Students of Ancient Near Eastern religions and cultures have typically assumed that the peoples of the ANE operated, like ancient Israelites, with a dichotomy of holy and profane. Beate Pongratz-Leisten doubts this, both for Mesopotamia and for Israel. 

The notion that this dichotomy is a universal religious structures goes back to nineteenth and twentieth century comparative religious studies, which are still cites by biblical and ANE scholars for support. 

And behind this is, intriguingly, the dominant figure of Schleiermacher and his Romantic associates. Summarizing the philological work of E. Jan Wilson, Pongratz-Leisten writes, “Wilson’s narrow approach inevitably led him into misinterpretations such as the assertion that the Sumerians possessed a concept of holiness different from that of the Semites. By mapping his philological conclusions onto the diverse approaches of the studies of religion across almost a century separating W. Robertson Smith from M. Douglas, his own methodological approach remains eclectic and vague.” Even critics of Wilson’s these end up “succumbing to a definition of religion which makes empathy the precondition of understanding. This venue in the studies of religion had been essentially shaped by F. Schleiermacher during the Romantic era in his Reden über Religion.’ It has shaped especially German religious scholarship right up to the present” (413).

Liberal theology continues to be a force, if not in theology at least in ANE studies. What ANE studies needs is a strong dose of postliberalism.

(Pongratz-Leisten, “Reflections on the Translatability of the Notion of Holiness,” in Mikko Luukko, et. al., eds., Of God(s), Trees, Kings, and Scholars [Helsinki, 2009] 409-427.)

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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