The gist of such tales would be immediately available to us, even if we remembered the details differently or changed the original storytelling sequence. Something like this seems to have happened in the composition of the Quran.
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Although in many places the alterations appear to be purposeful rebuttals of the Biblical stories, in other places the tales have, it seems, simply been compressed or altered by repetition. As Reynolds points out, Haman, the fifth-century-B. Persian villain of the Biblical Book of Esther, is transposed in the Quran back to pharaonic Egypt, where he can bedevil Moses—perhaps to make a specific theological point, perhaps in the spirit of an inspired storyteller redeploying a good villain.
The Quran has a story about Jesus that, Reynolds shows, is a variant of one told originally about Alexander the Great. The Quran accepts both the Torah and the Gospels as having been divinely inspired but considers them now outmoded. There is an upright group among them, but what many of them do is evil. O People of the Book! Why do you mix the truth with falsehood, and conceal the truth while you know [it]? Allah just is, and just does.
The Christian Jesus is a lesser prophet, then, wrongly promoted by his followers to coequal status with the divine one. The one perpetual foundation of Islam, which shines through every page of the annotated text, is the insistence on the absolute divinity of the divine—God is everywhere, all-knowing and all-penetrating, and the essence of holiness is compliance with his will. The God of the Book of Genesis or of Job, who makes bargains or bets, or the God with whom Jesus, in effect, contests in the Agony in the Garden, is a more argumentative, a more anthropomorphic, creature.
That God, Yahweh, is imaginable as the benevolent but enraged patriarch whom Michelangelo pictures so effectively on the Sistine ceiling. The resistance of Islam to depictions of the divine arises from the absurdity of depiction—the absurdity is the sacrilege. It is logical, then, that submission to his authority depends not at all on signs or miracles. The Quran would regard any such demonstrations as unworthy of omnipotence. Divinity is to be submitted to simply on the basis of its own evident existence, exemplified in humanity itself.
The nonbelieving reader of sacred texts has the advantage of being undisturbed by the countless alienating passages that they contain: why be distressed, such a reader might ask, by the relentlessly patriarchal tone of either the Bible or the Quran—or by their tolerance of slavery, or, for that matter, by the tribal genocide regularly urged in Exodus?
If one is taking the texts not as divine rule, or even as contemporary moral discourse, but, rather, as inspired ancient poetry, episodes in the history of civilization, one can be serenely unsurprised that they share the values of their time and place. The troublesome passages are troubling chiefly to those who want truth and beauty and permanent values. A former Jesuit turned Episcopalian, Miles sets out to show that the Quranic texts are supple, compassionate, and moral in a contemporary way. He has a noble political goal in mind as well: to humanize Muslim texts for American readers, who are too often taught to be afraid of them.
Yet his readings seem sometimes simply willful, finding murmurs of humane meaning in passages with other purposes.
Throughout, he uses a form of interpretation familiar to any reader of contemporary apologetics for ancient sacred texts. Post-Enlightenment values are projected backward, and, when the text resists them strenuously, the resistance is either elided as inessential or else taken to be evidence of a profound mystery, to be contemplated at length. We are asked to read past this on our way to greater understanding. It is bullying, albeit from an admirably eloquent bully.
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The overt content of so many sacred stories, which enjoin obedience for the sake of an ultimate reward, is not really sublimely mysterious. It is the content of every authoritarian story ever told. We like to believe that we do the right thing because it is the right thing, forgive our enemies because forgiveness is a superior virtue to revenge.
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But it is what most of human history has meant by it. A credible idea of God implies an idea of power. We moderns prefer sympathy as social glue, modesty as a virtue, and sensual pleasure as a value, and so we search the sacred texts for their rare moments of compassion, as in Lamentations, or avowals of failure, as in Job, or salutes to sex, as in the Song of Songs. Between the authority that the texts sought and, for us moderns, can no longer claim and the anarchy that their refutation supposedly invites lies the practice of literary argument.
No wonder our versions of the sacred texts should be so interlineated, so discursive, so likely to refer back and forth among other texts—so enmeshed in literary commentary.
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Entangling texts one with another is our way of entrapping a credible idea of the holy, a net for catching God. We approach the divine by arguing about his writings. What we catch with words may seem merely more words. But, as that holy text the Gospel of John insists, in the beginning was the word, so maybe it should be no surprise to find more words at the middle and even at the end.
It may be words all the way down, words without end, amen. The carnivore biologist Jeff Sikich captures and examines a mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains. Hybrids, legendary beasts, griffons, dragons and other imaginary creatures were often painted in Hebrew medieval illuminated manuscripts, particularly in Germany. The imagery was probably modelled on contemporary Latin bestiaries. In this example digitised image 2 the marginal figure is outlined in micrography, a Jewish scribal practice using minute lettering to create abstract and figurative designs.
In medieval Hebrew manuscripts, the masoretic notes advice on pronunciation and intonation for those reading the text aloud were the most commonly used texts in artistic micrography. Penned close to the textual columns, these were complex annotations on the biblical text, which kept it intact and safeguarded its correct transmission over the centuries. On this page the masoretic notes were penned in both plain script and decorative micrography. To compare how Jewish and Christian manuscripts approached marginal decorations see the Luttrell Psalter.
Explore the entire manuscript via our Digitised Manuscripts website. Public Domain in most countries other than the UK. Barry Dov Walfish explains the development of biblical interpretation in Judaism, looking at key corpuses such as the Masorah , Targum and Midrash.
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Using a varied collection of Hebrew manuscripts, Dr Ilana Tahan explores the illumination of Jewish biblical manuscripts, looking at the religious grounds for artistic expression in the Bible, and the differences in styles between manuscripts produced in the Near East and those in Europe. The tripartite canon represents the three historic stages in the growth of the canon.
Because no explicit or reliable traditions concerning the criteria of canonicity, the canonizing authorities, the periods in which they lived, or the procedure adopted have been preserved, no more than a plausible reconstruction of the successive stages involved can be provided. First, it must be observed that sanctity and canonization are not synonymous terms.
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The first condition must have existed before the second could have been formally conferred. Next, the collection and organization of a number of sacred texts into a canonized corpus body of writings is quite a different problem from that of the growth and formation of the individual books themselves. The emergence in Mesopotamia , already in the second half of the 2nd millennium bce , of a standardized body of literature arranged in a more or less fixed order and with some kind of official text, expresses the notion of a canon in its secular sense. Because Babylonian and Assyrian patterns frequently served as the models for imitation throughout the Middle East , sacred documents in Israel may well have been carefully stored in temples and palaces, particularly if they were used in connection with the cult or studied in the priestly or wisdom schools.
The injunction to deposit the two tables of the Decalogue Ten Commandments inside the Ark of the Covenant and the book of the Torah beside it and the chance find of a book of the Torah in the Temple in bce tend to confirm the existence of such a practice in Israel.