Biblical Monotheism and Translating the First Commandment in the Chinese Context

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: Archaeology, Babylonian, biblical archaeology, Biblical Monotheism, Chinese, First Commandment, Haihua Tian, Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem Temple, Jewish, Noble Group Fellow, Sichuan University
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Haihua Tian

By: Haihua Tian, Sichuan University, Noble Group Fellow

Archaeology plays a significant social scientific role in understanding the world of the Bible. During my tenure as a Noble Group Fellow at the Albright Institute, I had a great opportunity to look closely at the Land of the Bible through a number of field trips to a variety of archaeological sites related to the religion of ancient Israel. The Hebrew Bible provides a basic narrative for understanding our perception of monotheism. From the account in the Bible, however, it is obvious that monotheism was not the first belief system expressed by man. There are many traces of polytheism in the Bible.The patriarchal groups had no knowledge of YHWH and worshipped the “god of the father.” Gradually, Yahwism, a local cult in the southern desert, was integrated with the attributes and functions of the god El, a chief of the Canaanite pantheon. During the First Temple period, YHWH was the exclusive national deity of the people of Israel as reflected in the First Commandment (Exod.20:3; Deut.5:7) and the Shema (Deut.6:4), texts that do not deny the existence of other gods.

Monolatrous Yahwism has changed over time. With the religious reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, YHWH’s sanctuary was exclusively the Jerusalem Temple. The rise of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian empires led to serious religious reflection on Yahweh’s power over different nations. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and resettled the Israelite political and religious elites. The Judahite exiles experienced a deep and painful crisis in Yahwism: they no longer lived in the place of Yahweh, and the temple of their god YHWH lay in ruins in Jerusalem. Yet Marduk and other gods, “objects of wood and stone” were worshipped throughout Babylonia. With the loss of identity as a nation, Yahwism was plunged into a crisis, which changed Israel’s understanding of the national god, the universe and themselves. The prophet Deutero-Isaiah, who lived in Babylonia in the second half of the 6th century BCE, gave Yahwism a universal expression in absolute terms, and biblical monotheism was born.

However, such monotheism was not accepted immediately by the Jewish community. Many exiles had adopted Babylonian gods. During the time of the Persian Empire, Jewish leaders emphasized the transcendent and universal character of YHWH, which made this concept of God increasingly general. The Jewish community from Elephantine (5th century BCE), for example, regarded YHWH as the God of Heaven. Meanwhile, the sacrifice of animals to the Jerusalem Temple, which was a strictly limited and empty aniconism, became the norm. By the 1st century BCE, the name YHWH could no longer be pronounced and did not appear in the late biblical literature of the Persian or Hellenistic periods. The destruction of the Herodian Temple in 70 C.E. meant the end of Yahwism. Judaism was now a religion of universal monotheism.

The biblical God originated in ancient western Asia, but worship of YHWH “took a detour” to Europe and America before it was brought back to Asia in the 19th century. Thus, it is interesting that when the biblical God reached China and other Asian countries in the form of Christianity through contemporary missionary activities, very little of the original western Asian characteristics remained. Instead, this deity evolved under the auspices of western Christians to meet the needs of Western culture and the Church. In the Chinese context, with its great varieties of religious traditions, the theological and ideological presuppositions of translators have greatly shaped the reading of the First Commandment. The cultic statement, “not putting other gods before me” has been translated into a decidedly monotheistic statement: “you shalt have no other gods besides me.” Moreover, there is the issue of equating the Western image of “dragon” with the Chinese notion of “long.” The former is the great sea-monster in ancient western Asian mythology, but the latter is a symbol of a beneficial mythical animal, bringing power and prosperity to humankind. However, the mismatch of the western “dragon” in the Bible with the Chinese “long” has given rise to discourses on the demonization of Chinese culture and the subversion of the other as not only pagan, but ultimately evil and satanic. This issue alone has had a great cultural impact on western conceptions of Chinese civilization.

The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann argues for the concept of the Mosaic distinction, which is the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between one true god and many false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief and disbelief. The highly differentiated members of polytheistic pantheons easily lend themselves to cross-cultural translation. Thus, translatability means that the deities are explicitly identified with one another. The translatability of God, however,was blocked by the Mosaic distinction because false gods can not be translated. Violence is inherent in the exclusion of other gods. In a cross-cultural context with polytheistic tradition, if the biblical God is against Chinese culture, which was demonized as the dragon, translatability of a monotheistic God was not attained, as God was lost in the Chinese translation.

I would like to give special thanks to the Albright Institute and the Noble Group for establishing a fellowship for Chinese scholars and giving me this great opportunity to study in Jerusalem. I am really honored. Thanks to the fellows for their companionship, friendship, and scholarship during my stay. I have had a wonderful time, with a lot of beautiful memories.



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