How do we deal with very scary claims about the origins of Monotheism and God?

This has been a common hypothesis in critical religious studies for a while… I encountered it back in my undergrad days some 25~ years ago. It depends on a number of very questionable assumptions, many of which are sustainable only by presuming an anti supernatural/naturalistic world view from the beginning.

Firstly, the entire endeavor rests on the assumption (a huge assumption) that there is no God in reality, and that every religious belief (polytheism, monotheism, etc.) is simply a baseless and erroneous speculation. Or, short of that, you could also, theoretically, have someone who is essentially deist, who believes in some concept of a God but absolutely one who they know has not bothered communicating anything about himself to humanity.

These are very problematic starting points, and essentially make them beg the question. They have to assume that there is no God to arrive at their conclusion that religion developed apart from revelation from God. They utterly discount any evidence, theory or proposition a priori from consideration that would suggest or support any religious belief cake from revelation from God about his own nature.

When you develop a complicated argument by begging the question, you arrive at a predetermined conclusion. So people that began their “research” (I use the term loosely) by assuming that God was in no way involved in the development of any religious belief arrive at the conclusion that human interaction and societal factors alone are responsible for all religious beliefs.

What a truly stunning and unexpected development in scholarship… I think I’m going to have a heart attack and die from not surprise…

As for this work in particular, I haven’t read it specifically, but I’m am familiar enough with the general trend and many of the concepts. The approach 1) dismisses without consideration the possibility that all the various polytheistic beliefs devolved from earlier monotheistic practices and beliefs of Israel’s early ancestors, 2) takes aberrations such as the reality of syncretism (the fact that some ancient Jews were tempted and succumbed to polytheistic worship) and interprets it as the norm, and 3) confuses language where Israel acknowledged the “real” existence of other (false) gods (I.e., the reality that Baal and Asherah were really worshipped, and perhaps were real demons exercising power) as evidence they embraced a full blown polytheistic system, and finally 4) uses language where God is described as holding court in the heavens with his angels, or references to the sons of God, as a holdover from a polytheistic counsel.

That is a quick overview of at least some of the factors involved that I studied and summarily rejected, mostly because as mentioned it’s utter dependence on the anti supernatural a priori assumption on which all this rests. If perchance this was helpful, I’d be happy to address any further questions.

There was poster on the forum, and contentious was his name o…
t… e… s… t… y…
t… e… s… t… y…
And contentious was his name o…

See? poetry.

How would you ever prove the historical difference between humans making up God and humans receiving divine revelation of God? I don’t think you can. You have to accept the Bible is divine revelation a priori, not based on anything else. Maybe that is scary, but that is the foundation of Christian belief. We believe the Bible is true because we believe it truthfully reveals the God we have also personally encountered. We can never prove the Bible is true with history and science. Even if, for example we could prove that Jesus without a doubt historically died and rose again, it would not prove that this death and resurrection defeated sin and death and reconciled us to God. You could never prove that I am spiritually united with Christ in his resurrection by faith and therefore now spiritually alive and destined to be resurrected after physical death as well. The only way you can know these things is by a priori accepting the divine revelation of Scripture as divine revelation that is true.


The “monotheism emerged from polytheism” meme is popular but debatable. Consider we’ve only had writing for around 4000 years so it’s pretty shaky to assume what earlier people believed.

Anyhow, like most topics here it deserves a book, not a discussion thread. I nominate Rodney Stark:

It was a fascinating read.

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Ps 82:1 A Psalm of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of God; in the midst of the gods He judges.

2 How long will you judge unjustly and lift up the faces of the wicked? Selah.

3 Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy.

4 Deliver the poor and needy; save them out of the hand of the wicked.

5 They neither know nor will understand; they walk on in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 I have said, You are gods; and all of you sons of the Most High.

7 But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; for You shall inherit in all nations.


The original faith structure of Israel was henotheism. Psalm 82 indicates how YHWH staged a “coup” against the other gods w2hich were other members of the Council of El, or the Council of the Gods.

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Where does it claim a coup was in the works? Satan was the only one staging any “coup”. That was not considered between equal Gods. The council of God was with created humans. Presumably humans created on the 6th day who were in charge of the affairs of the earth. Adam was the representative with the task of preventing the knowledge of good and evil away from earth. Dying like men was the sentence passed on to Adam and his offspring. The Greeks took this council and came up with the concept of beings with specific control over various aspects of the earth. Created beings are not co-equal with God. They are “of God”. They were also supposed to be the image of God on earth. The Hebrews were given a covenant to be God’s sons on earth as long as they kept up their side of the covenant. The same goes for those in Christ. Part of the issue with images and humans creating their own gods deals with the fact that humans are God on earth, representative of a single God. Anything thing else is a human coup against God.

The idea of a coup in heaven ‘against’ God is a later development. @Relates clearly would reject your assumptions here because he accepts the model than Israelite monotheism evolved from polytheism. Check out the scholarship of Mark Smith, Michael Heiser and others for the view that Psalm 82 refers to literal gods. Here is my take:

God has taken his place in the divine council; ('adat el) in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

A more literal translation of 'adat el would be Council of El, (a deity from Ugarit and occasional name of YHWH) not Divine Council. In other words, Elohim and El are two different gods. Note that this view is taken by an early Jewish text, 11Q Melchizedek.

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

None of this is applicable to Adam, whose sin was not a lack of social justice. (who was there to care for anyway?)

I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince

The descendants of Adam were already mortal. Also, what sense does it make to say the gods will die ‘like’ men, if they were men?

Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!

A verse hearkening back to Deuteronomy 32:8, another verse where YHWH is distinguished from a higher deity called Elyon, and is said to be a member of a divine council known as the sons of the gods.

I find the divine interpretation is much more simple and natural than the human interpretation.

My take on Melchizedek and the reason that most think the Flood did not happen is he is probably Shem. Shem, if you do the math in the genealogies, lived for 500 years after the Flood. Historically he would not have a father or mother that would be remembered by even Abraham or Joseph who ended up in Egypt about 500 years after the Flood. Shem alledgedly founded Jerusalem and was the “everlasting” political/religious leader. He lived for 100 years before the Flood, and his mom or even wife could have been “of the sons of God”. At the least the claim is that this line was directly connected with God and part of this council by birth. There is only one God and Shem would know that God as well as Noah or Abraham. If you go with Job, God created the council, and God still presided in the council up until the birth of Jacob, and his name change to Israel, and God claimed Shem/Melchizedek was witness to all events between the Flood and the rise of the Hebrews. This places the Flood about 900+ years before the Exodus, if the Hebrews were in Egypt for 400 years.

I understand that does not seem to be acceptable and there is a lot of extra-biblical writings elsewhere. It still goes back to the point that on the 6th day God created out of dust images of God to rule over the earth. They may still be in council till this day. We are no longer privy to what they do. That some can rebel and die as humans seems as probable as was recorded of Adam. The argument is if they are or are not equal to God even though they are created beings. And how they are viewed historically via polytheism.

My argument is not that Melchizedek is God, but that elohim and el are not the same being in Psalm 82

My point was that Shem would have known it was the same God, even though humanity and culture would have evolved several times to a different view of God.

Between Deuteronomy 32, and Psalms 82 we have el, elohim, elyon, and YHWH. All are nouns except el, which is an adjective. The adjective “Most High” is still God. Both passages still point to a group of Gods. But these are not equal beings outside of creation. Nor are they a group of angelic beings. They were created beings and can only refer to those humans created on day 6 in Genesis 1:27. They were literally God on earth in charge of what goes on, judges. Now, not many accept they were equal to God because they were created by God, and only representative of God. The physical form was not equal, but their God likeness would reasonably be equal with God. Jesus pointed out that humanity and especially Jews were gods, but all knew better, because humanity no longer has the likeness of God.


3 quick thoughts, if I may…

  1. Jesus certainly interpreted this passage as referring to men, “to whom the word of God came”, yes?

  2. most of the scholarly discussion of Hebrew religion evolving from polytheism (or embracing henotheism) would also label me and most Christians as harboring those same primitive beliefs. I also believe in lesser divine beings who, as one critical commentary put it, “glorify, praise, and carry out the Lord’s will.”

  3. My larger philosophical concern with this basic approach to religion is to ask, when, specifically, did Jewish religion cease to be human speculation that developed and evolved, and when did God start revealing truth about himself and the divine world? If belief in angels is just a socially/ religiously evolved concept that developed from earlier erroneous and baseless myths, why should I believe in angels? And more significantly, if Jesus similarly is so primitive and naïve that his belief in lesser divine beings is simply due to his blind and unsophisticated acceptance of culturally developed religion, why in the world would I trust anything else he says about the supernatural whatsoever ?

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Jesus quoted from Ps 82 when He was in desperate danger of being stoned by an angry mob for claiming to be the Son of God. See below. That was and is blasphemy on the eyes of Jews punishable by immediate death.

The only problem here is we know that Jesus is God and thus He could not deny the truth without denying Himself. Jesus is God because He is the Messiah, the One Chosen by God the Father to save God’s People.

John 10:33-39 (NIV2011)**
33 “We are not stoning You for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because You, a mere man, claim to be God.”
34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods” ’?
35 If He called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—
36 what about the One whom the Father set apart as His very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse Me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?
37 Do not believe Me unless I do the works of My Father.
38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.”
39 Again they tried to seize Him, but He escaped their grasp.

Psalm 82 marks a change from henotheism to strict monotheism. Not polytheism be3cause the Jews never believed in more than one God. YHWH always was the only God Who mattered to them. The coming of Jesus the Messiah marked another shift in human understanding of God, from simple monotheism to the Trinity.

Jesus, Psalm 82, and the prophets also point to the fact that God is more about character, love and justice, than nature, power. The old gods were rejected because they did not administer justice to the poor and the needy. We modern Christians might well be rejected because we fail to do the same.

So I’d be curious, on what basis, you understand the claim of henotheism to be accurate to have ever applied to proper (rather than corrupted, syncretized) Hebrew Worship?

And especially, in such a way that would not also lump me into the “henotheistic” camp, believing as I do in numerous divine beings, some of which are part of Yahweh’s council, some of which are at war with him and are worshipped as gods by other cultures and nations?

Do you believe YHWH/Elohim is subservient to the higher deity El/Elyon?

I do not. Nor do I think the revealed religion of the ancient Hebrews did either.

So the critical scholar’s evolutionary view of the divine council would not include your view

That particular view of the origins of Yahweh’s divine counsel with Yahweh under a different deity named ‘lyon would not include me. The general arguments and descriptions for why they classify ancient Israel as henotheistic in general, however, I find often does include me.

I do not understand this assertion Reggie. The Arabic language did not even exist until the early centuries AD (or CE if you prefer).


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Exodus 20:1-3 (NIV2011)
1 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the LORD[YHWH] your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me."

These words identify YHWH as one god among many, but the only God Whom the Jews were to worship. This I think keeps them from polytheism, but falls under henotheism.

This does not mean that I think the other gods were real, but YHWH introduced God’s people to monotheism in a gradual process. Psalm 82 is a unique indication of henotheism in Judaism, not the normative understanding of Judaism. I think that it is likely that it was used to explain to non-Jews why Jews believe that YHWH is the One God (Elohim.)

If believing that the gods worshipped by other nations were, in fact, real entities is henotheism, then given those definitions, I think Paul would similarly fall under henotheism. As would I…

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.

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