Biblical Blame Shift


Richard Wolin on Jan Assmann's in The Price of Monotheism, in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

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, thatits 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.