Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Provo as Paradise, or, A Sister City for Kirjath-Sepher

Traveling to my new job in Provo has led me to reflect again on the geographical similarities between the Lord’s ancient land of promise in Palestine and the Rocky Mountain sanctuary prophetically foretold by Joseph Smith. These parallels have been well documented: both locales are surrounded by mountains (although the ones in Israel are much smaller than those in Utah); they contain inland bodies of super-salty water which are fed by rivers; and they are refuges for the Lord’s covenant people. In this discussion of geographical parallels, Salt Lake City is the new Jerusalem—the city from which prophets lead the work of salvation in this dispensation.

But Jerusalem was not the only city of significance located in ancient Palestine any more than Salt Lake is the only city of significance in Utah; Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jericho are all cities that played prominent roles in biblical history. Of course, in addition to all of these well-known cities, there are a number of other, less well-known hamlets, and one of these is the city of Kirjath-Sepher. Unless you’ve been reading in Joshua or Judges lately, chances are that you’d forgotten all about this place—but it’s one of the most interesting cities mentioned in the Bible. Kirjath-Sepher is Hebrew for “The City of Books” and it, like Jerusalem, has a sister city in Utah: Provo.

The Bible doesn’t say much about Kirjath-Sepher, but Jerome—the fourth-century church father who translated the Bible into Latin—preserves an early Christian tradition about the city. In a series of exhortations to monks, Jerome explains that Kirjath-Sepher hosted the school of the prophets instituted by Samuel and maintained by his prophetic successors; Jerome explains that every monastery is modeled after this ancient religious academy and teaches that monks should pattern their lives after the “sons of the prophets, whom we consider the monks of the Old Testament.” These spiritual role models “built for themselves huts by the waters of Jordan and, forsaking crowded cities, lived in these on pottage and wild herbs,” and Jerome exhorts monastic imitators to “make your cell your Paradise, gather there the varied fruits of Scripture.” The early Christians believed that their monasteries should imitate the school of the prophets at Kirjath-Sepher; thus, their monasteries would preserve the knowledge of paradise as Kirjath-Sepher trained prophets in the knowledge given to Adam, the first prophet.

Jerome intended monasteries to be paradisiacal refuges where the purity of paradise would be preserved and disseminated to the people, and this was a model that later representatives of the church would adopt when they began sponsoring universities. In the thirteenth century, Pope Gregory “wrote of [the church-sponsored University of] Paris as Kirjath-Sepher.” And Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century Cistercian abbot, recognized that the university of Paris had inherited the monastic tradition of Samuel:

"Just as the Queen of Sheba is said to have come with a large retinue, that by the sight of her own eyes she might have surer knowledge of those things whose fame she had eagerly absorbed from afar, so you too [he writes to Hergald, as student] came to Paris and found, sought out by many, compressed as in a replica—Jerusalem. … Here the wisdom of Solomon is open for the instruction of all who have converged upon the city. Here his treasure house is thrown open to eager students. … it truly deserves to be called Kirjath-Sepher."

These church leaders thought of the University of Paris as a new rendition of Kirjath-Sepher and a place where the knowledge of prophets and of paradise had been preserved; Gregory explains that the

"hand of the Almighty planted aforetime a Paradise of pleasures in Paris, a venerable gignasium of letters, whence arises the font of wisdom, which, channeled in the four faculties—namely theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy (rational, natural, and moral)—like unto the four rivers of Paradise is distributed throughout the four climes, drains and irrigates the whole world, and from which, further, how much and diverse spiritual and temporal progress Christianity has experienced!"

Gregory hoped that the University of Paris would train students in the ways of paradise and send them forth to water the earth with their knowledge until they eventually transformed the earth back into a paradisiacal state.

This belief in the power of a university to spiritually renew the populace that it serves and the world at large is one that persisted. When Cotton Mather sat down to write the first substantial history of Harvard in 1700, he describes Newtown (which eventually became Cambridge, MA) as “being the Kiriath Sepher appointed for the seat” of Harvard. Mather, like Pope Gregory before him, compares the university to a “river, the streams whereof have made glad this city of God … and a poor wilderness indeed it had been, if the cultivations of such a Colledge had not been bestowed upon it.” Here, as with the University of Paris and the monasteries of Jerome, the new Kiriath-Sepher is a place that will transform the world from desolation to garden, from wilderness to paradise.

Most modern universities—including Brigham Young University, in Provo—owe much of their structure to the University of Paris and its influential successors, such as Harvard. For that reason alone, almost any town that hosts a university could make a claim to being a modern rendition of Kirjath-Sepher. But the comparison between Provo and Kirjath-Sepher is especially apt, and not only because Provo is located in a geographical setting similar to that where the original “City of Books” was built. BYU is home to the largest library west of the Mississippi, and the Provo city library isn’t exactly small.

But more importantly, BYU should be thought of as modern Kirjath-Sepher and “school of the prophets” because of BYU’s special mission to train up a future church leaders. The BYU educational system is a means by which the knowledge of paradise is dispersed to the whole world, and the church leaders that it sends forth have played and will yet play a vital role in fulfilling the promise of the 10th article of faith, “that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

As I begin my work as a teacher at BYU, I do so fully conscious of the academic and theological tradition in which I—and every other professor in Provo—participate; there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather begin my teaching career than in this Latter-day Kirjath Sepher. I think Jerome would be happy to know that at least one of BYU's faculty member's recognizes the monastic tradition in which he is participating--and this Monk certainly does.


Jenny said...

Hurrah for Israel!

Jo Jo said...

Great analogy. I liked learning about the city of books.