Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Most of us have been conditioned by the conventional wisdom that the Old Testament books were written between the eighth and fifth centuries. But there is no independent evidence for the existence of any of the Bible’s books or any knowledge of biblical traditions (Davies, 1992 and Vridar.info notes), nor any evidence for the practice of Judaism itself (sabbath observance, dietary practices, etc) until the Hellenistic era — the third century (Lemche, 1993 and the post Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?Adler, 2022 and the post The Late Origins of Judaism). It is against this background of the hard archaeological evidence that we must approach Gmirkin’s thesis of Hellenistic influence on the Bible.

With thanks to Taylor & Francis (Routledge) for the review copy

We come to the final, and longest, chapter of Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History by Russell Gmirkin. If the author of Genesis did use Plato’s Timaeus-Critias, what does that tell us about Jewish monotheism in the third century BCE?

In the discussion of Genesis 1 we saw Gmirkin’s case for the Genesis authors drawing upon Plato’s notion of “cosmic monotheism” — the idea of a sole creator god beyond space and time who brings about the universe, including time itself, and then retires from the scene. This god was of a higher order of divinity from other gods and it is in that sense that we speak of “monotheism” here.

In covering Genesis 2 we observed the narrative moving into a storybook world featuring a god who walked amidst his garden and spoke with his created humans and their offspring.

We read of God appearing to address a council of fellow divinities when he (or one of him/them) says, “Let us make humankind in our image….”, “Let us make him a helper….” and then at Babel, “Let us go down and confuse their language….”  The supreme deity creates the perfect world but it appears that lesser deities create potentially sinful mortals and interact with them. Sons of god are even said to bear children with human women. And then we encounter the patriarchs sacrificing at altars to gods recognized by their Canaanite neighbours.

Gmirkin compares this outline with Plato’s narrative in Timaeus and Critias. As in Genesis, Plato begins with a supreme craftsman (demiurge) god who is without human form or body and beyond space and time yet who is responsible for creating the perfect universe. After that, lesser gods take over and create corruptible humans and interact with them.

When we read Genesis against the background of Plato’s myths we begin to understand solutions to hitherto perplexing puzzles about Genesis, Gmirkin notes:

Various otherwise perplexing narrative details, small and large, attain a new clarity when interpreted in light of Platonic parallels. Most significant are those relating to a directly polytheistic mythical narrative context that complements (and in small details contradicts) the cosmic monotheism of Genesis 1: the appearance of a multiplicity of gods in both the First Creation Account (Gen 1:26) and the tale of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18 [LXX], 3:22); the contrast between the portraits of Elohim as supreme Creator in Genesis 1 and Yahweh as a storybook terrestrial god introduced in Genesis 2-3, and the marriages between gods and mortal women (Gen 6:1-4). The book of Genesis, like Plato’s Timaeus, promoted two complementary visions of the divine realm of the gods: a transcendent philosophical monotheism manifested in the creation of the perfect kosmos at the dawn of time, and a conventional terrestrial polytheism that accommodated the popular beliefs and cults of tradition. Both of these carefully balanced Platonic theological elements were highly innovative: that a single supremely good eternally existent god created the heavens and earth, and that the pantheon of well-known terrestrial gods, his sons and daughters, were also universally good and worthy of honor. (Gmirkin, 247)

There are also compound forms of these names for god, such as Yahweh-Elohim and El-Shaddai. There are various explanations for these in the literature — a) that the one god took on various “guises” (or hypostases), b) that they were different gods, c) that later editors were attempting to change the text (for which there is manuscript evidence) for theological reasons. Gmirkin understands that some of these later changes to the text were introduced by editors seeking to bring Genesis more closely in line with the theological perspective of Exodus-Deuteronomy.

The Genesis god of creation was called Elohim. The storybook god who appears after creation was given the name Yahweh. Yahweh, as you no doubt recognize, is also a transliteration of that famous tetragram YHWH, the god uniquely associated with the Old Testament. In Genesis 1 YHWH is not the creator.

So much for Genesis, but what about the world outside the literature?

Archaeological evidence informs us that before we have any signs of knowledge of biblical accounts Yahweh was a local deity of Jews, Samaritans and others along with other divinities, such as the mother-god Asherah. All the evidence we have for religious practices in the times of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah points to polytheism. Yahweh is simply one among a pantheon of deities.

When the Judahites were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and many of them transported to Babylonia, we know that there they continued to worship Yahweh along with other gods — in this case the Babylonian gods. Even into the Persian era, wherever archaeologists have uncovered Jewish settlements, they find the worship of other gods alongside Yahweh. Some readers may find this surprising or think the interpretation of the evidence is perverse, but until I post more about the evidence of what has been dug up from the ground here is a smattering of many publications that interested readers can turn to for further detail:

It is not only a question of whether or not the people of Judah worshipped Yahweh alone, but as indicated in the side-box above, in particular with the Adler reference (see also his academia.edu outline of the book), archaeological evidence points to practices contrary to biblical laws and religious customs until the second century BCE.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pentateuch was a Hellenistic era work so it follows that Hellenistic ideas should be seriously considered among its sources.

Since Gmirkin’s analysis places the origin of the first five books of the Bible in Hellenistic times (the third century BCE) it would follow from the state of the evidence as alluded to above that Genesis 1

arguably represents the earliest expression of monotheism among the Jews and Samaritans, alongside the equally novel benevolent terrestrial polytheism of the rest of Genesis. (249)

So in Genesis we have an expression of the Plato-like supreme and sole deity, existing outside space and time, creating the cosmos and then retiring, followed by references to what looks like another deity (Yahweh) living and interacting with mortals (e.g. in Garden of Eden, with Cain and Abel, visiting and eating a meal with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob), along with patriarchs honouring the gods of the Canaanites (e.g. with Melchizedek at Salem, Bethel, El Shaddai, El Olam . . .). At the same time we find the patriarchs enjoying positive relations with their “pagan” neighbours. Abraham bonds with Amorites, engages in peaceful negotiations with Hittites and Philistines, is honoured by Egyptians, while breakdowns only happen as a result of personal wrongs and not because of any “evil” inherent in the different races themselves.

After Genesis, Yahweh changed

In both the stories and legal content of Exodus-Joshua one sees the rejection of benevolent terrestrial polytheism in favor of a Yahwistic monolatry that equated the local patron god of the Jews and the Samaritans with the creator of the universe and which opposed the gods of the nations and their cultic practices. Given that Exodus-Joshua was arguably written contemporaneously with Genesis . . . , yet from a radically different perspective, this suggests a fundamental clash in philosophy and agenda between authorial groups involved in the creation of the Hexateuch ca. 270 BCE. (Gmirkin, 249)

There are other authors who argue that a single author was responsible for the Pentateuch: Bernard Barc, Thomas Brodie, Jan-Wim Wesselius and Philippe Wajdenbaum. (See the post, Did A Single Author Write Genesis – II Kings?) Barc, who also argues for a Hellenistic origin of the Pentateuch, views the respective appearances of the god El and the god Yahweh as two different “forms” (hypostases) of the Most High and each performs an allotted function in a single plan of history. Gmirkin argues for a deeper influence of Plato and other Greek ideas on the text. A difficulty for the average reader when pondering this question is the fact that most Bibles are translations of a Hebrew text that was finalized in the Christian era. To discover earlier versions requires a comparison with ancient Greek translations and the Dead Sea Scrolls (first addressed here). We also have the question of how the final editor made changes to Genesis when he incorporated the work into a set with the following books.

Are the views of Barc, Brodie, Wesselius and Wajdenbaum able to respond adequately to the challenges Gmirkin raises? My next task is to step back and refresh my memory of the details of all of Gmirkin’s works and try to see how all of the evidence coheres.

Gmirkin does, however, offer a plausible response to those who find themselves troubled over what seems to be a fuzzy line between the gods and cults in Genesis but it casts an eye beyond Plato. Elohim is the creator but Yahweh-Elohim engages with humans; El Elyon and El Shaddai are both “Els”. In the views of the Stoic philosophers the many Greek gods were different aspects of “one god”:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.147.

The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however … called many names according to his various powers. They give the name Dia (Δία) because all things arc due to (διά) him; Zeus (Ζήνα) in so far as he is the cause of life (ζην) or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly, men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes.

It is possible that the well-known Stoic assimilation of the Greek gods to their monotheistic god, the creative fire, influenced the biblical conflation of deities associated with various titles of the ancient god El with the local patron god Yahweh. (Gmirkin, 300, my formatting)

Let’s continue Gmirkin’s discussion.

Something Completely Different: Here is a light-hearted digression on God’s treatment of the Egyptians at the Red Sea that comes from a study on the history of swimming through the ages:

The Hebrews left Egypt ‘with boldness’, but when they reach the Red Sea they accuse Moses, ‘Have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?’ Moses (brought up by Egyptians, and perhaps therefore knowing how to swim himself ) soothes the Hebrews, and tells them not to be afraid. He stretches out his hand over the sea. God parts the Red Sea for the Hebrews, and then drowns the Egyptians. . . . .

This was the reverse of what readers might have expected, knowing that the Egyptians had always been strong swimmers and the Hebrews had never known how to swim. The parting of the Red Sea takes on new meaning when we realize that the Hebrews are non-swimmers, afraid of the water, being pursued by confident, experienced Egyptian swimmers.

from pages 55-56 (heard on Late Night Live)

It is only after Genesis, in the book of Exodus, that Yahweh claims to have been the God of the Patriarchs in Genesis and that he will tolerate no rivals. The covenant he makes with his people is to wipe out the Canaanites after having reigned death and destruction on the Egyptians.

God — Yahweh — has changed.

What of the god of the Flood, though? Did not Gmirkin say the biblical author had a more vicious view of god than Plato. At least Plato’s deity sought to discipline humans through calamity for their own good while the biblical god simply wanted to destroy humanity outright. Perhaps some of the Genesis authors also slightly wavered in their view of Yahweh’s character.

Plato’s Program and the Birth of Montheism

Gmirkin concludes from his comparative analysis that the Pentateuch was the work of authors united in seeking to introduce Plato’s program for an ideal society.

Plato taught that there was a supreme deity, formless and beyond space and time, yet who was perfectly good. Such an idea arose from the attempts of Greek philosophers to understand the origins of the universe. This concept of god (Gmirkin traces in some depth the history of the idea and the different functions of the gods of the Greek civic cults, the gods of the literary mythical world and god(s) of the natural philosophers) was the beginning of monotheism as we understand the term.

For Plato (and much of the western world has followed his idea) belief in the concept of a supreme, perfectly good deity is the first requirement of a virtuous society.

Civic authorities periodically accused and punished philosophers who openly taught “atheism” — which was how they understood the new monotheism with its implication of the rejection of other gods. Plato, however, found a role for these lesser gods in the wider society despite his philosophical preference for monotheism. But those lesser deities needed to be refashioned through literature and other arts and regular festivals as perfectly good. Old myths of gods misbehaving had to be banned. People could continue to cement their social bonds by gathering for the worship of these earthly, yet now “purified”, deities.

These ideas of Plato are what Gmirkin finds in Genesis.

Plato further envisioned a Nocturnal Council of the piously qualified as a vital institution to rule his ideal society. Members would be responsible for maintaining the morality of the public and public administration.

In Plato’s Laws, the divine philosophical ruling class elite exercised its power through an institution called the Nocturnal Council to accord with its meetings in the pre-dawn hours (Laws 12.95Id, 961b). Although Laws never explicitly mentions philosophers, “the members of the Nocturnal Council are philosophers in all but name” (Hull 2019: 217). The major function of the Nocturnal Council was to control the internal affairs of the nation. The ruling class elites of this “divine council” (Laws 12.969b; cf. the “divine polity” of 12.965c) would administer the nation’s new laws (Laws 7.809b; 12.951d, 952a-b) and education (Laws 7.811c-812a; 12.951d, 952a-b, 964b-c) from the earliest age on (Laws 12.952b), approve and strictly control its literature (Laws 7.802b-c, 811c-e) and enforce its religious beliefs (Laws 10.908e-909d), controlling the beliefs, and even the collective national memory of the populace, who would come to regard their constitution and way of life as established since time immemorial by their patron gods (Laws 7.798a-b). Through this new theocratic form of government in which the people believed they were under divine rule, the whole of national life would come under the perpetual control and guidance of philosophers, with the willing cooperation of the people who believed their leaders to be the divine agents of the supreme god. (Gmirkin, 268)


While the exoteric function of the Nocturnal Council was the administration of the state and its beliefs through control of its legislation, literature, education and religion, its even more important esoteric function was the continued pursuit of philosophical and scientific studies, thought to be essential to the proper administration of the polis. The Nocturnal Council thus functioned both as the ruling body of government and as a university for the continued study of theology, astronomy, ethics and international law, like Plato’s Academy (Morrow 1993: 509; Hull 2019: 228). Investing the nation’s highest educational institution with the full power of government not only ensured wise philosophical rule in the present but allowed the perpetuation of training in the arts of enlightened government from one generation to the next (Laws 12.960d-961b, 965a-b). (Gmirkin, 269)

Here we begin to overlap with what we have covered in other posts about Gmirkin’s earlier work. See the archived posts on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

Authors Divided

Continue reading “Where Did the God of the Bible Come From? – [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus-Critias – 8]”


How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing with the first chapter by Martin West of Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. This and the 2 earlier entries of this series can be found in my Book Notes/Reviews subcategory “West” or in the Religion subcategory God and other deities.

School of Athens by Raphael

Parmenides (early 5th century b.c.e.) — Love, not fire or lightning, is the guiding principle, and he/it’s a She

For Parmenides what steered or guided cosmic events was:

  • a goddess
  • who was located in the middle of a system of circles of fire and darkness
  • and who ruled by bringing male and female together to produce all births and mixtures

Plutarch identified Parmenides match-making goddess with Aphrodite.

Another text fragment informs us that this feminine power first brought forth — apparently by the power of her mind or thought alone — the god Eros.

One school of Parmenides appeared to identify this goddess with Dike or Ananke. What is certain however, is that once again we have a hierarchy of gods emanating from the ultimate one.

The Orphic Protogonos Theogony (ca 500 b.c.e.) — Zeus the first and last, for a moment anyway

A theogony is a list of births of many gods, but West sees its relevance to the history of monotheism in that it this particular poem was part of Parmenides’ cultural tradition, and includes a dramatic scene where polytheism for a moment become effectively “monotheistic”:

When Zeus succeeded Cronus as King of Heaven, Zeus swallowed Protogonos, or Phanes. Phanes was the bisexual god who first appeared from the cosmic egg with the seed of the gods inside him/her. By swallowing Phanes, Zeus swallowed the universe, including all the gods:

all the immortals became one with him, the blessed gods and goddesses
and rivers and lovely springs and everything else
that then existed: he became the only one.

Then follows a hymn to Zeus:

Zeus was first, Zeus was last, god of the bright bolt:
Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, from Zeus are all things made . . .
Zeus is the king, Zeus the ruler of all, god of the bright bolt.

Zeus thus for a moment becomes the sole god. He then proceeds to “bring up” all the other gods “from his holy heart”, presumably a metaphor for an intelligent design. So all the gods subsequently existing become are the creation and emanation of Zeus himself.

Empedocles (ca 490-430 b.c.e.) — the Solitary Sphere, made by Love, shattered by Strife

The same model of all the elements becoming absorbed into One and then expelled again was used by Empedocles. All matter was the product of 4 divine elements — fire, air, water, earth. Under the influence of Love, these elements periodically absorbed themselves into one uniform mass, a single god called Sphairos, or the Sphere.

“This rotund divinity ‘rejoices in his circular solitude’, until Dissension [Strife] sends tremors through his body and the separating elements begin to take the shapes of all the beings that are now in the world.” (p.35)

So unlike Zeus, this Sphere god does not guide or control the universe. It disappears under the infiltration of Strife.

Out of the breakup of the Sphere come the 4 elements as the 4 gods (the links with the elements is my guesswork, not in West):

  • Zeus / fire
  • Hera / air
  • Nestis (Persephone) / water
  • Aidoneus (Hades) / earth

There were 2 other gods who governed the relations between these four, not through the chances of conflict, but through the orderly abiding by the terms of formal agreement:

  • Love
  • Strife

The things produced by the mixing of the four elements included not only humans, trees and plants, animals, birds and fish, but also extremely long-lived gods.

These gods can be condemned for misbehaviour to 30,000 years of embodiment within animal or vegetable bodies.

One of the gods of Empedocles was a disembodied Mind that darted across the universe at the speed of thought. Unlike the solitary Mind or Intelligence god postulated by Xenophanes and Heraclitus, this Mind was merely one of many of the long-life gods that emerged after the Sphere fractured into the 4 divine elements. Other ancients attributed this Mind to Apollo, or to divinity in general.

Anaxagoras (ca 500-428 b.c.e.) — a material controlling Mind over all

Anaxagoras postulated something that functioned like a god but was a natural material substance. He thought of this as an extremely rarefied material Mind (Nous) that:

  • is a rarefied, homogeneous and autonomous material (not divine) substance, the finest and purest of all material substances
  • cannot combine with other substances
  • is everlasting (but Anaxagoras refused to apply divine labels like “immortal” to it)
  • is able to live in some living creatures
  • is the greatest power in existence
  • is all-knowing
  • initiated the rotation of the cosmos which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture
  • has determined and continues to decide the precise mixture of elements in each thing
  • governs all living things
  • has organized all things, past, present and future

Anaxagoras thought of it as a stand-by physical explanation to answer questions that could not be explained by other physical mechanisms.

Diogenes of Apollonia (ca 460 b.c.e.) — the divine Air we breathe

Diogenes was more clear cut in restricting the ultimately divine power to Air (Aer) than Anaximenes had been. Anaximenes had attributed divinity to all the products and secondary products of Aer. Not so Diogenes.

Air is breathed in by living things and is therefore the soul and consciousness of living things.

Everything contains some portion of air. But not everything contains the same portion.

This air is everywhere and in everything. It gives humans and other animals their souls and consciousness through their breath. It is God.

Air is responsible for the “intelligent design” of the orderly universe: winter and summer, night and day, rain, wind and fine days.

Like Anaxagoras, Diogenes attributed this Mind or Consciousness to a physical element, Air, but unlike Anaxagoras he was willing to call it divine, God.

Diogenes also interpreted Homer allegorically and regarded Zeus in the epic myths as the personification of Air. It is unknown whether or how he interpreted the other deities allegorically as well. If he did, no doubt Zeus or Air would have been the overall guiding power.

Ancient Arguments from Design

Herodotus commented in his Histories on what he took as evidence of “intelligent design” guiding the universe and everything in it. He observed, for example, that animals that were food for others bred in large numbers while the predators had few offspring, thus preserving a happy balance (‘happy’ at least for the predators!)

West comments on Herodotus’s example of the flying snakes of Arabia that, H says, would over-run the world if it were not for the planning of Providence in guiding the female to crunch on the male’s throat at climax and for the unborn young avenging their father by eating their way out of their mother’s body.

Herodotus attributed such balance to “the forethought of the divine”, which was Wisdom.

Socrates likewise, according to Xenophon in his Memorabilia, argued for a divine intelligence behind humans, for example. They had arms whereas other animals only had legs; they also had light to see by; and usefully stood upright; and each part of the body had a useful function. He saw similar design in the heavens and other living things.

He attributed all of these things to “the gods”.

The indifference between gods, plural, and God, singular, in ancient thought

One reads sayings of Socrates where he will speak sometimes of “the gods” and other times of “(the) god”.

Whether in 5th century b.c.e. Histories, Philosophical Discourse, the Hippocratic Corpus or in Dramatic Tragedy, “[w]henever some theological truth is formulated, some statement about the regime under which mankind lives, the writer typcally does not name one of the traditional gods but says οι θεοι or ο θεος (in tragedy commonly without the article).” (p. 38 )

West concludes:

The indifference as between singular and plural is possible because when someone says ‘the gods’, the assumption is that these gods act as a unanimous body. Because of the force of tradition there was no hurry to discard polytheistic language, and yet there was a general disposition to see the divine regimen as unified and purposeful. This was a situation in which monotheism could develop without causing upset. (pp.38-39)

( . . . to be contd etc . . . )


How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Last month I posted my reading of an interesting discussion by senior research fellow M. L. West about the nature of ancient Mid-East and Mediterranean world polytheism and how it appears to have evolved into monotheism in late antiquity.

This post continues the remainder of that discussion by West. It outlines how and why the philosophers moved the intellectual world to a position where monotheism came to be embraced as the most economical answer to “the big questions” of the day.

As in that previous post, I am discussing the first chapter by Martin West in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede.

On the quest of the sixth and fifth century Greek philosophers West begins:

To invoke God as an explanation of phenomena is to confess that you do not know how to explain them rationally — unless, that is, you are prepared to supply a rational explanation of God. The Presocratics, however, did try to explain God. What they sought to eliminate from the world was not divinity as such but caprice and the arbitrary events which had formerly been ascribed to divine initiative. (p.30)

Guiding principles: Depersonalize and Economize

Rather than discard gods as an explanation, what these philosophers did was to depersonalize the gods of the myths. By depersonalizing them and morphing them into abstract principles they hoped to discover ageless and unchanging forces and powers and principles in place of the moody temperamentalism of human-like gods. They may retain the names of some of these gods for those abstract agencies, but at least such impersonal phenomena would be worthy of the label “god” in their view.

“Among the principles that informed these men’s theorizing were economy and coherence.” They valued the idea of a single cause over many causes. The fewer gods at the apex who could be deduced to be guiding all below the better, although some thinkers retained a small hierarchy of a few agencies at the top.

Thales (ca 624-547 b.c.e) — getting the abstractions right

West sees Thales as the one who began to emancipate such terms as “soul” and “god” from their conventional mythical applications. Continue reading “How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1”


How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

m-typesOne of the more intriguing books I read not many years ago was Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. Its opening chapter by Martin West looks at some of the earliest signs of the transformation of polytheistic religions into monotheistic thought. He begins with Greek and “Near Eastern” (sic) literature.

The essence of polytheism is that the many gods have independent existences, rarely crossing each others paths as they are respectively called on by devotees to help out with their special talents. A thief would call on a god of thieves for blessing, not the god of justice — unless or until he was himself wronged. The Homeric hero Odysseus was persecuted by the god Poseidon but regularly protected by Athena. The Bible narratives likewise point back to the time when Yahweh was among many gods with his own distinct provenance:

You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us (Judges 11:24)

But Homer, West argues, also introduces readers to something contrary to true polytheism. The gods meet in council and subsume their individual wills to their exalted chief, Zeus. Continue reading “How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps”

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