To Speak, To Think, To Remember

In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.

To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17

On Cultural Relativity, Scripture Exegesis, and the Rule of Love

Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.

Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.

But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.

This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.


‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.

To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV

A Kind of Hurt in His Spirit

Song of Solomon 5.6: I opened to my Nephew; my Nephew had gone, and my soul went out with his word.*

‘See how, as she opened, He had gone. This means that once I had lifted the eyes of my mind to the meaning of Scripture, to behold the inexaminable depths of the knowledge of His grace, once I had opened my heart to embrace that fleeting glimpse, and to examine and become informed of and comprehend the depths of his knowledge, what eluded my weak mind’s grasp so awed me that for desire of it I would have forgotten that knowledge which I had received when I opened.

‘For that reason she says, my Nephew had gone; it is as if no sooner was He seen that He at once withdrew, swift as the lightening. And my soul went out with his word; that is, “having obtained a small glimmering of his words my soul left me and pursed His words.” To put it another way, I recognized Him, and I was united to His love, and I was ebullient with His commandments. And thinking that I had attained something, I recognized myself to be all the more distant from attainment; seeing the true Sun, I recognized by His light how distant I am from knowledge.

‘I brought to mind that which this same divine Solomon said in another place: “Whoever increases knowledge, increases pain.” By saying this, he does not discourage one from gaining knowledge of Holy Writ, lest one’s pain increase; rather, he exhorts one to grow yet more in knowledge, and by that amount of knowledge to understand that the knowledge of what eludes one is knowledge unfathomable. For as a drunkard but thirsts the more, no matter how much he drinks, so also is the person who yearns after the meaning of the divinely inspired Scriptures: no matter how much he learns, he desires to learn yet more, knowing that he will never uncover the full understanding of the sacred Scriptures. Once his desire for its meaning has been kindled, it becomes a kind of hurt in his spirit, for by means of a little understanding he recognizes the boundlessness of what eludes him, and the desire for that knowledge infects him like a pain, albeit that pain and solicitude increase his healing discoveries.’

St. Gregory of Narek, Commentary on Solomon’s Song of Songs, trans. by Roberta Ervine (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2007)

* Note: you will notice even from this excerpt that St. Gregory’s text is somewhat different from either the Septuagint or Masoretic recensions; in lieu of ‘beloved’ this Armenian recension has ‘nephew,’ among other differences.

Contestation and Intertextuality

{The following is a paper I wrote last semester, that I thought might be of interest to some readers, even with the particular constraints I had to fashion the paper within. The first half, as you will notice, is mostly a review of some selected secondary works, but I think provides a decent overview of the- very important- subject of Scripture in the Christian-Islamic-Jewish conversation/debate. While I am obviously dealing here with the past, these questions are still very much live ones, and, insha’allah, one of these days I will try to write a little on my views and experience with the question.

Please forgive my non-designatin of emphatic letters in the Arabic transliterations; I’ve not figured out how to mark them on Works- I know, probably something I should have figured out… Also, since I do not know of a way to include footnotes on WordPress, I have simply included a bibliography of the works used; however, if anyone would like a copy of the full paper with notes and all, just e-mail me (jonathan.jallen8460 at and let me know.}


Contestation and Intertextuality: Scripture and Symbol Between Islam and Christianity during the ‘Abbāsid Period (750-1258)

1. Christianity in the ‘Abbāsid Milieu: With the triumph of the ‘Abbāsid Revolution and the many political, religious, and cultural changes that followed in its wake, Christian communities under Islamic rule were faced with an increasing number of challenges from Islam. They were confronted with not only the doctrinal claims and political pressures of Islam, but also an intellectual and cultural environment that was both open to Christian participation (within limits) and deeply challenging in its articulation of pluriform Islamic thought, particularly through the rational theology of kalām. The increasing dominance of Arabic posed its own unique challenge: The Arabic language was and is a distinctively Qur’ānic idiom, with syntax, concepts, and so many of the words themselves being drawn directly from the Qur’ān; the entire language- spoken and literary- resonates with an inescapable Qur’ānic ethos. Christian communities, as they became more and more integrated into burgeoning Islamic culture that expanded rapidly in the wake of the ‘Abbāsid revolution, were forced to deal with this “linguistic hegemony” of Qur’ānic Arabic. While Christians possessed ground upon which to engage Islam, they were also continually on the defensive within and without- not least of all against the slow but ever increasing attrition from conversion. Christians sought to meet direct challenges to their inherited complex of symbols and attendant meanings that were threatened and destabilized by Islamic culture; at the same time, and as part of the process of reply, they also engaged in a creative process of intertextuality with the new religion and culture, integrating themselves into the Islamic milieu on one level, while still marking themselves off as different from the Islamic community. Keeping in mind this dual, interpenetrating existence of resistance and integration, in this paper I will consider, first, the role of the Bible in the world of ‘Abbāsid society through an examination of relevant scholarly works. Second, I will look at the contested symbol of the cross and Christian attempts to situate and defend the complex of meanings and practices oriented around the cross.

2. Scripture Reimagined: Foremost in the field of contested symbols and meanings challenged by Islam was the Bible. Faced with Qur’ānic language and the issue of the Qur’ān itself and Muslim claims for it as the Book to supersede all other Books, the ahl al-kitāb adapted their scriptural discourse in a variety of ways. At the same time, Muslims dealt with the other holy Books and their conflicts with the Qur’ān through a similar plurality of responses.

One of the most immediate questions concerns when and where the Bible was first translated into Arabic. Sydney Griffith addresses the reception of the Gospel in Arabic in “The Gospel in Arabic: An Inquiry into its Appearance in the First Abbasid Century,” while Hava Lazarus-Yafeh looks for evidence of Old Testament translations in his study Intertwined Worlds; their conclusions are similar. According to Griffith, the earliest documented evidence of Gospel translations into Arabic dates to the early ninth century. The first known dated manuscript of an entire Gospel translation comes from Stephen of Ramla, a Palestinian Melkite monk, in 897, while the earliest extended quotation- of John 15:24-16:1, with modifications- by a Muslim writer of a Gospel is in Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad ibn Ishāq (d. 767).

Outside of the province of Palestinian Melkites (who represent a special case due to their particular linguistic vulnerability as Greek speakers cut off from the wider Greek world with the Arab conquests) Griffith contends that there are no indications of complete or even partial Gospel translations until well into the ‘Abbāsid period. Contrary to earlier arguments, there is no evidence of a pre-Islamic translation of any of the Bible; Christians in the Arab world would have used Syriac as their ecclesiastical and liturgical language. Thus the echoes and references to Torah and Gospel in the Qur’ān were likely by way of translations by Christians from the Syriac. This situation apparently continued well into the Islamic period, as Christians translated from Syriac into Arabic as the situation required, whether in texts (such as the testimonia considered below) or orally in arguments and discussions with Muslim neighbors. Muslims, Griffith argues, “learned of the contents of the Torah or Gospel from Jews or Christians viva voce, without reference to an Arabic text, against which to measure the accuracy of their reference to them.”

Lazarus-Yafeh comes to a similar conclusion as Griffith in examining the use of the Old Testament in Islam. Again, contrary to suggestions by some writers, he contends that there is no evidence of written translations of the Old Testament until well into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Instead, as Griffith also argues, Muslim reception of the Old Testament can be explained by oral translations or piecemeal translations in apologetic works. This reception was gradual; only from the mid to late ‘Abbāsid period do Muslim writers engage the Bible in an in-depth manner.

Such piecemeal translations, David Bertaina argues, are evidence of testimonia collections similar to those first compiled in the early Patristic period for apologetic and theological works. Bertaina cites the work of recent scholars suggesting that many early Christian writers, instead of resorting to a complete Bible, employed collections of scripture extracts, sometime extended passages, other times combinations of verses drawn from throughout the Bible. Bertaina argues that not only did Christians in the early medieval Islamic world compile and use testimonia collections, but that their compilation of testimonia was influenced deeply by the presence of Islam: “Since the biblical verses typically used for debating with Islam are rarely found in pre-Islamic testimony collections, it seems to indicate there was a progressive reliance on qur’anic language for extract collection…” Bertaina proceeds to examine three different texts and their use of testimonia collections.

In the Nestorian “The Apology of the Patriarch Timothy I” (c. 781), Bertaina notes Timothy’s extensive use of coordinated blocks of scripture, particularly quotations from the Old Testament prophets as proof of Christ, a common feature of Patristic testimonia. He also cites blocks of scripture to deal with issues brought up by Muslims, such as that “the Spirit is not Muhammad.” Further, Timothy employs selected verses from the Qur’ān alongside his use of testimonies from the Old and New Testaments; Bertaina interprets both aspects of Timothy’s work as examples of reworking of the Patristic testimonia tradition. In a contemporary Melkite work, Fī tathlīth Allāh al-wahīd, Bertaina sees a similar use of testimonia collections in the anonymous author’s insertion of Qur’ānic text into scriptural “prooftext” blocks. Of particular interest for Bertaina is the manner in which the author inserts multiple verses (often in a format similar to that of testimonia) from the Qur’ān, considerably more so than in Timothy. In the final work he considers- the record of a disputation attributed to Abū Qurrah- he sees the culmination of this process, as the author of the work employs only a handful of Biblical references, instead depending largely upon Qur’ānic references. Bertaina concludes that the Arabic Christian testimonia tradition developed as a way to reinterpret not only passages from the Old and New Testament contested by Muslims, but also to “reinterpret” the Qur’ān to coincide with Christian doctrine. He also argues, reinforcing Griffith and Lazarus, that the variety within Christian scriptural citations reveals Christians working from Syriac into Arabic in lieu of a settled Arabic translation of the Bible.

Turning to the still largely neglected field of Christian Arabic commentary on the Bible, Stephen Davis presents an Arabic commentary on the Apocalypse by Ibn Kātib Qaysar, a Coptic author from the mid-thirteenth century (later than but in the literary and cultural continuum of earlier Christian Arabic writers in Iraq and Syria). As he notes, the Apocalypse suffered from an ambiguous reception in the Christian East; in the Coptic Church, there are no known commentaries before the thirteenth century, the so-called “Golden Age” of Coptic Arabic writing. Ibn Kātib’s commentary drew upon a number of sources, from Hippolytus of Rome to Maimonides to earlier Arabic Christian writers, including Iraqi Nestorians and the other Coptic commentator on the Apocalypse, Būlus al-Būshī. However, as Davis emphasizes, Ibn Kātib seems more attuned to Islamic sensibilities: where, for example, al-Būshī interprets the number 666 as a reference to Muhammad, Ibn Kātib says more judiciously: “The attempt to solve the true identity [of the beast] cannot be realized apart from divine inspiration, seeing as there have already been many inventive solutions proposed.”

Davis spends the remainder of the paper examining aspects of how the text interacts with the broader Arabic world. Ibn Kātib understands there to be three categories of prophecy: “1. Prophecy (al-nubūwah): experienced in a state of sleep. 2. Revelatory vision (al-ru’yā): experienced in a state of semi-wakefulness or light slumber. 3. A divine manifestation (al-tajallī) or message (al-khitāb): experienced in a state of full wakefulness.” While similar schematics can be found in late antique Greek and Latin writers, Davis points to the existence of a whole genre of Arabic writings dealing with prophecy and dreams drawing upon the classical heritage, and argues that Ibn Kātib not only worked out of this tradition but also modified it. For example, where the Muslim tradition tended to interpret the prophecy of Muhammad as ru’hā sent to the Prophet during his deep sleep; in Ibn Kātib’s scheme, while ru’hā is still prophecy, it is the lowest sort, and is beneath that of “semi-wakefulness” in which John received the Apocalypse.

As evident from Bertaina’s treatment of Arabic testimonia, Christians early on began employing the Qur’ān directly in their writings, though their deployment operated on multiple levels. Mark Swanson explores the adoptive use of the Qur’ān in depth in “Beyond Prooftexting.” He considers several early Christian Arabic works and their use of the Qur’ān, pointing “to the fact that the early Arabic Christian literature is not merely literature of translation, in close relationship to Greek and Syriac exemplars; it is also a literature in some intertextual relationship with the Qur’ān…” How then does this intertextuality work? On the one hand, he points out, much early Arabic Christian literature employs the Qur’ān for simple “prooftexting,” often by taking the material out of context and providing an “arbitrary, tendentious interpretation.” In the example Swanson gives, from a very early polemical tract, the Christian author cites sūrāt that, in the original context, are meant to refute Christian belief in Christ as the Son of God. Though the author does not change the words, he manipulates phrases outside of their original context in such a way that the negative sense of the original becomes a positive affirmation of Christian doctrine.

However, Swanson contends, “prooftexting” is not the only method of Christian intertextuality. He then presents several categories of intertextuality with the Qur’ān that he argues reveal a much deeper and subtler Christian approach to the Muslim Book. Christians recast their language of prayer and praise in a deeply Qur’ānic idiom, as in the work Fī Tathlīth Allāh al-Wahīd, in which the introductory poetic prayer resounds continually with Qur’ānic language- in a way, Swanson argues, reveals a much deeper appreciation and appropriation of the Qur’ān than mere “prooftexting.” Further, Christians replot traditional stories along an Islamic line, using the chronology of the Qur’ān and even elements of its stories, when speaking about the lives and missions of the prophets; however, where the Qur’ān posits Muhammad as the apex of the prophetic line, the Christian texts posit Christ. Finally, Swanson sees throughout Christian writers numerous examples of “echoes” of the Qur’ān, allusions and fragments of sūra that would only carry their rhetorical weight for people with considerably cognizance of and appreciation for the Qur’ān.

How are we to interpret this phenomenon of Christian intertextuality? Swanson deploys categories used by Thomas Greene, in his Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry , for dealing with the relation of Renaissance texts to the classics. Under the heading of “reproductive” or “sacramental” use of the subtext, Swanson interprets such writings as the opening of Fī Tathlīth Allāh al-Wahīd and its creative appropriation of Qur’ānic prayer language. Under the category “eclectic” or “exploitive” Swanson suggests incidental uses of the Qur’ān, as when an author simply employs a particular term or part of a sūra without any other seeming desire to reference the text of the Qur’ān. This category could also include the decidedly “exploitive” use of “prooftexting” as well, though Swanson suggests this pushes the boundaries of Greene’s category. In the “heuristic” mode, in which the author “singles out one text as its putative genesis and. .. defines itself through its rewriting, its ‘modernizing,’ its aggiornamento of that text,” the Christian prophetic narratives within the story-arc (with the one important modification) can be seen. Finally, in the category of “dialectical” language, in which the text and subtext are in a dynamic engagement, Swanson, with qualifications suggests this also appears in the material: “…we may perhaps see something approaching a ‘dialectical’ approach to the Quranic subtext when Christian writers deal with it allusively, allowing it to speak with some freedom from afar rather than constraining or censoring its speech at close range.”

While it is important to keep in mind- as Swanson in fact does at one point in his study- that much Christian engagement with Islam and the Qur’ān (and likewise from the Islamic side) was purely polemical and even manipulative and exploitive in the extreme such an approach does not represent the sum of things. How much though can these texts tell us about actual Christian attitudes, and their prevalence? Swanson does not address this question directly; it might be suggested that the more “positive” engagements with Islam and the Qur’ān are only defensive moves on Christians’ parts, and that the “true” sentiments of Christians (and Muslims) are simply adversarial. However, Swanson would likely argue that the deeply set adaptation of Islamic language in many of our authors- reflections of the “reproductive” mode- reveals writers who are not writing out of pure polemic or even apologetic stances, but have genuinely absorbed not merely Qur’ānic language but the Qur’ān itself, finding within it “a world of prayer and praise which they could happily visit, even if they would not settle there permanently.”

The early Islamic reception of the Bible both differs from and reflects Christian conflict and appropriation of the Qur’ān. In his study Intertwined Worlds, Lazarus-Yafeh examines the various ways in which Muslim authors dealt with the Bible. He lists and examines the various Islamic arguments used against Christian and Jewish scripture: tahrīf (falsification or corruption), naskh (abrogation), lack of reliable chains of witnesses, and the use of exegesis. Under the first heading, Lazarus sees tahrīf as being primarily interpreted as Christian and Jewish corruption, modification, of the sacred text; thus the Bible could not be trusted due to the changes wrought in it by non-Muslims. Yet, as Lazarus notes, the fact that the Qur’ān sometimes speaks positively of the other Books led Muslims to an ambivalent position, in which they at once sought to employ these other Books yet mark them off against the Qur’ān- a situation not unlike, as Swanson notes, that of Christian authors dealing with the Muslim holy Book. As knowledge of the Bible increased in the Islamic world, some Muslims sought to explicate just what things were tahrīf- according to one author, the geographical inaccuracies, numerical problems, examples of preposterous behavior, and theological impossibilities were all signs of corruption.

Under naskh, Lazarus discusses the idea that the Qur’ān supersedes previous scriptures, which developed alongside the idea of naskh within the Qur’ān itself, as one verse was seen abrogating another. This argument was of particular use against Christianity, since Christians were placed, Lazarus argues, in a difficult spot arguing for the abrogation of the New Testament over the old, yet resisting the claims of the Qur’ān.

Of the remaining two claims, lack of reliable chains was fairly straightforward- Christians and Jews could not provide lists of reliable witnesses passing the texts on, which opened room for corruption somewhere along the line. As for the final element, the use of exegesis, Lazarus demonstrates how this opened the way for ambiguity and negotiation over the status of the Bible. In the figure of Ezra, Muslims sometimes found a likely corrupter of the Bible, yet at other times a praiseworthy figure rediscovering for the Jews the Torah (presumably in an uncorrupted state). Muslim attempts to interpret the Bible in order to find proof of Muhammad also reveal levels of intertextuality beyond mere polemic, though sometimes the allegation of corruption was raised- prophecies could not be found because they had been edited out. Other times Muslims found in existing passages proof of Muhammad, raising the question of the validity of the text as-is.

3. The Sign of the Cross Under the Shadow of the Mosque: Like the scriptures, Christian doctrine concerning the cross and crucifixion of Christ came under the pressure of Islam and the Arabic milieu. And just as with scripture, Christian responses to Muslim critiques (and in this case occasional physical assaults) upon the cross of Christ were met with a variety of traditional and innovative arguments and recontextualization specifically geared for the Arabic, Qur’ānic environment. In this section I will examine, first, Muslim challenges to the cross; second, Mark Swanson’s evaluation of early Melkite writings on the cross and crucifixion; finally, I will briefly consider the Jacobite theologian Abū Ra’itah’s defense of veneration of the cross and examine how his arguments seek to contextualize the cross in an Islamic milieu.

Muslims almost universally denied the very historicity of the crucifixion, as the Qur’ān explicitly states that Christ was neither killed nor crucified in Sūrat al-Nisā’ (Q.4:157). Indeed, one of the reasons often advanced to prove tahrīf in the Gospels was their description of Jesus’ death on the cross which meant shameful humiliation for Jesus and, by extension, God who had sent him. That Christians went much further and claimed divinity for Christ, then portrayed him as dying on the cross went from being scandalous to blasphemous, making the cross a sign of the impious folly of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation- and hence death- of God, one of the greatest points of conflict between Islam and Christianity.

Muslims would also accuse Christians of idolatry for their veneration of crosses and icons. However as King argues in discussing the infamous iconoclastic decree of Yazid II, Islamic iconoclasm is best seen as a manifestation of Muslim rejection, not of images or symbols primarily, but of what those images and symbols represent. Christian veneration of the cross was to be rejected not simply for or even necessarily because of implications of idolatry- after all, as Christian authors pointed out, Muslims venerated the Ka’ba in Mecca- but because of the scandalous doctrine that lay behind it. Nonetheless, as the material below reveals, the charge of idolatry remained a pressing concern for many Muslims and Christians, with or without attention to the broader doctrinal implications.

Besides the afore-mentioned edict of Yazid II ordering the destruction of all imagery in the Islamic empire, there were other occasional outbreaks of outright violence against Christian icons and crosses. According to the “Covenant of ‘Umar,” Christians are prohibited from displaying crosses in public, carrying them in procession. Such regulations in reality usually carried little actual prescriptive power; Christians continued to display their crosses, even in public, with Yazid’s decree being something of an anomaly.

More common than the occasional outbreaks of anti-Christian and iconoclastic violence was Muslim challenging of Christian doctrine and practice, as described by Theodore Abū Qurrah in his treatise on icons: “Anti-Christians, especially ones claiming to have in hand a scripture sent down from God, are reprimanding them [Christians] for their prostration to these icons… and they sneer at them.” Abū Qurrah and other Christian theologians of this period had to deal with a world in which Christians and Muslims mixed freely and exchanged theological barbs and arguments. Muslim attacks and outright mockery on the cross and icons no doubt contributed to the slow but steady attrition of Christians to Islam through the ‘Abbāsid period. In this light, Christian defenses of the cross are best understood as primarily directed at their fellow Christians as a means of shoring up beleaguered practice and beliefs.

In the first ‘Abbāsid century a number of Christian writers offered defenses of the crucifixion of Christ and veneration of the cross; Mark Swanson presents an overview and analysis of some of these early defenses. After briefly examining the pre-Islamic Christian conception of the cross and the Islamic reaction, he turns to two bodies of writing from the early ‘Abbasid period: the works of the Bishop of Harran Abū Qurrah and a treatise, authorship unknown, titled Jāmi’ wujūh al-īmām. Abū Qurrah argues for the necessity of the cross on the grounds of the conflict between God’s mercy and justice; only Christ’s offering of himself to the Father solves the dilemma. Swanson notes that Abū Qurrah’s “cross-soteriology” is central to his apologetic treatises, and hinges upon Abū Qurrah’s insistence on the true humanity of Christ. For the author of the Jami’, however, while including the argument from God’s justice and Christ’s satisfaction of it, hinges his argument upon the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Christ as public signs and assurances from God of the general resurrection. In so doing, Swanson suggests, the author implies to possible Muslim readers that only in Christ can one find certainty of the resurrection, a belief shared between Christians and Muslims.

Swanson then notes that neither author explicitly addresses Sūrat al-Nisā’ (Q.4.157) or Muslim disavowal of the reality of the crucifixion. He suggests that this is because for the authors “the reality of the cross of Christ is placed beyond question by the densely-woven coherence of the writers’ entire scriptural/theological fabric, which would be unraveled by the denial of the historicity to the crucifixion…” They do however offer scriptural proof texts, though obviously this method is problematic when writing to Muslims; Swanson suggests that Abū Qurrah’s explicit appeal to the books of Moses may be in hopes of maintaining Muslim attention.

Finally, Swanson takes up Abū Qurrah’s innovative approach to dealing with the “scandal of the cross”: for the bishop of Harran, “the scandalous nature of Christianity’s teaching is, paradoxically, an indication of Christianity’s truth… Christianity, however, with its paradoxical and scandalous teaching has no appeal whatsoever for the common mind; quite the opposite.” The scandalous nature of the cross gives proof of the veracity of Christianity; only through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit would men accept this faith, which offers no earthly rewards and is so hard to accept rationally. Not only that, but the cross, particularly as represented in churches in depictions of Christ crucified- presents, in Swanson’s words, “a demand for a response which must be Yes or No, faith or rejection, loyalty or shame.” The “outsider” must choose to accept or reject Christ when confronted with the cross; the Christian shows loyalty with his humiliated King by being humiliated for his belief, and thus identifies with the sufferings of Christ. Thus, for Abū Qurrah, it is a virtuous thing that Muslims enter churches and mock believers; without the icons of Christ crucified, “it would not occur to most of them to react in the way we have mentioned.”

This scandal of the cross is reflected in the Christian’s life “under the sign of the cross”; not only should the Christian venerate the cross (which, the author of the Jāmi’ argues, is comparable to Muslim veneration of the Ka’ba), but the cross is a sign and an encouragement (and possibly even a direct means!) of the Christian’s ascetic struggle, even martyrdom. Swanson reminds the reader that this was not merely theoretical: martyrs from the ‘Abbāsid period demonstrated the very real possibility of dying for the cross.

The ninth-century Jacobite theologian Habīb ibn Khidmah Abū Ra’itah al-Takrītī faced a situation similar to that of his Melkite contemporaries. In his capacity as a teacher/lay theologian (similar to an Armenian vardapet) he sought to offer his fellow miaphysite Christians tools for debate with their Muslim neighbors; it is likely he also engaged Muslims directly and certainly wrote apologetics directed to them. In one of his four surviving treatises answering Islamic objections, On the Proof of the Christian Religion and the Proof of the Holy Trinity, he presents a defense of Christian veneration of the cross, along with a defense of Christian prayer facing the east. In this short passage his engagement of contested practices and doctrines and use of Islamic language alongside traditional explanations provides a succinct example of what Stephen Davis describes as the “dual function” of apologetics in the Islamic context: “…on the one hand, it seeks to assimilate itself to the language of the dominant culture; and on the other hand, it seeks to distance itself from unpalatable viewpoints within that culture (and thereby to define the boundaries of its own communal identity).”

The passage on the cross comes after a long discussion of the miaphysite understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation and multiple points of defense against Muslim attacks on it. Having treated the vital and hotly contested issues of Incarnation and Trinity he turns to certain Christian practices that were contested by Muslims, including the veneration of the cross:

“As for their statement concerning our exaltation of the Cross (ta’zīmihum al-sabīli), while we forbid the worship of idols, out exaltation of it, O my brother, [even though] it is especially contemptible, is a clear indication of our rejection of the worship of idols, and our repudiation of the veneration (sujudnah) of graven images.”

He then argues that if Christians were in fact idolaters, surely they would worship things more beautiful and noble than the cross- “this despised form”- which form, as both Muslims and Christians would agree, stands for a particularly contemptible instrument of execution. He suggests that Christians do not fashion crosses from “the finest and most beautiful things,” a somewhat odd comment- did Christians in Abū Ra’itah’s area avoid the use of expensive materials in their crosses (perhaps seeking to avoid rapacious “iconoclastic” programs)?

Instead of turning to idols, then, Christians turn (samada) to the cross, and it “has become for us a qiblah, and something particular apart from all things.” At this point the text is unfortunately briefly corrupt, but picks back up with the idea of the cross-as-qiblah: “For how is it possible that the one who turns his toward worship of his Lord be oriented to a quiblah other than His qibla? …who takes up this qibla, apart from all other things, is saved. We, the Christian community, worship our Lord and our God, and do not worship another god from among creatures.”

Continuing the qibla theme, he explains why Christians face east in their prayers, employing two traditional explanations: east is the direction of paradise, and Christians expect Christ to return in the east. Thus the Christian community (ma’sharu al-nasārī) turns their “faces at the time of our prayers toward it.” Finally, Abū Ra’itah addresses the common Muslim objection that “all of the prophets and all of the forefathers did not take the east as the qiblah.” He agrees: instead, the prophets faced Jerusalem for prayer- because, he writes, it was the place Christ lived, bore the “cross of salvation,” died, and rose again. Christ’s work in Jerusalem is the sirr, the secret or mystery, of the ancient qibla, and it is for this reason that Christians turn to the east. The seeming non-sequitor here should probably be understood as suggesting that since Christ has fulfilled the sirr of his mission, Christians now await his coming in the east, as the prophets of old awaited his coming in Jerusalem.

In this brief passage, Abū Ra’itah first deals with the charge of idolatry- an impossible charge, he suggests, in tones reminiscent of Abū Qurrah, because of the despised nature of the cross. If Christians were worshipping creation, they would not worship something as despicable as a cross! It is suggestive, however, that Abū Ra’itah does not continue with the likely objection a Muslim would have then raised: yes, the cross is despicable, because the Christians say God died on it. In fact, in none of his apologetic works does Abū Ra’itah go to the lengths that his Melkite contemporary goes in embracing the “scandal of the cross.” Even in the work under consideration- clearly meant for his fellow Christians as a handbook for disputations- his primary objective is defending the Trinity and Incarnation; his approach- here, anyway- could hardly be considered one of “cross-soteriology.”

If then for Abū Qurrah the cross marks out the Christian and his community through its scandalous demand for a Yes or No, and as a way for the Christian to share in the humiliation of Christ, for Abū Ra’itah, the cross marks out the Christian, first, through his open avowal of it as the true sign of God: “…one who intends to worship Him manifestly believes in [it]”; second, as the true qibla that the community orients itself toward in worship. Just as the Muslim qibla is a key identifying marker for that community- indeed, one term for the Islamic community was ahl al-qibla, people of the qibla – the cross is a locus of Christian identification, in contradistinction to the Muslim qibla. By employing a Qur’ānic concept and its attendant meaning in contemporary Muslim practice, Abū Qurrah at once challenges Muslim practice- the cross of Christ is the true qiblah, not the Ka’bah in Mecca- and also provides a defense for Christian practice that Muslims might be expected to grudgingly accept. If venerating the Black Stone, and facing it in prayer, is allowable, surely the “cross of salvation” is worthy of veneration?

He thus turns the contestation of the cross by Muslims into a contestation of the qibla by Christians- which is reinforced by his answer to the question regarding Jerusalem. No doubt aware that Islamic tradition recognized Jerusalem as the first qibla of the Muslim community, he agrees that it was the proper direction- because of the cross of Christ! Not only that, but it was the original qibla, contrary to a Muslim tradition stating that Mecca was the qibla of Ibrahīm. There is a level of intertexuality going on here, but it should probably be described as primarily “exploitive”: the wresting of Qur’ānic terms into the explicit service of Christian doctrine. While Abū Ra’itah employs Islamic preoccupations, they are carefully aligned within a web of Christian meanings, largely in contradistinction to Islamic meanings. His deployment of traditional and innovative arguments provides a concise instance of the complex process of contestation and intertextuality that Christian writers were forced to deal with in the diverse Arabic-speaking world of ‘Abbāsid Islam.


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It Is Like a Great Poem

John Scotus, influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, considered the area of Scripture in its origins and in its end term, in the first, fresh simplicity of its beaming divine radiance and in the rediscovered unity of all things in it. What is simpler than the Word, what is more one than what he gathers together for eternity? But in coming to us simplicity is fragmented, or, rather, simplicity becomes fecund and fruitful, it opens itself up to the multiplicity that it engenders, so as to gather it up at later stage and contain in it in its bosom: “in that whole notion of simplicity, however, there are to be found many facets of speculative thought.” This whole intermediate area, comprised as it is of multiple sacraments that are united in the sacramental mystery of the flesh of Christ, is given to us, during our terrestrial existence, for our varied and many-sided contemplation. Thus, without losing the primordial unity that it possesses in the Word, Scripture does not discourage our making use of a whole gamut of senses, which are as numerous as the many colors of a peacock’s tail. This is an image that John Scotus could have received from Cassiodorus, who made a special application of it to the Psalter. To speak in more concrete terms, the interpretation of Scripture is indefinite, being as it is in the image of the infinity of its Author. It is like a great poem, with a pedagogical intent, whose inexhaustible significance leads us to the pure heights of the summit of contemplation.

Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, Vol. 1, p. 77