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16.12.04, Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings

The Medieval Review

16.12.04, Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings

Robert Gregg's substantial (even hefty) and synthetic opus offers those of us interested in cross-confessional encounters an almost encyclopedic entrée into the intellectual world of give-and-take sparked by common foundation narratives in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy texts. Gregg is predominantly interested in exploring how these religious communities interpreted and reinterpreted a variety of biblical characters as a way of differentiating themselves from the other groups. As a result, these characters' stories play a major role in the self-identities of these communities--not just Christianity and Islam as respondents to a cast of characters developed in the Hebrew Bible, but also Judaism itself, responding both to new readings of biblical narratives and to new characters foreign to its milieu.

Four of Gregg's case studies begin in the Hebrew Bible: Cain and Abel; Sarah and Hagar; Joseph and Potiphar's wife; and Jonah. Each of these case studies, approximately a hundred pages each, begins with an overview chapter (a "preview"), followed by a chapter on Jewish approaches, a chapter on Christian approaches, and a chapter on Muslim approaches. A final, short "comparative summary" highlights the major linking or diverging exegetical points. A fifth case study on Mary, of about a hundred and fifty pages, necessarily switches the order. After the "preview," we are first offered a chapter on Christian Mary; then one on the polemical Jewish view of Mary (Miriam); and a chapter on the Muslim Mary (Maryam); followed by the comparative summary.

In dealing with his chosen biblical characters, Gregg generally starts each of his main chapters with a scriptural text, and then moves onto a variety of exegetical "texts" (both literal and visual). To be sure, scriptures at times become their own forms of exegetical interpretation of other scriptures. But for Gregg, exegesis generally includes artwork, alongside more traditional text-based genres: rabbinic midrash, Church fathers' sermons, Muslim historian-exegetes' biographical works, and many others. Pagans also occasionally appear as polemical exegetes, as this book inhabits a world still populated by polytheists. Gregg's focus is predominantly late antique and early medieval, but his use of later artwork and some later Muslim writers (such as Rumi on Yunus/Jonah) brings us squarely forward, even into early modernity at times.

This comfortable movement through time points to an important key to understanding Gregg's project and its overarching argument: despite an ostensible ossification of canonized scriptures, biblical stories and characters were dynamic--and remain dynamic--because they were (and are) available to be molded and reshaped by different communities in different eras, used to tell the stories each community need(ed) to tell itself. Indeed, this book demonstrates that there is no static and singular understanding of these characters even within a given religious tradition. The temptress Zulaykha, the Islamic version of Potiphar's wife, for example, is rendered quite negatively in early Muslim texts, but gets a wholly redemptive reread in later interpretations, particularly in a famed Persian tale from the fifteenth century. In the Christian tradition, Mary developed from being an unnamed character in one of Paul's epistles to holding a heavenly place beside her divine son (and interceding on earth to protect Christian armies) just a few centuries later. Traditions evolve, characters evolve.

For a decade, Gregg taught a seminar on the ways in which shared biblical stories and characters developed very different meanings to the three different religious communities. As such, this book is the clearly a product of rich discussions with students, and much of the copious detail reflects a classroom experience. We are carried through the logic of the text much the way one journeys through ideas in a classroom. Arguments are uncovered slowly in each chapter; we are shown--or rather, often asked to do the work of uncovering alongside our author--but not told until the very end. Medium-length quotations from texts (from primary sources and modern scholarship alike) and high-quality photographs are often presented to the reader to allow the audience to think and analyze alongside the author. If one would like simply to get to the punchline, one can read the "preview" and "comparative summary" chapters--a faster, but ultimately less satisfying, experience.

This seminar approach certainly benefits the reader who may be more familiar with one tradition and less familiar with others. But its pedagogic-midwife method also benefits this book's audiences in that, as Gregg addresses his characters, he not only walks us through the biblical, exegetical, and polemical traditions related to these characters (and inevitably those who surrounded them, perhaps most poignantly including the character of God), but also teaches his audience about the genres and methods of exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He takes care to show how commentators approached exegesis. What kinds of questions did commentators ask? What sparked their curiosity? What tools did they employ to get answers? How does this story relate to bigger theological and social questions for the exegetes? To offer a basic example, we learn that Jewish midrashic commentators often made conceptual connections across biblical texts--say, between a story in Genesis, and a selection from the Book of Isaiah--because of a shared, unusual word root. This could at times gave exegetes the opportunity to muse broadly on, say, the nature of womankind, or the negative valences of the verb "to play." In another example, we see Paul (qua exegete) as an author whose interpretations are highly inflected with, and influenced by, an awareness of his audience: his interpretations of Sarah and Hagar differed significantly when he wrote to an all-Gentile audience (in Galatians) as compared to his letter to a mixed Gentile-Jewish audience (in Romans).

The reader is given other tools to consider how biblical exegetes worked, and continue to work. Gregg spins out the ways in which exegetes use other communities' interpretations, whether by admitting the influence of other traditions--say, in Muslim exegetes' use of isra'iliyyat, traditions from Jews and Christians, or Origen's borrowing of traditions he learned from "Hebrews"--or by only hinting at familiarity with others' interpretations, as in early Christian paintings' awareness of midrashic traditions on Joseph. Occasionally these borrowed traditions are maintained respectfully by other communities. Often, of course, the coopted sources have their earlier interpretations subverted.

In short, one of the real benefits of Gregg's book is that readers are left not only with a better sense of what exegetes in each religious tradition thought, but also how they thought. A careful and patient reader can thus use this book for far more than the topic at hand, as a way to think about differing styles of exegesis, and the ways in which social and religious tensions provoke surprising intellectual outcomes.

It is important for Gregg that artists producing mosaics, manuscript illuminations, sepulchral artefacts, or frescos be given credit for interpretation, i.e. that they too were exegetes offering cross-confessional commentary and textual analysis. Fascinatingly, artistic motifs themselves seem to cross religious boundaries, though why this is (shared artists or workshops, perhaps?) is not fully explored. Shared approaches to visually representing sections from the Abrahamic cycle, for example, are visible across the Byzantine world, from Palestine to Italy, and are shared between synagogues (Sepphoris, for example) and churches (such as San Vitale in Ravenna). But this is not a work of cross-confessional history as much as is it a study exploring cross-confessional intellectual debate, in which temporal and spatial (i.e. historical) context plays a far second to a context of shared and contested ideas.

Gregg's magnum opus is capacious, weaving into biblical studies many other disciplines which the author has explored over his long and varied career: art history, archeology, identity studies, some amount of social and cultural history, and of course, exegetical theory. This tome will likely be too long to assign in most classrooms (even if it is surprisingly inexpensive for a book of this length and paper quality). Individual case studies or individual chapters, however, might work well for some courses on individual religious traditions, on women in religious traditions, or in a comparative religion context. But for scholars looking to teach some of this material to themselves and/or to students, Gregg's book acts as an excellent lesson plan, clearly written by a master teacher.