Between Sciences of Origins and Religions of the Future: Questions of Philology

In: Philological Encounters
Maurice Olender École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

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The antique Christian “appropriation” of Hebrew by the Early Church Fathers was succeeded historically by a kind of scholarly appropriation that resulted in the emergence of a “ready-made India” founded on a new discourse about Sanskrit. In a world governed by romanticist visions undergirded with colonial aspirations, in a historical period between a Christianity weakened by Enlightenment philosophers and the advancement of scientistic secularism, certain scholarly fables about a primordial India came to resemble the fables about Hebrew. In this race toward the discovery of human origins, the new “Aryan Bible” required a new language of paradise: Sanskrit. Can one then say that India was appropriated within a scholarly environment that was being pulled between Christianity, secularism and scientism? Since our investigations have allowed us to demonstrate that this hypothesis is plausible, it is necessary to test this hypothesis through the clarification of the historical contexts, intellectual dynamics, and theological and political fields of action in which myth and reason mutually reinforce one another. While underlining the political stakes of the comparative method of anthropology, this article also recalls that not so long ago, knowledge of ancient and modern humanities often bore the mark of racial sciences that influenced all university disciplines from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.


The antique Christian “appropriation” of Hebrew by the Early Church Fathers was succeeded historically by a kind of scholarly appropriation that resulted in the emergence of a “ready-made India” founded on a new discourse about Sanskrit. In a world governed by romanticist visions undergirded with colonial aspirations, in a historical period between a Christianity weakened by Enlightenment philosophers and the advancement of scientistic secularism, certain scholarly fables about a primordial India came to resemble the fables about Hebrew. In this race toward the discovery of human origins, the new “Aryan Bible” required a new language of paradise: Sanskrit. Can one then say that India was appropriated within a scholarly environment that was being pulled between Christianity, secularism and scientism? Since our investigations have allowed us to demonstrate that this hypothesis is plausible, it is necessary to test this hypothesis through the clarification of the historical contexts, intellectual dynamics, and theological and political fields of action in which myth and reason mutually reinforce one another. While underlining the political stakes of the comparative method of anthropology, this article also recalls that not so long ago, knowledge of ancient and modern humanities often bore the mark of racial sciences that influenced all university disciplines from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.

* This essay was first delivered in French as the keynote lecture of the conference on “Semitic Philology within European Intellectual History. Constructions of Race, Religion and Language in Scholarly Practice” on the 19th of June 2013 at Freie Universität Berlin. The conference was organised by Islam Dayeh, Elizabeth Eva Johnston, Ya’ar Hever and Markus Messling. I wish to thank Ya’ar Hever for his translation of this essay.

The bishop of Seville, Isidore, who died in 636, contributed to the development of a mode of the representation of origins that would play a determining technical role in the history of European philology. In his famous Etymologies, conscious of the appeal exerted by the primordial mark of words, Saint Isidore warns his reader: “When you see from whence the name takes its origin, you will understand what its power is.”1

A thousand years later, Jean Bodin, one of the masters of the New History [Nouvelle histoire], took an interest in the fascination exerted on historians by “the origins of peoples.” They are “tormented” by this haunting “question” that takes hold of scholars’ reason, sinking them into “error”—both “early historians” and “more recent writers.”2

On Otherness: Between Attraction and Repulsion

Before examining certain ancient and modern sources that attest to structured bodies of knowledge by way of disparate representations of the indigenous, I will give some consideration to the manifold practices, especially comparative ones, that allow one to elucidate the notion of “Zukunftsphilologie.” Among the possible meanings (“the future” or “the forthcoming” of philology, or rather “a philology to come,” “emerging philology” or even “an anticipatory philology, sounding the alarm”), I choose to focus on a double-sided figure: simultaneously theory and careful practice, critical and self-critical, attentive to the shifts of science, techniques and supports, and attentive to the diverse forms of recomposing the past, a future-oriented philology. Being as much archaeological as it is genealogical, such a “Zukunftsphilologie” would give rise to interdisciplinary perspectives where poetical analyses intersect with political approaches—without forgetting that the poetic has often been able to formulate the political. One last important point: the present importance of the digital universe. Characterized notably by rapid transformation and the lability of media, the uses of digital humanities redesign our practices and our approaches to the archive, to memory and to oblivion—but without safeguarding this revamped knowledge from old biases.3

It is thus due to the initiative of the research programme “Zukunftsphilologie: Revisiting the Canons of Textual Scholarship” that I open the conference on “Semitic Philology.” And it is customary to open a presentation on an “academic” or intellectual subject with acknowledgements.4 These are often received as a purely social game, but they are not in the least “rhetorical.” The choice of an explicit formulation is part of a researcher’s approach that takes the institutional and academic drives as various economic and intellectual infrastructures, which are also simultaneously a system of technical constraints and a vibrant incentive for research.

In a quite different context, the poet Paul Celan stressed the significant intellectual importance of Danken (“to thank”). In his Bremen speech, delivered in January 26, 1958 upon his reception of the prize awarded by this Hanseatic city,5 the poet begins at once with two verbs of action: Denken und Danken—to think and to thank. Two terms that, as he explains, have in German “one and the same origin.”6 In pronouncing these two terms aloud, might Paul Celan, who knew Hebrew, have remembered that when transcribed into Hebrew orthography without vowels, the Yiddish verbs denken7 and danken could form the very same linguistic icon, a consonantal unit: dnkn?

Thus, every research endeavor bears the mark of an intellectual formation. A short word therefore on the process that led me to focus on these particular questions and on the chosen manner of formulating and defining the problems. Being an archaeologist by training, after my studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, I arrived in Paris to study comparative mythology during the seventies of the last century. At the Ecole des hautes études, I participated in the seminars of Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and later also those of Nicole Loraux, where I met Froma Zeitlin of Princeton, who was at the Wissenschaftskolleg that year; Renate Schlesier, a professor at the Freie Universität Berlin; and Dominique Bourrel, who was later commuting between Paris, Jerusalem and Berlin. Along with many others, we found each other at the beginning of the 1980s in the company of researchers coming from disparate horizons, conducting inquiries in which the distant, both in time and in space, could elucidate the nearby.

In the same years in which comparativism and interdisciplinarity guided historiographical and anthropological developments, we were mindful of the mirror games between cultures and civilizations, and the challenges of the transmission of knowledge between generations of scholars.8 Within this intellectual environment, Léon Poliakov, a historian of Anti-Semitism, who, going beyond the multiple types of Anti-Judaism, endeavoured to think and compare various forms of social exclusion, organized interdisciplinary comparative meetings at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and in Cerisy-La-Salle. Here I met, most notably, Serge Moscovici, Jacques Le Goff, Arnaldo Momigliano, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and many other friends and colleagues including biologists, geneticists, and statisticians.9 These intellectual activities also gave rise to the periodical Le Genre humain [The Human Race] in 1981.

At the same time, Momigliano published a book calling to mind to what extent the Hellenistic period, the great initiator of European philology, marked a major turning point in the intellectual modes, the ways of seeing others, the manners of conceiving, inventing, and imagining new alterities. In this work of 1975, Alien Wisdom, translated by Pierre Vidal-Naque for his collection, Textes a l’appui, published by the François Maspero publishing house, Momigliano, after noting “that Hellenism still affects our attitude towards ancient civilizations,”10 is astonished by the fact that between the 3rd century bc and the 20th century ad, learned men have not renewed their stock imagery and representations related to India. Momigliano insists on this point:

The average knowledge of an educated modern man about India is not superior to that which is to be found in Greek and Roman writers. Even now there is no obligation in our traditional curriculum to know anything about China, since the Greeks and the Romans knew nothing or almost nothing about it. The eighteenth century performed the greatest rescue operation of forgotten civilizations that humanity had ever witnessed. The Chinese, the Indians and the Celts were the most important beneficiaries. But the consequences were felt only by professors, philosophers, poets and cranks.11

In the same years, 1970-1980, at the margins of the great academic institutions, the intellectual milieu of the Hautes études could be characterized, at least for certain scholars, by a sociability or friendship as loyal as it was rigorous, fearing neither contradictions nor intellectual tensions. Inspired by the new anthropological approaches (notably those of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss), the analysis of historical representations looked for “sensible” forms of intelligence.12

In the period after the book of Momigliano was published in France by his friend Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant had asked me to review it for the first issue of a forthcoming journal, Le temps de la Réflexion, created at Gallimard in 1980 by the Psychoanalyst J.-B. Pontalis. The ideal of interdisciplinarity, more often proclaimed than practiced, has sometimes mobilized editorial dynamics in interaction with areas of scholarly research. Enumerating the “barbaric wisdoms” as conceived by the Greeks, Momigliano recalled that the Jews could be considered as admirable philosophers in comparison to the sages of India.13

It is worthwhile to re-read these fragments of Greek texts that are well-known to epigraphists and classical philologists. Take, for example, Megasthenes. As the ambassador of Seleucus I in India at the very beginning of the 3rd century bce, he notes in his History of India the affinities between “the Brahmans of India” [Indoîs hupo tôn Brachmanôn] and those that in “Syria are called Ioudaîoi, the Jews.” Megasthenes thus constitutes them as a category of privileged strangers who, despite being “outside of” Greece [exô tes hellados], are nevertheless “philosophers.”14

In a lengthy passage attributed to “a disciple of Aristotle,”15 Clearchus of Soli points out the genealogical affinities between Jewish philosophers and Indian sages: the former are the descendants of the latter. In this Hellenistic sketch, where Aristotle is summoned to testify for his encounter with a Jewish sage, Clearchus affirms that to signify “philosopher” one says Kalanoi in India and Ioudaîoi in Syria. This Clearchus, conscious of the gateway between Indian and Judeo-Syrian philosophy, has been identified in 1968 in an uncertain though plausible manner by the eminent epigraphist Louis Robert in an inscription of Bactria.16

The passages of Clearchus were copied and then printed through the generations for over two millennia17 before reaching, at present, philological websites. In his Against Apion, written to denounce “the hateful slanders” of those who, through “malice, deliberate lies […] or ignorance,” slander the Jews by refusing to recognize their antiquity, Flavius Josephus chose to collect these words of Aristotle, which he read, as he specifies, in a monograph On Sleep by Clearchus of Soli. It is in this dreamlike text that Aristotle takes the opportunity to speak of his encounter with a Judeo-Syrian sage:

This man was a Jew of Coele-Syria; these people are descended from the Indian philosophers. The philosophers, they say, are in India called Calani [Kalanoi], in Syria by the territorial name of the Jews; for the district which they inhabit is called Judaea.” He therefore adds, being surprised by a word in an unknown language, that “their city has a remarkably odd name [panu skolion]; they call it Hierusaleme.18

The semantic spectrum of the adjective skolios is broad but topical: from “skewed” to “devious,” passing through “bizarre.” It indicates that which is difficult to understand due to its strangeness, that which can make one queasy, awaken unease but also curiosity, the desire to know, or even that in the figure of the other which can fascinate and seduce; a semantic universe that is characterized by its tensions between attraction and repulsion.

Let us turn back to the Indian philosophers that are called kalanoi.19 In a monograph On Education, Clearchus, speaking of the gymnosophists, offers a joint presentation of these Indian sages and the Jews. They have here as their common ancestors the Persian magicians. This is formulated as follows by the supposed disciple of Aristotle: “the gymnosophists are also the descendants of the Magicians; some say that the Jews also descend from them.”20

Before proceeding, let us emphasize that the cited texts are neither “original,” nor even copies of originals, but are rather the product of a long tradition. Luciano Canfora is correct in insisting on a commonplace which can never be recalled too often: in such a tradition, “the frontiers are erased: between the author and the copyist, between the copyist and the philologist, between the direct tradition and the indirect tradition, between the transmission of the texts and their retrospective history, between the ancient texts and the modern ones …”21 From this perspective, “there is no thing in itself, because the original is a monotheistic illusion.”

It should be recalled here that the work of Jean Bollack seeks to clarify the possible meaning of the stratifications and the interlockings that have fashioned a philological tradition from the Presocratics to Paul Celan.22

Concerning the Greek fragments, the following should be kept in mind: our sources, whose validity was reinforced by generations of historiographers, ancient and modern, affirm that the “barbarians,” by language and geography, are not necessarily deprived of the wisdom that the Greeks call “philosophy.” These writings still evoke a kinship between the Indian sages and the Jewish philosophers—forming together a genealogical trio through their common ancestors: the Persian magicians.23

Indigeneity and Etymology: A Functional Couple

A millennium after Isidore of Seville, the uses of his Etymologies attest to the poetic, political and theological influence exerted by the powers of the indigenous.24 One of the masters of historical thinking of the 16th century is concerned with the fascination of “the origin of the peoples,” which inspired the “historians,” his contemporaries.

His name was Jean Bodin. He died in 1596. Economist, philosopher, jurist, and lawyer at the parliament of Paris, he is also one of the theorists of the modern “New History” [Nouvelle Histoire]. In his Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, published in Latin in 1566, Bodin dedicates his ninth chapter to the following problem: “By what method can one know the origins of the peoples?” From the outset, he specifies:

No question has tormented the historians more than that of the origin of the people […]. Those who do not know their first origin or who conceal it from the eyes of a hated stranger declare themselves to be born of the mother-soil, indigenous or geogenic. […] because they [imagine that they] do not come from somewhere else but that they have their origin in the earth itself, mother of all gods. Furthermore, this error is not the privilege of ancient historians, as we find it equally among more recent writers. It is thus that some affirm that “the Bretons embedded in the midst of the land have not come from anywhere else, but are born right there […].”25

Thus, Bodin poses the linguistic fact at the core of his argumentation. He considers that in order to be instructed “in the subject of our origins,” nothing is more certain than the “linguistic roots that are the best argument that can be produced to establish” the genealogy and the geographic location of a population.26

The history of science can be enriched through the analysis of the conceptual frame that Bodin puts forth when he calls for the recognition of a functional couple formed by “indigeneity” and “etymology;” he establishes this by means that are at the same time archaeological, theological, historical, juridical, and finally—linguistic. The concept of indigeneity, structurally related here to that of the original language, is manifested by its political effectiveness, notably in terms of a rejection of the other and an erosion of the social bond. Let us emphasize that Bodin puts forth an explicit criticism of the cult of origins. He questions the praise comprising of idolatry of origins, and seeks to undermine any reference of indigeneity as a mark of superiority over the other—a critical attitude that is not necessarily found always or everywhere in his work.

Let us follow Bodin:

[…] those who boast to be the true indigenous, do they do anything but break the link of the human community […]. How much more appropriate, on the contrary, to join with strangers along the lines of blood and cohabitation rather than to reject proudly by taunt any idea of kinship and of common origin.27

These sentences should be taken in their historical context. We are in the 16th century. The author responds to a burning current event: the war of religions. In his eyes, praising indigeneity amounts to denying what Moses said of the origins of the peoples “in our sacred books.” Furthermore, he writes, the “promoters” of this idea of indigeneity, “not acknowledging any other origin to these nations but that of the native soil, retreat at the same time from the society and the companionship of the rest.”28

Three years after the report of Bodin, in a different political and sociolinguistic context, a Flemish scholar, Jan van Gorp, wished to demonstrate, with the aid of the linguistic techniques of his time, that the language of Paradise is his mother tongue. Who would have remembered this proposition, had Leibniz not ensured its long reception, affirming that van Gorp was “not too wrong in claiming that the Germanic language […] has equally and more marks of something primitive than Hebrew itself.”29 Being a ground-breaking scholar of his era, Leibniz (with others) thus dismissed the clerical orthodoxy of the Church Fathers, the majority of whom wished to recognize Hebrew as the universal mother tongue. This choice situates Leibniz among those who wished to promote the idea of the regional and then of the national in Europe. It is undoubtedly also the passion of the mother tongue, so often coupled with the nation, that prompts Leibniz, who was otherwise rather a “cosmopolitan,” to identify in his Deutsche Schriften (1697) “the origin of the peoples and the languages of Europe” in “the archaic Germanic language,” which he formulates thus: Stecket also im Teutschen Alterthum und sonderlich in der Teutschen uralten Sprache, […] der Ursprung der Europäischen Völker und Sprachen […]30 “It is therefore in Germanic antiquity and specifically, in the ancient Germanic language […] that the origins of the European peoples and their languages lie.” It is for this reason that Leibniz adds that “the study of the Germanic language brings light not only to us […] but to all of Europe” [die Untersuchung der Teutschen Sprach nicht nur ein Licht vor uns, sondern auch vor ganz Europa].

The testimony of Leibniz is valuable in several respects. It allows one to see to what extent the prehistory of the Indo-European idea—called at the time Scythian or Japhetic—could convey operational models. Here, the reference becomes a theoretical abstraction: we might even speak of a “scientific icon”—that which the Indo-European hypothesis has eventually become, constantly disputed nowadays without being invalidated in the least.31

This type of abstraction opens hitherto unseen perspectives on the knowledge of the time in which it arose. One can observe that this knowledge, while innovative, is inextricably intertwined with religious and national conceptions haunted by a quest for the “archaic language” [uralte Sprache]. Science and religion, technicity and ideology can thus, in certain historical contexts, be associated and developed to support each other.

Before the Flood: A Solitary and Anonymous Language

A historiographical perspective contributes to the uncovering of issues of cultural appropriation and scholarly captivation, and to the determination of how Sanskrit came to replace Hebrew. The background of the Hebrew foundation that bears the linguistic traits of a faceless God with an unpronounceable name, who created the universe by uttering certain vowels, has often occupied the memory of theologians, poets, and later philologists. For the emerging Church, the opening scene takes place in the three holy languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin: Bereshit, En Archè, In principio.

Evoking the primordial biblical verb, the creative power of speech in countless cultures should not be underestimated; it could even be transformed into the Speech Goddess. Charles Malamoud sheds light on this matter in his study of Vac in the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Vedas—this sounding word, as it is revealed, authorizes the knowledge of all things.32

Let us proceed with the biblical text. One of the particularities of the material history of this corpus is undoubtedly derived from the fact that the Divine Word, uttered in Hebrew, finds its new way in and through a Christian Word, born from a translation. The Hebrew Bible, having become Christian, results therefore from the Word of a Father whose divine word is incarnated as a Son who, without being exactly a god of translation, despite the miracle of the Pentecost, is hallowed as the Great Mediator. Anyone who looks at the theology of Mediation can easily see to what extent our culture, known as a “media” culture, is fueled by a discourse of this Christian anthropology of the Mediation, which harks back to the passages in Paul where Christ is the Mediator between God and men: mediator of a New Alliance and Redeemer for all.33

Keeping in mind the two crucial points (“Translation” and “Mediation”), it is worth pursuing certain aspects of this divine speech in order to “hear” the primordial language of which God made use in Genesis, creating a Universe of representations that became that of the cultures modeled by the biblical stories.34

The following question is therefore posed. This primordial language, is it really unique? The response of Augustine is explicit: Before the Flood, there is only one human language. Saint Augustine calls it humana lingua vel humana locutio35—“the human language” or “the human parlance.” Isolated and anonymous, this language is devoid of nomen proprium. What good is a proper name? Why would it be necessary to name it? A proper name is meant to characterize in order to designate through differentiation. Thus, the lingua humana shone in its solitude, splendid and unparalleled, and anonymous. It was sola, without nomine proprio.

This language has been very often—but not always—identified by the Church Fathers as the Hebrew of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

One can never stress enough the importance given to the parlance or the language, to the attention directed at the divine word, Adamic, paradisiacal and human, in these biblical exegeses. The historian of linguistic ideas is therefore right to investigate these texts, as he would other theoretical narratives, scholarly fictions, or mythical or theological poems.

If Isidore of Seville asked himself, “what was the nature of the language in which God spoke in the beginning of the world when he said: Fiat lux,”36 Augustine raises the same question no less than fifteen times in the space of three pages, in his first book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis.37 He contrasts the double nature, corporal and spiritual, of the vox Dei and lux, the divine light: “should one think […] that the voice of God resounded materially when he said fiat lux […] If it is so, in what language resounded that voice when God said fiat lux? …”38

Augustine pursues his scholarly inquiry on the origins of the divine and the human word, on the analogies between the exercise of divine speech and words pronounced by mortals.39 He starts from the initial formula of Genesis, the Hebrew Bereshit that opens the Gospel according to John: En arché in Greek; in Latin In Principio. Starting from this crucial passage, Augustine writes in his Homilies on the Gospel of John:

The words that we speak are fleeting and transient: as soon as your word has sounded from your mouth, it passes away; it makes its noise, and passes away into silence [transit in silentium]. […] When God spoke, did He give out a voice [vocem], or sounds [sonos], or syllables [syllabas]? If He did, in what tongue spoke He? Hebraea, an graeca, an latina? Tongues are necessary where there is a distinction of nations. But there none can say that God spoke in this tongue, or in that.”40

A development follows that leads to the mystery of the “God who gave birth to the Word,” his Son.

That the Word of God is thus inscribed in the language of the Faith and of the Symbol (the title of another treatise),41 did not prevent a succession of eminent Christian exegetes from condemning Augustine for failing to make the effort to learn the two holy languages—Hebrew and Greek. Richard Simon, the founder of biblical criticism, wrote in 1678 that “if he had the knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages, he would have succeeded much better”42—he thinks here of a literal exegesis rather than an allegorical reading. Insistent, he specifies again a few years later that “it would be difficult to excuse the negligence” of Augustine.43

Augustine had responded in advance to such grievances,, when he said that he learned the name of Christ “in the milk” of his mother.44 In Book xi of Confessions, desiring to understand the first verse of Genesis, Augustine exclaims:

Let me hear and understand how in the beginning thou madest heaven and earth. Moses wrote of this; he wrote and passed on […]. If he were [here], I would lay hold on him and ask him and entreat him solemnly that in thy name he would open out these things to me, and I would lend my bodily ears to the sounds that came forth out of his mouth. If, however, he spoke in the Hebrew language [si hebraea voce loqueretur], the sounds would beat on my senses in vain […]; but if he spoke in Latin, I would understand what he said […].

Indeed, within me, deep inside the chambers of my thought, Truth itself—neither Hebrew, nor Greek, nor Latin, nor barbarian [nec hebraea nec graeca nec latina nec barbara], without any organs of voice and tongue, without the sound of syllables—would say, ‘He speaks the truth’45

May we understand here the “Truth” of Augustine as a mediating Pentecost, where each one grasps the Divine Word in his own language, where the multiplicity of alterities are joined in catholicity, One and Universal? Being sublimated, the ancient repealed Law is incarnated in a new Faith. From this point on, the Church marches toward the conversion of the world. The particular is called to be joined in a universal, borne by the Faith of a Christ whose “philological” vocation is to establish a unique “Truth” for all.

Proving by Forgetting

The primordial Hebrew, which has long been for Christian erudition the language of Paradise, could be replaced, at the end of the 18th century, by Sanskrit, which had recently been discovered by the scholars and artists of the Occident.

One should remember that since the Renaissance, one could encounter in Europe a multiplication of languages of Paradise. Every population took its own idiom as Edenic: Flemish here, Tuscan there, then Swedish, German or French.