The annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) held in Nashville, Tennessee, this past November included presentations on topics of interest to scholars and students of ancient scripture.
In one of the AAR sessions, Brian M. Hauglid, assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, read his paper on "The Abraham Narrative of al-Thaclabi: The Making of an Islamic Mythology." The writings of Muslim writer al-Thaclabi (d. A.D. 1036) preserve many interesting traditions regarding the Old Testament prophets. Focusing on the use of the Abraham figure in later Muslim traditions, Hauglid demonstrated the similarities of the Muslim traditions regarding Abraham to those of the Jews and Christians.
The Muslim traditions are unique, however, because they have been reworked so that Abraham serves as a type of Muhammad and thus prefigures him. In this view similarities between the two figures include the signs and prophecies connected with their birth, the miraculous feeding of both babies, a revelation concerning the one God, and disdain for idolatry. Of related interest to Latter-day Saints will be the forthcoming FARMS publication Traditions about Abraham Relevant to the Book of Abraham, edited by FARMS associate director of research John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and FARMS assistant research professor of Egyptology John Gee. The book will contain a great deal of information derived from Hauglid's extensive study of Abraham in Islamic tradition.
In an SBL session Jared Ludlow, assistant professor of history at BYUHawaii, read a paper titled "Humor and Paradox in the Characterization of Abraham in The Testament of Abraham." Discussing two versions of the ancient Greek text The Testament of Abraham, Ludlow proposed a means of reconciling the different ways Abraham is portrayed therein. First, he considered how humor and paradoxical characterization are used in Recension A. In this version all of the positive descriptions about Abraham by other characters and the narrator are challenged by Abraham's actions and speech, which represent him as stubborn, secretive, and unwilling to follow God's messengers.
All such negative characteristics were removed in a second version of the Abraham story, Recension B, to present a more righteous, obedient Abraham. Yet Recension B maintained many of the humorous plot elements of Recension A that seem out of place in B. Ludlow argued that the use of humorous elements is the key to unlocking the relationship between the two versions and demonstrates their dependency on each other and not on an original source that we no longer have.
Professor Donald Redford of the University of Pennsylvania dealt with aspects of Egyptian law in the sixth century B.C., a rarely discussed topic. John W. Welch, Robert K. Thomas Professor of Law at BYU and a FARMS board member, attended this lecture and noted a number of points that might prove relevant to Book of Mormon studies. For instance, Redford pointed out that Egyptian law was often promulgated by public readings to popular convocations (one thinks of King Benjamin's address in Mosiah 26). The Egyptians were meticulous in keeping journals, or day books, to record legal activities, depositions, indictments, and decisions (one recalls the official records kept by the Nephites year after year in which numerous legal concerns were recorded). Redford said that during this time the Egyptians increasingly turned to divine manifestations for decisions in legal proceedings (consider the prominence of divine signs given in the cases of Sherem and Korihor as possible similarities).
Welch points out that although biblical scholars usually turn to the Babylonian legal experience for parallels in studying biblical law, the fact that Lehi knew Egyptian (and that Uriah and Jeremiah fled to Egypt) may point us more in the direction of the land of the Pharaohs in search for a clearer understanding of the nature and practice of law during the era in which Lehi and Nephi lived.
Kristian Heal, CPART research associate and associate editor of METI's Eastern Christian Texts Series, attended a lecture that pertained to his work on ancient Syriac scriptures and related texts. The lecture was given by Dr. Baster Haar Romeny of the Peshitta Institute (at the University of Leiden), the coordinating institution for a number of significant projects relating to the Syriac version of the Old Testament. Over the last four decades, the Peshitta Institute has produced a critical edition of the Old Testament in Syriac. This is of great significance for a number of reasons, including the importance of the Peshitta as an early versional witness to the original Hebrew Bible (the oldest complete Syriac translation predates the oldest complete Hebrew Bible manuscript by several centuries).
Romeny explored the Wirkungsgeschichte, or effective history, of the Peshitta version among the Syriac-speaking Christian communities, which have used this version of the Hebrew Bible since its translation in the second century A.D. During the course of its use by the Syriac church, a number of scholars felt that revisions were in order to improve the text, particularly in light of the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible.
One of the most important of this group of biblical revisers was Jacob of Edessa (A.D. 640708), a polymath of considerable genius who undertook a revision of the text of Genesis as well as a commentary and book of scholia (selected comments) on the same. Romeny explored the relationship between the biblical text quoted in the different works on Genesis and the development of Jacob's ideas with respect to his revision of the text. He identified how the text was revised to reflect changes in the meaning of words over time and developments in the understanding of the original text of the Bible. According to Heal, Jacob's work reflects the concerns of all those who use a translation of the scriptures, namely, that the translation be as faithful to the original as possible so that none of a text's power, force, or meaning is lost.
In addition to attending the AAR/SBL meetings, BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson, chair of the FARMS Board of Trustees and director of CPART, spoke at a cottage meeting in Chattanooga and at a stake fireside in Knoxville on the topic "Other Voices from the Dust: BYU and Ancient Manuscripts."
A major feature of the AAR/SBL joint meetings is the combined effort of more than 200 publishersmajor university presses, large and small commercial firms, and numerous specialized publishing organizations from all over the worldto exhibit their recent titles. As they have done previously, BYU's FARMS and CPART, along with the Religious Studies Center, the Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, and BYU Studies, joined in displaying nearly 100 recent BYU publications.
The combined BYU display was organized by Brent Hall, director of operations at FARMS, and James Hughes, FARMS's distribution manager. Several scholars associated with various BYU units worked at the exhibit, helping to answer questions and deal with several hundred people who inquired about scholarly work at BYU. Recent publications on LDS scriptures and church history were prominently featured at the display, and several copies of the Book of Mormon were given away. Titles of particular interest to non-LDS scholars were also featured and in some cases demonstrated. These included CPART's Dead Sea Scrolls Electronic Reference Library, now marketed by E. J. Brill, as well as recent titles from the three series within CPART's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI): the Islamic Translation Series, the Eastern Christian Texts Series, and the Graeco-Arabic Sciences and Philosophy Series.
These combined AAR/SBL meetings afford LDS scholars an ideal opportunity to meet with friends and colleagues, exchange views, develop professional contacts, and learn about the latest developments in scholarship on the Bible, other ancient religious texts, and related subjects. BYU's exhibit there enables people to learn more about the university's contributions to the scholarly study of religion.
Membership in both of these long-established learned societies is made up of faculty members, students, and others, most of whom are affiliated with colleges, universities, seminaries, and other academic organizations from across the U.S. and abroad. These meetings represent the largest gathering anywhere in the world of scholars and academics working in the fields of religious studies, biblical studies, and related areas of study. Papers are read and panel discussions are conducted on a wide range of subjects in the arts, literature, and religion.
After the meetings, a number of the books and other material from the BYU display that were not sold were contributed to Vanderbilt University's Divinity School Library. This arrangement was worked out with Kathleen Flake, an assistant professor of American religious history and an LDS scholar who is a member of the divinity school's faculty.
Personnel from FARMS and CPART look forward to joining with those from other BYU units in continuing participation at these important scholarly gatherings.