On 16th March 2011, it is reported that the thousands detained AlKitab at Port Klang and Kuching were serialized and stamped ‘For Christians Only’ without the permission from or consultation with the Church and the importers of these holy books. The Christian community in Malaysia was puzzled over it.
Approaches to this issue come in various ways. Here is one that is based on earlier reflections and conversations afforded by friends, which may be helpful to clear some fog that has clouded the matter. Besides, this attempt hopes also to assist those of us who are still trying to articulate for ourselves responses that are informed and relevant.
Here we go.
The initial inevitable question that we need to answer is whether did the Home Ministry desecrated the AlKitab?
Many have said ‘yes’, while many have also said ‘no’. We can find intelligent, sincere, and God-loving Christians on both sides.
Two major organizations, Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), recognized the Home Ministry’s defacement of the AlKitab as ‘desecration’.
Generally the affirmative side thought that desecration has taken place for the simple reason that the act of stamping on the AlKitab with a legally confining message that was theologically disagreeable and serializing them were done without the permission of or consultation with the respective religious community.
Those who don’t see it as a ‘desecration’ dissented in various ways. I would like to highlight three that are significant, together with some comments on each of them.
First, some think that the AlKitab, particularly the Perjanjian Baru (New Testament), doesn’t attach the concept of holiness or sacredness to places or objects since the worship of God is conducted in the spirit and truth (John 4.23).
I would like to point out several passages in the New Testament that attach holiness (Greek: ‘hagios’) to places, objects, and even the human body (I will be using ‘holiness’ and ‘sacredness’ interchangeably):
- The Corinthians were told that their physical body was the holy temple of God (1 Cor. 3.17, 6.19). The dating of the First Letter to the Corinthians falls in the 50s A.D.
- Paul, in Romans 1.2, considers the scriptures as holy. Probably the “scriptures” that Paul was referring to were the Old Testament books (perhaps including some inter-testamental literatures and some circulating accounts of Jesus’ ministry like Mark’s Gospel). The dating of this letter is usually in the late 50s or first half of the 60s A. D.
- In 1 Timothy 4.5, dated to about 60s A. D. or later, Paul considered that things can be made holy by the word of God and believer’s prayer. This was the notion that material objects can be sanctified (Greek: ‘hagiazetai’).
- The author of the Gospel according to Matthew attached sacredness to location (“holy place” in 24.15; “holy city” in 27.53). If these passages were written in the 60s or 70s A.D., that means the Christian community still considered sacredness as tied to location even 30 years after the resurrection and ascension of Christ occurred.
- The Second Letter of Peter goes further. The author of this letter attributed holiness to a mountain (2 Pet 1.18). Given that this letter is generally recognized to be written in the second half of first century A.D. (if not later), this shows that the Christian community was still affixing the concept of holiness to places 40 to 70 years after the Pentecost (in the early 30s A.D.).
These passages testify to the fact that the founding members of the Church and their immediate successors did attached the concept of sacredness to places as well as to objects in the first century Church’s life. This suggests that the Christian worship of God in spirit and truth does not contradict the practice of affixing sacredness to places, objects, and even the human body.
Second, Some have pointed out that there isn’t explicit passage in the Bible, especially the New Testament, that clarify what kind of action done on the scriptures can be classified as ‘desecration’.
In our attempt to understand whether the AlKitab has anything to say on how to recognize an act as ‘desecration’, we have to avoid two fallacies.
The first one is ‘semantic anachronism’. This happens when we read the present meaning of a word into the same word that was used in the past.1 This means that we cannot be too readily assume that the word ‘desecration’ in the Bible is semantically identical with how we are using it in the present.
The second fallacy is ‘unwarranted overspecification’. This occurs when we read a word or text in a too specific and limiting way that is not demonstrable from the text itself. 2 Therefore we should not understand the word ‘desecration’ as a technical term referring only to a list of specific actions unless it can be demonstrated of such technical usage in the text.
The word ‘desecrate’ is generally understood as treating a perceived sacred place or object with “violent disrespect”, according to http://oxforddictionaries.com.
Now we have to ask if the people in the biblical times had such a concept? If yes, was there degree of intensity within the concept, for example ‘desecration’ is the worst type of disrespect, while ‘defilement’ is less intense, and ‘profane’ is the least? If yes, then does each degree amounts to technical specificity with rigid overt demarcation?
By surveying through the Bible, we find that the language of disrespecting holiness is more elaborate in the Old Testament. Basically there are two groups of Hebrew words that convey this sense: (1) ‘khaw-lal’, which literally means to wound or dissolve, and (2) ‘taw-may’, which means profane or pollute, especially in a ceremonial or moral sense.
The Septuagint (LXX), an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, commonly translated ‘khaw-lal’ with ‘bebeloo’, while ‘taw-may’ with ‘miaino’. Nonetheless there are exceptions. For instance the ‘khaw-lal’ in Exodus 20.25 is rendered into a variation of ‘miaino’.
In the New International Version (NIV 2011), ‘khaw-lal’ is usually translated as ‘desecrate’ while the ‘taw-may’ as ‘defile’. However, there are occasions where these two translations switch with each other. For instance, ‘khaw-lal’ is translated as ‘defile’ in Exodus 20.25 and Ezekiel 7.22, while ‘taw-may’ is translated as ‘desecrate’ in Deuteronomy 21.23 and 2 Kings 23.8.
‘Khaw-lal’ is used with reference to people (Leviticus 21.15, Ezekiel 28.16), altar (Exodus 20.25), sanctuaries (Leviticus 21.23), Sabbaths (Isaiah 56.6), God’s name (Proverbs 30.9), and other things that have been set aside for God (Leviticus 22.15).
‘Taw-may’ is used in reference to people (Leviticus 11.44, Ezekiel 20.30), land (Deuteronomy 21.23), holy places (2 Kings 23.8), and God’s name (Jeremiah 7.30). This word group is seldom, if any, used to describe the violation of the Sabbath. It seems that only the ‘khaw-lal’ word group is applicable to Sabbath. This is most obvious in Ezekiel 23.38, where both word groups are used side-by-side: “At that same time they defiled (‘taw-may’ [Hebrew]; ‘miaino’ [LXX]) my sanctuary and desecrated (‘khaw-lal’ [Hebrew]; ‘bebeloo’ [LXX]) my Sabbaths.”
The NIV’s New Testament has the Greek word ‘bebeloo’ translated as ‘desecrate’, which in the LXX is a direct translation of ‘khaw-lal’, while the ‘miaino’ familial words are translated into a few variations such as ‘pollute’ (Jude 8 ) and ‘corrupt’ (Titus 1.15). The other words used in the New Testament is ‘koinoo’ which is translated as ‘defile’ in Matthew 15.20, Mark 7.15,and 7.23.
‘Bebeloo’ is used on the temple (Acts 24.6), people (1 Timothy 1.9), and Sabbaths (Matthew 12.5), while ‘Miaino’ and ‘koinoo’ are used generally referring to the body or person.
There may be degree of intensity for each word groups, yet we don’t know for sure at the moment. The biblical text itself doesn’t seem to provide a clear distinction between ‘desecration’, ‘defilement’ and ‘profane’.
No doubt some of them are commonly identified to certain kind of holy objects like ‘khaw-lal’ on Sabbath. Yet this does not eliminate the inclusiveness of the word’s identification to only that particular item. Therefore it is difficult for us to systematically categorize all of them neatly.
Nevertheless we are still able to recognize that all the word groups connote the same overlapping allusion: disrespectful act that is carried out on things that are perceived as holy by a community.
On this matter, we can see a shared pattern in both the Home Ministry’s defacement of the AlKitab and the disrespectful treatments of religious items instigated by the ancient people. The two events involved intrusive deliberation in handling sacred places, objects, or human person without regarding the objects’ respective custodian.
Given these conditions, it is valid to render the stamping and serialization of AlKitab as either ‘desecration’ or ‘defilement’ in a way that avoid semantic anachronism and unwarranted overspecification.
Third, Christians are not unanimous on whether the AlKitab is ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ (even though the book is undeniably important to the religion and individual Christian’s discipleship). Some think that the Christ, the incarnated Word of God, contained within the Bible is ‘holy’ instead of the printed book. Therefore the defacement cannot be perceived as desecration on behalf of the entire Christian community.
The two comments above have demonstrated that the tradition of affirming places, objects, and human body as sacred was widely practiced in the first century A.D. We find that the Church, as evidenced in Paul’s letter to the Romans, acknowledged the scriptures as holy (Romans 1.2).
When we move beyond the first century, we find that this tradition has been transmitted to the subsequent generations of prominent leaders in the young Church, namely the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene authorities from the second to the fifth century A. D.
In their writings, the scriptures were explicitly stated as ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ or ‘divine’:
Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, Book 7 Chapter 16).
Tertulian (On The Flesh of Christ, Chapter 20).
Hippolytus (Against Noetus, Chapter 9).
Athanasius (De Synodis, Part 1.6; Against the Heathen, Part 1.1, 3; Letters to the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter 1.4).
Hilary of Poitiers (On the Trinity, Book 3.2).
Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lecture 4.17; 5.12-13).
Gregory of Nyssa (On the Soul and the Resurrection).
Augustine of Hippo (On the Good of Widowhood, 2; On the Nicene Creed: a Sermon to the Catechumens, 1).
On top of these, many doctrinal statements such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Book of Concord, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the documents produced at the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent, and the Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council all acknowledge that the AlKitab is either holy, sacred, or divine.
We see here that the community of Christ’s first disciples, the Apostolic and Church Fathers, and the various official Churches’ statements affirm that the Christian scriptures are holy.
All these testimonies suggest that the denial of AlKitab’s sacredness belongs only to a marginal segment of the universal Church that contrasts the accepted ethos of the ecclesial community.
This also shows that the recognition that the person, Christ, testified within the AlKitab as sacred does not prevent the scriptures being held sacred by the Church throughout the ages. The Church through its appointed leaders and official doctrinal statements have been affirming the sacredness of Christ and the sacredness of scripture side-by-side all along without seeing any tension in between.
The tradition of affirming the AlKitab as holy is deeply embedded in the way the Church sees the scriptures. However, this does not guarantee individual Christians to treat the Bible with utmost reverence by reading and studying it diligently, or prevent them from not doing so.
The AlKitab is primarily a book identified with the Church rather than the individual Christian, and serves as an essential symbol of the religion. Hence the holiness of the Bible is not dependent on the conscience of the Christian individual but on collective identification that goes beyond the individual.
Just as the affirmation of the sacredness of Christ does not deprive the sacredness of the AlKitab, the individual Christians’ denial of the sacredness of the scripture similarly does not diminish the book’s identification as primarily with the Church and its service as an essential symbol of Christianity.
If this is true, then any intrusive act that officially impinges on the holy AlKitab without the consultation and permission of the Church, the representative of the religion, is not merely defacement but desecration.
1 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (USA: Baker Books, Second Edition, 1996), p.33-35.
2 Ibid, p.115.