Monotheism is the belief in only one god. Monotheistic religions include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Bahai, and Deism. Monotheism has been gradually replacing polytheism over the last two millennia.
The literary tradition of monotheism
The major literary tradition bearing witness to monotheism began in the Hebrew Bible. It was established in the clearest form by the first verse of the Bible, Gen. 1:1. The tradition continued throughout the Old Testament, and carried over into the foundational writings of Christianity, the New Covenant (also called the New Testament), and also into Islam's Qur'an. These two later compilations regarded the Hebrew Bible as fully inspired, thereby implicitly accepting its teaching of one God, the Creator of all. The New Testament bears witness to its acceptance of the doctrines of the Hebrew Scriptures in passages like the following:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt. 5:17,18, NIV). "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31, NIV). "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . ." (2 Tim. 3:16, KJV).
Christianity therefore accepts the monotheistic faith of the Hebrew Bible, while revealing more completely the complexity in the Godhead that was implicit in various Old Testament statements such as (but not limited to) those that imply the deity of the Messiah (Is. 9:6, Zech. 12:10). Less well known is the fact that the foundational writing of the Islamic faith, the Qur'an, also fully accepts the authority and inspiration of the Hebrew Bible (called the Torah in the Qur'an, but the meaning is the entire corpus), and the New Testament (called the Injil, derived from the Greek Euangelion, "Gospel"), as shown in the following verses:
"Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which was revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered" (Surah 2, verse 136). "O ye who believe! Believe in Allah and His messenger and the Scripture which He hath revealed unto His messenger, and the Scripture which He hath revealed aforetime. Whoso disbelieveth in Allah and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers and the Last Day, he verily hath wandered far astray" (4:136). " . . . Lo! We did reveal the Torah . . ." ( 5:44). "Let the people of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein" (5:47).
Today reformed Jews and liberal Christians no longer consider the Scriptures as necessarily authoritative for their beliefs, and most Muslims follow the hadith (traditions) of Islam that say that the Bible was lost or corrupted in Muhammed's day instead of accepting the teachings of the Qur'an as written and believed by Muhammed regarding the Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, the historical reality of the Hebrew Bible's testimony to monotheism must be understood as foundational to these three major faiths.
That testimony is not vitiated by the attempts of some modern scholars to state that Israel's original religion was polytheism. In support of their thesis, such scholars cite the frequent mention of "gods" of other nations in the Bible, while they ignore, or arbitrarily categorize as "late writings," such passages as Gen. 14:19, Ps. 96:5, and all other Scriptures that contradict their theories. The monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has always been accompanied by a belief in spiritual beings such as angels and the demonic powers behind the "gods" of idolatrous religions, and that belief, for all three religions, is anchored in the writings of the Jewish Scriptures.
Was monotheism mankind's original religion?
In some of the most unexpected places, among people who are literate or illiterate, sophisticated or seemingly crude, cultures have preserved the idea that there was originally one God who created them and to whom they were in some sense responsible.
Examples of this are numerous, and only a few will be cited here. Several such instances are related in the writings of Don Richardson. The Santal people of India remembered Thakur Jiu (The Genuine God) as the creator of all things, even though they also knew, with apparently some regret, that long ago their forefathers turned from him and sought the help of evil spirits. The Gedeo people of Ethiopia recognized Magano as the creator of all, but their religious ritual was largely concerned with appeasing an evil spirit called Sheit'an. The Mbaka and other tribes of the Bantu in Africa remembered that their ancestors had turned away from Koro, the creator of all things. The Koreans remembered Hananim as their creator, and early western missionaries wisely used this as the name of God when translating the Scriptures into Korean, thereby tying in to the most ancient memories of the Korean people and demonstrating that worship of one God was not just an idea imposed by foreigners. The Karen people of Burma had a tradition, long before contact by any white westerner, that the Supreme God, whom they called Y'wa, would one day present to them a lost book that would set them free (the first westerner to learn of this, a British diplomat in 1795, told the Karen that he did not know anything about that God, nor did he put any stock in their stories about Him.) The Kachin, also of Burma, worshiped Karai Kasang as their Creator, although they usually made sacrifices to evil spirits to appease them, and only cried out to Karai Kasang in times of great need. The Lahu people of Burma, Laos, and Thailand recognized Gui'Sha as creator of all, and lived in expectation that one day He would send them instructions so they would know how to worship Him properly. Richardson mentions similar beliefs as found (not planted) among several other people, and takes some pains in refuting the idea advocated by anthropologists and others prejudiced against missionary efforts, that these ideas were introduced by western missionaries at some time prior to their discovery. One example from South America shows the lack of credibility of this common "scholarly" explanation of the primitive monotheistic beliefs. Bruce Olson was the first outsider, from any people group, to learn the language of the fierce Motilone or "Barí" people of the jungles of Colombia and Venezuela, who had threatened and often killed all others who had attempted to enter their territory. After learning their language, he found that their traditions, known by all the Motilone people, recognized that one benevolent God had created them, but that their ancestors had turned from this one God at some time in the distant past.
Evidence for an early, or initial, belief in one God can also be found in the writings of literate non-western cultures. The following hymn of praise was found in the archives of Ebla, and dated by its translator, Giovanni Pettinato, to 2500 BC.
- Lord of heaven and earth:
- the earth was not, you created it,
- the light of day was not, you created it,
- the morning light you had not [yet] made exist.
Although the Ebla culture at this time had become polytheistic, this inscription shows a remembrance of the one true God. Pettinato comments: "Who, in fact, is the Lord of heaven and earth? Certainly not Dagan or Rasap or Sipish, but GOD written in capitals."
China provides another example of a literate civilization whose written records demonstrate that monotheism was known and practiced long before the triumph of polytheism that followed the introduction of Confucianism and Taoism in the 6th century BC, and then Buddhism in the first century BC. In China, God was worshipped under the name ShangTi ("the emperor above"). From the very first dynasty of China, approximately 2205 BC, ShangTi was worshipped in the annual ceremony of the border sacrifice. The chief participant in this ceremony was the emperor, who was required to worship ShangTi with words and songs that included the following:
- Grant, O Te [ShangTi], Thy great blessing to increase the happiness of my house . . . While we celebrate His great name, what limit can there be, or what measure? For ever He setteth fast the high heavens, and established the solid earth. His government is everlasting. His unworthy servant, I bow my head, I lay it in the dust, bathed in His grace and glory . . . Your sovereign goodness cannot be measured. As a potter, You have made all living things.
- When Te [ShangTi], the Lord, had so decreed, He called into existence heaven, earth, and man. Between heaven and earth He separately placed in order men and things, all overspread by the heavens.
These ideas are consistent with the traditional view of Judaism, Christianity, and the original belief of Islam, that the first books of the Bible are a revelation of God to man, and that God revealed Himself to mankind at the very beginning as the one God whom alone should be worshipped.
Was Akhenaten the first monotheist?
In Egypt's 18th Dynasty, the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten abandoned the worship of Amon and the many other gods of Egypt and established the worship of the sun-disk as his official religion. This religious reform was overthrown in the days of his son and successor Tutankhamen. Akhenaten has therefore been called by some "the first monotheist," and Sigmund Freud wrote a book entitled "Moses and Monotheism" in which he suggested that Moses was a follower of Akhenaten, and so the idea of one God, the Creator, was ultimately derived from Akhenaten.
The idea that Akhenaten was the world's first monotheist is effectively refuted by the evidence, cited above, that many cultures, in many parts of the world, give evidence to a primitive monotheism long before the time of Egypt's 18th Dynasty. It also assumes that Moses lived after Akhenaten. Most Egyptologists date Akhenaten from approximately 1366 to 1349 BC (upper chronology) or 1352 to 1336 BC (lower chronology). This would require dating the Exodus at some time in the 13th or late 14th century BC, which is inconsistent with the chronological datum of 1 Kings 6:1, the chronological data of the book of Judges, and the 19 generations from the time of Moses to the time of Solomon in 1 Chronicles 6:33-37, all of which indicate that the Exodus was in the 15th century BC. The idea that the Bible's monotheistic ideas were derived from Akhenaten also assumes that all the Biblical narratives that show that Abraham, Noah, and other patriarchs worshipped the one true God are false.
If the Exodus is placed in the 15th century BC, however, then a more meaningful insight is suggested regarding Akhenaten's reforms: they would be a distorted version of the monotheism that Egypt knew was practiced by the Israelites who had left them, with such powerful displays of might by their God, at some time in the preceding century.
- Monotheism Merriam-Webster
- Translations from the Qur'an are by Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor Books, 1953).
- Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (rev. ed.: Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984), p. 134.
- Bruce Olson, Bruchko (Charisma House, 1977).
- Giovanni Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla, An Empire Inscribed in Clay (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981) p. 259.
- Ibid., p. 260.
- James Legge, The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Register Office, 1852), pp. 30, 31. Cited in Ethel R. Nelson and Richard E. Broadberry, Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn't Solve (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1994).
- Legge, Notions of the Chinese, p. 29.