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Canon Commentary Heritage


Jan Willem van Henten 

Members of the research group

Jan Willem van Henten

Resianne Smidt-van Gelder Fontaine

Associated members: Hermine Pool (UvA, PhD), Adeline Koppius (UvA, PhD), Femke Essink (UvA, PhD), Annette Merz (RUG), Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte (VU), Peter-Ben Smit (VU), Mladen Popovic (RUG), Lieve Teugels (UU), Eric Ottenheijm (UU), Rob van Houwelingen (ThUK), Jasser Ellethy (VU)

Description of the research program of the research group

Part of the literature transmitted to us acquired a canonical status. Writings belonging to an official religious canon, like the Bible or the Quran, are obviously canonical. They received a normative status by an institutionalized religious group, which is usually fixated in history at a certain moment in time. If we take “canon” in its wider meaning as a network of intensely mediated texts, which function as a source of forms, ideas and values for specific groups, classical Greek and Roman literature as well as works like Thousand and One Nights or Dante’s Divina Comedia should be considered as canonical literature as well. The canonical status of these works implies a stabilizing process that confirms that the texts are–obviously for various reasons–valuable for the society in which they function. They have a cultural significance because they form the heart of the selective collective memory of a society. Canons also have a normative significance because they involve values “both in what they preserve and in the principles of preserving”. Because of the ongoing process of re-interpretation and actualization within the networks within they are being mediated segments of canonical texts function as a source of inspiration and a basis for common values and concerns. They contribute in this way to what is called intangible heritage. The continuous actualization of canonical writings is a springboard for the reformulation of identities. The writings form a dynamic reservoir of images, archetypes, conventions and models that help to inspire new writings and other forms of expression. The ongoing re-interpretations express at the same time a selective reading process: characteristics that appear to be alienating are pushed into the background, and traits that seem meaningful are being incorporated in current outlooks on life.  

The craft of writing commentaries exists since antiquity and its importance can hardly be underestimated. Commentaries not only contribute significantly to the selection which writings become canonical, but they also play a crucial role in the transmission and re-interpretation of these writings and the construction of identities that goes with this re-interpretation. Unfortunately, the broader impact of commentaries so far has hardly been investigated. Moreover, even within the academic world the art of writing commentaries remains a highly individual craft, which articulations and impact on cultural heritage is hardly reflected upon. Only recently, commentaries start to go beyond in depth discussions of writing in their original language and the possible meanings for the readers in their assumed original contexts, moving on to illuminate the texts from a wider perspective, including their reception in literature and other cultural expressions. These observations lead to the following research question:

  • In which ways can we determine more precisely the impact of commentaries of canonical writings in connection to (immaterial) heritage? Which case studies come to mind in order to analyze this impact? What is the role of commentators if we focus upon the impact of commentaries on heritage? How do their re-interpretations contribute to the past becoming heritage and the dynamic process of selecting and ignoring or downplaying specific pasts? How should we envisage future commentaries and the research related to them? Is there something like “the ideal commentary”? If so, what should it entail? Should it include aspects of the reception and the re-interpretation of the text through the centuries and the identity constructions that go hand in hand with the re-interpretations in various contexts? 

Envisaged results 

Envisaged results of the project are:

  1. Commentaries on “canonical literature” such as the works of Flavius Josephus, martyrdom stories and the medieval encyclopedic work of Jehuda ben Shlomo ha-Cohen.
  2. Articles that deal with aspects of the research questions and a volume of essays devoted to the interconnections of canons, commentaries and heritage. 
  3. Establishing a national and international network as a springboard for research cooperation and applications.

Work plan and time schedule 

Workplan and time frame for 2013-2020:

  1. Commentary on Josephus Antiquities ready in 2014, the second part (books 16-17) in 2019 (van Henten). Commentary on section of Jehuda ben Shlomo ha-Cohen’s Encyclopedia (2017, Fontaine-Smidt van Gelder).
  2. One or two articles per year.
  3. International expert meeting on Canonization and Contested Martyrs, 2016, followed by volume of essays (2017).
  4. Preparation of research application (2017).

Societal relevance 

The societal relevance of commentaries on canonical literature is quite high. The selection process implied by the decision to award writings a scholarly commentary or not contributes significantly to the canonical status of works and to retain this status. Commentaries fix the interpretation of a canonical work for a considerable time, among other things by offering a synthesis of existing scholarship. In this way they also determine the perspective from which the broader audience, directly or indirectly, deals with such a work. In the long run commentaries stimulate the cultural reception of canonical writings, but they also preprogram their re-interpretations because of their specific and selective configurations.