The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Holy Untranslatable Texts

For questions of interpretation, scriptures stand in a category of their own, separate from modern and post-modern literature, for which even the most traditional readers admit the potential for a multiplicity of readings, and epigraphic texts, which had long ceased to be curated by any community before they were rediscovered. While nothing prevents you or me from reading any of these works as we please, and reading our own meanings into them, scholars and people of faith alike find themselves confronted with a (somewhat self-imposed) constraint: how to read the “correct” meaning into it? We do not permit ourselves to read any old meaning into scriptures or ancient texts, and with good reason.

The distinctive feature of scriptures is that they are actively and presently curated by a religious community. The potential reasons for this are multiple; this community may consider them to be

  • divinely authored or inspired; that is to say, whether they are attributed to an author or not, they are ultimately of supernatural origin;
  • in James Kugel’s terms, “omnisignificant,” that is, meaningful in each and every detail, and with a meaning that is eternally and directly relevant to each and every reader;
  • ultimately admitting only of a single “correct” meaning, which can be discovered only through careful analysis, rather than a fluid multiplicity of meanings.

These three attributes of scriptures, at least as they are understood among those traditions conventionally described as “Abrahamic,” naturally exist in a certain tension with one another. If every last detail is existentially relevant but admits of only one possible divinely-ordained reading, then it behooves the scholars of that community to struggle continuously to elaborate this reading, and then guard it zealously for the benefit of future generations, which extends to subsequent re-workings of scripture into different languages. Thus “context rather than content makes the holy untranslatable,” in the words of Christopher Shackle (2005, 20).

In the case of ancient texts, these painstakingly developed schools of interpretation, laboriously constructed over the centuries, have largely disappeared with the community that constructed them, and in their absence, other scholars have appointed themselves their custodians, and perpetuate the interpretive work of that vanished community, with one exception―to my knowledge, no latter-day scholar of the Babylonian creation myth, the Enûma Eliš, maintains that it is divinely inspired. While secular scholars differ from religious scholars in this respect, much of their approach to the text remains the same. They both maintain that the text admits of only one correct meaning, both at the time in which it was authored and subsequently for all time, and that this meaning reveals itself only through careful analysis. These texts then share much with scripture, save that they are no longer curated by communities that consider them divinely inspired or divinely authored, and therefore we might deem them “post-scriptures.”

An obvious tension emerges, then, when secular scholars apply this same approach to scriptures that are still being actively curated by a religious community, with their own painstakingly developed schools of interpretation. While Christoph Luxenberg, to give one example, may disagree with Ismail ibn Kathir on the divine authorship of the Qur’an, both Luxenburg and ibn Kathir have competing claims to uncovering the one exclusive meaning of that text. Neither consider themselves to be engaged in the business of “knowledge production,” but rather the business of “knowledge recovery,” one that does not easily allow for competition.

Since neither secular nor religious scholars admit of a fluid multiplicity of meanings, each community establishes its own conventions for producing readings, and its own criteria for assessing their merits. The conventions for secular scholars are much the same as those for religious ones. The ultimate basis for both is direct observation, either from internal factors such as the ways in which the scriptures describe the world around them, which can presumably be connected to that world in ways that might be meaningful, or from external factors, such as the age of the physical manuscripts, and what its copyists and past interpreters have to say about it. From these observations, new questions inevitably emerge, and scholars develop new readings to answer them, and hopefully test these readings in order to expand, alter, reject, or refine them.

Among communities of secular scholars, the merits of the readings so developed are assessed through the process of peer review. Ultimately, a reading’s success will depend not only upon its ability to answer the questions that emerge from observation, but also upon other forms of merit, such as its originality, or the qualifications of its reader. The former is critical, to ensure that the reader has not simply replicated past scholarship, or even presented it as an original contribution. The latter is equally critical to the reading’s success, but some communities employ double blind peer review, in an attempt to reduce the impact of psychological and socio-economic factors on its initial reception. In such instances, the identities of both the reader and the reviewers are obscured, until the other merits of the reading have been assessed.

In this model of scholarship, there is, was, and always will be a tension between the ways in which a reading‘s merits are assessed, and the ways in which they determine its ultimate impact. Some readings are accepted primarily on the strength of their reader‘s qualifications, and the level of prestige and support they enjoy from the scholarly establishment, as is generally the case with religious scholars. Others are valued for the degree to which they affirm a scholarly or religious dogma. In such instances, originality is deprecated in favor of orthodoxy. If we reject these influences as pernicious, then we must naturally conclude that the ultimate merit of a reading is whether it answers the questions that emerge from observation, and whether another reader, equipped with these same observations and furnished with these same questions, could arrive at the same reading. This, then, is the rubric against which I shall evaluate secular readings of Mandaean texts, including my own.


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One thought on “Holy Untranslatable Texts

  1. Joe in Australia on said:

    Rabbinic Judaism specifically rejects the idea that scripture has a single meaning. The classic phrase is “the Torah has seventy faces”; there’s an entire genre of Biblical commentary (Midrash) which uses the text for various legal or moral exegeses. At least for this context, I would rather say that Scripture is presumed to *have* a meaning (i.e., to not be corrupt or otherwise meaningless) and to be a single text, not a family of related ones. Even if there are variant texts, only one of them can be correct.

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