e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism

The raison d’etre for “Pagan Monotheism”, in their own words

1999 saw the publication of the book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, and with contributions by M.L. West, John Dillon, Stephen Mitchell, and Wolf Liebeschuetz. The book, in turn, was the result of a conference on “Pagan forms of monotheism in late antiquity” that had taken place in 1996 at Oxford.

Athanassiadi and Frede state in their Introduction:


“The seminar [and subsequently the book] arose out of our dissatisfaction with what we take to be a misconception … that in the Graeco-Roman world … Christianity, in the tradition of Jewish monotheism, succeeded in replacing invariably polytheistic systems of religious belief with a monotheistic creed. By contrast it is our view that monotheism … was increasingly widespread by the time of late antiquity, certainly among the educated and in particular in the Greek east. And we are inclined to attribute much of the success of Christianity in that world to its advocacy of a way of seeing things, of thinking and acting, which it shared with a growing number of pagans ….” [p. 1]

And then they add this:


“Another even more important cause of our dissatisfaction is a general attitude associated with the above, reflecting the simple unqualified belief that, in being converted to Christianity, pagans were induced to reject their polytheism in favor of a monotheistic religion. This approach, which ultimately derives from the Christian Apologists of late antiquity, emphasizes the difference between Christianity and paganism in a stark and simplistic way which makes one overlook substantial similarities between the two ….” [pp. 1-2]

Stephen Mitchell, in his contribution to the book states that:


” … the monotheistic conceptions of a widespread and popular religious culture were the seed-bed into which Jewish and Christian theology could readily be planted. Without them the transformation of ancient patterns of belief from pagan polytheism to the predominantly monotheistic systems of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would not only have been far less tidy and unidirectional than it was, it might not have occurred at all.” [p. 128]

Baiting, switching, moving the goal-posts, etc.

Eleven years after the initial conference, another conference was organized on the theme of “Pagan Monotheism in the Roman World”. The following is taken from the website advertising that conference, under the heading “Terminology and Concepts”:


The term monotheism is a modern one (16th century) and is traditionally used for strictly monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is certainly wrong to understand pagan monotheism in the same terms as these religions. For that reason terms like henotheism, monolatry and cosmotheism have been coined in the past. This raises the question of terminology. It seems we have the choice either to reserve the term ‘monotheism’ for a very limited kind of religious phenomena like Christianity and to use neologisms for slightly different religious forms; or to use monotheism as a heuristical tool in a more diffuse sense, in order to include also phenomena like the veneration of a highest god or religious exclusivism in a polytheistic context.

Having first claimed that “pagan monotheism” helps to explain “substantial similarities” between Paganism and Christianity, the story abruptly and fundamentally changes with the admission that whatever “pagan monotheism” might be, it is “certainly wrong to understand pagan monotheism in the same terms” as the monotheism of Christianity! The choice of words here could not be more surreal. The proponents of “pagan monotheism” have themselves chosen to use, literally, “the same term”, that is, “monotheism”, to describe the theological positions of both Pagans and Christians. But then ten years later they proceed to place an asterisk next to this claim of commonality, admitting that “monotheism” cannot be understood “in the same terms” when it is attached to Paganism as opposed to Christianity!

Instead of “reserving” the term monotheism for people who only believe in one God (that is, “reserving” the term for … well, for the meaning that it has always had), Athanassiadi, Frede, Mitchell, et al, wish to redefine monotheism to fit their theory (now that they realize that without such a radical and arbitrary change in the meaning of the word “monotheism” their theory is utterly incoherent). According to their proposed new approach to “monotheism”, the word should be used with no very specific meaning at all, but only as a “heuristic tool with a more diffuse sense”. And just how diffuse? Well, diffuse enough to include anyone who shows “veneration for a highest God.” Well, wouldn’t that include, for example, Homer and Hesiod!? But then who in hell’s bells is left as a polytheist?!?!?!?

One gets the strong impression that the meaning of monotheism doesn’t really matter, so long as it can be used to prop up a certain narrative of the process of Christianization in late antiquity. According to that narrative there was no spiritual break with the past involved in conversion to Christianity, since, it is supposed, many Greeks and Romans (especially the smart ones, we are led to believe) had already realized the error of “primitive” polytheism and embraced the more “advanced” ideology of monotheism.* Because of this the transition from Paganism to Christianity was “tidy” and “unidirectional” (see quote C. above from Mitchell).

Tidy? Unidirectional? Really? A passage from Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine, in which he describes the tense religious situation in North Africa in the year 410, gives a rather different picture:


“For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions … used to pave public highways.” [p. 185]

Brown also insists that at the time (the early 5th century) the “unidirectionality” of Christianization was very far from certain. And this was especially (although not at all exclusively) true, according to Brown, among the educated elites. In the excerpt below, Brown paints a vivid picture of the mental universe of the deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century:


“The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry, could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation …. to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements.” [p. 300]

Note how different this is from the impression given by the proponents of “pagan monotheism”, who repeatedly claim that it was precisely the educated elites, and even more precisely, those influenced by the philosophical writings of Plotinus and Porphyry, who helped to make the process of Christianization not only “tidy” and “unidirectional”, but even possible “at all”.

This last point bears emphasizing. The Pagan philosophical tradition of late antiquity, far from providing some kind of missing link between Paganism and Christianity, was a source of stubbornly determined resistance to the process of Christianization. And far from blurring the differences between polytheism and monotheism, late antique Pagans of a philosophical bent emphasized the great theological chasm, from their perspective, that separated their “ancestral traditions coeval with time” from the new religion with only one God.

*[P.S. Of course, Mitchell, Athanassiadi, Frede, et al are (just barely, I am beginning to think) smart enough to avoid actually using words like “primitive” to refer to polytheism and “advanced” to refer to monotheism, but they manage to make their bias abundantly clear without quite spelling it out so crudely.]

P.P.S. Slight edits were made on Wed. April 22 at 6:08 PM.

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Hic Sunt Dracones

9 responses to “Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism

  1. mamiel April 27, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Ya, know, she might be right by saying that they were not “religious in our sense”. If our current sense of religion is a contractual agreement with a diety that is very interested in our sex lives and ready to cast us into hell, then, nope, the Greeks were not religious in our sense.

  2. Apuleius Platonicus April 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

    mamiel (on karen armstrong): “She has a sort of hopelessly monotheist viewpoint through.”In my opinion that is putting it very nicely. Did you see her on Bill Moyers a few weeks back? She actually said that “the Greeks” “may not have been religious in our sense”.Armstrong focuses on two major ideas in “religion”: (1) compassion, and (2) the golden rule. Both of those come Hellenic Paganism. And yet those Pagans “may not have been religious in our sense.”Imagine if she said that about any other group!Here’s the transcript from Bill’s show:http://tinyurl.com/l9unw

  3. mamiel April 22, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    “The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation”Well, this is probably why Julian forbid Christians from classical education. His point was, how can you draw on Hellenist texts for knowledge, then turn around and bash polytheism? Christianity had no real intellectual heritage. All It had a few stories by a few Palestinians. So he said “let them have Mark and Luke” or something like that. Jews also took to the Greek philosophy when introduced to it and were “hellenized” but they reconstructed it in a monotheist way. “Wisdom” in their eyes, was fearing and following Jehovah. I just went back to read some of Karen Armstrong’s writings on the Hellenization of Judaism, there’s some good stuff there. She has a sort of hopelessly monotheist viewpoint through. It can be frustrating at times.

  4. annyikha April 22, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    *nods* I much prefer the argument in God Against the Gods, but as I am a polytheist, I think it’s quite clear why. Pagan monotheism cannot be compatible with Abrahamic monotheism because Pagan monotheism seems like a much more fluid concept. As in, it doesn’t require razing altars or scraping skin off of mobbed women with shells to prove an individual’s piety.I’ve read that a lot of Romans liked Judaism, too. Heard somewhere that there were viewing galleries in some Jewish worship areas so curious Romans could engage in religious tourism. ^_^

  5. Al April 21, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    I wouldn’t generally disagree though there is the example of Pseudo-Dionysus.

  6. Apuleius Platonicus April 21, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Of course it’s true that Platonism is monistic to a great extent – but then again it is also decidedly dualistic since a strict distinction between the corporeal and the non-corporeal is one of the essential characteristics of Platonism. But it is impossible to justify labeling anyone as a monotheist unless they believe in one and only one God – a position that is impossible to reconcile with the writings of Plato or of any Platonist, in my opinion.

  7. Al April 21, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    I’ve always found Neoplatonism to have its monotheistic strains though, really, it is a kind of monism since it is happy to accommodate many deities (but one unified source).

  8. Apuleius Platonicus April 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    The Romans basically had one rule: religions had to be old, and the older the better. Well, they had another rule, too, I guess: religions were supposed to make demands on the faithful. The Romans saw Judaism as a very ancient religion with lots of rules that are very difficult to follow, so even though it was monotheistic they were often inclined to view it favorably.

  9. mamiel April 21, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Actually, monotheism had to adapt paganism to be at all palatable to the masses. That’s why they introduced the trinity and the veneration of the virgin Mary and ripped off the pagan holidays. Islam had to borrow heavily form the pagan traditions of the region. the haaj was a pagan tradition.That whole idea that monotheism represents some natural progression of man is malarky. I will say though, that there were Romans who were drawn to the Jewish faith and had respect for it. I am sure there were some people who were excited by monotheism when it was introduced to them, but in no way was this the majority.

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