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117 | 2019
Annuaire du Collège de France 2016-2017
Résumé des cours et travaux 117e année
Autres enseignements et recherches
IV. Conférenciers invités

Four conferences

David Carr
p. 667-671

Notes de la rédaction

Cycle de quatre conférences prononcées les 18, 24 et 31 mai et le 6 juin 2017 (invitation sur proposition du Pr Thomas Römer). Ces conférences sont disponibles en audio et vidéo sur le site internet du Collège de France :

Texte intégral

The origins of Biblical monotheism amidst the trauma of Assyrian attack and hegemony

1Though the story of the Bible places the origins of Israelite monotheism with Moses, the earliest datable evidence for biblical monotheism is found over 500 years after Moses in the prophecy of Hosea. Hosea is a prophet whose work is placed during the attack, subjugation and eventual destruction of Northern Israel by the Assyrian empire. In diverse ways Hosea built a case for rejection of other deities that constitutes the most distinctive religio-historical component of what will come to be called monotheism (following the definition of monotheism advanced in particular by Jan Assmann, e.g. Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus [Carl Hanser Verlag, 2003]).

2This chronological correlation of proto-monotheism in Hosea and the Neo-Assyrian period in Israelite history has long been clear to biblical scholars. The contribution of this lecture is to explain this correlation through the category of collective trauma. The thesis to be advanced is that Hosea’s proto-monotheistic prophetic message represented a distinctive processing of the collective trauma of eighth-century Israel. “Trauma” here is defined as “an overwhelming, haunting experience of disaster so explosive in its impact that it cannot be directly encountered and influences an individual/group’s behavior and memory in often indirect ways.”

3Though studies of trauma only emerged in the nineteenth century and generally have focused on individuals in the West, people in all cultures have experienced different forms of trauma, both collective and individual, for millennia. The reasons behind such explosive experiences of disaster are chronologically and culturally specific, as are some symptoms. Nevertheless, the experience of catastrophic breakdown of an individual psyche or collective group has been experienced by humans long before the emergence of trauma studies.

4Hosea’s prophecy represents a new way of responding to this age old experience. Appropriating the dominating rhetoric of the Assyrian overlords, Hosea called on his people to by loyal to their God alone, rather than directing sole loyalty to the Assyrian king. Where the Assyrian king required Israel and other nations to reject alliances with foreign nations, Hosea adapted this into a call for Israel to reject other gods as well. And where Assyrian used implicit gender imagery to enforce a female-like subservience of subject kings to the Assyrian monarch, Hosea imagined traumatized Israel as God’s disobedient wife, being called back into loyal relationship with her divine husband.

5This theological adaptation of Assyrian royal ideology represented a unique form of traumatic self-blame in response to the trauma of Assyrian destruction of the Israelite state. Where many early ancients might have blamed suffering on their failure to worship new or old gods enough, Hosea’s prophecy blamed his people’s trauma on having worshiped non-Yahwistic gods too much. Eventually his own people was destroyed, but his words were carried forward by Israel’s neighboring people, Judah, and incorporated in the Judean Bible, what became the Old Testament, as Judah processed its own traumas in subsequent centuries. With time Hosea’s proto-monotheism, forged amidst Israelite trauma, became the prototype for the Abrahamic faiths.

The reorientation of the Judean scriptures amidst the trauma of exile in Babylon: The cases of the daughter of Zion and the suffering servant

6Land is to a people as a body is to a person. As for many people who are displaced today, the forcible removal of Judean exiles from their land in the sixth century was a “disembodiment,” a traumatizing near-death experience. Its effects surpassed even the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and its supposedly invulnerable temple. The Bible hardly speaks of it. Instead, the exile of Judeans to Babylon represents a gap in biblical prophecy and history. Much as individual trauma survivors cannot remember or speak of the event that traumatized them, biblical history goes up to the narration of the destruction of Jerusalem and initial exile, and then resumes decades later when the Babylonians are defeated and Judeans begin to be allowed to return home.

7Scholars have long hypothesized that this largely unknown period was a crucial one in the development of Israelite religion and textuality. This lecture explores the traumatic impact of exile on Judean exiles by way of two sets of texts connected to the period: images of daughter Zion in Lamentations and Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) and the image of God’s suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It will be argued that these images of suffering individuals provided exiled Judeans with a way of depicting and processing a form of exilic trauma that they could not speak of directly. It was a form of collective “screen memory.”

The rise of the biblical Torah as a case of traumatic screen memory: The cases of Abraham and Moses

8One of the most important developments in the last century of Pentateuchal scholarship is the realization that the basic shape of the Torah/Pentateuch emerged during (and after) the Babylonian empire’s exile of elite Judeans to Babylon during the sixth century BCE. Though the Pentateuch/Torah certainly contains pre-exilic traditions, those traditions did not come together into a broader narrative until the exile, and the exile and later was when that broader Torah narrative became the scriptural center of the Judean/Israelite people.

9This lecture explores some specific ways in which the Torah stories of Abraham and Moses appear to have been adapted to express and process the traumatic experience of Judean exiles. In particular, the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) combines a depiction of vulnerability with affirmation of hope that speaks to the experience of displaced peoples. Similarly, the story of Moses, which is told parallel to the story of his people, both depicts intense vulnerability to random violence and yet expresses a faith in some form of survival.

10This combination of suffering and hope illustrates exiled Judah’s solution to a key challenge for trauma survivors: embracing the reality of survival in the wake of seemingly random escape from death. Moreover, we see in the biblical/exilic form of the Abraham and Mosaic traditions an increasing focus on the idea of the people’s “election”—God’s choosing of them as God’s special people. Much as contemporary individuals who survive trauma come to seize their future by believing their survival was meant to help them serve a special purpose, the Judean exiles became increasingly convinced that God chose them out of all nations of the earth as a “treasured possession.”

11In addition, the development of the Torah story and its concept of election involved a unique and important development: the people of Judah increasingly identified themselves with the traditions and name of the nation of “Israel.” It has been well documented that in traumatized families the parents unconsciously transfer onto a younger sibling the hopes and expectations that they once had for the child that was lost. That younger child becomes a “replacement child” for the older sibling that was lost, sometimes even adopting the name of the deceased brother or sister. In this case exiles from Judah, originally a people distinct from northern Israel, took on the name and identity of its sibling, “Israel,” who didn’t make it. The original “Israel” had been destroyed over a century earlier in the time of Hosea. Now Judean exiles used traditions of Torah—many originating in that lost Israelite people—to imagine themselves as a chosen “Israel” who would survive.

The origins of Christianity and Judaism as divergent responses to Roman trauma

12Contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity represent two fundamentally different religious developments out of the trauma of Roman destruction of Second Temple Judaism and the gradual dissolution of diverse, older forms of diaspora Judaism. Before this destruction, Jews both inside and outside Palestine were religiously diverse, sharing little more than an allegiance of some kind to the Torah of Moses and an orientation to the temple in Jerusalem. The movement following Jesus (not yet a “church”) and formed around his memory after his death was just one group in a pluralistic Jewish context that also included the populist Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and others.

13This pluralistic Judaism came to an end in the late first century. When the Jews of Palestine staged a temporarily successful revolt against the Romans in 66 CE, the emperor Vespasian dispatched his son, Titus, along with several Roman legions to make an example of the Jews. His destruction of Jerusalem and subjugation of the Jewish people was then commemorated by the arch of Titus in Rome and coins circulated throughout the realm. The Jewish people became an example of what was done to those who rebelled against Roman rule.

14The precursor to contemporary Judaism, early rabbinic Judaism, was born in the coastal town of Jabneh, where Romans had settled various people who surrendered to Roman forces during their onslaught. The scholars there and their successors developed a post-temple form of rabbinic Judaism that could survive the loss of the temple and expulsion from Jerusalem. As part of this, they began developing a body of oral law (first precursors to the Mishnah; later the Talmuds and exegetical literature) through which post-temple Jews could live as a pure, holy people of God.

15Jews continued to be viewed with suspicion, however, especially after the wars against Rome in Palestine and various riots between them. Josephus reports a couple of cases where Jewish diaspora communities were damaged by the actions of anti-Roman radicals that came in their midst. The Roman historian, Tacitus, derided Jews as “the worst rascals among other peoples, renouncing their ancestral religions” and conceiving “of one god only.” Nevertheless, as long as rabbinic Jews kept to themselves and did not try to convert others to their ways, they were grudgingly tolerated.

16Meanwhile, the movement of Jews who had gathered around Jesus (and his memory) took a different route. Partly as the result of the missionary work of the apostle Paul and others like him, the Jesus movement attracted a sizable contingent of gentile believers. Consistent with the ancient Jewish insistence on monotheism, these believers were required to give up their worship of gods, including imperial gods. From a Roman perspective, this monotheistic evangelization by Jesus-followers was deeply problematic. It represented a form of malignant monotheism that could influence good Roman citizens to give up worship of the gods. To be sure, it is likely that later stories about widespread Roman persecution of Christians are generally fictional. Nevertheless, the nascent Jesus movement came into conflict both with other local Jewish groups, and individual Christians were vulnerable to prosecution by their neighbors for failing to worship Roman gods.

17The situation was fluid up through the first century CE, but—contrary to some attempts to place the separation of Judaism and Christianity much later in the common era—it appears that the basic contours of the Jewish-“Christian” split were already put in place in the turn of the century. This is when a tax on the Jews was defined (during the reign of Domitian) as applying only to those Jews who followed the Torah. Since many Jesus Jews did not follow customs like circumcision, the Roman law implicitly defined them as non-Jews. This, however, did not let them off the hook. Increasingly, those who believed in the resurrected Jesus were castigated as a new breed of religious weirdo, “Christians,” who followed a “Christ” who had been crucified as a revolutionary against Rome. Thus was born a Roman-defined class of non-Jewish Christians, who found themselves taking up their “cross” in facing hostility from their non-Christian neighbors.

18In the end, out of Roman trauma came two separate religions: an increasingly dominant rabbinic Judaism and an increasingly gentile Christianity. Rabbinic Judaism built, as mentioned, on concepts of holy peoplehood that originated in Judah’s earlier, exilic trauma. These concepts proved amazingly resilient, not just in the face of Roman trauma, but encountering and surviving centuries of later gentile persecution of Judaism. Meanwhile, the largely gentile Jesus Jewish church proved incredibly successful in its missionary efforts. Initially, just a tiny, messianic movement in Judaism, “Christians” eventually formed a substantial part of the population of the late Roman empire, significantly larger than rabbinic Judaism and any other forms of Judaism that survived the Jewish wars. In this sense the Romans were right to fear that Christianity might end up replacing traditional local and imperial religion. In time, it did.

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Annuaire du Collège de France 2016-2017. Résumé des cours et travaux 117e année, Paris, Collège de France, septembre 2019, p. 667-671. ISBN 978-2-7226-0489-6

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David Carr, « Four conferences », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 117 | 2019, mis en ligne le 04 juin 2020, consulté le 18 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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David Carr

Professor of Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary, New York (États-Unis)

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Collège de France

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