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Robert Kawashima

2013 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship

Professor Robert Kawashima used his 2013 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to continue work on his book manuscript The Archaeology of Ancient Israelite Knowledge. Kawashima’s book examines the intellectual-historical significance of Israelite religion within the context of the ancient Mediterranean world. Dr. Kawashima investigates what is often referred to as the monotheistic revolution and, in particular, ancient Israelite religious thought from the monarchical period (1000-586 B.C.E.). Invoking Foucault’s historical-epistemological project, the “archaeology of knowledge,” Kawashima argues that ancient Israelite religion, breaking with the system of myth, existed as a distinct system of knowledge for several centuries until the dawn of Jewish apocalypticism (perhaps as early as the 5th century B.C.E.). In this way, ancient Israelite thought paved the way for that Jewish apocalyptic sect now known as early Christianity, and thus occupies a significant place in the intellectual history of the West.

Kawashima uses Foucault’s concept of “archaeology” to distinguish his thesis from the standard treatment of Israel’s monotheistic revolution. According to this view, monotheism gradually evolves out of polytheism by a process of theological subtraction (from many gods to One). In light of Foucault’s work, Kawashima argues instead that biblical tradition constitutes a break within the history of thought, a sudden transformation of the concept of “god,” to give one example. Instead of using the traditional linear perspective, Kawashima suggests (using Foucault’s metaphor) that each system of thought can be viewed as a distinct or discrete layer of the history of knowledge, separate from any continual evolution of past or future knowledge systems. One cannot speak, then, of a continuous process or progression in ideas; one must rather reckon with the sudden appearance of ruptures or breaks in thought, intellectual revolutions.

Kawashima’s approach also questions the “apologetic” nature of earlier studies of the distinctiveness of biblical tradition. Just as Foucault was an infamous agnostic regarding the truth value of the human sciences, so too Kawashima’s analysis of biblical tradition is secular or agnostic in regard to the truth claims of various religious systems. “God,” for example, is not an innate transcendental idea shared by all humans and all cultures. Nor is it an idea that slowly discovers the “true” God. Rather, it is a concept variously constructed with different religious traditions. The Hebrew “Elohim” (God) may be a cognate of Ugaritic “El,” and Israel’s Yahweh may share superficial features with Canaan’s Baal, but they are discrete and distinct concepts. It is through the archaeology of knowledge that one can recognize the distinctiveness of the Bible’s conception of God without presuming the supposed superiority of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.

Dr. Kawashima’s project not only revolutionizes the study of Israelite religion; it also, more broadly speaking, proposes a different “archaeological” approach to the history of religion, thanks in part to the generous support of the Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship.