"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Death of the Virgin and the Prophet

Eastern Christians today celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos
(known in the West as her Assumption), about which Stephen Shoemaker wrote The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2006). Shoemaker is also the author of two recent books, one on the Theotokos, and another on Mohammad. I asked him for an interview about both, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

I am Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, where I have taught since 2000.  I teach primarily the history of Christianity, covering the full span of the tradition, from ancient to modern, East and West.  My research studies religion in the late ancient and early medieval Near East.  Apocryphal narratives about the Virgin’s life and death have been the primary focus of my publications, with a secondary interest in the beginnings of Islam.

For roughly the past two decades I have been studying and publishing on early narratives about Mary, and this text is clearly an important and early source that has been ignored and neglected, despite a published edition and French translation.  For several years I had been considering a translation, and as I studied this earliest Life of the Virgin more and more, it became increasingly clear that it is a pivotal text in the history of Marian piety – regardless of its authorship.  Thus it seemed that an English translation might be useful and would perhaps draw more attention to the text and its significance and possibly encourage more serious consideration of its authorship.

AD: Tell us why you think a text originally composed in Greek now only survives in Old Georgian.

This is not that unusual.  There are many texts that were written in Greek but now survive only in Old Georgian.  For one thing, Georgians were a significant presence in the main centers of Greek monasticism from early on, and they were prolific translators.  As for why the Greek original is sometimes lost, I suppose that there can be any number of explanations, and the possibilities would likely depend on the particular text.  In this specific case, however, it would appear that this Life of the Virgin’s success was its own undoing.  This early narrative was adapted by several later authors, including George of Nicomedia, Simeon the Metaphrast, and John the Geometer.  Each of these writers composed new Marian narratives on the basis of this earliest Life, whose contents they largely reproduce.  Accordingly, these “new and improved” narratives were the ones to be copied going forward: Simeon’s Life of the Virgin and George’s Passion homilies in particular proved quite popular.  The “Maximus” Life, it would seem, was overlooked in favor of these newer productions.  Nevertheless, a Georgian translation of this earliest Life had been produced on Mount Athos toward the end of the tenth century, and from there it was disseminated to the monasteries of Mar Saba, Mount Sinai, and Georgia.  The Georgians remained faithful to this earliest biography.  Moreover, one should additionally note that this text’s survival in Old Georgian also reflects a broader trend in the history of early Byzantine hagiography: it is often the case that the pre-metaphrastic Lives of various saints survive only in Georgian translation, having been lost in Greek due to their displacement by the new revisions of these older narratives by Simeon and others of his era.

AD: If you didn't know that Maximus was the author of this text, would you have been able to surmise that he had a hand in it? In other words, is there a distinctly "Maximian" style to the text that would tip you off to his authorship?

I’m no expert on Maximus, and so I could not be the judge of any distinctive “Maximian” style in this work or in others.  But if one were to take such an approach, it would be essential to bear in mind the generic difference between this work and the other writings assigned to Maximus.  And I wonder, for instance, if one did not know for certain that the Life of Antony was written by Athanasius, would one be able to discover in it a distinctive Athanasian style by comparing its Georgian translation with On the Incarnation and Orations against the Arians?  Or likewise for Maximus’ mentor Sophronius and the Life of Mary of Egypt (which I’m inclined to believe that the latter wrote)?  Maybe so, but I’m not sure that we should necessarily expect this to be the case.

AD: Were you able to find or trace out a "lineage" of influence to this text? In other words, what were the predecessor influences on Maximus in writing? Similarly, are there later or successor texts, devotions, or persons whom Maximus in turn influences with his Life of the Virgin?

Yes.  The author identifies his sources at the beginning.  Of course he names the gospels and other biblical texts, but also specifically writings by Gregory the Thaumaturge, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Dionysius the Areopagite.  He also makes prolific use of early Christian apocrypha, most notably the Protevangelium of James and the various ancient Dormition apocrypha, and the author invokes patristic warrant for the use of these texts from Gregory of Nyssa.  He specifically rejects, however, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  I suspect this indicates that the author was aware of certain collections of Marian apocrypha that had begun to circulate by the fifth century, in which the Protevangelium, the Six Books Dormition apocryphon, and often the Infancy Gospel of Thomas were gathered together as a kind of “proto-Life” of the Virgin.  Presently such collections only survive in several Syriac manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries, but other sources indicate that these collections originally circulated in Greek.

As for its successor texts, I’ve said a bit about this already.  The most important were George of Nicomedia’s Passion homilies and the Lives of the Virgin by Simeon the Metaphrast and John the Geometer.  Primarily through the mediation of these texts, the traditions of this earliest Life of the Virgin had a formative influence on the Virgin’s representation in Byzantine literature.  One of the Life’s most notable influences appears in the Orthodox hymns of lamentation for Holy Friday and the matins of Holy Saturday.  The Virgin’s lamentations from this earliest biography echo clearly in these hymns still today.  Another area that remains to be more fully explored is the relationship between the Life’s representation of Mary at the crucifixion and the so-called “affective piety” of the western High Middle Ages.  Scholars of religion in the medieval West have tended to see this phenomenon as an unprecedented eruption of a new style of piety in this era; nevertheless, it is clear that this sort of devotion emerged much earlier in the Byzantine world, and this Life now shows evidence of such piety already in the seventh century.  I have written an article raising the possibility that such piety may have moved from east to west during the early Middle Ages, but there is much uncertainty.  It would seem that there needs to be more concerted study of the religious interaction between eastern and western Christianity during this period, particularly in Italy.

AD: I've noted before on the blog the very considerable number of publications devoted to Maximus that have appeared just in English in the last decade. Why do you think he remains a figure of such interest?

I’m not sure, but there does seem to be a trend.  He’s certainly a profound and fascinating author who is often difficult to understand.  I would suspect that these qualities hold much of the cause.

AD: One of my doctoral courses ten years ago now was on Maximus, and I remember clearly reading the assessment of several scholars, including Andrew Louth, that Maximus' Greek was notoriously difficult. Did you find him difficult to translate?

Yes, this was a difficult text to translate.  Not only were there problems with the edition and the challenges of the Old Georgian language itself, but the Maximus Life of the Virgin is a very high-style Byzantine text of great eloquence and elegance.  Some of this character can be seen, for better and for worse, in Michel van Esbroeck’s French translation, which often renders the text so literally that it is nearly unintelligible to the reader.  Thus, even when one has determined the meanings of all the various words, it is often incredibly difficult to turn this into readable English.  Nevertheless, the text consists largely of narrative, encomium, hymns, and exegesis, and so despite the frequent difficulties it poses for readers and translators, its content is of a decidedly different nature from the Ambigua.  For obvious reasons, these abstract philosophical and theological explorations of difficult passages from Gregory the Theologian and Ps.-Dionysius have a greater level of difficulty than this Life of the Virgin.  Accordingly, the fact that this narrative is somewhat more direct in its style is most likely a consequence of generic differences as much as anything else and on its own cannot indicate whether or not Maximus might have been its author, as the manuscripts indicate.

AD: Tell us about your other recent book, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 416pp.. To move from the life of the Virgin to the death of Muhammad seems like a large step. Are there any connections between your work on these two books? 

Well, I occasionally joke that I am aiming to be an authority on traditions about the death of the two figures about whom it is said that through them the Word of God came into the world.  But that’s being silly and a bit ridiculous.  I am generally interested, however, in religion in the late ancient and early medieval Near East, and both projects fit well within that frame.  Yet perhaps more significantly both projects reflect a strong interest in how religious traditions come to remember – and “re-remember” – the period of their origins.  I’m very interested in narrative traditions, especially “apocrypha,” that memorialize the time of origins, re-imagining the beginnings of the tradition so that it conforms to the beliefs and practices of later communities.  And one of the main conclusions of my work on the earliest sources for the beginnings of Islam is that in essence these sources are roughly equivalent in their character, and in their trustworthiness it would seem, to early Christian apocryphal narratives about Mary and the apostles.  Accordingly, we should approach these early Islamic sources in the same way that we would study the apocryphal Acts of Paul or the Protevangelium for knowledge of earliest Christian history.

AD: What were your goals or hopes for this book on the prophet's death?

I hope that it will persuasively demonstrate several things: the value of non-Islamic sources for studying the history of earliest Islam; the deeply problematic nature of the early Islamic historical sources and the need to approach them with a significant measure of skepticism; the very different approaches taken to source materials by scholars of early Christianity and early Islam; the possibility of historical-critical reconstruction of Islamic origins; and the substantially different nature of earliest Islam from what was to become “classical” Islam, particularly with respect to eschatology, the confessional boundaries of the community, and sacred geography.

AD: You note the "eschatological" expectation of Muhammad and his followers--that the world's end was imminent. Is this similar to or different from the eschatological expectation of the earliest Christians after the death and resurrection of Christ?

It is in many ways similar to the eschatological hopes of the early Christians, not only after, but especially during Jesus’ ministry and even before it (for those followers who came with him from John the Baptist’s eschatological movement).  The imminence with which the impending judgment is expected seems especially comparable, and there are other elements from the shared tradition of Jewish (and ultimately, Christian) eschatology that are familiar.  But there are some differences.  I think it is very likely that Muhammad’s earliest followers expected the eschaton sometime before his death, for a number of reasons that I give in the book.  Also, the eschatological vision of Muhammad and his followers seems to have been in some sense political: that is, it was being brought into effect through the formation and successes of their polity.  Their eschatology is also closely joined with the promised right of inheritance of the Holy Land, and it seems that reclaiming this land from the Romans held eschatological significance.  Accordingly, Jerusalem stood at the center of this eschatological map, and the Temple Mount and traditions of the Temple’s restoration also seems to have played an important role.

AD: How did the fact that the world's end did not appear as expected influence early Islam?

Well, this is then the big question.  Once we recognize that earliest Islam was in many ways radically different from “classical” Islam, and that it was driven by urgent eschatological belief that was focused on the Holy Land, we can begin to explore various ways that the Islamic tradition developed during the formative period of its first century in response to its changing circumstances – including the unexpected passage of time itself.  This is an enormous task that remains to be undertaken.  But, some specific things that I suggest in the book as likely consequences of the eschaton’s failure to arrive include the reorientation of sacred geography away from Jerusalem and the Holy Land to focus instead on the Hijaz, as well as a number of other related developments that “confessionalized” Islam, marking boundaries between it and Judaism and Christianity, including, among other things, the formation of a distinctive scripture and the transformation of Muhammad from an eschatological warner into a Messenger of God and a prophet of unique stature.
AD: What do you see are the major historiographical problems in treating early Islam as "sacred history"? Is it possible to separate "theology" from "history"?

The biggest historiographical problem here lies not so much in treating the early narratives of Islamic origins as “sacred history” but rather in the prolonged failure of most scholars to do so.  These are not simple accounts of what happened during Muhammad’s life but rather highly mythologized accounts that derive in large part from the beliefs and practices of Islam over 100 years after the fact.  In comparison with early Christianity, it is as if we were to take the second-century Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter as relatively straightforward accounts of the beginnings of Christianity during mid-first century.  Of course, in this respect one potential historiographical problem consequent to recognizing the nature of the early Islamic sources as largely “sacred history” is the threat of a kind of epistemological collapse, in which we find that we actually know almost nothing about the beginnings of Islam, a conclusion that some scholars have in fact embraced.  My book, while recognizing the severe problems with these sources, aims to identify approaches that can potentially exhume earlier elements within the Islamic tradition by establishing a degree of probability that they reflect older beliefs and practices that are different from those of the Islamic historians of the later eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries.

As for the separation of “theology” and “history,” of course it is possible to separate these two things; I doubt, for instance, anyone would confuse a history department with a theology department.  Or to put it in more specific terms, I see little question that one can write a biography of Jesus or Muhammad from a secular, historical perspective and also a very different one from a Christian/Muslim theological perspective: and these certainly would not be the same.  But perhaps the larger question here is whether this secular history should be regarded as “true” as opposed to the theologized accounts of the early Christian and Islamic sources which are, by comparison, false.  I address such concerns, albeit briefly, in the introduction to the book.  Suffice it to say that such theological narratives about Jesus or Muhammad certainly will be seen as “true” by those within the respective faith tradition, and within those contexts, considered by the principles that govern these interpretive communities, they are indeed, “true” accounts of origins.  But for those outside of the respective tradition, such theological accounts will not seem “true” in the same sense, and this is particularly the case for historians committed to the secular, critical perspectives originating in the Enlightenment and Modernity.

AD: You suggest that trying to reconstruct early Islamic origins and texts may benefit from following methods used in biblical studies that try to tease out the "historical Jesus" from the "Christ of faith." How possible is it to separate Islamic origins from later approved "orthodox" understandings of those origins? And why is that an important goal--or even an attainable one? Is it ever possible to obtain "pure" history that has not been "theologized?"

It only is possible if one is willing to let go of the fairly widely held beliefs that the Qur’an is an accurate transcript of what Muhammad taught and that the traditional accounts of Islamic origins are in the main accurate.  Once it is allowed that the early community may have shaped the contents of the Qur’an beyond Muhammad’s lifetime (or also that some of its contents may even predate Muhammad) and that the nature of the Islamic tradition and its memory of the period of origins might have developed during the period of over 100 years before our earliest texts were composed (excepting the Qur’an), then one can proceed using a variety of methods and perspectives that have been developed in early Christian studies.  A number of such specific approaches are identified in the book, and to get the full sense, one will have to look especially to the second half of the book.  But to give a couple of examples: the use of form and tradition criticism for studying the Qur’an seems like an endeavor that could bear much fruit.  Also, something like Walter Bauer’s model for the development of early Christian orthodoxy might be usefully applied to formative Islam, as John Wansbrough suggested.  And, as noted in response to the following question, evidence of theologically “embarrassing” traditions that contradict the received tradition may very likely point to earlier doctrinal and ritual formations.

Such an endeavor is an important task only if one is interested in producing a secular history of the beginnings of Islam, as we have done now for Judaism, Christianity, and other religions as well.  If one is content with the Islamic account of Islam’s history and believes it to be accurate, then I suppose such a project will not be important.  But if one is interested in a history of early Islam that derives from the principles of modern and post-modern historical criticism, then this task is an important one.  Basically, if one is interested in the history of religious culture, then it is important to understand how the Islamic tradition, like others, developed during its earliest history.

As for the final question, I believe that I have more or less addressed that point already above, in answering the previous set of questions (Is it possible to separate "theology" from "history"?).  And I’m not sure what a history of a particular religion that was “pure” of any theology would look like: perhaps some sort of Marxist or purely sociological analysis?  But even then theology would be an important component of what is being studied.  Certainly, what I’m interested in is how the theology of the tradition differed and changed over time.  If the question is whether or not modern and post-modern historical criticism can claim that it is not a “theologized” perspective, then I suppose that question hinges on whether or not one considers secularism to be a theological point of view.  But that’s a broader philosophical question that I don’t really deal with in this book.

AD: You note that the criterion of embarrassment or dissimilarity is especially useful in helping us discern what may really have happened from what a writer may wish or claim to have had happen. Where has this criterion been especially useful to you in understanding Islamic origins and the Quran?

In this study I found the criterion particularly useful for understanding the eschatological views of Muhammad and the early community, much in the same way that it is especially useful in this area for studying Christian origins.  Although scholars of New Testament have often questioned the value of this criterion in some respects, and the principle of dissimilarity from early Judaism is particularly problematic, at the same time it seems highly improbable that later redactors would have attributed predictions of the imminent end of the world to Jesus or Muhammad if they had not in fact taught this. And it’s important to emphasize that this criterion does not necessarily tell us what “really” happened but rather it identifies elements that are highly unlikely to have been the creation of later traditonists and thus very likely belong to the earliest layer(s) of the tradition.

AD: Your book speaks of how "disheartening" it is that some people will not countenance a more "skeptical" approach to Islamic origins and prefer not to raise some of the questions you do. Why are people so resistant? How much of that resistance is motivated by genuinely methodological or scholarly considerations, and how much of it is motivated by other factors, not excluding fear of the likely reaction from some Muslims today? 

For reasons that I explain in the book, I think that there is a genuinely methodological element that has largely to do with the formation of early Islamic studies as a discipline closely tied to Semitic philology and Hebrew Bible studies and relatively isolated from New Testament and early Christian studies.  But there are other elements as well.  As noted above, there is seemingly some concern about a kind of epistemological collapse if one adopts a skeptical approach to the sources: if we recognize that the sources are indeed highly problematic, then there is a worry that we will know almost nothing about the beginnings of Islam.  Moreover, disciplinary pressure against such approaches within Islamic studies can be significant, creating an environment that may discourage many scholars, and particularly younger scholars, from adopting more a critical approach to the early tradition.  The outright hostility that some scholars in the field have shown to such “skepticism” is discouraging and disappointing, particularly to one trained in the “skepticism” of early Christian studies.

But fear of possible reactions from some Muslims today is certainly a factor as well, and here I can speak from my own experience in publishing this book.  I originally began with a different publisher.  After an almost year-long process of review, we were within a week of having a contract formally authorized.  Then I suddenly received an email informing me that some people higher up at the press were only just becoming aware of the book and had concerns that they could not publish any “titles that challenge traditional Islamic orthodoxy” without endangering the staff in their Pakistan office.   An additional review was then done by Pakistani scholars of early Islam through the press’s Pakistan office.  In the end the press – a major English language academic publisher – decided to reject the book solely on the basis, as I was explicitly told, that its contents might upset some in the Islamic world and Pakistan in particular, despite the press’s recognition that purely on its scholarly merits the book deserved publication.  It was a shocking act of censorship that demonstrates perfectly the difficulties in studying Islam the way that we study other religious traditions.  In essence, the press’s actions proved my basic thesis: as a general rule we do not study and publish on the history of the early Islamic tradition in the same way that we do for other religious traditions.

AD: Why is there no Islamic equivalent to the Jesus Seminar? Why, in other words as you note towards the end of your book, is there a "marked contrast" between treatments by scholars of the death of Jesus and similarly scholarly treatment of the death of Muhammad?

In general the main trend within the study of early Islam has been to assume that the Qur’an presents a transparent record of Muhammad’s teachings and that the historical traditions about his prophetic career and the formation of the community are, despite some problems, an accurate account in the basic core of their facts.  This leaves little room for the skepticism of the received tradition that guides the Jesus Seminar and even other more mainstream elements of biblical scholarship as well.  Alternatively, a minority opinion within early Islamic studies holds that the early traditions are so determined by the pious memories of later Muslims that we really can know very little at all about first-century of Islam and accordingly should focus instead on the second and subsequent centuries.  While there certainly have been some notable exceptions, these two main trends do not invite much possibility for scrutinizing the early traditions in order to determine which are arguably earlier and which are more recent.  Very many scholars simply assume that the traditional narrative of Islam’s origins is in fact largely accurate in its most fundamental points, obviating the need for such analysis, while others are alternatively convinced very little can be known about the first century. 

So there is a marked difference not just concerning the death of Jesus and the death of Muhammad but more generally between the study of early Christianity and early Islam.  The source of this difference lies, it would seem, in the skeptical approach that early Christian studies brings to traditional sources and narratives of origins on the one hand, and on the other hand in a correlate belief that one can arguably identify earlier traditions within later collections.  With respect to the latter point, however, I think it is worth noting that perhaps one of the main reasons for this difference in approach is that there are much better and more numerous sources for studying formative Christianity.  By comparison the earliest Islamic sources (outside of the Qur’an) are quite late and less diverse.  Yet while perhaps this gives cause for less optimism regarding the extent to which we will be able to reconstruct the earliest traditions, it certainly does not mean that the formative history of Islam has been completely effaced by the traditional narratives of its origins.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. It shows how rich could a literature be in terms of translation.Through translating shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.Whether in French translation or in any foreign language translation helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.


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