Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Alexandria Link

Steve Berry wrote a best selling novel entitled the Alexandria Link. It depends on two crucial plot points: The ancient library of Alexandria has been preserved by guardians hidden in the desert. Kamal Salibi's theory (or should I write "wild hypothesis"?) that the pre- exilic Israel described in the Hebrew bible actually was in western Arabia and not in the Holy Land. Thus Yahweh's promise of the land to Abraham and Issac and Jacob was not promising that postage stamp of land we call Israel today, but a stretch of western Arabia which includes Islam's most sacred places. This has important geopolitical implications for that land which has been fought over by Jews, Christians, and Muslims these many centuries.

To achieve his plot, Berry needs to argue that the Christians manipulated the biblical text when Jerome translated the bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin and that the Jews had to manipulate the biblical text when it was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) and that nobody knew enough Hebrew to catch these frauds.

Berry also makes up correspondence between Augustine and Jerome in which they conspire to mold (i.e. distort) the translation to further Christian objectives. Although he freely acknowledges these to be fictions he made up for the book, the reader will only know that if he reads the Author's Notes after the novel. None of these letters read like something the actual Augustine or Jerome would have written.

The central scriptural issue is what is the true text of the original Hebrew scriptures and how the place names in the original text map back to modern day geography. Primarily this comes under the heading of textual criticism, the work of those biblical scholars who work back from the manuscripts in the original languages and in the versions (translations into Latin, Greek, Aramaic, etc.) to the original words as first written down. However Salibi's argument appears to be primarily philological: how one vocalizes the original Hebrew words (i.e what vowels one decides to put between the consonants since Hebrew does not have vowels in the original written form.

There are a number of points that Mr. Berry appears to be naive on:

He appears to believe that there are no Old Testament manuscripts in Hebrew ("Old Hebrew" as he calls them) before the tenth century A.D. While that may have been true before the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that marvelous cache of documents includes manuscripts dating between the the third century B.C., and 68 A.D. "All of the books of the Bible are represented in the Dead Sea Scroll collection except Esther."

He seems to think Hebrew was a dead language from fifth or sixth century B.C. on. This seems an extreme position. Certainly Hebrew was at minimum a literary and a liturgical language long after that. We have documents written in Hebrew well after that. Some of the minor prophets were written after the exile. Daniel was probably written in the second century B.C. The Hebrew text of I Maccabees is attested to in a manuscript among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Presumably that dates to the first century B.C. Jubilees is though to be written between 135 and 105 B.C., although our Ethiopian Orthodox brethren consider it to be canonical and written in Moses time. We also have the Manual of Discipline and the Damascus Document. Finally, we know the bible was read in Hebrew in Jesus' time.

Berry represents the Septuagint as a deliberate mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew text. In fact, the Septuagint appears to be a rather literal translation of a Hebrew text. The major discovery of modern textual criticism is that the Hebrew text underlying the the Septuagint differs from the standard (Masoretic) text and in some cases reflects differences in the oral tradition before the original text was written down.

The uninformed reader may not appreciate the issue of textual variants and discrepancies in the the scriptures. There are variants in the handwritten record handed down over the millenia. One manuscript represents a bible verse one way and another manuscript records the verse differently. There are a great many of these textual variants. Many are straight forward copying errors that are obvious to correct. Those remaining are small relative to the huge number of verses in the bible. Remarkably, given how many crucial theological issues hang on particular bible verses and passages, hardly any of these textual variants affect a major theological issue dividing Christians. I would be surprised to find that the geographical text would be so ambiguous.

Berry (and perhaps Salibi) make the blanket claim that archeology has been singularly unable to authenticate any of the historical record of the Old Testament. That is such a preposterous statement that I assume he adopts it purely for the sake of advancing his plot. There is a huge opus of archaeological findings about places mentioned in the Old Testament.

Although Berry correctly portrays the influence of the Vulgate (it produced the literary language of Europe from the fifth century through the sixteenth century), he seems unaware that there were Latin translations before Jerome's Vulgate, principally the Old Latin Version produced about 150 A.D., and an important witness to the text of the New Testament.

As to Salabi's theory, Professor Phillip C. Hammond, comments in his review of Salabi's first book in the International Review of Mid East Studies, "A proper review of this book would unfortunately subject the reader to a volume far larger than the one being reviewed. The sheer enormity, page by page, of "identifications," transmutations [sic!], blantant historical error, misconceptions, and similar problems with the scholarship, preclude considerations within the scope of any "review." It is difficult to understand how such a volume could have been foisted upon an unsuspecting public. Perhaps the scholarly reader will find a certain degree of amusement in appreciated the skill of the author in his attempted linguistic exercises, but the lay reader might, regretably, be misled by the appearance of the "scholarship" presented. To assume that similar, or even identical, place names are proof of "identity" between two places is palpably absurd. To declare that archeology, with its modern chronometric techniques, cannot place occupations correctly is contrary to fact . To ignore the linguistic analyses of biblical Hebrew from the Massoretes to modern scholarship is presumptuous. To dismiss casually all modern scholarship in the field is unscholarly in the extreme. To display ignorance of published archaeological and other data in favor of selected, "favorable" quotations is likewise not the way knowledge is advanced.

"In short, this reviewer can see no reason why this volume was published, either in its original German edition, or in English translation."

From Steve Berry's point of view there was an excellent reason to publish Salabi's book: it gave him a best seller!

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