping the other. We worship just one God (the Godhead) in the sense that the members of the Godhead do not compete for our attention and devotion. If they did that would be polytheism. Since they don’t, it is monotheism.

  2. That’s my understanding as well. To me, the main idea behind scriptural statements that “the Father and the Son are one” is about commitment—commitment to the Father will never conflict with commitment to the Son.

    Contrast that with, say, commitments to family, country, employer, and conscience. All of those entities are important, and a good person should be committed to them. But life is filled with examples of competing commitments (in fact, I’d say that the definition of a good piece of fiction is one that lays out those competing circumstances in realistic scenarios, and then portrays how a character tries to resolve or prioritize them morally and convincingly).

    On the other hand, any commitment to Jesus Christ will never compete with a commitment to Heavenly Father. I think that’s what the prophets and the Lord himself are saying when they emphasize God’s oneness.

  3. James says:

    That’s a great way of describing it Nathan. I’ll have to remember that.

  4. Jr says:

    On a site critical to LDS, the person who wrote the article I was reading actually said God could appear in any form God so desired and God could this because God has no body. Even though the Bible never says this. Some Evangelicals say Jesus has a body but I have never received a straight answer on how He has a body and yet does not have a body.

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