Volume 38 - Issue 2

Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism

by Beate Pongratz-Leisten, ed

From where do concepts come? To what extent can they derive from a given context yet be distinct, even different, from that context? Do concepts develop identically in different historical settings? The answers one gives to questions like these have immense consequences for the way one interprets history and its various currents; the answer of “revolutionary monotheism” to the question “from where or what did monotheism come” is no exception. The present volume critically examines the interpretative consequences of revolutionary monotheism, defined as both an Israelite reaction to Assyrian politics of the late eighth and seventh centuries and as an Israelite religious innovation in a world until then filled with polytheism (p. 11). The papers in the volume were originally presented at a conference held at Princeton University in 2007, and they cover New Kingdom and later Egypt, Early Mesopotamia, the OT, early Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. (The table of contents with the contributors is available at The volume contains author, Scripture, and other ancient sources indexes, and it is well-printed and bound in hardback.

Despite their varying foci, B. Pongratz-Leisten explains that the ten essays that compose the volume are characterized by a common understanding of

cultural contact as a dynamic process occurring perpetually within networking systems. Culture in the making conceives of the ancient Near East as an intellectual community that, despite linguistic, regional, and local distinctions, displays features of cultural cohesion, drawing upon a common reservoir of religious practices, tropes, ideas, and cultural strategies. (pp. 3–4)

But this perspective does not lead inexorably to a common religion of the ancient Near East (pace Jan Assmann). Rather, while “cultural strategies and patterns” such as treaty-making, god-lists, scribal and intellectual traditions, and rituals were often common across geographical boundaries, they resulted in neither “a common religion nor in the recognition of a single deity. . . . The strategies might have been the same, but their realization was framed by local or regional traditions” (p. 9). It seems, then, that the volume sets for itself a healthy breadth of opinion on matters of cultural (and religious) similarity and difference

The answers offered by this volume to the types of questions posed at the outset are generally sociological and anthropological: “The participants in this conference worked on the premise that analysis of the cultural mechanisms and strategies underpinning the polytheistic religions of the eastern Mediterranean can inform methodological approaches to the study of the formation of monotheism” (p. 16). To see this premise put into practice, we will consider two well-known examples to which the volume dedicates two chapters: the henotheism promoted by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350–1332) and the effort in Sargonid Neo-Assyria (late-eighth to mid-seventh century) to elevate the national god Assur to unparalleled superiority. The analyses and answers offered by these two contributors (and several others) exhibit some interesting differences that merit reflection.

In the case of Akhenaten, John Baines argues that the Pharaoh seems to have taken “literally what were otherwise poetic meditations on the nature of the sun god,” essentially de-anthropomorphizing him (p. 59). Still, it is not clear to Baines that even this exceptional case merits the term monotheism, and in any case Akhenaten’s reforms were quickly swept away by his immediate successor (p. 65). Notably, Baines offers no cultural explanations for Akhenaten’s radical reforms, leaving that task to others (p. 88). He does, however, offer two notable observations. First, he sees “influence from one culture to another as being likely to inhere more in how deities are presented than in the substance of beliefs” (p. 87). In other words, even if some theological categories appear in more than one culture, it should not be assumed that their semantic content is identical. Second, noting that centuries elapsed between Akhenaten’s fourteenth-century reforms and at least some (first-millennium) Israelite expressions of monotheism, he states that the Egyptian episode shows that “comparably radical change, although of a very different character, can arise more than once without there being any close connection between developments, even in adjacent regions” (p. 88). This seems to run more or less counter to the volume’s premise regarding cultural contact and its networking systems, and Baines’s two observations together favor the a priori assumption of a given culture’s (or corpus’s) uniqueness before considering the possibility of influence or commonality (compare F. Rochberg’s similar conclusion regarding early Mesopotamian deities, p. 136).

Turning to the elevation of Assur in the late Neo-Assyrian period, B. Pongratz-Leisten explains Assur’s absorption of other, astral gods’ characteristics as a means of giving him full control of the heavens and the pantheon that inhabits it (pp. 177–78). She suggests that this theological change was driven by various political changes in the empire, particularly the need to integrate Babylon and the Arameans into the empire. This was therefore not a revolutionary monotheism. The relationship between Israelite and Neo-Assyrian data is approached with a broad brush that all the same assigns very precise dates to different biblical passages (following M. Smith at a few points), and she concludes that “the disappearance of the solarized Assur in the Assyrian palatial context overlaps with the disappearance of the solarized Yahweh in the Judean material in favor of an increasing astralization of both deities” (p. 184). While the author argues that the solarization of various gods was “impelled primarily by the political agenda,” she suggests that astralization in Babylon, Assyria, and Israel in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries “must be interpreted as a theological attempt to express divine supreme control over the universe. This theological development occurred against the backdrop of the rise of astronomy as a science and ought to be considered a product of the professional elites with whom it is linked” (pp. 184–85). The precision of the causes and means that Pongratz-Leisten identifies, as well as their inclusive chronological and geographic/cultural scope, manifest a method and a set of assumptions very different from those of Baines and Rochberg (although Pongratz-Leisten frequently cites Rochberg approvingly).

This review must pass over other valuable essays, including those of P. Machinist and M. Smith, in order to conclude. This volume’s contribution is not that it offers a definitive response to the idea of revolutionary monotheism (it does not, nor does it claim to do so). Rather, it is valuable because it significantly advances the discussion by clarifying (mostly by example, and thus without analysis) the conceptual models with which historians and theologians have approached the data, the assumptions on which these models are based, and how those models influence one’s conclusions. Somewhat ironically, the contribution of the collection thus lies in its heterogeneity, which prompts the reader to push the discussion further than the collection itself. One might pose the following questions: (1) What is one to make of Pongratz-Leisten’s suggestion that we should “depart from the books of the Bible as they have come down to us in their final redaction” in order to “do justice to an analysis of the conceptual shift that occurred in a long historical process requiring changes on all cultural levels”? (p. 40). Can or should the researcher be equally dismissive of the other written sources under review? (2) Despite the fact that there were significant commonalities between the cultures under review, and even if those commonalities outweigh or outnumber their differences, one cannot simply ignore differences. How is the historian to articulate the relationship between the exceptional (e.g., the “normative” biblical perspective, viz. monotheism) and the common (e.g., the “descriptive” perspective, viz. polytheism)? (3) Finally, what should be done when the interpreter’s worldview is incompatible with that of the historical source under examination? Claims of divine revelation, common to all the cultures treated in the volume, raise questions that go beyond the purview of sociology and anthropology. If a deity has spoken into time and space, are not explanations of religious development other than dominant social processes and political strategies possible? Perhaps the limits that some argue are inherent in religious studies, and its corresponding non-evaluative mandate in matters of theology, merit more attention in interdisciplinary conversations like this one.

Daniel C. Timmer

Daniel C. Timmer
Faculté de théologie évangélique
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Other Articles in this Issue

Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry (1913–2003) was an American theologian in the conservative evangelical tradition...

Will everyone one day be saved? Is hell only temporary, if it exists at all? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the historic Christian commitment to the conversion of the world to Christ would appear to be somewhat silly...

People rightly note the way Christians in English-speaking Western culture have moved in a generation from being ‘moral majority’ to ‘immoral minority’...

In recent years a number of stances have arisen that have set themselves over against traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought, not a few of them arguing, in part, on the basis of a particular understanding of the kingdom...

One of the deepest impacts of the Reformation on Western Culture arose from the robust rearticulation of the biblical doctrines of creation and vocation...