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.
Assmann's disparaging construction of ancient Judaism has been harshly criticized by Old Testament scholars. He consistently denigrates biblical monotheism as a "secondary" or "counter religion," thereby impugning its originality by claiming that its doctrines were parasitically dependent on their opposition to ancient pagan practices.
Assmann has also been accused of providing an overly sanguine and harmonious portrait of interstate relations among the proponents of ancient polytheism—Babylon, Assyria, and so forth. However, in the ancient world, the Israelites were not the only group who, in times of warfare, invoked the dreaded herem, or ban on conquered peoples. Since the discovery almost 150 years ago of the Moabite stone, dating from the ninth century BC, we know that other nations in the ancient Middle East engaged in similar practices—as the Moabites apparently did against Israel. Another discomfiting aspect of Assmann's veneration of ancient paganism is that, since the 1980s, a similar orientation has predominated among the advocates of the European New Right, whose hate-filled texts have often provided the script for and fed the intolerance of the Europe's far-right political parties. (For a good example, see Alain de Benoist's On Being a Pagan.)
A major failing of Assmann's approach is that it systematically neglects ancient Judaism's robust moral inclinations toward tolerance and neighborly love. Numerous prescriptions in the Old Testament, known as the Noachide Laws, stress the importance of providing hospitality and succor to strangers. As we read in Leviticus (19:33-34): "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as your self, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Thus, contra Assmann, lurid tales of plunder, bloodlust, and divine retribution fail to tell the whole story.
A number of astute critics have also pointed out that, from a social-evolutionary perspective, biblical monotheism represents a significant ethical breakthrough, providing a normative basis for the idea of universal human brotherhood—a characterization diametrically opposed to the "exclusionary" mentality that Assmann considers predominant. Historically, the Exodus parable, which Assmann judges the ur-text of exclusionary monotheism, has served as a foundational narrative of political emancipation: humanity's deliverance from the injustices of bondage and oppression.
Assmann censures monotheism's ostensible "world alienation"—its embrace of a transcendent, invisible God who dwells outside of, rather than within, the world. But that divine barrier, in fact, underwrites the ethical distinction between justice and injustice, what is and what should be, mere life versus life led according to principle. This perspective conveys the idea that the moral life is something that must be achieved by a demanding process of existential reorientation and conversion. It "alienates" men and women not from the world as such, but from the world conceived as a locus of oppression and injustice. That was the reality that the Israelites were forced to confront during their 400 years of bondage in ancient Egypt.
Thus as the journalist Thomas Assheuer has pointed out in discussing Assmann's work: "The appeal to a just God was the answer to an experience of violence and suffering that can no longer be compensated by myth." Assmann downplays the significance of divine transcendence as an ethical breakthrough and neglects the coercive power of myth as an ideological consecration of fate—that is, a justification of mere life, however needlessly unjust it may be.
Whereas ancient polytheism sanctified the injustices of fate—humanity's entrapment in the world as it is—the Mosaic religion protested against that condition and its moral inadequacies. The covenant at Sinai represents the promise of an elevated life: a moral life. Henceforth, secular powers that fail to measure up to the standards and precepts of the Ten Commandments stand exposed for their ethical deficiencies.
Moreover, the seemingly harsh Deuteronomic injunction—that, in the lands they are about to conquer, the Israelites must "let no breathing creature live"—is deceptive, since in subsequent passages we find the Jews living peacefully among the Canaanites and other local tribes. As Michael Walzer shows in In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Yale University Press, 2012), on both philological and textual grounds, the Old Testament is inherently susceptible to a plurality of readings. "Given the different rulers—judges, kings, and priests—and the arguments over kingship," Walzer writes, "there can't be anything like an authoritative political constitution in the Hebrew Bible. ... In the end, there are no authoritative readings." Assmann, conversely, serves up a peculiarly reductive and disapproving interpretation of biblical monotheism—a portrait that is distinctly at odds with his professions of solidarity with "postmodern pluralism," which he regards as a desirable, 21st-century epistemological corollary to the spirit of ancient polytheism.
Assmann's argument is often scattershot and filled with qualifications—so many that if one took all of them at face value, there would remain virtually nothing of substance. But upon closer scrutiny, what Assmann essentially describes in his writings is an improbable and presumptuous theory of historico-theological "blowback." In his view, it was the ancient Hebrews who, by virtue of the "Mosaic distinction" and the cultural semantics of intolerance they unleashed, conceived the notion of holy war: a divinely ordained doctrine of total annihilation. Tragically, it was the same cultural semantics of intolerance that, at a later point, returned to smite the Jews themselves in the most prodigious and far-reaching instance of mass murder ever recorded: the Holocaust.
In other words: What one sows, one reaps. In Assmann's view, ultimately it was not the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust. It was the Jews themselves who were responsible, by virtue of having conceived and implemented a doctrine of "religious exclusivity" whose ultimate historical repercussions could in biblical times only dimly be perceived. Thereby, Assmann effectively recycles the shopworn canard that it is the Jews themselves who are responsible for anti-Semitism.
It is in that vein that, in Moses the Egyptian, Assmann praises Freud's strategy in Moses and Monotheism of asking "'how the Jew came to attract this undying hatred.'"
In this way, Assmann seeks to refute Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's controversial thesis in Hitler's Willing Executioners (Knopf, 1996) that it was a specifically German variant of "eliminationist anti-Semitism" that was responsible for the Holocaust. Yet Assmann goes to the opposite extreme, effectively exculpating the actual perpetrators by suggesting that their motives were irrelevant. Instead, the historical key to anti-Semitism is to be found in the Old Testament, as interpreted by Assmann.
In Moses the Egyptian, Assmann clarifies the biographical motivations subtending his investigations by informing us, "It is in a rather personal attempt to 'come to terms with'" the German past "that I embark on the writing of this study about Moses the Egyptian." He continues: "The present text reflects my situation as a German Egyptologist writing 50 years after the catastrophe which Freud saw approaching, knowing the full extent of the genocide which was still unthinkable in Freud's time."
Here, one might plausibly inquire: What contribution might an Egyptologist be able to make toward understanding the Holocaust, an event that postdates Assmann's area of scholarly expertise by some 3,500 years? We find the answer to this question a few lines later, when Assmann grandiosely informs us that, by re-examining the cultural "confrontation of [ancient] Egypt and Israel," he seeks to furnish "a historical analysis of anti-Semitism."
But the term anti-Semitism is a relatively recent coinage. It first appeared in Wilhelm Marr's prejudice-laden 1879 study, The Victory of Judaism Over Germany. Among historians, the term has been conceptually serviceable for distinguishing the ideology of modern racial anti-Judaism from anti-Judaism's more traditional, religious strains. To restate these facts is merely to underline what should be obvious: The analytical and historical value of seeking to account for modern anti-Semitism via recourse to the biblical antagonism between Israel and Egypt is manifestly limited. It is at this point, moreover, that one runs up against the analytical and conceptual limits of "mnemohistory" as a method of historical explanation.
But there is another essential component of Assmann's highly speculative theological "blowback" thesis that falls beneath the threshold of sense. The Holocaust cannot be conceived as a modern instance of "religious exclusivity"—this time, perpetrated against the Jews rather than by them—since, as is well known, the Nazis openly disavowed monotheism (Christianity as well as Judaism) in favor of neo-paganism. The ideology of the master race was predicated on the doctrine of Aryan racial superiority, which provided the Nazis with their right to dominate supposedly inferior racial groupings. Thus, in point of fact, Europe's Jews were victimized by the recrudescence of the herem ban as practiced by ancient pagans, for which we now have corroborating archaeological evidence. If this insight holds, it stands Assmann's argument on its head: It was paganism's return, rather than its eclipse at the hands of biblical monotheism, that helps to explain the destruction of European Jewry at the hands of the swastika-bearing Nazis. In this case, too, Assmann seems to be scratching where it doesn't itch.
Under the cover of solving the historical riddle of anti-Semitism by tracing it back to the "Mosaic distinction"—and thus insinuating that European Jewry was ultimately the victim of a brand of theological intolerance that the ancient Hebrews had themselves introduced—Assmann has merely added fuel to the flames.