Scripture in the Age of Non-mechanical Reproduction – By Mira Balberg

Mira Balberg on Robert Gregg’s Shared Stories, Rival Tellings

Robert C. Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Oxford University Press, 2015, 752pp., $39.95
Robert C. Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Oxford University Press, 2015, 752pp., $39.95
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In 1996, when DreamWorks Pictures decided to produce an animated musical about the life of Moses and the exodus out of Egypt, they invited to their Hollywood studios an unusually large group of advisors who were meant to represent the widest possible cross-section of scholarly, religious, and ethnic identities and approaches. These advisors, approximately seventy in number, were there to ensure that all potential viewers — from Beijing to Saudi Arabia and from Senegal to San Francisco — would find the movie The Prince of Egypt heartwarming and inoffensive. One of these advisors, Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, relates the many discussions between the advisors and the film’s crew on a myriad of issues pertaining to animation, sound, and script choices: What voice should be given to God—male? female? old? young? What is the appropriate skin-tone for the protagonists? Should they be pink-skinned Europeans, olive-skinned middle-easterners, or dark-skinned Africans? And what is the best term for the people delivered out of Egypt — Israelites? Jews? Hebrews? But the question that troubled the filmmakers more than any other, as Shinan recounts, was whether it is acceptable to modify, omit, add, or reinvent details in the biblical story of Exodus 1-15. How upset — or outraged — would people around the world be if a story that they consider sacred were remolded and retold in a different manner? Shinan reminisces with delight how he gave the DreamWorks team a crash-course in Midrash, convincing them that their animated film “was not fundamentally different from what was done 1500 and 1200 years ago … it is the same magnificent phenomenon, in which thousands of people during thousands of years read the very same texts and yet each one of them finds in those texts things that others have not found” (Hebrew speakers can watch Shinan’s very enjoyable lecture on his Hollywood adventure here).

The hand-wringing among the DreamWorks team over whether and how they are allowed to retell a sacred story in a new and inventive way (or, put more pragmatically, how much financial damage they are likely to incur if they do so) reflects a pervasive modern view of scripture as fundamentally stable and unchangeable. If a story (or, for that matter, a law) is considered to be divine in origin and elemental to a community’s religious identity, then it is often assumed that an injunction of “neither add nor subtract” hovers in threatening letters above it, and that any form of “meddling” with the story is de facto sacrilegious. I find that one of the most difficult things to communicate to my students is that proclaiming a text to be “sacred” means that one can do more with it, not less: the more influential and foundational the text, the more its readers or hearers throughout the centuries feel that it needs to be and can be reproduced, reshaped, and reinvented time and again. My students, who grow up in a climate in which “the Bible” is invoked in public debates as a placeholder for all that is eternal, unquestionable, and nonnegotiable, are often confounded when they encounter ancient rewritings of biblical texts in which new protagonists are invented, untold events are related, and lively new dialogues are placed in the mouths of the well-known characters. Hurdles of indignation (“but the author of Jubilees is just lying!”) and of wishful credulousness (“but maybe Josephus heard it from someone who heard it from someone who actually lived in the time of Abraham”) usually have to be conquered before students can come to appreciate the creative rebirths of sacred traditions that occur in the unique encounters between a story, a reader, and an array of cultural, intellectual, communal, and historical factors.

Robert C. Gregg’s book Shared Stories, Rival Tellings is an ode to those creative encounters between stories and readers (or hearers) in specific historical moments, and a powerful demonstration of the enormous value of “retellings” of sacred stories for understanding processes of identity formation, doctrinal differentiation, and religious competition. The book focuses on five sets of central biblical/Quranic figures — Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Jonah, and Mary — and their representations by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim authors and artists throughout the first millennium (more or less) of the common era. This majestic book, spanning more than 600 pages, is an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to appreciate and help others appreciate the infinite ability of religious communities to renew and revivify themselves through imaginative re-creations of foundational stories.

Whereas the filmmakers of The Prince of Egypt made a concerted effort to retell the exodus story in a manner that would make every possible viewer feel included and validated regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religious identity, most of the authors and artists whose works Gregg analyzes operated with the exact opposite desideratum in mind: they sought to solidify boundaries and to draw firm lines of exclusion, using stories to distinguish “us” from “them.” As Gregg describes it, early Jews, Christians, and Muslims retold and reshaped sacred stories with two central objectives: “maintaining their religious society’s sense of uniqueness…and inspiring that community to stand firm in any altercations with its competitors.” The works of literature and art discussed in the book should be seen as products of the formative centuries of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively, centuries during which these religious communities were defined by the ever-present question of which tradition is the rightful heir of God’s promise to Abraham, of the piety of the patriarchs, and of the noble line of the prophets. Gregg shows how each story is told and re-told with the intention of making it “our story” alone, and the result is a kaleidoscope of common ideas, motifs, imageries, and metaphors molded and remolded in a variety of ways to portray and assert difference.

To be clear, this is not a book about religious polemics through stories as much as it is a book about religious formation through stories. Gregg does not so much explore how each Abrahamic religion uses stories to define itself specifically vis-à-vis the two others as he explores how stories are used to create theological, moral, and social identities within each tradition as well as boundaries among different religious communities in different historical contexts. In some cases, the boundaries in question clearly map onto the division between the three Abrahamic religions, as demonstrated most clearly in the second and fifth parts of the book. In other cases, the distinctions at stake are internal to the religion at hand, reflecting either synchronic divisions (e.g., “orthodoxies” and “heresies,” or competing schools of philosophical or legal thought), or diachronic divisions (i.e., trajectories of change over time within a given tradition).

We see a good example of this in Gregg’s masterful analysis of the interpretation of the Joseph story. Gregg shows, on the one hand, how scriptural interpretation could be closely intertwined with political change and could work to construct rigid boundaries. He convincingly demonstrates that the Christian perception of Joseph was tied to the religion’s standing within the Empire: he is transformed from a Jesus-like persecuted victim to a pious and powerful statesman. But, on the other hand, Gregg reveals that interpretation can function in far less tradition-specific ways, revealing a certain porousness in group identities. Joseph is also heralded as a paragon of sexual continence and self-restraint by both Jewish and Christian authors. He demonstrates a set of admirable qualities that are certainly expected of followers of the tradition at hand, but are nonetheless not marked as distinctive of Jews or Christians as such.

While Gregg does not offer an elaborate theoretical or conceptual substrate for his comparative explorations of shared stories and their permutations, it is evident (and, in my view, praiseworthy) that the cultural category with which he thinks is storytelling rather than hermeneutics. Despite the fact that many of the works he discusses are interpretive in nature, and several of them are also formally structured and presented as commentaries on other works, Gregg avoids constructing a direct hierarchical relation between a given canonical text and dependent homiletical or exegetical works that apply specific hermeneutic strategies to it. Instead, Gregg presents the artists and authors discussed in the book as creative agents who reinvent stories and make them their and their communities’ own. Of course, more often than not such re-creations do rely on engagement with texts that their readers regard as “scripture”; but the retold stories are almost always, as the book’s many examples show, based on interaction with a whole host of other oral and written traditions, only a few of which have been preserved to the present day.

By treating each rendition of a given story as an act of telling and not primarily as an act of interpretation, Gregg eschews the trap of regarding one specific version of the story (by default, the biblical version) as the “original” tale and thereby all other versions as distortions, falsifications, or misrepresentations. He is cautious to regard the biblical version of each story as the earliest rendition of the story known to us — a rendition which has no ontological precedence over any other rendition. At one point, he even engages briefly with the possibility that the biblical story of Joseph in Genesis 39 is itself a re-creation of an Egyptian tale, thereby reminding us that the biblical narratives are not the ultimate starting point of the stories in question, but may very well be “retellings” in their own right.

Gregg thus boldly (although not explicitly) offers a new way of thinking of the phenomenon commonly referred to as “Rewritten Bible.” The multiple renditions of sacred stories discussed in the book are best described not as revised texts, but as what Tomoko Masuzawa in her book In Search of Dreamtime aptly termed “repetition without origin.” Masuzawa developed this term following Walter Benjamin’s seminal piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which he discussed the ability to reproduce art on a massive scale as fundamentally changing our relation to the concept of “an original.” In particular, Benjamin mentioned that photography introduces a form of art in which we must relinquish the notion of originality altogether since all we have are copies: “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” In a sense, the phenomenon of retelling that Gregg so richly explores in this book prompts us to consider the question of origin in the age of non-mechanical reproduction: when each telling of a story, textual or visual, is a medley of old and new, canonical and apocryphal, invention and tradition, each telling is an “original” and at the same time none of them is the original. As in the case of modern photography, all renditions of sacred stories are copies; but, unlike modern photographs, every copy is different from the others because of the particularity of time, place, circumstances, and creative imagination of one person. Interestingly, in the twenty-first century we are better equipped to understand this pre-modern creative process through analogy to the practice of sampling and mixing in electronic music, in which certain elements and features of songs are isolated, reworked, and recombined with other elements to create entirely new pieces. (I thank Elizabeth Castelli for this illuminating observation).

While Gregg’s proclaimed task in the book is to investigate the ways in which sacred stories became distinctly and unmistakably “Jewish,” “Christian,” or “Muslim,” his analyses also include various cases or settings in which these labels (as Gregg himself sometimes acknowledges) appear to be inconsequential if not downright arbitrary. For example, the similarities in interpretive approach and moralistic agenda between Hellenistic Jewish authors and early Christian authors are often so great that one wonders what makes Philo of Alexandria markedly “Jewish” and Clement of Alexandria markedly “Christian.” To take another example, the many shared themes between the Jewish novella Joseph and Aseneth and medieval Muslim accounts of Zulykha’s abandonment of idols as a result of her love for Yusuf significantly challenge any attempt to identify either of these works as quintessential representatives of one distinct faith. The fuzziness of boundaries — demonstrated by the striking inadequacy of the labels “Jewish,” “Christian,” and “Muslim” for classifying certain late antique and early medieval texts — is especially clear in some of Gregg’s fascinating discussions of works of art. At one point Gregg chooses a series of illustrations of the book of Genesis found in a “Christian” manuscript (The Latin Ashburnham Pentateuch of the sixth/seventh century) to demonstrate “Jewish” interpretations of the Cain and Abel story, because these illustrations contain themes commensurate with Jewish interpretive traditions: for instance, these illustrations feature the grief of Adam and Eve after Cain’s murder of Abel, a motif found in the pseudepigraphic work The Life of Adam and Eve, and depict a battle between two rams that resonates with interpretive traditions found in Midrash Genesis Rabbah. At another point Gregg debates at length whether depictions of Jonah that appear on a gold bowl and on a gem found in the catacombs of Rome should be properly identified as Christian or Jewish. Although these artifacts were found in the “Christian” catacombs, there is nothing about them that rules out the possibility that they belonged to or were created by a Jew. These examples and others show that the intersections of traditions are sometimes so overarching that the attempt at classification is effectively futile. Gregg is certainly aware of that and occasionally reflects on such close intersections, but nonetheless maintains a rather rigid categorization of all materials in the book as Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, and he works with the general premise that these identities were well-defined and mutually exclusive — even when the materials at hand put this premise in question.

One may wonder, then, why Gregg chose to include in the book many materials that not only do not serve the framework of “rivalry” between religious groups that he sets forth in the title and in the introduction, but at times actually reveal the fluidity of boundaries and murkiness of distinctions between those religious groups. Unquestionably, Gregg could have adhered to the framework of “rivalry” by limiting his analyses to textual and visual materials that are clearly identifiable with one of the three faiths (for example, pick only highly Christological interpretations of biblical stories or only rabbinic texts that stress prototypically Jewish values such as Torah study and observance of commandments). He would have then ended up with a much “tighter” and more digestible book half the size and the heft. I believe that Gregg’s choice not to limit his materials in this way and to include such a wide range of sources was guided by two different impulses. First, it is evident that Gregg wanted to use retellings of stories as nodes on a historical axis, and as prisms through which key moments in the development of the three religions can be considered. To that end, he incorporated texts and artworks from as many different historical and social contexts as he could, even when those did not quite map onto distinct “Jewish” “Christian” and “Muslim” identities. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Gregg seems to have been equally moved by an aesthetic penchant: when a particular literary or artistic version of a story is especially beautiful and rich, it is as though Gregg just cannot say no to it, even when the work in question does not necessarily serve as concise illustration of a particular historical moment or theological trend but rather represents mainly the creativity and talent of its maker.

I commend Gregg for not limiting his exploration only to texts or works that wear their religious identity “on their sleeve,” so to speak, and for choosing variety and abundance over tightness and cohesiveness: as a result, his many examples for retellings of sacred stories vividly demonstrate the polyphony and diversity among religious communities, both synchronically and diachronically. The book would have benefited, however, from more sustained and direct reflection on its choice of materials and on the diversity within and complexity of the religious communities revealed through these materials. The very short introduction and conclusion, which present the book essentially as an exploration of polemic and competition between three religions, could have served as important methodological sites for dissuading the readers of maintaining any essentializing generalizations on the three religions in question, and they do not do justice to the richness of the material discussed in the book and to Gregg’s own sensitive analyses.

In its wealth of material and its aesthetic sensibility, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings can truly be called a work of love. It reflects genuine admiration for the creative power of the religious imagination, and a desire to teach others how to approach religious literature and art so that they share this admiration (having taken one class with Robert Gregg some years ago, I can testify that this has been his longstanding commitment through his illustrious teaching career). This by no means suggests that the book is a naïve celebration of religious diversity in the spirit of “all religions are wonderful fonts of beauty and wisdom, let’s hold hands and stop fighting!” that one sometimes finds in introductory undergraduate classes. Not in the least: after all, the main theme of the book is rivalry and competition, and it shows quite clearly that religious creativity is often born out of zeal, hostility, and even hatred. But this book does celebrate, without compromising on historical and cultural contextualization and specification, the sparkle and splendor of artful modes of religious expression. As such, this book is a gift to those of us struggling to find new ways of introducing the particularities of ancient religious communities, and a reminder of why this enterprise is ultimately worthwhile.