Hands Off! The Syriac Didascalia, the Israelite Priesthood, and the Quran

In recent decades, scholars of the Quran have gradually moved away from the “influence” model of Islamic origins, which posits a more or less direct “borrowing” of material drawn from older scriptural traditions, to more organic, and less reductive, models of development. At the same time, rabbinic midrash seems to be falling out of favor as the primary source of comparanda for Quranic narratives, and contemporary scholars appear to be emphasizing the Quran’s relationship to the late antique Syriac Christian milieu more and more. While most scholars would reject the approach of “Christoph Luxenberg,” the pseudonymous author who has argued that the Quran be understood as a kind of mistranslation or even wholesale transcription of a Syriac hymnal, the revived interest in tracking and analyzing the Quran’s apparent similarities with or even allusions to Syrian Christian traditions appears to represent a paradigm shift in contemporary Islamic studies. I will discuss some recent scholarship on the Quran that reflects this trend, and discuss a pertinent example drawn from my own research. I have observed a conspicuous affinity between the Quranic portrayal of Aaron and the underlying understanding of the Israelite priesthood that informs it and that of the late antique Didascalia Apostolorum, which posits that the law is a punishment imposed on the Jews for the making and worship of the Golden Calf. I will argue not only that contemporary scholarship seems to be moving in a new direction by emphasizing Syriac Christian rather than rabbinic Jewish “sources” for the Quran, but also that scholars appear to be employing these texts as comparanda in a more responsible way when compared with older scholarship, in which midrashic “prototypes” for Quranic narratives were often invoked in order to highlight Muhammad’s “borrowing” from and “dependence” upon Jewish informants.