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.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"Divinely Inspired Constitution"

Americans have a long history of revering their Constitution. Such veneration is particularly strong among politically active Evangelicals of the so-called "religious right," some of whose leaders have termed the U.S. founding documents "the most wonderful instrument ever drawn by the hand of man" (echoing Justice William Johnson in 1823). But Ron Paul, U.S. Representative and Republican presidential candidate, takes this one step further in his "Statement of Faith", which in the second-to-the-last paragraph reads:

" I am running for president to restore the rule of law and to stand up for our divinely inspired Constitution."

Christian bloggers have already castigated Ron Paul as heretical for this statement (see Parableman and evangelical outpost, with Paul's clarification in comment 78). I think it rather represents a logical outcome of efforts to elevate the iconicity of the U.S. Constitution which has, in turn, fueled reactions to portray the Christian Bible as supreme (e.g. with Ten Commandments monuments). Though theologians would like to believe otherwise, practices generate beliefs as often as the reverse. Monuments and shrines to national texts will generate beliefs in their supernatural origins.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Manga Bible

Putting a different twist on the "iconic" dimension of Bibles, Tyndale House Publishers has announced the release of a New Testament in Manga-comic format titled Manga Messiah. The summary claims:

This authentic, cutting-edge art style is combined with fast-paced storytelling to deliver biblical truths to an ever-changing culture that is often a challenge to penetrate. This is genuine Japanese manga style, unlike other Christian "manga" books in the marketplace.

(Thanks to Meg for this tip.)

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”).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Congregation Writes Torah

Fascinating story by Glen Collins in the NYT about the ritual of Torah-writing, only this time, a synagogue's ark will house a Torah written by members of its very own congregation, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.

"In a single stroke, those who join in the ambitious project are both honoring tradition and testing its bounds. Typically, the writing of a Torah has been left to a highly trained sofer, collaborating perhaps with a chosen few in the temple. For many centuries, the process has been a journey into an arcane and proscribed world of recondite rules and spiritual imperatives that are a mystery even to many devout Jews."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Car Customized for a Qur'an

A common aspect of iconic books is that they warrant special handling and storage. The Malaysian car manufacturer Proton has just that in mind in the design of a new car aimed at a Muslim market:
Malaysia firm's 'Muslim car' plan

[. . .]

The car could boast special features like a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf.

[. . .]

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Aleppo Codex as Talisman

A report in today's Haaretz illustrates why experts in scriptures' textual dimension (that is, scholars) frequently find veneration of its iconic dimension more than a little problematic:

An eight-centimeter-square piece of the 1087-year-old Aleppo Codex will be given to a representative of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on Thursday, following 18 years during which Israeli scholars tried to retrieve it from businessman Sam Sabbagh.

Sabbagh salvaged the fragment from a burning synagogue in Aleppo, Syria in 1947.

Inscribed on both sides, it is one of the lost fragments of the codex, a copy of the Bible written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo Ben Buya'a. The fragment Sabbagh had bears verses of Exodus chapter 8, including the words of Moses to Pharaoh: "Let my people go, that they may serve me..."

Sabbagh believed the small piece of parchment was his good luck charm for six decades. He was convinced that thanks to the parchment, which he kept with him always in a transparent plastic container, he had been saved from riots in his hometown of Aleppo during Israel's War of Independence, and he had managed to immigrate from Syria to the United States in 1968 and start a new life in Brooklyn and make a living. The charm was with him when he underwent complicated surgery.

Just two years ago, it completed its task, when Sabbagh passed away.

Of course, the scholars' interest is not just textual, since this fragment is very unlikely to influence anyone's interpretation of Exodus 8. The value to scholars in the codex's reunification derives from, among other things, the public reinforcement of the view that texts are best kept intact. This position serves the purposes of contextual interpretation of semantic meaning, of course, but it also concentrates the legitimacy conveyed by their iconic status in the one person or institution that owns them and can display them. Fragmentation of texts for talismanic purposes serves conversely to distribute more broadly their iconic prestige.

December 3, 2007: Now Haaretz reports that:

Scholars at Yad Ben-Zvi research institute in Jerusalem have called on Jews around the world who originally come from Aleppo, Syria and may possess fragments of the ancient Aleppo Codex to turn them over to Israel.

... "This is the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people," Dr. Zvi Zameret, head of Yad Ben-Zvi said, "and I believe the Jewish people would do a great deal to have it back."

This last quotation illustrates perfectly a typical conflict over iconic texts which pits the interests of a reified collective (in this case, "the Jewish people") represented by scholars against the interests of individuals (the Jews from Aleppo). For the collective, the iconic text serves purposes of legitimation ("the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people"). For individuals, a scrap of text provide a sense of prestige or empowerment (the "good luck charm" of the previous story).

September 27, 2008: The Associated Press picks up the story. Again, note the clear distinction and very different value judgments made on individual interests vis-a-vis the collective's interests:
Some people might be superstitious about the fragments they hold, or believe they are rightfully the property of Aleppo Jews, not of scholars. Others might simply have no idea of the value of what they own. ...

The manuscript doesn't contain passages missing from other versions. Instead, its accuracy is a matter of details like vowel signs and single letters that would only slightly alter pronunciation. But Judaism sanctifies each tiny calligraphic flourish in the Bible as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the divine book. That's why the Codex is considered by some to be the most important Jewish text in existence, and why the missing pieces are so coveted.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Lavish Books about Lavish Festivals

Celebrating Italian Festivals" is an exhibit of Italian books at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University Republican American reported on an interview with the curator, Robert G. Babcock:
They were political documents, lavish self-promotional billboards aimed at asserting the wealth and stature of the host.

... Printing became available in the 15th century and within 100 years, the royal and aristocratic courts behind Europe's most illustrious festivals printed elaborate, illustrated volumes to record these celebrations. "This was not just a souvenir, but a propaganda item," said Babcock. "The ruler of the other states needed to know that the duke of Tuscany's daughter married a Hapsburg prince to show all the other rulers that they were important, they were wealthy and they do great things for their people."

... The books themselves vary in their level of documentation. Many, like a 17th century festival for Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, feature folded-out engravings of the ceremonies along with painstaking citations of who was there. The most breathtaking example here is a 19th century volume commemorating the Roman feast of Corpus Christi. It includes a single color illustration that, unfolded, is more than 38 feet long. Each of the thousands of participants of the procession, including Pope Gregory XVI, is identified.

The exhibit continues through January 9th. (Thanks to Rare Book News for this tip!)