‘Monotheism’ in 1 Corinthians 8:6

James asks this question on his blog:

What do you think Paul meant in this passage? Was Paul a monotheist in exactly the same sense as his other Jewish contemporaries? Please answer in the comments here, or on your own blog!

via Paul’s Expanded Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 | Exploring Our Matrix.

I would like to open the discussion with a reminder from Philip Davies which I have given in the past about such subjects:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

But the real concern here is how we can make this determination from written sources; was Josephus a ‘monotheist?’  What about Philo?  Were the Gospel authors?  In a world where ancient Jewish synagogues had images of Orpheus, where cultural diversity was as dynamic as it is today, where even ancient historians  and theologians had trouble defining piety, and where social memory was not defined by a ‘history’ of facts but a ‘history’ of mythic tropes, can any determination be made of ‘Pauline theistic thought?’

Let me elaborate.  In intertextual studies, we must ask, in the vein of Roland Barthes, is what we are reading double-voiced?  By ‘double-voiced’ dialogue I refer here to a dialogue which contains, sometimes unbeknownst to the author, a trace of the words of someone else, which retain their own meaning.  And by ‘someone else’ I don’t necessarily mean that the individual in dialogue took the words (as if to steal them) from another, but that through the process of education or assimilation, in a cultural standpoint, the person speaks outside of themselves.  Josephus, for example, writes in a double-voice.  He speaks from a position of being a Jew but also from being assimilated into wealth and prosperity in the Roman elite class.  His words echo the values of both cultures, but at times he speaks from a position of one more than another, or in a manner that does not represent what he portrays himself to be–whether he portrays himself as a pious Jew, for example, comes into question when one sees him writing in ways that subvert his heritage with a Roman or Greek one.

In Paul, we see this as well.  There are clear signs of his Greek education in his writing; his rhetoric, his philosophic understanding, the subtle concepts of Plato’s cave in his use of the language of a mystery religion (“the mature”, “awake/asleep” terminology, initiations, and so forth).  But at times we see direct “Jewish language” (that is, language closely worded to imitate the scriptures he is interpreting) intermixed in his Greek.  We see similar instances in  II Maccabees, which Erich Gruen points out, where the author is directly opposed to the Greeks, yet writes to his audience in Greek and expects his readers (which we assume to be Jewish) are able to understand Greek.

In 1 Cor 8.6, we come to another instance, in my opinion, of such a double-voiced dialogue.  But it must be seen in the context of what surrounds the passage (1 Cor 8:4-11):

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.  But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.  Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

Paul speaks rhetorically and does so for a reason.  He is not saying, “there are no other beings who reside in Heaven”–in fact, quite the contrary, he says that there are beings (and he refers to them often as ‘powers’ [as in Gal 4.3: stoixei=a tou= ko/smou]  or ‘rulers’ [as in Rom 8.38: pe/peismai ga_r o3tiou1te a!ggeloi ou1te a)rxaiou1te duna&meij] of the cosmos).  And he doesn’t even say “don’t participate in the offerings”, but instead issues a warning (paraphrased):  “If you do this, be careful that someone without as much knowledge (more of that mystery-religion language) in Christ (probably referring to a level of initiation–someone who is not yet ‘fully mature’ [as in 1 Cor 2.6-8: te/leioi] or able to understand) as you have might fall prey to the thinking that you are following these idols as Gods.”

The double-voice here is the valuing of a single God in the mix of many, wherein Paul’s “Jewishness” is coming through his rather Greek mystery language.  The danger in assuming monotheism here is it devalues this double-voice and in essence builds a fictional concept of cultural conflict.  We all might hate The Jersey Shore television show, find them all quite annoying, but that doesn’t stop us from dressing up our kids like the cast and tuning in to watch it.  Social conflict exists certainly (well, there was a war after all), but to the extent that there was some sort of “Greek/Roman” vs. “Jew” mentality during this period, at least across the board, makes little sense.  And whatever that conflict was, it did not stop Paul from writing, even while he was in custody (assuming that he was actually imprisoned and killed by the Romans–it might just be tradition after all)!

So is Paul monotheistic?  Certainly he is, but certainly he is not.  The answer, from an ancient socio-cultural perspective, isn’t as simple as ‘yes’ and ‘no’; anachronistically, the answer is a definite ‘no’.  But in an ancient context, with the recognition of the play of the mythic mind?  The answer is going to be a cloudy one, at best.

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