Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Scriptures As Artifacts at SBL meeting

The Iconic Books Project is not the only research effort on this subject. The Scripture as Artifact Consultation, chaired by Brian Malley, showcased the work of eleven scholars at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego.

The session on Saturday, November 17th, focused on “the late medieval period to the present.”
     Marianne Schleicher (Aarhus University) described her research on the relationship between ritual uses and displays of Torah scrolls and the interpretation of Torah in a Dutch Jewish congregation (paper title: “Transitions between Artifactual and Hermeneutical Use of Scripture”).
     Miriam Levering (U. Tennessee, Knoxville) surveyed artifactual/iconic uses of texts in Buddhist traditions before focusing in particular on Zen schools. She noted the irony that medieval Zen traditions generally downplayed the role of scriptures in comparison with other Buddhist schools, but then proceeded to produce a flood of texts that seem to function as scriptures nevertheless (paper title: “Scripture as Artifact: A Comparative Perspective”).
     Unfortunately, I had to miss the remaining papers in Saturday’s session. They were “Curbing Phantasm: The Bible Moralisée” by Eva Maria Raepple (College of DuPage), “The Danish Hymnbook: Artifact and Text” by Kirsten Nielsen (Aarhus University), and “Some Biblical Artifacts in Search of a Sociological Theory” by David Chalcraft (University of Derby). [But see Dori's comment below for a summary of these last two papers.]

Though the session on Sunday, November 18th, focused on “the ancient and early medieval world,” Brian Malley began with a theoretical paper on the relationship between the artifactual use and semantic meaning of scriptures. Starting with a standard model in communications theory, he argued that artifactual uses, rather than being a small and insignificant aspect of scriptural usage, actually impact virtually all uses of the text (paper title: “Text, Artifact and Meanings”).
     The next four papers all described various kinds of ancient evidence for the artifactual uses of scriptural texts. Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh) presented the manuscript evidence for the distinctive forms and uses of early Christian scriptures (2nd-3rd centuries C.E.). Christians’ preference for binding their scriptures (OT and NT) in codex (book) form, rather than as scrolls, their use of distinctive abbreviations (nomina sacra) for the names and titles of God and Jesus, and their employment of reader’s aids in manuscripts intended for public reading all distinguish their material culture from its Greco-Roman context (paper title: “Early Christian Manuscripts of Biblical Texts as Artifacts”).
     Stephen Reed (Jamestown College) surveyed the contents and textual form of the Dead Sea Scroll texts used for ancient Jewish phylacteries (tefillin) and mezuzot. He noted that they differ from other biblical scrolls from Qumran not only in their contents ( fairly standardized excerpts from Exodus and Deuteronomy) but also in the condition of their materials (the texts in tefillin were often written on tattered scraps of leather) and their very small, run-together letters that show they were clearly not meant to be read but manipulated ritually (paper title: “Physical and Visual Features of Dead Sea Scriptural Texts”).
     Eduard Iricinschi (Princeton University) described the heavy use and dependence of the ancient Manicheans on the texts written by their founder Mani/Manus. Their texts served to spread the faith rapidly in the Sassanian and Roman empires of the third century and following, but also became a principal target of imperial efforts (in the long run, successful) to suppress the religion (paper title: “ ‘A Thousand Books will be Saved’: Manichean Manuscripts and Religious Propaganda in the Roman Empire”).
     Thomas J. Kraus (Willibald Gluck Gymnasium) investigated the nature and function of Byzantine armbands with medallions that cite the opening verse of Psalm 91 (Ps 90 in the Greek translation) along with others depicting the Madonna and child. He charted the popularity of the talismanic use of Greek Ps 90 in Byzantine Christian culture to explain its prominence in cryptic form on these artifacts (paper title: “ ‘He that Dwelleth in the Help of the Highest’: Septuagint Psalm 90 and the Iconographic Program on Byzantine Armbands”).
     Dori Parmenter (Syracuse University, co-director of the Iconic Books Project) concluded the session with a broader survey of myths of heavenly books and their impact on early and medieval Christian beliefs. She demonstrated that Christians were influenced by ancient Near Eastern and, especially, Jewish ideas of pre-existent heavenly scriptures and “books of life,” but they conceived the heavenly equivalent of Gospel books to be Christ himself as the Word of God. This equivalence between book and Christ appears prominently in ancient and medieval Christian art and provides the ideological underpinning for the liturgical reverence shown Gospel books (paper title: “The Bible as Icon: Myths of the Divine Origins of Scripture”).

1 comment:

Dori Miller Parmenter said...

The last two papers of Saturday's session were quite memorable. Kirsten Nielsen offered many examples of ritual uses of the Danish hymnbook, such as for gift-giving at confirmations and burials with the dead. Its prominence and authority in Danish culture demonstrates that religious and nationalistic iconicity are mutually reinforced.
David Chalcraft gave a fascinating report on the Promise Box Research Project at the University of Derby. Promise boxes are a part of the Salvation Army tradition, and consist of small boxes full of tiny scrolls containing Bible verses that are selected at random. These verses were often offered after a meeting or after a meal, or in a time of need. Chalcraft's ethnographic research on the Promise Boxes indicated their practitioners' nostalgia for the practice and their associations with comfort and sweetness, analogous to sharing a box of chocolates.