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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 3. Polytheism and Monotheism.

Broadly speaking, religious evolution is far from being a steady progress, and, such as it is, is determined in great measure by political and social change. It was certainly a political process, for instance, that established a nominal monotheism among the Hebrews in Palestine; even as it was a political process that established a systematic polytheism in other States. 1 Primarily, all tribes and cities probably tended to worship specially a God, ancestral or otherwise, who was the "Luck" of the community and was at first nameless, or only generically named. Later comparison and competition evolved names; and any association of tribes meant as a matter of course a pantheon, the women of each taking their deities with them when they married into another clan. Ferocious myths and theological historiography in the Hebrew books tell amply of the anxiety of the priests of Yahweh at a comparatively late stage to resist this natural drift of things; and the history, down to the Captivity, avows their utter failure.

Neither in the attempt nor in its failure is there anything out of the ordinary way of religious evolution. While some theorists (with Renan) credit Israel with a unique bias to monotheism, others,

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unable to see how Israel could be thus unique, infer either an early debt to the higher monotheistic thought of Egypt or (with Ewald) an original reaction on the part of Moses against Egyptian polytheism. All three inferences are gratuitous. Renan's thesis that a special bias to monotheism was set up in the early Semites by their environment is contradicted by all their ancient history, and is now abandoned by theologians. 1 The story of Moses in Egypt is a flagrant fiction; and "Moab, Ammon, and Edom, Israel's nearest kinsfolk and neighbours, were monotheists in precisely the same sense in which Israel itself was" 2—that is to say, they too had special tribal Gods whom their priests sought to aggrandise. There is no reason to doubt that such priests fought for their Baals as Yahwists did for Yahweh. The point of differentiation in Israel is not any specialty of consciousness, but the specialty of evolution ultimately set up in their case through the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus.

All the earlier Palestinian groups tended to be monotheistic and polytheistic in the same way. When tribes formally coalesced in a city or made a chief, a chief God was likely to be provided by the "paramount" tribe or cult, 3 unless he were framed out of the local fact of the city, or the mere principle of alliance. 4 In the case of the Hebrews, the cult of Yah, or Yahu, or Yahweh, was simply a local worship sometimes aggrandised by the King, and documentally imposed on the fictitious history of the nation long afterwards. 5 In the miscellaneous so-called prophecies ascribed to Jeremiah there is overwhelming testimony to the boundless polytheism of the people even in Jerusalem, the special seat of Yahweh, just before the Captivity. Either these documents preserve the historic facts or they were composed by Yahwists to terrorise yet a later generation of Hebrew polytheists. Not till a long series of political pressures and convulsions had eliminated the variant stocks and forces, and built up a special fanaticism for one cult, did an ostensible monotheism really hold the ground in the sacred city. 6

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That this monotheism was "religious" in the arbitrary and unscientific sense of being neither ethical nor philosophical it might seem needless to deny; but the truth is that it represents the ethic of a priesthood seeking its own ends. The main thesis of the prophetic and historical books is simply the barbaric doctrine that Yahweh is the God of Israel, whom he sought to make "a people unto him"; that Israel's sufferings are a punishment for worshipping the Gods of other peoples; and that Yahweh effects the punishment by employing as his instruments those other peoples, who, if Yahweh be the one true God, are just as guilty as Israel. There is here, obviously, no monotheism properly so-called, even when the rival Gods are called non-Gods. 1 Such an expression does not occur in the reputedly early writings; and when first employed it is but a form of bluster natural to warring communities at a certain stage of zealotry; it is known to have been employed by the Assyrians and Egyptians as spontaneously as by the Hebrews; 2 and it stands merely for the stress of cultivated fanaticism in priest-taught communities. The idea that Yahweh used other nations as the "rod of his anger" against Israel and Judah, without desiring to be worshipped by those other nations, is a mere verbal semblance of holding him for the only God; and arises by simple extension of the habit of seeing a chastisement from the tribe's God in any trouble that came upon it.

Here we are listening to a lesson given by priests. On the other hand, the politic course of conciliating the Gods of the foe, practised by the senate-ruled Romans, tells of the grafting of the principle of sheer worldly or military prudence on that of general religious credulity in a community where priesthood as such was but slightly developed. Morally and rationally speaking, however, there is no difference of plane between the Roman and the Hebrew conceptions. 3 Jeremiah, proclaiming that "the showers have been withheld" by "the Lord that giveth rain," 4 is on that side, indeed, at the intellectual level of any tribal medicine-man; and if the writers of such doctrine could really have believed what their words

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at times implied, that the alleged one sole God desired the devotion of Israel alone, leaving all other peoples to the worship of chimæras, they would have been not above but below the intellectual and moral level of the professed polytheists around them.

On any view, indeed, they were morally lower in that they were potentially less sympathetic. So far as can be historically gathered, the early monotheistic idea, so-called, arose by way of an angry refusal to say, what the earlier Yahwists had constantly said and believed, that other nations had their Gods like Israel. There is thus only a quibbling truth in the thesis that monotheism does not grow out of polytheism, but out of an "inchoate monotheism" which is the germ of polytheism and monotheism alike. 1 The "inchoate monotheism" in question being simply the worship of one special tribal God, is itself actually evolved from a prior polytheism, for the conception of a single national God is relatively late, and even that of a tribal God emerges while men believe in many ungraded Gods. It is quite true that later polytheism arises by the collocation of tribal Gods; but there is absolutely no known case of a monotheism which did not emerge in a people who normally admitted the existence of a multitude of Gods. Even, then, if the first assertors of a Sole God were so in virtue of a special intuition, that intuition was certainly developed in a polytheistic life. And there is absolutely no reason to doubt, on the other hand, that in Israel as elsewhere there were men who reached monotheism by philosophic progression from polytheism.

The historic evolution of Jewish monotheism, however, was certainly not of this order. It was not even, as Robertson Smith with much candour of intention implied, "nothing more than a consequence of the alliance of religion with monarchy." 2 Monarchy in Mesopotamia and Egypt never induced monotheism; and most of the Jewish kings were on the face of the record polytheists. The development, as we shall see, was post-monarchic and hierocratic; and the immediate question is whether the spirit which promoted it was either morally or intellectually superior. The judicial answer must be that it was not. Insofar as it was a sincere fanaticism, a fixed idea that one God alone was to be recognised, though he devoted himself to one small group of men, it partook of the nature of mono- mania, since it utterly excluded any deep or scrupulous reflection on

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human problems; and insofar as it was not fanatical it was simply the sinister self-assertion of priests bent on establishing their monopoly.

The contrary view, that a belief in the existence of the Gods of other tribes than one's own is "obviously" a "lower form of faith than that of the man who worships only one god and believes that as for the gods of the heathen, they are but idols," 1 must just be left to the strengthening moral sense of men. Such an assumption necessarily leads, in consistency, to the thesis that the man who believes his tribe has the One God all to itself does so in virtue of a unique "revelation"; and this is implied in the further description of true monotheism as proceeding on an "inner consciousness that the object of man's worship is one and indivisible, one and the same God always." On this basis, sheer stress of egoism is the measure of religiosity; and as the mere scientific reason cannot suppose such egoism to have been a monopoly of the Hebrews, it would follow, for ordinary minds, that revelation occurred in every separate cult in the world. It is indeed certain that even among polytheists a special absorption in the thought of one God is a common phenomenon. 2 Thus there are as many revelations as there are Gods and Goddesses, all alike being vouched for by the "spiritual depths of man's nature."

Unless rational thought is once more to be bridled by absolutism, such a line of reasoning must be classed with the pretensions of the medieval papacy. Men not already committed to dogma cannot conceive that a religion is to be appraised in utter disregard of its relation to universal morals, on a mere à priori principle as to the nobility of monotheism—especially when the principle is set up for one monotheism alone. It is merely a conventional result of the actual course of the evolution of the Christian system that quasi-monotheism as such should be assumed to be an advance on other forms of creed, with or without exception of the case of Islam. A certain intellectual gain may indeed arise where a cult dispenses with and denounces images; this, even if the variation arose, as is likely, not by way of positive reasoning on the subject, but by the simple chance of conservatism in a local cult which had subsisted long without images for sheer lack of handicraftsmen to make them. 3

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[paragraph continues] But the gain is slight indeed when the anthropomorphic idea of the God's local residence is stressed exactly as his imaged presence is stressed elsewhere, and when in every other respect his worship and ethic are on the common anthropomorphic level. 1 In any case it is clear that such monotheism could not be made by mere asseveration, with or without "genius," to prevail against the polytheism of a population not politically selected on a monotheistic basis.

Even if it were, however, it would depend on further and special causes or circumstances whether the worshippers underwent any new moral development. 2 The conventional view unfortunately excludes the recognition of this; hence we have the spectacle of a prolonged dispute 3 as to whether savage races can ever have the notion of a "Supreme Being" or "Creator" or "High God," or "All Father," with the assumption on both sides that if the affirmative can be formally made out the savages in question are at once invested with a higher intellectual and spiritual character—as if a man who chanced to call his God "High" and "Good" thereby became good and high-thinking. 4 All the while Mr. Lang, the chief champion of the affirmative, avows that his Supreme-Being-worshipping savages in Australia would kill their wives if the latter overheard the "high" theistic and ethical doctrine of the mysteries. 5 Even apart from such an avowal, it ought to be unnecessary to point out that terms of moral description translated from the language of savages to that of civilised men have a merely classifying force, and in themselves can justify no moral conclusion in terms of our own doctrines, any more than their use of terms like "Creator" can be held to imply a philosophical argument as to a "First Cause." 6

Two moral and intellectual tests at least must be applied to any

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doctrine or cult of "monotheism" before it can be graded above any form of polytheism: we must know whether it involves a common ethic for the community of the worshipper and other communities; and whether it sets up a common ethic of humanity within the community. Either test may in a given case be partially satisfied while the other is wholly unsatisfied. Thus we have the pre-exilic Hebrews and (perhaps) some modern Australian aborigines 1 affirming a "One God" who is "Creator" of all, and yet treating all strangers as outside of the God's providence or law; while on the other hand we had till recently the Khonds, with their human sacrifices to the Goddess Tari and their doctrine of a Supreme God, proclaiming that the victim whom they liturgically tortured or tore to pieces was sacrificed for "the whole world," the responsibility for its welfare having been laid on their sect. 2 To set such "monotheism" or such Soterism above late Greek or Roman polytheism or Hindoo pantheism is possible only under an uncritical convention. 3 We must try Hebrew religion by moral tests if we are to grade it in a moral scale with others; and by such tests it is found to be anti-moral in its very monotheism. As for its records, we find its most impressive myths (to say nothing of the others) duplicated among some of the primitive tribes in India in our own day. One such tribe ascribes to a sacred bull the miracle of Joshua, the turning back of the sun in its course; another has a legend that is a close counterpart of that of the Exodus—the dividing of the waters by the God to enable the tribe to escape a pursuing king. 4

Genius, no doubt, did arise in the shape of an occasional monotheist with both literary gift and higher ethical and cosmical ideals than those of the majority; and though there is reason to surmise lateness as regards the "prophetic" teachings of that order, 5 it is not to be disputed that such thinkers (whom Dr. Jevons would deny to be thinkers) may have existed early. But the broad historic fact remains that by the ostensibly latest prophet in the canon Yahweh is represented as complaining bitterly of the frauds committed on him in the matter of tithes and sacrifices. "Offer it now unto thy governor: will he be pleased with thee?" he is made to say concerning the damaged victims brought to his altar. 6 And the very prophet of the Restoration lays down, or is made to lay

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down, the old doctrine of the tribal medicine-man very much in the language of a modern company-promoter:—

And it shall come to pass that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year, to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles [more correctly booths].

And it shall be that whoso of all the families of the earth goeth not up unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, even upon them there shall be no rain.

And if the family of Egypt go not up, and come not, neither shall it be upon them; there shall be the plague [or upon them shall be the plague] wherewith the Lord will smite the nations that go not up to keep the feast of tabernacles. 1

If this were the whole or the principal historical clue to the motives of the Return, we should be moved to decide that that movement was simply a sacro-commercial venture, undertaken by men who had seen how much treasure was to be made by any shrine of fair repute for antiquity and sanctity. The other records, of course, enable us to realise that there entered into it the zeal of a zealous remnant, devoted to the nominal cult of their fathers’ city and the memories of their race. But with such a document before us we are forced to recognise, what we might know from other details in sacerdotal history to be likely, that with the zealots there went the exploiters of zealotry. It is certain that the men of the Return were for the most part poor: a Talmudic saying preserves the fact that those who had done well in Babylon remained there; 2 and, on the other hand, it holds to reason that among the less prosperous there would be some adventurers, certainly not unbelievers, but believers in Mammon as well as in another God.

Such men had abundant reason to believe in Yahweh as a source of revenue. The prophetic and historic references to him as a rain-giver are so numerous as to give a broad support to Goldziher's theory that the God of the Hebrews had been a Rain- God first and a Sun-God only latterly; and in sun-scorched Syria a God of Rain was as sure an attraction as the Syrian Goddess herself, who in Lucian's day had such treasure-yielding prestige. But even if we ignore the economic motive, obvious as it is, the teaching of Zechariah remains undeniably tribalist and crassly unedifying. To such doctrine as this can be attributed neither the

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intellectual nor the moral advantages theoretically associated with monotheism in culture-history. It is historically certain that science never made in Jewry any such progress as the monotheistic conception has been supposed to promote; and whatever general elevation of moral thought may have taken place among the teachers of later Jewry is clearly to be ascribed not to a fortuitous upcrop of genius—though that was not absent—but to the chastening effect of disaster and frustration, forcing men to deep reverie and the gathering of the wisdom of sadness. And to this they may have been in a measure helped by the higher ethical teachings current among their polytheistic conquerors and neighbours. There emerges the not discomforting thought that it is from suffering and the endurance of wrong, not from triumph and prosperity, that men have reached an ideal in religion which renounces all the egoisms of race and cult. Such an experience could have come to other victims of Babylon, brought within the Babylonian world before the Jews. But the trouble was that only there could a wisdom of self-renunciation subsist in any communal shape: in the Hebrew books, however introduced, it was forever doubled with the lore of savagery and tribalism, the worst religious ethic always jostling the best.


66:1 See below, § 4-7.

67:1 Cp. Prof. Karl Marti, Gesch. der Israelit. Relig. 1907. p. 23.

67:2 Wellhausen, Israel, in vol. with tr. of Prolegomena, p. 440. Cp. Marti, as cited, p. 64.

67:3 Cp. Jevons, p. 391.

67:4 E.g. "the covenant God" in Jud. ix, 46.

67:5 Cp. Joshua xxiv, 2, 14, 23, and the myth in Exodus vi, 3 (Heb.), where it is admitted early Israelites had worshipped El Shaddai. To speak of the "constant back-slidings" of the people, as Dr. Jevons still does, is but to revive the hallucination set up by the pseudo-history. There never was, before the exile, any true national monotheism to backslide from.

67:6 Cp. Marti, as last cited. "Had, then, the Mosaic law no sort of authority in the had form of Judah—could it be transgressed with impunity? The answer is simple. It had force in so far as the king permitted to have any. It had no authority independently of him. It was never either proclaimed or sworn to."—Kuenen, Lecture on The Five Books of Moses, Muir's trans. 1877, p. 22. And even the assumption that there was a "Mosaic law" is open to challenge.

68:1 E.g., Jer. v, 7. As Kuenen notes (Religion of Israel, Eng. tr. i, 51-52), such passages are few in the prophetic books. In Hosea xiii, 4, there is no such implication; and the "non-God" passages are all presumptively late. The Aramaic verse, Jer. x, 11, is an interpolation; and the whole chapter is relatively late.

68:2 Cp. Isa. x, 16-11; 2 Kings, xviii, 33-35; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 129; Tiele, Histoire comparée des anciennes religions, Fr. trans. pp. 243, 247.

68:3 Gladstone, it will be remembered, confessed that the ethic of the early Hebrews is below that of the Achæan Greeks. Landmarks in Homeric Study, p. 95. If, indeed, we could believe the awful tales of God-commanded massacres told in the Hexateuch, we should have to place the "Mosaic" Hebrews on a level with the most cruel savages of whom we have any record. The priests who compiled these hideous fables were doing their best to sink Hebrew life and morals far below the plane of those of Babylon.

68:4 Jer. iii. 3; v, 24.

69:1 This argument of Dr. Jevons (pp. 385-7) is a revival of an old thesis. "Monotheism and polytheism," writes J. G. Müller (Amerik. Urrelig. p. 19), "diverge not through grade the Godhead but through difference of principle, through the primarily different relation to the Godhead. From polytheism nations emerged not by mounting on the same ladder, by leaving it, by the inception of a new spiritual force (Geistes schöpfung)."

69:2 Religion of the Semites, p. 74.

70:1 Jevons, p. 387.

70:2 Cp. Max Müller, Introd. to Science of Relig. ed. 1882, pp. 80-81; Tiele, Egypt. Relig., pp. 33, 223; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 89, 90, 96, 97, 100, 108, 109.

70:3 That Yahweh was, however, imaged in northern Israel as a young bull—a symbolic form common to him and Moloch—is beyond doubt. Cp. Kuenen, Religion of Israel, 1, 235-6. Here the Yahwists probably adopted images made by more advanced races. Cp. on the other hand Goldziher's theory that the early Hebrews worshipped the night sky and the cloudy sky—objects not adaptable to images (Mythology among the Hebrews, Eng. tr. pp. 220-227).

71:1 The barbarous Khonds, who till recently practised human sacrifice, rejected both images and temples as absurd; and the cults of the Maories, though not imageless, as is stated by Macpherson (Memorials of Service in India, p. 102), made small account of images as such. They were in fact treated as being in themselves nothing, being "only thought to possess virtue or peculiar sanctity from the presence of the God they represented when dressed up for worship" (Rev. R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui, 1870, pp. 211-214). They were thus in the strict sense fetishes. But the Khonds are without durable houses (Id. p. 61); and they and the Maories alike were of course backward in the arts. In Fiji a similar state of things prevailed (Seeman, in Galton's Vacation Tourists, 1862, p. 269). As to the Vedic Aryans there is debate, Max Müller holding them to have had no idols (Chips, i, 38), while Muir cites texts which seem to imply that they had them (Original Sanskrit Texts, v. 453-4).

71:2 Prof. A. Réville, a monotheist and semi-Christian, avows that "nous trouvons en plein paganisme une obscure et grossière tendance au monothéisme. On pressent que la divinité n’est, en réalité, ni masculine ni féminine, qu’elle possède les deux sexes ou n’en possède aucun. De là des symboles monstrueux, des mutilations, ou des impuretés indescriptibles" (Prolégomènes de l’histoire des religions, 3e édit. p. 172).

71:3 See it carried on in Mr. Lang's Magic and Religion, as against Dr. Tylor, who has latterly taken up the negative position. Mr. Lang's thesis is discussed in the author's Studies in Religious Fallacy, and in Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 46-68. Like that of Dr. Jevons, Mr. Lang's view has much in common with the teaching of Prof. Max Müller, which is closely criticised by Mr. Spencer in App. B. to vol. i of his Principles of Sociology, Some of Mr. Spencer's own arguments there are, however, open to rebuttal.

71:4 "Good" was one of the epithets of Assur. Sayce, p. 124.

71:5 Magic and Religion, p. 460

71:6 Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 47-8.

72:1 Lang, Making of Religion, pp. 190-8.

72:2 Macpherson, Memorials of Service in India, pp. 98, 115, 116, 117, 122.

72:3 Cp. Tiele, Hist. comp. des anciennes religions, Fr. trans. pp. 502-3.

72:4 Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 1909, iii, 221; y, 74-75.

72:5 Cp. A Short History of Freethought, i, 104-9.

72:6 Malachi, i, 8. Cp. i, 14; iii, 8-10.

73:1 Zechariah xiv, 16-18. Compare the less explicit utterances of deutero-Isaiah (Isa. lx, etc.), which, however, imply no higher, conception of the relation of Judaism to the Gentiles.

73:2 Prideaux, The Old and New Testaments Connected, Pt. i, B. iii.

Next: § 4. Hebrews and Babylonians