A Mission To Reinterpret The World's Sacred Texts

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A copy of the Quran is displayed with a bible in the library of the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden on Sept. 10, 2010 south of London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
A copy of the Quran is displayed with a bible in the library of the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden on Sept. 10, 2010 south of London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

A misreading of scripture is at the root of many of today’s controversies worldwide, says renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong. She makes the case.


Karen Armstrong, religious scholar and former nun. Author of "The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts." (@KarenAnchorite)

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Excerpt from "The Lost Art of Scripture" by Karen Armstrong

Cosmos and Society


Israel: Remembering in Order to Belong

The Fall of Adam and Eve is one of the most famous stories of the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh, the divine creator, placed the first human beings in Eden, where there was “every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden.” But Yahweh gave Adam a stern warning: he could eat the fruit of all these trees except the fruit of the tree of knowledge, “for on the day you eat of it, you shall most surely die.” But, alas, Eve succumbed to the temptation of the serpent, and she and Adam were condemned to a life of hard labour and suffering that could end only in death.

This story is so deeply embedded in the Judaeo-Christian consciousness that it is, perhaps, surprising to learn that in fact it is steeped in the Mesopotamian Wisdom traditions that embodied the ethical ideals that bound the ruling aristocracy together. Civilisation began in Sumer, in what is now Iraq, in about 3500 bce. The Sumerians were the first to commandeer the agricultural surplus grown by the community in the fertile plain that lay between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and create a privileged ruling class. By about 3000 bce, there were twelve cities in the Mesopotamian plain, each supported by produce grown by peasants in the surrounding countryside. The Sumerian aristocrats and their retainers—bureaucrats, soldiers, scribes, merchants and household servants—appropriated between half and two-thirds of the crop grown by the peasants, who were reduced to serfdom. They left fragmentary records of their misery: “The poor man is better dead than alive,” one lamented. Sumer had devised the system of structural inequity that would prevail in every single state until the modern period, when agriculture ceased to be the economic basis of civilisation.

Adam and Eve, however, lived at the beginning of time, before the earth yielded brambles and thistles and humans had to wrest their food from the recalcitrant soil with sweat on their brow. Their life in Eden was idyllic until Eve met the serpent, who is described as arum, the most “subtle,” “shrewd” and “wise” of the animals. “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asked her. Eve replied that only the tree of knowledge was prohibited on pain of instant death. The arum serpent’s prediction of what would happen to Adam and Eve drew heavily on the terminology of Sumerian Wisdom: “No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” Of course, Eve succumbed: she wanted to transcend her humanity and become godlike. The couple did not, in fact, die as soon as they ate the forbidden fruit, as Yahweh had threatened. Instead, as the serpent promised, “the eyes of both were opened”—words that recall the exclamation of a Mesopotamian student to his teacher:

Master-god, who [shapes] humanity, you are my god!

You have opened my eyes as if I were a puppy;

You have formed humanity within me!

For this student, “divinity” was not “supernatural” but an enhancement of his uncivilised and, therefore, subhuman nature. But their knowledge of good and evil made Adam and Eve ashamed of their naked, raw humanity, so “Yahweh God made clothes of skins for the man and his wife, and they put them on”—a reversal of an incident in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, when Enkidu, primal man, attains full humanity only when he dons the clothes required by civilised life.

The biblical author is drawing on these Mesopotamian motifs in a distinctive, perhaps ironic way, but this narrative, placed at the very beginning of the Bible, makes it clear that scripture does not fall directly from heaven but is a human artefact, rooted in the presuppositions of a culture shared with people who are not blessed with divine revelation. This enigmatic tale also shows that scripture does not always yield clear, unequivocal teaching, but often leaves us puzzled and unmoored. In the first chapter of the Bible, God had repeatedly pronounced the whole of creation to be “good,” yet we are specifically told that the serpent, who urges Eve to disobey, is part of God’s creation. Did the potential for lawlessness and rebellion lie at the root of being—and is it, therefore, “good”? And why was Yahweh economical with the truth, telling Adam that he would die on the very day he ate the forbidden fruit? The biblical author does not answer these questions, and we will see that Jews and Christians would interpret this puzzling story in strikingly different ways.

This is not an isolated instance of Mesopotamian influence in Hebrew scripture. There are, for example, obvious parallels between Mesopotamian and Israelite legal and treaty traditions. The epic literature of both peoples refers to a Great Flood that inundated the entire world in primordial times; and the story of Moses, whose mother hid him from Pharaoh’s officials in the bulrushes, closely resembles the legend of Sargon, who, in the third millennium bce, ruled the first agrarian empire, in what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, the preoccupation with social justice and equity, which would be essential to the monotheistic scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was neither peculiar to Israel nor the result of a special divine revelation. Even though the agrarian economy depended upon the suppression of ninety per cent of the population, the protection of the weak and vulnerable was a common preoccupation in the ancient Near East. The Sumerian kings had insisted that justice for the poor, the orphan and the widow was a sacred duty decreed by the sun god Shamash, who listened attentively to their cries for help. Later, the Code of King Hammurabi (r. 1728–1686 bce), who founded the Babylonian empire in Mesopotamia, decreed that the sun would shine over the people only if the king and his aristocracy did not oppress their subjects; in Egypt, Pharaoh must be just to his subjects because Re, the sun god, was the “vizier of the poor.” This reflected a nagging discomfort with the inherent injustice of the agrarian state and was also, perhaps, an attempt to distinguish the “merciful” king from the officials who implemented it. There seemed to be no solution to the moral dilemma of civilisation. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the common people complain of their king’s cruelty, but when the gods put their case to Anu, the high god, he shakes his head sadly yet cannot change this chronically inequitable system.

Adam and Eve had violated a formal agreement with Yahweh; this too was an expression of a widespread Middle Eastern fear of breaking a sacred contract. It was the “original sin.” The theme of a divine covenant, which would dominate the Hebrew Bible, pervaded the ancient Near East from the second half of the second millennium bce. The scribes of Egypt had also created a curriculum to enculturate elite youth in the ideology that would bind their society together and give it a distinctive ethos. Egyptians called this “Maat,” meaning “truth, fairness, justice.” It required an individual to think of others and adhere to what is often called the Golden Rule, which demands that we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves—though this, of course, did not apply to the peasants toiling in the fields.

But Maat did not come naturally to human beings. It had to be cultivated by what has been called “cultural memory,” which consisted of a body of recollections, stories of the past and visions for the future that created a communal consciousness. To form a cohesive society, individuals deliberately cultivated this memory, designing rituals that enabled them to keep it constantly in mind. In the ancient world, ideal norms were usually traced back to the very distant past and embodied in such outstanding individuals as Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian king whose deeds were celebrated in the great Mesopotamian epic. This was not an exercise in nostalgia but a call to action: an ideal that had been realised once could be achieved again. The past was, therefore, a realisable “present,” a project for each generation. In Mesopotamia, Phoenicia and Egypt, aristocratic youths were enculturated in an educative process that inscribed core texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, together with proverbs, hymns, important historical treaties and tales of the beginning of time, in their minds and hearts.

Although these key texts were written down, they had first to be deeply etched into the psyche of the ruling class, who were in charge of the precarious agrarian economy. Our word “scripture” implies a written text, and since the invention of printing, literacy has become widespread, even common, and reading a silent, solitary activity. But in the ancient world, manuscripts were often heavy, unwieldy and almost illegible; the oldest Greek manuscripts, for example, were all written in capitals with no spaces between the words. In Mesopotamia, cuneiform clay tablets were often so small that they would have been extremely difficult to decipher. They were not designed to provide an initial reading, but functioned like a musical score for a performer who already knows the piece. It was taken for granted that a reader perusing the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer’s Iliad already knew it by heart. A written version could only provide a permanent point of reference for the memorisation and transmission of those texts that were integral to society. Students did not memorise a text from a manuscript, therefore; instead it was recited, chanted or sung to them until they could recite it verbatim.

In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the cultural tradition was preserved in the minds and hearts of the scribes who held society together and had “libraries in their heads.” As students, they had been required to recite these key texts with impeccable accuracy so that they could convey them punctiliously to the next generation: “You are of course a skilled scribe at the head of your fellows,” we read in an ancient Egyptian satire, “and the teaching of every book is inscribed in your head.” Scribal schools were usually small and family-based. A father would instruct his son in the Wisdom traditions but, because of the high level of mortality, he also took other pupils. The aim was not to impart facts, but rather to drill the values of the ruling class into the student’s mind until he embodied the ethos that permeated society. He then became a “civilised” human being. A Mesopotamian riddle describes the function of the scribal school:

With closed eyes one enters it,

With opened eyes one comes out.

Students, as we have seen, regarded their teachers as “gods,” who had enabled them to gain “humanity.” This did not imply that their education had made them compassionate and humane. Unlike the peasant masses who were regarded as an inferior species, only those students who had been fully enculturated in the Sumerian aristocratic ethos were regarded as fully human. Students were not educated to think for themselves; the survival of the precarious Sumerian civilisation demanded total and unquestioning conformity with the mores of the ruling class, which had to become second nature to each young aristocrat and scribal retainer. This so-called humanity was embodied most fully in the person of the king, who was revered as the pre-eminent sage.

Writing was, therefore, associated with power and coercion. The cuneiform script was initially developed to record the taxes extorted from the peasantry. It furthered the project of political subjugation and centralisation. Writing enabled a government to communicate at a distance; it was useful in commerce, state transactions and legal affairs. But no state had either the resources or, indeed, the incentive to make the public literate. For centuries, long after the invention of writing, the oral transmission of tradition remained the norm. Scribes were required to transform the unschooled student into an “insider” in a numbing indoctrination that turned him into a docile, obedient subject. Learning was usually enforced by corporal punishment and the students’ minds were broken by the stultifying experience of memorising texts that imparted obsolete, boring and seemingly irrelevant information in ancient Sumerian, a language which over time became so arcane that it was well-nigh incomprehensible.

But this gruelling regime did not always stunt creativity. An especially gifted scribe would sometimes be required to address current preoccupations by transforming and adapting the ancient traditions. He was even allowed to insert new material into the stories and Wisdom literature of the past. This introduces us to an important theme in the history of scripture. Today we tend to regard a scriptural canon as irrevocably closed and its texts sacrosanct, but we shall find that in all cultures, scripture was essentially a work in progress, constantly changing to meet new conditions. This was certainly the case in ancient Mesopotamia. An exceptionally advanced scribe was allowed—indeed expected—to improvise, and this enabled Mesopotamian culture to survive the demise of the original Sumerian dynasties and inform the later Akkadian and Babylonian regimes by grafting the new onto the old. The Enuma Elish, an ancient Sumerian creation hymn, was adapted to culminate in the founding of Babylon by Hammurabi. Later, scribes composed a version of the hymn that climaxed in Akkad, Sargon’s capital. They also added material that transformed the Gilgamesh epic into an Akkadian text, while the Akkadian epic celebrating Sargon’s career drew freely on ancient Sumerian tales. The scribes were not merely “citing” earlier works, nor was this a “cut and paste” operation. They had memorised these texts so thoroughly that they had become building blocks of their thinking process; like jazz musicians, they were improvising with material that had become integral to their very being and devising new texts that spoke directly to the present.

Egypt tended to specialise in Wisdom texts that promoted Maat. Here too, the aim was to create a cohesive society by preventing the ruling class from advancing their own interests at the expense of others. Egyptian Wisdom linked success to virtuous conduct, and punishment to transgression. As in Mesopotamia, the education of the elite involved the memorisation and recitation of texts, which seem to have been set to music, and were chanted or sung. Constantly, the scribe urged his students to “listen” to these beautifully composed maxims, to take them “to heart” and experience them viscerally. The “Instructions of Amenemope,” which were reproduced in the Hebrew Bible, gives us the flavour of these oral teachings that insistently promoted Maat:

Give ear to my words

and apply your heart to knowing them;

For it will be a delight to keep them deep within you
to have them all ready on your lips.
So that your trust may be in Yahweh,
today I propose to make your way known to you . . . Because a man is poor, do not therefore cheat him,
nor at the city gate, oppress anybody in affliction; For Yahweh takes up their cause,
and extorts the life of their extortioners.
Make friends with no man who gives way to anger,
make no hasty- tempered man a companion of yours.

During the sixteenth century bce, Bedouin tribesmen, whom the Egyptians called Hyksos (“chieftains from foreign lands”), man-aged to establish their own dynasty in the delta area. The Egyptians eventually expelled them, but after this experience, Egypt, hitherto a relatively peaceable agrarian state, became more militant. Imperial conquest seemed the best mode of defense, so Egypt secured its frontier by subjugating Nubia in the south and coastal Canaan, which would become the land of Israel, in the north. The rulers of the city states of southern Canaan were therefore ruled by Egyptian officials who may have enculturated the Canaanite ruling class into their curriculum. But by the middle of the second millennium bce, the Near East was dominated by foreign invaders. Kassite tribes from the Cau-casus took over the Babylonian empire (c. 1600– 1155 bce); an Indo- European aristocracy created the Hittite empire in Anatolia (1420 bce); and the Mitanni, another Aryan tribe, controlled Greater Mesopotamia from about 1500 bce until they were conquered in their turn by the Hittites from the eastern Tigris region. Finally, the Assyrians, emerging in the same region, conquered the old Mitanni territories from the Hittites and became the most formidable military and economic power in the Near East.

Excerpted from The Lost Art of Scripture by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

New York Times: "What Is the Meaning of Sacred Texts?" — "In the Bible, St. Paul declares: 'I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.' Scholars suspect that this was actually written by some grump other than St. Paul, but such sexist passages are sometimes used by conservative Christians to justify the subjugation of women — and by secular liberals to portray the Bible as outdated and misogynistic.

"Or take militant passages from the Quran like this one: 'Kill them wherever you encounter them.' Early Muslims considered this obsolete because it applied narrowly to enemies in a particular conflict; more recently, Muslim extremists have interpreted such passages to justify murder, while Islamophobes cite them to excuse religious bigotry.

"Similar points can be made of many Scriptures from around the world. Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong."

The Christian Science Monitor: "Scripture as an art form? Q&A with Karen Armstrong." — "Roman Catholic nun, says that faith has more than a role in modern society. It has a mandate to make the world a better place. A desire to do good, she believes, unites the major spiritual traditions. But how can we approach the guiding words of sacred texts? Should we only read books? That’s not the way the ancients approached it, Ms. Armstrong says. As she explained in an interview with the Monitor’s Randy Dotinga, 'We must plumb our religious insights from our scriptures and let them speak to us today in new and innovative ways.'

"What inspired your book?

"I was initially intrigued by the idea that the Bible was essentially a performative art. It was always chanted, and our focus on the written word and silent reading means that we’re appreciating it differently. As I developed my research, I was surprised at the very different way that people experienced the scriptures in the premodern world. I realized that in many ways scripture is an art form, but we no longer really know how to approach it.

"Is reading sacred texts – and only reading them – akin to only reading the plays of Shakespeare?

"Yes. Today, Western people often tell me that they’ve read the Quran. You don’t read it. You listen to it or you recite it. Quran means “recite.” Recitation is an art form, and people will congregate in huge crowds to hear a famous Quran reciter. It’s immensely moving.

"This has always been the case in faith. Scripture was a performative art, such as the intensely emotional and argumentative art of Jewish midrash. They weren’t meekly reading their Bibles silently. There’s also a spiritual experience of imagination. The Talmud says every time a Jew and his teacher argue together, they must imagine themselves standing on Mount Sinai with Moses. Revelation will come to them."

This program aired on December 4, 2019.


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