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Monday, 1 August 2016
Idolatry and Linguistic Narrowing I

Religion and Cultural Memory (tr. Rodney Livingstone),
Jan Assmann, Stanford University Press, 2006, page 77-78

Jan Assmann's fifth stimulus to canonisation is: 'The Anathematising of Idolatry and the Process of Linguistic Narrowing'. He starts with idolatry:

The fifth tep, finally, has no parallel in the rest of the ancient world, but represents instead polemical act of self-definition by means of which early Judaism separates itself from everything that is now constructed and excluded as "paganism", for the first time in the history of religion. I refer to the anathematisation of idolatry.

Assmann then discusses how he thinks the understanding of the second commandment (of the Ten) has changed, from perhaps being a prohibition of any kinds of image, to a specific proibution of images of G-d.

What is criticised is not the inability of the images to convey the nature of the invisible, all-encompassing and transcendant G-d, but the dangerous, seductive potency of the images themselves. No beings in this world, in the air, on the earth, or in the water should be portrayed because every association with images inevitably ends up in worship. This worship is no less inexorably extended to other gods and represents a betrayal, since Yahweh cannot be portrayed.

Assmann argues that 'idolatry' changed its meaning as early Judaism changed from exclusive worship of Yahweh, while acknowledging the existence of other gods (otherwise, why the command not to worship them?) to a cleaner monotheism that denies the existence of other gods. Now the debate is not between Yahweh and other competing gods, or between one religion or another, but between truth and falsehood - between G-d and nothing. So Assmann argues:

In the light of the distinction between truth and falsehood, which is now introduced into religion for the first time, writing acquires the character of a codification of truth as opposed to which all other representations of the godly are dismissed as the expressions of lies, error, or ignorance.

Posted By Jonathan, 8:00am Comment Comments: 0