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Accustomed to Bible lands

How important, then, to the Biblical scholar is the study of the modern East, not only of its antiquities, intensely interesting as they are, but of the manners and customs of its present inhabitants!

Henry J. Van-Lennep, Bible Lands: Their Modern Customs and Manners Illustrative of Scripture, 1875

In Europe the Higher Criticism of the Old Testament books by German scholars such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827) marked a change in the approach to the Bible as a sacred text, but this in no way lessened the ardent interest of Christians apologists who viewed the Bible as literally true. During the nineteenth century a variety of archaeological discoveries in Bible lands brought aspects of biblical history to light. While many of these finds clearly illustrated biblical customs, conservative theologians also saw them as a modern confirmation of the historicity and accuracy of the Bible. The archaeologist’s spade, I have argued elsewhere, served as a perfect tool for the rhetoric inherent in the apologist’s stacked deck.15 Inscriptions, potsherds and tumuli were only part of the interest in the biblical portion of the Orient. As noted in the quote above from Reverend Henry J. Van-Lennep, the “present inhabitants” of the Holy Land were even more important for the biblical scholar. Van-Lennep provided one of the most exhaustive (832 pages) compilations of contemporary customs said to be “illustrative of scripture.” The popularity of the “Bible customs” genre, which included many of the travel accounts of ministers, missionaries and lay Christians, served as an antidote to both the Higher and Lower Criticism of the Bible. Thus, Van-Lennep has no doubt that the “remarkable reproduction of Biblical life in the East of our day is an unanswerable argument for the authenticity of the sacred writings.”16

At first glance, it might be argued that this genre is little different from the overarching discourse of Orientalism posited by Said. While the bias of these Christian writers is clear, it flows more from a desire to better understand the revered text of their tradition than from a latent desire to denigrate or subjugate the people being studied. Because writers like Van-Lennep believed that current customs of the Arabs, in particular, had been preserved by God as a testimony to the truth of Scripture, these customs needed to be properly understood. While I hesitate to label the efforts of these texts as ethnography in the contemporary anthropological sense, Van-Lennep is proud of the fact that he “enjoyed unrivaled opportunities of intercourse with all classes of people.”17 Rather than using his text to criticize the “Orientals,” Van-Lennep in several respects counters existing stereotypes of his day. Consider his rationale for recognizing how Muslims saw themselves: “On the other hand, we have not called the religion of Mohammed Mohammedanism, but Islam, its universal name in the East (not Islamism, nor the religion of Islam); and his followers not Mohammedans, but, as they call themselves, Muslims (not Mussulmans); Muslimin is the plural of Muslim.”18 To the extent that Van-Lennep believed that God had preserved these customs as a testimony, it was important to describe them as accurately as he could, starting with the proper terminology.

Van-Lennep’s Bible Lands rests on first-person experience as a missionary in the Ottoman world as well as on information from earlier travel accounts. The author was born in Smyrna in 1815 and came to the United States in 1830, graduating from Andover Theological Seminary in 1837. He began his missionary work in 1838, bringing his young wife Mary, also a seminary graduate, to Constantinople in 1843; she died of dysentery within a year and he married twice again. He traveled extensively throughout the Holy Land, including Egypt, and was said to preach in five different Arabic dialects. In addition to his missionary work, Van-Lennep was an excellent artist. In 1862 he published twenty original chromolithographs of life in Ottoman Turkey.19 Although he lost his sight in 1869, he was still able to publish the results of his travels, first in 1870, and then in his monumental Bible Lands (1875), passing away in 1889.

In postmodern hindsight Van-Lennep is to be faulted for assuming that there is a pure type of surviving people who practice identical customs to those mentioned in the Bible. He rejected the idea of interpreting Scripture by the Jewish customs of his day, reasoning that those who still live in the land are the closest to the originals:

Since the descendants of the ancient Israelites have so far departed from the type of their ancestors as to offer but little aid to our imaginations in forming a correct idea of the Hebrew of Joshua’s or David’s time, may there not be remnants of the vanquished nations of Canaan still dwelling in the land, and retaining something of the physical characteristics, the dialect, or the manners of the ancestors?20

The author is very much a product of his time. He assumes that traditions would change but little in their natural environment and he is convinced that some of the local “races” have remained pure because of not marrying outside. Ironically, it is the “Arabs” who are thought to be the closest racially and culturally to the ancient Hebrews. “In their language, manners, and customs, however, these people [Arabs], more perhaps than any other, vividly remind us of the social life and political institutions of God’s ancient people,” he assures the reader.21 As a result, Van-Lennep devotes barely a mention to the Ottoman Turks, whom he recognizes as “the present ruling race”, and rightly notes that they refer to themselves as Osmanlis rather than the disparaging term “Turks”.22

Despite his clear preference for certain peoples having the most authentic customs, Van-Lennep also follows the homogenizing rhetoric of the day in applying “Oriental” as a generic term. Thus, the actual information provided in his text is not always provided in context. When he writes: “Oriental women never show themselves unveiled before men other than their relatives”23 or that the “Oriental theory is that love comes after marriage,”24 the type of overarching Orientalist discourse criticized by Said is evident. Yet, such phrasing, no matter how problematic, should not obscure the points made in an entire passage. After the description of a full-length veil in some detail, differences are noted within Lebanon and between Lebanon and Egypt. “Let it now suffice to remark,” concludes Van-Lennep, “that the large veil just described is almost exclusively worn by the inhabitants of the larger towns ... ”25 A footnote informs the reader that this kind of veiling was also found in ancient Thebes. The presence of bias does not negate the nuance to be found in the narrative, although it clearly calls for caution in the sense that rigorous historiographic method demands.

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