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October 16, 2009

Mark Smith of New York University to Speak on the Origins of Biblical Monotheism

Early Israel had a pantheon of gods, he says

Mark S. Smith, Skirball Professor of Bible and professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, will deliver a talk entitled “God and the Origins of Biblical Monotheism” 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26, in the auditorium of Kirby Hall of Civil Rights.

Free and open to the public, the event is sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies under the auspices of the Lyman Coleman Fund. The department also will bring Robert Segal, professor of religious studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, to campus to speak on “Hollywood Stars as Gods: Bringing Myth Back to the World” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, in Kirby Hall.

Smith’s areas of interest and expertise include the history of Israelite and ancient Near Eastern religion, the representation of deities and divinity in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East from the Bronze Age to the Greco-Roman period, narrative literature of the Hebrew Bible and West Semitic texts, and Ugaritic literature and religion.

In his talk, Smith will demonstrate that, despite the common view that Israel was monotheistic, the worship of a single god developed in a particular historical and social context in the 7th-6th centuries BCE. Early Israel actually had a pantheon of gods first conceived as a divine family, and that pantheon changed over time. The monotheistic model emerged as a reflection in the divine sphere of a remarkable new mode of social and political identification on the human plane. The power of this model resulted in collective amnesia: Israel forgot its polytheistic origins, barely reflected in the Bible as we know it.

Smith is the author of The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of God in Ancient Israel, published in 2004 by Fortress Press; The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford University Press, 2001); and The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Harper & Row, 1990), in addition to many other scholarly publications.

He is a two-time recipient of NYU’s Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and received the Frank Moore Cross Publications Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research, among other awards and accolades.

Smith holds a Ph.D. from Yale. He earned three master’s degrees at Harvard Divinity School and one from Catholic University. He did his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins.

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