Review of Mark S. Smith, God in Translation

I am grateful to Eerdmans for sending me a free review copy of Mark S. Smith’s book God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (published by Eerdmans in 2010, originally published in 2008 by Mohr Siebeck). The book looks at a relatively neglected aspect of ancient Israelite, early Jewish and early Christian religion in relation to and the context of its wider Near Eastern and Mediterranean context, namely the translatability of deities.

The book begins with the role of Jan Assmann in bringing this subject to increased scholarly attention. Smith is appreciative, while also critical of Assmann’s flattening of the material in a way that fails to do justice to evidence of diachronic changes, so that Assmann ends up naively treating the view of God’s “nontranslatability” as something early and consistent in ancient Israel (Assmann calls it the “Mosaic distinction”).

But Smith also has the relationship between religious studies and theology in view (Smith is up front about his own situation as a Catholic engaged in Jewish studies, thus in some respects straddling these two realms), as well as the ideological commitments of scholars, and contemporary issues related to religious violence and tolerance. Smith notes that, contrary to the oversimplified claims that many are prone to make, monotheism is not inherently correlated with violence, and translatability and inclusion are sometimes instruments of empire and oppression.

Scholarship is in essence an exercise in translation, as we seek to explain works from very different cultural, linguistic and historical worlds than our own, in a manner that clarifies their meaning and renders them intelligible to people today (pp.1-3). And so it is not only to understand ancient translation, but also to reflect on our ongoing role as translators, that Smith undertakes his investigation of this topic.

Chapter One begins with the Late Bronze Age, and this period provides a number of key examples of the conviction that deities can be translated in a manner comparable to the way words in general can: not because they correspond in every respect across linguistic and cultural divides, but because they correspond sufficiently to provide an equivalence that enables communication and interaction between people of different languages and cultures. The evidence includes not only lists of deities corresponding between peoples/languages, but also multiple copies of treaties which mention deities from one group in one copy and those of the other group in another copy. We occasionally find an entire myth translated with names of deities substituted. This phenomenon reflects the realities of empire, with scribes in the employ of the powerful producing documents and inscriptions that translate deities in this way. Yet while providing correspondents could be a means of bringing the religion of conquered peoples into agreement with that of the conquerors, in fact translation in the other direction is better attested, and this may have been in at least some instances a response to empire and attempt to preserve identity precisely through such correspondences (pp. 86-7). Like the relationship between theology and violence, the relationship between translation of deities and power structures seems to have been complex and multifaceted.

Chapter two turns its attention to the claim that the Bible lacks the sort of view of divine translatability found in other Ancient Near Eastern sources, as made in particular by Jan Assmann. Smith surveys a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible which seem to indicate or presuppose that Yahweh is god of the Israelites in a manner that corresponds to the relationship of Chemosh or another deity to a particular people. More directly related specifically to translatability, the identification of Yahweh with El is offered as an instance of what “might constitute the earliest Israelite case of cross-cultural translatability” (p.98).

Chapter three looks at how Israel’s changing context in relation to Mesopotamian empires led to the rejection of translatability. Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 are oft-cited evidence of an earlier, pre-monotheistic form of Israelite religion. But in their present form, they also seek to overturn that view even as they provide evidence of it. “The translatability expressed in the worldview is acknowledged at the same time that it is being rejected” (p. 139). How this relates to the development of monotheism becomes clear as the Shema is considered. “[T]he end of translatability in biblical texts ultimately generated a radical shift in divine identity in Israel. The change does not involve simply Yahweh as the only deity, nor does it concern only a change in the understanding of divinity as one “stable” reality or order of reality. The change involved the combination or identification of these two features of reality in tandem, both Yahweh as the only deity and deity (in terms of name, personality and images, roles and functions, and realms of operation) stabilized and made one (or at least ontologically participating singly) in the figure of Yahweh…Non-translatability appeared towards the end of the monarchic period, into the exile and beyond…Monotheism is not simply a claim to non-translatability, but a further denial of any other deities, whether foreign or indigenous” (pp.146-147).

An important component of chapter 3 is its presentation of “one god theism” in neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian religion. In this period, Marduk (to give one example) came to be viewed as the sum of all divinity, with other gods depicted as his various attributes or organs. Whether this deserves to be called a form of “monotheism” is considered. Some would describe it as “inclusive monotheism” over against Israel’s more “exclusive monotheism,” while others might prefer to introduce the term “henotheism” into the discussion (pp.163-168). Smith prefers the term summodeism (pp. 168-9), coined by Eric Voegelin, since the word encapsulates the key idea that one supreme deity is being viewed as the embodiment of all divinity, with separate individual deities increasingly identified with aspects of the one supreme divinity. It may be that here at last we see identified that which genuinely distinguishes Israel’s “monotheism” from other similar and related religious viewpoints: not merely having one supreme God over subordinate powers, not merely viewing one supreme God as the totality of all divinity, but these coupled with an emphasis on the need to associate divinity with a single name which is not simply translatable, replaceable with another name from another tradition (p.176). While Marduk has all other names incorporated in himself in Babylonian summodeism, Yahweh is claimed as the only name for true divinity in Israel’s monotheism. This insight alone makes the book a truly precious contribution to the discussion of the origin, development and nature of monotheism in ancient Israel and Judaism.

Chapter four offers an interesting angle on the subject, focusing on censorship, drawing specifically on studies of censorship in the former German Democratic Republic. Without the creation of Scripture and the redaction and “correction” of texts, it is hard to imagine the monotheistic religious vision becoming as widespread and as normative as it eventually does.

Chapter five focuses on the Greco-Roman era, when translatability of divinity reached new heights, but also became increasingly common as an element of philosophical and pietistic discourse, where previously it had primarily been in the realm of international political interactions. In the Greco-Roman era, religious traditions do not merely translate at relatively rare moments of cross-cultural interaction, but embrace translatability in their own expressions of belief and devotion. The chapter also looks at the production of literature and identification of deities as “acts of resistance” aimed at preserving local identity in relation to dominant and dominating trends.

Chapter six looks at Jewish and Christian expressions on divine translatability in the Greco-Roman era, as well as sources outside these traditions which mention Iao (such as Macrobius’ Saturnalia and in magical spells). The changes in the Jerusalem temple in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes are also considered from the perspective of translatability, as is Philo’s logos. Another key identifying facet of monotheism is highlighted in this discussion: “[I]f Yahweh were removed from Jewish worship or its worldview, the entire system would collapse; the same cannot be claimed for a particular deity in the larger Greco-Roman context” (p.295). Smith’s insight here seems right, and could have been illustrated well with the example of the Vedic gods, who ceased to be the religious focus in Hinduism in later times.

Smith also considers Jewish mystical literature, which, like Philo’s talk of a “second god,” can at times sound like something other than monotheism. The dividing line delineating monotheism, Smith says, was not static, and “subject to religious and cultural renegotiation” (p.299).

Smith also includes discussion of early Christianity, with speeches in Acts considered as illustrating a remarkable willingness to translate divinity and to appeal to correspondences between Christian/Jewish and other traditions. Acts 14 offers an instance of very successful translation which was, from a Christian standpoint, unacceptable. Smith finds the highly translated presentation of Paul’s message in Acts 17 to be “barely Christian” (p.309), and he like many commentators before him
seems to be at a loss to know whether Paul’s actions depicted there are supposed to be considered a positive example. Part of the issue may be Smith’s assumption that Luke thought in terms of Jesus’ divinity. Pauline and pseudo-Pauline letters, with their mentions of “so-called gods” and “elemental powers,” are also discussed. The chapter ends with a recognition that, even after such a detailed and fascinating survey, the story of the development of the Biblical tradition in Jewish and Christian monotheism, in dialogue with one another and with the Greco-Roman tradition as well, was only just beginning.

The book’s epilogue returns first to Jan Assmann’s work, and sums up Smith’s critique. Smith then returns to the topic of the relationship between religious studies and theology, noting that now as in the recent past and in antiquity, the scholar’s role is often inseparable from forces of empire and hegemony. Although I found this brief discussion somewhat unsatisfying, it was not because I thought that Smith did not have helpful thoughts to offer, but because it seemed as though these would have made their point more effectively not as an epilogue to this book on divine translatability in antiquity, but as a substantive treatment of what is itself a substantial matter in its own right. But his key point comes across nevertheless, namely that the realm of scholarship cannot be neatly divided into biased insiders and dispassionate, innocent outsiders. And in the process, he articulates a key point that the public needs to be reminded of again and again regarding scholarship: “The academic tendency to qualify conclusions is not a failure of conviction but key to instructing readers about the limits of our knowledge and insight” (p.338).

Smith’s book is a valuable resource, full of insights and creative suggestions about familiar texts, as well as information about ones that will be unfamiliar to at least some readers (e.g. Papyrus Amherst 63, which features a translation/paraphrase of Psalm 20 into Aramaic, written in Demotic script, and substituting Horus for Yahweh). And so no one interested in either the matter of monotheism’s definition and origins, or the understanding of ancient Israelite or other Near Eastern religious traditions, can afford not to read this book. I highly recommend it.

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  • Michael Wilson

    It sounds really good. I’ve been wresling with the idea recently. i was trying to solve the question of how Yahweh got introduced to Israel, and when trying to state the question realized that all that was being introduced was a name and maybe a few new priestly famillies. In the bronze age people jumbled deities pretty regularly and i suspect when the first Israelites met the first Yahwehist and asked about their gods, the Israelites would simply report back, “they worship Baal (or El) but they call him Yahweh.”

  • Michael Wilson

    It sounds really good. I’ve been wresling with the idea recently. i was trying to solve the question of how Yahweh got introduced to Israel, and when trying to state the question realized that all that was being introduced was a name and maybe a few new priestly famillies. In the bronze age people jumbled deities pretty regularly and i suspect when the first Israelites met the first Yahwehist and asked about their gods, the Israelites would simply report back, “they worship Baal (or El) but they call him Yahweh.”

  • Anthony

    I am really perplexed on something.  I would understand if Mark Smith were an atheist or agnostic about the existence of God, but I don’t understand how he can make the assertion that the Israelites basically created their conception of god just like other ancient cultures, whose gods are now considered purely inventions, and still maintain a belief as a Catholic?  Any thoughts on how this is reconciliable?  Thanks

    • Anthony

      Just to clarify, I am not attacking Professor Smith in anyway, I am just curious as to how he maintains belief in the catholic tradition when his thesis portrays ancient israel in this light?

    • James F. McGrath

      I would like to respond by drawing on Tillich. When we realize that our concepts of God are human pointers to and symbols of transcendence, it is not as though we could then simply discard symbols altogether or replace them with ones that lack human origins and the inadequacies that come with them.

      I have not asked Mark about this and so let me emphasize that I am not speaking on his behalf, but speculating about how he might respond, by thinking about how I would respond and how others have addressed this same issue.