Origins of Monotheism and World History

World History devotes much attention to the world’s belief systems and religions that shaped our past. One integral theme is the development and impact of monotheist religions, particularly the “Abrahamic traditions” -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Polytheism (multiple gods) preceded these “One-God” religions that eventually came to predominance in much of the world. Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists seek to understand how and why monotheism happened. Recent studies over the last thirty years suggest that the three monotheistic religions evolved slowly from various historical circumstances. This evolutionary view challenges the traditional idea of monotheism as revolutionary insights from the likes of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed.    

Polytheism

Polytheism predated monotheism and resided in the earliest civilizations, linking gods to various phenomena. Gods inhabited or controlled the forces of nature or more minute aspects of life. Historian Greg Woolf writes that Mesopotamians “recognized thousands of different divinities, each associated with a different aspect of the universal, from the sky and the sea to humbler implements such as the plow and the hoe – there was even a god of brick-moulds.” (Woolf, 84). Polytheistic deities possessed supernatural but not unlimited powers and displayed human foibles. Sumerian gods for instance, “ate, drank, lusted, quarrelled and intervened in earthly affairs.” (Woolf, 8). In the Greek pantheon, Zeus’s philandering evoked Hera’s jealousy, and various gods vied for power. Polytheistic systems also tended to be linked to localities – a stark contrast to the universal God espoused by later monotheistic traditions. 

Polytheism pervades most of human history, but at some point, monotheism evolved, espousing the belief that one uncreated, all-powerful, and all-knowing God created everything. How did monotheism evolve and grow? The answers remain elusive, but scholars generally began with Judaism. 

Judaism.

There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a saviour; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45: 21-3

The Old Testament of the Bible identifies Abraham (born.c.1800 BCE) as the first Hebrew and the first monotheist.   Abraham left Ur (Mesopotamia) and travelled west to Canaan (modern Israel) after God promised him a “land of milk and honey.” In Canaan, Abraham received the covenant from God on Mt. Sinai, the written and oral law established between God and the Jewish people. God, often referred to as Yahweh (by scholars but not believers), later led Moses and his chosen people out of enslavement in Egypt (an event known as the Exodus) and back to Canaan. In Canaan, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment specified, “You shall have no other gods before me.” However, some Israelites continued to worship other deities, but over time an increasing number established a covenant with the One God.

This God fundamentally differed from gods previous. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but a realm apart” (99). In other words, God transcended the limited role ascribed to geography or function (e.g. Ares, God of War). As Robert Wright writes, Yahweh “was Lord of nothing in particular and everything.” (100) 

Interestingly, recent scholarship suggests that forms of monotheism, such as that espoused by the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten (c. 1353-1335 BCE), predated Judaism but did not survive. On the other hand, Judaism demonstrated incredible resilience as it spread with Jewish merchants to various communities and trading centres in Europe and Southwest Asia. As Christine Hayes writes, “Judeans survived even after the more numerous and powerful people like the Sumerians and Babylon and Hittites and “carried with them new ideas, a sacred scripture, a set of tradition that would lay the foundations for the major religion of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” (2)

Almost 2000 years after Abraham left Ur, a Jewish prophet would inspire what eventually became the most widespread religion in history – Christianity. 

Christianity.

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God. Paul, Corinthians. 8: 5-6.

Christianity evolved from the Jewish notion of a “messiah,” foretold in the Old Testament. Christians identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Christ is the Greek word for messiah. This belief fundamentally differs from Judaism and Islam; both recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as a divinity.

A Jew born in or near Nazareth, Jesus continued the Jewish tradition of prophets who mediated the earthly world with the spiritual. A “charismatic faith healer,” Jesus offered his teaching in Roman-controlled Palestine and attracted devoted followers until Romans crucified him (around 29 BCE) – an event Christians believe was a sacrifice of God’s son for the sake of humanity. After his death, Jesus’s followers recorded his teachings in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels. Christian missionaries and merchants spread these teachings via a vast network of Roman roads and overseas trading routes. “Jesus groups” and prophets like St. Paul gain coverts by offering an inclusive religion that promised salvation through faith in Jesus.   Christianity, as Huston Smith points out, “sought converts more provocatively than Judaism and would rapidly spread over the following centuries.  

This rapid spread, as Karen Armstrong writes, “certainly would not have succeeded without the Roman Empire.” (106). Rome initially persecuted Christians, who they saw as an obscure Jewish cult, as disloyal to the emperor but legally recognized Christianity in 313 CE, allowing Christians to own property and worship freely. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337 CE) organized the first ecumenical council of bishops of the Roman Empire ” to unify canons of doctrinal orthodoxy and define a common creed for the Church.” As Scott Vitkovic points out, this step offered the first uniform Christian doctrine” that would bind Christians and foster Christianity’s growth. (5) By 380 BCE, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, a status that allowed Christians a significant advantage over competing belief systems.

When the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the Christian Church filled the power vacuum, ostensibly providing political stability, social order, faith, and hope. The Pope became the spiritual and political leader of much of Europe. The Church established a hierarchy of regional bishops overseeing more local priests administer this growing influence.   Christianity continued to grow into the next millennium until 1054 when it split into the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. A more profound split occurred with the Protestant Reformation, encouraged by Martin Luther in 1517. Numerous Christian denominations evolved, but scholars tend to identify three main groups – Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic. 

Christianity’s meteoric rise as a global religion would foreshadow the rapid rise of another monotheistic religion centuries after Christ’s death– Islam. 

Islam.

He is the One God; God, the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of all being. Koran 112.

More than 500 years after the death of Jesus Christ came Muhammed (570-632), the prophet of Islam, who lived in Mecca, a commercial center in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Polytheism still predominated Arabic society, but by this time, Judaism and Christianity had developed well-established traditions and a growing influence. As historian Ira M. Lepidus points out, monotheistic religion was “introduced into Arabia by foreign influences: Jewish and Christian settlements” and “travelling preachers and merchants…” (19). Accordingly, by “the sixth century, monotheism had a certain vogue.” (19)

At 40, Muhammed experienced a series of revelations through Allah’s angel Gabriel. Through these revelations, he identified himself as the last in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammed saw these revelations as the completion of Judaism and Christianity that had lost their way. According to Islam, Muhammed and all prophets possessed no divine qualities but were mere messengers of God. In this sense, Islam agrees with Judaism by denying Christ’s divinity as the Son of God and the Messiah. Muslims see the period before Muhammed, including the polytheist and monotheistic religions, as a period of ignorance. Islam, in short, is a pristine monotheism.    

When he died in 632 BCE, Karen Armstrong writes, Muhammed “had managed to bring nearly all the tribes of Arabia into a new united community, or ummah” – an incredible feat. (135). He did not leave any writings, but his successors recorded his teachings in the Qur’an (Koran). Two main groups, the Sunni and the Shiite, evolved from disputes over the rightful successors to Mohammed. By the end of the 7th century, despite divisions, Muhammed’s followers had conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Isreal, North Africa, and Spain. Today, it stands as the world’s second-largest religion.    

How did monotheism happen? Traditional religion asserts that monotheism began before history and the creation, with God the uncreated and that God (or Allah) first revealed himself to Abraham. However, historical evidence suggests that monotheism did not begin with Abraham of Ur. Scholars of the Ancient Near East generally agree that monotheism grew out of various historical processes but dispute how this happened. Biblical scholar Yehezkeh Kaufman sees the Hebrew God as more revolutionary than evolutionary, rejecting monotheism as “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Instead, he sees “an original creation of the people of Israel…absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” (Wright, 100)

Kaufman published his works in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, new scripture analysis and archaeological finds seem to reveal a more evolutionary process. Regarding the more traditional view that identifies monotheism as early as Abraham, scholars such as Karen Armstrong suggest that “we tend to project our knowledge of late Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages.” (14). Evidence indicates that Abraham and other biblical figures – Isaac and Moses – likely recognized multiple gods. Ancient Hebrew scripture refers to many Gods before gradually focusing on one God – Yahweh. Initially, Yahweh faced competition from the gods such as Baal, Enlil, Mardele and Amon-Re. Over time the Hebrews came to regard Yahweh as the only God, thus laying the foundations for a monotheistic religion.  

While the precise reasons for this evolution to monotheism remain elusive, scholars suggest various reasons. Historian Ira M. Lapidus links the development of monotheism to a growing and increasingly connected Middle Eastern population that could see a larger world beyond their local experience. So, instead of a god for a small community, why not gods (and eventual God) for the vaster world? (19?) Lapidus suggests that these religions, Judaism (and later Christianity and Islam), offered salvation and a sense of universal order in an often-unstable world.     Scholar Reuven Firestone reinforces this view, suggesting that monotheism “removed the universe and all its people from the fractions and uncertain rule of often bickering deities and placed them under the grace of One Great God. (20). 

Besides monotheism’s appeal for some, scholars point to the persecution of polytheists, later labelled as “pagans.” The term “pagans,” writes Jonathan Kirsch, “is a word invented by early Christians to describe anyone who refused to recognize the One True God.” (19).   Some monotheistic believers actively sought to rid the world of pagans. In 529 BCE, for instance, the Roman Emperor Justinian closed the school of philosophy in Athens, what Karen Armstrong calls “the last bastion of intellectual paganism.” (125).   Some nine centuries later, the Renaissance would see the revival of classical Greek and Roman philosophical works in Europe.  

Exploring the reasons for the growth of monotheism requires more space than we have with this blog which outlines the origins of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three claim to follow the only God, a claim that has led to many conflicts among monotheistic religions (e.g. The Crusades) and against “pagans”. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that monotheism evolved very gradually after Abraham. The scholarship also presents evidence that even with their monotheistic foundations, these religions evolved much slower than we once believed. Scholars such as Karen Armstrong argue that Christianity, for instance, grew out of disparate Jesus groups and did not consolidate until centuries after the death of Jesus. 

What is certain is that these monotheistic religions profoundly impact our past and our present. Future blogs will further explore these belief systems and others such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. 

Bibliography.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1993.  

Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. W.W. Norton, 2007.

Bowker, David et al. World Religions: The Great Faiths explored and explained. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Firestone, Reuven. “A Problem With Monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Dialogue and Dissent.” Heirs of Abraham: The Future of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Relations. New York: Orbis, 2005 20-54.

Hayes, Christine. Introduction to the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 

Kagan, Neil ed. Concise History of the World. An Illustrated Timeline. Washington, D.C. National Geographic, 2006.

Kirsch, Jonathan. God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.

Lapidus. Ira M.  A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Oxtoby, William M. and Alan G. Segal. A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Perry, Marvin. ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Volume II, From the 1600s. Sixth Edition. 2000. 

Rosenberg, David.   Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 

Sayem, Md. “The Monotheistic Concept of Judaism and Islam in the Light of their Basic Creeds: A Comparative Analysis.” The Dhaka University Studies. June 2012. p. 127-137.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Our Great Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991

Vitkovic, Scott. (2018). The Similarities and Differences Between Abrahamic Religions. IJASOS- International E-journal of Advances in Social Sciences. 4. 2018, 455-462. 10.18769/ijasos.455673.

Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Beliefs, Mythology, and Art. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005. 

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009.

Archaic Greece: An Overview

Beginnings. Archaic Greece began to form around 800 BCE, evolving into Classical Greece with the Greek-Persian Wars (490-479).  The territorial boundaries changed over the years, but in general, we are looking at the Greek peninsula between the Ionian and Aegean seas, Macedonia, and various islands in the Aegean Sea.  The roots of what became Greece lay in the “continued existence of small communities that preserved the legacy of the earlier achievements of Crete and Mycenae” and combined this tradition with Indo European culture that carried, among other things, a “vivid polytheistic religion.” (Stearns, 127) During the Archaic period, the Greeks also developed what become the predominant political form – the city-state. 

The Mountains and the Sea: Geography. Geography played an essential role in Greek history.  Fertile basins divided by mountainous terrain dominated the Greek landscape. A moderate climate allowed Greeks to establish a steady crop production of staples such as grapes and olives. However, the disjointed landscape did not allow for farming at the scale of the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  This topography also fostered independent political enclaves while discouraged the growth of centralized polities on the scale of the Persian Empire or the Chinese Dynasties.  The seas and various islands encouraged adept seafaring, exploration, and expansion and offered foreign invasion opportunities.    

Trade, Commerce and Innovation. With little arable land to yield diverse and large-scale crops, trade became the essential means of gaining necessary items.  Fortunately, access to the Aegean and Ionian seas, various shores and inlets, facilitated the transport and exchange of goods.  Greeks exported grains, fish, and specialized like olives and wine in exchange for items such as wheat.   By 600 BCE, coined money came into encouraging even greater trade, enabling a growing population, more wealth, and an increasingly influential merchant class.  A growing population, coupled with scarcer land, encouraged Greeks to extend trade and political influence.  Travels also encouraged innovation inspired by foreign places.  Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and found inspiration in grand Egyptian architecture. 

Politics “Greece” is a convenient term to identify a people who spoke a similar language but did not constitute a unified polity.  Geography, again, discouraged unity while facilitating political enclaves of various forms.  Monarchies ruled much of Greece in the earliest times.  Later, as trade flourished, tyrants (often merchants) controlled multiple parts of the area.  By 800 BCE, however, the city-state became the dominant political entity.  By 600 BCE, “nearly 300 independent cities in Greece.” (128 Stearns). City-states varied in size and influence, most being relatively small, with citizens populations in the hundreds and territories of less than 40 sq miles. (Woolf p.314)  Athens and Sparta stood as the most prominent in size and influence.  Scarce land and a growing population encouraged Greeks to look beyond the peninsula for resources and political power.  Access to water, notably the Aegean Sea, facilitated these ambitions. 

Social Structure. Greece, like other, ancient civilizations observed demarcated social roles and positions. Even Athens, the “cradle of democracy”, identified a hierarch around the concept of citizenship.  Male citizens participated in public political discussions and voted on civic matters. City-states excluded female citizens from politics, relegating them to child-rearing and domestic duties.  Next, down the hierarchy, non-citizens enjoyed basic protections but did not vote.  Slaves held the lowest position.

Language, Art and Religion. Geography discouraged centralization and unification. Language and religion offered standard bases for at least a rudimentary shared identity.  People dwelling on the peninsula did not identify as “Greek.” They would be more inclined to identify as Athenians, Spartans, for instance.  If they did think of their broader identity, it would be as “Hellenes,”  The Greek language offered a basis for a common identity.  Greeks described foreign speakers as “barbarians” who babbled non-sensical “bar-bar” sounds.  (Roberts 178).  The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, a straightforward system that facilitated literacy and artistic expression as seen in the likes of Homer (the Odyssey and the Illiad) and Hesiod (c 7000 BCE), and various lyrical poets.   Homer’s provided the Greeks with a rich history and promoted the prevalent polytheistic religion. Residing at Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest peak, Greek Gods like Zeus, Hera, and Aphrodite, possessed superhuman abilities but were not divine (as the Hebrew God Yahweh). Instead, they displayed more human traits like jealousy, ambition, and pettiness.  City-states chose a particular God as their protector.  Athens, for instance, identified Athena as their protector and, like other polities, offer animal sacrifices to their delegate god. 

Conclusion. Archaic Greece saw seminal developments in politics, culture, economics and the arts.  The Greek peninsula never united politically, but the evolution and spread of a common language and religion helped forge a shared identity.   By the end of the Archaic age, they would face a formidable foreign enemy – the Persian Empire – as they entered the Classical Period. 

Selected Bibliography

Cahill, Thomas.   Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Anchor, 2004.

Davies, Norman.  Europe: A History. London: Random House, 1997. 

Martin, Thomas R.   Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013

Parker, Philip. World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age.  New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. London: Penguin Books, 1988

Stearns et al.  World Civilizations: The World Experiences. New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg ed,.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005.

What was the “Agricultural Revolution”? 

Try this. Ask people to name three revolutions.  Depending on their background, they might cite the American and French Revolutions of the nineteenth century.  Others will mention the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Industrial Revolution.  How many cited the Agricultural Revolution?  Likely not many.  Ironic, since the agricultural revolution stands as one of the more fundamental and far-reaching developments in human history.  Peter Stearns calls it a “great watershed in human history.” (Stearns 16) Ronald Wright argues that “In the magnitude of its consequences, no other invention rivals farming…”  (Wright, 45)

So, what is the agricultural revolution? When did it happen?  How did it change how humans lived? It is a far-reaching and complex topic but let’s try to cover the essentials.  “Essentially,” the agricultural revolution transitioned nomadic hunting-gathering societies to human societies that grew their food and for some domesticated animals.  This development is revolutionary because it fundamentally changed how people lived.  Hunting and gathering societies depended on edible wild plants and animals, whereas agricultural communities controlled and shaped their environment (to some extent) to grow crops and domesticate animals.  Besides planting crops, agricultural societies changed their landscapes through irrigation and canal construction.   

When Did it Happen? Where did it happen first? The above chronology offers a general timeline. Essentially we are looking at 9000 BCE to 3500 BCE.  Agriculture on a large scale first happened in various river valleys (e.g. Nile River, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica) that offered reliable water sources and fertile soil. Different crops grew throughout the world.  Egypt produced wheat and barley. People living on what became the Greek peninsula grew grapes and olives.  China cultivated rice

There are two points to remember.  One is that this revolution happened over a very long time – 1000s of years.   Secondly, agriculture occurred independently in various parts of the world and at different times. Mesoamerica, for instance, had no contact with Eurasia and alone learned to cultivate crops like maize and squash. Later, as populations grew and interacted more through trade, agricultural practices and technologies would be shared and accelerate agricultural production over larger areas. 

Nomadic to Sedentary and Permanent Dwellings.  Tending to crops requires people to stay in one area.  Hence the term “sedentary agriculture.”  Nomadic people might remain in one place for some time, but as soon as the supply of wild plants and or game ran low or migrated, they were on the move.   Permanent dwellings offered space to store food and house families.    

Growing Populations, Social and Political Specialization By increasing food production, the agricultural revolution also facilitated drastic population growth.  Agriculture could sustain more people in a smaller area.  As Greg Woolf writes, “5 square miles cold support a farming village of 150 people. (Woolf 58).  A more reliable food source also contributed to higher life expectancy.   These growing population centers became the first steps toward cities, city-states and even empires.  A food surplus allowed people to adopt more specialized roles in families, politics and religious life. 

What motivated hunters and gatherers to adopt agriculture?Great question.  After all, farming required more effort than hunting and gathering.  Accordingly, people likely adopted agriculture very gradually. Probably, circumstances pushed them in this direction.  Climate change, for example, might have encouraged big game to migrate north of the Middle East and other river valley areas.  Overhunting also might have significantly diminished the wild animal population.  Another factor might be growing populations that required alternative food supply offered by hunting and gathering.     

Historians, of course, differ on how the Agricultural Revolution came about, how it evolved and its impact.  Concerning the latter, some historians have lauded it as one of the seminal movements of human progress.  Others see it as the catalyst for current problems such as overpopulation, consumerism, rapid species extinction and climate change.  Whatever their position, they agree that the Agricultural Revolution is one of the most fundamental developments in human history. 

Select Bibliography.

Havari, Yural Noah.  Sapiens.  A Brief History of Humankind.  Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2014. 

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2015

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987.

Stearns, Peter et al.  World Civilizations: The Global Experience. Third Edition.  New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg, ed.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers Ltd., 2005.

Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress.  Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004.