How did Monotheism Develop

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While monotheism is seen as something that has derived from Judaism, the history of how monotheism became pervasive is complex. Integrating both historical and archaeological data, we find that the rise of monotheism is influenced by key political events. These political events help transform not just these early monotheistic faiths but also by extension many parts of the world today.

First Evidence of Monotheism

The first evidence of monotheism emerges from Egypt in the 14th century BC (1353-1336 BC) during the reign of Akhenaten.[1] The king was known to have worshiped Aten, the sun disk god (Figure 1). While initially Akhenaten allowed the worship of many gods, as Egyptian kings had always done so, by the 5th year of his reign there was a decisive movement that made the worship of Aten the only recognized cult in the country. This constituted the first evidence in history of monotheism.[2] However, while this represented an innovation, the worship of a single god proved to be highly unpopular with the priestly classes as well as, most likely, the local population. In this period, worship of deities was very specific to given cities and temples. Additionally, these temples had important economic activities to communities. The ban of other gods or the cessation of worship of other gods would have been devastating to local economies and communities.[3]

Figure 1. The sun-disk god worshiped by Akhenaten and his family (

Ancient Judaism: Not Very Monotheistic

In Biblical chronology, we see that the establishment of the state of Israel would constitute the world’s first true monotheistic state. However, the reality is there is no evidence yet that shows monotheism existed or was beyond a limited minority either in Judah or Israel, the two main states of the Jewish people in the Bible.[4] In fact, excavations throughout modern Israel reveal very commonly other gods, in particular Asherah (or Astarte), was worshiped, likely in conjunction with Yahweh, the Jewish god. While the Jewish Yahweh god may have been the main god, it appears other gods were worship and accepted by much of the Jewish population. Perhaps one of the starkest indications that monotheism, if it existed at all, would have been in a very small minority at best during the existence of the states of Israel and Judah is an 8th century BC find from the Sinai that shows and states that Yahweh was married or coupled with the goddess Asherah (Figure 2).[5] This indicates that even if Yahweh had supremacy he was not the only god worshiped. In fact, the Bible does seem to suggest this was the case (e.g., the Asherah poles worshiped in the Bible). What is not indicated is the extent of which ancient Judah and Israel, in essence, appeared to be very similar to other contemporary states, which had chief gods (e.g., Ba’al, Marduk, Ashur, etc.) but also worshiped other deities.[6]

Figure 2. Early depiction of Yahweh with his god Asherah mentioned in an inscription associating the two gods (

The New Monotheism

Perhaps more critical to monotheism is not what occurred in the period of Judah and Israel but what happened afterwards. In 587 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, which constituted a major crisis for the Jewish population of Judah.[7] Many elites were taken to Babylon and this began a long period of the Jewish diaspora in places such as Mesopotamia (i.e., Iraq) that lasted until after World War II. We see soon after this period a greater emphasis on Yahweh, while other gods are now depicted in a negative light and Yahweh is mentioned as the only god.[8] In other words, the theology began to be monotheistic by at least after the period of the exile in Babylon. This could be due to the fact that the main temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem was destroyed, negating any way to properly worship the god. Regardless, what is clear is monotheism only began to obtain greater traction after the destruction of the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Perhaps also critical to these developments were other religious changes occurring to the Near East from the period of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) and later. This period introduces a new god, Ahura Mazda, to the wider Near East. While this may not seem significant, this god began to be associated with the emerging religion of Zoroastrianism.[9] This faith eventually (i.e., this is unclear how this religion develops or when it develops its main tenants) becomes likely the earliest faith which depicts a single good god fighting an evil deity (Angra Mainyu) in a great cosmic struggle affecting the whole world (i.e., a universal faith). Furthermore, this good vs. evil struggle is also depicted in the eventual resurrection of the dead during a judgment day on Earth, where the good go to a type of heaven. What this suggests is that Judaism, or at least very likely Christianity, may have been influenced by Zoroastrianism’s concepts of good vs. evil, as the major tenants that Christianity adopts, such as the concept of God vs. Satan and judgment day, were already present in Zoroastrianism.

What is also telling is that monotheism only appears to emerge during a period when larger states and empires were present. In fact, all religions that we can call monotheistic, or more accurately universal religions (i.e., a religion relevant to all people and not just a population group; e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism) develop at a time of large scale empires where kings were now being called “king of kings” and seen as unifiers of many people.[10] In essence, before a single or universal god became the norm, the concept of a universal king or emperor became well established. This likely makes the idea of a single political unity more palatable for multiple population groups. We know universal empires sought to unify people through a common government and other common cultural links, including through the economy.[11] Therefore, it may not be a surprise that universal empires helped to create philosophies of universal religions and ideas, as the ideas of greater unity between populations had already become well established. On the other hand, during the period when Yahweh, for instance, was the chief god in Judah, we see no evidence that this god was considered the only god and certainly he was only associated with the Jewish people. In essence, the mental constructs of god in the pre-Babylonian exile period (i.e., before the 6th century BC) do not appear to incorporate God as being the only god. The development seems to happen later, perhaps under the presence of empires and/or the desire to transform an existing religion due to changes in political circumstances such as the loss of Jerusalem.


What is clear is monotheism was not something that clearly develops for a long period of time. We can see archaeological and historically that at least through the first half of the first millennium BC polytheism dominated. The later monotheistic faith of Judaism appears to initially be a polytheistic religion. After the influence of empires and the loss of the Judean temple, we begin to see greater transformations toward monotheism. This eventually gives rise to modern monotheistic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Along the way, Zoroastrianism likely played an influential role in these universal faiths.

This list concentrates on the economy of the Bronze Age, as it was an important element that helped link the ancient Near East with the broader ancient Old World in Central Asia, India, and Europe through long-distance commerce. This trade helped facilitate emerging patterns of consumerism, entrepreneurial spirit, and the spread of the alphabet and other social ideas. The economy, however, seems alien to us as it was complex and had many aspects to it, spanning from elites in palaces and temples to common urban and nomadic households.

The Temple Economies

1. Lipiński, Edward, and Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (1970- ), eds. 1979. ‘’’’State and Temple Economy in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the International Conference’’’’. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 5-6. Leuven: Departement Oriëntalistiek.

While we often think of temples as being places of religion and nothing more, the reality is temples were foundational and if not critical to economic activity for many Bronze Age cities. Temples were places that held the identity of cities, where the local gods would be housed and worshiped. However, temples also controlled lands and had many people working for them, sometimes acting like land managers and renting or leasing their lands to be farmed. In addition, temples also controlled production of things, including beer and textiles. This required a lot of labor and temples were able to control this labor process, forming what amounted to be factories of workers.

Palaces and Trade

2. Moran, William L. 1992. ‘’’’The Amarna Letters’’’’. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The book covers an interesting history in the Near East during the 14th century BC, when the city of Amarna briefly became the capital in Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten. This period saw a large number of correspondences between vassals and kings with the Egyptian court in the common language of Akkadian. The international correspondences between the kings of Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, Hittites, and Cyprus demonstrate the gift exchanges and sending of goods between palaces and governments during this time.

Households and Daily Economy

3. Goddeeris, Anne. 2002. ‘’’’Economy and Society in Northern Babylonia in the Early Old Babylonian Period (ca. 2000-1800 BC)’’’’. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 109. Leuven ; Sterling, Va. : Leuven: Peeters ; Dép. Oosterse Studies.

The book looks at different aspects of the Babylonian economy, including on how key day-to-day aspects functioned. The emphasis is on how households managed their affairs, from loans, to marriages, litigations, and inheritance issues. Aspects of ownership and land, including in agriculture or other resources owned are presented.

4. Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. 1998. ‘’’’Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia’’’’. The Greenwood Press “Daily Life through History” Series. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

The book deals with a wide range of topics about Mesopotamian society; however, one critical element is how households, including different gender and age roles, functioned in the larger economy and society of ancient Mesopotamia. We see that women, at least in Babylonia, were able to control land and wealth, including slaves. However, in other parts of Mesopotamia, particularly in northern Mesopotamia, it was more conservative and women held less power. This book provides knowledge on how people affected or were affected by the larger forces of the economy and larger society.

5. Porter, Anne. 2011. ‘’’’Mobile Pastoralism and the Formation of Near Eastern Civilizations: Weaving Together Society’’’’. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nomadic pastoralism made a critical contribution to the Near East economy in the Bronze Age. Often tribal groups would create social connections, through marriage or blood ties, with urban dwellers. This gave urban dwellers and nomads the opportunity to either become nomadic or an urban dweller, while also helping to create social links critical for trade and exchange. Nomads often carried items across the Near East, such as textiles, while they also utilized goods found in cities such as agricultural products. This symbiotic relationship allowed both types of lifestyles, urbanism and nomadism, to thrive.

Trade Colonies

6. Barjamovic, Gojko. 2011. ‘’’’A Historical Geography of Anatolia in the Old Assyrian Colony Period’’’’. CNI Publications 38. Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen : Museum Tusculanum Press.

This book covers the Old Assyrian trade colonies, which dominated central Anatolia in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC. The book covers the geography of key colony sites and discusses the nature of trade across the geography, with caravans of textiles, silver, gold, and other commodities being traded. This period is critical to understanding how private households setup in colonies in foreign places and through multiple generations of families they maintained a long-distance trade connection that catalyzed commerce in northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

7. Larsen, M.T. 1967. ‘’’’Old Assyrian Caravan Procedures’’’’. PIHANS 22. Amsterdam: NINO.

This is a classic book that describes best how trade caravans function in the Old Assyrian Period (late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC), specifically the prices of commodities like wool and silver, itineraries of travel, and the types of investment that went into the trade. The Old Assyrian caravans helped defined what private enterprise looked like in the ancient Near East during the Bronze Age. We see network of families that navigated the politics of the Bronze Age to trade items across vast distances using donkey to carry the load. The trade ultimately linked Central Asia with Anatolia, exchanging tins, wool, textiles, gold, and other products.

The Ports and Seafaring

8. Wachsmann, Shelley. 2009. ‘’’’Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant’’’’. 2. print. Ed Rachal Foundation Nautical Archaeology Series. College Station, Tex: Texas A & M Univ. Press.

Seafaring made a major contribution to the Bronze Age economy in the Near East and broader Mediterranean. In addition to trade, seafaring also incorporated aspects of piracy and war that also formed aspects of the Bronze Age seafaring economies. Ships were designed to accommodate a variety of activities, including moving cargo or for speed for raiding. This book shows the types of shipping and their role in the Bronze Age Mediterranean.

9. Steel, Louise. 2013. ‘’’’Materiality and Consumption in the Bronze Age Mediterranean’’’’. Routledge Studies in Archaeology v.8. New York: Routledge.

The Middle and Late Bronze Ages were ages of consumerism in many respects. We see heavy use of wine, olive oils, bronzes, perfumes, and other luxuries. The ports along the Levant, such as Byblos and Ugarit, played critical roles in trade network that brought luxury goods to a wide consumer market and also provide the produce of the region to other areas. While this had a benefit in commerce, this also provided the mechanism for the spread of the alphabet and intermingling of Near Eastern and Greek/Aegean ideas. Consumerism began to be more than simply something for the elites but the masses, what we might call the middle class, began to be active participants.

International Trade

10. Cline, Eric H. 1994. ‘’’’Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: International Trade and the Late Bronze Age Aegean’’’’. BAR International Series 591. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum.

The Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200 BC) was a period of international trade relations between the Mediterranean world and the Near East. The trade connected and saw the exchange of goods from Central Asia to the middle Mediterranean. The nexus of this trade was the Levantine coast where ships moved luxury goods such as ivory, perfumes, copper, tine, bronzes, glass, precious stones, wine, oils, and other objects. The Uluburun shipwreck is an example of the types of ships and contained the types of cargo exemplary of this trade.

  1. For information about Akhenaten see: Reeves, Nicholas. 2005. ‘’’’Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet’’’’. 1. Aufl. London: Thames & Hudson.
  2. For information about monotheism in this period see: Hoffmeier, James Karl. 2015. ‘’’’Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism’’’’. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. For information about how temples in cities function during the ancient world see: Kemp, Barry J. 2006. ‘’’’Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization’’’’. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, Pg. 257.
  4. For information regarding the diversity of gods in ancient Israel and Judah, see: Stavrakopoulou, Francesca, and John Barton, eds. 2010. ‘’’’Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah’’’’. London ; New York: T & T Clark.
  5. For information about this inscription, see: Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 2006. ‘’’’Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History’’’’. 1. paperback print. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, pg. 74.
  6. For information about other states and how divinity was structured see: Snell, Daniel C. 2011. ‘’’’Religions of the Ancient Near East’’’’. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. For a history on the exile of the Jews from Judah see: Lipschitz, Oded, and Joseph Blenkinsopp, eds. 2003. ‘’’’Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period’’’’. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns.
  8. For indication of monotheism during the post-Babylonian exile period and its predecessors see: Schneider, Laurel C. 2008. ‘’’’Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity’’’’. London, [England] ; New York: Routledge.
  9. For information about Zoroastrianism see: Boyce, Mary. 1996. ‘’’’A History of Zoroastrianism’’’’. 3rd impression, with corrections. Handbuch Der Orientalistik. Erste Abteilung, Der Nahe Und Mittlere Osten, 13. Bd., Religion, 1. Abschnitt, Religionsgeschichte des Alten Orients, Lfg. 2, Heft 2A. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill.
  10. For the concept of “king of kings” and larger unification of multiple populations during the period of the large empires see: Shayegan, M. Rahim. 2011. ‘’’’Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia’’’’. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  11. For information about emerging concepts of universalism in empires see: Cline, Eric H., and Mark W. Graham. 2011. ‘’’’Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam’’’’. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.