Monotheism and the Bible by Nathan MacDonald


Some people think of the Bible as the basis of Jewish and Christian monotheism.  It really depends upon your definition of monotheism.  Monotheism is a modern word; it was coined in the 17th century.  And it’s a contrast word to atheism, the belief that there is no god, and to polytheism, the belief that there are many gods.  Monotheism is often understood as one god with a denial of the existence of other deities

Within the biblical text, what we tend to find is much more, something that we might call monolatry, that is, the belief that there may be more deities, but that only one is to be worshipped.  So, if we think of a text like the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” we have a text there which allows for the existence of other deities but insists that only one is to be worshipped; Yahweh, the God of Israel. 

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The idea that there are no deities is found in a few biblical texts.  Some texts talk about them being no gods, or nothings, or “I am the Lord; there is no other God.”  The difficult question for scholars to try and work out is whether what we have there, is an ontological denial of the gods.  There is no other gods; they do not exist, or whether in fact, we have here a certain form of rhetoric, a way of expressing monolatry in very strong terms that only Adonai, only Yahweh is to be worshipped and no other gods.  So, do we find monotheism in the Bible? Possibly in some texts, but overall the biblical text are remorselessly monolatrous, insisting that only Yahweh is to be worshipped, and no other God.



Nathan MacDonald

Nathan MacDonald
Lecturer, University of Cambridge

Nathan MacDonald is university lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St. John's College. He previously held positions at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Göttingen in Germany. His publications include What Did the Ancient Israelite Eat? Diet in Biblical Times (Eerdmans, 2008), Not Bread Alone: The Meaning of Food in the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 2008), and Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism” (Mohr Siebeck, 2003). 

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

Characterized by the worship of one deity as chief among a pantheon of other deities. An example is the worship of Marduk as the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon.

The belief in multiple deities.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

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