New Bryn Mawr Classical Review worth noting on "pagan monotheism" in
Monotheistic tendencies arising from syncretic & exegetical processes
arose as well of course in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, and Indian
traditions, etc., (google, e.g., "one god or many"), making the book &
review worth reading in a cross-cultural context.
Full review here:
Plain text below. Some useful bibliography at the end, but none cross-cultural,
unfortunately (the literate is quite large).
FRIDAY, AUGUST 5, 2011
Stephen Mitchell, Peter Van Nuffelen (ed.), One God. Pagan Monotheism
in the Roman Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Pp. 239. ISBN 9780521194167. $95.00.
Reviewed by Michele Renee Salzman, University of California at
Version at BMCR home site
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
This is one of two volumes edited by these same scholars after a 2006
conference at Exeter on 'Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (1st-4th
century A.D.)'.1 This conference aimed to clarify the differences
between pagans and Christians in matters of monotheism.
The title of this volume, One God, suggests that the authors agree
that there was a notion of 'one god' among pagans and that some form
of religion had existed that could rightly be called 'pagan
monotheism.' This is not the case, however, for there is no agreement
on the existence of pagan monotheism, nor is there agreement among
those scholars who accept this term on how to define it. Two of the
papers argue strongly for the view that most of the documentary
evidence for what others see as pagan monotheism should be interpreted
from a polytheistic viewpoint, that is, as a exalting a divinity
within a pluralistic context.
The argumentation on both sides of the issue by authors with strongly
held views makes this an exciting volume to read. The contributors
confront central issues of definition and theory as well as praxis.
Their disagreement on the concept of pagan monotheism shows that there
is room for more work on a topic that has contemporary relevance; as
Christoph Markschies's paper shows, the political consequences
ascribed to monotheism, including its potential to justify hate and
violence based on religious intolerance, would be called into question
if one could argue that pagans also practiced monotheism. Indeed, the
attributes of monotheism might have to be redefined if pagans could be
demonstrated as having practiced it.
One God begins with an excellent introductory chapter by Mitchell and
van Nuffelen that provides an overall theoretical framework to address
the questions raised by the notion of pagan monotheism in the first
three centuries. They discuss the impact and criticism of the
influential 1999 set of papers edited by P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede
(eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity.2 Mitchell and Nueffelen
discuss howOne God advances beyond this earlier collection by, in the
first place, considering cult and praxis rather than the pagan
philosophical tradition for monotheism. Several of the papers in One
God thus follow the path laid by Stephen Mitchell's influential 1999
paper on Theos Hypsistos by considering pagan religious cults in terms
of monotheism.3 The challenge is to demonstrate that pagan cults that
use monotheistic terminology are not masking a religion that is
fundamentally polytheistic. Beyond this, Van Nuffelen would like to
consider pagan monotheism as a concept or heuristic device to ask
further questions about the development of religion in the Roman
world. This volume focuses on the pre-Constantinian period in the
Roman empire, in contrast to both the earlier 1999 volume and to the
companion volume, Monotheism between Pagans and Christians, that
examines the later fourth century debates between Platonists and
The editors divide the essays in One God into roughly two groups. The
first deals with conceptual issues concerning the definition and
implications of pagan monotheism. But even in these theoretical
essays, there is less emphasis on monotheism as a philosophy and more
on it as a religious phenomenon within a social context. Though this
first group uses documentary evidence to make its case, it is the
second group of papers that highlights this evidence for cults and
rituals to demonstrate or deny pagan monotheism. This evidence,
perhaps understandably, is almost entirely focused on the eastern
empire. But even in this second group of papers, theoretical questions
and analytical categories are taken into account.
Eight chapters then take up these issues. Peter Van Nuffelen discusses
the viability of pagan monotheism as a religious phenomenon and set of
practices, and how ancient philosophical concepts of the divine were
filtered into it. He concludes: "As I see it, pagan monotheism is a
possible interpretation of change in the religion of the Roman Empire
from the first century onwards, for which the major element is a new
way in which people start to conceive godhead," (pp. 32- 33). It is
but one of many possible means of interpretation. In essence, pagan
monotheism becomes a heuristic device.
John North's essay attempts to shift the discussion away from the
potentially problematic notion of monotheism to consider how religion
changed over the course of the first four centuries of the empire. In
his view, not only philosophy, but especially social factors are
important for understanding changes in belief, ritual and group
dynamics in the Roman Empire. He does not deny that "from the fourth
century AD onwards the predominant religious view came to be the
direction of belief and worship towards a single deity," (p. 37) but
he does argue that this change was not the most important one in the
Empire and that it did not determine other changes in key ways. This
provocative statement requires a fuller study.
Michael Frede turns to the philosophical distinctions between
polytheistic and monotheistic gods. The complexities of belief make
these terms too vague to be useful. But, he argues, some ancient
writers – Antisthenes, Chrysippus and Galen – do discuss a singular
transcendent god that would fit the parameters of monotheism, as later
In an elegant essay, Alfons Fürst demonstrates the relative lack of
importance of the question of the One God versus the Many. By
comparing the debates between Augustine and the Platonists with that
of Origen and Celsus, he shows, in support of North's thesis, that the
primary matter was not the number of the gods worshipped, but the
nature of that single divine being. This contrasts with the earlier
views of Origen and Celsus; the latter, though willing to accept the
Platonist notion of a single god still considered the multiplicity of
gods as fundamental to the human race. Celsus's view contrasts with
Origen's view of a god who was absolute and denied relativity. As
Fürst rightly observes: "The decisive differences between pagan and
Christian monotheism were to be identified in religious practice and
its social and political implications" (p. 97). The author does accept
the reality of pagan monotheism, but its significance does not lie in
Christoph Markschies responds to the influential publications by Jan
Assmann, especially Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des
Monotheismus.4 Assmann calls monotheism a secondary religion,
distinguished from primary (i.e. polytheistic) religions not by its
focus on one god, but by its aim "to distinguish true from false
doctrine" (p. 100). Assmann's theory, as Markschies shows, does not
conform to historical instances. By considering the 'one god'
inscriptions that are found in the Near East in pagan, Jewish,
Samaritan and Christian traditions, Markschies shows how fluid the
lived reality of ancient religion was, between polytheism and
monotheism. He appears to see monotheism as a means for each group to
define its identity as superior to other groups, rather than as
necessarily exclusive of other gods.
Angelis Chaniotis argues against the notion of pagan monotheism as a
useful category, for it essentially focuses on numbers, rather than
the more important issue of the quality of the divine. The increased
tendency in the empire to designate gods as "the
greatest' (megatheism) is, rather, a function of competition between
cities and communities. It also works on a personal level as a means
of expressing religiosity. The local, or rather personal, context is
expressed in a decidedly polytheistic context.
Nicole Belayche's paper (which should have followed Markschies's) also
focuses on the 'one god' acclamations, but extends beyond this to
include Monos and other monotheistic formulae for acclamations found
in pagan cult. By placing them within their specific historical
backgrounds, he argues that their polytheistic essence is apparent.
The final paper in the volume is by Stephen Mitchell. It is a
brilliant rejoinder to critics of his 1999 article on the cult of
Theos Hypsistos. Not only does he restate his view that this cult was
a form of pagan monotheistic worship apart from Judaism and
Christianity in the Roman and late Roman worlds, but he adds new
documentation to show the spread of this cult from across the east
Mediterranean basin, around the Black Sea, in Egypt, and the Ancient
Near East. The catalogue that accompanies the article includes these
new inscriptions. This cult and Mitchell's chapter provide perhaps the
best evidence for pagan monotheism as a religion. Yet problems remain.
Did these dedicators also dedicate to other gods or goddesses? Did
this affect the way they viewed Theos Hypsistos?
Mitchell's essay ends with a statement worthy of concluding the
volume: "We cannot call the cult [of Theos Hypsistos] monotheistic in
the strictly exclusive sense that is applied to ancient Judaism and
Christianity, but it involved a series of coherent and explicit
rituals and practices which were based on belief in a unique,
transcendent god, who could not be represented in human form" (p.
197). The acknowledgment that Theos Hypsistos is not exactly like
other monotheistic religions does not mean, as Mitchell rightly
argues, that elements of monotheism cannot be found in it and in other
pagan cults. But this lack of exclusivity does open up the possibility
of claiming that pagan monotheism also has elements of polytheism. The
fluidity in defining pagan monotheism reflects the fluidity of the
religious realities in which these cults were worshipped.
Whether or not one finds the term pagan monotheism useful, and I do,
this volume is nonetheless extraordinarily effective in conveying the
continuities between paganism, ancient Judaism and Christianity. This
is an important series of papers that demonstrates why ancient
religions should be studied within their local and regional contexts
but not removed from theoretical concerns.
Table of Contents
Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen, "Introduction: the debate
about pagan monotheism," pp. 1-15.
Peter Van Nuffelen, "Pagan monotheism as a religious phenomenon," pp.
John North, "Pagan ritual and monotheism," pp. 34-52.
Michael Frede, "The case for pagan monotheism in Greek and Graeco-
Roman antiquity," pp. 53-81.
Alfons Fürst, "Monotheism between cult and politics: the themes of the
ancient debate between pagan and Christian monotheism, "pp. 82-99.
Christoph Markschies, "The price of monotheism: some new observations
on a current debate about late antiquity," pp. 100-111.
Angelos Chaniotis, "Metatheism: the search for the almighty god and
the competition of cults," pp. 112-141.
Nicole Belayche, "Deus deum… summorum maximus (Apuleius): ritual
expressions of distinction in the divine world in the imperial
period," pp. 141-166.
Stephen Mitchell, "Further thoughts on the cult of Theos Hypsistos,"
1. The other volume edited by Stephen Mitchell and Peter van
Nuffelen is Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late
Antiquity. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion
12. Leuven: Peeters, 2010. This volume was reviewed by Jane Heath in
2. P. Athanassadi and M. Frede (eds.), is Pagan Monotheism in Late
Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
3. S. Mitchell, "The cult of Theos Hypsistos between pagans, Jews
and Christians," in Athanassiadi and Frede , 1999, pp. 81-148.
4. J. Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des
Monotheismus, Munich and Vienna: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2003