Monolatrism or monolatry (Greek: μόνος (monos) = single, and λατρεία (latreia) = worship) is the recognition of the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity.[1] The term was perhaps first used by Julius Wellhausen.[citation needed]

Monolatry is distinguished from monotheism, which acknowledges the existence of only one god, and henotheism, which consistently worships one god without denying that other persons can with equal validity worship different gods.[2]


In ancient Israel

Recognized scholars have formulated a substantial case for ancient Israel's practice of monolatry.[3]

The highest claim to be made for Moses is that he was, rather than a monotheist, a monolatrist. ... The attribution of fully developed monotheism to Moses is certainly going beyond the evidence."[4]

As absolute monotheism took over from monolatry in Israel, those who had originally been in the pantheon of the gods were demoted to the status of angels.[5]

The exclusivity of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is an important element in Israel's oldest religious tradition. However, it is not necessary to ascribe the present formulation of the commandment ["you shall have no other gods before me"] to a very early stage of the tradition, nor is it advantageous to interpret the commandment as if it inculcated monotheism. The commandment technically enjoins monolatry, but it can be understood within a henotheistic religious system.[6]

The Deuteronomic Code imposes at the least a strict monolatry.[7]

In the ancient Near East the existence of divine beings was universally accepted without questions. As for unicity, in Israel there is no clear and unambiguous denial of the existence of gods other than Yahweh before Deutero-Isaiah in the 6th century B.C. … The question was not whether there is only one elohim, but whether there is any elohim like Yahweh.[8]

This was recognised by Rashi in his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:4 that the declaration of Shema accepts belief in one god as being only a part of Jewish faith at the time of Moses, but would eventually be accepted by all humanity.[9]

Some scholars claim the Torah (Pentateuch) shows evidence of monolatrism in some passages. This argument is normally based on references to other gods, such as the "gods of the Egyptians" in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 12:12). The Egyptians are also attributed powers that suggest the existence of their gods; in Exodus 7:11-13, after Aaron transforms his staff into a snake, Pharaoh's magicians do likewise.

The Ten Commandments have been interpreted[by whom?] as monolatry: Exodus 20:3 reads "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me" (emphasis added).

There is even a passage in the Book of Psalms, Psalms 86:8, that reads "Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord; neither are there any works like unto thy works."

This, however, does not seem to mean that the other gods were considered to deserve this name, in the sense that they had no real power or property; and later prophet Jeremiah confirms that they did not create the Earth and are going to perish.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine —Exodus 19:5

Tell them this: "These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens."

Jeremiah 10:11

In Christianity

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, writes that "an idol has no real existence" and "there is no God but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). He argues that "although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth", "yet for us there is one God". The reason is that only the one god created the Universe ("God, the Father, from whom all things came", "Jesus Christ, through whom all things came").

In verse five, Paul carefully distinguishes between actual divine beings and things that are incorrectly called gods.

In his second letter to the Corinthians when he refers to "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4), he is generally interpreted as referring to the devil or the material things put before God, such as money, rather than acknowledging any separate deity from God. In addition, in Isaiah 44:6, God states "I am the first and the last, beside me there is no god".[10]

Other religions

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church, or Mormon Church) considers the members of the Christian Godhead as three distinct beings, where God the Father is supreme, yet all three beings are defined collectively as "God". The Church teaches the worship of one God, which belief is most easily described as worshiping God the Father through the conduit of the Son, Jesus Christ, as led by the Holy Ghost. Whereas other Christians speak of "One God in Three Persons", LDS scripture speaks instead of "Three Persons in One God." See the Book of Mormon's Mosiah 15:4 ("they are one God"), and LDS interpretation of John 17:11[11] (Jesus asks the Father in prayer that his disciples "may be one, as we are"). See apotheosis. Also of note is that the LDS church describes "as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become," which allows for the existence of many gods at any one time, but only one as ruler over life on this earth. The Church's doctrine on the subject is best described as monolatrism.

Jehovah's Witnesses (JW's) New World Translation incorrectly renders John 1:1 as "In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god." If Jesus, who is unquestionably identified as the Word, or the Logos, is but "a god", this seems to indicate a presupposition towards monolatrism.


  1. ^ Frank E. Eakin, Jr. The Religion and Culture of Israel (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), 70.
  2. ^ Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, second edition (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1979), 351.
  3. ^ Frank E. Eakin, Jr. The Religion and Culture of Israel (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), 70 and 263.
  4. ^ Frank E. Eakin, Jr. The Religion and Culture of Israel (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), 107 and 108.
  5. ^ John Day, "Canaan, Religion of," in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, six volumes (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:835.
  6. ^ Raymond F. Collins, "Ten Commandments," in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, six volumes (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:385.
  7. ^ John J. Scullion, "God (OT)," in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, six volumes (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:1042.
  8. ^ John McKenzie, "Aspects of Old Testament Thought" in Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990), 1287, S.v. 77:17.
  9. ^ p.443,Scherman
  10. ^ Isaiah 44:6
  11. ^ John 17:11, . .

Further reading

  • Robert Needham Cust (1895). Essay on the Common Features which Appear in All Forms of Religious Belief. Luzac & Co.
  • Robert Wright (journalist), The Evolution of God (2009) (esp. pages 132 et seq discussing conflict between Elijah and Jezebel).
  • Mike Schroeder, author of 85 Pages In The Bible; Llumina Press 2005

External links

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