The Chronicle Review
April 15, 2013
Jan Assmann has been described as the world's leading Egyptologist—a characterization that few these days would dare to dispute. A 74-year-old emeritus professor at the University of Heidelberg and honorary professor at the University of Konstanz, Assmann has held guest professorships at Yale, the University of Chicago, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris.
In addition to his specialized work as an Egyptologist, Assmann has staked a more general claim to distinction as a leading theorist of cultural history as a result of his pathbreaking work on "mnemohistory"—a concept he has developed over the past three decades with his wife, Aleida Assmann, and other researchers.
In his recent volume, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization : Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Assmann recapitulates a number of his most important findings. Building on the work of previous theorists of cultural memory as an approach to historical understanding (such as the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs), Assmann's notion of mnemohistory suggests that, from a cultural point of view, the way history is remembered is more important than—to quote the German historian Leopold von Ranke—"the way it really was."
This insight is particularly valid in the case of ancient history. Here, whereas reliable archaeological or textual evidence is often sketchy, imaginative commentaries abound, in many cases composed several centuries after the fact. It is generally accepted that, after a period of 40 years, generational memory begins to fade. At this point, "collective memory" cedes to "cultural memory" as a type of imaginative reinvention of tradition.
As Assmann explains his methodology in Cultural Memory and Early Civilization : "Even if sometimes the debate over history, memory, and mnemotechnics may appear abstract and academic, it seems to me to nevertheless lie at the very heart of current discourse. Everything points to the fact that the concept of memory constitutes the basis for a new paradigm of cultural studies that will shed light on all the interconnected fields of art and literature, politics and sociology, religion and law."
Assmann points out that questions of historical remembrance are frequently the object of contentious cultural negotiations and disputes. Often, such struggles go far toward determining the cultural self-understanding of a given society or social group. To take one example that resurfaces often in Assmann's work: At various points in European cultural history, the memory of ancient Egypt, as the "other" of the West, has assumed a pivotal function. Thus in both the Old Testament and early Christianity, Egypt was hyperbolically constructed as a "negative totem." For the ancient Jews, it became the symbol of worldly corruption ("the fleshpots of Egypt") and soulless idolatry. Among Christians, it became one of the essential sites of paganism—a past from which believers needed to free themselves in order to accede to the promised land of salvation.
Assmann's approach systematically neglects ancient Judaism's robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and neighborly love.
Conversely, Assmann shows in Moses the Egyptian : The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, 1997) that during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—two highly secularizing eras, in which emancipation from ecclesiastical dogma became a major rallying cry—ancient Egypt's historical value was positively reconfigured, both as the ultimate fount of biblical monotheism and as providing an evidentiary historical basis for Spinoza's heretical pantheism. (As Spinoza famously claimed, Deus sive natura : God and nature are the same.) This historiographical reassessment represented a conscious attempt to ruin the sacred truths by demonstrating that Western monotheism had its origins in pagan practices and rituals. It was an image that was constructed in contrast with Christendom, where, with the Inquisition and the religious wars, religious dogma had culminated in intolerance, persecution, and armed conflagrations of biblical proportion. (It is estimated that during the Thirty Years' War, one-third of the population of Europe either died or was displaced.) Thus, by degrees, biblical Egyptophobia ultimately gave way to Egyptophilia—a tendency that crested with Napoleon's Egyptian expedition (1798-1801) and the French Orientalist Jean-François Champollion's (1790-1832) decipherment of hieroglyphics, which became the basis for modern Egyptology.
Assmann shows that, in the work of the 17th-century English Hebraist John Spencer, the 18th-century English polemicist and freethinker John Toland, and the 18th-century English cleric and critic William Warburton, the figure of Moses played a pivotal role in the early Enlightenment's secularizing discourse on Egypt. It was during this period that the enduring cultural trope of "Moses the Egyptian" was born. To reconceive Moses as an Egyptian was a way of deflating the theological pretensions of biblical monotheism. The hope was that, by demonstrating that Western monotheism had its origins in the nature-centered religion of ancient Egypt, one might be able to defuse Christianity's eschatological, sectarian zealotry—which, in the eyes of its critics, had had such catastrophic historical and political consequences.
Not only does the idea of "Moses the Egyptian" furnish the title of Assmann's 1997 monograph. It also alludes to the title of a highly contentious essay by Freud ("If Moses was an Egyptian ...") that was published a few months before Freud's death, in 1939, as part of Moses and Monotheism . Freud claimed, on the basis of some rather threadbare textual and historical evidence, that the historical Moses was in fact a disaffected Egyptian priest who imposed monotheism on the Jews once it had been banned in ancient Egypt following the reign of Akhenaten. Unsurprisingly, Freud's iconoclastic study—which, to the dismay of fellow Jews, appeared as the tide of European anti-Semitism reached its zenith—plays a pivotal role in Assmann's investigations of Western mnemohistorical discourse on Egypt.
In his more recent work, Assmann has taken the corrosive spirit of early modern Bible criticism a step further. In The Price of Monotheism (Stanford University Press, 2010) and related studies, Assmann ignited an international controversy by claiming that the Old Testament, by discriminating between true and false religion, was responsible for ushering in unprecedented levels of historical violence. Provocatively, he has designated this fateful cultural caesura—whose origins lie in the sacred texts of ancient Judaism and which Assmann describes as a world-historical transition from "cult to book"—as the "Mosaic distinction." It is a perspective we must transcend, he contends, if the world is to surmount the theologically authorized violence and hatred that have been responsible for so much bloodshed and misfortune. "We cannot change history, but we can change the myths into which history is continuously transformed through collective memory," writes Assmann in Of God and Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). "This is the road that should be taken. Monotheism itself pushes us to go beyond the logic of exclusivity and the language of violence."
Assmann argues that biblical monotheism, as codified by the Pentateuch, disrupted the political and cultural stability of the ancient world by introducing the concept of "religious exclusivity": that is, by claiming, as no belief system had previously, that its God was the one true God, and that, correspondingly, all other gods were false. By introducing the idea of the "one true God," Assmann suggests that monotheism upended one of the basic precepts of ancient polytheism: the principle of "divine translatability." This notion meant that, in ancient Mesopotamia, the various competing deities and idols possessed a fundamental equivalence. This equivalence provided the basis for a constructive modus vivendi among the major empires and polities that predominated in the ancient world.
Assmann readily admits that the ancient Middle East was hardly an unending expanse of peaceable kingdoms. However, he suggests that before monotheism's emergence, the rivalries and conflicts at issue were predominantly political rather than religious in nature. For this reason, they could be more readily contained. Monotheism raised the stakes of these skirmishes to fever pitch. According to Assmann, with monotheism's advent, it became next to impossible to separate narrowly political disagreements from religious disputes about "ultimate ends" (Max Weber) or "comprehensive doctrines" (John Rawls). According to the new logic of "religious exclusivity," political opponents to be conquered were turned into theological "foes" to be decimated.
What Assmann essentially describes in his writings is an improbable and presumptuous theory of historico-theological "blowback."
By introducing the "Mosaic distinction," Assmann argues, the Old Testament established the foundations of religious intolerance, as epitomized by the theological watchwords: "No other gods!" "No god but God!" Thereafter, the pre-monotheistic deities were denigrated as "idols." As Assmann explains: Ancient Judaism "sharply distinguishes itself from the religions of its environment by demanding that its One God be worshiped to the exclusion of all others, by banning the production of images, and by making divine favor depend less on sacrificial offerings and rites than on the righteous conduct of the individual and the observance of god-given, scripturally fixed laws."
These measures and techniques infused monotheistic religious practice with a new stringency—an element of fideistic absolutism—that differed qualitatively from the more diffuse cult practices of its polytheistic predecessors. Moreover, by introducing the idea of a transcendent and omnipotent deity, monotheism was guilty of estranging its adherents from the natural world—a tendency that stood in marked contrast with the world-affirming and life - enhancing orientation of pagan belief systems. In Of God and Gods , Assmann goes so far as to suggest that the "religion of the book" was proto-totalitarian. "The Torah with its commandments and prohibitions ... served as a script for leading one's life, running one's business, performing the rituals, ruling the community, in short regulating every aspect of individual and collective existence," he argues. "This was a new phenomenon in the history of writing as well as that of religion and civilization generally. Never before had writing served such comprehensive functions."
At the risk of lapsing into what, by his own admission, might be viewed as anti-Jewish stereotypes and polemics, Assmann invokes several chilling, if familiar, instances of mass slaughter from the Old Testament as confirmation of his thesis concerning the inherent relationship between "exclusive monotheism" and predatory violence. To be sure, many of these episodes were directed inward: expressions of divine retribution aimed at the errant Jews themselves for their egregious lapses in faith. Assmann cites the tale of the golden calf (Exodus 32: 27-28), in which 3,000 Israelites meet their death. At Baal Pe'or (Numbers 25), where Hebrew men are discovered fraternizing with Midianite women and worshiping their idols, only the pre-emptive execution of 24,000 wayward Hebrews can forestall even greater divine fury. Lastly, Assmann cites the Lord's draconian recommendation in Deuteronomy that, in their impending conquest of the Canaanite lands, the Jews must "let no breathing creature live."
In all of these instances, the logic of "No god but God!" establishes what Assmann characterizes as a cultural semantics of religious intolerance, culminating in the herem ban: a biblical version of jihad in which no living creature shall be left alive.
Of course, there is no archaeological evidence to support the claim that any of these alleged divinely mandated bloodlettings actually occurred. Instead, it is commonly acknowledged that they were conceived by the anonymous biblical authors as cautionary tales to illustrate the risks of straying from the basic precepts of the Old Testament's austere ethical injunctions. One of Assmann's methodological failings is that he jumps too quickly from considerations of "textuality" or "mnemohistory" to questions of actuality. Fortunately, not everything one finds in a text is automatically translated into historical practice.