Slippery Words

A phenomenon that I have been increasingly struck by is the role that different and shifting definitions can play in debates and arguments. I’m not talking here about mere loose or imprecise language (such as the use of cowardly described by Theodore Dalrymple here; I came across his similarly titled article after the title for this post leapt into my mind). Nor am I talking simply about how the same word can carry different meanings (that’s simply linguistic fact). Rather what I am describing is the situations in which both parties may be arguing over something, but be using different definitions for the same term, even without realising it. More recently, I have become increasingly aware of how participants involved in certain debates appear to be seeking to win an argument by default by redefining the very term from a more common definition.

I’ve written before about several theological examples amongst arguments in LDS circles, namely the terms inspiration and spiritual. But similar examples appear to about in many of the political and cultural arguments at large in society today. Terms such as fairness, justice, equality, consent, racism, privilege and a host of others have been increasingly subject to different and shifting definitions. This is not entirely new (the definition of justice, for example, has been argued over for millennia), but it seems increasingly the case that some of the loudest voices in particular controversies are insisting upon their own private definitions of key terms.

While some cases may simply be the result of different definitions, others appears to be cases where people are seeking to change or even manipulate definitions to win arguments by default. The connection between the thoughts we can have and the language we possess is a strong one, and Orwell and others have warned how changes in language may be used to control political thought. Furthermore, as I observed about the public endorsement of untruths, such manipulation of language can serve to erode the sense of right and promote acts of wrong. Witness, for example, the increasing trend to define the expression of particular ideas as violence. Word are powerful (or this subject would be hardly worth worrying about), but they are not physical force. The claim that they are, however, encourages the idea that actual violence may be used to suppress or retaliate against objectionable statements, and rationalises increasing political violence on the left and on the right.

At the very least, there is often the need to clarify definitions in any such discussion. If we are conversing on the basis of different definitions, then in practice we really have a different language. Like the inhabitants of Babel, our language will be confounded and so will we, and any discussion will profit little.

Furthermore, on some occasions, we must also notice and if necessary refuse to concede to attempts to manipulate or win an argument in advance by adopting a new or alternate definition. Such definitions are often, consciously or unconsciously, loaded dice, designed to win the argument in advance. Accepting them often concedes the argument, not because we are convinced it is right on its merits, but because we’d already accepted their presuppositions and frame of reference without realising it. Such alternate definitions can also limit thought and obscure actual concepts at stake by eliminating the very vocabulary used to describe competing ideas (for example, if the “spiritual” is defined down as simply an emotional event, what term is left to describe the literally spiritual). Accepting such redefinition can thus suppress communication, rather than promote it. Confusion over such terms can also be deceptive, seeking to claim approval for new concepts by cloaking them under more generally accepted ideas. And as described above, it can be used to justify violence and other such acts.

If we are to avoid being manipulated, or to be the manipulator, or simply to avoid confusion with others, then we need to be clear in our own language. This includes, where necessary, explaining how we understand any particular terms at stake and why we understand them that way. We need to allow others to explain their thoughts too. Perhaps we are also best served by avoiding jargon where possible. Language should clarify, not be used as a battering ram against our opponents.

I am reminded of Nephi’s words in 2 Nephi 31:3:

For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

While there are occasions where less plainness may be required, clarity of communication is not just useful to man but is a divine ideal. If we are seeking to become more like him, then seeking to be likewise clear in our own communications seems to be something to strive for. Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that if we are to avoid being misled, or confounded, or caught up in some spiral of political violence or oppression, then we have a responsibility to keep language as something that illuminates rather than let it be used to blind and bind.

“…to do noble and true things”

It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things, and vindicate himself under God’s heaven as a God-made man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest day-drudge kindles into a hero. They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death, are the allurements that act on the heart of man. Kindle the inner genial life of him, you have a flame that burns up all lower considerations. Not happiness, but something higher: one sees this even in the frivolous classes, with their “point of honour” and the like. Not by flattering our appetites; no: by awakening the heroic that slumbers in every heart, can any religion gain followers.

Thomas Carlyle

The Same God

Some employment dispute at Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant college, has attracted some commentary on whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God (with a staff member apparently being dismissed because they asserted this was indeed the case). There may well be more to the employment dispute itself, but I wanted to discuss the proposition itself that Christians and Muslims worship different “gods”, which has attracted a number of evangelical defenders. This defence should be little surprising to any Latter-day Saints who’ve come across evangelical claims that we worship a “different” Jesus. It is surprising, however, how otherwise thoughtful and level-headed commentators have sought to defend the claim, as David French does here. While I agree with this author here that one should be careful about allegations of bigotry, I do think a number of comments can be made in response, as follows:

  1. French argues his case, as a number of others do, on the basis that Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. The issue comes that Jews, at the very least, also do. Do Jews also worship a different God?
  2. Some evangelicals (such as Al Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist), accept that implication, which is at least logically consistent if supercessionist. That view, however, is inconsistent with what the New Testament itself says where, for example, Paul himself speaks of how he worships “the God of my fathers” and has “hope towards God, which they themselves [his opponents] also allow” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul recognises that the religious authorities in Jerusalem regard him as following “a heresy”, but doesn’t claim that he is worshipping a different God. In fact Paul goes further when addressing the Athenians, a pagan people, when he identifies the “unknown God” who they “ignorantly worship” with the True and Living God (Acts 17:23).
  3. Others, recognising the major problems of supercessionism, assert that Jews and Christians do worship the same God. However, this is logically inconsistent. Both Jews and Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarianism. Muslims at least accept the prophethood of Jesus, so might be seen to be preferable by those terms. If someone is making the claim that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God because the Muslims reject the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and yet rejects the same claim when applied to Jews who reject the same things, then there is clearly some logic being applied that is not being spoken out loud. It’s up to those making the claim to clarify their position.
  4. Of course, a number of Christians, while accepting the divinity of Christ, also reject Trinitarianism, including Latter-day Saints but also many others, including Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the present, and Arians and others at the time of the great controversies in the Fourth century (not to mention all those before Trinitarianism was formally defined). True to form, at least many evangelicals in the comments seem inclined to say they don’t worship the same God either. This in spite of the fact that the New Testament doesn’t teach Trinitarianism, and the fact that in my own personal experience many self-proclaimed Trinitarian evangelicals are actually modalists (i.e, they believe the persons of the Godhead are actually roles of one being, who manifests differently as the Father, Son or the Holy Ghost).
  5. Some base this claim on different texts: namely that as Muslims have the Qur’an (and, as some are quick to add, Mormons have the Book of Mormon), they must worship different Gods. To which doubtless Jews could add that the Christians have the New Testament too, and since Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have different scriptural canons, the implication is that they all worship different Gods. While there are evangelicals who pursue this approach, this is clearly nonsense.
  6. This is nonsense because one can believe different things *about* someone, and yet still be talking about the same person. Someone might believe Elvis got abducted by aliens and is still alive, but while that’s nonsense, they’re not talking about a *different Elvis*. As a Latter-day Saint, I definitely believe different things than an evangelical Protestant does (although they generally don’t understand, and sometimes misrepresent what those differences are). But when I talk about Jesus being the Son of God, being born in Bethlehem, and who was crucified for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, I’m not talking about some other guy who happened to share the name and did some of the same stuff.
  7. This is not to underestimate some of those differences, some of which are big and very important. I do not believe, for example, as some varieties of Calvinism do, in a God who created people so he could predestine them to hell. As a latter-day saint, I affirm the divinity of Christ, and believe Jews and Muslims to be mistaken on that issue. Likewise with those Christians who believe in a God without body parts or passions, or the many moderns who believe in a God who may exist but does not reveal himself or work miracles (the mistakenness of this opinion being one of the major themes of the Book of Mormon). But that doesn’t mean we’re not speaking about the same deity. Paul again goes even further, stating that God “hath made of one blood all the nations of men” and that “they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God wants us to repent, but will bless all those who humbly seek after him according to what knowledge they have.
  8. I have no idea why evangelicals in particular seem so keen to claim others worship “different gods” or a “different Jesus”. It’s doubtless behind whatever trend leads them – rather uniquely – to set up organisations and paid ministries dedicated not to preaching their own beliefs, but attacking the specific beliefs of other groups. One would hope in their desire to follow the Bible they’d recognise the example of Paul above, and consider that its more important to get right, and hopefully lead others in that direction, than to prove others wrong. That’s really for them to sort out though, although in my more mischievous or peevish moments I can’t help but wonder at how they claim the mantle of “biblical” or “orthodox” Christianity, when their beliefs and institutions are so much younger than the Catholics, Orthodox and so forth.

As for my own brief suggestions on studying the religions of others, they can be found here.


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.

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.


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,

[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,

[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.

Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – part 2

Having last time covered Luxenberg’s methodology, from part 2 onwards of this review I will examine several case studies where Luxenberg proposes emendations. Thus, without further ado:

The seven sleepers and al-raqīm: Sūra 18:9

[Prophet], do you find the Companions in the Cave and al-Raqim so wondrous, among all Our other signs? (Q 18:9)[1]

Luxenberg identifies الرقيم al-raqīm as a problematic passage, noting that of the three translations he uses Bell and Blachère render it as a place name while Paret translates it as inscription. Likewise he mentions Bellamy’s more recent attempt at emendation, which proposes al-ruqūd (the sleeping [boys]) in place of al-raqīm (memorial tablet).[2] Luxenberg believes that Bellamy’s emendation is undermined by the fact that it proposes 4 emendations to a word of five letters and argues that ‘lectio difficilior would be better served if we had to change just one letter’. It is notable here that Luxenberg does not perform (or at least is not seen to be performing) any of his stated steps of his method prior to emendation.

Luxenberg’s proposed emendation involves two factors. First he suggests the medial y be read instead as a long ā,[3] an idea that underlies many of Luxenberg’s emendations.[4] This in itself is not implausible – Stewart notes that Nöldeke first identified this possibility, while Donner indicates that other evidence exists, such as in Jubal Usays inscription 107, to suggest this orthography is possible. The second factor in Luxenberg’s emendation is replacing the final m with a d. He suggests d could have been misread as r, and that early kufic Qur’ān manuscripts, such as the manuscript of Samarkand, demonstrate that a final r and final m could be confused in a second stage of transcription. It is confusing, however, when he maintains that the ‘mixing up’ of r and d (as in his examples of taud and tūr) are only conceivable on basis of Syriac letters,[5] for he earlier pointed out the possibilities of ‘mixing up’ the Arabic d and r due to optical similarity.[6] Based on his earlier statements, recourse to the Syriac script seems unnecessary, especially as this is the only use of Syriac in this example.

Thus the final result of Luxenberg’s revision here is الرقاد al-ruqād, leading to the revised verse: ‘Do you think, say, that the people of the cave and sleep were strange among our signs?’[7] Despite apparent peculiarities in the method, this appears a possible emendation, as it appears to fit the context. However, Griffith’s suggestion seems more plausible still. Noting the important role played by a lead tablet in pre-Islamic narratives of the Youths of Ephesus, he suggests that it is entirely possible that al-raqīm could simply mean inscription,[8] matching the tablet in the related narratives. The odd grammatical form, he suggests, could be understood as a Syriacism.[9] If Griffith is right, and changing zero letters is presumably preferable to one, then there are little grounds for an emendation in this case.

Donkeys or Lions: Sūra 74:51

What is the matter with them? Why do they turn away from the warning, like frightened asses fleeing from a lion? (Q74:49-51)

The problematic term here is قسورة qaswara, traditionally rendered lion, as by Tabarī on the basis of a tradition from Ibn ‘Abbās. However Jeffrey indicates that there is no such word in Ethiopic, nor in Aramaic.[10] Luxenberg suggests the Syriac word ܩܘܣܪܐ (qusrā), a dialectal form meaning worn-out or decrepit ass,[11] reading qaswara instead as qāsūrā, requiring however that the tā marbūta also act as a mater lectionis for the long ā. Contextually, Luxenberg argues that the Qur’ānic context is explainable in two ways: a) either the metaphorical asses are running away from a real danger (for example, a lion) ‘and that would be logical’ or b) or they run away from something that by its very nature cannot be a threat. Luxenberg argues in support of b) that ‘with this metaphor the Koran wants to say that there is nothing frightening about its admonition.’[12]

Yet contextually this interpretation could be doubted. The previous verses seem to suggest that perhaps the admonition is very frightening indeed. Verse 36 speaks of ‘a warning to all mortals’ (Q 74:36).[13] The guilty will be asked ‘“what drove you to the Scorching fire?”’ (Q 74:42)[14] and the sūra informs us that ‘no intercessor’s plea will benefit them now’ (Q 74:48) and ‘No! Truly they have no fear of the life to come’ (Q 74:53), strongly implying they should be frightened. If this is the case, then contextually it is far more likely that qaswara stands for something far more frightening than a worn-out donkey. Luxenberg’s emendation here is possible, but not necessarily probable.

[1]All Qur’anic quotations are from M. A. S. Abdul Haleem, trans., The Qur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) unless otherwise stated.

[2]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 80.

[3]Ibid., 81.

[4]Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 240.

[5]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 83.

[6]Ibid., 31.

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

[8]Sidney Griffith, “Christian lore and the Arabic Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its Historical Context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 125-126.

[9]Ibid., 126-127.

[10]Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 61.

[11]Ibid., 62.

[12]Ibid., 63.

Review: Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran–part 1

I plan to revisit in the next couple of posts some work I did around four years ago now, but which periodically comes to mind whenever the news turns to Islam. As I see it, there are two significant errors that pop up whenever public discussion turns to the topic (normally in the wake of a terrorist attack). The first is that such attacks have nothing to do with Islamic tradition, are to be entirely blamed on current foreign or domestic policy grievances, and that the world ‘Islam’ means peace. This is less than accurate – ‘Islam’ means submission (to God), extremist groups do drawn upon certain long-standing strands of Islamic tradition, and said extremists, while perhaps influenced by other concerns, have a world view shaped by their particular religious conceptions. The other error (and I believe both tend to feed off each other), is that such extremists are the sole ‘genuine’ representatives of Islamic tradition, that Islam is monolithic and focused around violent jihad, and has been in constant state of hostility with the West and the rest throughout all its history. This too is inaccurate, in some cases grossly so. Islam is a religion is 1.3 billion adherents, and is no more monolithic in its teachings and doctrines than Christianity is, both as a body today and throughout history. There’s certain traditions that have lent themselves to extremist causes, but there’s other longstanding Islamic traditions too. There’s Islamic groups that entirely disavow notions of violent jihad, while amongst others is only to be practiced defensively. There are extensive interpretive traditions attached to the Qur’an – meaning one cannot simply take a Qur’anic verse out of context, and assert it must be interpreted in a certain way (some commentators seem to assume that Muslims must read their scriptures following certain Protestant methodologies). Blaming all Muslims for extremism is like blaming the Quakers for the IRA.

Sadly the lack of a balanced approach is likely to continue, and it also seems to have become enmeshed with particular historical debates over the origin and growth of Islam. Thus particular revisionist academics, who have suggested such things as that the Qur’an emerged around 150 years later than conventional histories suggest, or suggest the possibility that Muhammad never existed, or lived somewhere other than Mecca, have become popular in circles wary of Islam at large. That shouldn’t necessarily count against the revisionists themselves, a number of whom are respectable academics, but such debates have had a wider audience than they otherwise would enjoy. I confess to a certain sympathy for some of these revisionists, even as I largely disagree with them. Most of the written sources upon which the traditional histories are built do date from several centuries later. Of course, Islamic scholarship claims a continuous oral tradition, and furthermore was conscious at a very early stage of potential difficulties, seeking means to sort out genuine oral traditions from later compositions even if a number of Western scholars haven’t been too convinced by their efforts. I personally also believe that there’s things recorded in that tradition (such as the story of Uthman’s – the third Caliph, or successor to Muhammad – destruction of other recensions of the Qur’an), that are unlikely to have been the sort of thing a later inventor would wish to fabricate. Likewise, when John Wansbrough, using form criticism from biblical studies, dates the Qur’an to around 150 years later in Mesoptamia, I think that raises more questions about the efficacy of form criticism than it does about the date of the Qur’an. But the likes of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and so on, aren’t cranks to be dismissed either, and a subset of such revisionist ideas about the Qur’an, although they don’t always agree with each other, has lived on in Islamic studies.

Into this mix comes the work I wrote about four years ago, Christoph Luxenberg’s Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran (translated into English as The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran). Christoph Luxenberg is as psuedonym, so his own credentials are hard to assess, but his work is available to review. Claiming to present a new reading of the Qur’an, by suggesting that at least portions may be better understood by reference to Syriac, that Syriac Christian culture was the important cultural context for the Qur’an, and that a number of emendations were necessary to retrieve the original meaning of the Qur’an. It attracted a lot of attention at the time of its release, likely because of its claim that the ‘virgins in paradise’ of popular lore should be understood as mere grapes.[1] Scholarly reaction was decidedly mixed,[2] but as Devin Stewart noted, while the reviews make a number of important points they address only a few of the hundreds of emendations that Luxenberg proposes, leaving many of his emendations untested.[3] My impression is that his thesis, at least broadly, has continued to have a significant influence, particularly on the professional anti-Muslim authors such as Robert Spencer, as well as on those who’ve presented revisionist histories for a popular audience such as Tom Holland. Yet I do not believe it deserves such influence. Tasked with writing an essay on the subject, I examined several of Luxenberg’s emendations and in my opinion found significant issues, casting doubt on his broader method and thesis. Since it still seems to be around in the ether, I’ve decided to take and adapt sections of that essay for several posts here as part of a review. Hence the inconsistent footnoting! I’ll first address overall points of Luxenberg’s claims and methodology in this post, and then turn to several examples in later posts.

It is worthwhile noting that Luxenberg is not the first to propose emendations of the Qur’ānic text, nor the first to examine the role of foreign terms in the Qur’ān, nor the first to propose a radically different background from the traditional account for the emergence of the Qur’ān. A number of revisionist scholars have proposed different, and often conflicting, theories for the emergence of the Qur’ān.[4] Both within the tradition of Islamic scholarship[5] and with Western scholarship[6] there has been recognition and study of foreign terminology. Likewise even emendation has played a role in both traditional[7] and modern scholarship of the Qur’ān.[8] Nor is Luxenberg’s claim to have identified a pre-Islamic Christian core to the Qur’ān entirely new, but resembles Luling’s ideas of a Christian ‘Ur-Qur’ān’.[9]

What is new, according to de Blois, ‘…is the claim that large portions of the Qur’an are not grammatically correct Arabic, but need to be read as Aramaic, inflectional endings and all. The Qur’an is thus not (grammatically) Arabic with Aramaic loan-words, but is composed in a jargon that mixes structural elements of two different languages.’ [10] Unlike the view that the Qur’ān contains non-Arabic words, which would still leave the language of the Qur’ān as essentially Arabic,[11] Luxenberg claims that the language of Mecca was a hybrid of Arabic and what he terms Syro-Aramaic,[12] by which he principally means Syriac.[13] He further claims that the Qur’ān frequently combines the grammatical forms of Arabic and ‘Syro-Aramaic’[14] and further suggests that the original Qur’ānic text was written in Garshuni, or Arabic (or one presumes an Arabic-Aramaic compound) written in Syriac script.[15] The processes involved in Luxenberg’s methods, based on these assumptions, provide radically different interpretations of a number of passages, and is obviously at variance with idea of Qur’an being an essentially Arabic text.[16] The question posed is to what degree do these interpretations, upon examination, justify the methodology Luxenberg has embraced.


Luxenberg’s Methodology

Luxenberg’s working method is founded on several key assumptions.[17] Firstly, citing Nöldeke,[18] he claims that ‘Syro-Aramaic’ was ‘the most important written and cultural language’ in the ‘sphere’ in which the Qur’ān emerged, at a period when Arabic was not a written language and in which ‘learned Arabs’ used Aramaic as a written language. He suggests that initiators of written Arabic received their ‘knowledge and training’ in a Syro-Aramaic cultural milieu. Secondly he claims that ‘these Arabs’ were ‘for the most part’ Christianized and a large proportion took part in the Syriac Christian liturgy. Thus he concludes that ‘nothing would be more obvious’ than to have incorporated elements of their ‘Syro-Aramaic’ cultural language and cult into Arabic.[19] These underpin his understanding of Qur’ānic language and his idea of ‘deciphering’ the Qur’ānic text by means of Syriac and his claim that most literature on the Qur’ān is based on the fallacious ‘historical-linguistic’ conceptions of traditional Arabic exegesis.

Luxenberg defines the primary aim of his work as being ‘in the first place’ to clarify texts identified by Western scholars as obscure, although he also claims that his investigation of the overall language of the Qur’ān has uncovered a ‘goodly number’ of misreadings and misinterpretations, and that there are both more passages that have been misunderstood than has been admitted by previous commentators and translators and that there are ‘considerable deficits in the previous interpretation of many aspects of the syntactic structure of the language of the Koran’.[20] Thus he states that he will limit his attempts to generate ‘a more reasonable reading’ to those cases in which ‘the context is obviously unclear’ and in which the classical commentators are ‘at the limit of their Arabic’ and disagree.[21]

Luxenberg’s proclaimed methodology follows a series of steps, applied to passages identified as obscure by Western Qur’ānic scholars. Firstly Luxenberg checks the commentary of Tabarī to see whether a cited interpretation ignored by western translators better fits the context.[22] If this fails, he then examines the Lisān al-‘arab of Ibn Manzūr, for possible alternate definitions. If this is determined to be fruitless then Luxenberg examines possible cognates and homonyms in Syriac, which ‘based on a consideration of objective criteria clearly fits better in the context.’ If these prior steps have been unsuccessful in rendering a better reading, Luxenberg attempts emending or removing diacritical points, on the basis that the early Arabic script lacked diacritical marks,[23] and attempts to find a better Arabic expression. Failing this, Luxenberg attempts to make out Syriac terms with the altered diacritics. Finally, if all the previous steps were fruitless, Luxenberg then attempts to translate apparently genuine Arabic terms into Syriac to see if Syriac term renders a better meaning.[24] As a separate category, Luxenberg also examines those expressions without satisfactory definitions in the Lisān and which are not explainable by translation into Syriac by examining the medieval Syriac dictionaries such as that by Bar ‘Alī (d.1001) and Bar Bahlūl (c. 963).[25]

It is by this method that Luxenberg purports to decode the supposed mixed language and uncover the “real” meaning of the Qur’ān. A number of possible methodological criticisms could be raised at this stage. However, Luxenberg asserts that ‘the examples that follow in the main part of this study may be seen as putting this method to the test’. My following posts will examine several of Luxenberg’s examples to put his statement to the test.. 

[1] Richards Kroes, “Review of Ch. Luxenberg, ‘Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Qur’an’,”.

[2] For some reviews, see: Robert R. Phenix and Cornelia B. Horn, “BOOK REVIEW: Christoph Luxenberg (ps.), Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran.,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies.; Claude Gilliot, “Langue et Coran: une lecture syro-araméenne du Coran,” Arabica 50.3, no. 3 (July 2003): 381-393.; François de Blois, “Review of “Christoph Luxenberg”, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Qur’an: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Qur’ansprache,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 5, no. 1 (2003): 92-97.; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History – A Disputed Relationship. Some Reflections on Qur’anic History and History in the Qur’an,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 5, no. 1 (2003): 1-18.; Simon Hopkins, “Review of Christoph Luxenberg, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28 (2003): 377-380.

[3] Devin J. Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” in The Qur’ān in its historical context (New York: Routledge, 2008), 227-228.

[4] Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its historical context, 9; Fred M. Donner, “The historical context,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33.

[5] Carter informs us that not only did al-Suyūtī, for example, list over 100 foreign words, but that Medieval scholars had strict criteria for identifying foreign terminology. Michael Carter, “Foreign Vocabulary,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 121; Farid Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005), 68.

[6] Stewart, “Notes on medieval and modern emendations of the Qur’ān,” 226.

[7] For examples, see Ibid., 230-231.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Harald Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 66.

[10] de Blois, “Review.”

[11] Motzki, “Alternative accounts of the Qur’ān’s formation,” 68; Mustansir Mir, “Language,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 89-90.

[12] Christoph Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran., English Edition. (Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007), 327.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Ibid., 57.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 67-68.

[17] Although he does not state them as assumptions.

[18] Luxenberg, Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, 10-11; Although as Saleh rightly points out, the quote is actually discussing the situation of the Palmyrians and Nabateans of the 3rd century CE. Walid Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy and Quranic Studies: Muhammad, Paradise and Late Antiquity,” 30,

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

[20] Ibid., 22.

[21] Ibid., 23.

[22] Luxenberg’s statement that ‘it occasionally happens that the Arabic tradition has kept an accurate or an approximate memory of an earlier Aramaic expression’ suggests that he is already looking for Syriac equivalents as this stage, however. Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 31.

[24] Ibid., 23-25.

[25] Ibid., 25-27.

Defending Deuteronomy

There’s some ideas about the Bible that have become popular amongst some LDS scholars, and principally among them are those of Margaret Barker. Her ideas of a ‘Temple Theology’ prior to the Babylonian exile that was suppressed, with King Josiah and the ‘Deuteronomists’ as the chief villains, have proven attractive to some, but I’ve been unconvinced by it for a long while. For one thing, I believe it has serious metholodogical issues, as Barker attempts to use sources like Pseudoepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls to examine the beliefs of many centuries earlier. But I also believe that it has significant flaws from an LDS perspective that in many cases have been overlooked, and which have serious implications. Since the Interpreter has decided to do a couple of articles on it (one from Bill Hamblin, disagreeing with at least part of the thesis, and Kevin Christensen, supporting it), I thought I’d explore at least some of those, principally in addressing some of the arguments used by Kevin Christensen.

Deuteronomy and the Book of Mormon

The implications of this argument should be apparent to anyone who reads Christensen’s article. Large parts of the Bible are held to be the responsibility of the ‘Deuteronomists’, supposed reformers working at the time of King Josiah, and whom, if they are suspect, make their works suspect, especially since there’s no direct evidence of the very existence of Deuteronomists – their existence is inferred from these works. There’s the Deuteronomistic History, from Joshua to 2nd Kings, which many biblical scholars claim was composed as an integrated work by drawing upon and redacting earlier sources. Then there is the Book of Deuteronomy itself, which has been associated with the ‘book of the law’ found in 2 Kings 22:8-11, and which many biblical scholars claim was even written at the time to justify the reforms (I see a number of problems behind that claim, but I’ll leave it to one side for now). Thus this would question the inspiration and canonicity of those biblical books.

And Christensen appears to follow this argument, alleging several sections of Deuteronomy itself (he singles out Deuteronomy 4:6, 4:12, 29:29 and 30:11-12) as contradicting the teachings of this alleged temple theology. Since Christensen believes the Temple theology not only existed, but was true and part of the background for the Book of Mormon, that implies that Deuteronomy is not just mistaken on these points, but false. While Christensen admits to extensive harmony between ‘Jeremiah and Josiah’, he also sees these points of significant tension, and believes they exist ‘between Deuteronomy and Lehi’ as well. And these are not minor matters – Barker paints this as a serious suppression of what was taught before, and so does Christensen, who says they ‘touch the heart of the temple’. In short, Deuteronomy is the product of an apostate movement.

Yet there are serious difficulties with this from an LDS perspective. Let alone the fact that the Saviour quoted Deuteronomy with great frequency (along with Psalms and Isaiah, the most quoted biblical texts by Jesus in the Gospels), there are huge problems with summoning the Book of Mormon as some sort of prosecution witness. The Book of Mormon not only describes the Plates of Brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11), but also explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy. 1 Nephi 22:20 & 3 Nephi 20:23 (both quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19) are the clearest examples of this, but 2 Nephi 11:3//Deuteronomy 19:15 also has a clear connection, as does possibly Mormon 8:20//Deuteronomy 32:35-36. This is explicit quotations alone (that is, places where the Book of Mormon makes clear it is referring to an outside source), let alone other connections. The ideological connections between the two books also seem clear, with both books clearly marking out blessings and cursings attached to a land, depending upon the righteousness of the people. Christensen argues that ‘“Nephi qualifies remarkably well as a representative of the wisdom tradition as Barker reconstructs it”’, but I am unconvinced, and moreover see Nephi’s emphasis on the importance of keeping the commandments of God and attendant blessings as being much more closely aligned with Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history than Christensen appears to allow.

Mischaracterising Deuteronomy

The specific points upon which Barker and Christensen criticise Deuteronomy also seem to misunderstand Deuteronomy in those specific passages. Thus Deuteronomy 4:6 (“Keep therefore and do them [the statutes and judgments of the Lord]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”), is not substituting the Law for wisdom – but emphasising the wisdom of keeping the commandments, that real wisdom lies in obeying God. After all, the Book of Mormon makes similar comments, that “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God.” (Alma 37:35). Likewise Deuteronomy 4:12 does not directly contradict Exodus 24:9-11, because the former is addressed to all Israel, not the seventy elders of Exodus 24. Nor does Deuteronomy 30:11-12 deny revelation, but rather emphasises (again in the context of obedience) the accessibility of the the commandments – ‘it is not in heaven’, but neither (in v. 13) is it ‘beyond the sea’, because ‘the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it’ (v.14 – the emphasis on doing it being present in both verses 12 & 13 also)!

Likewise, while Deuteronomy 32:8-9 according to a reading found in the Dead Sea scrolls does read ‘sons of God’ instead of ‘sons of Israel’, it does not follow if that reading is correct (Christensen assumes it is, which since he assumes Deuteronomy is the product of those ‘suppressing’ ‘temple theology’, raises questions as to how it somehow expresses the suppressed theology) that what it is necessarily describing is an apportioning out of the nations to different gods, nor does it necessarily follow that ‘the LORD’ (‘Yahweh’) in verse 9 is being described as one of the sons of ‘El Elyon’ (‘the most High’, since verse 8 actually only uses the word ‘Elyon’), since it could easily be read as an alternative name for ‘the most High’). Here Christensen may be influenced by the tendency amongst Latter-day Saints to believe that ‘Yahweh’ – ‘the LORD’ in the KJV, but also anglicised as Jehovah, must refer to Christ. However, this distinction in names is a modern LDS practice, and quickly falls apart when applied to scripture. Thus Psalm 110:1, quoted by Christ in relation to himself (in Matthew 22:44 and Luke 20:42), reads: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” As Christ himself applies the verse, ‘my Lord’ (‘Adonai’) is a reference to Christ, which means that ‘The LORD’, ‘Yahweh’, can only apply here to the Father. Likewise Deuteronomy 6:4 (‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD’) quickly becomes nonsense if Elohim is taken as referring only to the Father and Yahweh only to the son, while in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, Lord (presumably an equivalent term) is used seemingly interchangeably or applying to both, while in Abraham 3:27 (and throughout that chapter), Lord is clearly referring to the Father.


A major part of Barker’s and Christensen’s thesis depends on supposed indications that Jeremiah opposed at least a portion of the Deuteronomistic reforms, and that Jeremiah did not condemn practices supposedly part of this ‘temple theology’. Thus Christensen appeals to Jeremiah 1:18, which speaks of Jeremiah becoming ‘…a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.’ This is to my mind some of the best evidence for this supposed tension between Jeremiah and Josiah. There are several problems however. Such a description can more easily be applied to Jeremiah’s relationships with Josiah’s successors who – at least from the perspective of the Deuteronomistic historian, who described them as wicked – did not follow Josiah’s ideas. Indeed much of the book of Jeremiah describes his relationships with those kings, with little for Josiah himself.

Christensen also appeals to several parts of Jeremiah to claim some condemnation of rejection of hidden wisdom on the part of the Deuteronomists. Yet Jeremiah 8:8-9 is in the context of a condemnation of idolatry (see v.2 and v.17 of that chapter), acts hardly encouraged by the Deuteronomists (indeed, Barker and Christensen think they went too far with that act!). Jeremiah 9:12-13, meanwhile, far from strengthening his argument possibly undermines it with its concern for law, as the words ‘Who is the wise man, that may understand this?’ are followed in the following verse by a condemnation that begins ‘And the Lord saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein;’ (my emphasis)

Christensen also argues that Jeremiah’s condemnation of those burn offerings and make cakes to the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah 44:17-19 should be compared ‘with his complaints about those who trusted in the temple without taking care to “thoroughly amend your ways and your doings,” that is, trusting ritual without repentance and sacrifices without personal obedience.’ This is an extraordinary claim, suggesting that Jeremiah saw nothing innately wrong with the worship of the Queen of Heaven, and indeed by the analogy that ‘Jeremiah does look forward to valid worship in the house of the Lord’, that such worship is in fact divinely authorised. He misses Jeremiah’s far more pungent denunciation of such practices in Jeremiah 7:18-20:

The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.

Do they provoke me to anger? saith the Lord: do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces?

Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.

Jeremiah here is clearly not describing this as an otherwise acceptable practice. Likewise from an LDS perspective have such practices ever constituted an acceptable act? Quite the opposite, as made clear repeatedly, for as Doctrine and Covenants 20:19 states, God gave mankind ‘commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship.’ Likewise, trying such things will quickly get you excommunicated today. Similar comments apply to Christensen’s claim that Lehi ‘had his vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8), the great symbol of wisdom that Josiah had recently removed from the temple and burned (2 Kings 23:5).’ Not only do I highly doubt Lehi would have equated his vision with Asherah, but the typo here of 2 Kings 23:5 is highly entertaining (v.6 is clearly intended), since verse 5 refers to Josiah putting down the priests that ‘that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven’ – all part of the parcel with the Asherah worship. Likewise, the Asherah itself was only placed there in the reign of King Manasseh, Josiah’s father (2 Kings 21:7).

Christensen also accuses Josiah and his reforms of the killing of the prophets (again emphasising that he does not merely see Josiah and Jeremiah as having mere disagreements), claiming that ‘Jeremiah had also described the violence against prophets as something very public: “Your own sword hath devoured your prophets like a destroying lion . . . also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the poor innocents: I have not found it by secret search but upon all of these” (Jeremiah 2:30, 36)[sic – actual source is 20:30 & 34]’, and that ‘the most conspicuous account of extensive public violence conducted by the people in power is that of Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23:20‘. Yet Christensen again misses King Manasseh, the likely reference, who ‘shed innocent blood very much’ (2 kings 21:16, cf. 2 Kings 24:4), which not only shares the idea of innocent blood being shared, but whose reign Jeremiah himself explicitly states is the reason for the forthcoming exile: ‘And I will cause them to be removed into all kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.’ (Jeremiah 15:4)!

Looking beyond the mark

Christensen also appeals to Jacob in the Book of Mormon, noting particularly Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.

Yet there are problems with Christensen’s appeal here. He describes Jacob as a ‘temple priest’, a rather overwrought description considering Jacob is described as teaching one sermon in the temple (Jacob 2-3, as described in Jacob 1:17, 2:2, 2:11), and in fact specifically mentions in the latter reference that Jacob was commanded ‘get thou up into the temple on the morrow, and declare the word which I shall give thee unto this people’. Teaching at the temple has a long scriptural history – it doesn’t make those figures ‘temple priests’. Such a description however highlights what I suspect is both a major reason for the appeal of Barker amongst some LDS scholars, and a major part of the problem; namely the desire of some to find similarities to current LDS temple worship in previous dispensations.

What’s aggravating about this is that there is little to no need to do this. As Doctrine and Covenants 84:23-25 states, in reference to higher priesthood, and the ordinances by which ‘the power of godliness is manifest’ (v.20) of which the temple ordinances are part:

Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.

Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also;

The Israelites as a whole (there were individual exceptions) did not have access to the higher priesthood, nor the associated ordinances of the temple. Likewise, while it is likely that (having no Levites among them), the Nephites priesthood authority was that of the Melchizedek priesthood (Alma 13:6-9), there is nothing in the Book of Mormon to suggest that Nephites generally had access to temple ordinances as we’d understand them before the coming of Christ – they used them like the Israelites did, to perform the ordinances of the Mosaic law (Mormon’s comments relative to the Saviour’s teaching on Malachi 4 in 3 Nephi 26:8-11 suggest things changed at that point). This shouldn’t surprise us – that such things weren’t available or were unknown earlier is part of the very point of this dispensation (D&C 128:18). Yet it seems some scholars’ eagerness to find evidence for something we shouldn’t expect to find there leads them to project present day LDS temple worship on previous dispensations (as here too). This should be very much avoided, not just because its mistaken, but we should also be careful to avoid the possible danger of gospel hobbies. The temple serves vital purposes, but it is not the sum total of the gospel, and we shouldn’t expect to see it everywhere we look.

This applies likewise to Jacob’s very own words. Christensen argues  ‘Jacob’s “mark” must be a reference to the anointed high priest of the first temple. Those who received the anointing were those who took upon themselves the name of the anointed, the Messiah.’ Yet there is no must about it. The evidence strained: Barker is appealing to the Babylonian Talmud, which is over a millenium later than the first temple period. Even if one were to accept that as relevant, why should a diagonal cross be decisively associated with the Messiah? Jacob’s words do not require a temple-centric reading here. To return to Jacob 4:14:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble. (My emphasises)

There is no need here to understand the mark here as a sign, but rather as a target, goal or object, who is Christ. The danger portrayed here is not that of scriptures being ‘edited during transmission’ as Christensen alleges, but of looking beyond the simple and seeking  things ‘they could not understand’ – desires which God ultimately granted, but giving them ‘many things which they cannot understand’. This not only hardly tallies with an accusation against Deuteronomy (where the clear emphasis on obedience and covenantal loyalty is simple, especially compared to the temple theology expressed by Barker), but seems to warn in the other direction.  The most important things are simple, and plain, it warns – and we should refrain from trying to overcomplicate it for our own intellectual amusement or God might grant us our wish.

Edit: Edited to clarify re gospel hobbies.

Studying other people’s religions

So, last post I thought for a bit about the injunction to learn by study and by faith, particularly with its relevance to my own current studies on the Book of Mormon, but my thoughts on the matter seem to have some deeper conclusions. If there’s a need to ground particular presuppositions on the gospel, and this leads to a different approach and possibly modified methods to conventional religious studies, does this continue to apply when studying other people’s religions? I believe so. I do not believe it is coherent to turn away from from particular approaches because its grounding presuppositions are wrong, and yet fall back on those approaches merely because we’re studying someone else’s religion.

In particular, I believe an approach grounded on gospel-based presuppositions actually offers greater reasons for the study of other religions, and some guidance for how we should approach this matter. I haven’t seen too many LDS-centred approaches to this matter, the few I’ve seen mostly just quoting Krister Stendahl. While I believe his advice is mostly good, I do believe we can go further. So without further ado:

Why study other religions?

I certainly believe this is worth doing (or I wouldn’t have done the batchelors & masters I did), but why? I think the following reasons are valid:

  1. Curiosity – Best to get this out the way first. Simplest reason for wanting to know a thing is because you want to know it. This, like many of the things I’m going to mention, isn’t LDS-specific of course, but the Doctrine & Covenants in particular emphasises the importance and value of knowledge. Knowledge enlarges the soul (D&C 121:42), no man can be saved in ignorance (131:6) and whoever gains knowledge will have “advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19), and while there’s certainly a prioritisation in terms of different kinds of knowledge, with particular importance in gaining wisdom (2 Nephi 9:28), and with certain types of knowledge accessible only through revelation (Jacob 4:8). Yet at the same time while some knowledge may be better or best, others are at least good and if we are not neglecting the weightier things are worth learning, especially as revelation emphasises the importance of learning about “history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man” (D&C 93:53). When we add in the simple fact that religion is one of the most powerful motivations known to man, simple curiosity about the subject cannot be considered ignoble.
  2. To gather truth – God sends his “word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:7) and grants “unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). A First Presidency statement in 1978 goes on to state: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” Thus while the Church has authority and truth that other religions do not, and which people need, it does not possess a monopoly of truth. People in other religions have access to a portion of truth to, sometimes a great portion. If we are interested in truth, especially truth about God, studying other religions can help us gain more of it. Now I do not believe this is by means of assembling a pot-pourri of collected ideas from everywhere and nowhere, governed only by personal preference. Here what has been revealed to the Church, particularly in the Standard works (hence the name!) can help act as a standard to help test truth. But what studying other religions certainly can do is prompt us to study more and seek the guidance of the spirit, and thus find authentication, and even elaboration of the truth when we find it. It can also prompt us to reflect better on truth we already know, and strive to live it better – this perhaps akin to Stendahl’s concept of holy envy. I personally found from my time living in Jerusalem that even the physical way the different groups out there treated the scriptures with reverence made a deep impression on my mind.
  3. To serve in the kingdom and prepare for missionary work – There’s an important caveat about this that I’ll get in to below, but part of the reason for articulated for gaining knowledge “of countries and of kingdoms” is “That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you”, which includes being sent out to “testify and warn the people” (D&C 88:78-81). Particularly in Missionary work, knowing where people are coming from and what they know is important. As a missionary (and I know I’m not alone in this) I taught people from a tremendous variety of backgrounds, and learned first had that when teaching Chinese Buddhists, for example, I had to spend quite a bit more time on the whole God business that I did when teaching Kurdish Muslims or Scottish Christians. Likewise, I found that Muslims tended to get the whole dispensation concept far quicker than Christians because that’s how they saw history (and amongst well-informed Christians the word dispensation could get very misleading because it is used very differently).

Principles in studying other religions

So having justified to myself at least why it’s worth studying other religions, what principles could be of possible use in doing this? I’m not going to attempt to provide an exhaustive list here, or provide the fully reworked methodologies I suggested would be necessary last post, mainly because I haven’t got that far yet. But there’s a few points that occur to mind.

  • Bearing true witness – I word it like that (rather than just “tell the truth” or “be accurate”) because it struck me recently how in the Ten Commandments the commandment is not thou shalt not lie, but “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). That’s not to say that lying is acceptable (after all, unrepentant liars find themselves in an unpleasant location), but that it particularly condemns lies about other people. This is of particular concern where talking about other peoples religions, and Latter-day Saints, who have been particularly subject to both accidental and deliberate misrepresentation should probably be sensitive about doing the same to other people. When talking about other religions, we should strive to accurately reflect their beliefs and practices. As part of this, Stendahl’s first rule of religious understanding (“When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies”) can be helpful, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the suggestion discussed (but not universally embraced) within secular religious studies that a description of a religion should be recognisable to its adherents. Above all, we must avoid misrepresentation. This can go the other way too – the BYU Religions of the World manual contains a number of flaws (I had the opportunity to double-check a number of things, particularly the references on Zoroastrianism), which I suspect emerge from a well-intentioned desire to find similarities but which ended up finding them when they weren’t really there. When speaking or writing about another religion, we have to let them disagree with us.
  • The aim is not to disprove any religion – This is the caveat I mentioned earlier in regards to missionary work. Personally it’s a very poor approach that I don’t feel works anyway, and which I believe causes us to look at another’s beliefs with entirely the wrong feelings. We can disagree without being disagreeable – and we can especially avoid being a jerk rather than a responsible student (the aim here is to learn, after all). Moreover, Latter-day Saints are “contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil” (D&C 18:20) and if we needed any further ideas on where that sort of thing leads, we learn from the Saviour that “contention is not of me, but is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29).
  • Spiritual experiences are real and universal – Here I feel is a particular point that LDS doctrine can specifically bring to bear on this subject, and that has a number of implications on the presuppositions we bring and on methodology. Religious experiences have not gone unstudied within religious studies, with a particular approach of phenomenology being quite interested in them. But other parts of religious studies have been quite sceptical about these things (wanting to reduce such things to psychology or economics), while phenomenology generally seems to have issues with really probing what such experiences actually are, or accounting for different sorts. There’s limitations whenever looking at an experience felt individually, of course, but LDS doctrine teaches us (hopefully from experience!) that spiritual experiences are real things, doing with an objective God and not just some subjective internal experience. Moreover, while full access to such experiences and a proper understanding of them might be limited to the restored gospel, we also know that “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man” (Moroni 7:16), that people can feel the Holy Ghost outside of the Church and, per the First Presidency statement quoted earlier, a number of religious leaders “received a portion of God’s light”. While there are false or ungodly spiritual experiences around (D&C 46:7), there are a number outside of the Church that are both genuine and godly. Lest it be forgotten, Joseph Smith received the first vision prior to the restoration of the Church. Such accounts should not be accepted uncritically, of course, but what LDS doctrine offers is a way of comprehending that many (including a number of crucial historical figures) did experience something genuine that changed their lives, and possibly the course of human history, and latter-day revelation offers us the opportunity to test the accounts of these. This offers enormous potential in understanding other religions. In particular, this offers us the prospect of being able to understand the true motivations of particular historical individuals, without reducing them to frauds, or sincere but somehow not quite there individuals, or just trying to ignore the subject of what made them change things in the first place. Having so much, from the standard works and our own experiences, allows us to truly try and understand these individuals where the only alternative is to remain in complete ignorance. And if we can only get so far, we can hope for and expect further revelation that can shed further light.

As I said, not an attempt at a comprehensive set a suggestion but rather a few random thoughts. But if the Gospel is true, then surely using what we know to be true from it to both guide  and inform our study of other religions can only offer the prospect of greater understanding and knowledge.

By Study and also by Faith

What with the shakedown at the Maxwell Institute last year, and its apparent move in the direction of a secular religious studies approach I’ve been thinking somewhat about this phrase and its relevance to my own studies. I’m doing a PhD on the Book of Mormon, a book I hold as scripture. While my particular approach for my thesis does not rely on any particular view of the Book of Mormon – so my arguments should hold regardless of what one thinks about origin – yet doing this means I do have to think about what it means for me personally, and where I’m going in the future, and broader ideas about how to study scripture and religion.


And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118)

There are several things that strike me about this instruction:

  • “As all have not faith” – Part of the reason for this teaching, reading the “best books” (which surely includes the scriptures) and learning is because we need more faith. Knowledge is not antithetical to faith, but can support it. And promoting faith should be a goal of our studies.
  • “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” – Faith is not just a goal, it is a means by which we seek learning, coupled with study.

It seems clear what to seek learning “by study” means, but what does it mean to seek learning “by faith”? What I don’t believe it is, is simply an effort to seek learning by study by those who incidentally happen to have faith. In other words, secular religious studies would not fulfil this instruction simply because it happens to be done by people who happen to be church members, whatever their faith or standing. That’s really no different from such an approach by anyone else. To seek learning by study and also by faith must differ from study alone, and that difference must be greater that whoever happens to be doing it. Faith cannot be a mere incidental factor here.

No, just as zeal without knowledge only illuminates part of the picture (Romans 10:2), so too is study without faith, particularly when studying something like the scriptures. The two must be coupled together. How then to seek learning by faith? I’m still trying to work out what that entails. Obedience (D&C 130:20)? Inspiration (2 Ne. 25:4)? These may be supremely helpful on a personal basis, but are a little different when if one is speaking or writing to others.

I do believe though, that one aspect may rest on the presuppositions we bring to our studies. Virtually every discipline and methodology rests on particular presuppositions, many of them unstated. In my personal experience weaving my way through religious studies, it is even possible for many scholars to be unaware or unthinking about the assumptions that lie behind their methods. Many of these assumptions are in my mind highly questionable and need to be tested – and some of those rest on assumptions that are antithetical to faith. Others are tied to modern western culture, and are just very different from those of the restored gospel, something I became very aware of even back in my first year. To embrace those methods, and thus those assumptions (even if unconsciously), is hardly coupling faith with study. Rather, to seek learning by study and by faith requires us to test presuppositions (by study) and ground them in the restored gospel (by faith). Such an approach, however, means that methods cannot simply be imported from wider academia – not without proper examination of their presuppositions and necessary modification. This leads inevitably to something quite different from secular religious studies. That’s not to say that things cannot be learned from the field – but they cannot be accepted uncritically.