The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Missing chapters in Passwords to Paradise

I just got Nicholas Ostler's Passwords to Paradise: How Languages Have Re-Invented World Religions at Barnes and Noble. It's about how religious jargon gets translated, to people foreign to the religion's original context. Mostly it's about Christianity. I still need to read this thing properly, but I've noticed some gaps in what I've got. Often the data are actually there, but strewn about less-relevant chapters.

There's a chapter on Islam at the end, but it is a short one. We don't really get the Confucianised Islam in China (which is very recent!); nor the full range of how the Africans and Iranians dealt with the challenge of this alien faith, by means of "heresy" and of Shi'ism and of new scriptures. As for how Islam got started in the first place, I've already mentioned that as a missing chapter, although it might take a generation or longer to fill it.

I further propose that the Greek Bibles ("Septuagint") and the Targums should have got more play here, on how they moulded diaspora and Hellenistic-era Judaism - Philo, particularly, in the case of Greek anyway, belatedly noted in p. 73 toward the end of a Christian chapter. Hellenistic Judaism seems to be another chapter missing. (UPDATE 7/9/16: ahem.)

Where Ostler's book goes over Buddhism's route to China in central Asia, I propose the Kuchean / Agnean "Tocharian" texts as yet one more chapter-opportunity. (Nitpick, pace p. 52: there's not much evidence for the Yuezhi being equivalent to the Kucheans; as p. 23 notes from Beckwith, the historically-attested Tocharians might just have been Bactrians speaking east Iranian languages.) Also as Ostler p. 55 points out, the translator Kumarajiva was a Kuchean himself; Valerie Hansen's 2012 book on the Silk Road (better IMO than Beckwith 2009) drew a connexion here, on Kucha's pivotal role in spreading Buddhism eastward. (I owe knowledge of this book to Razib Khan at GNXP.)

We could, also, discuss Wendy Doniger's findings about how the Aryan religion, the religion of arta, mutated into Hinduism on one side of the Indus (which dropped it in favour of dharmah) and into the Achaemenid state religion on the other.

posted by Zimri on 21:31 | link | 0 comments

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