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Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism

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ISBN-13: 978-0674587397
ISBN-10: 0674587391
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Editorial Reviews


A brilliant study...World-renowned as a specialist on Egyptian texts, beliefs, and rituals, Assmann combines great technical virtuosity in his chosen field with wide--very wide--theoretical and comparative interests...Elegantly argued, impressively documented, and written in eloquent English, Moses the Egyptian offers challenging new findings on the early history of monotheism, and a new reading of the place of Egypt in modern Western culture--and it puts both into the larger context of a theory of cultural memory. (Anthony Grafton New Republic)

For early writers...Moses invented a religious tradition that was the deliberate antithesis of that of Egypt. Later, in the period treated here...they credited Moses with having instructed the Hebrews in a version of Egyptian religion...This is certainly a fascinating work...This account of the theme of Moses the Egyptian should appeal to students of the time period mostly treated here. Moreover...the volume will serve to introduce any number of students of the Near East to several thinkers who were prominent in their own time but not widely known today. (David Lorton Journal of Near Eastern Studies)

Jan Assmann revisits the ground covered by Freud [in Moses and Monotheism], but with important differences. Assmann is no amateur. He is an eminent German Egyptologist, and no one writes with more authority about relations between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel. Equally important, Assmann aspires to something at once more tenable and more valuable than Freud. Freud tried to describe Moses as he really was... Assmann instead chose to write an account of how Moses has been remembered in different times and places... Assmann gives a dazzling account of several centuries of [the Moses-as-Egyptian] tradition...Moses the Egyptian, for all its brilliant erudition, is not simply dispassionate history. It is equally a homily. It is this that makes [it]--so rare for an academic monograph--a profoundly moving book...Assmann argues passionately that we today have much to learn from the ancient Egyptians whom he has spent his life studying...Most moving of all, Assmann is a consummate scholar with courage enough to moralize...Assmann's reconstruction of an ecumenical tradition of interpreting the Exodus is an important contribution to the history of religion. At the same time, his plea that modern theologians adopt similar views has great moral force. Assmann has done nothing less than suggest that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam be set upon different, more inclusive foundations. By demonstrating that these alternate foundations have long been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Assmann makes such sweeping reform almost plausible. Plausible or not, Assmann has written a book that is scholarly and passionate, a book that inspires as well as informs. (Noah J. Efron Boston Book Review)

[Moses the Egyptian's] scholarly depth lends legitimacy to its revisionist claim. [It is not] designed to ignite controversy in the culture wars--something that cannot be said for some other efforts in the field. This deep seriousness alone is sufficient to recommend Assmann's study. Assmann tells several interlocking stories. His primary narrative line is the memory of Egypt in the European scholarly imagination. Here he attempts--with considerable success--to move beyond a conventional history of scholarship... Assmann moves beyond cultural history to something more subtle: the complex transmission of ideas which are sometimes recorded, sometimes recessive, sometimes almost forgotten. What is striking is not only Assmann's account of the written record of the Moses and Egypt story but his recovery of the reasons for its historical retention...Assmann has produced a learned study whose theses will themselves endure in the scholarly memory. (John Peter Kenney American Historical Review)

[Moses the Egyptian] opens up a question that is crucial to adherents of all three religions that claim their origin in biblical Judaism. That question has to do with the religious distinction between truth and falsehood. It seems natural to a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim to consider his or her own religion true and other religions false. This tendency is especially strong in Christianity. But according to Egyptologist Jan Assman, people who practised the ancient religions we call pagan did not see the world in this way. People of difference nations might worship difference sets of goddesses and gods, but there were alternative expressions of the same underlying reality. (Bob Chodos Catholic News Times)

This very ambitious book keeps its promise...Assmann tells us that he wrote the book as if under a spell. Its readers, too, can feel spellbound...Rather than seeking to cover the whole historical span, Assmann has wisely chosen to focus on some of the major articulations of the Moses/Egypt discourse throughout intellectual and religious history. One hopes that this strategy, which leaves other books to be written, has reopened an inexhaustible well of inquiry. (Guy G. Stroumsa Journal of Religion)

One will find in this fascinating book an investigation of 'the history of Europe's remembering Egypt.' Assmann's term for this is 'mnemo-history,' a way of studying the past that is concerned 'not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered.' Assmann serves as a penetrating critic who shows that before the Enlightenment the books on Egypt spoke the language of the Enlightenment. What the scholars and philosophers presented when they described ancient Egyptian religion looked very much like Spinozism, Deism, pantheism, or 'natural religion,' the kinds of religious sensibilities they favored. This is a feature that is no less apparent today than it was two hundred years ago. (Robert Louis Wilken First Things)

In this remarkable book, Assmann takes the very essence of Western religion--the principle of monotheism--as his topic, tracing its effects by looking at its counter-image in the Western imagination--the memory of Egypt...Based on his intimate and profound knowledge of ancient Egyptian religion, Assmann is able to construct a new image of the contrast between Egypt and monotheism. (Ronald Hendel Biblical Archaeology Review)

This is a gripping and richly documented response to Y. H. Yerushalmi's tracing of Freud's Moses to Schiller, John Spencer, Strabo, Celsus, Apion and Manetho, and a development of Assmann's earlier complementary attempt to link Akhenaten's religious revolution with the story of the reception of the memory of Moses via a similar chain of classical, mediaeval, renaissance and enlightenment authors by Schiller and Freud. (G. Glazov Society for Old Testament Study)

Assmann's story is as good an explanation of this history as anyone has come up with, and it must be based on a firmer foundation than anyone else's could be. It is tantalizing and inviting. No one can fault him on his scholarship or erudition. He is one of the most talented historians of the Ancient world. (Saul Friedlander)

Assmann's fascinating book is a meditation on the very notion of true vs. false religion and its historical effects...There is a bit of something for nearly anyone in church history in this book, and a lot of methodology for everyone. The book is highly recommended, and...quite a good read. (Daniel Boyarin Church History)

Moses the Egyptian is a book of great learning, historical savvy and keen insight as well as a cornucopia of fascinating information. (Robert L. Wilken Los Angeles Times)

About the Author

Jan Assmann is Professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg.

Product Details

  • Series: Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674587391
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674587397
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #767,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As several readers have pointed out, Assmann's work is not really suitable to the casual reader, nor the reader unlearned in Latin. That said, most reviewers have suggested that the book be reviewed by someone fairly up on the field.
Assmann calls his project a "mnemohistory," meaning by this a history of the way certain aspects of an ancient history are remembered and distorted over time. The central focus of this mnemohistory, as indicated by the title, is Moses and his Egyptian origins. Assmann is a distinguished Egyptologist, so he wants to root this mnemohistory in Egypt, not in any of the numerous pseudo- or para-Egyptian texts (the Hermetica, for example, or Plato's various renderings of Egypt). In short, the question is this: What, if anything, might ancient Egyptian historical events have to do with later Western conceptions of (1) Egypt, (2) Judaism, (3) Moses, and (4) monotheism in general?

Assmann begins with a seemingly radical thesis: that the historical figure(s) represented in "Moses" was an Egyptian priestly exponent of the Akhenaten/Amarna monotheism, which lasted a couple hundred years and ended under the reign of Tutankhamun. The implication of this is that Judaism, and in particular Mosaic Law, was constructed as a counter-religion to normative (i.e. non-Akhenaten) Egyptian religion.
Having demonstrated that this thesis is plausible, Assmann moves on to examine how this peculiar origin of Judeo-Christian ritual and legal prescription was remembered and reinterpreted across the millennia. He examines Maimonides, John Spencer, and Ralph Cudworth, showing them all recognizing the Judaism-equals-Egypt-backwards connection, but interpreting it variously for philoSemitic, antiSemitic, philoEgyptian, or other purposes.
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This book is a scholarly discourse as to how the memory of Egyptian monotheism survived in Western Culture. I use the word scholarly advisedly, not only because the book is well researched and annotated but it is also written for scholars. It does not lend itself to cursory reading but needs to be studied. This may be the reason why previous reviewers, although favorable,did not inform the reader of the points made in the book.
For me the most important aspect was that Assmann clearly distinguishes between Moses as a historic figure and Moses as portrayed in the literature. He calls this phenomenon mnemohistory. Namely history not as it transpired according to current knowledge but history as it is remembered. This is important because we know nothing about the historic Moses. Assmann then goes on to describe previous views held about Moses having been culturally,if not ethnically, an Egyptian and how he had created a counter-religion to Egyptian practices. He reviews the works of authors ranging from the 17th to the 20th century; with a number of them having passed into oblivion over the centuries. Assmann also subscribes to Freud's view that Akhenaten's monotheism was the model upon which Moses had built his own edifice. Others may argue that the biblical Moses was not yet a true monotheist because the god of Moses is still in competition with other existing gods. Had he indeed been the universal cosmic god of Akhenaten he would not need to have been "jealous" or to "magnify" himself on the Egyptians, as the Bible repeatedly tells us. Assmann accepts,furthermore, Freud's idea of repressed trauma which remains latent in the subconcious where it acts as a disturbing element and eventually breaks back into consciousness in distorted form.
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Format: Paperback
"One would call this work monumental ..., if there were no risk of distracting the reader thereby with what might otherwise appear as a facile and predictable pun." T. Lawson, Folklore Bulletin

Prologue, Assmann's Models:
In 1984 Jan Assmann undertook the ambitious task of investigating the nature of Ancient Egyptian theology that has so fundamentally influenced studies on Egyptian religion. His impact was so great that many of his models have since been adopted in recent scholarship. Building on M. Halbwach's concept of memory as a social phenomenon as well as an individual one, the Freudian psychodrama of repressing and ultimately resurrecting the past, he writes a unique study, Moses the Egyptian.

Amarna Monotheism:
The 'Amarna heresy', or Atenism is thought to be the earliest monotheistic religious revelation ever, with a wealth of devotion and worship hymns of Aten. Atenism was associated mainly with the eighteenth dynasty Prophetic Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, the name he adopted. Recent Egyptologists indicate there are proofs that Aten was becoming more known during the eighteenth dynasty - notably Amenhotep III calling of his royal barge as the 'Spirit of the Aten.' Ultimately, it was Amenhotep IV who introduced Aten as the sole deity in his revolution, in a series of decreed steps culminating in the official endorsement of Aten as the sole universal god for the Egyptian Empire, and beyond. It was established as Egypt's state religion for around two decades, in the 14th century BC, before a violent return to the traditional Amen and Egyptian pantheon gods, while the name of the 'heretic Pharaoh' associated with Aten was completely erased from the Egyptian records.
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