Thursday, February 11, 2010

Judaism and polytheism

In a 4250-word screed in The New Republic (www.tnr.com/article/something-much-darker) Leon Wieseltier seeks to take Andrew Sullivan to the woodshed for his purported anti-Semitism. Wieseltier and Sullivan used to be colleagues at The New Republc, and then had a falling out, so that each has been tempted from time to time to settle old scores. I will not try to rehearse the verbosity of the current spat (Sullivan’s almost equally lengthy reply is now up at his Daily Dish site), but just to focus on one aspect of their disagreement.

Sullivan writes: “I will note one sentence Wieseltier writes at the beginning of this unedited rant. It refers to the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, a profound mystery to Christians, and at the heart of our faith. He writes this:

‘The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity . . . represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity.’

“Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.

“I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” End of Sullivan quotation.

Sullivan makes a good point in his concluding paragraph. Increasingly, Jews feel free to express, often in pungent terms, their open contempt for central tenets of Christianity and Islam. But woe betide any Christian or Muslim who dares to criticize any aspect of Jewish theology. For the label of “anti-Semite” is sure to follow. I know, because the epithet has been hurled at me--and I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim,

Elsewhere I have analyzed the historical problem of the (now) mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I will not repeat this discussion here, though I return briefly to the issue at the end.

Instead, what I am concerned with is Wieseltier’s conventional assumption of the pure monotheism of historic Judaism. (Hat tip to the blog Jewishatheist.blogspot.com, from which I take several pertinent examples.)

The Hebrew bible contains many names of God or Gods. Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Some of the approved names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.

A major turning point was the uncovering, beginning in 1928, of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient city on the coast of Syria. The excavations uncovered a vast royal palace, several imposing private dwellings, and two private libraries that contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts written on clay tablets. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two major temples: one dedicated to Baal the "king," son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and cereals.

For the first time these Ugaritic archives afforded a detailed perspective of Canaanite religious beliefs during the second millennium, that is the period directly preceding the rise of ancient Israel. The texts show striking parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form.

At the summit of Ugaritic religion stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods honored at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). As this enumeration suggests, Ugaritic texts offer a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the ancient Israelites. Professor Mark S. Smith of NYU has provided a cogent analysis of this link in several books, including his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (NY: Oxford, 2001).

Let us note some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew bible God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods. For example, Asherah is mentioned in 2 Kings 18.8:

“He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the grove (Asherah), and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for in those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”

Asherah is extremely significant in the Canaanite pantheon. She is the "consort" of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Scholars believe that Asherah was worshipped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."

Jeremiah 7.18:
“The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.’

Another major Canaanite deity is Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

In the Hebrew bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows:

“When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the sons of El
But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.”

The argument for the original polytheistic context presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew bible when used to refer to "other gods." However, it's often used as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Many scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant 'the gods,' or the 'sons of El,' the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon, replacing them with their own singular patron god Yahweh alone. As we have seen, however, the erasure was incomplete.

The polytheist theory satisfactorily explains why there are three words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, and eloah. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself.

This hypothesis casts light on the Elohim saying "Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness,” as well as Yahweh’s commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew:Elohim] before me." The fact that one can worship other gods acknowledges that they exist.

In his 1967 book "The Hebrew Goddess" Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in the Hokma (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia) of Proverbs and several deuterocanonical books, expanded by the rabbis into the notion of the Shekhina, the feminine side of the High God. These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.

To be sure, the religion of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, evolved, like any other human institution. Morton Smith has done a remarkable job of delineating the dialectic that led to the eventual triumph of the Yahweh-alone party.

Matters were not always thus, especially as regards the ideas that formed the Torah in the strict sense (a.k.a. the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch). That set of books is laced with polythetstic remnants, as I have shown. One can say that the true religion of Judaism is the evolved version, the ostensibly pure monotheistic form of the Later Prophets. But that is not what the rabbis (beginning with the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE) have uniformly held. For them the Torah in the strict sense of the Five Books of Moses is supreme. And it is totally monotheistic. (NOT)

Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose either Torah-supremacy or monotheism-supremacy. This dilemma is beyond the grasp of simple souls like Wieseltier.

The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic origins of the religion of ancient Israell, origins it never succeeded in renouncing. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, transpiring in passages recurring so frequently that they cannot be disregarded.

It would seem, then, that Wieseltier’s summary contrast of Judaism = monotheistic, and Christianity = polytheistic is jejune. However, I hold that--contrary to Sullivan--mainstream Christianity is de facto polytheistic, because of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the cult of saints, and the large role assigned to the Devil.

Moreover, it appears that Muslims are correct in their view of the matter. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, theirs is the only one that is rigorously monotheistic. In this regard neither Judaism nor Christianity can pass muster.

None of this is meant to suggest that in the larger sense monotheism is best. My own preference is for true polytheism or, perhaps better, no-theism.

UPDATE (Oct. 1, 2010)

For those who wish to pursue this topic further, I attach a series of REFERENCES.

Becking, Bob, Marjo C. A. Korpel, Karel J. Meindert Dijkstra, and H. Vriezen, eds. One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005.

Paper, Jordan The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies). Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.

Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. New York: KTAV, 1967.

Penchansky, David. Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.

Schäfer, Peter. Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbala. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

---. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. New ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

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27 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is true that ancient Israelites acknowledged the existence of other deities, and this was one of the main reasons they were kicked out of Israel. However, simply talking about the name "Elohim" does not suffice to prove anything. The term is plural technically, but its a figure of speech in Hebrew. You can construe it to mean God of Gods, but that would be taking it to much at its upfront value.

For example, Jesus of Nazareth is often called "King of kings". It doesn't mean he is literally king of other kings, but rather a term of respect and wonder. It works the same way with the name Elohim. It is more a term of great wonder than anything else. And just because they share the same words as Canaanite religions doesn't prove they believed the same thing, just that they wrote the same language.

Finally, even if Jewish texts contain hints of polytheism doesn't mean it isn't purely monotheistic today, just that ancient Israel wasn't perfect. Today Judaism is purely monotheistic, much more than Christianity with the Trinity and Incarnation and more so than modern Islam which gives more power to the satan than Judaism does.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Kent said...

I'm not sure what to make of your observation that Islam is "correct" (as opposed to Judaism and Christianity) by being rigorously monotheistic. While perhaps not your intent to "take sides" in a debate with polytheists, there is no rational reason to endorse one or the other approach to theology. Obviously, Judaism was influenced by prior local religions just as early Christianity absorbed the lessons of the Roman pantheon. Yet from a perspective of "correctness" there is nothing superior about monotheism. Indeed, from a literary perspective, I find polytheistic stories vastly superior to the mundane, inconsistent ramblings of much of what is found in the Bible.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Transmogrifier said...

I came here via a link from Sullivan's blog. Although I find the whole historical perspective about the roots of Judaism very interesting, I am kind of put off with the whole "who's religion is pure" vibe underlying both Wieseltier's and Sullivan's comments. Arguing about 'corporeality in deity and plurality in deity' seems to me like arguing about whether the invisible pink unicorn is a deep "brink pink" or just "tea rose". You are talking about whether Jesus and God are made of the same stuff.. what stuff? and where is evidence of this stuff?

Also I don't get the whole polytheism is "crude" and monotheism is better gripe. I grew up in a polytheistic (or pantheistic depending upon your school of thought) Hindu culture. I think both Sullivan and Wieseltier are totally clueless about the rich and colorful pantheistic and polytheistic theology that millions of people still subscribe to. Last time I checked they were perfectly happy with their faith, thank you very much.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is true that ancient Israelites acknowledged the existence of other deities, and this was one of the main reasons they were kicked out of Israel...."

Oh, really? When, pray tell, were the Israelites 'kicked out of Israel'? If you're referring to the 'Exile'. That is pure myth. There is absolutely no historical evidence that any Israelites were kicked out of Israel by the Romans. It would have been a logistical impossibility and completely non-sensical because kicking them out of Israel would simply have resulted in them moving to another part of the vast Roman Empire. Sort of like squeezing air from one part of a balloon to another. The European and N. African jews were converts not descendants of the ancient Hebrews. This is why there were so many Eastern European jews. They were Khazari converts. Even Zionists like Ben Gurion acknowledged this. The Exile and the Exodus are both myths. To this day not a single Israeli archeological team has found a single shred of evidence to support the notion that Israelites were ever in Egypt as slaves who subsequently escaped and wandered the desert for 4 decades. Not a shred. The Hebrews were just one of the many groups of people who lived in Canaan and kept distinct dietary and religious practices.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was stunned to read your statement that "Increasingly, Jews feel free to express, often in pungent terms, their open contempt for central tenets of Christianity and Islam." Wieseltier's comment was indeed beyond the Pale, and I was offended by it, but please share with us any other evidence you have that "Jews increasingly express their open contempt for Christianity's central tenets." Wieseltier's comments have aroused shock and outrage precisely because they are outliers. And I challenge you to find mainstream Jewish writers or commentators who express anything like the contempt you describe. (Or do you believe not sharing Christian beliefs is itself a form of contempt? In which case surely the contempt works both ways.) I have indeed read and heard disparaging comments about Islam - and in fact the two religions are in active conflict at least in one region of the planet - but these commentsare nothing compared to the daily villification of Islam one can find on Christian right-wing sites and with which I'm sure you're quite familiar.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Bill Brock said...

Islam has known polytheism, too. Recall the theological substance behind the "Satanic Verses" controversy:

http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/anglophone/satanic_verses/sv.html

One need not claim that story of the gharaniq is true to observe that Islam arose from (and was necessarily shaped by) a polytheistic culture.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Brock said...

And what about the Kabbalistic distinction between the Ein Sof and the Sephiroth?

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Angels an pinheads, again?

The history is fascinating, the dickering over whose mythology is most consistent not.

Also, either my immunity to religion let me block more than I knew or he's overstated his rationale for calling Christianity polytheistic. Protestants don't have a cult of the saints, offically the trinity and the incarnation are only mysteries from a human viewpoint, and Satan and the other angels are not gods just a separate order of creation. Unoffically in practice, he has a point lots of 'christians' veer towards polytheism in their attitudes toward the trinity and angels and televangelist scum.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous John Merryman said...

It seems as though polytheistic deities were what we would call memes today. Basic concepts to which the larger group accepted, such as the singularity and status of one's tribe. Geographic and astronomical features. Seasons of the year. Group and cultural activities, such as celebrations, war, death, sex, sleep, illness, etc. All the myriad connections between these concepts naturally lead to a pantheistic network with a mythology of allegorical relationships. This pantheistic unity was difficult to describe conceptually, so it was natural to have this state defined as a unit and then to give it some form, the adult human male being the default option.

Unity and unit are two profoundly different concepts though. Unity is a neutral state, while a unit defines a dichotomy of inside and outside. Effectively it is the difference between zero and one. While we think of zero as nothing, as an equilibrium state, the absolute, it is also everything. The absolute, being the universal medium, isn't an ideal form, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an intellectual and moral ideal from which we fell.

Top down theology assumes a moral theory of good and bad as a metaphysical duel between the forces of light and darkness. Actually they are the basic biological binary code, the attraction of the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. This elemental relationship is a polarity out of which exponentially complex relationships develop, creating endless confusion for our religious models. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken, yet there is no clear line where the chicken ends and the fox ends. Between black and white are not just shades of grey, but all the colors of the spectrum. The intellect is a linear process of making distinctions and judgments, but leaves it to instinct, emotion and the subconscious to make the connections.

It should also be noted that it was polytheists who invented democracy. Possibly because a pantheon requires a process of negotiation and resolution seeking. Monotheism has been responsible for validating monarchy and other forms of top down rule. Monotheistic societies which have successfully converted to democracy tend to have some degree of separation of church and state.

In another couple thousand years, our current religious traditions will seem as quaint and anachronistic as those we see through the prism of the last couple of thousand years.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing is, you are a Christian. Yeah, I get it, you don't believe in Christianity or Islam. What religion were your parents? Your parents' parents?

It's a cultural construct, just like race, but it's part of who you are and who you are not.

That being said, let's all be atheists, but let's not pretend that atheism means we are outside of religious history.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Anodos12 said...

You are mistaken about the Ugaritic attestation of the word ilhm. It is not the common term for the court of El - bn ilm, the sons of El/the gods (compare Psalm 29:1), or phr bn il) (the assembly of the sons of El) is the correct term. ilhm is attested only once, in a broken context, and it is unclear whether it is even the correct reading.

Your argument about the plurality of the gods doesn't rely on the Ugaritic evidence, but on the plural form of the title (elohim is strictly speaking a title, not a name, in the Hebrew Bible). It should be made explicit that your argument must look back on a period before the Hebrew Bible was composed, however, because throughout the Hebrew there is no confusion: "Elohim" is a singular deity. He is the singular subject of narrative and poetry and in every case but Genesis 1:26 he takes singular modifiers. Furthermore, much of the point of the narratives, laws, and poetry in the Hebrew Bible is the singularity of the deity. ANE texts do not refer blandly to "gods" or "the divine council" as the subjects of narratives and givers of laws. One cannot seriously posit that a monotheistic editor went through all the texts and changed what was original a reference to "the gods" into God. If elohim originally only meant "gods," it took the new semantic possibility of "God" long before the stories were written.

Enough of linguistic trivialities. Israelite religion throughout the Iron Age was clearly polytheistic and borrowed from Caananite tradition. One merely has to examine the thousands of pillar figurines found in this period to see that (also, google Kuntillet Ajrud). The Hebrew Bible contains vestiges of all sorts of Canaanite belief, far more than the examples you've mentioned. This doesn't change the fact that the Hebrew Bible is rigorously monotheistic in its outlook, especially vis-a-vis Ugaritic literature, and that Judaism post-exile, when most of the Hebrew Bible was composed and set in its form, is monotheistic. I've read the Ugaritic texts, and while the similarities are impressive and cast the Hebrew Bible in an entirely new light, the differences are even more impressive, especially when talking about the number of deities officially espoused in the texts.

The idea that the Torah has more polytheistic vestiges than the prophets is questionable. The prophets use elohim in precisely the same way as does the Torah. The Torah is no earlier in Judaism than the prophets; in fact much of it is probably later. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is famous, but it's a poem set within the book, and possibly not composed by the Deuteronomist, who ascribes all Israel's failure to take the Promised land in terms of their worshiping deities like Baal.

I appreciate your sticking it to Wieseltier, that haughty bastard, but I don't think one is forced to choose between the religious text and the religion. The genocide passages in the Hebrew Bible don't mean that Jews and Christians believe in genocide. Part of theology in bookish religions is how you explain your texts (or Andrew Sullivan would have abandoned Catholicism long ago). Judaism has consistently, for hundreds and hundreds of years, explained itself in terms of strict monotheism, and the Torah and the rest of the Tanak give far more basis for that interpretation than for polytheism.

I find Wiseltier's argument specious, and, as a Christian, laughable. But I don't think saying "well you Jews CAME from polytheism" is the appropriate reply.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous eyelessgame said...

It has seemed to me, as a pure layman in these matters, that the stories of Genesis make much more sense when read with the assumption that they are polytheistic myths given a monotheistic coat of paint. Genesis 2-4, if we discovered the manuscript today, would read as a polytheistic myth: the Creator seems in personality more of an engineer, treating his creation as an equal, while Ruler, who clearly rules over a pantheon, seems an entirely different entity. And of course the Trickster, First Woman, and Guardian at the Gate are all deity figures. Or so it seems to my barely-educated self.

Similarly, I always call up notions of Poseidon (or a variant of him) becoming pissed at humanity, and Athena (or variant) choosing her favorite to build an ark to escape Poseidon's wrath, as a more sensible origin of the Flood story -- since in its current (edited, imho) form, God has a split personality: so angry that He intends to destroy humanity, while simultaneously working to save it.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

For those questioning the polytheism of Christianity;

Gods, angels, "seperate order of creation", you can call them what you like. Regardless of the name you give them, the whole collection of angels, demons, and saints are, at base, divine beings, gifted in all bu the most extreme Protestant traditions with supernatural powers over the lives and fates of men. To a scholar of religion and history, that IS a god. Any Japanese Shintoist alive today would recognize that as a god, just as any Olympian-worshiper of the Archaic Age. It may offend your sensibilities and you education to think of the saints, the angels, and the Devil as gods but that's precisely what they are; the fact that The Great Nameless One, The Father, He Who Is His Title happens to be their boss makes Christianity no more monotheistic than Zeus' similar role made the Olympian faith.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Several contributors have made significant points. In this posting I limit myself to responding to the perceptive remarks of Anodos. First, it is true that in the Tanakh as we have it Elohim is a plural noun treated as a singular. In and of itself it may not rank (in this sanitized form) as a marker of polytheism. However, the contrast between Yahweh and Elohim is the cornerstone of the Documentary Hypothesis, rejected by much Rabbinical opinion because it suggests that Yahweh and Elohim may be two separate deities, and not just different names for the same person. I am not a Hebrew philologist, and in retrospect I would perhaps put this argument in a more subjunctive mode. Still, there is a problem here that is not resolved by applying the conventional wisdom of grammatical analysis.

It is true that the soil of Palestine has yielded thousands of amulets and figurines representing a variety of deities. One can survey this material in the comprehensive book of Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel, NY: Continuum, 2001. In a brief piece such as this, I could not go into such matters, which will be covered in my monograph on the Abrahamic religions. Archaeology is important, not least for the negative verdict is has rendered regarding the standard accounts of early Israelite history.

As a supporter of the Minimalist trend in Tanakh scholarship, I have no trouble acknowledging that the Pentateuch is late, possibly later than some of the Prophets. The Tanakh itself was probably created some time between 400 and 200 BCE, no earlier.

However, the Pentateuch ("the Torah") purports to provide details of early Israelite history, even though it is simply a jumble of myth and fable. However, this is not the view of observant Jews like Wieseltier. For them, the Pentateuch, polytheism and all, is far and away the most important part of the Bible. Divided into portions it is read, word for word, in synagogues throughout the world, following a tradition that is at least 1800 years old. Thus is not open to individuals like Wieseltier to downgrade the Torah strictu sensu in favor of some later, "improved" model that is purely monotheistic. If the Torah-Pentateuch is absolutely foundational, as mainstream Judaism holds, it cannot be some sort of primitive approximation (though this view is open to secular scholars).

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about responding to the other comment asking for some justification for your claim that Jews are increasingly feeling free to express contempt for Christian beliefs? I wondered about that remark of yours as well.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Seth C said...

Your post proves only that many ancient Israelites were polytheists. Wieseltier's point is about modern Orthodox Judaism's theological difference with modern orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Judaism rejects the polytheism of all the many ancient Israelites who practiced it -- in line with the prophetic condemnations of Ba'al worship, Asherah worship, et cetera. Whether you are right or wrong about the Bible's development and/or Authorship, the beliefs of contemporary Christians and Jews are not in question: Orthodox Jews NOW worship a completely monotheistic God, and Christians worship a triune (unified) godhead. This paradoxical conception may be a Divine and true mystery for Christians, but is as unacceptable for traditional Jews as the rejection of the Gospels would be for Christians. There is nothing offensive in Wieseltier pointing out that from the traditional Jewish perspective, the Trinity is completely unacceptable. He wasn't saying Christians are stupid or malicious -- just that he believes they are wrong. Newsflash: religions disagree with one another!

7:50 AM  
Anonymous John Merryman said...

The problem with understanding the trinity is the tendency to view it from a western object oriented viewpoint, rather than an eastern contextual, relationship oriented perspective, even though it is clearly defined in terms of a relationship/, in three as one.

There is a modern example that is quite similar; in Complexity Theory. This is the relationship of order and chaos in situational complexity. In a sense, the two sides of the coin and how they define the whole. Does this accord with the Christian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. It could be argued from both a historical and logical perspective that God the Father is order. Relating the other two may not be as clear, for while Christ may correspond to the complex state between order and the chaos of vitality trying to break through the cultural crust of a stagnating Jewish social order of the time, the Holy Ghost seems to also be the connecting tissue between the immortal and the mortal spirits. It is a bit like a three dimensional object that offers a different perspective, depending on the point of view.

I myself began considering the logic of the trinity through the observation that Complexity Theory is, in many ways, analogous to time and the relationship of the past, present and future, with the past as order, the future as chaos and the present as the complex relationship. It seemed to me that the Holy Trinity evolved due to the function of time, in that Jesus was trying to update a religious tradition that had grown top heavy and encrusted with political decadence. When he seemingly failed, the Holy Ghost was incorporated as a vision of hope for the future.

That all said, I think we are truly missing an opportunity to examine religion from a logical perspective and try to see how and why it became the way it is, rather than just fighting over the territory of cultural tradition. It might serve to resolve some of our pressing civil conflicts, rather than just further encouraging them.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Indeed, religions often disagree with one another. I would, however, add one word: "Abrahamic." In Japan, for example. it is not uncommon for a person to subscribe to some elements of Buddhism and Shinto--and then elect to have a Christian marriage.

However, the gods of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad are jealous gods and brook no eclecticism.

The slanging match between Christians and Jews is of long standing. Conventionally, Christians are portrayed as the aggressors, Jews as the innocent victims. This claim does not hold up.

In a recent monograph, Peter Schäfer offers an incisive analysis of hostile references to Jesus. The author does not limit himself to explicit references to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He also traces the code words employed in the Talmud editions expurgated and sanitized for gentile consumption. The Princeton scholar shows how "Balaam," "that man," "the carpenter," "ben Pandera" (son of Pandera), the blank spaces and the rest of the code words refer to Jesus. As has so many times been recognized by those who care to look at the evidence, the Talmud teaches that Jesus was a "mamzer" (bastard) conceived adulterously in "niddah" (menstrual filth) by a Roman soldier named Pandera [Kallah 51a] of a whore [Sanhedrin 106a].

Pandera is evidently an Aramaic variation on the surname Pantera (the Latin form of Pantheras, meaning “Panther”). For example, a first-century Roman tombstone in Bingerbrück, Germany, has an inscription which reads: “Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years' service, of the first cohort of archers, lies here." The ascription of Jesus’ paternity to Pantera can be traced back to the pagan anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, writing ca. 180 CE. Presumably Celsus derived the name from oral tradition.

The Talmud assures us that Jesus is now in Hell, boiling in excrement. In some renderings Jesus is portrayed as boiling in semen as punishment for sexual perversion [Gittin 57a].

There is much more, including the Talmud claim that the Sanhedrin justly executed Jesus because he was an idolater [Sanhedrin 43a] who worshipped a brick [Sanhedrin 67a], even boasting that the Sanhedrin overcame Roman opposition to the execution of Jesus [Sanhedrin 43a].

Schäfer’s monograph conclusively establishes that references to Jesus in the Talmud are more than scattered and coincidental. They are uniformly hostile,

Modern Christian-bashing of the sort that the odious Wieseltier insouciantly deploys descends directly from these archetypes.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Saying that Judaism has always adhered to strict monotheism is not unlike claiming that the US has always opposed slavery. Thanks to the 13-15th Amendements we do so now.

However, the language affirming the original foundational support for slavery remains in the US Constitution for all to see. Similarly, polytheism in the Tanakh.

Pure monotheism is not the original faith of the Patriarchs and other revered figures of Judaism. in so far as we can judge from the texts, which are all we have. The neo-Judaic doctrine of strict monotheism has been read back into the earlier stages of development, where it does not belong. As I have indicated the Pentateuch/Torah does not stand in Judaism as a mere adumbration of later truths, but Truth Itself. That Truth, if one accepts it as such, is heavily infiltrated with polytheism. The controling documents cannot be changed, any more than we can change the text of the US Constitution.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Anodos12 said...

The dividing of sources based on "names of god" is outdated scholarship. While it is true that E prefers Elohim, he certainly knows and uses the name Yahweh, and J knows and uses the title Elohim. P uses Elohim until the revelation of the name Yahweh in Exodus 3, and uses Yahweh almost exclusively after. D knows both. Modern source criticism uses narrative continuity and more selective linguistic criteria for its division of sources. (For more on this check out Joel Baden's recent Harvard dissertation, published as J, E and the Redaction of the Pentateuch, Mohr Siebeck, 2009.) There isn’t one source supporting one god "Elohim" and another teaching "Yahweh," and then a redactor combining the two in one. El and Yahweh were originally different deities, and remnants of the name El survive in the Torah (e.g. El-Shaddai) but there is no evidence for Elohim as a distinct deity from Yahweh.

Zevit's work is wonderful. Have you read Mark Smith's work "The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts?" While I don’t agree with everything he says, I think he sets some of this type of discussion on good grounds.

The monotheism of the Torah is not representative of the time which it purports to describe, but the time in which it was written, and vestiges of its polytheistic history can be found in it. But on the whole the Torah is a creative masterpiece of monotheism, or in the very least monolatry, not polytheism with a monotheistic sheen. That there are polytheistic elements lurking behind some of the passages might be shocking to the Orthodox, but to the cultural historian, the more vivid fact is the overabundance of monotheistic theology.

I stress again that there is no polytheistic pre-form to these texts. The four sources are monotheistic.You will not dig up a J narrative that has a polytheistic version of the stories in the Bible. The mythical stories like the flood are Canaanite/Mesopotamian myths baptized into monotheism by monotheistic writers who descend from polytheists.

And to eyelessgame - you don't have to go to Greek myth, the original Sumerian flood story is polytheistic, and the Akkadian one has one of the gods sneaking off to warn the Noah character. The flood myth was originally polytheistic, yes, but the Hebrew Bible versions of the flood myth were always monotheistic. Whether or not Iron-Age Israel knew the polytheistic flood myth is pure speculation (they could have encountered it later while captive in Babylon), but what you don't have is a written polytheistic Hebrew version later sanitized by a redactor. Instead, you have two monotheistic versions (J and P) compiled by a redactor.

I'm certainly not arguing that Israel's history isn't polytheistic. Yahweh was certainly one among many Israelite deities at some point. I'm just saying the Hebrew Bible isn't particularly polytheistic. More polytheistic than would make an Orthodox Jew happy? Perhaps. But in the context of the ANE, pretty damn monotheistic. Monotheistic enough to be read with great comfort by Orthodox Jews every morning without any real conflict.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Orthodox Jews have a very broad comfort zone, one that allows them, bizarrely, to read the 613 mitzvot into the Ten Commandments. Everything is refracted through the lenses of Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud--which means that most of what they know, ain't so.

10:10 AM  
Anonymous John Merryman said...

"Monolatry."

That's good.

Who said what when doesn't really get to the issue of whether this belief in a spiritual monolith is coherently logical, or even a good idea, given the degree to which it divides people in practice. It just becomes a never ending mud slinging contest. Can anyone else please describe what they mean by God, other than a supernatural force?
Pope John Paul II said it was "an all-knowing absolute," which isn't exactly trinitarian.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Anodos12 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Anodos12 said...

One more shot: you say monotheism isn't the faith of the Patriarchs and other revered figures of Judaism. We have no idea what the Patriarchs believed or if they even existed, as you know as a minimalist. Perhaps the real question is whether some of the narratives originated in a context of El worship (IsraEl); but the stories as we have them are written by three sources that have equated El with Yahweh, Israel's only Elohim, so it is impossible to say for sure.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Of course the Patriarchs, together with (in all likelihood) Saul, David, and Solomon, are mythical/literary figues. Personally, I doubt that any of them ever existed; at all events there is no certain evidence to this effect.

But for believing Jews and Christians they did exist, and the polytheistic remnants clinging to their contexts must be acknowledged and addressed. As a minimalist, I see no reason not to hold the feet of these fideists to the fire--based on their own obstinate belief structure.

By the same token I am not sure that the ancient Israelites actually genocided the Amalekites. But the texts boast of this frightful accomplishment, and that boast needs to be taken into account.

I am perfectly content with saying that the Torah is chiefly monotheistic with polytheistic marbling, rather than the reverse. But that marbling--those impurities, if you will--cannot be excised. It is dishonest to seek to do so. Yet that is what orthodox Jewish and Christian views of the Pentateuch seek to achieve.

1:03 PM  
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