Translating Gods in the Roman World

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(Larry Hurtado):  It’s well enough known that in the Graeco-Roman period there was a readiness by many to link or cross-identify deities.  So, e.g., Zeus and Jupiter were linked in this way, seen as the same deity with Greek and Roman names.  The Egyptologist, Jan Assmann referred to this cross-cultural recognition of deities as “translating” deities.  This is often linked to what is sometimes called “pagan monotheism”, a wider readiness to assert some sort of unity of (or behind) the many deities of the time.

This “inclusive monotheism” is distinguishable from the more “exclusive monotheism” typically advocated in ancient Jewish and Christian texts.  In this latter religious stance, there is one true and valid deity (the biblical God), who is distinguished from all other claimants.  This distinction was especially made in the sphere of cultic worship.  Whereas pagan philosophers who affirmed one divine principle or substance behind all the particular deities nevertheless typically consented to or advocated the traditional rituals of all the traditional deities, devout Jews and Christians typically regarded offering worship to any deity other than the biblical God as “idolatry” (a unique term used by Jews and then Christians).

In a recent study, Mark S. Smith draws upon Assmann’s metaphor to give a detailed diachronic analysis of how various societies in the Ancient Near East handled the encounter with gods of other peoples:  God in Translation:  Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2010).  The study is heavily documented and serious scholarly work, but it repays the effort to read it. 

Smith shows how the “translation” of deities often served imperialistic purposes, how it varies significantly in nature in different time-periods, and also how ancient Jewish religion handled the matter distinctively (and not monolithically).  It’s a valuable study of the larger religious forces and processes at work across many centuries of the ancient world.  Commendably, for those of us who work in the Roman era, Smith’s purview extends down into the Graeco-Roman period. 

He also offers some interesting reflections on method in the study of ancient religion, and also on current claims that monotheistic religion is necessarily more conducive to aggression and violence.  (Smith handily shows that humans are fully capable of using  polytheistic religion as well to justify violence.)

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About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

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