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Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism

by Jan Assmann

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1252161,910 (3.25)5
Standing at the very foundation of monotheism, and so of Western culture, Moses is a figure not of history, but of memory. As such, he is the quintessential subject for the innovative historiography Jan Assmann both defines and practices in this work, the study of historical memory--a study, in this case, of the ways in which factual and fictional events and characters are stored in religious beliefs and transformed in their philosophical justification, literary reinterpretation, philological restitution (or falsification), and psychoanalytic demystification. To account for the complexities of the foundational event through which monotheism was established, Moses the Egyptian goes back to the short-lived monotheistic revolution of the Egyptian king Akhenaten (1360-1340 B.C.E.). Assmann traces the monotheism of Moses to this source, then shows how his followers denied the Egyptians any part in the origin of their beliefs and condemned them as polytheistic idolaters. Thus began the cycle in which every "counter-religion," by establishing itself as truth, denounced all others as false. Assmann reconstructs this cycle as a pattern of historical abuse, and tracks its permutations from ancient sources, including the Bible, through Renaissance debates over the basis of religion to Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism. One of the great Egyptologists of our time, and an exceptional scholar of history and literature, Assmann is uniquely equipped for this undertaking--an exemplary case study of the vicissitudes of historical memory that is also a compelling lesson in the fluidity of cultural identity and beliefs.… (more)

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Assman is an Egyptologist by profession, but this book is a more general work of "mnemohistory," in which he sets forth a history of the development of the "Mosaic distinction." It is an example of the best and most responsible sort of historical deconstruction, with the aim of sleuthing out "religious antagonism and its overcoming," which should be welcome to sagacious readers everywhere. It provides a serious, detailed treatment about the historical figure of Moses as it has been alternately opposed to and aligned with evolving appreciation for ancient Egyptian religion.

After some intellectual background, the first set of chapters begin by treating classical literary sources, and then work through an historical sequence beginning with English Hebraist John Spencer (1630-1693), and progressing through Renaissance Hermetists, Enlightenment freethinkers (at which point expressly Masonic contributions to the topic start to appear), Spinozists, Friedrich Schiller, and 19th Century "cosmotheism," to Freud's Moses and Monotheism.

That survey concluded, Assmann returns to ancient Egypt and shares some of the latest contemporary research on the Amarna religion (or anti-religion) of Akhenaten, long espoused as the possible point of origin for Western monotheism. That chapter should be of value to anyone interested in mysticism or esoteric traditions, as it treats an ancient approach to the divine as Light.
3 vote paradoxosalpha | Jun 22, 2007 |
Too dry to hold one's interest. ( )
  TheCelticSelkie | Mar 5, 2007 |
Showing 2 of 2
“[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.”
added by quicksiva | editCatholic News Times, Bob Chodos
 
“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.”—
added by quicksiva | editNew Republic, Anthony Grafton
 

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Standing at the very foundation of monotheism, and so of Western culture, Moses is a figure not of history, but of memory. As such, he is the quintessential subject for the innovative historiography Jan Assmann both defines and practices in this work, the study of historical memory--a study, in this case, of the ways in which factual and fictional events and characters are stored in religious beliefs and transformed in their philosophical justification, literary reinterpretation, philological restitution (or falsification), and psychoanalytic demystification. To account for the complexities of the foundational event through which monotheism was established, Moses the Egyptian goes back to the short-lived monotheistic revolution of the Egyptian king Akhenaten (1360-1340 B.C.E.). Assmann traces the monotheism of Moses to this source, then shows how his followers denied the Egyptians any part in the origin of their beliefs and condemned them as polytheistic idolaters. Thus began the cycle in which every "counter-religion," by establishing itself as truth, denounced all others as false. Assmann reconstructs this cycle as a pattern of historical abuse, and tracks its permutations from ancient sources, including the Bible, through Renaissance debates over the basis of religion to Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism. One of the great Egyptologists of our time, and an exceptional scholar of history and literature, Assmann is uniquely equipped for this undertaking--an exemplary case study of the vicissitudes of historical memory that is also a compelling lesson in the fluidity of cultural identity and beliefs.

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