[Paleopsych] Economist: Holy writ: It ain't necessarily so

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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
    written words.

    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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