restricted access The Scriptural Movement of Late Antiquity and Christian Monasticism
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The Scriptural Movement of Late Antiquity and Christian Monasticism
Guy G. Stroumsa, Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion

Religions of the Book

"Scriptural movement" was coined by the late historian of religions Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as a common denominator to various religious trends in the Near East from the first centuries of the Christian era to late antiquity—in essence, from the formation of the New Testament and the redaction of the Mishnah to that of the Qur'an.1 The best literary expression of this concept is probably found in the first chapter of the Manichaen Kephalaia.2 In this major theological text of early Manichaeism, Mani explains to his disciples that earlier prophets, Jesus, Zarathustra, Buddha, all erred in preaching their doctrine orally, leaving to their disciples the duty to write it down. Such carelessness on the part of these prophets explains how various mistakes crept into the Scriptures of their respective religious communities. In order to avoid the repetition of such an error, Mani, the last true prophet sent to humanity from the realm of light, made sure to commit his teachings to writing. In order to be [End Page 61] entrusted correctly to future generations, once and for all, prophecy could not remain oral and had to be written down precisely as it had been delivered, i.e., by the prophet himself. Indeed, Mani devoted special attention to books and writings; this attention also stands at the root of his reform of the Pahlavi alphabet. The text of the Kephalaia thus reflects as clearly as could be expected the major change in the attitude toward oral versus written texts which can be discerned in our period. More precisely, the point that seems to have become common knowledge in our period is the need for a religious movement to be established upon a book. This was not anymore true only for monotheistic or dualistic movements evolved from Judaism. In the fourth century, even such staunch defenders of the Hellenistic traditions as the neoplatonists felt the need to possess holy writings of their own (and adopted as such the Timaeus and the Chaldean Oracles).3 This "scriptural movement," which had started, much earlier, with the redaction of the Pentateuch and was pursued with the canonization of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament, would reach its zenith with the revelation of the Qur'an. No wonder that, for all we know, it is in this last text that the concept of ahl al-kitāb, "people of the book," an expression which usually refers to Jews, but sometimes also to Christians, or to both Jews and Christians, appears for the first time. In other terms, the qur'anic formula represents Muhammad as a comparative student of religion, as it were, who had proposed to see there the common denominator of most religious communities which he could observe around him. The idea of "religions of the book," which was launched on its modern career by Max Muller in 1873 in his Introduction to the Science of Religion, thus can be said to have qur'anic roots.4

Using a different terminology, Jan Assmann has recently attempted to identify a major mutation in the history of religions, in what he calls the passage from Kultreligion to Buchreligion.5 Assmann, an Egyptologist and a comparative historian of ancient religions, seeks to understand a shift from archaic religions of the ancient Near East to the religion of Israel and those following its main tenets. With this concept of Buchreligion, Assmann refers mainly to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While he is [End Page 62] correct in highlighting the watershed introduced in the history of religions by the idea of a revealed book, his discussion here remains rather schematic: there is no reason to think that ritual is less central in book religions than in polytheistic systems; rather, it is of different nature and endowed with a different status. Moreover, one should note that the Scriptures play a central role in monotheistic rituals, a role too often played down in recent scholarship. To some extent, Assmann's Buchreligionen coincide with Smith's "scriptural movements." This expression, or rather what it refers to, does...