An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, June 15, 2002
Rather than continue writing about the Arab News stories I started in on in "Exegesis" (the post immediately below), I decided to spend some time with the Gospel of Barnabas, an English translation of which can be read here (scroll about halfway down the page). The link is to Rodney Blackhirst's site; it's well worth spending a little time there.
For me, one of the values of dabbling in heretical or heterodox texts is that they persuade me that the early Church's leaders were on to something when they edited out the various texts floating around, claiming to be divinely inspired. This afternoon was a unseasonably comfortable day for the Washington, D.C., metro area. In the afternoon, I sat in the backyard with a cup of steaming coffee, its aroma mingling with tobacco smoke, a volume of short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson on my lap, the two cats stretching themselves -- bellies pointed to the sun -- and while I didn't think it at the time, it now occures to me that some Gnostic ideas of dualism, of the utter evil of the material world, are so contradicted by experience as to be laughable.
But what are we to make of this odd text? Some statistics, perhaps, are in order. Using the All The Web search engine (I sometimes prefer it to Google, because it returns a more modest number of pages, and since one of the notions that Ideofact expounds is that as all of our -- wait, better to say my -- ideas are provisional, modesty is to be preferred), the exact phrase, "Gospel of Barnabas," returns 4,356 links. By comparison, the Gospel of Matthew returns something like 93,000 links, but the "Epistle of Barnabas" -- which is a genuine document (not a medieval forgery) -- returns less than 300. However, the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text, gives us over 60,000 hits, so it is perhaps safe to assume that Barnabas is rather obscure.
Barnabas figures in a running debate between Islamic and Christain proselytizers. Thus, here we find it quoted approvingly on a page that begins,
We must first of all know that the entire Bible is corrupted and unreliable and is mostly filled with man-made laws and corruption!Of Barnabas, we learn
Before the year 325 C.E., it is known that the Gospel of Barnabas was accepted as canonical in the churches of Alexandria. It is known to have been circulated in the first two centuries after Christ from the writings of Irenaeus ("Jesus Prophet of Islam"). After this council, four Gospels were selected out of a minimum of three hundred available and the rest, including the Gospel of Barnabas, were ordered utterly destroyed. All Gospels written in Hebrew were also ordered destroyed.Christian polemicists respond, noting, for example:
Nowhere, however, in the voluminous extant writings of Irenaeus is there mention of a Gospel of Barnabas. ...I downloaded a copy of Lonsdale and Ragg translation from a site with Islamic sympathies (sorry, I can't find the link); I've only managed to read the first 15 pages or so. What I found more interesting than the text itself is this description of the extant Italian manuscript:
The complete Italian manuscript is now in the National Library of Austria in the collection of fine and rare books of Prince Eugene of Savoy. It is in good condition and is handsomely bound in black-green Turkish binding. It only measures about 6 inches to 5 inches in size but is quite thick; 255 leaves of a heavy coarse paper. The writing throughout is steady, clear and methodical with an orthographic style that places it in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The watermark of the paper - an anchor in a circle - comes from the same period and has been identified as being of northern Italian origin. There seems little doubt that the manuscript was produced in Italy in the later decades of the sixteenth century, probably in the 1580's or 90's. But why was it produced? For what reason? By whom?I excerpted more than I should have -- these are the writings of the good Dr. Blackhirst, and if I quote them so extensively it's only because I find the subject of interest and the riddle of this text perplexing. I'm not entirely sure I agree with his argument that Barnabas might be based on earlier, now lost, writings, but I'll write more on that later.
Thursday, June 13, 2002
Of late, I haven't written -- haven't wanted to write -- much about the Middle East, or Islam, or the war on the Islamists. I think some of the sites I've linked to the left -- notably Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs, Meryl Yourish's site, and Joe Katzman's Winds of Change -- offer far more information and commentary than I can bring to bear, and I'd rather read them than offer my own thoughts. I occasionally look at the articles from Arab News, the rantings of Hamas, and other assorted nonsense, but I've preferred not to comment.
I will probably regret doing so now, if only because it will consume a great deal of time better spent doing other things. So let me preface this by noting its utter futility -- those of you who will read this and agree with what I've written probably didn't need to read it at all, and those who disagree will not be persuaded by what I have painstakingly assembled.
The Arab News recently ran a three part series called, Beware the Ides of May; you can read them here, here, and here. The author is Afnan Hussein Fatani, described as a "professor of stylistics at King Abdul Aziz University and currently a visiting professor at Dar Al-Hekma College, Jeddah." I'm not entirely sure what a professor of "stylistics" is, but I'm glad I never encountered one in my undergraduate days.
The series is about Israel, and indulges in all the usual one-sided argument critical readers have come to expect from pieces in the Arab News. I'll pass over the factual inaccuracies and the contextless critique of Israel's actions; what disturbed me so much was the theology of the pieces.
I'm certainly not an expert in Islam, but I know a little of the Bible, and while I'm neither a Jew nor much more than a nominal Christian (I'm one of Shaw's worldly wisemen), I think I have some grasp of the basic ideas of my religion. That said, let us pick up Fatani's arguments about Israel's recent attempt to attack the infrastructure of terrorism in the West Bank:
The first pretext we are given is that Israel has a right to defend itself from Palestinian suicide bombers. According to US Congress, the brutal and wanton bombing of Palestinian cities is a legitimate "pre-emptive measure" by the Israeli government. Thousands of years ago, another supporter of pre-emptive measures, Herod the tyrant, the King of the Jews, ordered all the two-year old boys of Bethlehem murdered so as to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews, and hence ensure his grip on power. (Mathew 2: 1-18)Of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Matthew is the only one who tells this story. There is no contemporaneous, independent historical record of the "slaughter of the Holy Innocents." And Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience; most likely, the tale of Herod, which echoes that of the Pharoah who resorted to the same expedient to get rid of Moses, is designed to persuade the reader that Jesus' coming is as fundamental, as important, as world-changing as that of Moses. Or, as Shaw puts it, Matthew was seeking
...for some legend bearing out Hosea's "Out of Egypt have I called my son," and Jeremiah's Rachel weeping for her children: in fact, he says so. Nothing that interests us nowadays turns on the credibility of the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt.But consider also what Fatani is saying. The Israelis are looking for potential suicide bombers; Herod was looking for Jesus, whom, we are told, is revered as a prophet in Islam. We find here the identification of Jesus with the crazed lunatics who blow themselves up in the vicinity of children and women and the elderly.
In part two, Fatani says,
What is so democratic about Western leaders assembling to uphold by brute force promises made more than 2000 years ago during the exile of Jews in Babylon in the 5th century BC. Shouldn’t such wild claims be first verified independently? According to our version of events, and according to the older and more authentic Barnabas Gospel (as well as the Dead Sea scrolls) dating back to the 1st century AD(during the time of John the Baptist), God promised the land to all of Abraham’s offspring, that is to his first-born son Ishmael, to Isaac, and to his 11 other sons by the two Canaanite wives he married after Sarah’s death, Qantura and Hajoon. (The most familiar of his later sons is Midian, an ancestor of Moses’ Midianite wife as mentioned in the Bible and the Qur’an.) Keep in mind that God’s promise to Abraham was made long before the birth of any of his sons; he was 86 when Ishmael was born, and 100 at the time of Isaac’s birth. Hence, if we were to take God’s promise to Abraham literally, then the land does not belong exclusively to Isaac’s descendants and certainly not to immigrant Israelis from Europe and America; it rightfully belongs to all the native-born people of the region including the Palestinian of Canaan, be they Jews, Christians, or Muslims. As the Bible asserts, Abraham is the father of many: “I have made you a father of many nations” (Romans 4: 13-17) — “In your seed will I bless all of the tribes of the earth” (The Gospel of Barnabas).I'll confess here that there's nothing I enjoy so much as a forgery, and the Gospel of Barnabas appears to be one:
While the extant work has a pronounced Muslim agenda, many scholars - looking beyond this vaneer - have detected some remarkable reconstructions of early "Ebionite" points of view. This was recognized by John Toland, the Irish Deist, who first introduced the work to Europeans in the 18th C., and more recently by the Jewish scholar Schlomo Pines in the 1960s, who was critical of previous studies and urged a fresh approach to the "Ebionite" character of the Barnabas gospel.Incidentally, shouldn't that be a Renaissance forgery? I think the manuscript dates to something like 1500, although I may be wrong about that...
As for the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are not related to Abraham at all, I must have missed those waves of conversion to Judaism in the history of the various European countries from which they came. In any case, Fatani later says:
As many Western theologians have repeatedly pointed out, the conception of the chosen people in the Hebrew Bible is a spiritual rather than a racial conception.So then Ashkenazi Jews -- assuming, unlikely as it may seem, that they were European converts to Judaism rather than geneological descendents of Jews -- become chosen people by embracing the faith of Abraham.
As for God's promise of the Holy Land, my King James Bible (Genesis 17:19-21) says:
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.I don't know how much more explicit one can get than that. Of course, the King James Bible is not the most accurate translation, and if I'm not mistaken, Muslims argue that the Hebrew scriptures are inaccurate or corrupted, so my citation from Genesis probably wouldn't persuade Fatani.
Later in part two, Fatani writes,
As to the alleged unconditional promise that God made to Moses, the promise of Palestine, the land of milk and honey. Well, the Bible states that God retracted this promise to punish the Israelites for their incessant iniquity: “From that day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I sent to you all my servants the prophets, day upon day; yet they did not listen to me, or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck.” (7:22 ff).Leave aside the bizarreness of a Muslim citing a Christian author who argues that Jews were to suffer in silence until the second coming of someone that, according to Islamic doctrine, didn't come the first time. What about that "alleged" promise? Here's Joshua 1:1-5:
Now after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD it came to pass, that the LORD spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister, saying,I should probably state here that I don't consider any religious text to be legally binding on the present. I disagree with Fatani's method of arguing his points. But he raises the subject. I am only pointing out things that contradict him. That doesn't mean I'm about to put on the sackcloth, or sacrifice cows, or any such thing. I am, after all, a worldly wiseman. Still, I'd expect someone using the Bible to argue a political point to at least have some slight familiarity with the text. Say what you will about Christian Conservatives, they can usually site chapter and verse.
In any case, I am only through part two of his series; there's a third one to go. But I'm exhausted, and this is already a very long post. Perhaps I'll finish this tomorrow, but I'm already regretting having spent so much effort on something of so little utility.
Lisa Spangenberg, a real medievalist, has what appears to be a new site called The Digital Medievalist. She was kind enough to say that although I say I'm not a real medievalist, I write and think like one. I take that as high praise. I'll add a link to the left shortly.
Update: The Digital Medievalist is actually an old site -- well, old for a medievalist weblogger. Also, my link to the site is up on the left side of this page. And speaking of links, Digital Medievalist has some very useful links on her site -- well worth a visit.
Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Sorry I haven't posted in a while; I was traveling. I brought the new laptop with me, but really, I didn't have a spare minute even to follow the news, let alone to write anything. I've spent a good part of this evening getting caught up on current events; tomorrow I'll resume my ramblings.