Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review of "Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs"

MUSEUM EXHIBITION: Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs review – a magical dig into the past. 5 / 5 stars British Museum, London With its miraculously preserved ancient objects – precious texts, gleeful art, children’s toys – Neil MacGregor’s last hurrah gets close to solving the mystery of religion itself (Jonathan Jones, The Guardian). A positive review of what sounds like an excellent exhibition. The review itself is generally informative but has a couple of errors.
Trying to understand North Africa or the Middle East without somehow going to the heart of faith is like trying to read a book in a language you don’t understand. This exhibition begins with books that are indeed written in languages I don’t understand: Hebrew, Greek and Arabic. They are some of the most precious religious manuscripts on Earth, laid side by side here,just as the communities they speak to have lived side by side in Egypt for millennia. A ninth/10th-century Jewish Bible, with bright abstract illuminations among the handwritten Hebrew letters, sits near the Codex Sinaiticus – the oldest complete Christian New Testament in the world, made at the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai in the mid-fourth century AD (that is, under the Roman empire). Nearby is a gorgeous page from an eighth-century copy of the Qur’an, created a century after Egypt was conquered by Islam.
The Codex Sinaticus was not "made" at St Catherine's Monastery, although it was housed there for a long time. The manuscript was written at an unknown location in the fourth century, while the monastery was not founded until the sixth century (although there was a chapel there as early as the fourth century).
Among these strange gods there was also one god – Jehovah. Jews had a long history in Egypt, according to the Bible, but as Simon Schama points out in his book The Story of the Jews their real, tangible history is first documented by those magically preserved Egyptian papyri – such as a letter exhibited here from the Roman emperor Claudius, in which he tells locals not to worship him as a god and instructs them to tolerate the Jews.
The name "Jehovah" is an error promulgated by Renaissance Christian Hebraists who misunderstood that the consonantal Hebrew text of the the name of God, YHWH, was written with the vowels for the Hebrew word "My Lord" ('Adonay) in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. This was to indicate to the reader that the name should be pronounced 'Adonay. Move the misunderstanding into Latin and you get "Jehovah." Ancient Egyptian Jews and those they influenced generally referred to this God as Yahu or Yaho (in Aramaic) or IAO (in Greek).

More on the exhibition is here and links. The Elephantine papyri are the earliest Egyptian papyri dealing with Jews, on which more here, here, and links.