The Subject of Translatability of Deities
Introduction from: God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Forschungen zum Alten Testament series I, volume 57; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008)
Mark S. Smith
Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies
New York University
1. The Rationale for this Study
Understanding ancient cultures entails a series of intellectual operations mediating or “translating” between antiquity and the present. Scholars of ancient societies are required to delve into details. Some of these involve issues of language and thus translation in a literal sense. Words also contain traces of cultural realities lying within the ancient texts.1 Translating words thus requires an effort at translating ancient conceptions and perceptions presented in the texts. Archaeological and pictorial sources also help us to understand ancient cultures. Studying details in these various ancient media is thus crucially important and central to the task of translating the ancient world as best we can. Thus serious researchers follow a scholarly version of the admonition given by the brilliant early church figure, Origen: “Observe each detail which has been written. For, if one knows how to dig into the depth, he will find a treasure in the details, and perhaps also, the precious jewels of the mysteries lie hidden where they are not esteemed” (Homily on Genesis VIII).2
Cultural Translation in Anthropology
At a general level, the operation of translation involves a coordination of cross-cultural understandings, a task particularly familiar to anthropologists. Clifford Geertz reflected on the problem of cross-cultural translation in these terms: “It involves learning how, as a being from elsewhere with a world of one’s own, to live with them.”3 Talal Asad characterized the field as largely a matter of cultural translation: “the phrase ‘the translation of cultures’...increasingly since the 1950s has become an almost banal description of the distinctive task of social anthropology.”4 In support of this view, he cites an essay by Edmund Leach that views social anthropologists as “establishing a methodology for the translation of cultural language.”5 Asad further invokes Max Gluckman as support for the notion that “cultural translation” is an acceptable way to describe the task of social anthropology.6 Asad himself writes in a similar vein: “the anthropologist’s translation is not merely a matter of matching sentences in the abstract, but of learning to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language.”7
Anthropological translation is practiced according to Asad along the following lines: “’Cultural translation’ must accommodate itself to a different language not only in the sense of English as opposed to Dinka, or English as opposed to Kabbashi Arabic, but also in the sense of a British, middle class, academic game as opposed to the modes of the ‘tribal’ Sudan.”8 For Asad, cultural translation is analogous to but differs from language translation in a number of respects: “One difference between the anthropologist and the linguist in the matter of translation is perhaps this: that whereas the latter is immediately faced with a specific piece of discourse produced within the society studied, a discourse that is then textualized, the former must construct the discourse as a cultural text in terms of the meanings implicit in a range of practices.”9 The distinction is useful and it might be expanded. After exploring the inequalities of language between the western academy and third-world cultures, Asad concludes: “the process of ‘cultural translation’ is inevitably enmeshed in conditions of powers – professional, national, international.”10 Translation requires a sensibility to the power relations embedded in the process. In the end both language and cultural translation require knowledge of both language and culture; one cannot do without the other. In the hands of the best practitioners of this double-form of translation, knowledge and experience of language and culture inform one another.11
Cultural Translation in Autobiography
Somewhat analogous to anthropology with respect to cultural translatability are personal memoirs that chart an author’s cross-cultural translation from one society to another. Eva Hoffman’s autobiographical work, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, offers a dramatic account of her family’s migration from Poland to North America in the late 1950s.12 For her, translation in language and culture assumes a central role in her narrative of her experience, as she moves first to Vancouver and later to Cambridge and New York. Such memoirs render the writer’s life as a study in cross-cultural experience. Memoirs seem quite different in nature from anthropological study. As a field, anthropology involves methods and practices designed to minimize or contain the role of the investigator, while memoirs place the writer at the center of the narrative. Yet sometimes the memoirist experiences herself as “an anthropologist of the highly detached variety.”13 Moreover, anthropology (like most fields) is hardly without personal involvement or prejudice. Indeed, it is clear from the history of many academic fields that personal perspective is impossible to contain or restrain entirely, and it is here that the place of the examiner in both anthropology and autobiography may converge.
Although their methodologies differ enormously, anthropology and autobiography of the sort represented by Hoffman’s work may be quite similar, as it is the examiners and their experiences that mediate between cultures and their understandings.14 Both require what Hoffman calls “double vision,”15 the first component being their own original culture and the second the “other,” the new culture that they experience distinctly as not their own. Here Hoffman’s language echoes the comments of Geertz and Asad noted above about the double life or double language involved by anthropological study. Finally, Hoffman’s comments on the asymmetry of her experience also resonate with Asad’s critique of British anthropology and the third world cultures that it studies. For Hoffman, her experience from her old country cannot stand up to the overwhelming context of new country.16 Perhaps most fundamentally, it is interesting to note how language translation functions as a basic idea for both cultural anthropology and for memoirs (at least, in Hoffman’s case). Memoirs of this sort are also a reminder that cross-cultural translation seems to be becoming an increasing part of human life in this era of heightened mobility, which stems from both voluntary and involuntary conditions. What we see in these fields of endeavor is the interrelation between the translation of language and the translation of culture; one is impossible without the other.17
Cultural Translation and Antiquity
The task of translating cultures of the past in the present is in some respects a more difficult task than either anthropology or autobiography. The challenge to “translate translatability” across cultures in antiquity into modern terms is doubly daunting: it involves coordinating both ancient and modern understandings of cultural features, as well as an assessment of their differences and their similarities.18 Bearing in mind the observations of anthropologists and memoirists, we may ask: how does this double-task of translatability succeed where the distance involved is not only spatial but also temporal? To use Geertz’s image, how, if at all, can modern investigators live in the culture of the past in any meaningful sense? Hoffman, too, captures this problem involving her experience of moving from Polish to English. She describes her experience of her loss of language: “Polish is becoming a dead language, the language of the untranslatable past.”19 How much more so for those who study the distant past, and not simply the past within the compass of their lifetimes? We may immerse ourselves in the features of ancient cultures, these signals from the past, and we may provide our educated guesses how best to understand them. In trying to communicate these signals from the past, translation can hardly be perfect. Again, in Hoffman’s words, “In order to translate a language, or a text, without changing its meaning, one would have to transport its audience as well.”20 For ancient cultures, this is clearly impossible.
The Herculean task of translating ancient cultures to our modern context involves a further investigation into how cross-cultural translation operated within antiquity itself. One important area involving translation across cultures in the ancient world is religion. While the study of religion across cultures is a hallmark of the modern study of religion, theoretical consideration of the cross-cultural relations in the area of ancient religion has received less attention.21 One facet of ancient cross-cultural relations concerns how people around the eastern Mediterranean world expressed themselves about the deities of other cultures that they encountered. Many ancient texts recognize deities belonging to foreign lands. This study examines cases of cross-cultural recognition of deities in the “biblical world,” particularly Syria-Palestine (or the Levant) from the Late Bronze Age and well into the Roman period.
Cultural Translation and Divinities in Antiquity
This work builds on research on deities by students of Egypt and the ancient Near East. Expressions of cross-cultural recognition of deities have been noted for decades.22 In recent years, the question has been raised anew by Jan Assmann, most notably in his book, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.23 Other scholars working in the ancient Near East, particularly Alfonso Archi, have drawn on this notion.24 Assmann’s presentation tends to accent the cross-cultural identification or equation of specific deities. At the same time, his understanding of what he calls “translatability” of deities involves more. The evidence discussed by Assmann suggests various notions of translatability of divinity well beyond such identifications or equations. In his notion of “translatability” of divinity, Assmann additionally points to broader cross-cultural recognition of other people’s deities. In many cases, the texts show the recognition that the deities of other cultures function in ways like its own deities. Sometimes these cultures relate the deities of other cultures to their own deities. In this intercultural “god-talk,” people in one culture, most commonly at a highly elite level, explicitly recognize that the deities of other cultures are as real as its own. A term used by Assmann that captures the international and intercultural context of this discourse is “the idea of an ecumene.”25 For Assmann, intercultural “god-talk” is a fundamental feature within a larger international, political ecumenism. We should be alert to the fact that here a term from the Greco-Roman context is used somewhat anachronistically for the Bronze Age. Indeed, this term does not truly capture social identity in the Bronze Age or in the Iron Age, which was based on the family and tribe as well as the city. In sum, translatability involves specific equations or identifications of deities across cultures and the larger recognition of deities of other cultures in connection to one’s own deities.
It is important to be clear about what translatability is not in Assmann’s work. It is not the importation of deities, or the influence of foreign religious ideas or concepts about divinity. Religious importation of deities26 may help to induce cross-cultural recognition of deities. Similarly, the expression of translatability is sometimes affected by cultural migration or importation of religious culture.27 However, such accompanying factors do not belong to Assmann’s core notion of translatability. Likewise, Assmann’s account would not include particular terms of divinity in themselves, such as ’elohim (“gods, God”), Persian and Greco-Roman period titles like “lord of heaven” and “god of heaven,” or Greco-Roman concepts including logos (“word”), or even specific forms of divinity, such as monotheism (or “one-god” worldviews) and dualism (e.g., “Persian dualism”). It is true that these may be shared cross-culturally by religions and may accompany instances of translatability, but shared titles or concepts of divinity do not constitute the core notion of translatability in Assmann’s account. At various points in this study, these sorts of features related to translatability are mentioned, as they indicate aspects of the cultural contours of the phenomenon as well as the cultural sensibilities about it in different contexts. Still, this work maintains a focus on translatability.
One major question in Assmann’s discussion of “translatability” of divinity involves what he calls the Bible’s “Mosaic distinction” (as in the title of his book, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung).28 For Assmann, this “Mosaic distinction” suggests a fundamentally different religious situation compared with other religious expressions of the ancient Near East and Egypt. In contrast to the rest of the ancient Near East, where translatability of deities across cultural lines seemed to be the norm, Assmann writes in these terms about “the Mosaic distinction”:
We may call this new type of religion “counter-religion” because it rejects and
repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as “paganism.” It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather “cosmotheism,” rendered different cultures mutually transparent or compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.29
In other words, translatability did not become prevalent in the Bible because of its “Mosaic distinction” between the one true God and all other false deities. When it comes to ancient Israel, Assmann’s “Mosaic distinction” is expressed not so much in historical terms as in conceptual categories. In Assmann’s case, the lack of historical particulars is perhaps due in large measure to his approach, one that is disinterested in historical context as such; it focuses instead on the history of cultural memory. His inattention to historical particulars may also be in part a matter of academic discipline; Assmann is an Egyptologist and not a scholar of the Bible.
The historical particulars involving ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible come into focus as we move into discussions by biblical scholars. In the wake of Assmann’s work, two biblical scholars have addressed the topic as it pertains to ancient Israel. Ronald Hendel and I have raised the issue of translatability in the Bible with rather different results.30 In his 2005 book, Remembering Abraham, Hendel largely follows Assmann’s lead, as it begins with the premise of a lack of translatability for ancient Israel. In my own book, The Memoirs of God, that appeared in 2004, I suggested that the history of ancient Israelite religion involved both translatability and its eventual rejection. In our works, neither Hendel nor I devote much discussion to the question of translatability. Indeed, the relative brevity of Assmann’s discussions of translatability points to the need for greater discussion of the topic. The three of us have left unexplored a number of seminal questions. Apart from relatively brief discussions, we have not examined the different forms or expressions of translatability, attested in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200 BCE/BC) and monarchic Israel (ca. 1000-586 BCE/BC),31 or in the Greco-Roman period (ca. 332 BCE/BC – 135 CE/AD).32 The following section lays out my general goals for the chapters of this book.
The Goals of this Study
My first goal is to expand the parameters of Assmann’s abbreviated account of translatability in the ancient Near East. In part because Assmann’s main aim is to provide a relatively brief inventory of examples of translatability for the various periods, he devotes little consideration to related factors in their cultural contexts. He also provides hardly any discussion involving their change of expression, and the resulting picture is a somewhat static representation of translatability. This study looks at the cultural contexts for expressions of translatability, as well as some of the major developments in the representation of translatability between the Late Bronze Age context and the Greco-Roman world. The cultural contexts develop as we move from the Bronze Age through to the Greco-Roman period. Some account is thus needed for these large-scale changes.
My second goal is to reverse Assmann’s claims about the lack of translatability in the Bible, by presenting evidence for translatability in monarchic Israel, with some attention to its larger cultural and hermeneutical dynamics. On this score, my thesis essentially boils down to the following points: (1) in keeping with its scale and relatively local relations with other polities, Israel deployed a form of local translatability during the period of the monarchies, if not earlier; (2) this translatability took the form of a worldview that could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors just as Yahweh was for Israel; (3) Israel’s loss of translatability represented an internal development that corresponds with its experience of the initial stage of the international age emerging under the Assyrians and the Babylonians; (4) the conceptual shift in this period involved a sophisticated hermeneutic that retained older formulations of translatability within expressions of non-translatability and monotheism; (5) hermeneutic of theism within ancient Israel and Yehud was an ongoing intellectual project involving various forms of textual harmonization; and (6) if Assmann’s “Mosaic distinction” is to be maintained, it would be during the late biblical and post-biblical reception of the Bible than generally the Bible itself (much less ancient Israel) when it comes into focus.
A third goal involves an effort at uncovering ideas about divinity that the ancients presupposed in their texts, whether in the Hebrew Bible or in other ancient Near Eastern literatures. As we move through documents from various periods, we see the ancients deploying various categories of divinity in their construction of cross-cultural translatability. In order to highlight this aspect of ancient translatability, I have adopted a descriptive approach in this study, in order to bring out the theoretical underpinnings of cross-cultural translation represented in the texts. The descriptive task, at least for this study, will not adopt some modern theory (or meta-theory) for analyzing expressions of cross-cultural translatability in the texts. Deploying a modern theory may run the risk of displacing and obscuring the theoretical operations underlying the ancient texts. Instead, the goal is to identify and examine the theoretical parameters built by the ancients into their expressions of cross-cultural translatability of deities. Accordingly, this study is designed to observe how the language and categories for translation of divinity in one culture are borrowed and used by another.
Excursus: What is a God?
Before explaining the plan of this book, it is important to be clear about divinity in our ancient texts. To help clarify what was meant by “god” or “goddess,” we should explore the terms that the ancient writers themselves used for deities. The main rubric is the Hebrew word, ’el, and its two plural forms, ’elim and ’elohim (as well as the singular, ’eloah, which was secondarily formed from the plural, ’elohim). Cognate literatures show comparable forms, such as Ugaritic ’il (plural ’ilm), and Akkadian ilu (plural ilu, ilanu).33 Hebrew and other ancient languages do not have lower and upper case letters. The singular form of these words in Hebrew can be translated as “god” and sometimes “God” as a name. The plural form can be “gods,” yet the Hebrew plural form is also used for “God.”
Let me explain in a bit more detail. These words all derive from the base ’l, and they cover a multitude of “divinities” in addition to “Yahweh, your god” (e. g., Exodus 20:2 = Deuteronomy 5:7) or “God,” i.e., Yahweh (Exodus 19:3). The plural form is also used regularly as a word or title for Yahweh, namely “God.” In the thinking of many Bible readers, the only “gods” besides the true god, the Lord, are false gods. Such false gods are called “other gods” (Exodus 20:3 = Deuteronomy 5:7, Judges 2:11, etc).; “other god” (singular) in Exodus 34:14), or “new gods” (Deuteronomy 32:17), or “their gods,” i.e., of other people (Exodus 34:15); gods of the heaven/heavenly court who mated with human women (Genesis 6:1-2), regarded in later literature as sinning angels (e. g., in 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6); and the sedim <shin> translated as “demons” by the NJPS and denigrated as “not-gods” in Deuteronomy 32:17 (cf. verse 21). These putatively false gods in some biblical contexts clearly include gods and goddesses (Judges 2:12-13, 3:6-7).34 As can be seen from these cases, the translations of these passages raise the problem of understanding the various terms for deity, god and goddess.
Despite the general assumption of traditional reading, the biblical usage of these words for god, gods/deities, and God is considerably broader and more complex than most people today recognize when they think of what a god is.35 When readers look at the question of divinity in the Bible, they are often concerned with the issues surrounding the nature and status of the true God versus other or false gods. However, the various biblical terms for god(s) may refer to a number of additional phenomena. Contrary to the popular view of the Bible, ancient Israel included all sorts of “gods,” and not all of these were divided sharply into either God or negative, foreign gods, as suggested by the following sample.36 For the sake of convenience, I provide a representative range of usage for god, gods and God, including positive, collective usages for divinities other than the so-called one god of Israel. Collective usages of gods include the case of Exodus 15:11, where the speaker asks in a positive manner: “Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?” These gods, literally “divine sons,” are also said to belong to the heavenly court (e.g., bene ’elim in Psalms 29:1, 89:7; cf. bene ha’elohim in Job 1:6, 2:1). They work for the chief god/divine king and bow down to this chief god (’elohim, Psalm 97:7; cf. Psalm 96:4). They shouted for joy at the time of creation (and parallel to “morning stars,” in Job 38:7). Thus the word “god” extends to both a major god such as Yahweh and minor divinities including his divine courtiers.
Some additional phenomena also fall under the rubric of “gods.” Some ritual representations of divinity, the divinity’s presence or the divinity’s emblem-animal, are called “gods,” for example, the calves of 1 Kings 12:28 and the so-called “golden Calf” of Exodus 32:4, 8. Foreign gods likewise have images (“images of its gods,” Isaiah 21:9; Psalm 96:5). Jacob calls household figurines (terapim, Genesis 31:34, 35) “my gods” (’elohay, Genesis 31:30). We find the same interchange of terapim and ’elohim also in Judges 18:17-18, 24. Divinized human ancestors are also called “gods.” Isaiah 8:19 refers to the dead in general by ’elohim (see Isaiah 29:4c). The deceased figure of Saul is characterized as ’elohim in 1 Samuel 28:13. In this connection, we might note the lack of response from ’elohim to soothsayers in Micah 3:7,37 or the “inheritance of ’elohim” parallel to the “inheritance of the fathers,” in 2 Samuel 14:16.38
When we turn to the singular form of “god,” we also see considerable variation. The singular form of the word applies to the Israelite god rendered “God” in our translations (“God” as opposed to a human, in Isaiah 31:3; Hosea 11:9), but also to a specific god named El (also called El Elyon) in Genesis 14:19-20 and 14:22 (cf. El mentioned more in the poems of Numbers 23-24 than Yahweh). At the same time, the singular form is used as a general noun. For example, it is a term for “a god” (Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Kings 18:24; Hosea 13:4; Psalm 14:2 = 53:2 = Psalm 10:4), for the chief god (“the god”) in 1 Kings 18:21, 27, for the god of an area, “the god of the land” (2 Kings 17:26, 27), or for the “personal god” or “household god” (“the god of my father” (Exodus 15:2). We also see the singular form used in the general sense of “the god” with some sort of predication, for example in 1 Kings 18:24: “the god who responds with fire, that one is (the) god.” A similar sort of general usage appears in 1 Kings 20:26: “The Arameans have said: ‘Yahweh is a god of mountains, but he is not a god of lowlands.’” The word can be used to denote one’s god in a neutral fashion, for example in Ruth 1:16: “your god shall be my god.” It appears in rather negative terms modifying a non-Israelite/Judean divine name: “Chemosh, your god” (Judges 11:24); “Dagon, our god” (1 Samuel 5:7; cf. “the house of his god” and “the treasury of his god,” in Daniel 1:2).
The singular form of the noun denotes non-anthropomorphic features associated with or emanating from divinity: “a divine fire” (Job 1:16; cf. the divine “name” personified compared to a fire in Isaiah 30:27). Physical locations are associated with divinity (or, “participate” in divinity): e.g., divine mountain (Ezekiel 28:14, 16; Psalm 68:16); “house of divinity” (Judges 18:31). Even the living human king can be labeled as “divine”: “your throne, o divine one, is forever and ever,” spoken by royal servant to the king in Psalm 45:7 (cf. Egyptian king addressed by vassals as “my god” in the El Amarna letters 157, 213, 215, 233, 241, 243, 270, 299, 301, 305, 306, 319, 363, 366).39 Other human figures are occasionally associated with deity: “a man of ’elohim” (prophet in 1 Samuel 9:6-10; Moses, in Deuteronomy 33:1, Joshua 14:6, Psalm 90:1, etc.). Note that the “man of God,” who appears to Manoah’s wife in Judges 13:6, to her “looked like a messenger of God, exceedingly fearsome.” From this brief listing of usages, we might say that the words for divinity apply to several sorts of beings regarded as “divine, extraordinary.”40 Such powers evidence capacities beyond what normal human beings can do.41 These include gods in the modern sense as well as a number of extra-human powers lesser in status or rank.
To extrapolate from these usages of the words for “god,” one might suggest that divinity in biblical and ancient Near Eastern terms was thought, metaphysically speaking, to be constituted by power: humans and other non-deities characterized as ’elohim in some respects participate in the power of, or associated with, the divine power recognized as a god. Christian metaphysics in the Middle Ages understood reality in terms of Being and beings. In this worldview, all creatures derive their existence or being from (or, “participate in”) Being itself, namely God. In comparison, ancient Levantine cultures largely viewed the use of ’elohim (and its terms) as a matter of Power and powers.42 As some uses of ’elohim indicate, the category of power is a major constituent of this word, and it is for this reason that a number of scholars have traced the etymology of the words for god, gods and God to the Semitic root, *’yl, “to be first, be powerful,” despite some difficulties with this view.43
2. The Plan of this Book
Contours and Limitations of this Study
I would like to begin my explanation of the book’s structure with a few words about the limits of this study. First, the subject of this book treats translatability of deities mostly as they appear in a representative sample of texts; this is not an exhaustive catalogue. The examples presented extend well beyond what Assmann presents, but this work is not intended to be a comprehensive compilation of possible examples.
Second, the work offers only occasional discussion of translatability as found in art or in archaeological sources.44 Iconography of one deity associated cross-culturally with the artistic representation of another poses particular difficulties for determining the nature of the influence: does it point to translatability, that the two deities are thought to be identified, equated or at least connected to one another? Or, is the artistic influence a matter of artistic style or preference? Or, are both involved? Some examples of iconography come up over the course of this discussion, but only where translatability can be reasonably posited. At various points in this study, iconography also serves as a helpful indicator of the larger cultural context of translatability.
Third, this study rarely mentions cases of translatability of texts themselves from one culture to another (for example, the well-known case of the adaptation of the Egyptian Words of Amenemope in the Bible, in Proverbs 22:17-23:11). These instances are pertinent where translations of texts point up cases of translatability of deities as well. There are a handful of such cases, for example, the Hittite text called “El, Ashertu and the Storm-god,”45 which substitutes a Sumero-Akkadian ideogram ISHTAR for one of the West Semitic goddesses (discussed in Chapter One); and the substitution of the name of the Israelite god with the Egyptian name of Horus in a Demotic translation of Psalm 20 found in Papyrus Amherst 63 (discussed in Chapter Four). These are rare, however. Throughout this study, the emphasis falls on cross-cultural recognition of deities themselves.
Fourth and finally, there are several issues related to translatability that are mentioned in this study. However, it is impossible to address all of them in a systematic manner, given the scope of this work. The discussion touches on various forms of polytheism and monotheism, both biblical and non-biblical. These include what has been called Christian binitarianism and trinitarianism, as well as Jewish binitarianism (in Chapter Six). Attention is brought briefly to other forms of theism as well. Matters pertaining to the important feature of anthropomorphism also arise over the course of the discussion. As interesting as these topics are, this study maintains its focus on the question of translatability. At the same time, it is important to mention these matters. I would add that in some respects the category of translatability seems little more than an alternative terminology for discussing some well-worn subjects, such as monotheism and polytheism. However, translatability provides some contours for understanding monotheism and polytheism better. Furthermore, it is arguable that in ancient Israel translatability predates clear expressions of monotheism and thus it may have been one of the conditions for Israelite monotheistic declarations and theologies.
An Overview of the Chapters
We begin in Chapter One with Assmann’s account of cross-cultural recognition of deities in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200), which was constructed through specific equation of deities across cultural boundaries and by broader cross-cultural representations of deities; this is what he calls “translatability.” The survey in this chapter will extend the range of texts under discussion and will address these according to their different genres. In the survey, it will be possible to note some important political and religious features of translatability across the Levant in the Bronze Age. It is also worthwhile to touch occasionally on earlier material in the Bronze Age. However, beginning with the Late Bronze Age provides a helpful way to focus the discussion. It also serves as a useful means for setting the stage for understanding the “biblical world,” which in this study will include the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament as well as the New Testament.
The setting for translatability in the Late Bronze Age is overtly political. For over a century since the discovery of ancient texts in the Middle East, scholars have discussed the nature of relations among the great kingdoms of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world during the Late Bronze Age. A great deal of energy has been devoted to the study of these ancient texts, in particular international treaties and letters. The results have included new understandings of ancient history and politics as well as religion within these various polities. One of the more important points that Assmann makes and that can be extended involves the political culture informing religious translatability in this period: it was largely a function of ruling powers and scribal elites. In the area of international relations, it has become abundantly clear from research that religion accompanied politics. In international communication between rulers of relatively equal status, parity of power issued in corresponding expressions of parity between the gods and goddesses belonging to the different kingdoms. Likewise, in the relations between an overlord king and his royal vassals, differences in power issued in different expressions of recognition of the divinities of the overlord. Arguably, this is as we might expect, but we also see different forms of the overlord’s recognition of the deities of his vassals. Before entering this probing of the ancient world, we cannot help but emphasize the shifting contexts of power and politics that inform these relations and their attendant expressions about divinities.46 We may characterize this situation broadly as a contrast between empire powers, which set the terms of intercultural discourse, and their vassals, who tried to maintain their own cultural identities in the face of their overlords and their dominant culture. For the purposes of this discussion, we will highlight the empire powers of Hatti and Egypt, and Ugarit will serve as the parade example of a local power attempting to preserve its own identity in the shadow of the empire powers.
The survey in Chapter One further points to the intellectual categories and outlook presupposed by ancient political powers and their scribal apparatus. I suggest in Chapter One that texts containing expressions of translatability engaged in an intellectual or second-order discourse about deities. (First-order discourse is discourse expressed in religious experience, such as prayer; second-order discourse involves discourse representing intellectual reflection about the content of that experience, as in theology or philosophy of religion or history of religion or comparative religion.) As examples of second-order discourse embedded in texts of this period, some documents, especially treaties, betray implicit categories or typologies of deities. This sort of classification represents an implicit second-order discourse that anticipates the work of modern scholars who study ancient religions. Thus, in addition to charting translatability in the Bronze Age, it is an aim of Chapter One to indicate some of the ways in which the intellectual activity in the ancient world relates to the modern fields of history of religion and comparative religion. We will see how ancient scribes operated with theories of religion. These are often implicit to their writings; they didn’t produce abstract treatises on such subjects. However, this does not make their theorizing any less significant for modern researchers who may miss such implicit theorizing embedded in ancient writings. Sometimes scholars take a modern theory of religion and apply it to an ancient text, but this procedure may overlook the fundamental, indigenous theory informing such texts. Part of our modern task is not simply to apply our modern theories to ancient texts, but to understand both their theories and our own, in order to deepen our understanding of the outlooks of both the ancients and ourselves.
In Chapter Two, we will take a look at cases of translatability in the Hebrew Bible. This chapter challenges the view of Jan Assmann and Ronald Hendel that the Bible or ancient Israel essentially rejected translatability of deities. On the contrary, some biblical passages offer fine textual representations of translatability of deities. To be sure, these are not as common as what we find in the Bronze Age record in Chapter One, but this is hardly surprising in view of the fact that later biblical texts largely reject translatability or show no interest in it. Given that a lack of translatability, specifically in the form of the rejection of foreign gods, becomes a norm in biblical literature, it is all the more remarkable that examples of translatability survived at all. In view of the evidence showing translatability, it is problematic to accept the surmise of Assmann and Hendel that a lack of translatability is fundamental to the Bible or ancient Israel.
In view of the general shift from translatability to non-translatability in ancient Israel, the question about the situation suggests further probing. Chapter Three looks at the shift to non-translatability and the biblical “one-god” worldview, which clearly worked with Israel’s own traditions yet responded to its particular conditions. One central circumstance facing Israel was the new dominance of Mesopotamia and its “one-god” worldviews. (Mesopotamia in the first millennium and its possible significance for understanding the development of divine conceptualization in Judah do not appear in Assman’s account.) Some Israelite texts responded to Mesopotamian expressions of human and divine power by generating its own “one-god” worldview that differed sharply from Mesopotamian ideas. Indeed, Israel may be understood as a local power attempting to preserve its own religious and cultural heritage in the face of Mesopotamian empire power. How Israel would pursue this cultural agenda differed in some respects from the strategies evident at Ugarit in the Late Bronze Age. As we will see, one aspect of this difference has in turn to do with the differing natures of the empire that each of them faced. Ugarit knew multiple empires simultaneously, while Israel largely experienced one empire at any given point as it formulated its own “one-god” worldview. The contrasting situations show a comparable result in the area of translatability. We may contrast the first millennium context with the situation of the Late Bronze Age empires. While these generated various forms of translatability of deities, seventh-sixth century Mesopotamia and Israel both stand out by comparison in developing non-translatability of divinity. The “great powers” of the Late Bronze Age produced an intense intercultural discussion that included translatability, while the successive empires of the Iron Age did not generate such a sustained discourse of this sort. In these different imperial situations, the very form of empire informed the degree and nature of translatability
Chapter Three also introduces a refinement for understanding of translatability, specifically between geographical or “horizontal” translatability, on the one hand, and on the other hand, temporal or “vertical” translatability. Like the Late Bronze Age world before it, Israel engaged in translatability across geographical boundaries, an intellectual project that may be called more specifically “horizontal translatability.” Yet it also translated its own indigenous tradition of divinity through time, in what may be labeled “vertical translatability”: the god(s) of its earliest recalled experience was understood as its national god, despite some rather complex changes in early Israelite divinity.47 Thus Israel during the monarchy enjoyed forms of both horizontal and vertical translatability. In the course of time, horizontal translatability came to be largely rejected for reasons that we will explore toward the end of Chapter Three and also in Chapter Four.
Chapter Four moves the discussion to textual evidence aimed against for translatability in the Hebrew Bible during the post-exilic period, especially in the Greco-Roman context. The discussion of the Persian is limited compared with other periods, in large measure because it plays no role in Assmann’s account. Moreover, the Persian period largely shows considerable continuity in the contours of translatability. This situation changes dramatically in the Greco-Roman period. Within this time frame, biblical censorship serves to “protect” the biblical God from the appearance of horizontal translatability. We will examine two clear cases of censorship aimed against translatability, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Genesis 14:22. By studying the different textual witnesses in the passages, it is possible to identify changes made by scribal censors. These show deliberate choices or alterations designed to protect against the appearance of polytheism. In addition to examining the passages according to standard text-critical methodology, we will also probe these passages for how they were reread and echoed in later biblical passages as well as extra-biblical literature of the Greco-Roman period. In other words, I seek to use the approach of what has been called inner-biblical exegesis to aid my text-critical study of the two passages. Let me explain what I mean.
Usually text-critical study focuses on the attestations of the words in various sorts of biblical manuscripts, such as the Masoretic text (MT), the Septuagint (LXX) and the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. We can add to our understanding of the words transmitted in these different manuscript witnesses, by linking their readings to biblical passages that interpret the same verses. It is possible in these cases to connect text-critical readings of a verse with its inner-biblical interpretations. By seeing how these passages were reread between the time of their composition in ancient Israel and the time of their textual witnesses in the Greco-Roman period, we may gain a sense of how the representation of divinity in a passage was being interpreted in the time of its textual witnesses. We may thereby understand better what sorts of understandings of the words were operative at the time of these textual witnesses. The differences among the textual witnesses are thus not simply a matter of scribal error, but in some cases reflective of changes in the conceptualization of divinity.
Chapter Four also undertakes a broader exploration of censorship and its larger place within the intellectual culture of post-exilic Israel. This exploration is particularly informed by the work of Dominic Boyer48 and Michael Holquist49 on modern censorship. In Boyer’s studies, censorship is not simply some sort of small-minded, anti-intellectual activity, but fits into a larger cultural context of the intellectual activities devoted to the production of state self-representation. This general point applies to biblical censorship. Like modern censorship, biblical censorship is to be situated more broadly within the larger context of intellectual and political production of texts.
Chapter Five turns to translatability in the wider Greco-Roman world. Assmann has pointed to the pervasive character of translatability in this period. He notes the phenomenon and a number of examples across the Mediterranean basin. This chapter adds to the cases of translatability discussed by Assmann, but it also focuses on the range of genres that deploy it. New genres of translatability include histories and philosophy. These emerge not only out of Greco-Roman centers of learning, from also among local writers; the emphasis in this discussion falls on Levantine authors who deploy history and philosophy to stake their own claims about divinity. Moreover, it is important to discuss the emergent political and cultural realities that affected the translatability in this period, especially compared to what is attested in either the Late Bronze Age Levant or Iron Age Israel. The massive increase in the social settings of translatability and in the mobility of knowledge and knowledge-specialists issues in translatability of divinity as a broad religious expression, well beyond what we see for the Late Bronze Age or the Iron Age. There is also local resistance to the dominant cultural translatability. Just as Ugarit showed cultural resistance to the Late Bronze empire powers and Israel rejected Mesopotamian “one-god” empire ideology during the Iron Age, so too local Levantine elites while drawing on Greco-Roman forms and concepts also resisted the dominant Hellenistic perspective championed by the cultural and political centers.
As in Chapters Three and Four, Chapter Five draws on the distinction between horizontal and vertical translatability. Horizontal translatability is the norm for this period, yet inner-cultural vertical translatability in some corners of the Greco-Roman world serves as a mean to express resistance to the dominant Hellenistic discourse about horizontal translatability. In Chapter Five, we also see how some of the cultural practices that accompany translatability in the Greco-Roman world anticipate modern studies of religion and theology in their discussions of divinity. This general point is raised already with the analysis of Late Bronze Age texts in Chapter One, but by comparison the categories and typologies of divinity are considerably more explicit in the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, the range of philosophical and theological debates about divinity in this period as well as the social and political conditions that inform them may strike many readers as anticipating some elements in the intellectual discussions about divinity in the modern context since the Enlightenment.
Chapter Six examines some Jewish and Christian responses to translatability. Horizontal translatability in these sources, compared to what we see in the wider Greco-Roman context in Chapter Five, is relatively rare and qualified. This situation changes rather dramatically in Christian texts as we move into the second century CE, but prior to this point, Jewish and Christian heirs to the Hebrew Bible often but not always rejected horizontal translatability. In short, Jewish and Christian responses fit into the larger pattern of local resistance that can be traced from the Late Bronze Age with Ugarit, through the Iron Age with Israel, and into the Greco-Roman period, with local writers such as Philo of Byblos. At the same time, the Jewish and Christian responses were not altogether monolithic and they are thus deserving of attention. We have a handful of cases of Jewish horizontal translatability. It is also evident that Christian texts of the New Testament sometimes drew on non-Christian notions bearing on divinity in order to build their communication between the Christian gospel and its audiences. To anticipate the course that we will chart over our six chapters, the texts manifest a spectrum rather than entirely sharp options for or against translatability. Rarely, if ever, does a text express a simple translation of deities uninformed by any perspective; similarly, rarely if ever do we find an absolute rejection of any form of translatability. Neither extreme seems to have been the general option taken in antiquity.
This range of viewpoints in the ancient world is manifest in the modern context as well. In the Epilogue, I offer some reflection on Jan Assmann’s contributions to our topic as well as a critique of his study. Then I provide some observations about how the intellectual task involved in translatability in the ancient world relates to our own labors as scholars of God. I do not propose to focus on the nature of our task, our methodologies, our theories, the nature of our data sets, or the philosophical underpinnings of our work. Still I will touch on these matters, as the question of ancient translation of divinity holds implications for what we do, or perhaps more accurately, for who are. Although I am not a scholar of modern “knowledge specialists,” academic or otherwise, nor a scholar of intellectual production in the context of modern society,50 I do not think that we can escape the reality of our own horizons and context, which influence our intellectual projects and shape the resulting intellectual products. To my mind, it is intellectually important to take stock of our own place in the production of studies such as this one, and to recognize not only how our scholarly efforts are devoted to understanding the ancient texts, but also how our studies indicate our own locations as students of this ancient material. International discourse about divinity, then as now, has contours that require our recognition for their strengths and their weaknesses, their visions and their myopias. Recognizing some of these in the past may aid us in our quest to fathom better the dimensions of present academic challenges involved in addressing divinity. As readers will note throughout this study, what the writers of ancient texts did intellectually anticipates to a degree what we modern scholars have been up to. I mention these sorts of issues along the way in this work, as I find them pertinent; and in the Epilogue I return to a general consideration of these matters in light of the study in the chapters that follow. In order to be a bit clearer about what I have in mind, I would like to highlight some of these issues at this point.
3. A Word about Academic Location
The story that I am about to tell about translatability of deities in the biblical world draws not only on the resources of ancient Near Eastern and biblical studies, but also on the perspectives found in scholarly research in the fields of theology and religion (history of religion and comparative religion),51 and to a lesser degree literature and history.52 Unfortunately (to my mind), the fields of theology and religion have historically stood in considerable tension, if not hostility, in relation to one another.53 Perhaps at the risk of setting up straw men or perpetuating stereotypes, I am concerned that theologians and historians of religion are at times dismissive of the intellectual value of each other’s field (this is based on personal experience and not on any scientific survey). This hypothetical sort of historian of religion might champion translatability and the larger intellectual activity involved with it in the wider Mediterranean world over and against the overall biblical position taken against translatability.
Jan Assmann’s Presuppositions
This sort of favoritism may be inferred from some of Assmann’s remarks as well as the construction of his project as a whole. In view of the scope of Moses the Egyptian down through the Enlightenment and Freud, it may be asked whether Assmann’s construal of monotheism as an intolerant form of religion represents a polemic against traditional Christianity. The point is arguably clearer from the title of his book, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung: oder Der Preis des Monotheismus. The second part of this title makes a claim that monotheism itself has taken a terrible toll. Assmann traces a trajectory to the Deism project of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the translatability of the Late Bronze and Greco-Roman periods.54 Assmann’s own project implicitly aims to locate itself as the endpoint of this trajectory, as this message is represented in the very title of the book’s final chapter, “Abolishing the Mosaic Distinction: Religious Antagonism and Its Overcoming.” To be sure, Assmann has engaged in a highly sophisticated recovery of cultural history, but in doing so, he takes sides in the contemporary debate over theism and belief.55
Some critics see in Assmann’s project a kind of theological claim for tolerant, post-Christian appreciation of world religion, which is inspired by the Enlightenment critique of the Christian churches of Europe as bastions of intolerance, conflict, and persecution.56 Some evidently view him as a sort of Enlightenment or post-Holocaust theologian, who uses ancient Near Eastern texts as proof-texts57 for his genealogy of tolerant deism and Freud for his critique of traditional western religion.58 In his representation of monotheism, Assmann’s perspective belongs to a longstanding tradition of modern scholars of religion who regard violence as an inherent feature of monotheism.59 This side of Assmann’s work is arguably a form of modern theology on his part and certainly an undemonstrated set of assumptions. The theological purpose of Assmann’s work is so evident that it motivated a vigorous response from Joseph Cardinal Ratizinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.60 He is highly concerned with the question of truth and tolerance. At the same time, in some respects Ratzinger’s is a rather scholarly response. He assails Assmann for his flat treatment of polytheism: “When we look into the actual history of polytheistic religions, then the picture he sketches – a rather vague one, by the way – appears itself a myth. In the first place, polytheistic religions differ considerably among themselves.”61 Ratzinger is further critical for Assmann’s high valuation of polytheism, but not simply on theoretical or theological grounds, but as a matter of historical analysis: “the gods were by no means always peaceful and interchangeable. They were just as often, indeed more often, the reason for people using violence against each other.”62
The critique of Assmann’s correlation of polytheism and non-violence finds resonance in other quarters. Contrary to Assmann’s view, Robert Gnuse has recently emphasized63 that violence in the Bible hardly depends on the concept of monotheism as such for its motivation. Indeed, some recent studies of ethno-political violence do not include forms of divinity as one of the “beliefs that propel groups toward conflict.”64 Perhaps the most concrete evidence against Assmann’s correlations between polytheism and tolerance on the one hand and between monotheism and violence on the other may be seen in the ancient practice of the ban or herem <dot under h>. This practice of the warfare destruction of people and property following battle was at home equally among Israel’s polytheistic neighbors, for example in Moab, as it was in Israel, in both its earlier, polytheistic and later monotheistic phases.65 In both contexts, the herem <dot under h> was religiously grounded violence. Thus violence is hardly specific to Israel (or much less, its putative monotheism at this point in its history), as Klaus Koch has highlighted in his critical review of Moses the Egyptian.66
The Hebrew Bible may talk of the servitude of the other nations to the god of Israel, yet violence is not the outstanding trope. To be sure, there are expressions of religiously sanctioned violence in the Bible, which does represent a hermeneutical challenge to modern readers.67 However, this is not due in particular to monotheism. Israelite monotheism as such shows no particular capacity for violence. In the periods when monotheism is being expressed (to my mind, the seventh and sixth centuries and onwards), Israel is hardly a major force of violence. This is true rather of Mesopotamian state polytheism in this period.68 Indeed, it may be argued that Israel is on the receiving end of such violence over the course of the very period when it generated its monotheistic worldview. The record of the violence done to Israel has been characterized as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”69 In short, ancient Near Eastern cultures, both polytheistic and monotheistic, associate violence with various gods and goddesses. In the history of the ancient Near East, violence is not inherent in either monotheism or polytheism. It is not a function of the form of theism, whether polytheism or monotheism; it is a function of power and the capacity to wield it. In this respect critics of Israel’s monotheism tend to view it in the abstract and disembed it from its cultural and political context. For these reasons, it is finally time to put to rest this canard about monotheism and violence.70
A comparable difficulty lies in Assmann’s correlation of translatability and tolerance. Translatability is hardly a model or forerunner for modern tolerance, as Assmann would have it. Translatability often served empires or empire cultures over and against local cultures, in short in the interests of political and cultural domination. In turn, local cultures expressed their resistance against the empire discourse of translatability, usually in one of two ways. Ancient Israel developed a critique of translatability as an act of resistance against empire (as we will see in Chapters Three and Four). In the Greco-Roman period Levantine writers critiqued versions of translatability offered from the political centers (as discussed in Chapter Five).71 Thus it may be argued that as long as its underpinnings depend on its empire context, translatability does not offers a model of tolerance for the modern world.
Despite this critique of Assmann’s view of translatability, it is to his credit that his project helps to show how such ancient developments anticipate modern inter-religious work and study of world religions that are common today. Assmann’s work also points to the need for a theory of cultural translation that can be applied to various areas of religious phenomena, both ancient and modern. It seems that relatively little on intercultural translation in the area of ancient religion has been attempted up to this point; Assman is exceptional in this regard. It is one of the aims of this book to extend his intellectual project on intercultural religious translation in the area of deities and divinity more generally.
The Fields of Religion and Theology
Assmann’s work highlights a further question regarding the roles of the fields of religion and theology in this type of intellectual project. Both disciplines continue to aim their polemics against each other, sometimes with good reason. History of religion work has been sometimes seen as reductionist in treating sacred sources and traditions. This is Daniel Gold’s reflection on the problem as he sees it:
Religionists reduce others’ experience to their own terms when they talk about it and may attribute certain aspects of it to hard social-scientific causes. But they also want somehow to maintain the independence of a sphere of religious behavior that moves according to its own imperatives. As in any field, this independence is crucial if the study of religion is to maintain (or in this case establish) itself as a discipline. Nevertheless, religion as object of study presents its own problems of reduction. For, as scholars, we want a rational explanation; but, fascinated by our materials, we do not want totally to lose the allure of the irrational. We want a science of religion that has science and religion, too.72
To apply Mircea Eliade’s famous category to his own work, the field of religion leaves a “sacred space” for religion that its own descriptions do not and cannot demystify, and perhaps its practitioners do not wish to demystify. Here Gold begins with the basic problem of reductionism on the part of scholars of religion and fans out to a wider problem of the built-in paradox of the study of religion, that its descriptions can never approach the object of their investigation and perhaps are designed not to do so. The questions of potential reductionism and distortion for the field of religion are more involved than what has been raised here, but we can begin to see some of the contours of the difficulties. It is important to bear in mind that the contemporary situation in the study of religion follows from a long history of modern western scholarship.73 Viewed in these terms, the study of religion raises questions about the situatedness of the field within the historical context of modern empires. Thus suspicions about the field of religion are raised for good reason.
Historians of religions sometimes view the work of theology as parochial or privileging the sacred as area apart from or beyond analysis. (It is with this issue that J. Samuel Preus opens his study, Explaining Religion, which is devoted to reviewing modern figures important in the “naturalist” study of religion.74) Biblical theologians have been accused of taking little interest in the world beyond the Bible, whether it involves Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or New Testament. This stance may appear constitutive of the so-called “canonical approach” to the Bible, often associated with the names of Brevard Child and his student, Christopher Seitz.75 Some biblical theologians operating outside of this approach, such as Walter Brueggemann,76 also seem to miss the challenges of the biblical witnesses to the wider world, namely that the gods of the nations did indeed seem real in the context of ancient Israel; and only by taking that sensibility seriously is it possible to deal adequately with biblical texts that address divinity. It seems to me that both extremes (which I do not necessarily take to be the norms of these fields) run the risk of being intellectually short sighted. We need intellectual help wherever we can find it, and to my mind, both sides can aid each other. Historians of religion, despite their differences with those working in theology (in particular, biblical theology and historical theology), may well benefit from their historical research despite differences in approach or evaluations. Historians of religion may appreciate the notion implicit in the perspective of the theologically minded, namely what is culturally specific is necessary for understanding prior to any comparative move. Both theologians and historians of religion can readily defend the importance of studying what is culturally specific. Moreover, both fields can benefit from taking seriously what each other prizes.
There has been a comparable difficulty within biblical studies. It might be argued that some scholars in biblical studies, especially those with theological interests, may take seriously the religious experience informing the ancient texts. Yet with few exceptions,77 this was often less true of the historical-critical scholars especially in more recent generations.78 In biblical studies, there seemed to be an unwritten rule that religious experience was to be avoided precisely because it seemed to partake of the confessional, and thus was not an element of serious scholarship.79 Here I think that theologically informed scholars often do take religious experience seriously and thus may offer a healthy balance in this regard. In turn, theologically minded scholars can benefit from history of religion work. It seems to me that in contrast to the theologically minded, historians of religion are often prepared to take seriously the perspectives of those works that stand outside the Bible, as they are less mindful of the biblical canon. The theologically minded should be able to appreciate what is incarnate in the world, as historians of religion are able to tease it out and contextualize it. In short, theologians are perhaps inclined to take seriously the discourse about divinity inside the Bible, while historians of religion are able to see how works outside of the Bible can help us understand the inside better. Within this overlap, there is an intellectual space between their intellectual efforts.80 This space affords an intellectual benefit to be gained on both sides in undertaking the study of divinity in the Bible from the perspective of both its inside and outside contexts,81 and to attending to the dynamics that link these inside and outside contexts; this is for the long-term and mutual benefit of both, not just for understanding the past, but also for the present.
Let me speak to this question of double perspective more directly. In fairness to Assmann, if I suggest a critique of his work for its possible “religious” leanings, then my own project is subject to comparable scrutiny as well. The project of this book expresses my own intellectual “double-lenses,” standing within the religious tradition(s) and also analyzing it (them) from outside such boundaries. My personal “double-lenses” are founded on my double personal commitment. On the one hand, I am a Roman Catholic, which for me means that I perceive the reality of God through the created order; I am therefore a Christian who senses the divine through creation and not outside of it; I am, so to speak, an “incarnational Christian,” who ritually celebrates the mysterious and mediated reality of the divine in the sacraments. On the other hand, my longtime personal experience with Judaism informs and qualifies my sense of Christianity. My religious “dual citizenship” is reflected in a number of my professional positions. I taught in Catholic institutions for a decade (the École Biblique, Saint Paul Seminary, Saint Joseph’s University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute). I spent another seven years at Yale, and over the past seven years I have served at New York University in its Department of Hebrew and Judaic studies (I am a Catholic holding a chair on a Jewish studies faculty). Thankfully, being a non-Jewish scholar in a Jewish studies department has been a joy, thanks to the faculty and students at NYU. Indeed, the work of non-Jewish scholars continues to develop as one of the interesting features in the landscape of Jewish studies.82 My professional duality is reflected in another way, in my work squarely within Bible on the one side, in particular the books of Psalms and Exodus, and on the other side, my research in comparative work and in extra-biblical sources, especially the Ugaritic texts and to a lesser extent, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Duality is a basic feature of my personal and intellectual horizons, perhaps informed by the duality of my childhood education in the Roman Catholic tradition (I continue to identify with the tradition of Christian humanistic study and service fostered by my Benedictine teachers at Saint Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, DC),83 and by my subsequent personal and professional engagement with Catholicism and Judaism.
Bearing in mind these multiple sets of religious and intellectual duality, I would see my work in part as an effort to point out the complexity of discourse about God within the tradition of the church, in part as a caution against simplification accepted by those both inside and outside the church. In a way, my work is a defense of monotheism, but it is also a brief on behalf of polytheism, in the sense that one can only understand what one is prepared to probe with the utmost seriousness and sympathy.84 To my mind, it is the dialectic or tension between translatability and its lack, between outside and inside, between polytheism and monotheism that provides a key to understanding the larger story of divinity in our ancient texts. If the very discourse of translatability sometimes seems reductionist85 and intellectually inadequate to the ancient texts that lie before us, the solution is not simply to retreat to theology inside the church’s walls, but to continue to explore the difficult terrain shared by theology and other fields such as history of religion. Advocates for various sides may sometimes regard the other as claiming special privilege. My own claim is neither. Instead, I advocate a discussion especially -- but not only -- where and when these fields intersect.
What this brief reflection on my own stance indicates is that my project in this book is no less “constructed” than Assmann’s. It is hardly a disinterested or “objective” quest to uncover the past “as it actually happened” (to echo the positivist creedal formula of the nineteenth century Germany historian, Otto Ranke, “wie es eigentlich gewesen”).86 From my comments, I hope it is clear that this study reflects a perspective on “history” or historical narratives more at home in recent thinking among professional historians and religionists, as expressed by Elizabeth A. Clark: “such histories should acknowledge that, as intellectual constructions, they differ from ‘the past,’ vanished and now available only through ‘traces,’ and that no historical construction is ‘politically innocent’ but is driven by the problems and questions set by the historian in the present.”87 In working on this study, I have tried to remain aware of my intellectual horizons in order to take as full advantage of them as possible, to try to see how they help me view the scope of translatability’s ancient “traces” (to echo Clark’s remark), to correct any misplaced predispositions and to extend my horizons in light of what my scholarly colleagues offer in their studies. I leave it to readers to judge how faithful this study has been to the ancient “traces” of translatability. Further discussion of these issues at this point would be getting ahead of our story, and we will return to them in the Epilogue. With these matters in mind, let us turn to the beginning of this study, which surveys cross-cultural recognition of deities in the Late Bronze Age.
1 The translation of texts has been an important field historically, and there is a very rich secondary literature on this subject. See Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London/New York: Routledge, 1995). Venuti (pp. 308-9) reflects on the tension between the imposition of the translator’s culture and its tendency to assimilate the translated and treating the translated as culturally “other,” thus alien and culturally deformed or devalued. See also the essays in Interculturality and the Historical Study of Literary Translations (ed. Harald Kittel and Armin Paul Frank; Göttinger Beiträge zur Internationalen Übersetzungsforschung 4; Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1991); and Jeremy Munday, Introducing Translation Studies (London/New York: Routledge, 2001). For these latter references, I wish to thank Kathryn Hellerstein.
2 Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (trans. Ronald E. Heine; The Fathers of the Church 71; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1982) 136 (Genesis Homily VIII).
3 Geertz, in a lecture in the series entitled A Life of Learning (Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1999; American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper, No. 45; np: American Council of Learned Societies, 1999) 14.
4 Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (ed. James and Clifford and George E. Marcus; A School of American Research Advanced Seminar; Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California, 1986) 141 (reference courtesy of Kathryn Hellerstein).
5 Cited by Asad, “The Concept,” 142.
6 Cited by Asad, “The Concept,” 143.
7 Asad, “The Concept,” 149. Asad’s italics.
8 Asad, “The Concept,” 159.
9 Asad, “The Concept,” 160. Asad’s italics.
10 Asad, “The Concept,” 163.
11 See G. Witherspoon, “Language in Culture and Culture in Language,” International Journal of American Linguistics 46/1 (1980) 1-13, cited and discussed by Alec Basson, Divine Metaphors in Selected Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation (FAT 2/15; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) 37-38.
12 Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (New York: Penguin Books, 1989). I thank Kathryn Hellerstein for bringing this work to my attention. See also Hoffman’s essay, “The New Nomads,” in Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss (ed. André Aciman; New York: The New Press, 1999) 35-63. I am very grateful to Rachel E. Smith for bringing this work to my attention and for providing me with a copy of this book.
13 Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 131.
14 In mediating between Polish and English, between the experience of her old life and her new one, Hoffman (Lost in Translation, 107) describes herself: “I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom.” However, “the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified” (Lost in Translation, 106). In this narrative, language and cultural translation is at once an experience of personal, emotional violence.
15 Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 132.
16 Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 210.
17 For various literary reflections on culture and language, see the essays in Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss (ed. André Aciman; New York: The New Press, 1999).
18 This constellation of issues is insightfully raised in different ways by the essays in Part I of Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World (ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey; London/New York: Routledge, 1997).
19 Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 120.
20 Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 273.
21 The essays on religion in the volume edited by Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, The Translatability of Cultures: Figurations of the Space Between (Stanford: Stanford University, 1996) are limited to those by Jan Assmann, “Translating Gods: Religion as a Factor of Cultural (Un)Translatability” (pp. 25-36), and Moshe Barasch, “Visual Syncretism: A Case Study” (pp. 37-54). No essays are devoted to religion in The Translatability of Cultures: Proceedings of the Fifth Stuttgart Seminar in Cultural Studies, 03.08.14.08.1998/Stuttgart Seminar in Cultural Studies (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999). The Cultural Translation Project of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has not taken an interest in religious phenomena thus far, at http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/ctp/. A rather fine consideration of the issues of cultural translation (albeit restricted to modern religion) is provided by Kwasi Wiredu, “Identity as an Intellectual Problem,” in Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the Study of Religion (ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Sheila Greeve Davaney; New York/London: Routledge, 2004) 209-28.
22 For example, see John Wilson, “The Egyptians and the Gods of Asia,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James B. Pritchard; Princeton: Princeton University, 1950; third edition with supplement, 1969) 249 (henceforth ANET).
23 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) 3, 28, 44-54. For further details, see Chapter One below.
24 See Archi, “Hurrian Gods and the Festivals of the Hattian-Hittite Layer,” in The Life and Times of Hattusili III <shin and hooked h> and Tuthaliya <hooked h> IV: Proceedings of a Symposium in Honour of J. De Roos, 12-13 December, 20003, Leiden (ed. Theo P. J. van den Hout, with the assistance of C. H. van Zoest (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2006) 147-63.
25 Assmann, Akhanyati’s Theology of Light and Time (The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities Proceedings Volume VII No. 4; Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1992) para. 2.2. The Greek term, oikumene, is used by Rodolfo Ragionieri, “The Amarna Age: The International Society in the Making,” in Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations (ed. Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook; Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University, 2000) 42-53, esp. 49.
26 For Asiatic deities in Egypt, the classic study is Rainer Stadelmann, Syrisch-Palästinenische Gottheiten in Ägypten (Probleme der Ägyptologie; Leiden: Brill, 1967). See also Raphael Giveon, “New Material Concerning Canaanite Gods in Egypt,” in Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Division A. The Period of the Bible (Jerusalem: world Union of Jewish Studies, 1986) 1-4; Donald Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992) 43-48, 116-18, 228, 231-33; and Christiane Zivie-Coche,”Dieux Autres, Dieux des Autres: Identité Culturelle et Alterité dans l”Egypte Ancienne,” Israel Oriental Studies XIV (1994) = Concepts of the Other in Near Eastern Religions (ed. Ilai Alon, Ithamar Gruenwald and Itamar Singer; Leiden/New York/Köln: Brill, 1994) 56-78.
For the importation of Syro-Mesopotamian deities into Hatti, see Itamar Singer, “’The Thousand Gods of Hatti’: The Limits of an Expanding Pantheon,” Israel Oriental Studies XIV (1994) = Concepts of the Other in Near Eastern Religions (ed. Ilai Alon, Ithamar Gruenwald and Itamar Singer; Leiden/New York/Köln: Brill, 1994) 91; Alfonso Archi, “Kizzuwatna Amid Anatolian and Syrian Cults,” in Anatolia Antica: Studi in memoria di Fiorella Imparati (ed. Stefano de Martino and Franca Pecchioli Daddi; Eothen 11; Florence: LoGisma editore, 2002) 47-53.
27 Archi has discussed translatability in connection with this phenomenon. See Archi, “Hurrian Gods and the Festivals of the Hattian-Hittite Layer,” 147-63. For this issue, see Chapter One. For a useful discussion of cross-cultural transmission of cultural material, see Jacke Phillips, “ A Question of Reception,” in Archaeological Perspectives on the Transmission and Transformation of Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (ed. Joanne Clarke; Levant Supplementary Studies 2; Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005) 39-47.
28 Assmann, Die Mosiasche Unterscheidung: oder der Preis des Monotheismus (Munich/Vienna: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2003).
29 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 3. See also his article, “Monotheismus und Ikonoklasmus als politische Theologie,” in Mose: Agypten und das Alte Testament (ed. Eckart Otto; SBS 189; Stuttgart: KBW, 2000) 121-39.
30 Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford/New York: Oxford University, 2005) 3-6, especially 5; and Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004) 4-5, 113.
31 Designations of periods and the dates given for them are in large measure conventions resulting from the academic study of the past. The questions posed to the past often predispose scholars to prioritize types of changes and thereby issue in the periods informed by particular sorts of historical understandings (for example, political events and royal reigns versus broader religious or social history and traditions or economic tends). In the wake of the Annales school, made famous by the work of Fernand Braudel, it is evident that multiple periodizations could be devised based on short-term (l’histoire événementielle) versus long-term change (la longue durée) and some middle-range changes posited in-between. In recent years, the place of social history or women’s history in constructing periodization has been raised for ancient history, for example for Rome (e.g., see the survey of Phyllis Culham, “Did Roman Women Have an Empire?” in Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World [ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey; London/New York: Routledge, 1997] 192-204); I am unaware of any comparable reconsideration for the ancient Near East. For transmission of traditional religious traditions, I could see an argument for ca. 1400-800 BCE/CE in the Levant as a basic period, with political changes suggesting the bases for subunits within this larger time frame (cf. J. C. Greenfield, “The ‘Cluster’ in Biblical Poetry,” Maarav 5-6  167), in particular ca. 1200 as a major demarcation on several interrelated fronts (see The Crisis Years: the 12th Century B.C.: From beyond the Danube to the Tigris [ed. William A. Ward and Martha S. Joukowsky; Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1992]). For an interesting reflection on periodization for ancient Greece ca. 1200-700 BCE/BC, see Ian Morris, “Periodization and the Heroes: Inventing a Dark Age,” in Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World (ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey; London/New York: Routledge, 1997) 96-131.
32 The Greco-Roman period as it is used in this study may be divided into the Hellenistic period (ca. 332-63 BCE/BC) and the Roman period (ca. 63 BCE/BC-395 CE/AD; cf. Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East 31 BC – AD 337 [Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University, 1993]). Here I am following the recent practice of using the Greco-Roman period to refer to the ancient Mediterranean world prior to what has been called Late Antiquity (ca. 250-800 CE/AD); see G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar, ed., Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) ix-x. For this approach to the “Greco-Roman period” generally, see Fritz Graf, “What is Ancient Mediterranean Religion?” in Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (ed. Sarah Iles Johnston; Cambridge, MA/London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004) 3-16; and Christopher A. Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University, 1999) 17, with additional secondary literature in favor of this approach. It is evident that Romanization in the eastern part of the empire in large measure meant “Hellenistic” influence. See Ramsay MacMullen, Romanization in the Time of Augustus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). See also the interesting discussion of Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Pagan Mind (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986) 13-22. To be sure, there have been critical assessments as they apply to specific regions. For example, for Egypt, see N. Lewis, “’Greco-Roman Egypt’: Fact or Fiction,” in Proceedings of the XIIth International Congress of Papyrology (ed. D. H. Samuel; American Studies in Papyrology 7; Toronto/Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1970) 3-14; and “The Romanity of Roman Egypt: A Growing Consensus,” in Atti del XVII Congresso internazionale di papirologia (Naples: Centro internazionale per lo studio dei papyri ercolensi, 1984) 1077-84.
At this point I would add a further clarification: because of its imprecision, I have made an effort to avoid the word, “Hellenism,” and I tend to reserve the word, ”Hellenistic,” as a chronological designation, or as a general label for the eastern Mediterranean world. For helpful cautions about this term, see Barry S. Strauss, “The Problem of Periodization: The Case of the Peloponnesian War,” in Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World (ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey; London/New York: Routledge, 1997) 165-66. For the pejorative use of term in antiquity, see Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, “Introduction,” in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (ed. Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede; Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 6-7. For the question of “Hellenism” in the biblical field, see the classic work of Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the early Hellenistic period (second one-volume edition; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). See also his retrospective essay, “Judaism and Hellenism Revisited,” in Hellenism in the Land of Israel (ed. John J. Collins and Gregory E. Sterling; Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity Series 13; South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2001) 6-37; and Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001) 22-31. For further discussion, see Chapter Six.
33 See Wolfgang Herrmann, “El,” DDD 274-80; Dennis Pardee, “Eloah,” DDD 285-88; Karel van der Toorn, “God (I),” DDD 352-65; and Joel S. Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (SBLDS 183; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). For discussion of Akkadian ilu, see Barbara Nevling Porter, “The Anxiety of Multiplicity: Concepts of Divinity as One and Many in Ancient Assyria,” in One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World (ed. Barbara Nevling Porter; Transactions of the Casco Bay Assyriological Institute, Volume 1; np: np, 2000) 243-48. For consideration of this question in both the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman context, see M. L. West, “Toward Monotheism,” in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (ed. Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede; Oxford: Clarendon; New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 21-40. West’s survey is instructive, but in surveying biblical references to multiple deities, it omits Israelite monotheistic expressions in the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE and later, much less the possible historical context for this shift. See M. S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 149-94.
34 Foreign goddesses are rarely labeled with the masculine term. An exception, “Ashtoreth, the god (’elohe) of the Sidonians,” appears in a list of the national deities of Israel’s neighbors in 1 Kings 11:33.
35 This is an old question, posed for example by Cicero (De natura deorum, 3.17.43- 20.52). See H. Rackham, Cicero. De Natura Deorum. Academica (LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1933) 326-37. See also the remarks of Lucio Troiani, “Cicero,” ER 3.1786-87.
36 So BDB 42-44; Frank M. Cross, “’el,” <long mark over e> TDOT 1:242-61; Helmer Ringgren, “’elohîm,” <short mark over e/long mark over o> TDOT 1:267-84; van der Toorn, “God,” DDD 352-65; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 83-103.
37 Van der Toorn, “God (I),” DDD 365.
38 T. J. Lewis, “The Ancestral Estate (nahalat <dot under h/short mark over second a> ’elohîm <short mark over e/long mark over o>) in 2 Samuel 14:16,” JBL 110 (1991) 597-612; van der Toorn, “God (I),” DDD 365.
39 For a convenient translation, see William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University, 1992).
40 Van der Toorn, DDD 363.
41 Cf. ’elohim for “higher” power, analogously applied to Moses relative to others in Exodus 4:16 and 7:1. Psalm 8:6 relates that humanity was created lacking a little relative to ’elohim.
42 For further discussion, see Smith, The Memoirs of God, 161-62. For the Greek use of “power” (dunamis), see Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature (third ed.; Chicago/London: The University of Chicago, 2000) 263, #5. The term in the Greco-Roman period is applied to supernatural spirits and angels. Power is not the only term used in expressing such relationships linking divinity and reality. BH ruah <dot under h> (conventionally translated “spirit, wind”) serves as another “biblical ontology” (in other words, that which binds humanity or reality to the divine), for example in Psalm 104:29-30 (cf. in verse 4 the divine messengers are represented as ruah <dot under h>and ’es <shin>, “fire”; and in verse 24 the rains represent the divine infusion into the wise order of creation). For discussion of ruah <dot under h> in Psalm 104, see Chapter One.
43 See Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (VTSup 2; Leiden: Brill, 1955) 16-21; Helmer Ringgren, “’elohîm <short mark over e/long mark over o>,” TDOT 1:273; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 7.
44 This study draws on several works on the subject, including the important survey of Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (trans. Thomas Trapp; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). See also the survey of iconographical studies (with a helpful discussion of methodological issues) in Theodore J. Lewis, “Syro-Palestinian Iconography and Divine Images,” in Cult Image and Divine Representation in the Ancient Near East (ed. Neal H. Walls; American Schools of Oriental Research Books Series 10; Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2005) 69-107, esp. 71-82. In their study, Uehlinger and Keel use grammatical terms for iconography (Gods, 12-13, 120, 169). In accord with their usage, a “grammar of iconography” remains an important desideratum for the field. Also needed is further methodological reflection on and documentation of the variation of divine name, meaning, functions and representations raised in an important way by Keel and Uehlinger (Gods, 105-6).
45 ANET 519. This text has also been called “Elkunirsha and Ashertu” for example by Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., Hittite Myths (SBLWAW 2; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1990) 69-70. See similarly Gary Beckman, in COS 1.149. For details to this text, see Hoffner, “The Elkunirsa Myth Reconsidered,” RHA 23/76 (1965) 5-16.
46 Without engaging in a full-fledged discussion of ideological criticism, this approach has influenced my thinking about the subject of this book. Intellectual religion and its political contexts are highly elitist. For a number of representative authors in this area, in particular Anthony Giddens and John B. Thompson, see Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Text, Author: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2005) 174-75. To recast Thompson’s notion that ideology is “meaning in the service of power,” we might suggest that divinities as represented in the texts that we will study provide divine sanction for the political values attached to texts in service to their royal patrons’ power. At the same time, I would want to guard against highlighting the political at the expense of other basic features of these texts. For a cautionary note in this vein, see Christiane Sourvino-Inwood, “Reconstructing Change: Ideology and the Eleusinian Mysteries,” in Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World (ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey; London/New York: Routledge, 1997) 143.
47 For a sketch of changes in the configuration of divinity in ancient Israel and the role of collective memory in shaping it, see Mark Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of God in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
48 Boyer, “Censorship as a Vocation: The Institutions, Practices, and Cultural Logic of Media Control in the German Democratic Republic,” Comparative Studies in History and Society 45/3 (2003) 511-45. See also his book, Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture (Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 2005) 114-16, 132-147. Chapter Four explores Boyer’s work in considerable detail.
49 Holquist, “Corrupt Originals: The Paradox of Censorship,” PMLA 109 (January, 1994) 14-25; cited by Boyer, “Censorship as a Vocation,” 512 n. 2, 528, 542.
50 For this sort of work for nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, see Dominic Boyer, Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture (Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 2005). For the field of sociology in France, see Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Homo Academicus (trans. P. Collier; Stanford: Stanford University, 1988); see the discussion and critique in Boyer, Spirit and System, 30-31). Of course, a great deal has been written on academia in the United States, but in Boyer’s view, there is no comparable study that situates academic work within its larger societal context in the United States. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1986). For these references I am indebted to Boyer.
51 For a survey of the field of religion, see the series of articles grouped under “Study of Religion,” in ER 13.8760-96. For the study of theology, ER 13.9125-42 offers two articles, one on comparative theology and another on Christian Theology. In my remarks that follow, I am referring to the latter. The field of religion has come in for some strong critiques in recent years. See Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York/Oxford: Oxford University, 2000); and the reviews by Benson Saler, Gustavo Benavides, and Frank Koromo, with a response by Timothy Fitzgerald, in Religious Studies Review 27/2 (April 2001) 103-15. Fitzgerald’s basic point is that there is no such phenomenon as religion and concludes that there is no real intellectual basis for a field that goes by that name. Instead, Fitzgerald would prefer departments of “ethnographic cultural studies” or “theoretically informed ethnography.” The study of religion would thus belong to culturally and theoretically informed ethnography of American and European societies. For Fitzgerald, religious studies as a field is little more than “a thinly veiled version of liberal theology” (as expressed in Korom’s review, p. 109). The reviewers in turn question whether a problematic term constitutes a sufficient basis for abandoning the constellations of studies grouped around it. Daniel Dubuisson agrees with Fitzgerald’s basic point; see Dubuisson’s critique of the field of religion in his book, The Western Construction of Religion: Myth, Knowledge, and Ideology (trans. William Sayers; Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University, 2003). For him, categories of comparative religion represent a particular intellectual privileging comparable to theology. He is particularly critical of Mircea Eliade’s privileging of the “sacred” as a category. For the interesting problem of how personal belief may affects a historian of religion such as Eliade, see the discussion in Bryan S. Rennie, “Eliade, Mircea [Further Considerations],” ER 4.2757-63, esp. 2761, which mentions the issue of Eliade’s “latent theological agenda.” These critiques suggest interesting tensions in the relationship of the field of religion to theology.
52 I have been aided in particular by Elizabeth A. Clark’s survey of the “culture wars” (or, “theory wars”) in her book, History, Theory, Text. Note also the reflections by Geertz, A Life of Learning, 14-16. I hope that it will be clear to readers, especially from Chapters Five and Six, that the fields of classical studies and late antiquity have informed my consideration of these questions.
53 See the comments of Mark C. Taylor, “Introduction,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (ed. Mark C. Taylor; Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998) 1-19, esp. 10-11.
54 Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 47.
55 This is perhaps most explicitly indicated in his essay,”Gottesbilder – Menschenbilder: anthropologische Konsequenzen des Monotheismus,” in Götterbilder Gottesbilder Weltbilder: Band II. Griechenland und Rom, Judentum, Christentum und Islam (ed. Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann; FAT 2/18; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) 313-29, esp. 326.
56 In this connection, one may note the subtitle of the book by Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 2005).
57 Assmann’s treatment of the ancient evidence has been strongly criticized in discussions by Rolf Rendtorff, Erich Zenger, Klaus Koch, Gerhard Kaiser, and Karl-Josef Kuschel, conveniently collected in Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung, 193-286. Several of these treatments address Assmann’s mishandling of biblical material and a lack of understanding about ancient Israel. See also the critique Gerhard Kaiser, “War der Exodus der Sünderfall: Fragen an Jan Assmann anläßlich seiner Monographie >>Moses der Ägypter<<,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 98 (2001) 1-24. Kaiser in particular objects to Assmann’s analogy between the putatively comparable “monotheisms” of Akhenaten and the Bible. The differences are to be noted. Indeed, whatever connection can be historically traced (see Chapter One) indicates a major series of interpretive alterations such that the two barely resemble one another with respect to content. For this reason, the effort to connect the two appears misplaced.
58 See the criticism of Assmann’s construal of Freud, by Peter Schäfer, “Geschichte und Gedächtnisgeschichte: Jan Assmanns ,,Mosaische Unterscheidung’’,” in Memoria - Wege jüidischen Erinnerns: Festschrift für Michael Brocke zum 65. Geburstag (ed. Birgit E. Klein and Christiane E. Müller; Berlin: Metropol, 2005) 19-39; and “The Triumph of Pure Spirituality: Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism,” in New Perspectives on Freud’s >>Moses and Monotheism<< (ed. Ruth Ginsberg and Ilana Pardes; Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2006) 19-43, esp. 35-37. (I thank Professor Schäfer for kindly providing me with a copy of these articles.)
59 For this idea among historians of religion, see also Theodore M. Ludwig, “Monotheism,” ER 9.6160. This idea is accepted as a given in other corners of academia. For a rather lengthy example in this vein, see Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1997). For a critique of Schwartz’s views, see R. W. L. Moberly, “Is Monotheism Bad for You? Some Reflections on God, the Bible, and Life in the Light of Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain,” in The God of Israel (ed. Robert P. Gordon; University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 64; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 94-112; and see in the same volume the brief remarks by Ronald E. Clements, “Monotheism and the God of Many Names,” 48. Cf. the discussion of violence in the Bible in Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).
60 .Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (trans. Henry Taylor; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) 210-31. It is to be noted that this is the only essay not published prior to the appearance of this volume (originally published in German in 2003). I wish to thank Avery Cardinal Dulles for bringing Ratzinger’s essay to my attention.
61 Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 217. It might appear to some readers that the characterization of monotheism in Ratzinger’s hands (see Truth and Tolerance, 224; cf. pp. 28-39) reflects a simplification of the same sort for which Ratzinger criticizes Asmman on polytheism. In both cases, the forms of theism themselves (and arguably in simplified forms) are given considerable credence by both figures, and in both the historical account of polytheism and monotheism is inadequate. In Ratzinger’s case, this might be considered more tolerable since his task is not primarily a historical one, and his is not a historian of ancient religion like Assmann. Both also characterize Israelite monotheism as revolutionary (for Ratzinger on this point, see Truth and Tolerance, 35).
62 Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 219. For ancient translatability, see also Truth and Tolerance, 25.
63 Gnuse, “Intellectual Breakthrough or Tyranny: The Debate concerning the Implications of Monotheism,” Horizons (in press).
64 See the studies of Roy J. Eidelson and Judy I. Eidelson, “Dangerous Ideas: Five Beliefs that Propel Groups toward Conflict,” American Psychologist 58 (2003) 182-92. Roy Eidelson is the executive director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania.
65 For the broader context of the herem <dot under h> in West Semitic religion including Israel, see Norbert Lohfink, “hårem, herem <dot under h>,” TDOT 5. 180-99; Abraham Malamat, Mari and the Early Israelite Experience (The Schweich Lectures 1984; Oxford/New York: Oxford University, 1989) 70-79; Philip D. Stern, The Biblical Herem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience (Brown Judaic Studies 211; Atlanta: Scholars, 1991); M. S. Smith, “Anat's Warfare Cannibalism and the Biblical Herem <dot under h>,” in The Pitcher Is Broken: Memorial Essays in Honor of Gösta W. Ahlström (ed. L. K. Handy and S. Holloway; JSOTSup 190; Sheffield: JSOT, 1995) 368-86; and Lauren Monroe, “Israelite Moabite and Sabaean War-herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence,” VT (Forthcoming). For herem <dot under h> in more specific biblical contexts, see Joel S. Kaminsky, “Joshua 7: A Reassessment of Israelite Conceptions of Corporate Punishment,” in The Pitcher is Broken: Memorial Essays for Gösta Ahlström (ed. L. K. Handy and S. Holloway; JSOTSup 190: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) 315-46; Richard D. Nelson, “Herem and the Deuteronomic Social Conscience,” in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Literature: Festschrift C. H. W. Brekelmans (ed. Marc Vervenne and Johan Lust; BETL 133; Leuven: University Press/Peeters, 1997) 39-54; Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (New York/Oxford: Oxford University, 1993) 28-42, 151-52; Christa Schäfer-Lichtenberger, “Bedeutung und Funktion von herem in biblisch-hebräischen Texten,” BZ 38 (1994) 270-75; and Allan Bornapé, “El problema del [mereh <in Hebrew letters>] en el Pentateuco y su dimensión ritual,” DavarLogos 4 (2005) 1-16. I am grateful to Richard Nelson for providing me with some of these references.
66 Koch, “Monotheismus as Sündenbock,” Theologische Literaturzeitung 124 (1999) 874-84, reprinted in Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung, 221-38.
67 See John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” JBL 122 (2003) 3-21.
68 See the comment on the contrast made by Shalom Paul, Divrei Shalom: Collected Studies of Shalom M. Paul on the Bible and the Ancient Near East 1967-2005 (CHANE 23; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005) 22 (Paul’s italics): “Israel’s mission is not one of world conquest, as in the Mesopotamian inscriptions, but rather one of world salvation.”
69 William Morrow, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Vicarious Atonement in Second Isaiah,” in Psychology and the Bible. A New Way to Read the Scriptures: Volume 1. From Freud to Kohut (ed. J. Harold Ellens and Wayne G. Rollins; Westport, CT/London: Praeger, 2004) 167-83.
70 Eckart Otto notes other problems posed by Assmann’s claims. See Otto, Mose: Geschichte und Legende (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2006) 105 (I wish to thank Professor Otto for drawing my attention to his discussion). The main difficulty concerns Assmann’s historical and political understanding of ancient Israel and the worldview of Israelite monotheism as clarified through a proper comparison with Assyrian royal ideology. In a sympathetic reading of Assmann’s claim, one might try to propose that a “one-god” idea in Mesopotamian and Israel in the seventh-sixth centuries (see Chapter Three for discussion) points to violence in their systems. However, this would be highly misleading. Assyrian and Babylonian state violence is sanctioned not only by their chief gods but also by other deities (for example, Ishtar). As such, this state violence is not monotheistic.
71 Post-colonial theory offers a helpful avenue for pursuing some of these points. For a recent discussion of post-colonial criticism in the context of local resistance in the Greco-Roman period, see David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 196-97, with references to the theoretical literature on the subject. For the application of post-colonial theory to the Roman empire and early Christianity, see Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2004) 181-85.
72 See the reflections on reductionism on the part of religionists offered by Daniel Gold, “The Paradox in Writing on Religion,” HTR 83 (1990) 332. I return to this question in the Epilogue.
73 For an important consideration of the modern historical development of the field of religion, see Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 2005).
74 See Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New Haven/London: Yale University, 1987) ix-xxix. The main concern for Preus is descriptive, namely how post-Enlightenment social and psychological paradigms attempt to explain religion’s origins; the force of his presentation tends at various points toward the prescriptive (e.g., p. xx). In both the Introduction and Conclusion to the book (see also pp. 203-4), Preus complains of the unwillingness of the theological tradition to submit to naturalistic paradigms for the study of religion; they, in turn, might complain of his unwillingness to submit to theological paradigms, or even to meet them halfway by considering both naturalist and transcendent paradigms in tandem.
75 See Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM Press, 1979); Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); Christopher Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); and William Ross Blackburn, “The Missionary Heart of Exodus” (Ph. D. dissertation, Saint Andrew’s University, 2005). One objection to some of these discussions of the “canonical” approach is not simply the effort to ground its legitimacy on a questionable notion of the “final form” of the biblical text, and not even to do so without examining the attendant historical and theological presuppositions, but to use the notion of “final form” without an adequate defense of the historical and theological bases on which it rests. For issues surrounding the question of the “final form” of the Hebrew Bible, see James A. Loader, “The Finality of the Old Testament ‘Final Text’,” Old Testament Essays 15 (2002) 739-53. Furthermore, the “canonical” approach attempts to decouple the theological from the historical by ignoring the historical “situatedness” of the text. From a theological perspective, it might be said that to decouple the two is arguably a theological error if Christian Scripture may be regarded, like Jesus Christ, as fully human and fully divine.
76 Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
77 Perhaps Marvin H. Pope would represent an exception. For the role of imagination in Pope’s work, see Mark S. Smith, “Introduction,” in Marvin H. Pope, Probative Pontificating in Ugaritic and Biblical Studies: Collected Essays (ed. Mark S. Smith; Ugaritisch-Biblische Literatur, volume 10; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1994) 3-4, 10-11. For an example of Pope’s words that reveal a bit of his character, see his “Introduction,” to Alan Cooper, “Divine Names and Epithets in the Ugaritic Texts,” in Ras Shamra Parallels: Vol. III: The Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible (ed. Stan Rummel; AnOr 51; Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1981) 335.
78 For example, note the comment of Frank Moore Cross on the “schizophrenic aspect to my own relation to the Bible,” in “Contrasting Insights of Biblical Giants: BAR Interviews Elie Wiesel and Frank Moore Cross,” Biblical Archaeology Review 30/4 (July/August 2004) 30. The religious experience of the ancients play little or no role in his comments, a scholarly stance that appears to have been influenced by his own religious experience; one might entertain seeing a contrasting influence in Cross’ reference to his father as “to some degree a mystic” (p. 31). Despite strenuous efforts at objective or scientific scholarship, it seems that Cross’ background has influenced his own approach to the ancient evidence. Still Cross could appreciate scholars with perspectives other than his own; see his warm appreciation for Pope expressed in his piece, “In Memoriam: Marvin Hoyle Pope (1916-1997),” ZAW 110 (1998) 325-26. My point is not that subjectivity is a negative feature to be criticized; on the contrary, each scholar, in both her or his research and personal horizons critically deployed, adds to the great fund of learning. Thus one’s own religious experience might arguably add to one’s capacity to understand the religious experience of others, including those of the ancient writers of biblical and non-biblical texts. Sometimes it may mar such efforts, but belonging to a larger association of scholars can help to prevent facile equations of past and present religious experience; however, it is no guarantee. This is also a primary rationale for professional associations to have the broadest range of horizons possible, including diverse cultural and personal experience.
79 Compare for the field of New Testament in the book by Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).
80 See the essays in Fields of Faith: Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-First Century (ed. David F. Ford, Ben Quash and Janet Martin Soskice; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Note also the critique of the field of religion from within that field by Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion. Dubuisson sees the very term religion as religiously or theologically informed; he prefers the term “cosmographic formations” (see especially pp. 36, 180, 198-213).
81 For a fine probing of divinity with both theological and historical approaches, see the essays in The God of Israel (ed. Robert P. Gordon; University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 64; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Given the common tendency to avoid their combination, the nexus between the theological or religious dimensions within the biblical texts on the one hand, and on the other hand, their historical and cultural contexts, remains a major desideratum for the field of biblical studies.
82 More generally, North America offers quite an open environment, and it does not carry the burden that Jewish studies faces elsewhere, especially in Germany. See Peter Schäfer, "Jewish Studies in Germany Today," Jewish Studies Quarterly 3 (1996) 146-61. Compare Jacob Neusner,"Three Generations of Post-War Study of Judaism in Germany: Goldberg, Schaefer, Houtman and Becker and the Demolition of Historical Judaism," Religion 34 (2004) 315-30.
83 I do not mean the so-called Renaissance and Cartesian tradition of humanism attacked by Lévi-Strauss for its efforts to turn humanity into “an absolute lord of creation.” See Lévi-Strauss, “Claude Lévi-Strauss Reconsiders,” 23-24, as discussed by Clark, History, Theory, Text, 52. See also the brief but interesting survey of “Humanism,” by Lewis W. Spitz in ER 6.4174-78.
84 I have discussed this problem in my book, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 10-14. For reflections by a Catholic scholar on remaining a Catholic while seriously engaging polytheistic literature and religion, see the reflections of Francis X. Clooney, S.J., “Neither Here nor There: Crossing Boundaries, Becoming Insiders, Remaining Catholic,” in Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the Study of Religion (ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Sheila Greeve Davaney; New York/London: Routledge, 2004) 99-111. While several of Clooney’s reflections resonate for me, I recognize the very major difference that his scholarship deals with a polytheistic tradition with living religious personnel and current holy sites.
85 Cf. the claim of reductionism raised against non-theological approaches to religion, discussed in Preus, Explaining Religion, ix-x. See also the discussion in the Epilogue to this study.
86 See the discussion of Clark, History, Theory, Text, 9-10.
87 Clark, History, Theory, Text, 7.