Peter Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard University
[He got his M.A. and Ph.D. at Yale, which made me think of you.]
He quoted the Babylonian Talmud: “Anyone who denies the existence of other gods is called ‘Jewish.’ ”
He talked about monotheism [belief in only one god] and polytheism [belief in many gods] and the spectrum in between. He talked about monolatry [belief in many gods but worship of one] which made me happy ‘cause Joel’s class. He also talked about henotheism, which was a new one on me. Apparently it sometimes gets used a synonym for monotheism, but he prefers to use it in the sense of a deity having absorbed other gods but not erased all traces of them -- kind of like a tent metaphor.
He also talked about how polytheism is frequently presented as random confusion but that if you actually look at the texts of the communities of believers, there is hierarchical structure, a pantheon, it’s dynamic, etc.
As one way to define “monotheism” he said, “For the set Deities, members=1.”
He talked about the 3 trends in scholarly thought about monotheism and Judaism.
1) Monotheism comes late in ancient Israel, possibly as late as the Babylonian exile (cf. Isaiah 40-55).
* Among other things, he talked about how in the late 19th-century, scholars looked at everything from a development evolution perspective.
2) Yehezkel Kaufmann: monotheism was early in Israelite nation-state.
* One of his major arguments was that Israelites did not understand their neighboring polytheism -- did not see its complexity; the myths we know are barely represented in their writings about those cultures; polytheists would construct a statue, recite words, wash its mouth, and then the deity would enspirit the statue -- rather like the Eucharist -- but Biblical authors saw only a lifeless statue. I was listening to this and thinking, “Were the Biblical authors perhaps over-simplifying to encourage people to reject those practices,” but I haven’t read his book (The Religion of Israel, From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile - translated into English and condensed by Moshe Greenberg in 1960).
* Also: Prometheus Bound, for example, Zeus is talked about as having to conform to the law, whereas for the Israelites God was the source of the law.
God as above and outside all else had to have been so basic to their society for them to have so failed to understand neighbors who so surrounded them.
* YK was apparently a secular Israeli nationalist, so he didn’t see this conception of a single god as a divine revelation but rather as a human insight.
3) Surrounding cultures of Mesopotamia.
* Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) worshiped the aton (sun disc) as the only and image-free God, and Moses did grow up in a Pharoah’s court, but Moses is 100 years after Akhenaton, and after Akhenaton’s death his mode of worship was systematically attacked and wiped out -- though of course traces might have survived.
* He also talked about hymns/prayers that go like: “O God X, only/greatest God for me.” I don’t really buy those as precursors to monotheism, ‘cause you’re sucking up to whomever you need help from, but you still know all the other gods exist and have power.
* And then there are these 3 column texts in which you have a god, another god (who gets absorbed by the first one) and a function -- e.g. Marduk absorbs Ninori insomuch as he usurps his function as war god. Which brings us back to henotheism.
This is around the time I started to doze off, so my notes get really fuzzy and I missed the textual exegeses.
In the Q&A someone asked about when atheism developed. He said the Jews were the first atheists because they worshiped an unembodied god and thus were seen as not worshiping any god, because their way of worship wasn’t one the Romans could understand.