Russell and Duenes

from the ivory tower: chapter 4 – the “rebirth” of monotheism

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This chapter contains Stark’s most in-depth analysis of monotheism and Judaism in particular. As in other chapters, I appreciate Stark’s willingness to critique fanciful sociological and historical theories that pass as “scholarship” these days. Stark claims to believe in the general historicity of the Old Testament, but when one gets into the guts of this chapter, it doesn’t always seem so. More on this in a bit.

First, Stark has often made the point that people “convert” to any new way of living, whether it be explicitly religious or not, based on two things: Whether one’s friends and family are part of the new system, and whether there is a minimal loss of “religious capital.” In other words, people don’t convert to, say, Christianity primarily because of doctrinal attraction, though that plays a role. Rather, they convert because they have trusted friends and family members who are already converted, and because the convert can maintain, to a large degree, a cultural continuity with what he or she believed before. As an example, Stark says,

Consider Christians deciding whether to become Mormons or Hindus. To become Mormons, Christians retain all (or nearly all) of their religious capital, needing merely to add to it: they already possess two of the three scriptures, needing only to add the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. But to become Hindus, Christians must discard their Bible and all their other religious capital, rush out and buy a copy of the Bhagavad-gita, and invest the time and energy needed to build a whole new cultural stake. So, most would choose to become Mormons. (166)

From a sociological perspective, this is largely the case, and most missiologists would agree. This is why there is such a strong move in evangelical missions today to “contextualize” the gospel so that the “convert” can remain as much as possible in the natural friend and family relationships he had before converting. I have also seen this in the Messianic Jewish movement, where they continue to have synagogue services that would be very familiar and comfortable for a Jew who grew up in a non-Messianic temple. Stark is not trying to get at the theological realities behind conversion, and so I’ll leave it aside. One caveat, however. I had an acquaintance who once told me that people only become Christians because other Christians are “nice to them,” and if they only used their minds when thinking about the Scriptures and about doctrine, they would not be orthodox Christians. This is patently absurd, and I don’t think Stark is implying this, much to his credit.

The biggest problem I encountered in this chapter is Stark’s unwarranted skepticism about the traditional dating and interpretations of the Old Testament. In my view, such willingness to accept these views casts aspersion on much of what Stark says. For I cannot well evaluate him in areas where I have no real knowledge, but when it comes to biblical literature, I do have a bit of knowledge, and if he is willing to go along with so many unwarranted assumptions and assertions about the Bible, how can I not look on his treatment of other issues with a jaundiced eye?

Stark accepts virtually all of the radical skeptics’ views of the Scriptures. He doesn’t think Moses wrote the Old Testament and isn’t sure whether Moses lived (though someone like him surely did). He accepts all sorts of late dates for the OT books, and believes that Isaiah was written by three different authors, thus showing himself to have an anti-supernatural bias when it comes to predictive prophecy. He doesn’t believe in the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt nor the violent conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites, and he argues that the Jews were not monotheists until relatively late in their history.

Then he gets into a discussion about sects and argues that within Judaism there was a kind of “Yahweh-Only” sect that was “an organized faction of devoted monotheists” who “over the course of many centuries of effort and agitation, finally established one God in the stead of many,” and thus, they “won out” (180ff). Doubtless there was such a sect within ancient Judaism, but the Jewish doctrine has always been monotheistic. What Stark is doing is separating teaching from practice. In other words, the Jews taught that there was only one God (though he’s a little fuzzy on this, too), but they never lived like it, or rarely did. We can concede the point, but this does not make their religion polytheistic. What it means is that most Jews were apostate, something the Bible makes abundantly clear from beginning to end. So in practice, the Jews were syncretistic,  but it wouldn’t be right to say that the monotheism only came to the fore through a kind of “Yahweh-Only” sect that sprang up. The “Yahweh-Only” view was the deal from the beginning.

Stark is obviously not the first scholarly skeptic of the Bible to come down the pike and certainly not the most egregious. But perhaps we could see a little more justification for his positions than the say-so of “respectable scholars” and “the best of the archaeologically informed historians” and “experts,” whoever they might be (170-171, 188). I grant that biblical orthodoxy is a minority view within “scholarly” circles, but surely if one is going to build a large case on biblical history and theology, one should do more than just wave it off.

Further, in my brief exposure to Stark here and elsewhere, he never seems to be on real good footing when it comes to biblical exegesis. For example, he says,

Many Diasporan Jews, probably the majority of them, had abandoned some provisions of the Law…It seems…likely that many took part in feasts and festivals having polytheistic significance, since toleration of the “Gods” had even crept into their scripture. In the Septuagint, Exodus 22:27 was not translated as “You shall not revile God,” but as “You shall not revile the gods.” Calvin Roetzel is surely right that this was an open declaration of tolerance, utterly “alien to Hebrew Scriptures” (200).

First of all, the only significant biblical version that translates Exodus 22:27 (v.28 in English Bibles) as “gods” is the King James Version, which ought to give Stark pause.  Further, the context mitigates strongly against the notion that the Jewish translators of the Septuagint would be opening the door to some kind of polytheism here. The preceding chapters of Exodus (e.g., chs. 9 and 14), and particularly Exodus 20, make it clear that Yahweh is the one and only God, and he alone is to be worshipped. It will hardly do to argue that just one chapter after the Ten Commandments we have an opening for polytheism. This does violence to the literary structure of Exodus, not to mention contradicting other parts of the Pentateuch; though I have left those texts out since Stark is skeptical about their Mosaic authorship.

All of this is to say that Stark argues for biblical source and redactional views that are held by skeptical scholarship and that he can only imagine a sociological and historical explanation for the Bible’s composition in which God and the traditional authors of Scripture can have had little, if any, part.

Stark does raise some questions that are worth exploring from a historical perspective. One would be the question of religious faith being passed on to the next generations. Stark says that “religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next” (193). This makes me reflect on my own desires as a father to pass on my faith to my sons. He also raises the issue of the development of the Bible’s doctrine of the “afterlife” over the course of its writings. We go from Sheol in the Old Testament to the highly developed New Testament doctrine of heaven and hell. This has always puzzled me theologically, and still does. I’d be interested to find a good source on it.

Stark’s overall thesis remains intact, however. Namely, that religious pluralism is the norm over time because people will always have differing levels of religious intensity and commitment, and thus there is no one religious option that can satisfy everyone. Further, the move from Most High God(s) to polytheism is something we see because polytheism requires less of people and is often more accessible to the average person. Though monotheism had arrived “long before the fall of Rome,” Stark rightly points out that Israel’s religion, and really all religions, tend to revert back to idolatry and syncretism (209).



Written by Michael Duenes

March 22, 2010 at 5:08 am

Posted in Duenes, Literature

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