BMCR 2011.08.12

One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire

, , One God. Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 239. ISBN 9780521194167. $95.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is one of two volumes edited by these same scholars after a 2006 conference at Exeter on ‘Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (1st-4th century A.D.)’.1 This conference aimed to clarify the differences between pagans and Christians in matters of monotheism.

The title of this volume, One God, suggests that the authors agree that there was a notion of ‘one god’ among pagans and that some form of religion had existed that could rightly be called ‘pagan monotheism.’ This is not the case, however, for there is no agreement on the existence of pagan monotheism, nor is there agreement among those scholars who accept this term on how to define it. Two of the papers argue strongly for the view that most of the documentary evidence for what others see as pagan monotheism should be interpreted from a polytheistic viewpoint, that is, as a exalting a divinity within a pluralistic context.

The argumentation on both sides of the issue by authors with strongly held views makes this an exciting volume to read. The contributors confront central issues of definition and theory as well as praxis. Their disagreement on the concept of pagan monotheism shows that there is room for more work on a topic that has contemporary relevance; as Christoph Markschies’s paper shows, the political consequences ascribed to monotheism, including its potential to justify hate and violence based on religious intolerance, would be called into question if one could argue that pagans also practiced monotheism. Indeed, the attributes of monotheism might have to be redefined if pagans could be demonstrated as having practiced it.

One God begins with an excellent introductory chapter by Mitchell and van Nuffelen that provides an overall theoretical framework to address the questions raised by the notion of pagan monotheism in the first three centuries. They discuss the impact and criticism of the influential 1999 set of papers edited by P. Athanassiadi and M. Frede (eds.), Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity.2 Mitchell and Nueffelen discuss how One God advances beyond this earlier collection by, in the first place, considering cult and praxis rather than the pagan philosophical tradition for monotheism. Several of the papers in One God thus follow the path laid by Stephen Mitchell’s influential 1999 paper on Theos Hypsistos by considering pagan religious cults in terms of monotheism.3 The challenge is to demonstrate that pagan cults that use monotheistic terminology are not masking a religion that is fundamentally polytheistic. Beyond this, Van Nuffelen would like to consider pagan monotheism as a concept or heuristic device to ask further questions about the development of religion in the Roman world. This volume focuses on the pre-Constantinian period in the Roman empire, in contrast to both the earlier 1999 volume and to the companion volume, Monotheism between Pagans and Christians, that examines the later fourth century debates between Platonists and Christians.

The editors divide the essays in One God into roughly two groups. The first deals with conceptual issues concerning the definition and implications of pagan monotheism. But even in these theoretical essays, there is less emphasis on monotheism as a philosophy and more on it as a religious phenomenon within a social context. Though this first group uses documentary evidence to make its case, it is the second group of papers that highlights this evidence for cults and rituals to demonstrate or deny pagan monotheism. This evidence, perhaps understandably, is almost entirely focused on the eastern empire. But even in this second group of papers, theoretical questions and analytical categories are taken into account.

Eight chapters then take up these issues. Peter Van Nuffelen discusses the viability of pagan monotheism as a religious phenomenon and set of practices, and how ancient philosophical concepts of the divine were filtered into it. He concludes: “As I see it, pagan monotheism is a possible interpretation of change in the religion of the Roman Empire from the first century onwards, for which the major element is a new way in which people start to conceive godhead,” (pp. 32- 33). It is but one of many possible means of interpretation. In essence, pagan monotheism becomes a heuristic device.

John North’s essay attempts to shift the discussion away from the potentially problematic notion of monotheism to consider how religion changed over the course of the first four centuries of the empire. In his view, not only philosophy, but especially social factors are important for understanding changes in belief, ritual and group dynamics in the Roman Empire. He does not deny that “from the fourth century AD onwards the predominant religious view came to be the direction of belief and worship towards a single deity,” (p. 37) but he does argue that this change was not the most important one in the Empire and that it did not determine other changes in key ways. This provocative statement requires a fuller study.

Michael Frede turns to the philosophical distinctions between polytheistic and monotheistic gods. The complexities of belief make these terms too vague to be useful. But, he argues, some ancient writers – Antisthenes, Chrysippus and Galen – do discuss a singular transcendent god that would fit the parameters of monotheism, as later described.

In an elegant essay, Alfons Fürst demonstrates the relative lack of importance of the question of the One God versus the Many. By comparing the debates between Augustine and the Platonists with that of Origen and Celsus, he shows, in support of North’s thesis, that the primary matter was not the number of the gods worshipped, but the nature of that single divine being. This contrasts with the earlier views of Origen and Celsus; the latter, though willing to accept the Platonist notion of a single god still considered the multiplicity of gods as fundamental to the human race. Celsus’s view contrasts with Origen’s view of a god who was absolute and denied relativity. As Fürst rightly observes: “The decisive differences between pagan and Christian monotheism were to be identified in religious practice and its social and political implications” (p. 97). The author does accept the reality of pagan monotheism, but its significance does not lie in its theology.

Christoph Markschies responds to the influential publications by Jan Assmann, especially Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus.4 Assmann calls monotheism a secondary religion, distinguished from primary (i.e. polytheistic) religions not by its focus on one god, but by its aim “to distinguish true from false doctrine” (p. 100). Assmann’s theory, as Markschies shows, does not conform to historical instances. By considering the ‘one god’ inscriptions that are found in the Near East in pagan, Jewish, Samaritan and Christian traditions, Markschies shows how fluid the lived reality of ancient religion was, between polytheism and monotheism. He appears to see monotheism as a means for each group to define its identity as superior to other groups, rather than as necessarily exclusive of other gods.

Angelis Chaniotis argues against the notion of pagan monotheism as a useful category, for it essentially focuses on numbers, rather than the more important issue of the quality of the divine. The increased tendency in the empire to designate gods as “the greatest’ ( megatheism) is, rather, a function of competition between cities and communities. It also works on a personal level as a means of expressing religiosity. The local, or rather personal, context is expressed in a decidedly polytheistic context.

Nicole Belayche’s paper (which should have followed Markschies’s) also focuses on the ‘one god’ acclamations, but extends beyond this to include Monos and other monotheistic formulae for acclamations found in pagan cult. By placing them within their specific historical backgrounds, he argues that their polytheistic essence is apparent.

The final paper in the volume is by Stephen Mitchell. It is a brilliant rejoinder to critics of his 1999 article on the cult of Theos Hypsistos. Not only does he restate his view that this cult was a form of pagan monotheistic worship apart from Judaism and Christianity in the Roman and late Roman worlds, but he adds new documentation to show the spread of this cult from across the east Mediterranean basin, around the Black Sea, in Egypt, and the Ancient Near East. The catalogue that accompanies the article includes these new inscriptions. This cult and Mitchell’s chapter provide perhaps the best evidence for pagan monotheism as a religion. Yet problems remain. Did these dedicators also dedicate to other gods or goddesses? Did this affect the way they viewed Theos Hypsistos?

Mitchell’s essay ends with a statement worthy of concluding the volume: “We cannot call the cult [of Theos Hypsistos] monotheistic in the strictly exclusive sense that is applied to ancient Judaism and Christianity, but it involved a series of coherent and explicit rituals and practices which were based on belief in a unique, transcendent god, who could not be represented in human form” (p. 197). The acknowledgment that Theos Hypsistos is not exactly like other monotheistic religions does not mean, as Mitchell rightly argues, that elements of monotheism cannot be found in it and in other pagan cults. But this lack of exclusivity does open up the possibility of claiming that pagan monotheism also has elements of polytheism. The fluidity in defining pagan monotheism reflects the fluidity of the religious realities in which these cults were worshipped.

Whether or not one finds the term pagan monotheism useful, and I do, this volume is nonetheless extraordinarily effective in conveying the continuities between paganism, ancient Judaism and Christianity. This is an important series of papers that demonstrates why ancient religions should be studied within their local and regional contexts but not removed from theoretical concerns.

Table of Contents

Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen, “Introduction: the debate about pagan monotheism,” pp. 1-15.

Peter Van Nuffelen, “Pagan monotheism as a religious phenomenon,” pp. 16-33.

John North, “Pagan ritual and monotheism,” pp. 34-52.

Michael Frede, “The case for pagan monotheism in Greek and Graeco-Roman antiquity,” pp. 53-81.

Alfons Fürst, “Monotheism between cult and politics: the themes of the ancient debate between pagan and Christian monotheism, “pp. 82-99.

Christoph Markschies, “The price of monotheism: some new observations on a current debate about late antiquity,” pp. 100-111.

Angelos Chaniotis, “Metatheism: the search for the almighty god and the competition of cults,” pp. 112-141.

Nicole Belayche, “Deus deum… summorum maximus (Apuleius): ritual expressions of distinction in the divine world in the imperial period,” pp. 141-166.

Stephen Mitchell, “Further thoughts on the cult of Theos Hypsistos,” pp. 167-208.


1. The other volume edited by Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen is Monotheism between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 12. Leuven: Peeters, 2010. This volume was reviewed by Jane Heath in BMCR 2011.01.31.

2. P. Athanassadi and M. Frede (eds.), is Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

3. S. Mitchell, “The cult of Theos Hypsistos between pagans, Jews and Christians,” in Athanassiadi and Frede , 1999, pp. 81-148.

4. J. Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus, Munich and Vienna: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2003.