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The Qur’an in Historical Context

When I was a teenager my grandfather showed me a copy of a Qur'an his father had brought back from military service in the Middle East. It was lovely, with delicate pages just like a Bible and a clothbound cover. Of course it was in Arabic, so I couldn't read it. But it inspired me to try reading an English version of the Qur'an.

I found the experience highly perplexing. The Qur'an contains stories with familiar names from the Hebrew Bible—Moses, Joseph, Ishmael, and so on—but the details are different. For instance, in Genesis 39, Joseph is accused of accosting his Egyptian master Potiphar's wife. Joseph is thrown into prison on that basis and no one ever exonerates him. God turns this situation into a blessing, but the blemish is never removed from Joseph's record, so to speak. In the version of the story found in the Qur'an (Sura 12), from the beginning Potiphar treats Joseph/Yusuf more as an equal than a slave ("perhaps ... we will adopt him as a son"), and Joseph is exonerated on the basis of a rather humorous test:

[Joseph] said, "It was she who sought to seduce me." And a witness from her family testified. "If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful." So when her husband saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, "Indeed, it is of the women's plan. Indeed, your plan is great. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful."

Happily, Joseph is found innocent, his reputation left untarnished. (In fact, Potiphar's wife is also exonerated. When the women of the city laugh at her for seeking to seduce a "slave boy," she invites them to dinner and has Joseph serve the meal. His good looks enchant the women so much, they forget what they are doing and cut their hands with their dinner knives!)

Had I encountered the Joseph/Yusuf story, I might have kept reading, but I remember distinctly wondering by Sura 2 why the story was in such a big hurry, and why on earth it mattered what color the cow was that the Israelites sacrificed (2:68), and soon abandoned the project. The Bible is no easier to understand, of course, but I didn't have even the equivalent of the minimal context church had given me for that. Perhaps you've shared a similar experience. It took 9/11 and some thoughtful professors to open the Qur'an again.

What happens when we place the Qur'an in historical context instead of plucking bits and pieces from it at random to defend particular views?

Honor Diaries

Raheel Raza is one of several women featured in the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries

Award-winning Muslim activist Raheel Raza addressed the confusion and problems that result from a lack of proper historical understanding of the Qur'an at her presentation Politics, Patriarchy, and Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong on November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. Raza has graciously shared an outline of her speech with us, so in this blog post I'm sticking to a few interesting points of connection.

"Islam is in the spotlight, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. Since 9/11 especially, there has been no stone left unturned in scrutinizing each aspect of the faith by both experts and pseudo-experts," Raza began. "This work is being done at two levels—one of course is the very important scholarly, academic level ... but what you don't normally see is the work being done at the grassroots level, by the activists ... to light a fire under the feet of religious leadership to bring about change." She goes on to make a critical observation—one that will no doubt sound familiar to Westar members and friends—that activists need the support of critical scholars.

Critical scholarship can challenge assumptions about the past by offering a more nuanced history of religion. Where activists are able to access this information and engage with it, they can in turn have an enormous impact on debates around such issues as environmental ethics, end-of-life care, gender and marriage roles, interfaith relations, institutional violence and poverty. We can acknowledge this without feeling overly critical of Islam. After all, it was (literally) only yesterday that Libby Lane was appointed the first female Bishop in the UK.

The historical study of Islam has not been discussed much at Westar in recent years, so this subject may be as new to you as it is to me. A bit ironically, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler opens his book A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better with an anecdote about an exchange between Muslim author Salman Rushdie and Bill Moyers on the PBS program Faith & Reason regarding this exact issue:

"Yes," I thought, still somewhat amazed, "he's calling for a study of the historical Muhammad." Lamenting the silencing of public discourse, Rushdie highlights the importance of historical studies as a way of moving Islam toward a more tolerant and open civil society. Such scholarship, implicitly challenging the notion that the Qur'an is a divinely revealed text, would undercut the theological argument by which Islamic states and radical clerics censor and silence public dissent. ... Moyers' interview with Rushdie gives an American audience the opportunity to see the importance of the West's own history of conlflict between traditional assumptions of religious authority and the creation of an open civil society. My own reading of the interview is that Rushdie sees the question of the historical Muhammad not simply as a point of inquiry but as a needed point of leverage for opening up the sphere of public discourse in Muslim societies. (10–11)

So what are some of the issues that contribute to confusion around the Qur'an? Like the Bible, its contents do not appear in chronological order. The books are organized from longest to shortest. The books were composed in two very different locations (Mecca and Medina), and span many years in the life of Muhammad. Another natural problem the Qur'an shares with the Bible is its antiquity; it simply does not address modern issues, at least not directly. These barriers confuse attempts to figure out what the Qur'an can tell us especially about the actual teachings of the historical Muhammad. (Note: I am not addressing here the role of hadith, the collection of sayings and traditions about the prophet, in this quest, but obviously hadith studies are vitally important to the question of the historical Muhammad as well.)

South African Islamicist Farid Esack was once asked about how to handle modern social issues, such as AIDS, that are not mentioned in the Qur'an. Esack encouraged his listeners to engage with these contemporary issues rather than avoid them. "When I read the Qur'an and re-read it ... I have to look at it in the context of today. So I look at the issue of AIDS in the light of compassion and mercy, which is what we are told God is all about." In a fascinating lecture on the subject of Islam and ethics—helpfully, from an Africa-based rather than Western-based perspective—Esack observes that 9/11 has significantly narrowed discussions of Islam in the United States to arguments over whether or not it can be compatible with peace, with the US Constitution, and so on. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on other critical issues such as enslavement and impoverization, and what Islam can offer with regard to that. He found himself having to re-frame his priorities depending on which continent he was doing his scholarly research.

Individuals like Rushdie, Esack, Raza are seeking a more nuanced understanding of Islam in public discourse where it intersects with their respective areas of work. Raza cited multiple examples of places in the Qur'an that complicate claims made about it in the post-9/11 West: "The Qur'an clearly elucidates that is is a message that is to be practiced in conjunction with the messages that came before it," she said. Traditionally, the daily prayers recited by Muslims include a blessing on Abraham and his progeny. For that matter, "Jesus is mentioned more times by name in the Qur'an than Muhammad." We don't hear much about this because from early in the history of Islam, leaders began quoting the Qur'an as an authoritative text for their own purposes (sound familiar?):

Extremists don't relate the history [behind the Qur'an]; they just take one line out of context. ... One of the reasons that the misinterpretation of the Qur'an became so popular after the death of the Prophet is that the early rulers right after the Prophet had so politicized the faith that they used carefully chosen verses to promote their own political agendas. This was the rise of Islamicism as we know it today. ... This was a tragedy that overtook the spiritual message of Islam.

Among the scholars of Islam Raza has found most helpful as an activist include Amina Wadud, author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective, and Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to translate the Qur'an. Raza has listed these and other role models and mentors on her recommended reading page on her personal website. The information is out there, and the quest for a (post)modern understanding of the Qur'an is truly still in its infancy. We can't let pride get in the way of learning, whether we are engaging with that quest from within or outside that tradition, so it is with that spirit that I will conclude with a piece of light-hearted—not necessarily easy—advice from Raza: "We have to learn to self-critique and laugh at ourselves."

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below

[divider style="hr-dotted"] Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Restoring Books Excluded from the New Testament

Why were certain books excluded from the New Testament? “The stunning truth is that we have hardly any evidence of the process of how the canon was made. By and large, we don’t even have evidence for the character of the debate,” explains Westar Fellow Hal Taussig, who presented A New New Testament November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. “The most we have is an individual scholar [in the second through fifth centuries] saying, ‘I like this book; I don’t like that one.’”

Why did those in power decide to “close” the canon, or collection, of texts that now appear in modern Bibles? Was the decision experienced as oppressive, as foisting certain groups of people like the Valentinians out of the fold? Or did the people who made these decisions actually seek to protect a certain amount of diversity, such as by keeping the Synoptic Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke alongside the Gospel of John, or Paul’s Corinthian correspondence alongside the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Letters 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus? It’s difficult to know.

Even today there is no one ultimate collection of “Christian” books. It’s even possible that the New Testament didn’t truly narrow the playing field—and biblical literalism didn’t truly have a leg to stand on—until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. After all, even the best scribe can’t hand-copy verbatim every time. Notes with corrections appear in the margins at the very least, and the entire discipline of textual criticism in biblical studies involves grouping manuscripts into families based on inherited variations in the texts.

Incidentally, should it be of interest to you, scholars of Islam are also fascinated by the question of accuracy but (1) tend to focus on the life of Mohammed rather than the text of the Qur’an, and (2) as a result, must work largely with oral traditions. This is called isnad, the chain of transmission that accompanies stories and sayings of the prophet Mohammed. The classification system is complex and accounts for issues such as broken or unreliable transmission, and closeness to the source. Reader beware: as with the study of early Christianity, the study of Muslim isnad is riddled with theologically motivated logic, so seek out a reputable scholar.

A New New Testament

Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Back to the subject at hand. Hal Taussig is the editor a twenty-first-century Bible  called A New New Testament (ANNT) that combines traditional and newly discovered texts. The new texts were selected by a council of nineteen religious leaders and scholars. Many of the new texts came from a remarkable collection found in 1945 in upper Egypt, popularly known as the Nag Hammadi library. This discovery revolutionized studies of early Christian history but has not achieved the same level of public recognition as the equally outstanding discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One audience member at Taussig’s presentation asked, “How much of the squirreling away of Nag Hammadi texts is political, and what can we do to bring these texts into public view?”

“What I would call Christian fear and scholarly timidity is political,” Taussig responded. “By and large, churches haven’t needed to act against these discoveries because scholars have already done that so well. The public has both creative and commercial force to put behind these new materials. Let’s get to know the texts as a public. Let’s allow sophisticated, complicated discussions to take place around them.” On this blog we’ve been reading Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? and discussing some of the political and ideological issues related to the study of the Nag Hammadi texts, so I won’t get into those issues here. The gist of it is the creep of theological ideas into historical research. Many researchers who perhaps embrace Christian beliefs personally or at least are heavily steeped in Christian traditions have continued to give the canonical texts first place in any story of Christian origins. Anything that didn’t make it into the Bible is automatically treated as secondary, suspect, or impure.

Maybe the best thing to do to honor Taussig’s presentation, then, is to share a sampling of these texts here. Of the many Nag Hammadi texts Taussig introduced, let’s look at one: The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s a translation of the full text, but I also quote it below.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind is an extended poem known as an aretalogy—the divine being who self-reveals, who talks about himself or herself. This was a popular form in the ancient world. Here is an example of an aretalogy of the goddess Isis dated to the second to first centuries BCE. It opens with the writer explaining his/her reason for daring to write in the name of the god, then launches into aretalogical language:

Taking heart, I proceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is written not only by the hand of a man, but also by the mind of a god. And first I shall come to your family, making as the beginning of my praises the earliest beginnings of your family. They say that Ge (Earth) was the mother of all: you were born a daughter to her first. You took Sarapis to live with you, and, when you had made your marriage together, the world, provided with eyes, was lit up by means of your faces, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon). So you are two but have many designations among men. For you are the only ones whom everyday life knows as gods. (Trans. G. H. R. Horsely)

This sort of language probably sounds familiar because it also occurs in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament texts like the Gospel of John. What makes Thunder, Perfect Mind unique over against traditional early Christian texts is the presence of a predominantly feminine voice. For a sense of the conversations this can open up, try comparing verses from Thunder and John.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind (1:1, 5–7; 2:1–2)

I was sent out from power
I came to those pondering me
And I was found among those seeking me…
I am the first and the last
I am she who is honored and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman
I am he the mother and the daughter
I am the limbs of my mother
I am the sterile woman and she has many children
I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband
… I am the silence never found
And the idea infinitely recalled
I am the voice with countless sounds
And the thousand guises of the word
I am the speaking of my name…

The Gospel of John (1:4–5, 11–13)

That which came into being in the Word was life
and the life was the light of humanity
and the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness never overpowered it.
… He came to his own—yet his own did not receive him.
But to all who did receive him he gave power to become children of God—
to those who trust his name,
not through blood nor through will of the flesh, nor through the desires of men
but through birth from God…

As the Christianity Seminar also urged people to do, we need to read these new texts alongside traditional texts to begin to visualize what kinds of conversations were happening in Christianity before it became the religion of the Roman Empire. Separating them into arbitrary groups doesn’t help. Thunder and John, especially when read in full, share several themes, including the following at minimum:

  • A being, sent out from power/God, comes to those who seek and are open to receiving
  • This being takes the form of Word—the name of God or a personification of God
  • This being, though divine, shares the full gamut of human experience, both honor and mockery/humiliation
  • The speaker uses paradox to convey a sense of vastness within this single divine being and at the same time encourages the human seekers to share in that feeling (or even recreate it)

“Besides the Gospel of John’s Jesus and Thunder, no other ancient (or modern) divine voice presents itself as simultaneously both so glorious and so humiliated,” writes Taussig in ANNT (180). Virginia Burrus, the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, sees this kind of writing not as a sign of a "personal crisis" in which Jews became alienated with their tradition—one reigning explanation for the existence of "gnostic" texts—so much as a response to the powerful Roman empire:

[Hans] Jonas' (suspiciously orientalizing) syncretism and alienation are pointing toward what might be reframed as hybridity and ambivalent resistance to empire/colonization, characteristics which arguably mark all products of early Roman (and earlier) Hellenism, yet differently and to different degrees." (personal communication quoted in King, What Is Gnosticism? 189)

My own response to this text is startled acknowledgment that the writer knew Paul's letters. When I was working with the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, I learned that in order for an historian to claim that one author is alluding to another, by definition enough of the original has to be carried into the new work to give itself away. That happens in Thunder. "Why then do you hate me, you Greeks? Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?" (Thunder 3:3) alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:20 and Romans 1:14–15. In some ways the whole poem is a meditation on Paul's statements like this. "Advance toward childhood; Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant" (Thunder 4:5).

The malleability of the speaker, speaking for the divine, also suggests s/he is emulating Paul, with one crucial difference that I find fascinating: Paul doesn't mention sayings of Jesus much, but the writer of Thunder draws on both Paul's letters and Jesus' empire of God sayings. "Do not stare at me in the shit pile, leaving me discarded; you will find me in the kingdoms ... In my weakness do not strip me bare; Do not be afraid of my power" (Thunder 2:13, 17). The poetry that resulted is beautiful, but its very difference is a strong reminder that in the study of history we need to leave room for creativity and spontaneity, too.

What texts have you read outside the standard New Testament ones, and what did you discover? Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below

[divider style="hr-dotted"] Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Redeeming Gnosticism? Scholars Weigh the Pros and Cons

A mixture of long-time supporters of Westar, new and inquiring members of the public, students, and faculty gathered in the ballroom of the San Diego Convention Center Friday, November 21st, 2014, at the Westar Christianity Seminar to discuss a troublesome little word you won't hear much in everyday conversations, even ones about Christianity—gnosticism.

One reason you may not have heard this term much is that gnosticism has become a catch-all in biblical studies for communities, texts and ideas that don't deserve much attention. "As soon as you put the label gnosticism on something, it's bound to be misunderstood," said Michael Williams (University of Washington), who has worked with such texts for five decades. Texts labeled "gnostic" are often excluded from stories of Christian history. They don't appear in the New Testament, so people tend to look right past them, as though their absence automatically makes them unimportant.

The Secret Revelation of John by Karen L. King

Karen King's The Secret Revelation of John attempted to place this text alongside books inside and outside the New Testament without giving priority to one versus the other.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the average person hasn't heard much about gnosticism, any more than they've heard of or read texts like the Secret Revelation of John, Gospel of Thomas, or more than fifty other texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Rather than being read alongside New Testament texts, which belong to the same historical period, they are relegated to the sidelines in stories about Christian origins.

It's tempting to say that this is a publicity problem and not a scholarly problem, but this issue has deep roots in the discipline. "Scholarly bias and preconceptions about gnosticism, mostly derived from polemicists"—that is, early leaders in the Jesus movement who first labeled certain groups and practices as heresy—"are a serious problem today," remarked Stephen Patterson of Willamette University in his opening comments. "The study of early Christianities is fraught for everyone. We must be attentive to unsensed tendencies in our work."

Before Nag Hammadi, some of the best historical resources available were "catalogues" of what certain ancient people considered "wrong" or "flawed" teaching. Unfortunately, scholars consciously or unconsciously took up the biases of these catalogues along with the content. To give a modern equivalent, imagine basing your entire opinion of groups like the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, or People's Temple on anti-cult pamphlets. No matter what you might think of these groups if you were able to observe them in practice, your understanding of them would be seriously skewed through the narrow lens of their most virulent opponents. All of this builds to the question of the hour: Is redeeming gnosticism possible anymore?

To answer this question, scholars had to cover a lot of territory and brainstorm about other possible models. The reason walking away from gnosticism isn't as simple as it appears is that, as Maia Kotrosits of Denison University warned, the term gnosticism is bound up with the term Christianity. The two terms often operate as foils of one another in biblical studies. What is Christianity? Whatever gnosticism is not. What is gnosticism? Whatever Christianity is not. What if we were to walk away from Christianity, too? Is it possible to jump ship entirely, perhaps appeal to other streams of literature from the same era, like diaspora discourse? We know that many people experienced loss in what several scholars have described as the "casual violence" of the Roman Empire. Are the texts we have better understood as responses to this violence, longing for a different reality, mourning what was lost? Remember that ancient people didn't see religion as separate from the rest of our lives. Religion, too, is a category, and a very modern one at that.

Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) was a leading figure in the theosophy movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Denise Buell made a critical observation that the rise of gnosticism in scholarly discourse took place in the midst of appropriation of the term by highly popular 19th-century spiritualist and theosophist movements. Some of the critiques leveled at gnosticism reveal themselves to be veiled critiques instead of these contemporary movements, not critiques of actual ancient groups.

David Brakke of The Ohio State University advocated for freeing even the polemicists from their traditional groupings. After all, some of them were eventually labeled heretics themselves, or defected to groups they once maligned. Such men did not belong to a unified group anymore than their opponents did. Brakke's more fundamental point, in spite of this, was that categories can have value. "One nice thing about categories is that we rethink them as we use them," he said. Texts are associated with communities and their practices. To deny them a place by refusing to group them runs the risk of denying them rituals, habits of life, and the visions or dreams that brought them together. We're already concerned that alternative visions of Christianity have been erased from history. As Arthur Dewey of Xavier University put it, we cannot be so afraid of freezing categories that we forget their interpretive or heuristic value.

King, reflecting on her original thesis from What Is Gnosticism?, questioned whether her own feelings had changed. "A challenge for me over the past ten years has been to ask, 'Is there really no way to talk about these things as a group?'" She suggested that perhaps gnosticism could be redeemed by tying it to Christianity, such as referring to particular strands of tradition as "gnostic Christian" in nature the way we would refer to others as "Pauline Christian." Bernard Brandon Scott, borrowing from the scientific theory of evolution, asked whether we might step away from essentialist definitions and talk in terms of variety in populations. Rather than labeling groups and expecting them to conform to set boundaries, what if we mapped features or tendencies of this ancient population that birthed Christianity?

It is not possible to do justice to all the comments of scholars in this brief report, except to end on a strong note of appreciation for the organizers of this particular seminar session, which created a space for participants to apologize to one another for past disagreements, question their own assumptions, and change their minds. Suffice it to say that I have left out far more than I have reported here.

The Christianity Seminar closed with voting on 31 statements, the results of which will appear in a future issue of The Fourth R magazine and on the project page at a later date. Here are a few sample statements from the ballot:

  • Scholarship now needs a less blunt tool/analytical category than gnosticism for examination of the Jesus/Christ(ian) literature of the second and third centuries.
  • The essentializing influence of Plato inhibits in major ways conscientious re-thinking of the history of early Christianity.
  • The category of “diasporic literature” is a more analytically helpful term for The Secret Revelation of John than the categories of “Christian,” “Gnostic,” or “Jewish.”
  • To be even considered as a possible phenomenon related to something called gnostic or gnosticism, ancient groups must have called themselves gnostikos.
  • Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and company should be liberated from “proto-orthodoxy” and allowed to be their own idiosyncratic selves.
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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.