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Which religion was the first monotheistic one? Was it judaism or a religion which disappeared from practice?

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There was some guy on the forum here last week who said he has been reincarnated many times and can remember the past. He might be able to shed some light on this one. –  Tyler Durden Aug 13 at 12:36
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To answer this question one must know full history of human existance which is not possible. –  quantum231 Aug 13 at 19:23
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@quantum231 Well of course I am curious the first known monotheistic if possible. I can't ask for something what human race can't tell :) –  CsBalazsHungary Aug 13 at 19:26
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Technically speaking, if the gods were thought up one at a time then monotheism had to have come first. The first person to invent the first god may have invented a second one a minute later, but for a minute there he was a monotheist. :) –  David H Aug 13 at 20:53
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@DavidH But gods evolved out of the spirits of animism! So some guy at some point decided the spirits could do more than spook you out in the woods, at that point the spirits became gods! Plural :P –  Juicy Aug 14 at 2:18

9 Answers 9

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Judaism is very old, but it was not originally monotheistic (see below).

An earlier instance of monotheistic or monotheistic-esque worship occurred in the form of Atenism, the worship of the deified sun-disk Aten in Ancient Egypt. The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten), reigning around 1353/1351-1336/1334 B.C., promoted it as an arguably monotheistic state religion for Egypt.

O sole god, like whom there is no other! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire, Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts (...) The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them, The lord of every land, rising for them,

- Great Hymm to the Aten

Worship of Aten predates Akhenaten, but under his rule Atenism morphed from a more traditional henotheism into something that could be recognised as monotheism. He first elevated Aten into the supreme god, and later declared Aten to be the only god. He seemed to have also banned the worship of other gods and idols. However, soon after Akhenaten's death, the previous cult of Ra was restored and Atenism came to an end.

Atenism under Akhenaten is usually cited as the first true monotheism, but it might have been inspired by earlier Egyptian thoughts. The Lord Carnarvon (1866-1923) has written:

It has been claimed by some that Amenhetep IV was the first monotheist in Egypt, but the acceptance of this statement depends upon what meaning is given to the word monotheism, i.e., the doctrine of there being only one god. The passages from the Moral Papyri quoted above show that the Egyptian priests and learned men were monotheistic, even though they do not proclaim the oneness of the god to whom they refer.

- Herbert, George Edwarde Stanhope Molyneux, and Earl of Carnarvon. "Amenism, Atenism and the Egyptian Monotheism."

In any case, Atenism's rise and demise predates the emergence of Judaism as a monotheistic religion by several hundred years.


Well, I did not think this was controversial; given @TylerDurden's reaction, apparently I'm mistaken, so here's some more elaboration:

The Jewish faith did not fully commit to monotheism until around the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Prior to that, the Jewish people were largely henotheistic, if not polytheistic. This is not at all a new concept.

A survey of the development of Judaism from polytheism, henotheism and monotheism to the universality of God is in order. (...) The Jews of [the First Temple period] were henotheists; they worshiped their God, the God of the land who fought their enemies and was supreme over other gods. From time to time they worshiped gods of different countries.

(...)

The calamities which befell the Judaeans in the burning of the First Temple and in their exile to the shores of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates had a chastening effect upon them, and this may be one of the causes which revolutionized their relationship to their God. Before the exile the Jews regarded their God as the God of the land and superior to other gods, but they also worshiped other deities.

(...)

With the return of the Jews from Babylonia to Judaea, first under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua and later under Ezra and Nehemiah, henotheism disappeared and monotheism took its place.

- Zeitlin, Solomon. "Judaism as a Religion: An Historical Study. XI. Religion and Nationality (Continued)." The Jewish Quarterly Review (1944): 179-225.

That the switch to monotheism occurred around the same time the Jews were deported to Babylon is a mainstream view.

While some scholars continue to adhere closely to the biblical story, in which the ancestors of Israel introduced a pure monotheism at the beginning of the nation's history, the dominant tendency nowadays is to presuppose a lengthy development in Israel's religion from an originally polytheistic or henotheistic to a monotheistic system by the time of the Babylonian Exile.

(...)

Although the Shema in its original 7th century BCE context may have meant that among all the gods, the Judaeans should only worship YHWH (henotheism), Judaism has come to understand the Shema as its central declaration of faith in one indivisible god (monotheism).

- Ehrlich, Carl S. Judaism. The Rosen Publishing Group, 2010.

Even those who might not agree, recognises this is the consensus view.

Most scholars whose work focuses on Israelite religion recognize that the Hebrew Bible contains a number of references assuming and even affirming the existence of other gods. As a corollary to this observation, scholars also frequently assert that no explicit denial of the existence of other gods occurs until the time of Deutero-Isaiah and thereafter in a presumed campaign by zealous scribes to expunge such references from the sacred text. Even the Shema and the first commandment do not consign the other gods to fantasy, since the demand is made that no other gods should be worshiped. The data apparently informs us that Israelite religion evolved from polytheism to henotheistic monolatry to monotheism.

- Heiser, Michael. "Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible." Faculty Publications and Presentations (2008): 277.

Of course, one could get around all this by defining Judaism as only beginning when the Jews conclusively rejected the existence of any other god. Though that would be more of a semantics quibble really. As is arguing about "single-ruler cults" vs "relegions (sic)".

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Judaism was not originally monotheistic??? First I have heard of that. The whole point of Judaism is that it is a single god, Abraham's god. Also, Abraham is conventionally dated to 2000 B.C., way before the Aten cult. Also, he asked for relegions, not single-ruler cults. –  Tyler Durden Aug 13 at 12:41
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@TylerDurden Ideas as complexe and revolutionary as monotheism don't appear out of thin air. Like most things human, it's a gradual process or trial and refinement. But to Semaphore I have a question, what is Herbert's case for suggesting the Egyptian priests were monotheistic? Is it solid? Which period? Where can I learn more? –  Juicy Aug 13 at 13:02
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@TylerDurden: In its early forms it's usually described as monolatry rather than monotheism. It didn't deny the existence of other gods, just that YHWH was supreme amongst them. –  Charles Aug 13 at 13:03
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Asherah –  andy256 Aug 13 at 13:53
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@TylerDurden: Also, Abraham is conventionally dated to 2000 B.C., way before the Aten cult. That might be conventionally according to 19th-century historians, but a more reasonable date based on modern evidence, if Abraham was a historical person at all, would be more like 1000 years later than that: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham#Historicity In general, the Old Testament depicts the Hebrews as both much older and much more important than they really were. –  Ben Crowell Aug 13 at 21:31

Zoroastrianism

Although we usually recognise Judaism as the first monotheistic faith, the title may actually go to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was established around the 6th century BCE. In a nutshell, it abandoned the previous Persian pantheon and simplified it to

"two forces Spenta Mainyu (Progressive mentality) and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Mentality) under the one God, Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom)"

Although Judaism may be older than the 6th century BCE, Judaism was not a strictly monotheistic faith until the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile, which happens to be around the 6th century, from Persia.

Zoroastrianism survived as the state religion of Persia for a few centuries until Alexander the Great's arrival, after which it gradually declined. Most of the remaining Zoroastrians converted to Islam when it arrived (likely simplified by the monotheistic similarities), although there's still a lively community of Zoroastrians, many in Iran (150'000 - 2 million depending on who you ask).

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But the point of Zoroastrianism when it appeared was that Good and Evil are separate forces. It is really dualistic, it can't be considered monotheistic. –  entonio Aug 13 at 17:02
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@entonio I believe the general consensus is that it was monotheistic. They argue for one God. Good and Evil are not entities, just forces ultimately under his control. It likely emerged out of a henotheistic faith, like Judaism, but by the 6th century it was well established monotheism. –  Juicy Aug 13 at 17:09
    
I don't think Ahriman is ever considered as being under the control of Ahura Mazda, either in deep theology or popular view. –  entonio Aug 13 at 17:25
    
@Juicy - at least in current reports, the two forces are on equal levels in Zoroastrianism, so that men's choices can sway the balance. This is cited as an improvement over Judeo-Christianity, so the monotheism doesn't really wash. –  Oldcat Aug 13 at 18:22

In an appendix to his book "When Our World Became Christian", Paul Veyne studies the extent to which the concept of monotheism applies to Judaism. His main point is that the concept of monotheism ("there is only one God") can be differentiated from monolatrism ("ye shall worship only one God") only if the idea of "a non-existent deity" can be conceptualized. That idea appeared at one time; before that invention, people did not think of gods in terms of true/fake, but rather in terms of yours/others, or stronger/weaker. Paul Veyne references the relevant Scripture texts in which the transition from monolatrism to monotheism can be seen.

Apparently, the Babylonian captivity was a turning point because it exposed the Hebrew intellectual elites to concepts which were developed in more Eastern areas, notably Zoroastrianism. Though Zoroastrianism gained the status of "state religion" in Persia only later on, the basic concepts were older (the exact date is highly disputed, but the current consensus points to "some time in the 2nd millenium BC"). The ideas had begun to percolate to neighbouring Babylonia at the time the Hebrew were there. Among these concepts was the notion that there was a Supreme Deity (Ahura Mazda), and other "gods" were really subordinates, even proxies; every prayer sent to any god was ultimately brought to the attention of Ahura Mazda. In that sense, the other gods in Zoroastrianism were already at that time beginning to be perceived as proto-angels and demons, to be respected and/or feared, but not "gods" in the same sense of Ahura Mazda.

When the Hebrew came back from Babylon, monotheism crystallized in their minds: they now understood that a god could be fake, non-existent. This contrasts with what philosophers were thinking in 5th century BC Greece: for them, the "divinity" was basically the Cosmos, the order. Conceptual gods were a-plenty, e.g. Eros (for love) or Chronos (for time). They had no notion that a concept could be non-existent: if you can think about it, then it exists, and is part of the Cosmos, thus you can worship it.

Since monotheism was a gradual innovation, there are "intermediate states" and one cannot really pinpoint an exact year in which it happened. The term henotheism has been coined to describe these intermediaries. In the case of Europe and Middle-East, it seems that true monotheism emerged with Judaism in the 6th or 5th century BC, although some definitions of monotheism can include earlier Zoroastrianism or Atenism (as described by @Semaphore). (However, it can be said that when Akhenaten mandated what was effectively monolatry, he was more concerned about the mundane power of the Amun priesthood than the alleged fakeness of the other gods.)

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+1 - although I don't necessarily agree with your conclusion, your answer is the only one that defines the terms of the discussion clearly and discreetly - something which the question failed utterly to do, thereby rendering it virtually unanswerable as written. –  user2590 Aug 20 at 0:55

Akenaten

In Egypt, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV started a new monotheistic religion and renamed himself Akenaten, moving to a new capital city Armana unsullied by the normal religion. This would be about 1350 BC to 1320 BC.

When he died, his son Tutankhamun reconciled with the old regime, and the city was abandoned. This heresy and the need to wipe out its existence is one reason why King Tut's tomb was left intact so that it could be found in the 1920s.

I know Sigmund Freud wrote a book "Moses and Monotheism" trying to tie Judaism's development to Akenaten, but most seem to be unconvinced.

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this was already mentioned in the accepted answer –  jwenting Aug 14 at 12:31
    
my mistake..the first sentence and 80 percent of the text were discussing Judaism and I missed that when I skimmed it. –  Oldcat Aug 14 at 18:11

Long before Judaism the god Ahura Mazda was worshipped in Persia. They had a number of Commandments which where very simular to the Ten Commandments, it is very likely Abraham based his religion on this older one or at least borrowed some elements

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This is a good answer that I would upvote if it included references. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 13 at 12:32
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"Ahura Mazda first appeared in the Achaemenid period (c. 550 – 330 BCE)"@wiki I think it wasn't a bad guess, but it seems to be younger than judaism, can you provide sources? I am not sure if wiki is correct in this one. –  CsBalazsHungary Aug 13 at 13:09
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As Ballsy says, according to the wikioracle Mazda originated in the time of Darius. Well, hello, get your dates straight. Obviously Abraham didn't use this as his source, unless he had a time machine and could travel into the future. –  Tyler Durden Aug 13 at 17:51
    
they did have time machines apparently. it's probable that abraham broke the last one after using it hehehe –  pythonian29033 Aug 14 at 9:52
    
This is a very interesting answer. Please edit and provide some good source material! –  user2590 Aug 20 at 0:27

A pity question. Atenism was a sect that departed from the traditional polytheistic Egyptians but did not really catch on after the death of Amenhotep. One, as mentioned above, can make a case for its brief appearance being the first recorded monotheistic belief system. Also often overlooked is that Judaism as practiced during the first temple period was henotheistic, i.e., recognizing the existence of other deities while worshipping YHWH or El as the primary regional or ethnic deity. Judaism changed and became more monotheistic after the Mesopotamian diaspora due to the influence of Zoroastrianism under the Persians.

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I'm not sure what "a pity question" means. Unless you can provide references, this doesn't really add anything new to the discussion. Can you improve on the dates/research provided by others? –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 14 at 16:12

Let me give an input regarding Hinduism which is considered as a major polytheistic religion and one of the oldest in the history.

Hinduism is actually have another name, 'Sanathana Dharma', which is considered as the culture of India. Even though Hinduism now considered as a religion with all essence of this culture.

There are more than 33 Million Gods of Hinduism. Why Hindus worship so many gods and goddesses is a real mystery for most people. What is the role of Hinduism in a monotheistic religion question in here? It do have an important role because the ultimate message from Hinduism lead to the concept of single God or all Gods are the same. Even if there are so many Gods like Trinity Shiva,Vishnu and Brahma, the core of the Hinduism says that all these Gods are the same. Krishna,Rama, Durga, Ganesha,etc and the number is lot more in the list of Gods. But see what Vedas says,

The most important texts in Hinduism,4 veda's mahavakyas(ultimate messages) are the following

1.Rig Veda - prajñānam Parabrahma - Wisdom/consciousness is the parabrahma(highest truth, not to be confused with 'Brahma' in Trinity)

2.Atharva Veda - ayam ātmā brahma- I am this Self is parabrahma

3.Sama Veda - tat tvam asi- You are that(parabrahma)

4.Yajur Veda - aham brahmāsmi- I am that (parabrahma)

All these creators in the world is considered as the part of one ultimate truth which can be called as a 'monotheistic GOD'. According to Hinduism, all these 33 million Gods are the same. Most of these Gods are the incarnations. Like Krishna and Rama are the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Anyone can worship any of these Gods and get to the ultimate truth.

See a related question in Hinduism.SE here.

Also Hindus does not have strict restrictions in going to church or other temples like in Christianity or Islam. The reason is that Hindus believe that all Gods(in other religions too) are the part of the one ultimate truth or God. So isn't it the monotheism? Hindus who know the message of their culture know that everything is one.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religion, so while considering the core of message of the hinduism, it can be considered as the first monotheistic religion. It is way too older than Judaism, zourastrism or any other religions mentioned in other answers.

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Interesting ... but the Question is no about polytheistic religions. –  Stephen C Aug 16 at 2:39
    
That's all interesting, but this question is about the "first monotheistic religion." At what point did monism become established? –  Jon of All Trades Aug 17 at 13:39
    
Hinduism is one of the oldest religion, so while considering the core of message of the hinduism, it can be considered as the first monotheistic religion. –  AskingStory Aug 18 at 16:38
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I have to downvote this answer because the question asked about "the first monotheistic one?" and you have brought no substatiation whatsoever to support the notion that Hinduism is the oldest, but expect us to simply rely on your assurance "It is way too older than Judaism, zourastrism or any other religions mentioned in other answers." We are looking for historical sources here, not your personal beliefs. –  user2590 Aug 20 at 0:22
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@Vector, the vedas were composed around 1700 BCE which most scholars agree is the start of the Vedic period. While, not the oldest religion as pre-vedic religions are still practised in some parts of the sub continent, it still is definitely one of the oldest surviving ones. Nevertheless, I too feel we need more evidence (perhaps from someone trained in Vedic theology) to support the claim that Hinduism is indeed monotheistic. –  Monster Truck Sep 27 at 1:55

Not a messenger did We send before thee without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no god but I; therefore worship and serve Me. Quran (21:25)

And it was already revealed to you and to those before you that if you should associate [anything] with Allah , your work would surely become worthless, and you would surely be among the losers. Quran (39:65)

We sent Noah to his people. He said: "O my people! worship Allah! ye have no other god but Him. I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful day! Quran(7:59)

And [We sent] Abraham, when he said to his people, "Worship Allah and fear Him. That is best for you, if you should know. You only worship, besides Allah , idols, and you produce a falsehood. Indeed, those you worship besides Allah do not possess for you [the power of] provision. So seek from Allah provision and worship Him and be grateful to Him. To Him you will be returned." Quran(29:16-17)

They have certainly disbelieved who say, " Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah has said, "O Children of Israel, worship Allah , my Lord and your Lord." Indeed, he who associates others with Allah - Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. Quran(5:72)

According to Islam all religions were originally monotheistic but people changed them. So to relate to your question it is probably a religion that disappeared from practice.

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This answer would be improved by citation of sources that would allow us to learn more. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 14 at 12:02
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more muhammedan propaganda? –  jwenting Aug 14 at 12:30
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I'm not sure the Quran can be considered an authoritative source of general human history. –  Semaphore Aug 14 at 12:58
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You are right. For non muslims it is not –  mosaad Aug 14 at 13:06
    
Thank you for the sources & citations. I'm not sure that these support the notion that all religions were originally monotheistic; I'm not disagreeing, I just can't trace the assertion from the evidence. For the sake of discussion, let's accept that Allah asserted monotheism at the time of Noah. In order to answer the question, we need to establish (a) the date of Noah, (b) a religion based on the teachings of Allah's messenger. Or have I confused the facts? –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 14 at 13:07

It is interesting to travel in time and space, exploring the source of first monotheistic religion... APEU ( as per evolving understanding) it seems, before the religion comes the language - vocabulary/ terms/associated comparisons/reflections and so on. What if one has not learnt about polytheism - this word doesnt exist in one's learning ? how would one experience it? when one acquires meaning /words discussion starts.. How about exploring what religion/ connectivity/code of conduct one has even before learning a language? Is not that vibratory/ resonating in all , the first monotheistic element common to all as a first religion? just sharing to better evolve with your participation.

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This doesn't answer this question; it discusses the underlying issues. In fact it is a mediation on the weak Sapir-Worf hypothesis, which is fascinating, but not history. Please continue to participate, but please read the help center. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 13 at 14:30
    
nice talking point, but as Mark says no answer. –  jwenting Aug 18 at 7:08
    
Gibberish... perhaps try answering the question? –  user2590 Aug 20 at 0:28

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