As ancient paganism developed, it also changed to accommodate new circumstances on the ground. Starting in the late third millennium BCE, paganism in the Near East gradually became less local, as rulers such as Sargon of Akkad and Hammurabi of Babylon crafted successive large empires in Mesopotamia, replacing the earlier system of independent city states. As a reflection of this new political situation, the worship of the gods was consolidated into a more hierarchical form, with certain deities gaining status as preeminent or as "kings" of divine pantheons. In some cases, certain gods even "absorbed" the gods of other regions, which were regarded as mere aspects of the supreme deities. After many centuries of such development, the region witnessed the emergence of what some scholars have termed "monolatry," a religious style which firmly asserted the supremacy of one particular god, even while acknowledging the existence of other gods. The cults of the Babylonian god Marduk, the Assyrian deity Assur, and probably the early worship of Yahweh, the god of the ancient Israelites, represent the best historical examples of monolatry.
The Monotheistic Idea
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 the worship of a variety of anthropomorphic deities in order to worship one transcendent and all powerful creator God. Monotheism in general tended to be more focused on individual ethics and personal faith than the 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, it 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.
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.
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Robert Wright. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Author: Douglas Campbell, Ph.D.