Monday, November 30, 2015


Joachim Friedrich Quack, Daniela Luft (ed.), Erscheinungsformen und Handhabungen Heiliger Schriften. Materiale Textkulturen, Bd 5. Berlin; München; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. vii, 349. ISBN 9783110371246. €89.95.

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Version at BMCR home site


This collection of studies is the fifth volume in De Gruyter's series on "material text cultures" and is based on papers given at a conference in Heidelberg in 2011. Most of the material texts dealt with in the volume are "sacred texts"; an introductory chapter by the second editor attempts to define this term, which is not easy given the wide diversity of cultures involved—from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to China and contemporary Bali.

In this first contribution, Daniela Luft addresses the problem of dealing with material objects that are not only used in a specific context, but also function in a wider space in which they are accorded meaning. In order to sketch the variety of these meanings, Luft begins by offering a number of tentative definitions of the concept of the holy in general, and of holy objects and holy texts in particular. The editors aimed to avoid the bias of looking at holiness from the limited perspective of the religions of the book in order to consider whether it is possible to have holy writings in other traditions, such as ancient Egypt. Central to this problem is the difference between content and object. Not surprisingly, the essay concludes that the diverse functions of holy writings in concrete religious practice cannot easily be defined. This issue will prove important for the remaining ten contributions, which are organized in roughly chronological order.

Peter Haupt opens with the socio-biological aspects of the role of the holy in "pre- and early history" starting with the interpretation of our environment as purposeful, an interpretative strategy that seems to have provided our forebears with a distinct evolutionary advantage. Although the general stance of this article is introductory and general, Haupt applies these insights to the concrete example of rivers: in most cultures streams and rivers were considered holy, especially the place where they could be crossed. This process clearly precedes the invention of writing.

More easily recognizable holy texts appear in the next study, a treatment of the link between the form and function of cuneiform amulets from Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, Nils P. Heessel makes it quite clear that there are no texts with the same status as those that play such an important role in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These amulets are the closest to the more traditional kinds of holy writings, but the author concludes that without more information we cannot be certain if the special form of these objects was thought to have magical effects.

In the first of three studies on Egyptian texts, Holger Kockelmann looks at the function of linen as the material support of sacred writings. Whereas Pliny the Elder claimed that linen was used for private documents before the invention of papyrus, in Egypt the two date to roughly the same period (the third millennium BCE), but linen seems to have been used exclusively for what are called "non-profane" uses. In separate sections, the author discusses letters to the dead, letters to the gods, and texts about the afterlife on the cloth used to wrap mummies. Linen seems to have been considered ritually pure, and in any case its use for sacred purposes continued into the Greco-Roman Period.

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 a study of bilingual texts from Greco-Roman Egypt, Jan Moje looks at the visual and graphic aspects of the writing itself. More specifically, he focuses on the place that both the hieroglyphic text and the demotic/Greek texts occupy on the same stone surface (stela or graffito). In this case the term "heiliger Schrift" is used in reference to the hieroglyphic letter system, not to the form or function of the text. After a systematic description and discussion of quite a number of such instances, Moje is able to come to a number of tentative conclusions.

The most surprising contribution to the volume is a study by Claudia Wenzel of sacred writings that have become part of a landscape. As a form of land art, Buddhist texts on stones are distributed in the Chinese landscape. Wenzel provides us with a fairly detailed description and classification of this example of geographia sacra and then she moves to a discussion of the religious significance of these sites. Despite the relatively small corpus, from a textual point of view it is important to note that in almost all of these cases, the stone versions (or versions on stone) represent the oldest variants of some of the basic texts of Buddhism.

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.

In by far the longest essay in the book, Gereon Becht-Jördens then studies the complex role of writing in the iconography of the middle ages, a pre-modern society in which writing was so much more than the representation of bits of spoken language. First we get a survey of what the middle ages adopted and adapted from classical antiquity, including not just writing culture but also the hermeneutical tradition that passed from Homer's text to the Bible (through Philo, Origin, and the Latin church fathers). As a result, each individual word in the biblical text acquired a multiplicity of meanings. The sacred nature of the text was simply a given. Becht-Jördens wants to show how formal and material means were employed to represent "the sacred as sacred." Among the strategies were the use of older scripts, of precious materials, and of verse to emphasize the sacred nature of the words—which paradoxically signify both its transcendental and mysterious unknowability and the fact that it could indeed be experienced. In different sections, Becht-Jördens describes the strategies of veiling, of using geometrical scripts as magic formulae, the use of crosses and other symbols, and the respect accorded to the copyist. In the concluding section we find a meditation on the "educational and cultural dynamic" of writing in which the author stresses the important function of the book and of writing in the missionary success of Christianity. The chapter provides readers with brief mentions of a wealth of examples of these different phenomena (with full references in the footnotes); we find such a wide range of dates and places of origin that the suggestion remains that this long middle age was a single cultural continuum.

In a final chapter, Annette Hornbacher describes the functions of writing in Bali in terms of esoteric speculation, ritual, and the process of canon formation. The recognition of the importance of writing in the anthropological study of the highly ritualized culture of Bali is fairly recent, despite the presence of a millennium old manuscript tradition. It was only under the Indonesian republic when the Balinese were forced to commit to one of the world (book) religions that the idea of sacred writing entered what until then had been for the most part an orthopraxis.

This volume provides a diverse but ultimately interesting collection of studies. The only problem with the wide focus in cultures and traditions is that the specialist authors have to spend too much time explaining the basics of "their" tradition to a non-specialist audience, and they seem reluctant to do it in a sufficiently economic fashion. In one case the specialist bibliography is twenty pages long with almost a full page of studies by the author himself. In the case of the essay by one of the editors, we are given six pages of specialist bibliography but also half a page of explanation on what the Book of the Dead is. It is a pity that not enough time and energy is left to engage the more general or comparative issues that should have been the real focus of a book containing so much valuable information.

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