[Paleopsych] Economist: Holy writ: It ain't necessarily so
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Wed Jan 12 23:23:14 UTC 2005
Holy writ: It ain't necessarily so
Dec 29th 2004
Why people of the book have such trouble with language, truth and
"AND it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from
Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing
was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to
be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from
Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of
David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and
lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being
great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days
were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth
her firstborn son..."
Whatever meaning this well-known version of the Christmas story may
have, it does not seem to be very accurate history. Father Jerome
Murphy-O'Connor, a distinguished biblical scholar, lists the
difficulties he sees. First, it is said elsewhere in the New
Testament--and this is central to the story--that Jesus was born in
the last days of his would-be persecutor King Herod, who died in 4BC.
(The Christian system for dating Christ's birth was established at
least three centuries later, so an error of a few years is not
surprising.) But according to Josephus, a secular historian, the big
census around that time (and the start of Cyrenius's governorship)
took place in what Christians would call the "year of our Lord" 6 or,
as today's secular historians now prefer, 6CE (common era).
The problems do not stop there. For example, when the Romans counted
their people, they insisted that everyone had to stay put, so a
last-minute dash from one city to another seems unlikely. And as a
protectorate under Herod, Palestine would not automatically have been
included in an imperial census.
As a Dominican monk, whose views on some things, such as the virgin
birth of Christ, are conservative, Father Jerome is unfazed by these
contradictions. "The Gospels should be read spiritually, but with
critical intelligence," he believes. Given that the two main accounts
of Christ's birth--those of Matthew and Luke--are inconsistent, he
prefers to rely mainly on the first, which moves from Christ's origins
in Bethlehem to his upbringing, after an interlude in Egypt, in
Nazareth. Moreover, in all the biblical material about Christ's
beginnings, Father Jerome and other scholars see a deeper meaning:
Christ is both a blue-blooded monarch from the royal city of
Bethlehem, and a poor boy from the hardscrabble town of Nazareth from
which nobody expected anything good. Even under the watchful eye of
Pope John Paul II, who has reaffirmed the unchangeability of the
truths maintained by the church, and the church's role as interpreter
of the Bible, such bold readings of the New Testament are permissible.
"What the church insists on is the spiritual message of the Bible, not
its literal truth," says Father Jerome. If ordinary literal-minded
worshippers said he was undermining their faith, he would conclude
they were the victims of "bad preaching" and point out the
impossibility of believing every word of an internally inconsistent
By no means all Christians would subscribe to this approach. For the
70m or 80m people in the United States who call themselves
evangelicals, the Bible is "the inspired, the only infallible,
authoritative word of God", according to a definition by America's
National Association of Evangelicals. So whenever the Bible seems
inconsistent with beliefs held on other grounds, the instinct of an
evangelical is to insist that the contradiction must be apparent,
rather than real. Either secular historians are mistaken, or there has
been some simple and easily rectifiable mistake--such as the
mistranslation of a word--in the reading of scripture. Somehow the
information received from holy writ and the evidence from other
sources must be made to fit; and if that cannot be done, then the
non-scriptural information must be dismissed.
One product of such intellectual contortions is "creation science" and
an insistence on the literal truth of the proposition that God took
seven days to create the world, with the evidence from fossils as a
kind of decorative, but confusing, extra. Even wackier, from the
secular viewpoint, is America's "biblical astronomy" movement which
insists, under the guidance of a Dutch-born astrophysicist, Gerardus
Bouw, that the sun goes round the Earth.
Even Jellicle cats?
Not all the adherents of evangelicalism would go that far. But most
would assert that one of the biggest mistakes of Roman Catholic and
Orthodox Christian teaching is their insistence on reading the Bible
in the light of a sacred tradition, instead of going straight to the
text. A Catholic or Orthodox Christian would retort that behind the
evangelicals' approach lies a sort of muddled arrogance: it is not the
Bible itself to which they are giving a virtually divine status, but
their own, arbitrary interpretation of the text, which allows no debt
to the spiritual labours of past generations.
In some form or other, these inter-Christian quarrels sound familiar
to everybody who treats a sacred text as the ultimate guide and
inspiration for life, but also acknowledges other kinds of truth--the
sort of truth based on empirical investigation, or everyday common
sense. The problem arises in particularly acute form for the three
faiths that profess belief in one God who made a covenant with
Abraham, Moses and Noah.
It is true that the great Asian religions, Hinduism, for example, have
a deep attachment to their sacred writings. But they also seem to
assert, rather freely and unself-consciously, that the events
described in, say, the Bhagavad-Gita (one of India's great religious
poems) were unfolding on a different plane from everyday, banal
reality. While allowing that these two planes-- Earthly and
divine--may intersect, adherents of Asia's faiths appear to negotiate
more easily between different levels of reality. For the monotheistic
religions, the status, origins and interpretation of scripture have
always proved trickier.
Why so? Perhaps because quite a lot of what these writings say is
presented as historical fact, unfolding in a particular landscape.
They speak of a God, ultimately beyond time and space, who nonetheless
intervenes in human history at specific moments and places. They also
tell of a God who spoke to man in words--words drawn from human
language, but pointing to a reality transcending the human world.
Directly or indirectly, the words of scripture are the word of God.
What place for the profane?
That leads to hard questions about where these scriptural words stand
in relation to other kinds of words, and other kinds of truth. If
believers insist on fencing off the words of scripture from all
pronouncements in human language, then how can the words of scripture
be discussed or interpreted? Is it possible to use "profane" or
non-sacred words and methods to analyse, and understand better, a
sacred text? And if it is not possible, how can a sacred text ever be
understood? These are dilemmas that no follower of the Middle Eastern
monotheisms can avoid.
All the monotheistic faiths have traditions and liturgical practices
that underline the radical difference between a sacred text and any
other form of writing and language. Nowhere is that clearer than in
Islam, which teaches that the words of the Koran were dictated by the
angel Gabriel to Muhammad over 22 years, early in the seventh century.
For any well-instructed Muslim, savouring the beauty of the Koran's
classical Arabic is an overwhelming spiritual experience. A seminal
moment in Islam's early days was the experience of Umar, who began
life as a polytheist but later became caliph. On hearing the Arabic
verses, he reported, "My heart was softened and I wept, and Islam
entered into me." In some degree, this describes every Muslim
believer's experience. For a faith that insists on the impossibility
of seeing God or representing God, the words of the Koran are the
nearest that most believers get to experiencing the divine.
There is a corresponding reverence for any paper or manuscript on
which the Koran is written. Devout Muslims kiss the Koran before
praying and are offended by the careless treatment of a book or even a
single sheet of paper on which holy words are written. Looking at the
mosaics of Christ, and the Arabic calligraphy, in Istanbul's Haghia
Sophia--by turns a church, a mosque and now a museum--you would think
the difference between Christianity and Islam was simple: the former
was a religion of pictures and the latter a religion of beautifully
Beliefs about the origins of scripture, and the right way to handle
holy texts (literally and metaphorically), are also at the heart of
the religion of ancient Israel. Orthodox Jews believe the first five
books of the Hebrew scriptures, the Torah, were revealed to Moses on
Mount Sinai. Another tradition holds that after the Jews returned from
exile in Babylon, the scribe Ezra was enabled by divine inspiration to
reconstruct the 24 holy books of the Hebrew scriptures, along with
many other writings that were too sacred for most human beings to
receive. In traditional Jewish practice, a manuscript of the Torah is
too precious to touch. It lies under a kind of mantle when carried in
procession, and is often topped by a crown and a sort of high-priest's
When words are as holy as that, you may ask, how can you even talk
about them in ordinary language? Fortunately, perhaps, the Jewish
tradition has its own answer: what Moses received was not merely the
words of the Torah, but a body of oral law that provides guidance on
how to understand and put into practice the truths of holy writ. For
most Jews, this oral law set the basis for a creative legal tradition:
it made it possible for rabbis in subsequent eras to interpret the
Jewish revelation in practical ways, taking due account of
Where exactly the line should be drawn between "the Torah made in
heaven" and "the Torah not in heaven"--human interpretation--is
something Jews have always argued about. But their tradition at least
offers a framework in which such arguments can take place.
The hazards of secular scholarship
Muslims insist that their tradition also makes full use of reason and
intellectual rigour in the understanding of sacred texts. In the early
Middle Ages, when Christianity and Islam were struggling to find ways
to reconcile divine revelation with human reason and investigation,
Islam often seemed to fare better. There is intellectual discipline,
of a specialised kind, in the tradition of inquiry into the
authenticity of the hadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet. But all
this tradition is based on one central premise: the authenticity of
God's revelation to the Prophet, and the accuracy of the Koran as a
rendering of that revelation in language both human and divine.
Can there be any meeting-point between those who believe in that
book's divine origins and those who see it as a text like any other,
to be analysed, deconstructed and set in historic context? And with
due allowance for the failure of all translations, can there be any
debate between Muslims and non-Muslims over what amounts to a
relatively good rendering of the Koran into another tongue?
For Muslims who also aspire to be scholars in the secular world, these
are difficult issues. In many parts of the Muslim world, merely asking
open questions about the origins of the Koran would guarantee the
inquirer an abbreviated life. Yet secular scholars do study the Koran,
though most keep their heads down or write under a pseudonym. Many of
these academics come from Germany, where secular analysis of the
Jewish and Christian scriptures was born in the 19th century. For
example, scholars at Saarland University have been analysing evidence
from a huge stack of mouldering Arabic documents, discovered in Yemen
in 1972. These promise, in the scholars' view, to show the Koran as an
evolving rather than a static work. One bold German-based academic,
writing under the pen name of Christoph Luxenberg, believes he has
discovered a hitherto unsuspected influence of the Aramaic language,
and of the teaching of Syrian Christians, on the Koran.
To say that the historically Muslim world is reluctant to examine the
Koran and its origins in the spirit of secular academia would be
putting it mildly. "Interrogating the text in this way is a very
sensitive matter, and even if the interrogators are Muslim, there are
significant red lines," says Suha Taji-Farouki, the editor of a new
set of essays on the Koran. Still, the very fact such a work has been
published by a Muslim institution--the Institute for Ismaili Studies
(IIS)--in partnership with Britain's Oxford University Press is a sign
of growing, if gingerly, Muslim interest in engaging with academia.
The case of the grapes and virgins
Mohammad Arkoun, of the University of Paris, has long thought that
Islam should "assume the modern risks of scientific knowledge",
arguing that Islamic tradition itself contains ample ground for a more
open-minded approach to the Koran. His work is discussed in "Modern
Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an", a new collection of essays, some
of which look at Islam's holy writ in the arcane terms of literary
theory. This book tests the outer limits of a critical approach to
sacred text--at least for those who are not shy of jargon and can tell
heuristics from hermeneutics.
Some Muslim academics with a deep belief in the Koran as revealed
truth have reservations about over-using secular tools. For them,
using insights from, say, linguistics or sociology is legitimate as
far as it goes--but may miss the point. Such tools can help define the
form God's revelation assumed, but not in disclosing the content of
the revelation, says Reza Shah-Kazemi, another IIS scholar, who will
argue in a forthcoming book for the primacy of "spiritual exegesis"
over other kinds. He takes the traditional view that only prayerful
contemplation, and an ear for the inner as well as the outer meanings,
can help discern the deeper significance of holy writ.
Some Christian scholars make a similar point: reducing Bible study to
literary criticism is about as sensible as studying a religious icon
by analysing the chemical composition of its paint, or concentrating
on the carpentry of a Stradivarius violin instead of enjoying the
music. While untroubled, these days, by violence, the relationship
between "faith and the academy" is not an easy one in the Christian
world. In the theology departments of western universities there is a
sullen truce at best between those whose aim is to deconstruct the
Bible in the light of modern theories, from semiotics to feminism, and
those who say that biblical studies should be of some value to those
(such as the clergy) who will put them to professional use.
In any event, the terms of western academia's truce between the
secular and religious are different from anything in the Muslim world.
Nobody in a western university would argue for the truth of a
statement on the sole ground that the Bible, or church tradition,
asserted it. That may be good; but the resulting climate leaves no
middle ground between naive fundamentalism and a secularism that
refuses to engage with religious experience.
To which a secularist may ask, so what? Is there any reason why people
who believe in none of the Abrahamic religions should follow their
debates on how to read holy writ? In fact, there is. Take one example
from Islam: Mr Luxenberg argues that the rewards the Koran promises to
martyrs for their faith when they get to heaven is not "virgins" (72
of them) but a word that means "grapes" or "white fruit". In a world
where suicide-bombers are urged on by delectable prizes, that is a
translation that matters.
Now a case from Christianity. Many evangelicals stress an apocalyptic
verse in the second epistle of Peter which ends: "the Earth also and
the works that are therein shall be burned up." If it's all going to
be consumed by fire, some evangelicals say, then why worry about
pollution or climate change? But the oldest existing version of the
New Testament, long preserved at St Catherine's monastery on Mount
Sinai and now (most of it) in the British Library, has a different
Greek verb for the Earth's fate: evretesetai, not katakaesetai.
Instead of being burned up, the Earth will be uncovered, its true
nature exposed. That, too, is a difference worth studying, for both
believers and everyone else.
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