How did Monotheism Develop?
The first monotheistic religion developed in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten, but it failed to gain a foothold and disappeared soon after his death. Monotheism did not become a permanent fixture in the world until the adoption of monotheism by Hebrews in Babylon. While monotheism is often seen as something that derived from Judaism, the history of how monotheism became pervasive and expanded beyond Judaism is complex. Integrating both historical and archaeological data, we find that the rise of monotheism has been influenced by key political events. These political events help transform not just these early monotheistic faiths but also by extension many parts of the world today.
First Monotheist Religion
How did monotheism start? The first evidence of monotheism emerges from Egypt in the 14th century BCE (1353-1336 BC) during the reign of Akhenaten. The king was known to have worshiped Aten, the sun disk god (Figure 1). While initially, Akhenaten allowed the worship of many gods, as Egyptian kings had always done so, by the 5th year of his reign there was a decisive move that made the worship of Aten the only recognized religion in the kingdom.
The worship of Aten constituted the first monotheistic religion in the world.
However, while this represented an innovation, the worship of a single god proved to be highly unpopular with the priestly classes as well as, most likely, the local population. In this period, worship of deities was very specific to given cities and temples. Additionally, these temples performed important economic activities for communities. The ban of other gods or the cessation of worship of other gods would have been devastating to local economies and communities.
Ancient Judaism: Not Very Monotheistic
In Biblical chronology, we see that the establishment of the state of Israel would constitute the world’s first true monotheistic state. However, the reality is there is no evidence yet that shows monotheism existed or was beyond a limited minority either in Judah or Israel, the two main states of the Jewish people in the Bible. In fact, excavations throughout modern Israel commonly reveal the existence of other gods. In particular, Asherah (or Astarte), was worshiped, likely in conjunction with Yahweh, the Jewish god. While the Jewish Yahweh god may have been the main god, it appears other gods were worshiped and accepted by much of the Jewish population. Perhaps one of the starkest indications that monotheism, if it existed at all, would have been limited a very small minority of Jews. During the 8th century BC, archeologists have found evidence that suggests that Yahweh was married or coupled with the goddess Asherah.
This evidence indicates that even if Yahweh had supremacy he was not the only god worshiped. In fact, the Bible does seem to suggest this was the case (e.g., the Asherah poles worshiped in the Bible). What is not indicated is the extent of which ancient Judah and Israel, in essence, appeared to be very similar to other contemporary states, which had chief gods (e.g., Ba’al, Marduk, Ashur, etc.) but also worshiped other deities.
The Development of Hebrew Monotheism
Perhaps more critical to monotheism is not what occurred in the period of Judah and Israel but what happened afterward. In 587 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, which constituted a major crisis for the Jewish population of Judah. Many elites were taken to Babylon and this began a long period of the Jewish diaspora in places such as Mesopotamia (i.e., Iraq) that lasted until after World War II. We see soon after this period a greater emphasis on Yahweh, while other gods are now depicted in a negative light and Yahweh is mentioned as the only god.
In other words, the theology began to be monotheistic by at least after the period of the exile in Babylon. This could be due to the fact that the main temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem was destroyed, negating any way to properly worship the god. Regardless, what is clear is monotheism only began to obtain greater traction after the destruction of the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem.
Perhaps also critical to these developments were other religious changes occurring to the Near East from the period of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) and later. This period introduces a new god, Ahura Mazda, to the wider Near East. While this may not seem significant, this god began to be associated with the emerging religion of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism eventually (i.e., this is unclear how this religion develops or when it develops its main tenants) becomes the earliest faith which depicts a single good god fighting an evil deity (Angra Mainyu) in a great cosmic struggle affecting the whole world (i.e., a universal faith). Furthermore, this good vs. evil struggle is also depicted in the eventual resurrection of the dead during a judgment day on Earth, where the good goes to a type of heaven. What this suggests is that Judaism, or at least very likely Christianity, may have been influenced by Zoroastrianism’s concepts of good vs. evil, as the major tenants that Christianity adopts, such as the concept of God vs. Satan and judgment day, were already present in Zoroastrianism.
The Rise of Monotheism parallels the Rise of Empires
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What is also telling is that monotheism only appears to emerge during a period when larger states and empires were present. In fact, all religions that we can call monotheistic, or more accurately universal religions (i.e., a religion relevant to all people and not just a population group; e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism) develop at a time of large scale empires where kings were now being called “king of kings” and seen as unifiers of many people. In essence, before a single or universal god became the norm, the concept of a universal king or emperor became well established. This likely makes the idea of a single political unity more palatable for multiple population groups. We know universal empires sought to unify people through a common government and other common cultural links, including through the economy.
Therefore, it may not be a surprise that universal empires helped to create philosophies of universal religions and ideas, as the ideas of greater unity between populations had already become well established. On the other hand, during the period when Yahweh, for instance, was the chief god in Judah, we see no evidence that this god was considered the only god and certainly he was only associated with the Jewish people. In essence, the mental constructs of god in the pre-Babylonian exile period (i.e., before the 6th century BC) do not appear to incorporate God as being the only god. The development seems to happen later, perhaps under the presence of empires and/or the desire to transform an existing religion due to changes in political circumstances such as the loss of Jerusalem.
What is clear is monotheism was not something that clearly develops for a long period of time. We can see archaeological and historically that at least through the first half of the first millennium BC polytheism dominated. The later monotheistic faith of Judaism appears to initially be a polytheistic religion. After the influence of empires and the loss of the Judean temple, we begin to see greater transformations toward monotheism. This eventually gives rise to modern monotheistic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Along the way, Zoroastrianism likely played an influential role in these universal faiths.
- For information about Akhenaten see: Reeves, Nicholas. 2005. Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. 1. Aufl. London: Thames & Hudson.
- For information about monotheism in this period see: Hoffmeier, James Karl. 2015. Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
- For information about how temples in cities function during the ancient world see: Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, Pg. 257.
- For information regarding the diversity of gods in ancient Israel and Judah, see: Stavrakopoulou, Francesca, and John Barton, eds. 2010. Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah. London ; New York: T & T Clark.
- For information about this inscription, see: Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 2006. Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History. 1. paperback print. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, pg. 74.
- For information about other states and how divinity was structured see: Snell, Daniel C. 2011. Religions of the Ancient Near East. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- For a history on the exile of the Jews from Judah see: Lipschitz, Oded, and Joseph Blenkinsopp, eds. 2003. Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period’’. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns.
- For an indication of monotheism during the post-Babylonian exile period and its predecessors see: Schneider, Laurel C. 2008. Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. London, [England] ; New York: Routledge.
- For information about Zoroastrianism see: Boyce, Mary. 1996. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3rd impression, with corrections. Handbuch Der Orientalistik. Erste Abteilung, Der Nahe Und Mittlere Osten, 13. Bd., Religion, 1. Abschnitt, Religionsgeschichte des Alten Orients, Lfg. 2, Heft 2A. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill.
- For the concept of “king of kings” and larger unification of multiple populations during the period of the large empires see: Shayegan, M. Rahim. 2011. Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- For information about emerging concepts of universalism in empires see: Cline, Eric H., and Mark W. Graham. 2011. Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.