Sunday, January 31, 2010

Virgins and White Raisins

Those of us who have studied ancient Middle Eastern languages know how difficult it is to arrive at an exact translation of ancient texts.  There are several words in the Hebrew Bible which are used only once and which have no modern counterpart.  Even after making such efforts as comparing them to Akkadian, or examining numerical clues, they remain a puzzle.

Lately I was amused by some translation work done by "Christoph Luxenberg,"  a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany who writes under a pseudonym, and Gerd R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany. The two have searched the earliest known copies of the Qur'an and examined the document's origins and composition. As in ancient Hebrew texts, these copies were originally written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic uses to make it clear what letter is intended.  Islamic commentators added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text beginning in the eighth century, long after the death of Muhammad.  Luxenberg and Puin maintain that parts of Islam's holy book  were misinterpreted by these later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Qur'an commonly read today.

For example, the famous passage describing the rewards for the righteous in the afterlife in Qur'an 78:33, وَكَوَاعِبَ أَتْرَاباً  (often translated "delightful virgins"), is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for "houri," which means virgin, but Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin."  The description of paradise described it as a garden with grapevines, vineyards, and a full cup. In this context, offerings of food and drink make more sense than a reward of sexual favors.

There are other differences which can be quite significant, Puin points out.  In the early archaic copies of the Qur'an, it is impossible to distinguish between the words "to fight" and "to kill." In many cases diacritical marks were added that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period in which the Islamic Empire was often at war. Scholars now suggest that a return to the earliest Qur'an might lead to a more tolerant brand of Islam, as well as one that is more conscious of its close ties to both Judaism and Christianity.

This discovery has had an significant impact upon my view of Church history and doctrine. There is a tendency of the modern reader of scripture to place a gloss upon his or her reading of scripture and interpret ancient writings according to personal preference or modern ways of looking at things.  Over the years, distortion is likely to result, even in a Church as young as ours.  I have seen, for example, that words in the 1828 Webster's  Dictionary hold different meanings than they do today.  Thus, words that Joseph Smith used in his translations and revelations had connotations for him that have changed over the years.

And how much more does this take place when the intervening time is a period of many centuries, as well as  through a translation into a different language and society?  This is our dilemma when studying the Old Testament.  No matter how much we are trying to read a word as "virgin," perhaps the ancients only had grapes in mind.  I'm trying to be more careful to consider context and culture as I make my way through Genesis this month, and to tease out where folk doctrines have grown up around mistranslations and misinterpretations.

One example of this for Latter-day Saints might be the folk doctines which have sprung up around the "Curse of Cain," including speculative descriptions of "fence-sitters" in the premortal existence and other ideas that have no basis in scripture or revealed doctrine.

What other virgins can be found among the grapes?

9 comments:

J G-W said...

This is one reason I am such a strong believer in the importance of modern-day revelation. Not just the revelations the prophet receives for the Church, but our belief that the Spirit can help each and every one of us understand the true meanings in the texts.

Reading the scriptures without the Spirit only gives you one half the picture. The text without the Spirit is a dead letter, only half the story...

It is very comforting to think that these Islamic texts were originally intended to encourage inner struggle, and a non-sexist vision of paradise... Though Islamic scholars have been saying all along that jihad is about our struggle against the evil in our own hearts, not about killing unbelievers...

This translation insight is on a par with the LDS Church discovering that the word "white" in 2 Nephi 30: 6 referred to purity of heart, not skin color.

Bored in Vernal said...

his translation insight is on a par with the LDS Church discovering that the word "white" in 2 Nephi 30: 6 referred to purity of heart, not skin color.

oooh, good catch, J!

J G-W said...

:)

BTW... When I first saw the title of this blog, I thought you might be referring back to your Sunkist raisins post... What is it about you and virgins and raisins?

Bored in Vernal said...

LOL!

velska said...

It's interesting (at least to me) that I was thinking and talking about the fence-sitter fallacy today, before I got around to reading your post, whose link I clicked perhaps 20(?) hours ago.

Anyrate, when you brought up the adjective meaning "white" I zigged immediately to the idea of the fruit of the Tree of Life described by Nephi (Joseph Smith's language, IOW) as being "white above all that is white" in this world. He wasn't talking about color but something of a glow from within, which makes an object (fruit, person?) beautiful and glowing.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm a totally lost case when I say that I was thinking of it as a way of telling my wife how beautiful I think she is. She has that glow.

Yep. Square as they come.

I didn't zag from the Tree of Life to 2.Ne 30:6 which I have noted elsewhere as not talking about skin color at all (and many translations nowadays reflect it by using words meaning purity or sanctity instead of the word that denotes the color "white" and not much else).

This shows how difficult it is to get rid of racist connotations. Your language reflects your culture; if slavery were alive and quite well, thank you, two hundred years ago — mind you, not that many people questioning it, either, in America then — naturally the language reflects a degree of racist "coloring" of words without you necessary intending.

(Someone -who?- reported that Joseph was bellyaching about how difficult it was to decide between "white" and "pure," but such a report, unless based on a reliable source, can be just a way of glossing over the racist attitude that does come through in Joseph's language despite his will — he did ordain at least one AA man to MP, and seemed welcoming to others AFAIK.)

But BiV, I've seen you throw around numbers like 19 as in age in years or 1981 as in year something happened that sound a lot like my age of being baptized and then going on a mission. I wonder if you are trying to say that you're around my age (the last of the boomers who actually didn't get to enjoy the boom that much, as did people, who are a few years ahead of us, who got their cushy pensions fixed and then bankrupted the Western market economy — not that either North America or Europe are total basket cases, but in deep doo-doo anyhow)? I'm sorry I'm all over here, but I'm a curious character; not as naïve as I may sound at times nor as good at expressing myself as I wish; hence, the drivel...

Bored in Vernal said...

Velska, if you poke around on my blog long enough, you'll find this, which will tell you exactly how old I am! We've got to be pretty close.

I think what you had to say about your wife was the sweetest thing. I also agree that Joseph was very much a product of his time, but in many ways seemed to transcend 19th century attitudes.

Anonymous said...

2 Nephi 30:6 says:

"And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people." (2 Ne. 30:6)

Now let's look at what the Book of Mormon says about the fulfillment of this prophecy:

"And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
16 And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year." (3 Nephi 2:15-16)

The fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in 2 Ne. 30:6 clearly had to do with the color of skin. That is a fact. Get over it.

So, why was 2 Nephi 30:6 changed from "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome"? Because one early edition of the Book of Mormon supported that reading, while all the others did not, and politically correct person in the Church offices thought it sounded better. Unfortunately, the new reading doesn't fit with the actual fulfillment of the prophecy.

In fact, it is internally inconsistent. Why does that verse imply that it would take some--if not "many"--generations for the Lamanites to become a "pure and delightsome" people? How long does it take for a people to become "pure and delightsome"? Can they not simply repent of their sins and become "pure and delightsome"? As it reads now, 2 Ne. 30:6 seems to imply that it is not possible--that it would take at least some generations for the Lamanites to become "pure and delightsome."

OTOH, if it is talking about skin color, then it makes perfect sense why it would take at least a few--but not "many"--generations for that change to occur. Genetics is the answer. I saw it when I was a member of the Lamanite Ward in Brigham City, Utah. There were many interracial couples in the ward, and their children, while lighter skinned than their Lamanite parent, were still not as white as most Caucasians. It would obviously take at least one more--if not "many"-- generations for them to become "white and delightsome."

Why is everyone so paranoid about anything that smacks of discrimination? Is discrimination always bad? If so, then why did God discriminate on the basis of lineage? In OT times, only descendants of Levi could hold the Priesthood. If I had lived then, I would not have been able to hold the Priesthood. Because I would have been a bad person? No--just because of my lineage.

Does God discriminate? Obviously. Is discrimination always bad? Obviously not. So, what's the big deal about saying that someone's skin color changed? It happens. I've seen it.

And the fruit of the tree of life was not really white? Give me a break! How would you describe something as being white in color without being considered a racist? Some things really are white in color--including the skin of the ancient Lamanites, okay? Get over it.
--Tragula (a racist just because I'm white)
--Tragula

Anonymous said...

2 Nephi 30:6 says:

"And then shall they rejoice; for they shall know that it is a blessing unto them from the hand of God; and their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and a delightsome people." (2 Ne. 30:6)

Now let's look at what the Book of Mormon says about the fulfillment of this prophecy:

"And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites;
16 And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites. And thus ended the thirteenth year." (3 Nephi 2:15-16)

The fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in 2 Ne. 30:6 clearly had to do with the color of skin. That is a fact. Get over it.

So, why was 2 Nephi 30:6 changed from "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome"? Because one early edition of the Book of Mormon supported that reading, while all the others did not, and politically correct person in the Church offices thought it sounded better. Unfortunately, the new reading doesn't fit with the actual fulfillment of the prophecy.

In fact, it is internally inconsistent. Why does that verse imply that it would take some--if not "many"--generations for the Lamanites to become a "pure and delightsome" people? How long does it take for a people to become "pure and delightsome"? Can they not simply repent of their sins and become "pure and delightsome"? As it reads now, 2 Ne. 30:6 seems to imply that it is not possible--that it would take at least some generations for the Lamanites to become "pure and delightsome."

OTOH, if it is talking about skin color, then it makes perfect sense why it would take at least a few--but not "many"--generations for that change to occur. Genetics is the answer. I saw it when I was a member of the Lamanite Ward in Brigham City, Utah. There were many interracial couples in the ward, and their children, while lighter skinned than their Lamanite parent, were still not as white as most Caucasians. It would obviously take at least one more--if not "many"-- generations for them to become "white and delightsome."

Why is everyone so paranoid about anything that smacks of discrimination? Is discrimination always bad? If so, then why did God discriminate on the basis of lineage? In OT times, only descendants of Levi could hold the Priesthood. If I had lived then, I would not have been able to hold the Priesthood. Because I would have been a bad person? No--just because of my lineage.

Does God discriminate? Obviously. Is discrimination always bad? Obviously not. So, what's the big deal about saying that someone's skin color changed? It happens. I've seen it.

And the fruit of the tree of life was not really white? Give me a break! How would you describe something as being white in color without being considered a racist? Some things really are white in color--including the skin of the ancient Lamanites, okay? Get over it.
--Tragula (a racist just because I'm white?)

Anonymous said...

P.S.
There is no evidence that the Prophet Joseph Smith ever ordained a black to the Priesthood. That is a mormon myth.
--Tragula