Jacob and self-loathing

When I see a lot of academic attempts at looking at the Scriptures, including a lot of recent LDS attempts, I am reminded of the difference between interesting and important. Some stuff doesn’t even reach the level of interesting, of course, but some stuff does and I like thinking about it – things like chronology and so on.

But that isn’t really the point of the scriptures, as much fun as those things can be. Likewise things like historical issues can largely fall into this area. Knowing people existed and so their testimonies are real is important of course – otherwise the additional witness of Christ as presented by those of 3 Nephi 11:15 or Moroni’s own witness in Ether 12:39 is meaningless. But the exact cultural and geographical context, and things like that isn’t the important thing. What is important is that the scriptures are the word of God, containing revelation from him, that is meant to both kindle faith and change our lives. If we read or study the scriptures and come across nothing that affects our own lives, we have wasted our time.

There’s lots of ways we can encourage that, but one I’ve been reminded of lately is captured by the statement of Brigham Young that “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so…” (DBY, 128). I feel that one thing we can do is to find ourselves in the scriptures, by studying and then learning from the examples, both good and bad, we find within. When I read the lives of these individuals, I often find myself seeing things I can learn – examples to emulate, to beware and sometimes to endure. One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is what I learn from the people in it, and how honest the book is about human predicaments. The Book of Mormon is in some ways quite different from the Old Testament, and tends to be a lot less subtle about conveying its major points, but it can also be very sophisticated, much more than is recognised, about what it is saying about the people within it.

Copyright 2014 by Elspeth Young, All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Al Young Studios.

So I turn to the example provoking this post – namely Jacob, the brother of Nephi. He is such a different person in his voice from Nephi that I’m surprised not to see more comments on it. Nephi, while he does have his burdens (see 2 Nephi 4:15-35), carries in himself in a quite bombastic, enthusiastic and determined way, to the extent that I have often joked that I don’t know I would have liked him if I had known him. Jacob however comes across as a very different individual.

Jacob, for one thing, is very sensitive to the feelings of those to whom he preaches. While Nephi, faced with his brothers comments, meets them with the truthful but blunt ‘the guilty taketh the truth to be hard’ (1 Nephi 15:2), Jacob is almost solicitous in his comment that “…behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up souls if you were pure?’ (2 Nephi 9:47). Jacob’s sensitivity extends to concern that his necessary words may hurt the feelings of those of his audience who are the victims, rather than the commissioners of sin:

…it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children… it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea the word which healeth the wounded soul. Wherefore it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained… to admonish you according your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of healing and consoling their wounds; and those who have been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2:7-10)

There is no other passage in the Book of Mormon quite like this.

However, what I find most striking about Jacob is what I see as his lack of self-assurance. Contrast his comments to Sherem with Alma’s confrontation with Korihor. Alma is typically robust: ‘This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.’ (Alma 30:49). Jacob however is keen to emphasise that the decision is not in his hands: ‘Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.’ (Jacob 7:14).

Yet perhaps the clearest expression of this comes in 2 Nephi 9, where Jacob is talking of the Final Judgement:

Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness. (2 Nephi 9:14)

Perhaps unnoticed here amid the terror of the concept of a perfect memory is that Jacob includes himself (‘we’ and ‘our’) amongst the wicked. Yet there is nothing we know that would agree with that assessment – quite the opposite when one factors not only his teachings but his revelations and encounters with angels (2 Nephi 10:3, Jacob 4:6). Yet it seems he mentally cannot bring himself to class himself amongst the righteous. When one adds his closing words, the impression is of a man that – despite his undoubted righteousness – did not always feel happy and may well have felt quite insecure about himself:

…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7:26)

All this is built to some degree on some slender threads, but it does speak to a sometimes common dilemma. Jacob’s self perception appears to have been at odds with his actual standing as an individual and with God. And for some of us that can be an issue – that however much we know of God’s will, and however much we might actually be serving at that time, we still feel deeply inadequate: unsure of our standing before God or those we care about, and all too conscious of at least some of our mortal frailties, and perhaps deeply afraid that people will finally see us the way we see ourselves, or worse that we have whole other faults we’re completely unaware of but that everyone else really is. And while God is certainly capable of piercing those feelings – and on occasion does – many of the well-meaning suggestions people have for dealing with such feelings fall short.

If my reading is right, Jacob – like others – may have struggled with such feelings all his life. Yet what his example can teach us is that despite what he may have felt, he served courageously anyway. And despite what he may have felt, we know differently, and can be sure that God feels differently, and perhaps we can hope that he now knows differently, and knows as he is known (1 Corinthians 13:12). And for those of us who do struggle with such feelings, perhaps we can remember that some of God’s noblest children may have felt the same, yet were wrong. That our self perception is flawed, that despite our inadequacies and fears we can serve, and serve well, and that in the final accounting before God may see things quite differently, and far more kindly, than we can imagine.

Edit: Embarassing mind blip removed!

What are the humanities for?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, so I’m going to try and rectify that!

humanOne matter that has been on my mind has been the state of academia, and the humanities in particular. I doubt it is any surprise to those that know me that I am often highly sceptical of the academy in the general and the value of much of what is produced. Between a ‘publish and perish’ culture that encourages publication even of dross, the pursuit of esoteric subjects with little wider import and readerships that often factor in the single figures, much of what academia – especially the humanities – accomplishes appears irrelevant to anyone outside the ivory tower. That those inside the ivory tower sometimes have trouble grasping this point is part of the trouble. It’s one thing to believe that you are engaged in a disinterested search for knowledge, but when what is produced are conjectures about esoteric subjects few people care about, when you fail to communicate these things to virtually anyone else (and those who do read do so to disagree), and where the existence of absolute truth is commonly denied, it’s really hard to see that being the case. And since the humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence – both as courses for students to study, and departments to occupy university and government funding – I don’t think I’m the only one to wonder what good the humanities do.

So I was thinking about these things, and I guess about the wider purpose of the so-called humanities. There are many issues, such as over-specialisation, and the growth of arcane terminology intended to cloud rather than clarify meaning, but one issue is that so much of the humanities appears pointless, except for activities to do in humanities departments. One thing that seems clear to me is that the sciences (especially the harder sciences) retain some outside respect and relevance because much of their research and teaching has an effect on the wider world. Much of it has ultimately practical consequences that go far beyond the ivory tower.

However, it’s not like the humanities can easily offer that sort of thing. Studies of history, or theology, or literature  or so on do not at first sight appear to offer practical implications. And it is not enough to have some – in order to be consequential, there must always be something that can answer the ‘so what’ question. Okay, you have presented your theory, or your research or your conclusions – so what? Where there is consideration of it, it’s often at the service of the narrow identity politics so popular in academia, but so alien to life as actually lived. And to much of the rest of the humanities, the only answer to that question is polite applause and a few questions at a conference, and then everyone goes home to never think or remember about that topic again, let alone real consequences in the outside world – for the rest of humanity.

Yet I believe there is scope to answer that question. Part of the problem has been the conception of the humanities as a gaining of knowledge (even as the very concept of objective knowledge has been undermined). But the mere collection of abstract knowledge, sometimes of such narrow topics can never successfully answer the ‘so what’ question. But what if there was a different understanding of what study of these topics could offer us – a study of the collected record of humanity’s thoughts, writings and actions? What if rather than just seeking knowledge about how humans live and have lived, we see it as an opportunity to gain wisdom – to learn how human beings can live well. What if we seek to learn and teach not just to add to our knowledge, but to guide our actions, to learn from the follies and mistakes of mankind, to learn what works, to be inspired by its truest thoughts, and to be better than we otherwise are?

I don’t know if the academic humanities as presently constituted can make that step, consumed as it is by its own interests, content as it is in its own introversion and uncertain as it is to the nature of truth. But on a personal level I can certainly try to address that question in what I do, particularly when looking at things like the scriptures, lumped as they presently are in the humanities. For if they are inspired, if they are of God (and they are), the most important questions about them are not of history, but of their present implications for my behaviour and my actions. When I look at them, ‘so what’ should be the foremost question in my mind.

Wise Men from the East

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?

The Myth of Progress

Very often – both in mainstream news commentary and in the undergrowth of internet comments – one hears remarks about the ‘right side of history’. Likewise there are frequent assumptions about ‘progress’ – that certain things will be utterly accepted a hundred years from now, or rejected or whatever. Underlying all this is an assumption that history is progressing in a linear direction towards some destination. This is not a new assumption – both the Whig and Marxist theories of history did the same thing, and both arguably took religious predecessors and stripped them of their theology. Yet the assumption is also false.

The idea of continuous and inevitable progress can’t even be sustained in the field of technology, where perhaps one could make the greatest case. It takes longer to get to New York from London than it did 30 years ago, and technological progress in aviation was far more startling in the 40 years from 1929 to 1969 than in the 40 from 1969 to 2009. Technological improvements have their sudden spurts, but also have their plateaus. They also have their regresses, as the loss of certain techniques following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire demonstrates.

The assumption of ‘progress’ in political or social fields is even more questionable. Something can be socially acceptable in ancient Greece, unacceptable in Medieval Europe, and accepted again centuries later. Which was the move in the ‘right’ direction? Democracy can appear in ancient Greece, be disdained as akin to anarchy for millennia, and then reappear again – is it on the ‘right side of history’? Empires rise, but they also always inevitably fall. The very assumption that one set of political or social standards is ‘right’ presupposes an absolute scale of values – but many of those who use such language reject the existence of any transcendental being or state that would necessarily have to underpin those values.

For those of us who do accept such a transcendental reference point, there’s nothing to imply that humanity is always moving in that direction. To take a more specific example, the scriptures show a humanity that drifts in every which direction – a humanity that fell from the presence of God, and then moves even further away as mankind becomes ‘carnal’ and ‘devilish’ (Alma 12 & Moses 5). A mankind that then engages in a cyclical pattern of history of pride and apostasy, on a national and I would argue an individual level. Neither the Deuteronomic History nor the Book of Mormon depict an ‘onward and upwards’ glorious pattern of progress, but rather an constant cycle that if anything trends downwards. Nor are the scriptures positive of our own period in history (D&C 1 & 45), and likewise the record of our own recent history should humble us: the record of totalitarian genocide in the 20th century and the world wars are a stumbling block to anyone who concludes we’re inevitably making ‘progress’.

Appeals to ‘progress’ or the ‘right side of history’ are founded on a myth, and attempt to short-cut any arguments of reason or morality by effectively arguing ‘this is inevitable, this is the way it’s going to be, why fight it?’ But history twists and turns on itself, and just because something is going to happen doesn’t make it right, or mean we should concede to it, or mean that ultimately there is no turning back. And – however long it takes (and it may take centuries or millenia), sometimes it takes turning back to make ‘progress’, if one has been moving in the wrong direction.

If men are faithful…

If men are faithful, the time will come when they will possess the power and knowledge to obtain, organize, bring into existence and own. “What, of themselves, independent of their creator?” No. But they and their creator will always be one, they will always be of one heart and one mind, working and operating together; for whatsoever the Father doeth so doeth the Son, and so they continue throughout all their operations to all eternity.

- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:304

He hath given a law to all things

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine & Covenants 88:12-13)

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever.

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons;

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. (v.41-43)

The nature of miracles sometimes gets some discussion in LDS circles. Of course, most of the modern world has dismissed the possibility of such things, but the Book of Mormon strongly emphasises not just the existence of past miracles, but the reality and indeed the necessity of present day miracles (Moroni 7:37-38, compare Mormon 9:20), for faith works miracles, and an absence of miracles is due to unbelief.

The question is often raised as to how such miracles relate to physical ‘laws’ – after all, such miracles as raising the dead, transmuting water into wine or walking on water violate physical laws as we understand them. And some LDS folk have suggested that there is no such violation here – all that is happening is that God understands some ‘higher law’, and works within that.

I’ve never been entirely happy with this approach, which seems to subordinate God to physical laws, and reduce the supernatural to the natural (the very tendency the Book of Mormon, with its emphasis on the power of God, appears to argue against!). And, as verse 42 above indicates, it is God who gives law rather than the other way around. But upon rereading the above verses, I am struck that much much more seems to be offered here. Our very model of immutable physical laws, separate from God, is itself an artefact of many centuries of Western culture, as can be seen in notions of God as a ‘watch maker’, who sets up the universe and then lets it run itself, and later concepts that ditched the watch maker.

Yet that is not the perspective of Section 88. Notice here that the light of Christ, which is ‘the law by which all things are governed’ and the ‘power of God’ (v.13), and which amongst other things is the power by which the sun, moon and stars were made (v.7-9) and regulates their motions (v.42-43), is depicted as proceeding ‘forth from the presence of God’. It is not a one time thing, done in the past, but something in the present. The physical laws operate not because they were set down in the past, but because the power of God, which gives life, light and law to all things, acts upon them now. Any such physical laws by which the universe operates do so because of the continuing present will of God. Law is thus not something separate from God, let alone above him – it is the present operation of His will upon the physical universe.

If this is true (and the above verses suggest it is), then there are no such thing as immutable physical laws. Physical laws operate because God presently wills it, and if he ceased to do so they would not. Miracles are where God wills differently, and when he does the physical universe obeys (Helaman 12:7-8). And rather than everything being confined under rigid, naturalistic law, even the operation of supposedly ‘natural’, ‘physical’ laws are actually further examples of the supernatural and the power of God. Perhaps this is why Section 88 goes on to proclaim:

Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (v.47)

Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – part 3 and conclusion

Continuing my review of Christoph Luxenberg’s A Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran:

Forehead or Firewood: Q 37:103-104

When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, ‘Abraham…(Q37:103-104)

Luxenberg’s selection of this passage, and especially the term للجبين li-l-jabīn (‘forehead’, does not appear to fulfil the criteria he set for choosing obscure passages. While he himself wonders why scholars are not ‘suspicious’ that such details are not found in Biblical or Apocryphal material, he notes that ‘even linguistically nobody has raised any objections.’[1] While he states that he regards the conjectural explanations by the commentators as ‘scarcely convincing’,[2] it appears that the primary reason Luxenberg is concerned with this verse is its misalignment with the Biblical account. He dismisses Tabarī’s explanations, as well as Jeffrey’s endorsement of it. To Jeffrey’s suggestion that the term derives from the Aramaic גבינא (gbīnā) (‘eyebrow’) Luxenberg states: ‘What is lacking here, however, is any indication of the usage of [jabīn] in modern written Arabic, as well as in the contemporary Arabic dialects of the Near East.’[3] It is not entirely clear why such a question is even relevant, let alone consistent with a methodology that assumes a number of Qur’ānic terms were forgotten.

Luxenberg then accepts the explanation that term originates from ‘Syro-Aramaic’ but then adds ‘the real problem does not lie in the etymologically correct explanation of this expression, but in its misreading. In fact, the concrete guidelines of the Biblical account (Gen. 22:9) provide us with a indication of the real sense of this passage.’ [4] At this point it is quite clear that Luxenberg has decided to reject any reading that does not follow the Biblical passage. Thus تله (talla) is reread as the Syriac root ܬܠܐ (tlā) and read as bind[5] while jabīn is emended to للحبين (li-l-habīn) which by reference to the Syriac root ܚܒ (hb) ‘to burn’ is interpreted as the masculine plural active participle ‘burning’, which Luxenberg then renders loosely as ‘burning [materials]’ or ‘firewood’.[6] Luxenberg manages to obtain a meaning ‘on’ for the preposition li (a meaning not documented in Classical Arabic) by reference both to a Syriac dictionary[7] and on the basis of Q 7:143, although again on the basis of conforming the Qur’ānic reading to a biblical one.[8] Thus Luxenberg’s revision reads unsurprisingly: ‘and he (Abraham) had (laid) him (his son) bound upon the fire (wood), we called to him: Abraham!’

Reynolds mentions this revised reading as among those results of Luxenberg’s that are ‘intellectually compelling’.[9] Yet the technique used to arrive at the result does not bear scrutiny – Luxenberg selects a passage that though perhaps puzzling is not linguistically so, and then rejects jabīn not because it is obscure, but because it does not match the Biblical passage. Kroes notes that Luxenberg uses three pages in an attempt to argue that li can be used to mean on, and yet his use of a Biblical passage here ‘presupposes exactly what it tries to prove’.[10] The same is true of the passage as a whole – when the parallel biblical passage is made the arbiter of the correct reading it is unsurprising when something very close to the Biblical passage emerges at the end

Receiving the Eucharist? Q 96:19

No! Do not obey him [Prophet]: bow down in worship and draw close. (Q 96:19)

Luxenberg also provides revisions of several complete sūras include Sūra 96, which he suggests based on his results is a liturgical document.[11] This in itself is not a particularly controversial assertion – Neuwirth, for example, has also concluded that Meccan sūras were intended for liturgical recitation.[12] However Luxenberg also argues that the sūra is ‘part of that nucleus of the Koran, the Christian Syrian origins of which cannot be ignored’, arguing that the sūra has the ‘character’ of a preface introducing Syriac Christian liturgy. ‘That this liturgy is communion is indicated by the final Syro-Aramaic term.’ This final term is اقترب (iqtarib), which Luxenberg maintains is borrowed from the Syriac ܐܬܩܪܒ (ethqarrab), and which he claims is a technical term of the Christian Syrian liturgy.[13] Citing the Kitāb al-Agānī of Abū l-Farağ al-Isfahānī (d.967 CE), Luxenberg refers to an account when ‘Adī ibn Zayd (d. c.590 CE) and Hind bint an-Nu‘mān (d. after 602 CE) went on Maundy Thursday into the church of al-Hira to ليتقربا (li-yataqarrabā) ‘to receive the Eucharist’, and so he regards use of the term as ‘historically documented in the 6th century even from the Arab side.’[14]

There are some difficulties with Luxenberg’s arguments. Again, he appears to circumvent portions of his own method, selecting a phrase that appears to have little difficulties and at the very least not documenting his earlier steps, although this is perhaps due to revising an entire sūra at once. Secondly, his evidence for pre-Islamic use of li-yataqarrabā is actually from a document of the 10th century, and so presumably does not give a more reliable picture of pre-Islamic Arabic than Islamic Arabic sources of the same period. Nor can he, as Baasten notes,[15] simply identify iqtarib, of the eighth stem, with taqarraba of the fifth stem. While, as de Blois points out, taqarraba is ‘indeed a calque’, ‘there is no good reason to assume that the same Syriac verb was ‘borrowed’ a second time’.[16] Böwering also concurs that the verb would have to be in the fifth stem, and adds that Luxenberg overlooks a parallel passage in Q 53:62.[17]

What then of the ‘technical term’ of the Christian Syrian liturgy? Here it appears that Luxenberg may have overstated his point. ܐܬܩܪܒ (ethqarrab) as the ethpa‘al form of ܩܪܒ can mean to receive the Eucharist, but that is but one possible meaning among many, including the more mundane meaning ‘to be brought near’, ‘come near’ or ‘approach’.[18] This meaning can be easily attested to in the Peshitta, as in James 4:8: ܘܩܪܘܒܘ ܠܘܬ ܐܠܗܐ ܘܢܬܩܪܒ ܠܟܘܢ – ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’[19] Thus ethqarrab does not automatically mean ‘to receive the Eucharist’, rather context is necessary to determine if that is the correct translation. And here is the difficulty with Luxenberg’s rendering of Q 96:19 – Luxenberg has presumed that the context of iqtarib is Christian Syriac liturgy, and so translated it as ‘take part in the liturgy of Eucharist’, and yet his evidence that Sūra 96 is a Christian liturgy is based on his rendering of iqtarib. He has assumed the result, and then proclaimed that same assumption as evidence. There is no evidence that iqtarib should be rendered as anything to do with the Eucharist.

Conclusion

So, having examined several of Luxenberg’s examples, what conclusions can I have of his work overall. There’s several conclusions I think we can come to:

1) Luxenberg doesn’t appear to always follow his methodology.

That in itself might not be a failing – it’s a mistake to believe that literature can be processed in a strict methodological fashion as if it was a hard science. But there do seem to be some issues. It’s not clear that Luxenberg follows his own rule about selecting those passages that are obscure – two of our examples don’t fall into that category, and other emendations likewise seem selected on other grounds. His emendations of the youths of paradise, for example, are required not by any obscurity of language but by Luxenberg’s earlier emendation of the hūri passages.[20]

2) Some of Luxenberg’s emendations rely on particular, unjustified, theological assumptions.

In two of the examples we found that the revision was justified by a prior assumption about the meaning of a passage. Thus the Abraham text was modified until it matched the Biblical narrative, while iqtarib was translated as ‘receive the Eucharist’ without any contextual basis. The results are inevitably presupposed when Luxenberg reasons that as the Qur’ān claims to confirm the message of previous scriptures, and emends Q 4:82 to read ‘were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture) many differences (inconsistencies)’, and therefore claims that there cannot be any contradiction between the Bible and Qur’ān.[21] But this ignores obvious areas of contradiction,[22] and even if Luxenberg were right about the claim in Q 4:82 – which is doubtful – it doesn’t mean that such a claim is true. Further such an approach cannot help but ‘discover’ that the Qur’ān consists of nothing more than parallels with Biblical and Syriac Christian material.

3) Luxenberg’s method, as practiced, assumes its results in advance.

Thus Neuwirth states:

The method presupposes its very results: the facticity of a Syriac layer underlying the Arabic text. Much of his material relies on obvious circular argument. One has to keep in mind that principally Syriac, which is linguistically closely related to Arabic, will offer in innumerable cases etymological parallels for individual words or expressions of the Qur’an; particularly since religious vocabulary is abounding in Syriac These parallels in many cases are simply due to the close linguistic relation between the two Semitic languages and do not necessarily reflect a cultural contact. With Luxenberg, however, the tracing of Syriac ‘origins’ for Arabic words grows into an obsession.[23]

Luxenberg’s work does seem to have fallen prey to the tendency described by Saleh, where the background and training of scholars is reflected in their findings.[24] And so Luxenberg attempts to find Syriac everywhere, even in cases where his emendations do not really require it – thus his unnecessary reference to Syriac in discussing his proposed emendation of al-raqīm, for example. A particularly glaring example is his effort to not merely trace the word šaytān to the Syriac sātānā but its ultimate meaning to a ‘Syro-Aramaic’ root meaning abominable,[25] seemingly unaware of the fact that שתן has a perfectly acceptable Hebrew meaning ‘adversary’.[26] This approach is aggravated by the fact that an ill-defined ‘mixed language’ ‘frees him to make capricious surmises’ about the meaning of a passage.[27] Nor is sufficient attention paid to the possible limits of etymology – even if an Arabic term did originate in Syriac, that by no means demands that it have the same meaning. Barr’s warning, cited by Saleh, is quite applicable, that it is ‘wrong to suppose that the etymology of a word is necessarily a guide either to its “proper” meaning in a later period or to its actual meaning in that period.’[28]

4) Building on the above – Luxenberg’s thesis is unconvincing.

Neither his emendations, nor his method are particularly compelling, and thus his broader thesis about a ‘Syro-Aramaic’ background for the Qur’ān is likewise uncompelling. There are a number of interesting historical questions around the Qur’ān and the origin of Islam. And it is entirely possible that Syriac Christianity plays a role in that (although the absence of evidence makes that difficult to determine). But Luxenberg fails to make the case that the Qur’ān was originally, as he ultimately suggests, based on some Christian lectionary.


[1]Ibid., 169.

[2]Ibid., 169-170.

[3]Ibid., 170.

[4]Ibid., 171.

[5]Ibid., 171-173.

[6]Ibid., 173-174.

[7]Ibid., 174-175.

[8]Ibid., 175.

[9]Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its historical context, 16-17.

[10]Kroes, “Review.”

[11]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 304-305.

[12]Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” 64-65.

[13]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 323.

[14]Ibid., 324-325.

[15]Martin F. J. Baasten, “Review of Christoph Luxenberg, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache,” Aramaic Studies 2, no. 2 (2004): 270, http://www.cristoph-heger.de/baasten.pdf.

[16]de Blois, “Review.”

[17]Gerhard Böwering, “Recent research on the construction of the Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 78.

[18]Robert Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), 517, http://www.tyndalearchive.com/TABS/PayneSmith/.

[19]From James 4:8, in Suryanice incil ve mezmurlar (Syriac New Testament and Psalms) (Istanbul: Bible Society in Turkey). The underlined is the 3rd person masculine singular imperfect of ethqarrab.

[20]Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 244.

[21]It is on this basis that he revises away the ‘virgins’ and ‘youths’ of paradise. Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 249-250.

[22]Such as whether God begets, for example.

[23]Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History.”

[24]Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy,” 6.

[25]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 100-103.

[26]Best seen in 1 Samuel 29:4, where the Philistines are described as worrying that David might become לשתן, ‘an adversary’, to them.

[27]Fred M. Donner, “The Qur’ān in recent scholarship,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 38-39.

[28]Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy,” 13.