A Bible! A Bible! We have got a 76 Bible[s]

Sometimes I get a trifle confused at things that I really shouldn’t. The other day I got a little confused because someone left their scriptures at home beside their bed where they had last been reading them. I was a trifle baffled for a micro-second, before I remembered that most people did not have sets of scriptures for studying with, and a separate set for taking to church. And yet more sets for when working on the thesis. And more sets for when I happened to be working away from home on the thesis. And yet more sets, because that old Bible looked really lonely in the charity shop, and needed a new home…

I’ll begin again. I’m David Richards, and I have a problem…

However, while it is true that I have an inordinate number of books of scripture, and not always for the most rational of reasons, sometimes a different set can offer a genuine benefit. So I’ve used differently Bible translations from time to time. Sometimes, however, even just a different format can offer distinctive benefits. Sometimes people aren’t always aware of these, so I thought I’d share what I’m currently using for my own personal reading (I tend to change them from time to time):

IMG_20170410_160206512

For the Book of Mormon, I’m using a 1830 replica published by Herald Publishing House (the Community of Christ – formerly RLDS – publishing house). I think I ordered it some years ago, I’m pretty sure directly and it was very inexpensive, particularly since it was coming across the Atlantic. As a replica, it also reproduces some faded script and wonky pages that may have been part of the original too. However, there’s a couple of reasons that make it worth reading over a more recent edition. One is paragraphs!

IMG_20170410_160236575

Ta da!

This makes a huge difference in reading, much more than people may expect. The 1830 edition isn’t perfect in this regards: the paragraphing was largely done by the typesetter (the original manuscript was largely without paragraphing or punctuation), and sometimes those paragraphs can extend for several pages. But it still often reads better than “spreadsheet” format. It is my dream that one day the official LDS edition will also revert to paragraphs (for those looking at a modern edition that does, Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon puts the 1920 LDS edition into paragraphs, while Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text employs sense-lines).

The other significant difference is that it does not have the chapter and verse system imposed by the 1879 edition. Considering how we moderns tend to use chapters and verses to break our reading up, this means we sometimes treat the same speech, for example, as several separate disconnected parts, and miss the overarching theme. It’s as if we only listened to conference talks in 5 minute segments, and insisted on leaving 24 hours between listening. The 1830 edition has chapters which appear to stem from the original manuscript, but they are longer, and in some cases divide the text in different places. Again, that can all make a bigger difference when reading than many might suppose.

The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (in this case the personal size, which is quite affordable via Amazon, although in my case it was a much appreciated gift) is a version of the King James Version. It has modern spelling and punctuation, but most importantly (as the name suggests) it is also paragraphed!

IMG_20170410_160423867

Ta da harder?

One again, paragraphs make a big difference. While the KJV can be difficult for many people (and there are some books where it legitimately is), at least part of the difficulty is often the formatting. So far reading the NCPB is much easier on the eyes, which allows more attention to be devoted to the word itself rather than wrangling with how they are arranged. I recommend it.

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.

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, http://www.safarmer.com/Indo-Eurasian/Walid_Saleh.pdf.

[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.

Lost in the jungle #3 – Even more of my issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

The conclusion of my rambling list of intense disagreements, methodological quibbles, and minor nitpicks of the “Journey of Faith: The New World” DVD:

  1. Following on from where I left off, the DVD speaks of Teancum’s assassination of Amalickiah at New Years, and asserts this would be particularly disorientating in the face of the New Years Rituals the King was expected to perform. A problem here is that there is no such evidence for such rituals in the Book of Mormon, especially since Amalickiah was in the field with his army. Indeed, much of the evidence of such rituals in ancient societies often rests on slender threads, being the product of things like the myth and ritual school which have tended to receive more questioning in recent times. Incidentally, the murder of the head of state tends to be disconcerting anyway, especially when he was camping in the middle of a loyal army.
  2. Incidentally on the New Years day thing, Daniel Peterson notes that the association of this time of year with ‘the heat of the day’ (Alma 51:33) indicates that this shows it did not happen near New York, or at a different time of the year from our New Year, ‘probably both’. I’d actually largely agree with that, although strictly it only requires one or the other, but maybe he should have a word with those who inadvertently suggest the Nephites are using a modern calendar, and that this reference proves a particular geography.
  3. The suggestion is given that swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon were the weapons used in Mesoamerica, using obsidian blades on wooden swords. It should be noted there is no reference to Obsidian in the Book of Mormon and that Metal blades are definitely described in Ether 7:9 & implied in 2 Nephi 5:14. The latter references are not disputed, although perhaps inconsistent with a Mesoamerican setting – one presenter suggested the obsidian blades helped make up for a decline in metal technology, but there’s no textual evidence of such a decline. A possible point for such weapons was brought up with Ammons converts, who spoke of their swords being ‘stained’ with blood (Alma 24:12-13) – however, this also speaks of their swords becoming ‘bright’, so could also possibly be a point against.
  4. As an addendum to the above discussion, it should be mentioned that blood was sacred in cultures other than Mesoamerica – including biblical ones.
  5. The general descriptions of armour, protecting the head, body and arms in some fashion, but not the legs, can also match cultures other than Mesoamerica. They also speak at one point of the lower legs being unarmed, but strictly speaking, Alma 49:24 just mentions legs.
  6. The cataclysm that is associated with the Crucifixion of Christ is explained as Volcanic in the DVD. Certainly some of the phenomena (like the thick darkness), sound quite similar. As a nitpick, however, the first thing mentioned is a storm (3 Nephi 8:5). The overall description sounds like a number of different disasters.
  7. Another quibble, but the voice heard during the darkness doesn’t just say “I am Jesus Christ” and is then followed by silence – there is a whole discourse that makes up the bulk of 3 Nephi 9 and then there’s silence. Then the voice of the Saviour is heard some more.
  8. I really wasn’t sure of S. Kent Brown’s whole description of the ‘three ways’ in which Christ healed the people, but in particular the second of his ‘ways’, that Christ healed them of the feeling of being ‘displaced’, doesn’t really seem to jump from the text, and sound very woolly too.
  9. Nor can the claim that his visit was very different from what happened in Jerusalem be accepted uncritically. While Christ’s ministry to the Nephites is not a carbon copy, many of the elements have biblical parallels, indeed some of them receive greater emphasis by recognising them. Thus the people feeling the wounds in his hands and side, an echo of his encounter with Thomas; the quotation of the Sermon on the Mount; his interactions with the children; his conferral of the Holy Ghost, his intercessory prayer, his institution of the sacrament and the translation of three of his disciples all share deep connections with comparable biblical episodes, even if they vary in detail and magnitude.
  10. At this point, there was a very odd discussion about the implementation of government during the Utopia that follows Christ’s ministry, including the suggestion (from S. Kent Brown, I think) that the only government was the twelve disciples. I don’t know how or why he reads it in this way. At the very least, we know that in the Church there were Priests & Teachers also (Moroni 3:1), and there doesn’t seem any suggestion that there were no other authorities, especially to administer temporal things (compare the call of the Seven in Acts, specifically to free the twelve there from such things – Acts 6:1-6). There’s no real description of one, but the overall description is very brief – just twenty verses in 4 Nephi.
  11. The comment is made, in speaking of Mormon and his character, about him being ‘continually renewed in his hope for these people’. This description doesn’t quite seem to grasp him, seeing that one one occasion he confessed he was ‘without hope’ for his people (Mormon 5:2). Part of Mormon’s greatness seems, to me at least, not that he was eternally hopeful, but that even when he wasn’t he continued to perservere.
  12. The claim is made by Sorenson about a number of settlements abandoned around 350 AD. Recapping from the chronology issue discussed in the first post of this list, this seems to be about by around a couple of centuries, with El Mirador being abandoned by 150 AD.
  13. Brant Gardner appears to identify Teotihuacan as the land of many waters. This seems problematic, since the land described as such in the Book of Mormon appears to be Cumorah (Mormon 6:4), which Gardner does not identify with Teotihuacan. Likewise, speaking of the region as being deprived of trees, this was true earlier, but Helaman 3:9 records them allowing trees to spring up so they might have sufficient timber, suggesting the region may possibly not have been so deprived in Mormon’s time.
  14. Reference is also made to Teotihuacan’s conquest, or installation of vassal ruler in the late 4th century, and Brant Gardner appears to suggest Teotihuacan’s expansion from the north played a significant role in the collapse of Nephite civilisation. However, the Book of Mormon does not describe any threat from the North, nor any threat other than the Lamanites and Gadianton Robbers. If the principal actor was someone else, and were acting from the other direction, one would expect this to be mentioned. This is especially apparent as the treaty made with the Lamanites divides the land at the narrow neck, leaving the Nephites the land northward, and the Lamanites ‘all the land southward’ (Mormon 2:29). Furthermore, nearly all the military action in the following two chapters (Mormon 3 & 4) is described as happening around Desolation, a city ‘by the narrow pass which led into the land southward’ (Mormon 3:5), and the city of Teancum, which was nearby (4:3). Only after Desolation has fallen for the last time do we get a battle elsewhere (at Boaz, v.20) and only after that has fallen does the war move on – further suggesting that the fighting was concentrated at a strategic bottleneck until that bottleneck had been seized by the Lamanites. If there were a hostile power to the north, the war wouldn’t work like that.
  15. Likewise, Mormon’s comments about the war stretch rather further that merely ‘a change in the rules of warfare’, as suggested by Gardner, who appears to suggest such changes are likewise the result of Teotihuacan’s outside influence. Mormon’s lament goes much further, that it his own people who have become ‘brutal’ (Moroni 9:19), ‘without order and without mercy’ (v.18), who have rapidly descended from a civilised to uncivilised people (v.11-12). This moral decay seems to go far beyond an altered code of warfare, and it appears to rob the account of its power and purpose to suggest that it is the result of an outside cultural influence, rather than (as I believe it is depicted) as the people’s own fall into depravity because of their rejection of righteousness. Indeed, certain 20th century parallels might be better to understand what Mormon went through.

A final disclaimer at the end of the DVD, emphasing the need and importance of a spiritual witness over any scholarly evidence, made me feel somewhat better about this DVD. Likewise, the last half an hour, which concentrated more of things happening within the Book of Mormon rather than reading in Mesoamerican material, was better. Overall, however, I’m not sure I could recommend this DVD. I have my issues with the first, both in presentation and in details, but feel the average viewer might get something out of it, but these issues with the second DVD seem to overwhelm it.

In particular, I felt the hermenuetic of finding Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon was the major flaw, with several symptoms: allowing circular arguments to go unexamined; a sort of ‘parallelomania’, where any sort of parallel, no matter how loose and general with the rest of the world, was taken as evidence; and especially the tendency to see the Mesoamerica in things that definitely aren’t Mesoamerican, such as Abinadi’s quotation of Exodus, or the broken heart & contrite spirit. I don’t believe the Book of Mormon’s geography is, in any case, one of the important or that interesting questions, but allowing a particular assumption about the geography to govern the interpretation of the book is badly flawed as an interpretive scheme.

Lost in the jungle #2 – More of my issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

The continuation of my list of bugs, major and minor, with “Journey of Faith: The New World”, which places the events of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica:

  1. The DVD again associates Nephite Temples with the Mesoamerican Temples, stating that all these cultures were temple centred, and asserts that the Nephites were similar, the difference being the covenants the Nephites made at their temples. The issue here is although we know the Nephites had temples (Nephi’s, Zarahemla, Bountiful)and others and so did the Lamanites (Alma 23:2), we don’t have any real details of what was done in them. Sacrifice, based on the OT model, is probable, and three sermons are mentioned as taking place at temples (Jacob’s in Jacob 2-3, King Benjamin’s and Christ’s), but there is no record of covenant-making at temples in the Book of Mormon. These seems more a projection of present LDS ordinances on the Nephite dispensation, particularly since the big covenant-making scenes in the Book of Mormon, (such as that at the waters of Mormon or Ammon’s converts) tend not to take place at the Temple. The one at the end of King Benjamin’s sermon would be an exception – but of course it’s noted there that most people couldn’t fit physically in the temple, and it is the teachings in the sermon, rather than physical location, that are pivotal for the covenant making.
  2. The DVD spends some time claiming that a Mesoamerican maize deity reflects similar religious ideas, as this deity too dies and is resurrected. However, vegetation deities who die and are reborn appear throughout many cultures – Adonis, Tammuz and Osiris, for example. Such general parallels are not sufficient, since in many cases they can be found widely, as above, and in specifics they can often differ drastically and attempts to treat them as simplistic parallels are often highly reductionistic.
  3. The DVD also makes much of the descriptions of the Book of Mormon peoples becoming idolatrous, and associating this with Mesoamerican idols. Again, however, idols are not particular to Mesoamerica, but widespread. Moreover, while on some occasions idols does appear to refer to the specific concept, on other occasions the Book of Mormon appears to use it in a wider sense. Thus Alma hears that the Zoramites ‘bow down before dumb idols’ (Alma 31:1), but as he (and the reader) find out, they actually worship one god who is spirit (v.15-17). Their idolatry appears to rest more upon things like their denial of Christ, and particularly the fact that they set their hearts upon their gold and riches (v.24).
  4. King Benjamin’s statement during his sermon, that he is not ‘more than a mortal man’ (Mosiah 2:10) is claimed to be a specific denial of divine kingship. Again, however, divine kingship is not particular to Mesoamerica, has many precedents in the ancient near east, and the text may not be a specific denial of that point anyway – much of the wider context is on Benjamin’s kingship and his conduct of it, and Benjamin does not appear to belabour that specific point.
  5. Likewise, much is made of Amulek’s discussion of the Atonement and sacrifice (including his statement ‘for it shall not be a human sacrifice’ Alma 34:10) and Mesoamerica’s record of human sacrifice. Yet again, however, human sacrifice, while a significant aspect of Mesoamerican culture, is not unique to it. Human sacrifice occurs elsewhere, including being mentioned in biblical precedents well-known to the Book of Mormon authors. Also, while human sacrifice is recorded in the Book of Mormon, it is only mentioned during the final collapse (Mormon 4:14,21) and not at any other time. Nor does Amulek’s sermon necessarily require human sacrifice to be the context, since he is actually speaking of the inefficacy of any kind of sacrifice and of Christ’s deity: “For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.” (Alma 34:10). His sermon continues to discuss the Atonement in light of the penalty for murder and then with Mosiac sacrifice (Alma 34:11-14), rather than human sacrifice.
  6. On this subject of human & ‘heart’ sacrifice, one of the DVD’s scholars asserts that references to a broken heart and contrite spirit are an allusion to this Mesoamerican practice. Again, this is seeing Mesoamerican roots in something which is palpably biblical, as in Psalms 34:18: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”
  7. Wars are drawn as a point of comparison, including Mesoamerica’s militarism. However, again this is not peculiar to Mesoamerica, and some of the most famous militarised societies are definitly not Mesoamerican (Sparta, for instance). Also, I’m not an expert on Mesoamerica, so am happy to be corrected on this, but it also appears that Mesoamerican warfare wasn’t really centred around conquest, but on pillage and vassalage – not the sort of wars we see described in the Book of Mormon.
  8. Likewise, I’m not sure the fortifications as described in the Book of Mormon are particularly Mesoamerican. Indeed, I recall reading a similar description (though in different words) in Xenophon’s Anabasis, although take that with a pinch of salt as I don’t have the reference to hand.
  9. There is also the claim that the seasons for fighting wars (and thus not harvest time, and so forth) match up between the Book of Mormon & Mesoamerica, namely the 11th to 2nd months. Unfortunately, there are significant problems with this, for even if the claim of the Book of Mormon months is correct (I haven’t checked it myself, although it could well be correct), it should be noted that those would be the 11th to 2nd months of their calendar, which is highly unlikely to correlate with ours (which is the one being used to time the Mesoamerican season). Indeed, upon investigation, this problem isn’ t solved, as can be seen when we seen Sorenson’s original argument here: “The Nephite war season, their tenth or eleventh through second or third months, must coincide with the period for Mesoamerican conflicts, that is, roughly November through February. That means that the Nephite year (at least in the first century B.C. when these wars were recorded) ran from the latter half of December around through December again.” Note that Sorenson is using the assumption that Mesoamerica is the place: “the most probable scene for the Nephite society”, to match the Nephite and Mesoamerican ‘seasons of war’. For someone else to then take that artificial correlation based on assuming a Mesoamerican locale, and then to assert it as evidence of Mesoamerican location is incredibly circular. Moreover, it leaves us inevitably (since the numbers of the months have to match up) with a incredibly unlikely correlation between our own and the Nephite calendar. Sorenson blurs this a bit by arguing from the latter half of December to December, though with little evidence (he says a ‘good guess’ is it ran from the winter solstice, but there is no evidence of this within the Book of Mormon), but admits that it is ‘quite close to our own calendar’. Furthermore, we do have a rough season for the Nephite New Year later on, as Christ’s death (which would coincide with Passover, and so the spring) is noted as taking place on the 4th days of the 1st month of the 34th year (3 Nephi 8:5). Incidentally, Passover is to take place in the 1st Month of the Israelite calendar, though on the 14th day of the month (Exodus 21:2-6). From what I understand, Sorenson does assume the year was changed at the sign of his birth, but it then seems very unlikely that the Nephites would develop a calendar synchronised with the modern western calendar, and then ditch it for one which incidentally was pretty close to the one they must have started with!

Lost in the jungle part one – issues with "Journey of Faith: The New World"

As I mentioned in the last post, I had fewer issues with the original “Journey of Faith” than its sequel. The original aimed to cover Lehi’s journey through the wilderness and, while I have issues with a number of assertions, is perhaps narrow enough to prevent wilder flights of fancy. However, the sequel – “Journey of Faith: The New World” – covers both a far greater amount, timewise and textually, but is also necessarily speculative about its geographical locale. The dvd chooses to place this unambiguously in the FARMS (now Maxwell Institute) preferred location of Mesoamerica, with few caveats.

This presents a difficulty. Personally I adopt a very cautious approach to Book of Mormon geography, since while I believe it happened somewhere, there’s issues with nearly all the proposed locations, including Mesoamerica. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, and some of those issues may well be resolved in time, but I am personally reluctant to designate anywhere as the likely place. What I am especially opposed to, however, is the practice of reading some other source, whatever it is, into the Book of Mormon. All we have with the Book of Mormon is the text, and the only extent outside source it acknowledges is the Bible. Anything else is necessarily speculative, and reading that into it risks misreading the text. Unfortunately, this seems to have become the standard practice among a number of scholars. Brant Gardner (whose commentary I’m still trying to get hold of!) has expressed this as attempting “to find Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon rather than the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica”, a view endorsed by others as the Maxwell Institute. This to my mind is a very bad hermeneutical practice, because if we look at any text through any particular preconception, we will find evidence of it there. The same approach is pursued by those seeking nineteenth century parallels, with the same seemingly positive results. Worse, if the lens we use happens to untrue, then we will seriously misread the text. I believe this is responsible for a number of the issues I discuss below and in the next post.

Speaking of which, here are the first set of various issues, major and minor, I have with the documentary:

  1. Early on is a discussion of weather. Personally, I doubt there is sufficient mention of weather in the Book of Mormon to make much of this. The claim is there’s no mention of snow or ice – not strictly correct, though Nephi is still in the old world when he uses the word (1 Ne. 11:8), and its metaphorical – but much use of the terms is. The word Hail is used, though, in Mosiah 12:6 & Helaman 5:12. For comparison, the word ice is only used three times in the Old Testament (twice in Job & once in psalms) and once in the Doctrine and Covenants (133:26), and nowhere else in scripture.
  2. Discussion of others. Now a number of people have inferred that there are other people in the Book of Mormon lands who are unmentioned, arguing from things like population growth and inferring (possibly too much) from several incidents. I think, however, it is at best an inference. The DVD goes further, talking about ‘very different religious beliefs’ – of which there is no mention in the Book of Mormon (I’d argue that all the BoM schismatic groups described in detail clearly relate to Nephite religion). The DVD also seems to claim that a big problem was the challenge of keeping covenants in the face of the temptation to assimilate into far vaster populations – yet the the threat of assimilation is not even a minor theme of the Book of Mormon. The comparison the DVD makes to Canaan makes this especially evident – compare Joshua and Judges, with their repeated mention of the Canaanites, to the zero explicit mentions in the Book of Mormon.
  3. Likewise, there is no mention of the integration of such groups into the Book of Mormon peoples – this is largely inferred from population, and comments on ancestry. Nephite & Lamanite are largely ideological designations, true, but that could easily be for the sake of the various tribes that are explicitly discussed in the Book of Mormon.
  4. There’s the assertion that Book of Mormon cultural patterns match those of Mesoamerica, and that ‘all the evidence’ matches it. I’d dispute that, if more evidence was actually discussed in this section.
  5. In terms of discussion of the overall geography, there’s the assertion that the Book of Mormon lands are ‘hour-glass’ shaped. Alma 22:32 would suggest this isn’t strictly true of the south, which is ‘nearly surrounded by water’ (Alma 22:32).
  6. There’s the whole problem of the narrow neck in relation to the rest of the land. Sorenson and others use a fairly conservative estimate for distances, reckoning that an estimated 21 days from Nephi to Zarahemla would mean about 200 miles. However, when it comes to the narrow neck of land, which is given as a day’s (Helaman 4:7) or a day and a half’s (Alma 22:32) journey suddenly use veyr optimistic measures for a military runner, and equate this day/day and a half journey with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, some 125 miles across! This seems extremely inconsistent, especially as it leaves the narrow neck being over half the distance between Zarahemla and Nephi!
  7. Sorenson makes the claim that the designations of the lands as ‘land northward’ and the ‘land southward’, as opposed to ‘land north’ and ‘land south’, implies a tilt away from a north-south axis. This is possible, but is not a necessary conlusion from the text. Moreover, the lands around Isthmus of Tehuantepec could possibly be better described as near a east-west axis. I’ll also note that Sorenson’s specific claim about designations is wrong – on several occasions the Book of Mormon does refer to these lands as the ‘land north’ and the ‘land south’ (See Hel. 6:9-10 & 3 Nephi 1:17).
  8. Again, there’s the claim that the Book of Mormon has many of the cultural characteristics, and ‘all of the important’ ones, of Mesoamerican civilisation, including belief and religion. Nothing specific is offered at this point though.
  9. There is the claim of chronological correlation – that the various cultures of the mesoamerican region match up with those of the Book of Mormon. In particularl, the claim is that the Jaredites match the pre-Olmecs & Olmecs (dates given of 2200-200 BC) and the Nephites/Lamanites the late preclassic Maya (claimed 500 BC – AD 400). Unfortunately the dates given don’t seem to match the ones I can find – dates for Pre-Olmecs & Olmecs appear as 2500-400 BC, and as for Maya, the first settlements are apparently around 1800BC, and the pre-classic period (with its collapse) at aroun AD 250, with AD 100 – 250 being the period of collapse. One of the two major pre-classic maya city states is dated as collapse in AD 150. Perhaps these dates will be revised, but at present they do not match.
  10. There’s the general claim that there are cities. Well yes, but there’s cities lots of places in the world. A lot of time is spent on cement, but they don’t really seem to deal with the issue that the Nephites generally built out of wood (the land north is noted as an exception to this).
  11. There’s more chronological confusion around Teotihuacan, including an association with its building with the time of the Nephite diaspora in the 1st century BC. Problem – Teotihuacan appears to get going around 200 BC, about 150 years earlier. I can’t say I’m happy with sweeping assertions that the Nephites ‘must have’ known about Teotihuacan either. If they’re there, they never mention it.
  12. There’s discussion of the political structure, particularly of the Mesoamerican system of Kings and various vassal kings in comparison to the Lamanites. The problem is that as Lamoni is the actual son of the overall King of the Lamanites, this suggests a more permanant structure than that of hegemonic city states and impermanant vassals. Subordinate kings in any case are not peculiar to Mesoamerica (it’s in the Bible for starters), and of the course neither the Nephites nor the Jaredites are described as following that system. And of course visits by kings are state visits – this isn’t peculiar to Mesoamerica either!
  13. The claim is given that Nephi is in the mountain regions because one always travels ‘up’ to the city of Nephi. However, up and down may not correspond to altitude (for example, one always travels up to Jerusalem). It should also be noted that Ammon and his compatriots travel ‘down’ to the land of Nephi in Mosiah 7:6, although since they’re described on a hill in v.5, that might be a positive indication.
  14. There’s the claim that considering Nephi’s leadership skills (especially since here it is assumed he not only built a city and led a people, but assimilated a much larger population) that it isn’t surprising that the kings and keepers of the plates would come from Nephi’s line. Unfortunately, neither seems true – the keepers of the plates until King Benjamin came from Jacob’s line, while the language of Jacob 1:9 (that Nephi ‘anointed a man to be a king and a ruler’) suggests the kings, while adopting the name (v.11) weren’t descendents either.
  15. There’s discussion that there would be a variety of languages spoken, but it should be noted that the Book of Mormon gives little indication of this – a linguistic distinction is noted with the people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:17-19) and presumably the Jaredites (1:20-22), but Nephites and Lamanites appear to have few issues communicating (say between Zeniff & the Lamanites, or Limhi & the Lamanite King). While Amulon and his fellows are noted as later teaching the ‘language of Nephi’ to the Lamanites (Mosiah 24:4), that this is further specified as teaching them to make records and write to each other (Mosiah 24:6) suggests they were teaching a written, not a spoken language.
  16. I am by no means certain that the observation that Mormon was ‘quick to observe’ was in any way related to linguistic ability.
  17. The Sherem episode is proffered as evidence for ‘others’, but while it is interesting as the two do not seem to know each other directly, this seems doubtful evidence of an outsider. While language is mentioned, it appears to be a reference to his oratorical skills rather than learning a language: “And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.” (Jacob 7:4) Likewise his complaint, centred as it is on the meaning of the Law of Moses (v.7), seems an unlikely religious critique for an outsider.
  18. There’s the assertion that Nephi & Jacob’s use of the Isaiah is centred around the problem of how to include other people in the covenant. The problem is that both Nephi and Jacob appear to be applying this to the future gathering of Israel, rather than any present problem.
  19. I am not certain the Mulekites can be described as ‘losing a sense of who they were’ when it was Zarahemla who told Mosiah, well, who they were (Omni 1:18). Their language had become ‘corrupted’, and they’d lost their religion (v.17), but they knew (or at least claimed) an ancestry.
  20. In discussion of temples, Nephi specifically states he built his temple ‘after the manner of Solomon (2 Ne. 5:16). These do not match Mesoamerican temples.
  21. A big one here, and a real demonstration of the methodological problems I feel bedevil this production. The claim is made that in Mosiah 13:13, when Abinadi states that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of things which are in heaven above, or which are in the earth beneath, or which are in the water under the earth.” that this is a reflection of Mayan cosmology. This is very wrong, since Abinadi is actually quoting the ten commandments here (Exodus 20:4 in the verse in question), and explicitly so, as his earlier quotation in Mosiah 12:33-36 makes clear. Was Moses a Mayan? Of course not, and considering the explicitness of this quote, I am unsure as to how this mistake was perpetuated, except from what I discussed above – they are looking to the Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, and so anything that vaguely looks Mesoamerican, even when the book itself states it is quoting Exodus, is misinterpreted in that light.

The above present some serious problems, due largely I believe to importing this Mesoamerican preconception into their reading of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the above are not the sum total of these problems, which I shall finish in a final list tomorrow.

The grinding of teeth – my encounter with the "Journey of Faith" DVDs

Several Criticisms

I found myself the temporary recipient of two DVDs recently, namely the “Journey of Faith” and the “Journey of Faith: The New World”, produced by BYU’s Maxwell Institute and others. Now I had seen the first one before while in Jerusalem, but since people seemed really keen for me to watch these, I thought I’d do so in the light of my own research, seeing as my PhD research centers on the Book of Mormon too, even if I’m really not looking at the whole origin thing.

However, while I vaguely remembered not being too impressed with the first DVD when first watched, I did not anticipate that a second viewing would cause me to feel that I had overrated it, finding myself with a significant number of what I described as ‘professional differences’ with the content of the first dvd. If the first caused me concern, the second nearly overwhelmed it with my concerns about both its the methodology and conclusions, to the extent that I simply could not watch it one sitting. Now I’m sure that many of those involved are decent men & women and capable in their fields, but I found myself with serious reservations about much of the content of these dvds, especially the second. In an effort to get these out of my head, and in case anyone is interested, I thought I’d note these down here, though I’m not attempting any formal academic approach since I have enough of that elsewhere. Some of these are, in my opion, quite serious, others may be more like nit-picking. If anyone, however, has any criticisms of my criticisms, feel free to point them out. And so to my critique of the first dvd:

DVD 1: The Journey of Faith

  1. Contrary to the DVDs assertion, there is no evidence within the Book of Mormon that Lehi and his party followed any trade routes. This is the start of my big methodological bug bear, which is the tendency to read into the book things external to it.
  2. A trading background for Lehi likewise finds little evidence in the text. I believe this is an argument taken from High Nibley that’s proven very influential. Yes, Lehi is wealthy, no there’s no real indication that he got that by travelling as a trader.
  3. A city of 25,000 people may be small to some moderns, but it doesn’t mean that everyone there would know each other. I grew up in a town about the same size, and noone there did or could. Speculation about Nephi knowing Daniel or Ezekiel before their captivity is purely fanciful.
  4. Rather more serious is the assertion by S. Kent Brown that Lehi sacrificing after travelling three days in the wilderness was in compliance with the Law of Moses’ regulation forbidding sacrifice unless three days away from the sanctuary. Problem – no such regulation actually exists. Based on his article here, he appears to draw this idea from an article by David Seely here. However, Seely’s argument for this law relies upon one particular scholar’s interpretation of the Temple scroll, which in itself is the work of the Dead Sea secretaries five hundred years after Nephi! It should also be noted that Seely is offering this as one out of three potential explanations for why it would be permissible for Lehi to offer sacrifice in the first place – in other words, not only as Brown promoted a possible DSS teaching into one of the Laws of Moses, but the argument is circular anyway.
  5. I’m pretty sure Sariah had bigger concerns than ‘integrating new daughters-in-law into her family’. This seems a projection back of modern concerns.
  6. The length of stay in the valley of Lemuel is unknown; in particular the assertion that the first period of the journey was swift enough that the first children are born after Nahom may be undermined by Nephi’s reference to ‘our families’ earlier at Shazer (1 Ne. 16:14).
  7. Certain ideas about the route – particular Brown’s ideas that they went via certain cities, have no evidence in the text. The implication of 1 Nephi 17:12, that the travellers did not make fire in the wilderness, seems to imply they avoided people, and while this is mentioned after they’ve reached bountiful, it simply refers to while they were ‘in the wilderness’, and does not appear to single out any part of the journey.
  8. Contrary to the dvd, Nephi did not bear ‘tribute’ to ‘these wonderful women’ (i.e the daughters of Ishmael) or especially praise them. I remember this bothering me the first time, if only because it seemed so saccharine, but the text says nothing of the sort either. Nephi talks of the blessings of the Lord in allowing them to live off raw meat and making the women strong that ‘they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings’. Now, I have no wish to condemn people’s reactions to horrible desert journeys – I’d moan too – but Nephi is certainly not giving any especial praise here, except to God.
  9. The dvd asserts that the last leg of the journey was especially hard, and that this formed a a special furnace of affliction of Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Joseph et al. Now 1 Ne. 17:1 could imply the last leg was harder, but I feel to dispute that this was the defining character moment for these individuals- if it were so for Nephi, it would surely warrant more of a mention than one verse implying such. However, it’s especially unlikely to apply to Jacob and Joseph, considering both are noted as being very young & in need of nourishment by the time of the sea crossing (1 Ne. 18:19).
  10. There’s further assumptions or speculation about, for example, bedouin tents, camels and ship construction. None of these appear to have any particular evidence in the text.
  11. On the route taken by the party by sea, it should be noted that Arabs from the region sailed in both directs (east to India and south to Dar-as-salam, nor is there any textual indication that they stayed in sight of shore.
  12. Lastly, it’s striking that there is little to no mention of the Exodus paradigm that Nephi deliberately evokes in his account, both by direct reference (1 Ne. 4:2-3, 1 Ne. 17), language (‘murmuring’) and the pattern of events – defeat of an enemy, reception of the Law & revelatory experience, being guided and fed by God in the wilderness and crossing over water into the promised land. Even the three days into the wilderness thing finds precedent in the exodus, as Moses is commanded to ask that the Israelites be allowed to travel three days into the wilderness to offer sacrifice (Exodus 3:18).

None of the above is to say this dvd is all bad – as mentioned, I had far more serious difficulties with its sequel, which I’ll cover in a separate post. Some of what is discussed is accurate, although I’d heard it before – Nahom is a good piece of evidence, and I’d probably appreciate it more if I didn’t think such questions of geography and so on were the unimportant ones. But, should anyone choose to watch this (and I wouldn’t stop anyone), be prepared to sift.