Friday, December 04, 2015

The physical appearance and handling of sacred texts in terms of material text culture

There is an interesting review of the following book at BMCR: Joachim Friedrich Quack, Daniela Luft (ed.), Erscheinungsformen und Handhabungen Heiliger Schriften. Materiale Textkulturen, Bd 5.  Berlin; München; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2014.

“Erscheinungsform” means something like “physical appearance” and “Handhabung” means something like “handling”, so this volume treats the interesting subject of: The physical appearance and handling of sacred texts in terms of material text culture. The range is very wide—from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to China and contemporary Bali (with some chapters on Jewish and Christian approaches), but it is interesting to get a broader perspective on issues which are of interest to many of us on this blog.

The review by Geert Lernout summarises each of the chapters. I’ll just quote some excerpts and direct interested readers to the review and to the book (which is available in print, and on open access—i.e. free—as an e-book).

The volume’s senior editor then tackles the issue of the presence of religious and profane texts on the same piece of papyrus, usually recto/verso. After a somewhat chatty introduction, Joachim Quack focuses on a number of specific cases, such as a papyrus copy of the Book of the Dead with accounts of cereal transactions written on the back. On the basis of a close study of quite a number of these cases (chronologically ending with biblical texts on the verso of administrative accounts), Quack concludes that the determining factor is not so much the nature of the text itself as its purpose and possible performance.
...In the next two essays we return to the kind of sacred text with which most readers will be familiar—the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Hanna Liss studies the special significance of books in the Hebrew tradition, with a close reading of the Sefer Chasidim (ca 1200), a book from a mystical Jewish movement led by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg. According to this group, the scroll containing the Torah represented the presence of the divine on earth: it carried the divine which thus, in the form of a book, had become tangible.
The Sefer Chasidim is thus, among many other things, the book on the book and, after confirming Ludwig Blau’s suggestion that the Jewish book scroll is the only reminder we still have of what books looked like in antiquity, Liss distinguishes four different themes: prescriptions about the making of a book (materials, the writing itself); prescriptions about usage of books (ritual pureness, book as object); ritual uses of the book and finally the sacred nature of the book as an object. It is difficult to imagine a greater reverence for the book as object than the one described/proscribed here for the making of a ritual Torah scroll. Even the instruments used in its production had to remain ritually pure and could not be touched by goyim or women. Books even needed to be covered when somebody had to pass wind.
Some of this reverence for the book as an object carrying a divine presence also informed the Christian tradition. The art historian Bruno Reudenbach looks closely at early gospel books to study the topos of the codex as an incarnation of Jesus Christ, more specifically the iconography of Jesus with an open codex in his hand. The author opens with the fact that there is nothing in the gospel to connect Jesus with books or writing, with the exception of the later addition to the Gospel of John wherein a waiting Jesus writes with his finger in the sand. Reudenbach dates the displacement of the scroll by the codex to the early Christian centuries and like most recent scholars links it to the rise of Christianity, connected in part to the need for cross referencing to the prophetic texts of the Old Testament as well as to the desire for contrast with the Jewish practice of preferring scrolls. In fact, Reudenbach mentions, in the fifth century the opposite seems the case: more than three quarters of Christian texts of the fifth century survive in the form of codices, mostly Bibles, while commentaries and theological writings were written in the form of scrolls. He even goes so far as to claim that the codex had become a symbol of Christian identity. With bread and wine, it was one of the signathat made the Divine mystery visible, just like the Torah scroll in the thought of the Jewish mystics.

1 comment

  1. de Gruyter books free online - I hope that extends to other books too!