Who Is the Man on the Camel?: Historical Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible and Christian-Muslim Debate

In: Medieval Encounters
John Zaleski Humanities Research Fellow, New York University Abu Dhabi Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates

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This article examines Christian and Muslim exchanges concerning Isaiah 21:7 and Deuteronomy 18:15, biblical texts that Muslims interpreted as referring to the Prophet Muḥammad. The focus of the article is the well-known letter in which the East Syrian Catholicos, Timothy I (d. 823), reports his debate with the Caliph al-Mahdī. In this letter, Timothy draws upon exegetical traditions rooted in Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) in order to undercut Muslim interpretation of Isaiah 21:7 and Deuteronomy 18:15 by insisting upon a strictly historical interpretation of these verses. The historical approach defended by Timothy received a Muslim rebuttal in the mid-ninth century and continued to be adapted by Christian readers who redacted Timothy’s letter. These sources demonstrate the interreligious transmission of Hebrew Bible exegesis. They show how Muslim biblical interpretation challenged basic principles of Christian exegesis, causing both Muslim and Christian authors to adapt and rearticulate longstanding methods of interpreting scripture.

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