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This Live Science article provides an interesting overview of current scholars' thinking about the historical evolution from polytheism to monotheism (e.g., the Abrahamic religions). Surprisingly, it turns out that some scholars believe our modern usage of 'monotheism' to denote the existence of a single deity isn't the same as older / ancient beliefs some call monotheism. The difference relates to those older beliefs' prescribing there was only one god to be worshipped rather than one god that existed at all.
FULL STORY: https://www.livescience.com/polytheism-to-monotheism.htmlWhat led to the emergence of monotheism?
Over half the world practices Christianity, Islam or Judaism, according to Pew Research Center. These religions are all monotheistic, involving the worship of one God. But according to scholars, our modern understanding of monotheism is a recent phenomenon — more recent even than the religions it describes.
So, how did monotheism emerge?
The answer is complicated. Monotheism didn't emerge with Judaism, nor Christianity, nor Islam, according to scholars. It's a modern concept. And depending on how you define it, it either emerged thousands of years before these major religions, or hundreds of years later. ...
At a surface level, many ancient religions look polytheistic. Whether you're looking at Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, the Kingdom of Aksum in northern Africa or ancient Israel: all of these civilizations once worshipped many gods. The reality is a little more complicated, said Andrew Durdin, a religious historian at Florida State University.
"When you look across human history, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism kind of falls apart" ...
Across cultures, pantheons, or groups of deities specific to a particular religion, were often written about as expressions of the same divine entity, similar to how Christians worship the Holy Trinity ...
This concept of divine unity wasn’t unique to Mesopotamia; this same concept existed in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. ...
Put another way, ancient people may have viewed multiple gods from different cultures as all emanating from the same holy source. ...
It was in this context that religious movements began demanding exclusive worship of one God. In the 14th century B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten established a cult devoted only to the sun god, Aton. ... And some scholars believe it was up to a thousand years later that early Israelites began worshipping only one god: Yahweh, said Matthew Chalmers, a theorist of religion at Northwestern University in Illinois. It was a transition that took centuries, and it would be centuries more before the belief that only one God exists became cemented in Judaism, Chalmers said.
It's important to note that these people didn't think of themselves as monotheists or polytheists. "I don't think it was something ancient people were really interested in," Chalmers told Live Science. These movements didn't deny the existence of other gods. They just demanded that people stop worshipping them. ...
Similarly, early Christians didn't explicitly declare other gods nonexistent; they began referring to them as demons ... Proclamations that there was only one God show up in portions of the Hebrew Bible written around the fifth century B.C. — however, sections written earlier in Jewish history made no such claims ... And it wasn’t until the third and fourth centuries A.D., that the concept of one God finally began appearing in Christian liturgy. However, scholars disagree on the exact timeline ...
"I don't think there is a transition to monotheism," Chalmers said. After all, not everyone even agrees that Christianity, the largest ostensible monotheistic religion, is monotheistic at all, he added — some Jewish and Muslim writers interpreted the Holy Trinity as three gods rather than one. Instead, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism is one we've made in retrospect to try and make sense of our own history.
"It's a modern imposition," Haines said, "It allows us to map monotheism as a move towards progress."