July 26, 2003

Casaubon & Qur'an

Last December, I wrote about Isaac Casaubon in a post on paleo Ideofact. The Columbia Encyclopedia entry I link to betrays no inkling of his fundamental importance to the development of Western culture. It was Casaubon who proved, through textual analysis, that the Corpus Hermeticum was not a work that predated the Pentateuch, but rather a third or fourth century A.D. work. This was a fairly fundamental blow to the philosophy that developed around Renaissance Mages; in the words of Frances Yates, "...with [the Corpus Hermeticum] there fell a major ally in the justification for magic..."

No one speaks of the "pre-Casaubon era" or of the "post-Casaubon era" and yet the dating by Isaac Casaubon in 1614 of the Hermetic writings as not the work of a very ancient Egyptian priest but written in post-Christian times, is a watershed separating the Renaissance world from the modern world. It shattered at once the build-up of Renaissance Neoplatonism with its basis in the prisci theologi of whom Hermes Trismegistus was the chief. It shattered the whole position of the Renaissance Magus and Renaissance magic with its Hermetic-Cabalist foundation, based on the ancient "Egyptian" philosophy and Cabalism. It shattered even the non-magical Hermetic movement of the sixteenth century. It shattered the position of an extremist Hermetist, such as Giordano Bruno had been, whose whole platform of a return to a better "Egyptian" pre-Judaic and pre-Christian philosophy and magical religion was exploded by the discovery that the writings of the holy ancient Egyptian must be dated, not only long after Moses but also long after Christ. It shattered, too, the basis of all attempts to build a natural theology on Hermetism, such as that to which Campanella had pinned his hopes.

(Quoted from Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.)

As I wrote in that old post, Casaubon attacked the Hermetica to undermine the work of a long-forgotten Counter-Reformation polemicist, who had included it in his defense of Catholic theology. For those who believed in the authenticity of the Hermetica (and I believe just about every learned man in Europe did at one point), it was not so much what it said that was most important, but rather its alleged antiquity. If the work predated Moses, then Hermes Trismegistus was a gentile prophet, since so much of the work seemed to prefigure both Old Testament and New Testament doctrine and revelation. (A stone in the Siena Cathedral depicts Hermes Trismegistus in just such a role.)

Via the always interesting Tacitus, comes this article from Newsweek, in which we learn of a scholar who has analyzed the Qur'an using the tools of textual analysis. He has offered what will no doubt become some hotly debated, and denounced, theories:

The forthcoming book contains plenty of other bombshells. It claims that the Qur’an’s commandment for women to cover themselves is based on a similar misreading; in Sura 24, the verse that calls for women to “snap their scarves over their bags” becomes in Aramaic “snap their belts around their waists.” Even more explosive are readings that strengthen scholars’ views that the Qur’an had Christian origins. Sura 33 calls Muhammad the “seal of the prophets,” taken to mean the final and ultimate prophet of God. But an Aramaic reading, says Luxenberg, turns Muhammad into a “witness of the prophets”—i.e., someone who bears witness to the established Judeo-Christian texts. The Qur’an, in Arabic, talks about the “revelation” of Allah, but in Aramaic that term turns into “teaching” of the ancient Scriptures. The original Qur’an, Luxenberg contends, was in fact a Christian liturgical document—before an expanding Arab empire turned Muhammad’s teachings into the basis for its new religion long after the Prophet’s death.

I wrote a post a while back in which I imagined the discovery of the human remains of Jesus Christ. This, of course, is highly unlikely -- regardless of whether one believes that Christ's physical form ascended into Heaven or not. But while Jesus is beyond the reach of forensic pathologists, the Qur'an can be studied using modern critical tools. This rather radical interpretation will no be challenged using the same methods, which will be a worthwhile endeavor for all concerned. I confess that I am not qualified to pass judgment on it; I suspect neither are Tacitus or the author of the Newsweek article. Regardless, polemicists on both sides of the question will unhesitatingly endorse or denounce it. I remain skeptical, but curious.

Posted by Ideofact at July 26, 2003 11:34 PM

I suppose one of the most famous examples of philology being used to demolish received history is the case of Lorenzo Valla, the fifteenth century humanist who showed that the famous Donation of Constantine. This was a document, allegedly from the 4th century, in which the Emperor Constantine was said to have given Pope Sylvester and his successors temporal power over the Western Roman Empire. Valla proved on linguistic grounds that the Latin in the document could not have come from the time it was said to be composed. He also pointed to the lack of coins celebrating the event, which the Papacy would surely have struck, and the lack of any mention of such a momentous event in contemporary historians. My old "History of Europe" by Fisher says: "It is a remarkable evidence of the toleration which then prevailed in Italy that the author of this audacious attack upon one of the cherished privileges of the Papacy himself became the secretary of Pope Nicholas V."

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller at July 27, 2003 01:32 PM