Greco-Roman Monotheism, Biblical Intolerance

Source: George W.E. Nickelsburg, “Stories of Biblical and Early Post-Biblical Times,” Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael E. Stone (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 77-79.

“There is little that is particularly Jewish in these answers. For the most part, their content and themes–including the references to God and the imitation of God–are paralleled in pagan Hellenistic treatises on kingship…Even his criticism of idolatry (134-138) does not erect a barrier between Jews and Greeks. As Aristeas points out to the king, ‘the same God who has given them [the Jews] their law guides your kingdom also…God, the overseer and creator of all things, whom they worship, is He whom all men worship, and we too…though we address him differently as Zeus and Dis’ (15-16).”

Nickelsburg is discussing the Letter of Aristeas, which he dates to the second century B.C.E.

Often, when I read Greco-Roman or Hellenistic literature, I see references to “God.” Aristotle and Plato had conceptions of “God,” as did the Stoics. Nickelsburg says that the Jews’ speeches in Aristeas on imitating “God” had Hellenistic parallels.

That sounds pretty monotheistic. Didn’t non-Jews worship many gods? Then why all these references to “God” in Greco-Roman literature? I’m sure that there was polytheism in Greco-Roman cultures, since we know of their many deities–Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, etc., etc. But there were other elements of those cultures that were more sophisticated (from a certain point of view), as they searched for the one God who orders the cosmos. Similarly, although Hinduism has millions of deities, I’ve heard it claims that one single reality underlies all of them.

But Aristeas also has the “we all worship the same god, but we call him different names” spiel. This reminds me of three things. For one, it brings to mind a conversation I had with an evangelical on Facebook–on whether or not Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. I claimed that they do, since all three of the religions believe there’s one all-powerful God, who embodies and enforces a righteous standard. But she thought the Muslims’ different conception of God meant that they were worshipping another deity altogether–distinct from the one in Judaism and Christianity.

But, when it comes down to it, wouldn’t we all be worshipping a different God under that logic? No two people picture God in exactly the same way. Some see God as merciful, while others view him as strict. Most of us think he’s a mixture of the two. Our conceptions overlap, yet they have clear differences. Does that mean we’re all worshipping different gods?

Second, the quote makes me think about the Joan of Arcadia episode, “A Book of Secrets.” Grace is having her bat mitzvah, and God wants Joan to help her out with it. Joan asks God why he created so many religions, and God responds that there are different people, so they all need different ways to relate to him. On some level, I like this statement, but I also deem it problematic. God is the source of all the world’s religions? What if they contradict one another in their description of reality? Does that make God a liar? Moreover, while Grace lauded the Torah at her bat mitzvah service, the fact is that the Torah is not exactly the most tolerant book in the world. It said don’t worship other gods. There’s no “different names for one god” spiel in there.

On that note, I also think about the final episode of the second season, the one in which the villain burns down churches and synagogues. Will Gerardi of the Arcadia Police Department is not all that religious–actually, he’s quite hostile to religion. But he’s still upset that somebody destroyed something that others hold to be sacred. Barbara Hall said she was trying to get that point across in the episode.

But, again, the Bible is not all that tolerant. God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite altars. He instructed Gideon to tear down the altar of Baal. The good kings in the eyes of the Deuteronomist were those who got rid of certain sanctuaries. It didn’t matter that people may have considered them sacred, as far as the biblical authors were concerned.

So there’s a part of me that would love to be a religious pluralist, one who believes that so many people are grasping after the same being, who eludes all of us (as one professor told me). But the Bible doesn’t always lend itself to that sort of mindset.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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