One of the more consequential developments in the history of human
religion was the rise of monotheism, or belief in and worship of only
one god, rather than many. Monotheism has its origins in the Near
East during the early Iron Age. Drawing on a variety of sources,
the first monotheisms moved away from worship of a variety of
anthropomorphic deities in the direction of the worship of one
transcendent and all powerful creator God. Monotheism in general
tended to be more focused on individual ethics and personal faith than
the more communal and ritually focused paganism which preceded it.
Despite the claims of the monotheistic faiths that belief in one
god had represented the original religion of all humans, its seems that
monotheism actually developed gradually over a period of many centuries
and at first had much in common with ancient pagan worship.
Monotheism gained popularity in the ancient Near East only very
slowly, and coexisted and competed with polytheistic paganism for many
centuries before finally becoming dominant. Below are the most
important varieties of monotheism.
Aten Worship in
The earliest true monotheism was promulgated in
Egypt during the thirteenth century BCE by the eccentric Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). For
reasons which are still not entirely clear, but possibly as a means of
wresting power away from the wealthy and influential priesthood of the
god Amun, Akhenaten attempted to force Egypt to worship Aten, a sun god represented by the
image of the solar disc. In so doing, the Pharaoh adopted the
name Akhenaten ("Helper of Aten") and insisted not merely on the
supremacy of Aten, but on his status as the only real god.
He used violence to enforce his religious vision and to suppress
the worship of the more established Egyptian gods. It is perhaps
unsurprising then, that his religious reforms ended in failure
when his resentful subjects reverted to the old ways after his death.
Still, Akhenaten's promotion of the worship of only one,
non-anthropomorphic god counts as the first clear historical example of
monotheism, and may well have influenced subsequent versions of
monotheism even after it was stillborn in Egypt.
One of the first
monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism, had its origins in Persia
(Iran) beginning around the seventh century, BCE. Tradition
holds that this faith was founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who called his people to abandon their
old pagan ways and to worship one particular and supreme deity, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism is sometimes termed
a dualistic religion rather than a monotheistic one because it posited
the existence of a divine antagonist for Ahura Mazda called Ahriman. According to Zoroastrian doctrine,
these two supernatural beings were locked in a cosmic struggle for
supremacy, with Ahura Mazda as the champion of truth, light, and
goodness and Ahriman as the incarnation of deceit, darkness, and evil.
Believers were called by early Zoroastrian texts to live lives of
honesty and devotion to Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism thus focused
on the morality of the individual believer and promised a reward of an
afterlife in Paradise for the faithful and a corresponding punishment
in Hell for the wicked. Despite its doctrines involving two
divine beings, Zoroastrianism's focus on worship of Ahura Mazda alone
makes it a monotheistic faith, and one which would have a substantial
influence on the other monotheisms of the region.
developed by the Israelites (the ancient ancestors of the Jewish
people) during the early Iron Age is often given credit for being the
first pure monotheistic religion in human history. Israelite
religion called for worship of a deity named Yahweh and focused on a system of sacrifices
conducted in the great Temple in the Israelites' capital city of
Jerusalem. Early Judaism also mandated a strict set of ethical
and ritual behaviors which helped set the Israelites apart from other
national groups in the ancient Near East and which were set down in the
scriptures of the Hebrew Bible some time during the first millennium,
Another defining characteristic of early Judaism was
its strict insistence on the worship of Yahweh alone, accompanied by a
rigid prohibition against the use of any visual representations of God.
Despite these traits, most scholars believe that Israelite
monotheism developed only very gradually, and may have initially been a
form of monolatry,
acknowledging the existence of other gods, even as it urged the worship
of Yahweh alone. After centuries this focus on the cult of Yahweh
probably evolved into a genuine monotheism which held that only one
divine being really existed. Early Judaism seems to have lacked
any firm belief in an afterlife and was focused on a system of temple
sacrifices not dissimilar to those mandated by pagan religions of the
region. It was only after close Israelite contact with
Zoroastrianism following the Israelites' return from the Babylonian
exile in the sixth century BCE that Judaism seems to have developed its
more familiar modern doctrines of a diabolical adversary for God
and belief in an afterlife in Heaven or Hell for human beings.
Even into the modern era, Judaism has remained a national
religion for the Jewish people specifically, rather than a faith
seeking to spread among all people.
During the first
century CE in Palestine a religion that became known as Christianity
started to develop as an offshoot of Judaism. This new
interpretation of an older faith centered around a Jewish itinerant
preacher named Jesus of Nazareth, who announced the imminent arrival of
the kingdom of God and called all believers to repent their sins.
Jesus' followers apparently believed that he was the Messiah, the long-promised king
from the lapsed royal line of David, sent to deliver the Jews to
independence once more. Indeed, the title attributed to Jesus, Christ, was a Greek rendering of the Hebrew word
for Messiah. Fearing that Jesus would become the focal point of a
Jewish rebellion against their rule in Palestine, Roman authorities
executed Jesus by crucifixion around the year 30 CE. According to
early Christian believers, however, Jesus supposedly rose from his
grave after three days and commissioned his disciples to spread the
good news (the gospel) to the world. Belief in Jesus' resurrection was to form a
cornerstone of the Christian faith.
While it would be
impossible to conceive of a Christianity without the figure of Jesus,
Christian doctrine owed an enormous debt to the preaching of Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenized Jew who had been a zealous
persecutor of Jesus' followers before his conversion to the faith.
Paul's writings held that Jesus' death had represented an
atonement for the sins of all people, and through faith in his divine
authority and resurrection, believers would have their sins forgiven by
God and receive the gift of eternal life. Paul also held that
Jesus' sacrifice meant that believers were saved through faith in
Christ rather than adherence to the detailed Jewish law expounded in
the Hebrew Bible, an innovation which made early Christianity much more
attractive to a non-Jewish audience.
Despite Paul's efforts to define this new religion
in clear terms, early Christianity remained an exceedingly diverse
movement which saw some sects such as the Ebionites calling for rigid observance of Jewish
religious law while others like the Marcionites denied any link to the Jewish religion
and its God at all. The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity during the early fourth
century set the stage for the conversion of the Empire as a whole over
the next several centuries. It also prompted a clear definition
of Christianity as a faith distinct from Judaism which held that Jesus
had been God incarnate. The fourth century also saw the approval
of certain earlier Christian writings such as the letters of Paul and
other Church leaders as divinely inspired Scripture. These
documents came to be known as the "New Testament," and were appended to the so-called "Old Testament" of the Hebrew Bible, which was still
revered by most early Christians.
The second great
religious offshoot of Jewish monotheism came in the form Islam during
the early seventh century CE. It was founded by a minor Arabian
merchant named Muhammad who claimed to have heard a divine voice
urging him to "recite in the name of the Lord" while wandering in
prayer outside the city of Mecca. Over the course of the next two
decades, Muhammad claimed to receive regular messages from the God
worshiped by both the Jews and Christians, called "Allah" in Arabic. Initially, Muhammad's
message was unpopular, especially with the Quraysh tribe which controlled Mecca, a site of
pilgrimage for pagan Arabs. Eventually, however, Muhammad's
message of the equality of all human beings before God and his staunch
proclamation of monotheism began to win over convents. By the
time of his death in 632, the Arabian peninsula was well on its way to
conversion to Islam, an Arab term meaning both "peace" and "submission"
(to the will of God). During the generation following his death,
Muhammad's prophecies were written down and codified into a book of
scripture called the Qu'ran. Muslim doctrine held that both the
Jewish and Christian scriptures had been corrupted over time, but that
the Qu'ran represented the pure and unadulterated words of God Himself.
things, the Qu'ran called Muslims to uphold the Five
Pillars of Islam: 1) Witness
2) Prayer five times daily in the direction of the holy city of Mecca
3) alms-giving, 4) fasting during the month of Ramadan, and 5) a
pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime to Mecca if at all possible.
Additionally, Muslims were enjoined to be honest and merciful, to
have compassion for the oppressed and needy, and to lead ethical lives.
Islam also posited a clearly defined afterlife which promised an
eternal reward for the faithful servants of God and everlasting
punishment for those who did not acknowledge his authority. The
text of the Qu'ran, and well as a later set of writings known as the Hadith became the basis for Sharia, or Islamic law. In Islamic
civilization, there was no separation of religious and political
authority, and the head of state was called Caliph ("commander of the faithful"), an office
which combined political rulership with an obligation to nurture and
spread Islam. Indeed, Islam did spread quite rapidly in the
century after Muhammad's death, as Arab armies conquered Persia, North
Africa and parts of Asia Minor. Conversion to Islam was
encouraged but generally not coerced, although adherents of other
faiths had to pay special taxes and accept certain restrictions not
imposed on Muslim residents of the this empire.
Thus, by the dawn
of the Middle Ages, Christianity and Islam were the dominant religions
of the Western world, while Zoroastrianism and Judaism still could
claim substantial numbers of believers. The older varieties of
paganism, however, were on their way to becoming a thing of the past.
The following books are the sources of the information on this page,
and will provide more detail on these topics.
David G. Bradley. A Guide to
the World's Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Hall, Inc., 1963.
Bernard Lewis. The Middle East:
A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. New York:
Susan Niditch. Ancient
Israelite Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Herschel Shanks, ed. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman
Destruction of the Temple. Washington, DC: Prentice Hall,
John Dominic Crossan. The Birth
of Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
John McManners, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of
Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Bart Ehrman. The Lost
Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.
University Press, 2003.
Karen Armstrong. Islam: A Short History. New
York: Random House, 2000.
Robert Wright. The Evolution of God. New
York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
All content copyright D. Campbell, 2010.