Thursday, November 7, 2013

Situating a Book in Context

Several years ago, I published a review of a work by an eminent scholar, who generally seems to be a decent individual and whose work I normally like. The book was a commentary on a text of a religion (Mithraism) that flourished a thousand years ago but has long since perished and no living adherents survive. The work was erudite and about as exhaustive a commentary as could be done on the particular text from the particular point of view favored by the author. I thought, however, and still think that the author had situated the text in the wrong context. As I demonstrated at length:
We have a text found in Egypt, coming from an Egyptian temple archive, dealing with an Egyptian subject, in an Egyptian fashion, in an Egyptian format, using Egyptian offering
lists, invoking Egyptian deities, employing Egyptian words, and calquing Egyptian grammar that poorly matches Mithraic material. Nothing in the text is necessarily Greek or Mithraic, but several of the subjects dealt with in the text are definitely not Greek or Mithraic; on the other hand, there is nothing in the text that is not Egyptian. The simplest explanation is that that the text is Egyptian, not Mithraic.
Of course the native Egyptian religions have gone the same way as Mithraism. The point was, in a sense, purely academic. I concluded from this that the particular
book demonstrates that it is possible to provide a highly learned and seemingly plausible commentary for a work while still setting that work in the wrong contextual framework. The result, while neither useless nor worthless, is ultimately irrelevant.
Context of a work matters. If you situate the so-called Mithras Liturgy as written by Greek stoic adherents of Mithraism, you will end up with a very different reading of the subject than you will if you suppose that it is written by Egyptian priests in Thebes. The context makes a huge difference. This is why biblical scholars fight over when to place the various books of the Bible (and they are all disputed) and why there are scholarly arguments about when and where to place the Book of Mormon in history. The context is basic and makes a huge difference, which is why one can never say that the issue can (or should) go away.