Friday, July 17, 2009


As recently as 3,000 years ago, as far as we can tell, most or all peoples all over the world believed that there were a number of different gods and goddesses. (As long as 2,500 years ago or so, it appears that some troublemakers, at least in Greece, had the nerve to say out loud in public that there were no gods at all, that it was all pretty much just a scam to scare people and keep them in line, but that's another story for another blog post.)

Who first came up with the notion of one all-powerful God? The answer seems to depend upon whom one asks. The most popular answer in Western culture seems to be that it was the Jews. This answer may come with a much different date attached to it than a couple of centuries ago, for in the last couple of centuries, Biblical scholars first ceased to think of Abraham as an historical figure, living around 1800 BC, and now most of them have very serious doubts about whether Moses or anyone remotely like him actually existed, around 1200 or 1400 BC. And recent archaeological findings suggest that the Jews may have been polytheistic up until the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Still, some scholars who dispute neither the ahistoricity of Abraham and Moses nor the persistence of polytheism until the Babylonian captivity speak as if there were no doubt that it was the Jews who introduced into the world the completely new and original concept of one God.

Others assume that it was Zoroaster, or Zarathustra if you will, who invented monotheism, and that the Jews first encountered the concept during their exile in Babylonia among Zoroastrians. Still others insist that monotheism originated much earlier in Egypt. Sigmund Freud assumed that Moses did exist, and advanced the theory, in the last book he wrote, that Moses was an Egyptian prince who rebelled against his own people and invented Judaism, although monotheism may have been an idea in Egypt before Moses' time. Freud's book about Moses and monotheism has been much poo-pooed. I don't really know why. I am far from being any sort of expert in this area, but the hasty and disdainful nature of the dismissal of Freud's theory -- not by all scholars, nota bene, but by most -- seems suspect to me, it seems much too hasty. Ancient Egypt was particularly monolithic, the Pharoah particularly absolute in his power, the cult of the monarchy particularly pronounced. So much about ancient Egypt positively screams, "Unity! Oneness! Absolute power, absolute authority!" and so forth. One very unified culture ruled in Egypt for over 3,000 years, while, for example, just to their east in Mesopotamia, many kingdoms and cultures rose and fell. It seems to me that the concept of monotheism fits in very well with the extreme persistence and stability and one-ness of ancient Egypt.

But I certainly don't know that monotheism first arose there.

In general I see an amazing amount of hastiness and closedmindedness on the subject of the origins of monotheism. I have nothing against the theory that the Israelites were the first monotheists, or that they adopted monotheism from Egypt, in the reign of Akhenaten from 1353 BC – 1336 BC or 1351– 1334 BC, as Freud argues, with or without an historical Moses; or that they came up with the idea much later; or that Zoroaster was the first monotheist; or that it was some earlier Persian or Mesopotamian; or that montheism first arose in India in the Vedic period; or that it arose simultaneously in several different places --

(Some people, of course, actually believe in capital-G God, the one and only universal and omnipotent Being, and if they're in an oecumenical vein they may argue that He has naturally been discovered, been felt, all over the world, regardless of distinctions of mere culture. Yeah. Whaddya gonna do, some people still believe all of that. I suspect that an especially high percentage of the academics investigating these sorts of questions, the theologians, Biblical scholars, Koranic scholars, Buddhists monks and nuns and so forth believe all of that. I suspect that some Hindu scholars have been talking it all with several grains of salt for a very long time, but I don't know. Perhaps I was given a false impression by a couple of very charming and worldly students of Hinduism.)

-- or still other theories which circulate on the topic. What does bother me is the way in which some proponents of each of these theories behave as though the matter were settled and their specific theory the right one, and don't bother to mention, let alone discuss and consider, any of the other theories. That bothers me, it perturbs me, it even amazes me.


  1. An interesting look at it. I've seen some scholarly looks at the concept of Moses having been an Egyptian prince (for real), but the one problem I have is that they all seem to point to DIFFERENT princes.

  2. Wonderful thoughtful post, Steven.

    "Freud's book about Moses and monotheism has been much poo-pooed. I don't really know why. I am far from being any sort of expert in this area, but the hasty and disdainful nature of the dismissal of Freud's theory -- not by all scholars, nota bene, but by most -- seems suspect to me, it seems much too hasty."

    As far as I remember some of the thinking Freud advances in his Moses book are not scientifically sound, they are speculations by a man, Freud himself, who identified with Moses.

    It's one of Freud's most fascinating books and he wrote it when he was around eighty. Generally I think it's best to ignore most Freud bashing and read Freud instead. Even where Freud is wrong or on a wrong track he is usually still more enlightening to read than most of Freud's critics.