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Of God and Gods

Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism

Jan Assmann

Publication Year: 2008

For thousands of years, our world has been shaped by biblical monotheism. But its hallmark—a distinction between one true God and many false gods—was once a new and radical idea. Of God and Gods explores the revolutionary newness of biblical theology against a background of the polytheism that was once so commonplace.
    Jan Assmann, one of the most distinguished scholars of ancient Egypt working today, traces the concept of a true religion back to its earliest beginnings in Egypt and describes how this new idea took shape in the context of the older polytheistic world that it rejected. He offers readers a deepened understanding of Egyptian polytheism and elaborates on his concept of the “Mosaic distinction,” which conceives an exclusive and emphatic Truth that sets religion apart from beliefs shunned as superstition, paganism, or heresy.
    Without a theory of polytheism, Assmann contends, any adequate understanding of monotheism is impossible.

Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians, and Best Books for Special Interests, selected by the Public Library Association

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

I am grateful to the Mosse Foundation—in particular Steven Aschheim, its scientific advisor, and John Tortorice, its director—for having been given the chance to rethink various issues in the right place and in the right format: in Jerusalem and in a series of lectures. I could not have wished for a better context to present and discuss my thoughts on monotheism, in a place where over...

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pp. 3-8

This study examines the relationship between God and gods. Perhaps the most important word in the title is “and,” in which the various forms of this relationship are implied, ranging from total absorption (“All gods are one”) to denial and destruction (“[Thou shalt have] no other gods”). What this study is not about—at least not primarily—is the history of biblical religion. There is an...

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1. Understanding Polytheism: The Three-Dimensional Structure of the Divine World

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pp. 9-27

Any reflection on the nature of those new religious movements that since the eighteenth century have been subsumed under the term “monotheism” should be preceded by an attempt at a better understanding of the term “polytheism.” Up to now there has been no valid theory of polytheism.¹ There are, of course, many descriptions and histories of such polytheistic religions as the...

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2. Seth the Iconoclast: Polytheism and the Language of Violence

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pp. 28-52

Pagan and Monotheistic Violence: If there is one iconic image, an emblematic expression of Egyptian political self-definition, it is the image of Pharaoh smiting his enemies. This image appears in the political iconography of Egypt as early as the formation of the Egyptian state at the end of the fourth millennium BCE. It is first seen as a mural painting in...

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3. All Gods are One: Evolutionary and Inclusive Monotheism

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pp. 53-75

The writer and medievalist C. S. Lewis once stated that monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity. Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will sooner or later arise as a natural development. The principle, I understand, is well illustrated in the history of Indian religion. Behind the gods...

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4. The Axial Age and the Separation of State and Religion: Monotheism as an Axial Movement

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pp. 76-89

The emancipation from the politico-cosmological power structure of the ancient world is certainly not the exclusive achievement of biblical monotheism. Rather, it belongs within the wider context of cultural transformations commonly believed to have affected almost all of the high civilizations of the ancient world from Rome to China and to have taken place more or less simultaneously around the middle...

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5. Five Steps toward Canonization: Tradition, Scripture, and the Origin of the Hebrew Bible

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pp. 90-105

In chapter 4 I tried to place the rise of monotheism in Israel in the broader cultural and intellectual context of transformations that have traditionally been subsumed under the notion of an “Axial Age.” Moreover, I tried to place these “Axial” transformations in the context of primarily traumatic historical changes and experiences. In the present chapter I will explore another context that seems to...

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6. No God but God: Exclusive Monotheism and the Language of Violence

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pp. 106-126

Cultura facit saltus: Introductory Remarks: In chapter 1 I described the many roads that lead from polytheism to monotheism. Polytheism is not a random accumulation of deities, demons, and spirits but a coherent system that may be regarded either as a unified divine world or as an irreducible but structured plurality of deities. Both of these aspects are simultaneously possible. The former presents the divine...

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Conclusion: The Mosaic Distinction

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pp. 127-145

The Mosaic Distinction, as I defined it over a decade ago,¹ is the distinction between true and false in religion. This proposal has met with many objections from biblical scholars,² who insist that this distinction was certainly not one of Moses’ crucial concerns when he led his people out of Egypt. He was concerned with freedom and slavery, justice and injustice, good and evil rather than with questions of religious...


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pp. 147-165


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pp. 167-184


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pp. 185-193

Index Locorum [Includes back cover]

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pp. 195-197

E-ISBN-13: 9780299225537
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299225544

Publication Year: 2008