The Shema‘ Yisrael

Monotheistic Jewish amulet discovered near Carnuntum

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


 

According to a recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review, the Shema‘ Yisrael on this Jewish amulet discovered near Carnuntum is one of the earliest monotheistic readings of Deuteronomy.

The Shema‘ Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) is Judaism’s holiest confession. Today, we understand the passage as a monotheistic declaration. However, in the Second Temple period, the Shema‘ Yisrael text in Deuteronomy would have been read “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The Shema‘ Yisrael was originally a monolatric statement; it stated that Israel had an exclusive relationship with its God, but it did not deny the existence of other national deities for other peoples.

When did Deuteronomy’s Shema‘ Yisrael become a monotheistic statement? When did Jews begin to recognize their deity as the only deity existing in the universe? In the May/June 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Armin Lange and Esther Eshel discuss the discovery of a Jewish amulet near the city of Carnuntum that “marks an early pinnacle of this monotheistic interpretation of the Shema‘ Yisrael in Deuteronomy 6:4.”

The Jewish amulet was discovered in a third-century C.E. child’s grave near the Roman frontier city Carnuntum (close to modern Halbturn, Austria). The amulet is formed out of a silver capsule and small gold leaf, inscribed with a Hebrew Shema‘ Yisrael written in Greek letters. Lange and Eshel state that “the Jewish amulet reads the last clause of the Shema‘ Yisrael as ΑΔΩΝ Α ‘the Lord is 1.’ That is, it replaces the Hebrew word אחד, which meant originally ‘alone,’ with ‘one’ (a Greek A). The letter in ancient Greek represents the numeral 1.”
 


 
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
 


 
What is an early monotheistic Shema‘ Yisrael doing near Carnuntum? Lange and Eshel illustrate that Carnuntum had a well-integrated Jewish population that stated their religion openly. The Jewish population would have known how to recite the Shema‘ Yisrael, but most likely did not know how to write in Hebrew.

Lange and Eshel conclude:

To our knowledge the Halbturn amulet is the first text that renders the Hebrew word ehad (אחד) with the number “1.” This numerical representation of the final word of the Shema‘leaves no doubt about how the Jewish craftsman who made the Halbturn amulet understood the Shema‘ Yisrael —as a monotheistic statement! Only the Lord is God; there is no other God. Though the Jews of Carnuntum were open to the multi-religious culture of their city, this openness clearly had defined limits. For them, no other god existed but the Lord.

Armin Lange and Esther Eshel’s full article “‘The Lord Is One’: How Its Meaning Changed” explores the Jewish amulet and its Shema‘ Yisrael inscription in light of ancient Jewish magic, the evolution of monotheism and the local Jewish population.

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BAS Library Members: Read the full article “‘The Lord Is One’: How Its Meaning Changed” as it appears in the May/June 2013 issue of BAR.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in April 2013.
 


 

Related Content in the BAS Library:

Paula Fredricksen, “Gods and the One God,” Bible Review, February 2003.

The BAS Library now includes the full book Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One, edited by Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt, featuring chapters written by Donald B. Redford, William G. Dever, P. Kyle McCarter Jr. and John J. Collins.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
 


 

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  • Shelley says

    Orthodox Jews mean, very simply, that G-d is one, as in singular. Even if echod used to mean “alone” (and please could you expand upon that in textual antiquity?) it would still mean that Jews refuse to worship any other single g-d, group of deities in any other religion, partial g-d, three-in-one g-d, five-in-one g-d or whatever. I don’t say this to in any way disparage any other religious belief or to say one religion is right whereas the other is wrong. I say this so that the commitment of the Jew to this specific meaning is clear throughout all time.

  • Jeffrey says

    Can anyone provide ANY instance in which Ehad in the Tanach means “alone”? “Alone” is always, as far as I know, “levad”, or a variation thereof. (Levado, bilvad, etc.)

  • Bruce says

    The LXX has heis “one”, not monos “only, alone” for Deut. 6:4. That dates to the second century BC, about 400 years earlier than this amulet.

  • Mervyn says

    There is only one God and we refer to that God as “he” for simplification. we cannot merely say “it” or “she” which was a more mundane personality. So we say “He” and that does not mean that he is a male in the reproductive sense.

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