BMCR 2018.12.30

A Social-Political History of Monotheism: From Judah to the Byzantines

, A Social-Political History of Monotheism: From Judah to the Byzantines. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. 242. ISBN 9781138222809. $140.00.


Jeremiah W. Cataldo is a history professor with a history of publishing books on reading the Hebrew bible from the perspective of cultural studies. His particular interest is the development of biblical monotheism in Yehud, as a result of the status of the province within the Persian empire. In one book he addresses the historical situation described in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the way it reflects a theocratic political system and in a second study he showed the way the failed theocracy in Yehud contributed to the exclusionary nature of the form of monotheism that developed out of the Hebrew scriptures. In his own words on the first page of the introduction to the present book, the thesis of these studies boils down to this: “fear and conflict are driving forces behind the historical development of monotheism” (vi).1 In this new book, Cataldo extends the argument to include Christian monotheism, with its own troubled relationship with the Roman empire.

As explained in the first chapter, this book is written from a historical perspective (or, more precisely “social-scientific”) and not from a theological one: religion for Cataldo is ” entirely a human activity” (1). This chapter also claims that monotheism in this restricted sense is based on fear 2 and that it must be understood as a reaction to a very specific set of social and political conditions. Cataldo explains the origin of the word monotheism, the predominantly sociological role of religion (with help from Peter Berger) and then he moves to the issue of evil (which he feels is a major philosophical problem in monotheism). When he then discusses the concept of morality, things get a bit murkier (and certainly not less eclectic) since Cataldo accepts help from the not so clear thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Alain Badiou, but he ends the chapter with a fundamental existential question: “why should I give a shit about dusty old reliquaries and coffins?” (22). I quote this question because it is an indication of the author’s radical use of anachronistic diction: there had been a reference to Agent Mulder just a few pages earlier. And, before we forget, the answer to the blunt question is “because history”.

The structure of the rest of the book is historical and chronological. Cataldo starts in chapter 2 with what he calls the prophetic paradigm in the earlier parts of the Hebrew bible, and he describes prophets as “sociopolitical activists” (47). He shows Isaiah’s role in the development of monotheism in the context of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, which, in turn, leads to a discussion of the use in this period of “Judah” and “Israel” as identifiers and to the terrain explored in his earlier books, the role of the “Babylonian-returnee contingent” in Yehud and their attempt to “restore” something that they called “Israel”:

Rather than reading the biblical texts as confirmation that the returnee community has attained (or was attaining) economic and political power exclusively, one should read them as an attempt to justify why the community should be in a position of authority and, consequently, why it alone should represent the seed of a restored Israel (44).

This is what the next few chapters try to illustrate, first, in chapter 3 going back to Moses and the early views of Yahweh as a symbol of political centralization. Here, Cataldo makes ample use of recent independent (non-theological) historical work, and he does the same in chapter 4 when he discusses the emergence of monotheism. These chapters are the strongest, maybe because the author is operating in the territory explored in his dissertation.

In chapter 5, he leaves that terrain, with a discussion of the Maccabean revolt and the sectarian milieu in which Christianity first appears in chapter 6. These later chapters sometimes read more like a straightforward history of the period than as chapters in a book on monotheism. As he did in the first part, both in the case of the Maccabeans and in that of the different Jewish sects, Cataldo stresses the importance of the relationship of these groups with contemporary empires (first Hasmonaean and then Roman).

For somebody who claims to approach religion from a social-historical perspective, there is not enough reflection on the selection of evidence in the very different time periods under discussion: in the early parts we have mostly the bible’s own word, whereas in the later period we have Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a variety of Roman authors. Especially for the early Christian period, we have much more evidence about the heterogeneous nature of the population of these parts of the world, so a more sophisticated discussion of the social and political reality of Israel/Palestine would not have been impossible. For example, we know from all of these sources that there were different kinds of Judaism in the intertestamental period, whereas in the centuries before, we only have the bible itself as witness of the religious reality on the ground.

As the writing of history, this book is not as successful as it could be, not so much because of the playful anachronisms the author loves so much (not just X-files, but also bible thumpers, Reform Judaism, Bush’s reaction to 9/11, Jerry Falwell), but because he sometimes fails to distinguish clearly between what is happening to Judaism in the first two centuries of Christianity and what Maimonides has to say about the subject a millennium later. There is also no indication in this book that for the most part there was not yet a fixed canon of the Hebrew scriptures, so a term like “literalism” (as in the discussion of the Sadducees) is not useful at this stage, when we do not even know which books were part of the scriptures.

The treatment of early Christianity is marred by a similar kind of teleology (with rabbinic Judaism as the telos of the sections on monotheism in the Hebrew bible): despite the discussion of the growing orthodoxy under the direction of the emperors after Constantine, there is not enough acknowledgment of the divergences of what constituted Christianity in the first four centuries. Cataldo also does not reflect on the fact that the earliest Christian authors wrote in Greek, that the four gospels represent more than one Christianity (and even four different formulations of the titulus crucis, which he discusses at some point as part of his argument).

It is only reluctantly that I mention that there are so many editorial problems with this book, that one cannot call them infelicities. All too often these pages look as though something went wrong in the production of the final manuscript, and, on account of its many inconsistencies, that final manuscript seems not to have had the attentions of an editor. On one occasion emphasis is marked in bold type and not in italics, as in the rest of the book; verbs appear in two variants or are simply missing; adverbs and adjectives are needlessly repeated; principle instead of principal; we find newly invented words such as “veritability” or ideosyncratic use of existing expressions (“fair-weather” or “to draw question”; important works are mentioned in the text that do not make it into the bibliography; there is singular/plural or verb/object discordance; quotations are incomplete or contain spelling or syntax errors; fairly late, one quotation is given in Italian and not translated (without apparent reason, except that Cataldo seems to have written the preface to the book in Trastevere).

The author cannot be blamed for all this: often contemporary academic publishing presses no longer employ copy-editors. This is a great pity because there is certainly room for a social-political history of biblical monotheism, and Jeremiah W. Cataldo demonstrates here that he may well be the person to write it.


1. Jeremiah W. Cataldo. A Theocratic Yehud? Issies of Government in a Persian Province. (London: T & T Clark, 2009) and Breaking Monotheism: Yehud and the Material Formation of Monotheistic Identity. (London: T & T Clark, 2013).

2. See also the other book Cataldo has published this year: Biblical Terror: Why Law and Restoration in the Bible Depend Upon Fear. (London: T & T Clark, 2018).