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'Pagan monotheism' in the Roman Empire

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  • Steve Farmer
    New Bryn Mawr Classical Review worth noting on pagan monotheism in ancient Rome. Monotheistic tendencies arising from syncretic & exegetical processes arose
    Message 1 of 4 , Aug 5, 2011
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      New Bryn Mawr Classical Review worth noting on "pagan monotheism" in
      ancient Rome.

      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:

      http://tinyurl.com/3szmdp8

      Plain text below. Some useful bibliography at the end, but none cross-cultural,
      unfortunately (the literate is quite large).

      Steve

      *******

      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
      Riverside (michele.salzman@...)

      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
      Christians.

      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
      described.

      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
      its theology.

      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.
      16-33.

      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,"
      pp. 167-208.


      Notes:

      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
      BMCR2011.01.31.
      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
    • PETER HARDIE
      Hi, Steve   Could you provide some reference for the monotheistic tendencies you allege for China?    I m more impressed by the absence of any equivalent
      Message 2 of 4 , Aug 7, 2011
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        Hi, Steve
         
        Could you provide some reference for the 'monotheistic tendencies' you allege for China? 
         
        I'm more impressed by the absence of any equivalent to Zeus, much less Jehovah, by the abundance of the deities like the Eight Immortals and by the persistence of the ancestor cult.
         
        The 'Chinese View' item in the Wikipedia on Monotheism should be disregarded.
         
        Cheers
        Peter
        7 August 2011
      • Steve Farmer
        ... I didn t have anything profound or controversial in mind. By monotheistic tendencies I was simply thinking of abstract concepts of deity like
        Message 3 of 4 , Aug 7, 2011
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          I wrote in a brief post:

          > New Bryn Mawr Classical Review worth noting on "pagan monotheism" in
          > ancient Rome.
          >
          > Monotheistic tendencies arising from syncretic & exegetical processes
          > arose as well of course in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese,
          > and Indian traditions, etc.....
          >
          > http://tinyurl.com/3szmdp8

          Peter Hardie wrote:

          > Could you provide some reference for the 'monotheistic tendencies'
          > you allege for China?
          >
          > I'm more impressed by the absence of any equivalent to Zeus, much
          > less Jehovah, by the abundance of the deities like the Eight
          > Immortals and by the persistence of the ancestor cult.

          I didn't have anything profound or controversial in mind. By
          "monotheistic tendencies" I was simply thinking of abstract concepts
          of deity like "Lord-on-High" or "Heaven" or "the Way" or "the One,"
          etc., which of course have many parallels throughout ancient Eurasia,
          including Rome.

          "Zeus" himself by later Greco-Roman times was often just as abstract a
          concept as these among intellectuals - e.g. in later Greco-
          Roman neo-Platonists like Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus,among
          many others.

          One point of the book reviewed in the BRCR (and many similar studies
          published in the last decade) is that you can't separate out
          monotheistic from polytheistic tendencies easily in any premodern
          society.

          It has become a cliche to point out that even Christianity
          contained polytheistic elements in the concept of the trinity, Virgin
          Mary, saint worship, etc. Similar things of course in India, China,
          everywhere you look.

          This is a pretty well-understood issue by now, I think. I've written
          about it rather extensively myself in a book and quite a few papers,
          as of course have many others.

          Do ancient Vedic traditions have both polytheistic and monotheistic
          tendencies in them? They obviously do. Not all that different in
          China or anyplace else in ancient literate societies, as I see it.

          Steve
        • Heleanor Feltham
          [Mod. note. Deus absconditus, not abscondita. It depends on the specific strata that you choose to discuss in the texts, Heleanor. These deities evolve
          Message 4 of 4 , Aug 7, 2011
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            [Mod. note. 'Deus absconditus,' not 'abscondita.' It depends on the specific strata that you choose to discuss in the texts, Heleanor. These deities evolve over time: it isn't as if they were unitary or real beings, obviously. There were also obvious differences in the way they were conceptualized in different intellectual classes. High-scholastic deities tended to be highly abstract. Obviously in popular milieu the conceptualizations were more primitively anthropomorophic. This is well-known and hardly terra incognita to those studying the evolution of religious traditions. Not much mysterious about it. - SF.]

            But isn't there a considerable difference between a 'deus abscondita' such as Tien, the overarching god of Tengric shamanism or the intellectual assumption that all the gods of a polytheistic system are manifestation of an abstract one, and the intensely personal and very interfering deity of the Old Testament and its later formulations?

            Heleanor Feltham
            ________________________________
            From: Indo-Eurasian_research@yahoogroups.com [Indo-Eurasian_research@yahoogroups.com] on behalf of Steve Farmer [saf@...]
            Sent: Monday, 8 August 2011 1:38 AM
            To: Indo-Eurasian_research@yahoogroups.com
            Cc: Steve Farmer
            Subject: Re: [Indo-Eurasia] 'Pagan monotheism' in the Roman Empire

            I wrote in a brief post:

            > New Bryn Mawr Classical Review worth noting on "pagan monotheism" in
            > ancient Rome.
            >
            > Monotheistic tendencies arising from syncretic & exegetical processes
            > arose as well of course in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese,
            > and Indian traditions, etc.....
            >
            > http://tinyurl.com/3szmdp8

            Peter Hardie wrote:

            > Could you provide some reference for the 'monotheistic tendencies'
            > you allege for China?
            >
            > I'm more impressed by the absence of any equivalent to Zeus, much
            > less Jehovah, by the abundance of the deities like the Eight
            > Immortals and by the persistence of the ancestor cult.

            I didn't have anything profound or controversial in mind. By
            "monotheistic tendencies" I was simply thinking of abstract concepts
            of deity like "Lord-on-High" or "Heaven" or "the Way" or "the One,"
            etc., which of course have many parallels throughout ancient Eurasia,
            including Rome.

            "Zeus" himself by later Greco-Roman times was often just as abstract a
            concept as these among intellectuals - e.g. in later Greco-
            Roman neo-Platonists like Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus,among
            many others.

            One point of the book reviewed in the BRCR (and many similar studies
            published in the last decade) is that you can't separate out
            monotheistic from polytheistic tendencies easily in any premodern
            society.

            It has become a cliche to point out that even Christianity
            contained polytheistic elements in the concept of the trinity, Virgin
            Mary, saint worship, etc. Similar things of course in India, China,
            everywhere you look.

            This is a pretty well-understood issue by now, I think. I've written
            about it rather extensively myself in a book and quite a few papers,
            as of course have many others.

            Do ancient Vedic traditions have both polytheistic and monotheistic
            tendencies in them? They obviously do. Not all that different in
            China or anyplace else in ancient literate societies, as I see it.

            Steve





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