Pagan monotheism as a hermeneutic concept

Common Knowledge 18 (3):451-463 (2012)
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Abstract

The term “pagan monotheism” was coined to describe monotheistic tendencies in Greco-Roman religion. Its usefulness has been strongly disputed on various grounds: for introducing a cognitive perspective on ancient religion, which was basically ritualistic; for implicitly taking Christianity as the norm by which to measure classical religion; and for confusing scholarly categories by classifying phenomena as monotheistic that are much better described as henotheistic. This article suggests that these arguments have been attempts to create a supposedly objective and universal scholarly vocabulary, while that new vocabulary would serve to obscure the history and ideological origin of the concepts it promoted. Arguing for a reflective, hermeneutical approach that incorporates an awareness of the origin and charged meanings of our concepts into scholarship, the author proposes methodological pluralism as a way out of these unfruitful terminological debates. Each concept sheds light on some aspects of reality while obscuring others. In particular, the often-criticized ambiguity and fuzziness of the term “pagan monotheism” may help us to formulate questions that otherwise would remain marginal in studies of ancient religion.

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