Heritage against Fundamentalism

Lord Knows that I have written and spoken out against rigid, literalist, essentialist historical interpretations of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament— not just as a matter of theology or philosophy– but as the result of serious archaeological and historical research.   

If archaeology is good for anything other than illustrating what we THINK we already know, it is an invaluable tool for documenting the changing social contexts and material culture in which every human innovation and cultural activity was formed.    


There is no difference whatsoever between Scientific Creationists (who twist every possible bit of empirical evidence to show that Darwin MAY be wrong and that the world COULD have been created in seven days 6000 years ago), with those fundamentalist biblical hardliners who INSIST that every single word of the Bible is inerrant, divinely inspired and that every historical story it contains is as reliable as a news report in the New York Times– no, sorry– the Fox News Network.    

This kind of literalistic thinking is an essential prop for the current theocratic and autocratic powers-that-be.  For they make their self-serving truths the basis of their earthly power to oppress, attack, denigrate, and sow fear as natural divine decrees.    

The archaeological and textual study of the origins of the world’s great religions can knock out that prop and let us see the evolution of the major, historical and text-based faiths in a clearer light.  Believe me, there is still a long way to go with the public understanding of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but at least those that suggest more nuanced, less supernatural narratives of their origins are not automatically burned at the stake.    

It’s a promising development that the Qur’an could also be the focus of such study.  But the stakes are still extremely high in challenging the conventional fundamentalist wisdom.  The project described below originates in a western university.    

A ninth century leaf from a collection of illuminated fragments of the Koran (Qur’an) from the early Abbasid period and later, copied on parchment of a horizontal format, probably in the late 3rd AH / 9th CE, as well as possibly in the 5th AH / 11th CE centuries.

We are still waiting for a Muslim Spinoza.  But there is no question whatsoever that serious historical and archaeological study of Early Islamic History would be a good thing.    

*   *   *    

From the Boston Globe:    

The origins of a holy book

Using ancient texts, scholars have begun an audacious effort to unravel the story of the Koran. What will they find?

by Drake Bennett  – March 28, 2010    

Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran.    

The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.

But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical    

commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.    

Critical editions — usually books rather than websites — are a commonplace in academia. University bookstores do a brisk business in critical editions of the world’s best-known literary works, from “The Iliad” to “Hamlet” to “Das Kapital.” As labor-saving devices for scholars and teaching aids for students, they can be invaluable. Presenting a novel or manifesto or play in its historical context helps readers to see the ways it was shaped by contemporaneous events and local attitudes, how it was built from the distinctive cultural building blocks at hand. Embedding a work in critical commentary — and critical editions often include essays that are sharply at odds with each other — gives readers a sense of the richness of possible readings of the text.    

But the form takes on a special significance with holy books, where millions of people order their lives in accordance to what they see as divine language. Standard versions like the King James Bible or the regularized Cairo Koran (the version, first printed in 1924, that most Muslims have today) help to unite the faithful in one common reading of their holy book. A critical edition, on the other hand, by its nature, highlights the contingency of a text’s creation and gives readers the tools to interpret it for themselves.    

Among Koranic scholars, there’s a great deal of excitement about the Corpus Coranicum, which will help them make better sense of a text that — despite the fact that millions regularly recite from it and live their lives according to its precepts — remains something of a historical and theological puzzle…    

For complete story, click here.    


2 thoughts on “Heritage against Fundamentalism

  1. For critical minds, the “text-before-spade” mentality is easy to spot when it comes to archaeology tainted by religious fundamentalism. I would argue that there exists a more subtle, but equally detrimental, fundamentalism in certain archaeologies that are entrenched in longstanding hisetorical/literary traditions. Lest I offend, I will not point a finger, but these archaeologies have resiliently stayed their course in a manner that even Biblical archaeology has not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s