Early Monotheism

Early Christian Funerary Art

    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 Egypt

     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.


    The religion 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, BCE.  

    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.  

    Among other 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: Scribner, 1995.
Susan Niditch.  Ancient Israelite Religion.  Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1997.
Herschel Shanks, ed.  Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple.  Washington, DC: Prentice Hall, 1999.
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.  Oxford: Oxford 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.  
Excerpt photo source: www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch