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MONOTHEISM, in its literal meaning, oneness of the godhead (i.e., one God). The concept of monotheism is embedded in the domain of religious discourse, and its full and relevant significance must be derived from the connotation which it carries within this domain. Monotheism is usually attributed to biblical faith as its unique and distinct contribution to the history of religious thought. The significance of the word monotheism in its biblical context is taken to lie in the "mono," in the godhead's being one. As such, it is contrasted with paganism, the fundamental religious alternative to biblical faith, whose distinctive religious concept is taken to be polytheism, i.e., the plurality of the godhead (many gods). The difference between the biblical and pagan orientation is thus constituted here as a mere arithmetical difference, a difference between one and many gods. On this basis, biblical monotheism is seen by modern biblical scholars as emerging gradually and in a continuous line from the polytheistic thought of paganism. The mediating stage in such a development is found in monolatry, where the godhead is reduced to one only as far as worship is concerned, while ontologically there is a plurality of gods. It is a mediating stage inasmuch as the arithmetical reduction to oneness is partial. The full reduction of the godhead in all its aspects to oneness emerges from monolatry only later in biblical classical prophecy, when God is claimed not only as the one God of Israel but as the one God of universal history. Here, by drawing the arithmetical reduction to oneness in all the aspects of the godhead, biblical faith achieves ultimately its distinctive, unique character. It is observed, however, that an ontological arithmetical unity of the godhead is achieved also in paganism, even with a remarkable degree of purity (e.g., Plotinus). It must be concluded, therefore, that paganism too has a monotheistic formulation. Yet it is generally felt that a fundamental difference between biblical faith and paganism does exist, and that this difference is expressed in the respective concepts of monotheism. This difference, however, cannot be accounted for on the basis of monotheism understood as the arithmetical oneness of the godhead.

Theistic Monotheism

Consequently, it has been suggested that the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism lies in the fact that the former is theistic while the latter is pantheistic. While it is true that biblical monotheism is exclusively theistic and that pagan monotheism has a definite tendency toward pantheism, to formulate the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism on this basis is to formulate the difference with regard to a totally different aspect of the godhead from that to which the concept of monotheism refers. Monotheism refers to the being of the godhead as such, while theism and pantheism refer to the relation subsisting between the godhead and the world. Thus, while this attempt locates a difference which may follow from the fundamental difference within the concept of monotheism, it does not locate that fundamental difference itself.

Ethical Monotheism

The same point can be made regarding yet another attempt to locate the difference between biblical and pagan monotheism, according to which biblical monotheism is ethical while pagan monotheism is purely philosophical-ontological. Correlated to this is the suggestion that, while paganism arrives at the oneness of its godhead through philosophical reasoning and because of ontological-metaphysical considerations, biblical faith arrives at the oneness of its godhead because of ethical considerations and through a direct insight into the absolute character of the moral law. Thus, biblical monotheism can be distinguished from pagan monotheism in that it alone is ethical monotheism. Here again, however, the distinction is located in an aspect to which the concept of monotheism as such does not refer; the concept of monotheism as such conveys no ethical connotation. It may be that this distinction follows from the proper understanding of the difference between the meaning of monotheism in the biblical context and its use in the context of paganism, but this distinction as such does not capture this difference. In attempting to define the difference, it is interesting first to note that the two formulations above have already shifted the aspect where the difference is to be located from the "mono" to the "theos" part of the concept of monotheism; the theistic-pantheistic distinction refers to the relation of the "theos" to the world, while the ethical-metaphysical distinction refers to what kind of a "theos" is involved. This means that the difference between biblical faith and paganism is no longer seen as a quantitative difference, i.e., how many gods are involved, but as a qualitative difference, i.e., what kind of a god is involved. This shift is essential to a proper understanding of the difference and must form the basis of the attempted formulation.

Ultimate Being

On this basis it can be asserted that the minimal necessary connotation of the term "theos" in the concept of monotheism is that of ultimate being. As such, the arithmetical comparison between biblical monotheism and pagan polytheism is clearly seen to be illegitimate. The "theos" in pagan polytheism is not ultimate. It is superhuman, or "man writ large," but still it remains finite and non-absolute. In polytheism a plurality of ultimate beings is untenable and self-contradictory. Consequently, the "theos" in biblical monotheism and the "theos" in pagan polytheism connote two different kinds of being, for the difference between ultimate and non-ultimate being is not merely quantitative but qualitative. It is not legitimate, however, to compare quantitatively entities which belong to different orders of being. In order to locate the difference meaningfully it must be determined with reference to the same kind of entity, i.e., to the ultimate being which is connoted by the concept of monotheism. As such, however, it is not correct to speak of the development of the concept of monotheism in paganism. Paganism always had a conception of ultimate being transcending its gods and, as indicated above, ultimate being necessitates oneness. There can be no development from many to one with regard to ultimate being. Thus, if the "theos" in monotheism signifies ultimate being, paganism always had a conception of monotheism. The only development that can be pointed to is a development in its articulation, i.e., a development from the cultic-mythological to the speculative-philosophical expression. If the "theos" in monotheism, however, signifies only ultimate being, then it would not be possible to locate any difference between biblical and pagan monotheism, for then the "mono" conveys no additional information which is not already conveyed by the "theos" in itself. In order for the concept of monotheism to have a distinct meaning, the "theos" has to stand for something more than ultimate being. It is here that the real, fundamental difference between pagan and biblical monotheism becomes evident.

Personal Monotheism

In biblical monotheism the "theos" stands for a god who is personal. The "mono" connotes essentially not arithmetical oneness but oneness in the sense of uniqueness. Ultimate being is uniquely one in that it excludes the existence of any other qualitatively similar being. Thus, the authentic meaning of biblical monotheism is the assertion that the "mono," i.e., the unique, the ultimate, is "theos," i.e., a personal being, and this is the distinctive and unique feature of biblical faith and its monotheistic formulation. Paganism, while it too always had a conception of ultimate being and thus a conception of a unitary being, never asserted that ultimate being as personal. It follows from this analysis that the development of biblical monotheism from paganism cannot be envisioned as a linear, continuous development, but must be seen as a "jump" from one orbit to another, for the change that biblical monotheism introduced is qualitative and not quantitative. There is no continuous line of development either from non-personal to personal being or from relative being to ultimate being. This development involves a shift in perspective. While the above articulates the distinctive and essential content of the monotheistic conception of Judaism, it does not preclude or invalidate the fact that the monotheistic conception in Judaism may convey also the arithmetical oneness and the ontological uniqueness of God. Indeed, in post-biblical Judaism (and even in some biblical instances) it is these notions that come to the fore and become the main expressions of the Jewish monotheistic conception. It would seem, however, that the notion of the arithmetical unity of God arises mainly as a reaction against pluralistic formulations found in other religions, such as the *dualism of the Zoroastrian, Manichean, or Gnostic formulation and the trinitarianism of Christianity. The notion of the ontological uniqueness of the godhead arises mainly when Judaism conceives and expresses itself in the philosophical-metaphysical domain, i.e., when its God becomes the god of the philosophers.

Monotheism in Jewish Sources

Thus, Deutero-Isaiah, in response to Persian dualism, stresses the oneness of God in the sense that He alone is God, the one and only creator and ultimate cause of all phenomena: "I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil" (Isa. 45:7). This assertion is repeated frequently in rabbinic literature: "He who brought all things into being and who is their first cause is one" (Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 2); "I have created all things in pairs. Heaven and earth, man and woman,… but my glory is one and unique" (Deut. R. 2:31). Likewise, the specific use of this assertion polemically against dualism and trinitarianism is extensive: "'I am the first' for I have no father, 'and I am the last' for I have no son, 'and beside me there is no God' for I have no brother" (Ex. R. 29:5); "The Lord, both in His role as our God [who loves us and extends His providence to us, i.e., the second person of the trinity] and the Lord [as He is in Himself, i.e., the first person of the trinity] is one from every aspect" (Leon de Modena, Magen va-Ḥerev, 2:7, 31–32). Furthermore, a number of the basic tenets of Judaism follow logically from this assertion of the arithmetical oneness of God, and rabbinic literature derives them from it. Thus, all forms of idolatry are rejected: God's absolute sovereignty and glory is proclaimed; both love and judgment, mercy and justice are attributed to one and the same God; God's infinity in time as the one God in the past, present, and future is declared. Although the concept of arithmetical oneness is involved also in the assertion of God's unity, the latter is distinct in that God is here distinguished qualitatively rather than merely quantitatively. This assertion finds its expression mainly in philosophical speculation, where the uniqueness of God is understood as essentially conveying the non-composite, non-divisible nature of His being (see Attributes of *God). This is expressed by Maimonides when he says that God is "not one of a genus nor of a species and not as one human being who is a compound divisible into many unities; not a unity like the ordinary material body which is one in number but takes on endless divisions and parts" (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:51ff.). This means that "God is one in perfect simplicity" (Ḥasdai *Crescas, Or Adonai, 1:1, 1), that He is wholly other (Saadiah Gaon, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 2:1), and unique (Baḥya ibn Paquda, Ḥovot ha-Levavot, "Sha'ar ha-Yiḥud"). Even in rabbinic Judaism, although the emphasis is clearly placed on the two aspects of the monotheistic idea, i.e., the arithmetical oneness and the ontological uniqueness of God, the fundamental underlying assertion is that God is first and foremost a personal being. Thus, though shifting the emphasis, rabbinic Judaism remains fully bound to that aspect of the monotheistic idea where Judaism makes its fundamental and distinctive contribution to the history of religions.


Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1960), index; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; A. Altmann, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 301–9; G. Vajda, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (1966), 49–74.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.