Jon Beltz, Jan Assmann’s “Of God and Gods”: Egyptology in Modern European Thought

Jan Assmann. Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 200 PP. Cloth. $26.95. ISBN: 9780299225544.

Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh
Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) at Nineveh

As mentioned in my previous post on Jan Assmann’s book Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, it may seem unusual to find such a book in a publication series devoted to modern European history and thought. Yet I think that it is not out of place in the Mosse Series. So what purpose does all of its discussion of abstract relations between conceptions of God serve for the overall themes of the Series.

Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that the foundation of Western society was its Judeo-Christian monotheistic conception of God. His concept of the “death of God” implies that humanity after this turn would need to look to pre-monotheistic or non-monotheistic concepts to build a new foundation for society. He further uses the title character of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (another religious figure from the Axial Age) to critique this foundation and to move beyond it. The essays in Assmann’s book attempt, not so much to kill God, but to look beyond the boundaries of the familiar monotheism (and even the familiar concept of a division between the sacred and the secular) when examining modern problems and conditions. This “looking beyond” the foundations of the Western world (both spatially and temporally) is of course central to modern academia. Assmann’s book uses the past to be critical of categories that are still often uncritically used in modern discourse.

Further, as Assmann writes in the introduction: “The times are over when religion could be viewed as the ‘opium of the people’. Nowadays, in the hands and minds of certain movements, religion appears as the ‘dynamite of the people.’” (pg. 5) Religion plays a key role in motivations and movements of people in the post-9/11 world. Despite the persistence of a “secularization thesis” in parts of academia, religion plays a prominent role in public life and intellectual discourse, even in the 21st century Western world. Assmann points to the interest, in recent times, in Freud’s book Moses and Monotheism (pgs. 5-6). Despite being far out of date (in terms of its Egyptology and biblical criticism), the book has received more attention in discussions on monotheism in the past two decades than it ever did before (though one wonders if that may be due to recent scholarly interest in reception history, in which Freud’s book makes for an interesting artifact).

As for the Mosse Press Series itself, while most of the other books deal with mid-twentieth century fascism, Jewish history, and 19th and 20th century intellectual history, there runs a common theme of looking at aspects of motivation and mobilization in fascist or fascist-like movements. A key element in this process is religion, and specifically religion’s relation to politics. This can be seen for example in some early parts of Mosse’s Nationalization of the Masses. Assmann’s emphases in the book on religious violence and on relations between religion and politics place it well within the scope of the Mosse Press Series, though his approach of situating biblical monotheism (a key component in the cultural assumptions of the Western world) within the context of the larger world of religious concepts places the book’s emphasis beyond the horizons of other books within the series.

Jon Beltz
Jon Beltz is a PhD student at Yale University, specializing in Assyriology. He has an MA in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests are primarily in Mesopotamian literature and mythology, but he dabbles in Hebrew Bible and Comparative Semitics from time to time.

Assmann also does due diligence in trying to situate ancient ideas alongside their modern cognates. For example, in addition to his discussions on religious violence and relations between religion and politics, he also relates variations of Egyptian conceptions of a prime god to modern concepts of positive and negative theology (pgs. 72-74). Further, he links his own categorization of types of religious truths, based on the study of ancient religions, to that of Moses Mendelssohn (pgs. 140-141) and builds his typology of violence off of one developed by Walter Benjamin (pgs. 142-144).
In the next post, we will look briefly at Assmann’s discussion of religious violence as it relates to monotheism and polytheism.

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