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Kirchengeschichte: Alte Kirche, Christliche Archäologie


Bahkou, Abjar


Defending Christian Faith. The Fifth Part of the Christian Apology of Gerasimus.


Berlin u. a.: De Gruyter Open 2015. 178 S. Geb. EUR 49,95. ISBN 978-3-11-037580-0.


Manolis M. Ulbricht

Abjar Bahkou (Baylor University, Texas/USA, one of the largest Baptist universities in the world) contributes with this book to research on the »Arabic Christian [footnote] theological writing of the Arabic Medieval Period.« (1) This monograph is the result of B.’s extensive background studying Gerasimus, as he completed his PhD on the same topic (2011, PISAI/Rome) under the supervision of Samir Khalil Samir (SJ). The little known Gerasimus was presumably an abbot of the monastery of St. Symeon (the Younger), and may have lived in either the 12th or 13th century. Although his surviving writings offer no biographical information, he must have been well educated, as he was familiar with Aristotelian logic and a large corpus of non-Christian literature (5). B., who writes from an obvious Christian perspective (as can be seen in statements such as: »our Lord Jesus Christ«, 6; »a […] vision for our Christian faith«, 143; »In our approach to Christian scripture, the Fathers can teach us a few important principles«, 142), hereby presents his research on the fifth part of Gerasimus’ Kitāb al-Kāfī fī al-Ma‘nā al-Šāfī (›The Complete Book of the Healing Meaning‹), the so-called Apology, which is »an Arabic text that has never been studied before« (1).
The research field related to the study of Oriental Christianity is constantly growing. Since the essential works by Louis Cheikhô and Georg Graf in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Graf’s standard work Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur (Vatican: Studi e testi, 1944–53), much more material has appeared, and has been scientifically published. This is not only the result of a changed historical situation and circumstances, but is also due to the rising awareness of the important role the Oriens Christianus played in the transfer of cultural and religious knowledge between East and West. The importance of the study of the ›Arab Christians‹ as a scientific field in its own right is reflected, e. g., in the foundation of the CEDRAC (Centre de documentation et de recherches arabes chrétiennes) in Beirut (1986) by Samir Khalil Samir.
Because of the lack of research on Gerasimus, B.’s contribution has a pioneering character. In terms of methodology, B. starts out by presenting a text edition and an initial attempt at its interpretation and contextualization. The volume thus consists of two parts. The first contains, besides the »Acknowledgments« (VI) and a »Foreword« (VII–VIII) by professor Philip Jenkins (Baylor University), a »General Introduction« (1–4) with some preliminary information related to the first chapter, »Author and Manuscripts« (chapter 1, 5–10), »An Overview of the Apology« (chapter 2, 11–27), the »Analysis of the Analogies Used in the Apology« [sic, cf. »Apology« in the title of the chapter 2 in cursiva] (chapter 3, 28–40), and »An Analysis of Part 5« (chapter 4, 41–66). In the second part, however, B. presents (with-out chapter numbers) a critical edition of »The Text in Arabic« (67–102), the »English Translation« (103–140), and an »Index of the Most Important Words in Arabic« (148–160). The monograph ends with a »General Conclusion« (141–147) and the Bibliography (161–166).
B. was able to consult and describe (chapter 1), all the known manuscripts of the Apology, with one exception (Jerusalem), i. e. two from Beirut, one in the Vatican, one in the Bodleian Library (Oxford) and two from Syria (Aleppo and Homs). Interestingly, »[t]he scribe« of one of the Beirut manuscripts (Bibl. Orient., Ar. 552, date not mentioned; 7–8) »is very careful in how he describes Muslims and Arabs […] by modifying, or changing, offensive words about them« (7). Here, B. points to an important phenomenon that frequently appears in the relations of Eastern Christians with Islam. For example, if we take a comparative look at the liturgical book of the Byzantine Orthodox mēnaion (prayer book of the month), we find a significant difference between its Greek and Arabic versions concerning the hymn of the first day of the Ecclesiastic year (September 1st, Στιχηρὰ τῆς Ἰνδίκτου). While the Greek mēnaion speaks very harshly about the ›depraved and unbelieving Hagarenes‹, i. e. the Muslims (»τὰ ὀστᾶ διασκόρπισον, τῶν δυσσεβῶν καὶ ἀπίστων Ἀγαρηνῶν«), the Arabic version only refers generally to the ›unbelievers‹ (»‘iḏām al-mulḥidīn«). So, B.’s textual observation mirrors the sensitive situation the Oriens Chris­tianus faced and is still facing today in the Islamic Near East.
B. then gives a helpful overview of the theological topics that Gerasimus discusses (chapter 2) and analyses the analogies used in the treaty (chapter 3). The arguments employed by Gerasimus are »standard topics« (141) in the apologetic tradition of Islam and Christianity, such as ›the true religion‹, ›the presence and nature of God‹, etc., while the parables »are inspired by the Bible, the Church Fathers and Arab Christian theologians« (28). The following chapter (chapter 4) is rather descriptive and aims at placing the content into its historical and intellectual context. The crucial function of the Apology, according to B., was to be a kind of hodēgos (guideline) »for his Christian readers to gain the upper hand in any potential debate« (41) with Muslims. Gerasimus’ treaty therefore forms part of the long tradition of this genre, which was prevalent not only in Muslim-Christian debates, but also within earlier inner-Christian controversies, e. g., the famous Viae dux of Anastasius Sinaites.
The major achievement of the volume is the edition of the Arabic text (67–102) and its English translation (103–140). B. organizes and systematically numbers the entire text, thus providing a sound basis for future research, including an Arabic »Index of the Most Important Words in Arabic« (148–160). Through his laudable ef­forts, B. has made this witness of Christian-Muslim relation accessible to a broader range of readers.
However, in the discursive part of the book (especially chapter 2–4), in addition to the informative overview provided therein, it would have been valuable for B. to draw the relation of Gerasimus’ text with other sources from the Muslim-Christian dialogue, to which he continuously refers, in greater detail. For example, throughout the book it does not really become clear which sources are meant when B. refers to the »Arab Christian theologians and […] the Greek Church Fathers« (17), the »(Christian-)Arab theologians«, »Christian (Arab) apologists«, »(Eastern) (Church) Fathers« or »Eas­tern Christian writers« (12.23.25. 27.37.39 f.49 f.62.141, etc.). When dealing with the »three kinds of law earthly, Divine and Satanic« (13), B. states that »Gerasimus […] adapts these [categories (note by the rev.)] from the well known apology of al-Kindī [n. 21: Cf. Bot-tini 1998; al-Ḫūrī 2004, 126–127.]« (13; the exact reference in »Bot-tini 1998« is p. 151–152, cap. VI,1, not indicated in B., n. 21). One may add that the concept of tripartition between the human, the divine and the diabolical origins of every act and speech is also found in sources from the 9th century other than (Pseudo) al-Kindī, such as Nicetas of Byzantium’s very influential apologetic-polemical work Refutation of the Qur’ān (Vat. gr. 681; ed. K. Förstel 2000, p. 44/45, lin. 72–73: »Τριχῇ οὖν διακεκριμένου πρακτέου παντὸς καὶ λόγου, εἴς τε θεῖα καὶ ἀνθρώπινα καὶ δαιμονιώδη«).
Despite B.’s very meritorious work, there are some irritating issues in this vol­ume: some titles given in the footnotes are not mentioned in the bibliography (n. 112: »Baher 2004«, Behr?), while certain authors are apparently referred to by their first name (n. 33: »John 1974«, rather: »Ferguson, John. 1974«, cf. bibliography, p. 163; n. 112 & n. 115: »Andrew 2002«, rather »Louth, Andrew. 2002«, cf. bibliography, p. 164; n. 113: »John 2004«, rather »Behr, John. 2004«, cf. bibliography, p. 162); I could not find any discussion about »the theological discourses of the Cappadocian Fathers and John of Damascus [n. 112: Cf. Andrew 2002, 18–19; and Baher 2004.] on the Son and His divine birth [n. 113: John 2004, 334.]« (53) on the page indicated in n. 113 (John Ferguson, p. 334); additionally, B. quotes Wikipedia when discussing the Roman emperor Titus (n. 482), despite later of-fering a scientific bibliography about the same topic (n. 549). In addition, the switch between the different chapters would have been made easier for the reader, if B. had chosen the same titles for the six objections found in the analysis (chapter 4) also for those in the translation chapter itself (103–140), e. g.: »1st Objection: Christianity Is Not the True Religion« (42) – »The First Objection: Regarding the spread of the Christian faith throughout the world« (103). A more meticulous proofreading may have also helped to avoid a few typographical errors (double/erroneous blank space, p. 14, 6–7 passim; Arabic transcription, p. 8 passim; the book’s formatting in general; etc.).
B.’s monograph contributes to important research on the Oriens Christianus. The core of this publication is the edition and the English translation of Gerasimus’ text. Beyond this, it is rather descriptive without any originality in discussing and analyzing the text. The research field of the Oriens Christianus has unfortunately ac­quired a bitter connotation following the recent violent cultural-political changes in the cradle of Christianity. B. reflects on this tone in parenthetical remarks at the beginning and the end of his work (1; 146–147), and understands his work as a »Contemporary Contribution to the Interfaith Dialogue« (146). In this sense, his book represents a welcome contribution to the facilitation of our knowledge of the textual sources, that will further aid in our understanding of the historical roots behind the ongoing interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians.