Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jews and Scotsmen

Over the past few decades there has been something of a revolution in scholars' understanding of Judaism. Once thought of as a monolithic, monotheistic religion, it is now recognized that Judaism was much more diverse. This is true not just of ancient Israelite religion, as we saw in the last couple of posts, but also of the Judaism of Jesus's day.

"Monotheism," as we think of it today, was practically non-existent in the first century. As New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen puts it, "All monotheists in the ancient world were polytheists." Existence of other gods was, for the most part, assumed as a matter of course. At issue for Jews was whether these gods should be worshiped. And did Jews worship only one God? The answer, it turns out, depends on what you mean by "worship." The basic meaning of the Greek term is to bow down before someone or something. But it can also refer to prayers, hymn singing, and offering of sacrifices.

Angels are an interesting test case for Judaism. Some Jewish and early Christian texts speak out against the worship of angels. As we saw last time, such prohibitions are proof that some were worshiping angels. Too, archaeologists have uncovered Jewish funeral inscriptions from Delos that invoke angels. The fact that two such inscriptions are identical suggests that this funerary prayer was standard, at least for this time and place.

A story in 2 Maccabees 12:39-40 tells of a Jewish defeat in battle. Afterward, those picking up the bodies of the slain Jews found that every one was wearing an amulet bearing the tokens of the gods of Jamnia. While this is obviously a bit of polemic intended to explain the defeat in terms of the apostasy of the soldiers, it still suggests that the wearing of such amulets was not unthinkable to the author of the story. Again, the prohibition proves the practice. And again the conclusion is supported by archaeology: a Jewish grave containing a talisman with the image of Medusa.

Another inscription tells of a Jew, Moschion son of Moschion, who freed his slave after having a dream in which two gods appeared to him and told him to do so. And inscriptions in a temple of Pan indicate several Jews who gave thanks to God there.

New Testament scholar James McGrath (from whose book The Only True God these examples are taken) says these examples show

the recognition by a Jewish individual of both the existence and the authority of figures other than God Most High in a way that is surely indicative of a characteristic of Jewish piety in this period. There was simply no way one could go through life without dealing with the "lower functionaries" responsible for the region one was living in. If, as [Deuteronomy 32:8] seemed to suggest, God had appointed the "sons of God" over the various nations, then to assume one could avoid all interaction with these figures while living in the Diaspora may have seemed not only unthinkable but also unbiblical.
Defenders of the faith, both Jewish and Christian, often suggest that examples like these show that some had turned away from Judaism, or syncretised it with pagan religion. Thus, they were not true Jews. But this is the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Given the extensive evidence, both textual and archaeological, for these practices, there can be little doubt that they represent Judaism as actually practiced - even if some of these practices were condemned by some segment of the Jewish populace.

What, then, was distinctive about Judaism? According to McGrath, the line in the sand was drawn at sacrificial worship: the offering of sacrifices to a god. One could bow down before, or pray to, or wear the tokens of, or obey the commands of, other figures and other gods without abandoning Judaism. But for Jews - a strong majority of them, at least - sacrifices were only to be offered to the one God above all others.


  1. I would argue that this "lesser worship" of other "deities or angels" continues to this day in Christianity, at least among Anglicans and Catholics, who pray to saints.

  2. Yes, and it's tempting to speculate that that worship derives DIRECTLY from paganism. That is, former pagans transferred their practices of worship of local deities to worship of Christian saints. But I don't know enough about that period of Christianity to know whether there's a real basis for direct transfer, or if the Christian version developed essentially independently.

  3. There may be some direct transfers from paganism to catholicism in Ireland. In a town near where I live there is pilgrimage every May (if I recall correctly) that involves tying ribbons to a statue of the Virgin Mary.

    I was told by a local that it was a mix of an old pagan fertility ritual (as in "good harvest" not "bountiful procreation") and the fairly standard Catholic Mary-fetish.

    Now that could be just some local anecdote with little basis in historical fact, but it sounds plausible.

  4. The problem is, a lot of things sound plausible but turn out to be completely false. On my Early Christian Religion site, someone posted about how Christmas trees are fertility symbols, being phalluses, with tinsel (semen), balls (balls), and wreaths (womb). I pointed out that Christmas trees were introduced by German businessmen in the 1500s, hardly a likely place and time for pagan influence, tinsel was introduced 100 years later, etc. Link:

    So that's why I'm very circumspect about these kinds of claims. What I'd like to see is a careful study of the origins of the worship of the saints, with attention to what aspects arose when, and whether there were pagan or Jewish precedents. Until then, I'll remain skeptical.

  5. Nobody worships saints. The "Mary fetish" is the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, the Proto-Evangelium; and culminates in the "woman clothed with the Sun" of John's Apocalypse 12, mother of Messiah; and the persecution of her "other children." This is the mandate for the Woman & Seed to conquer Satan and his minions. So who's yo' mama? This is a family affair and again NOBODY worships saints, but the family of Christ venerates and honors saints because God is glorified in His saints.

    The two veins of "paganism" are outright rebellion against all God reveals about Himself and His will; and the corruption of orthodox monotheism, the original and final religion, as with the deification of Noah & Family as, for example, the gods of Olympus, and even Noah being turned into the red devil as the art shows man-with-animals Noah being turned into (drunk and naked) animal-man satyr. May the Holy Spirit grant us His unity.