The Cult Statue Is and Is Not the Deity

BaalThorkild Jacobsen’s contribution to the Frank Moore Cross Festschrift, “The Graven Image,” makes the following observation after discussing one set of texts that shows the cult statue was identified with the deity and then another set that shows the cult statue was not the deity (p. 18):

The contradiction of is and is not in the matter of the cult statue is so flagrant and cuts so deep that there must seem to be little hope of resolving it unless one goes to the most basic levels of understanding and attempts to gain clarity about the very fundamentals of ancient thought, about what exactly “being” and “nonbeing” meant to the ancients. We must consider, if only briefly, the ontology of the ancients, their ideas of what constituted “being” and “reality,” their criteria for judgment of true and false.

While it’s certainly true that one must retreat to the ancients’ fundamental conceptualizations of their identity and the world around them, I would suggest that framing it as ontology and “being” v. “nonbeing” is imposing contemporary categories precisely where we’re trying to see beyond them (I would suggest Bauckham commits the same presentism when he defines “identity” for his “Divine Identity” christology according to what we understand “identity” to entail today). In the ancient world, the concern was not so much for ontology as for social role and function. This draws less firm boundaries than we’re used to and makes it possible for the statue to both “be” and “not be” the deity, at least insofar as we understand “being” and “nonbeing.”


2 responses to “The Cult Statue Is and Is Not the Deity

  • arcseconds

    It seems to me that there’s a similar and related problem with seeing ancient peoples’ (and even many contemporary cultures’) attitudes towards texts.

    Modern society has only really has two categories: non-fiction (literal truth as one finds in a science textbook… it might not be true, of course, but it aims to be true and is treated as being true by most readers), and fiction (just a story). Of course many people attempt to be more sophisticated than this, but these are the categories that are ready-to-hand, these are the categories that people find it most natural to fall back to (e.g. fundamentalists and their atheist critics) and trying for anything else ends up being rather difficult.

    But it seems reasonably clear to me that these are modern categories, and while of course ancient people presumably did think in terms of literal truth (you really did kill my father, which is why you need to prepare to die now) and knew some stories to be ‘just stories’, it seems that their attitude towards myth was often neither, or both, or something.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, or anyone who has been able to elucidate productive ways of thinking about it?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I think that’s an insightful comment. The centrality of authoritative or sacred texts to religions is a modern and Western construction that distorts the picture when we look at non-Western cultures and most all ancient cultures. The texts were not authorities back then, nor were they thought of in terms of completely “true” or completely “false.” That dichotomy is an Enlightenment era innovation. A book from the 60s called The Meaning and End of Religion made the following observation: “In 1500 if one asked about a person, ejusne philosophia vera est? this would have meant, ‘Is his love of wisdom genuine?’ Came the Enlightenment, and it meant (and means), ‘Is his philosophy true?'”

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