Jan Assmann on The Invention of Religion

ReligionThe Book of Exodus may be the most consequential story ever told. But its spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas overshadow its true significance, says Jan Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion. The story of Moses guiding the enslaved children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s chosen people is the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion, one that lives on today in many of the world’s faiths. The Invention of Religion sheds new light on ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. It is a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant, first introduced in Exodus, shaped Judaism and were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the bedrock of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The title of your book is The Invention of Religion. How is this to be understood? Aren’t there many religions? And have they all been invented?

This is correct. Primal, tribal, and ancient religions go back to time immemorial. We may call them “primary religions.” They are based on experience and are equivalent to general culture; there is no way to conceive of them as an independent system based on rules and values of its own. In my book, I am dealing with “secondary religion” that does not go back to time immemorial but has a definite date in history when it was founded or “invented.” Religion in this new sense is not based on experience but revelation; it is set off from the older primary religion and therefore from general culture, forming a system of its own. The first secondary religion is Second Temple Judaism as it developed during the Babylonian Exile and as it was established around 520 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed its model, as does our concept of “religion.”

If revelation is the distinctive feature of “secondary religion,” how do you explain that all religions know of ways by which the gods reveal their intentions to humankind, such as prodigies, oracles, dreams, etc.?

We must distinguish between occasional and singular revelations. Occasional revelations occur once in a while, refer to specific situations, and address specific recipients. Singular revelations occur once and for all time, encompass the entirety of human—individual, social, political—existence, and address a whole people or group of believers such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Revelation in this sense is an act of foundation, establishing a “covenant“ between God and men. Whereas primary religions need rituals, attention, diligence in order not to miss the divine intimations and to interpret them correctly—and this is exactly what the Latin term religio means according to Cicero—religions of the new type need memory, codification, canonization of the revealed texts, and faith in the revealed truth, i.e. the covenant. For this reason, Lactance, a Christian, derived the word religio not from relegere, or “to diligently observe,” but from religari, or “to bind oneself.”

“Faith“ is another category that one would assume to be necessary for all religions, not only for Second Temple Judaism and the religions based on or following this model.

In a general sense, yes. But religion based on revelation requires faith in a specific and much stronger sense. Faith in the general, weak sense is based on experience and evidence, i.e. immanent, this-worldly truth. Faith in the new, strong sense is based on revealed truth, which is transcendent and extramundane. This is a truth that cannot be verified by experience and researched, but can only be attested by staying true to the covenant and its laws, even under conditions of suffering. The term “martyr” comes from Greek martys “witness” and means him who by his violent death testifies to the truth of God’s covenant. Faith, truthfulness, and loyalty mean the same (aemunah in Hebrew). This kind of faith does not exist in primary religions and is the exclusive innovation of Biblical monotheism in its post-exilic form of Second Temple Judaism.

The main topic of the book of Exodus, however, seems still to be the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (yitzi’at mitzra’im) and not “revelation” for which there is not even a word in Hebrew.

That “revelation” is the main topic of 2.Mose becomes clear by a careful thematic analysis of the book. The book comprises three parts. Part one (chapters 1-15a) contains God’s revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush, the 10 plagues, and the Miracle of the Sea, revealing his overwhelming power. Part 2 (chapters 15b-24) contains the revelation of the covenant and the closing ceremony. The last part (chapters 25-40) contains the revelation and construction of the Tabernacle, interrupted by the scene of the Golden Calf. Each of these parts contains scenes of revelation, which is thus shown to be the overarching theme. That there is no word for “revelation” in Hebrew is the reason why this new and revolutionary concept is unfolded in form of a lengthy narrative.

Being an Egyptologist, what brought you to venture into the field of Biblical studies and how does your approach as an outsider differ from that of professional Biblical scholars who wrote on the book of Exodus?

My “egyptological” approach to the Bible focuses on the triad of culture, identity, and memory that is typical of Cultural Studies, whereas the approach of Biblical Studies mostly focuses on textual criticism, the distinction of different layers of redaction and composition. According to the Bible, the Israelites fled from Egypt and not from any other country of the Ancient World. This fact alone constitutes a challenge for Egyptology. Egypt seems to stand for something that the Torah is opposing with particular vehemence. A closer reading of the book of Exodus reveals that it is not religion—the Egyptian cult—what is rejected, but the political system of sacral kingship, the king as god and the deification of the state. All the ancient oriental kingdoms share this idea in a greater or lesser degree, but Egypt is the most extreme realization of this idea. Egypt, therefore, represents the world which Israel was to exit—or to be liberated from—in order to enter a new paradigm for which Flavius Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” meaning “God is king” instead of “The king is god,” the principle of sacral kingship. This originally political idea gradually evolved into what we now understand as “religion.”

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commonly taken as a historical fact, unlike the events that you subsume under the concept “revelation“ and consequently interpret as religious imagination.

Egyptology tells us that there is no archaeological, epigraphical, or literary evidence of any Hebrew mass emigration from Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, the narrated time. The book of Exodus is not a historical account but a foundational myth, though replete with historical reminiscences and experiences such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, the oppression of Palestine by Egyptian colonization, the Solomonic oppression of his people through heavy corvée—leading to the separation of the Northern Tribes—and finally the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 and of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians 597/87. What is decisive is not the narrated time—”What may really have happened in the 13th ct. BCE?”—but the various times of narration when this myth was first formed and became eventually codified and canonized as the foundational story of Second Temple Judaism. As a foundational myth, the Exodus belongs within the same sphere of religious imagination as the scenes of revelation.

And Moses? The name, Egyptologists tell us, is Egyptian. This seems to be historical evidence after all.

This is true, Moses (Moshe) is an Egyptian name, meaning “born of” like the Greek –genes. Hermogenes would be Thut-mose. There are many attempts at identifying Moses with Egyptian figures bearing the element –mose in their names, none of them convincing. Sigmund Freud made of Moses a follower of Akhenaten, the heretic king, who after this king’s death emigrated from Egypt to Canaan and took the Hebrews along, because Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult of the Sun (Aten) was persecuted and abolished in Egypt. Some even identify Moses with Akhenaten. All this is pure fancy. There is not the least link between Akenaten’s monotheism, which is just a new cosmology, deducing every life and existence from the sun, and the religion founded and proclaimed by Moses, that has nothing to do with cosmology but is based on the political idea of covenant, an alliance between God and his people. The ideas of revelation, covenant, and faith have no correspondents in Egypt nor in any other ancient religion.

In your book you characterize the new religion as a “monotheism of loyalty,” based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, and distinct from a “monotheism of truth,” based on the distinction between true and false, which is also typical of the new religion. How do these two forms of monotheism go together?

In my book Moses the Egyptian (1997), I defined Biblical monotheism as based on the distinction of true and false, which I dubbed the “Mosaic Distinction” and described as an innovation that “secondary religions” introduced into the ancient world, where this distinction between true God and false gods, true religion and false religions, was totally alien. After a close reading of the Torah I realized that this distinction only occurs with the later prophets (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and others), whereas the Torah, i.e. the books that are truly “Mosaic,” is about the distinction between loyalty and betrayal. This distinction is linked to the concept of a covenant between a “jealous” God, the liberator from Egyptian slavery, who requires absolute fidelity, and his Chosen People that has constantly to be admonished not to “murmur” and not to turn to other gods. The ideas of covenant, loyalty, and faith remain always, even in Christianity and Islam, the cantus firmus in the polyphony of the sacred scriptures and merge perfectly well with the idea of the One true God, the creator of heaven and earth, which is to be found in the prophetic scriptures. The first, particularist distinction concerns the chosen people whose gratitude and loyalty is requested for their liberator, and the second, universalist distinction concerns the idea of God the creator who cares for all human beings and all life on earth.

In some of your previous books you stated a connection between monotheism and violence as implied in the distinction between true and false in religion. Does this connection appear in a different light when the issue is not truth but loyalty?

All “secondary religions” are intolerant, because they arise in opposition to the primary religions before and around them. The “monotheism of truth,” therefore, is incompatible with religions excluded as “false.” This is a matter of logic and cognition. The “monotheism of loyalty,” on the other hand, based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, implies a form of violence that is mainly directed against members of the own group who are viewed as apostates or transgressors, as is shown by the “primal scene” of this form of violence, the scene of the Golden Calf. It is this form of violence with which we are mostly confronted today. It is only directed against outsiders if the distinction between inner and outer, apostates and strangers is blurred and all human beings are requested to enter the covenant and obey to its laws, as is the case with certain radical islamist and evangelist groups.

Then intolerance and violence are necessary implications of the Exodus tradition?

Nothing could be more alien to the theology of Exodus. The distinction between Israel and the “nations” (goyîm) that is drawn here has no violent and antagonistic implications. That the nations observe other laws and worship other gods is perfectly in order, because they are not called into the covenant. The only exception is made for the “Canaanites,” the indigenous population of the Promised Land, who must be expelled and exterminated and who are obviously no other that those Hebrews who do not live according to the laws of the covenant. These “Canaanites,” however, are but a symbol for the “primary religion” that Second Temple Judaism, especially the Puritan radicalism of the Deuteronomic tradition, is opposing. We must not forget, however, that it is not hatred and violence, but love that forms the center of the idea of covenant. The leading metaphor of the covenant is matrimonial love and the “megillah” (scroll) that is read during the feast of Passover is the Song of Songs, a collection of fervent love songs. God’s “jealousy” is part of his love.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Jan Assmann: Remembering the ExodusIllustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink >>

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  1. […] Interesting author interview at the Princeton University Press Blog with Jan Assmann on his book The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus. […]