Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The three "Peoples of the Book"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, judaism, christianity, islam, manuscripts

F. E. Peters, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, has recently published The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a survey of the development of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran.

This relatively recent illuminated manuscript of Psalms in Hebrew shows how the decorative styles of manuscript production had developed even among the image-averse Jews, by Renaissance times. This is a late subject in Dr. Peters's work. He begins with a comparative history of the three collections. The Hebrew Bible—which he consistently calls "the Bible", reserving that term for the Book of the Jews—came first, its earliest sections dating before the first millennium BCE. The contention of "higher critics" who late-date the books to periods long after the events they record, are given the lie by fragments from the book of Numbers and others dating prior to 700 BCE. The familiar prayer, "The LORD bless thee and keep thee" is one of these.

The Hebrew Bible, as distinguished from the Christian Old Testament—they are substantially different—was gathered together in stages covering at least a thousand years. Ezra is traditionally considered to have fixed it in text and form, as its last significant editor.

Editors, ah, the neglected conservers of Scripture, for all three Books. Every "book" and chapter in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Testament, and the Quran, show clear signs of editing, to the point that some writers have called them "a pastiche".

To a believer, of course, it makes little difference whether Samuel wrote the chapters containing his life and experiences, in the form we see them today, or if an Isaiah or Ezra edited the work; editors can be just as inspired as authors. I happen to believe that Genesis, in particular, was stitched together by Moses, partly from family records and journals of the patriarchs, and perhaps pre-Flood generations, and partly from sagas and poems. He would then be the first Bible editor.

That Moses's work has been further edited is shown by such things as the "camels" in Genesis 24; in the times of Abraham and Moses, they would have been asses. A later writer translated the work for a people whose language and culture had changed over centuries. I care little if the Hebrew of Moses no longer exists, being replaced by a later tongue, the Hebrew still learned by Jewish children. God knows how to take care of His message.

This image, from the Bodmer manuscript known as P66, was written in the 2d Century CE, probably shortly after 150AD. It is in the Greek of the time, often called "koine", which a Greek friend tells me is synonymous with "street", as in "street talk".

Though the New Testament was produced over less than a century, it is similarly a collection, and it may be that Matthew in particular was edited from two or more older Gospels, now lost (unless one of them was Mark, which is likely). It may be that other NT books were similarly produced, and perhaps the last section of Mark is an addendum. Again, this doesn't matter to a believer; God knows how to transmit what He wants us to know.

This illuminated Quran sheet (suras 1-3) is also from a later time, when decoration of the page had become common. Muslims are much more image-averse than Jews, so while they may decorate with plants and birds, no mammal images, and of course no human figures, are used. To play it safe, geometric figures are the norm.

The Quran, meaning "recitation", is also a collection, but from a single person, covering a known span of 22 years. The suras were initially memorized, and the production of a written Quran was instigated by the observation that large numbers of those who had memorized the whole were dying, mainly by warfare. A written or printed Quran has the suras in order by length, except for an opening short prayer/poem. (Note that most books of the New Testament are also roughly in length order, longest first.) The only indication of relative age is the indication Mecca or Medina, as the place of first speaking.

A lot of scholarship has gone into ordering the suras chronologically, and to producing a biography of Muhammad that is more than a legendary epic. Unlike the other two Books, the Quran entirely obscures its reciter, consisting of instruction, liturgy, and devotional poetry.

These surveys of the books' historical development go in parallel in The Voice, the Word, the Books. The author dwells on the creative tension between oral and literate cultures, noting in particular the weakening of memory that results from reliance on writing! Whereas most today quail at memorizing just one Psalm or chapter of Matthew, thousands of Muslims in the generations following that of Muhammad memorized the entire Quran, which is about half the size of the New Testament (78,000 words versus 138,000).

Once a shift had occurred from an oral to a literate society, societal changes followed. Now a student could line up Kings and Chronicles, or the four Gospels, and compare them. The mandate at the end of Deuteronomy, that all Israelites essentially wallpaper their houses with Scripture, and read from it daily, was closer to fulfillment, though phylacteries and mezuzahs are a poor substitute. But God essentially mandated 100% literacy upon a people largely illiterate, and the change took centuries (I think this mandate largely underlies the Jews' excellence in education).

There is a charming section near the end of the book about oral use of Scripture, such as lectio divina of the Catholic tradition and devotional reading of some christian groups (and pray-reading among my people). The point is well made that much prayer, historically, consisted of reciting God's words back to God, particularly those containing promises one hoped God would rapidly fulfill.

It seems to me Dr. Peters strives to show the similarities among the three "Peoples of the Book". However, their great differences stand out. The Hebrews were given the Law, initially at Mount Sinai, then further stipulations later on. Later prophets, such as Jeremiah, hinted at a law to be "written on the heart" that would supersede the Levitical Law. The Christians claimed this in the teachings of Jesus, and the book of Hebrews is the fullest development.

Though the Quran gives minimal lip service to the older two Books, Muslims claim that Jews and Christians have "misused" their Scriptures, even to the point of editing out references to Muhammad that they claim were originally there.

The reference I see to Muhammad's people is in the ambiguous "blessing" on Ishmael, of whose descendants the LORD God said, "[they] shall live in defiance of all his brethren." We see this in spades today! Yet multitudes of Muslims live in peace with their neighbors; only a radical few genuinely believe they are called to take over the world. With such no peace is possible.

As I have written before, not only Judaism and Christianity went through jingoistic periods of military conquest (the invasion of Canaan, the Crusades), so did Buddhism and Hinduism. They all settled down about the time they reached an age of 2,000 years. This seems to be the time it takes a religion to mature. Islam, being but 1,300 years old, has a way to go. The clearly insane ferocity of some indicates definitely how insecure they are in their own faith. They are in mortal terror that their children...or some of them!...will be converted to another faith. Like any cornered animal, they fight. We have a long road ahead.

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