Historians of Judaism actually date the strong Jewish emphasis on monotheism somewhat later than expected within Jewish history. The archaeological discovery of idols and artifacts indicating cultic participation from the time of Israel's presence in Canaan has seemed to indicate a relative laxity in actual practice before the Babylonian captivity, while textual criticism seems agreed that most of the Torah's foregrounded statements of strong monotheism date from textual recensions during the Babylonian captivity, and thus substantially post-date both the J-writer and the E-writer of the Old Testament (Moberly 217). But the strong emphasis on monotheism which comprises the first commandment given by Yahweh to Moses is a defining feature of Judaism in prevailing polytheistic cultures where the Jews can define their religion in opposition, so to speak. I would like to examine three separate ways in which Jewish monotheism defined itself against a kind of prevailing cultural polytheism. The first significant historical conflict I would like to examine in these terms comes in the Roman period. I would then like to jump forward to the Middle Ages to examine the question of the relation of Jewishness to Christian millenarianism, but I will do this by considering the Roman Catholic church of that era as a syncretic and polytheistic phenomenon, an authentic holdover in certain ways from the Roman Period. Finally, moving to the twentieth century, I finally want to consider the case of Dr. Sigmund Freud -- not as a provider of explanations in himself, but examined (in his role as a provider of such explanations) as a rare sublimated case of the conflict between Jewish monotheism and prevailing polytheism. Freud, who would according to his biographer Peter Gay, describe himself as an "atheist Jew," provides an excellent case study of the anxieties of Jewish monotheism in an age of diminishing religious capacity.
Any discussion of the role played by Judaism in the Roman Empire must necessarily wind up a discussion about Christianity, but I think it is more enlightening to witness the ways in which Judaism in the Roman period was forced to confront Roman polytheism. Of course the central issue in the case of Jewish discomfort with the Roman state religion actually would involve precisely the same theological issues that Christianity later would, in terms of the claims made for an actual human being to divinity. Without needing to rely on the history of early Christianity we need only look to the short terrifying reign of the Roman emperor Gaius, better known by his nickname "Caligula." Before examining the interactions between Caligula and the Jews in terms of the dynamic of monotheism defending against polytheism, it is worth recalling the larger historical context. Caligula only reigned from 37 to 41 C.E., not quite four years -- although his imperial policy towards the Jews was marked by significant upheaval. A quarter-century after Caligula's death, the Roman-Jewish situation would erupt into outright warfare with the first Jewish-Roman war in 66 C.E. But without any consideration of the open civil strife that would emerge eventually (but continually thereafter, if we consider the numerous later standoffs that would occur, like Bar-Kochba's revolt several decades later), it is worth noting first the position of the Jewish population within the Roman empire: in Caligula's reign the Herodian royal family served as a sort of client of the Roman state, but as a Jewish ruling elite represented a relative decadence in religious standards. The Herodians were instead extremely close to the ruling families of Rome, and would ultimately name Jewish princes after Roman political figures, such as Herod Agrippa, named after the military and naval commander of the emperor Augustus, Marcus Agrippa. But the closeness of the Herodians to the Caesars may have ultimately caused Caligula badly to miscalculate the beliefs of the vast majority of Jews in Judaea, by assuming that the relatively secular Hellenistically-derived milieu of the Herod family and their ruling elite represented mainstream Judaism in any way.
Before examining Caligula's inadvertent fostering of religious conflict, though, we should recall that Caligula himself was not quite sane, and that a large measure of Caligula's delusions were religious in character, including declaring war on the Sea-God, Neptune, and declaring himself a god: we should bear in mind that, as Ferrill notes, "the Emperor's attitude towards the gods clearly shocked Greek and Roman pagans, especially Italians" yet the same attitude "with the Jews led to a crisis that was aborted only by the Emperor's death" (Ferrill 140). The difficulty here is that we have lost the account from the most reliable historian of the period, Tacitus, whose history of Caligula's reign is not extant, although Ferrill quotes the summary given by Tacitus elsewhere in an epitome of Jewish history: Tacitus writes that "when the Jews were ordered by Caligula to set up his statue in the temple they preferred the alternative of war. The death of the Emperor put an end to the disturbance." (140). It is worth noting that the decades leading up to Caligula's reign -- i.e. The reign of Augustus and the reign of Tiberius -- had marked a slow Roman encroachment upon the Herodian state: on the death of Herod the Great in 4 C.E., Augustus would limit the title assumed by his heir: Herod the Great had been a king, but his son Archelaus would be named "ethnarch" at Augustus' command, and other sons Philip and Herod Antipas would rule as "tetrarchs." By 14 C.E., Augustus would depose Archelaus entirely, and Philip's portion would ultimately be annexed by Syria while Herod Antipas (the Herod of the New Testament story of Salome, who executed John the Baptist) would be supplanted to a certain degree by his brother-in-law Herod Agrippa. Herod Agrippa -- named, as noted, in the ultimate Jewish assimilationist maneuver within the Roman imperial context -- would befriend the young Caligula in the court of the Emperor Tiberius at Capri. This led to the future Jewish ruler's getting caught up in the palace intrigue of the Caesars, as he was placed under house arrest by Tiberius after being accused of plotting sedition with Caligula -- Caligula was not punished -- and Herod Agrippa was not freed until the death of Tiberius had left Caligula as the new emperor of Rome. Caligula promptly freed Herod Agrippa from the confinement in which Tiberius had placed him, and also made him King of the Syria which had swallowed Philip's portion of Judaea. Caligula then showed further favor on Herod Agrippa when (in short order) he banished his brother-in-law Herod Antipas, then currently ruler, and made Herod Agrippa ruler of his territories instead -- effectively King of all Judaea. How this played out is worth noting before we move to the question of religious misunderstanding in the opposite direction, for it shows the simple clash in ethical systems between Roman and Jew in the time period. It was in all cases the question of title that occupied the Jewish leaders -- the final maneuver in which Agrippa managed to have Antipas banished to become sole ruler was accomplished by accusing Antipas of treasonous intent when he appealed to Caligula to be given the title of King (which Augustus had removed from the Herods but Caligula restored). The notion that the Herodians -- who had only taken power from the Hasmoneans in 37 B.C.E., and thus represented a dynasty substantially younger than the Caesars (since Julius Caesar had been murdered in 44 B.C.E.) -- were in any position to bargain over such titles, which must have been purely honorific and served largely to maintain the peace in Judaea while politically assimilating it better as a province (less so than an independent client state), especially considering the success that the precisely similar Roman annexation of Egypt had, after the death of Cleopatra. Interestingly, though, it was actually Egypt rather than Judaea that began Caligula's problems with the Jews in earnest -- and it is necessary to recall that at this time period (mid-first-century C.E.), the Jewish Diaspora was already to a certain degree largely in effect, with large portions of the Roman Empire's Jewish citizenry living outside Judaea. (Obviously the rapid spread of Christianity among Jewish populations shortly after this was helped by the fact that those populations were largely scattered throughout the cities of the Roman empire.) In any case, Cleopatra's defeat at the Battle of Actium left Rome as the de facto ruler of the largest and most cosmopolitan city of the period, Alexandria, the provincial capital of Egypt founded by Alexander the Great. Augustus would take a protective attitude toward the Jewish population of Alexandria, enumerating their rights in a public inscription: but conflict with the Greek inhabitants (and inheritors of Alexander the Great's earlier conquest) would erupt into pogroms in Alexandria under Caligula's reign at the time of the appointment of Herod Agrippa as sole king of Judaea.
Yet the chief mistake of Caligula's Jewish policy was yet to come, when he demanded -- upon announcement (which historians have…