The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Volume II : The Words and Will of God
The world's three great monotheistic religions have spent most of their historical careers in conflict or competition with each other. And yet in fact they sprung from the same spiritual roots and have been nurtured in the same historical soil. This book--an extraordinarily comprehensive and approachable comparative introduction to these religions--seeks not so much to demonstrate the truth of this thesis as to illustrate it. Frank Peters, one of the world's foremost experts on the monotheistic faiths, takes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and after briefly tracing the roots of each, places them side by side to show both their similarities and their differences.
Volume I, The Peoples of God, tells the story of the foundation and formation of the three monotheistic communities, of their visible, historical presence. Volume II, The Words and Will of God, is devoted to their inner life, the spirit that animates and regulates them.
Peters takes us to where these religions live: their scriptures, laws, institutions, and intentions; how each seeks to worship God and achieve salvation; and how they deal with their own (orthodox and heterodox) and with others (the goyim, the pagans, the infidels). Throughout, he measures--but never judges--one religion against the other. The prose is supple, the method rigorous. This is a remarkably cohesive, informative, and accessible narrative reflecting a lifetime of study by a single recognized authority in all three fields.
The Monotheists is a magisterial comparison, for students and general readers as well as scholars, of the parties to one of the most troubling issues of today--the fierce, sometimes productive and often destructive, competition among the world's monotheists, the siblings called Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Historian Peters (The Children of Abraham) has long been an astute and objective chronicler of the history and beliefs of the three great monotheistic religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this sprawling, majestic and elegant narrative, he offers the best study we presently have of the ways, words and wisdom of these religions. With straightforward prose and evenhanded examination, Peters devotes Volume 1 to an historical overview of the Abrahamic faiths, tracing each religion from its earliest expressions to the 17th century. Although he devotes separate chapters to each religion, Peters often points out the similarities and differences among them. For example, Islam honors Jesus, Ishmael and Isaac as prophets, but does not accord them the same status as either Christianity or Judaism. The greatest similarity, he points out, is the drive in both Christianity and Islam to gain new members though conversion. In his second volume, Peters focuses on the various beliefs and practices of each religion, examining the canonization and interpretation of scripture, scripture and tradition, God's law and its observance, worship, ethics and eschatology. In this volume, he also investigates the traditions of mysticism and monasticism that arose in each religion. Throughout the book, he includes boxed notes for historical asides or to explain terminology. Peters's magnificent book is the new place to turn for a first-rate historical introduction to these three religions.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Princeton University Press
October 19, 2003
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Excerpt from The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Volume II by F. E. Peters
THE SCRIPTURES: BIBLE, NEW TESTAMENT, AND QURAN
JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND ISLAM are all scriptural religions, that is, they affirm the existence of a divine revelation in written form. "The Sacred Writings," "The Scripture," and "The Book" are practically interchangeable terms among the three communities, and their adherents can all be identified, as we shall see, as People of the Book, which the Muslims in fact call them. The three Scriptures show marked differences, however. In the Jewish--and Muslim--view, God gave and Moses wrote down a distinct and discrete multipart book, the Law or Torah. But although the Torah holds pride of place in Jewish revelational history, God's direct interventions were in one manner or another continuous between Moses and Ezra, and thus the Jewish Bible is a collective work that includes, under the three headings of Law, Prophets, and the miscellany called Writings, all of God's revelation to his people.
This was certainly the Jewish view in Jesus' day, and there is no reason to think that Jesus regarded Scripture any differently. He produced no new Writings or Book of his own, and so Christian Scripture is formally quite different from what the Jews thought of as such. The Gospels are accounts of Jesus' words and deeds set down, in approximately a biographical framework, by his followers. In the eyes of Christians, Jesus did not bring a Scripture; he was himself, in his person and message, a revelation, the "Good News." His life and sacrificial death sealed a "New Covenant" that God concluded with his people, and so the Gospels and the accounts of the deeds and thoughts of the early Christian community recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of various of Jesus' followers came to be regarded by Christians as a New Covenant or Testament to be set down next to the Old--that recorded and commemorated in the Jewish Bible.
Muhammad may have had a somewhat different understanding of this complex process. Though he commonly refers to the Jewish revelation as Tawrat, the Prophet of Islam was certainly aware that there were other Jewish prophets, and so possibly revelations, after Moses. But he never mentions a New Testament; his sole references are to a singular "Gospel," in Arabic Injil, and he seems to have thought of it as a sacred book that Jesus had brought or written, much as Moses had the Torah.
Muhammad had a strong sense of the prophetic calling and the line of prophets that had created the Judeo-Christian tradition; and after some brief initial hesitation, he placed himself firmly within that line. He too was a prophet, and when God's earlier revelations had become distorted at the willful and perverse hands of the Jews and Christians, God had given to him, no less than to Moses and Jesus, a revealed Book. Or so it was in its final, codified version. What God himself had instructed Muhammad to call "The Recitation," in Arabic al-Quran, was in fact a series of messages delivered to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over twenty-two years. Each part was already identified as Scripture during the Prophet's lifetime, and the Book was finally closed only with Muhammad's death.
Of the three sets of Scriptures, only the Quran enjoys a self-conferred canonicity: it anoints itself as Scripture. In contrast, both the Bible and the New Testament underwent a long (and largely invisible) process to achieve a status that was, in the end, conferred by the community.
Three Sacred Books
Thus there came into being three sacred books, each in some sense the Word of God. Each collection has traditionally been regarded by its faith community as a complete, authoritative, and universal statement regulating the role and conduct of humankind vis-�-vis its Creator. History suggests something different, however, Direct challenges to Scripture are by and large a very modern phenomenon, but even in traditional settings each community implicitly contested the completeness of Scripture by attempting to open other channels of continuing revelation (see II/3); by struggling to wrest the authority of the words of Scripture into the hands of its interpreters (see II/2); and in more recent times, by setting next to the universality of Scripture the notion of its historical conditioning--that it was expressed in a cultural milieu that to a greater or lesser extent determined its moral parameters. Each Scripture was, furthermore, the birthright and charter for a community that had not existed before. Each community lived in the profound conviction that God had spoken to it for the last time: the Jews, for the first and final time; the Christians, for the second and final time; the Muslims, for the third and final time.
The Bible, New Testament, and Quran, though looked on as emanating from the same source, are very different works. The Bible is a complex and composite blend of religious myth, historical narrative, legal enactments, prophetic admonitions, cautionary tales, and poetry composed over a long period and edited at some point into a single Book. The time span for the composition of the New Testament is considerably shorter, a half century perhaps, but it too has a very mixed content of quasi biography, community history, letters, and, in some versions, an apocalyptic Book of Revelation. The Quran, as we have seen, is absolutely contemporary to its revelation, twenty-two years in the lifetime of the Prophet.
There is nothing but God's own Word in the Quran, as Muhammad himself could assure the community of believers, though there were a great many of Muhammad's words circulating outside Scripture and with great consequence (see II/3). In Jewish and Christian circles, however, there were assuredly circulating other writings that had some claim to being God's Word but are not found in the Bible or the New Testament. Both these Scriptures represent, then, a deliberate decision by someone to designate certain works as authentic or canonical Scripture and to exclude others from the authoritative list that is called the canon. That decision was essentially theological, and the exclusion of the noncanonical writings, generally called Apocrypha from the Jewish or Christian Scriptures does not render them any less interesting or important from a historical point of view. The Books of Maccabees never made it into the Jewish canon, for example, nor the Gnostic gospels into the Christian, but each tells us something of the events and attitudes of the time that produced them.
People of the Book
For the Quran and Muslims generally, the phrase "People of the Book" refers to those peoples--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and latterly some others--who were recipients of a revelation in the form of a sacred book. Although the source, God, and so the truth of the Books is identical, the Scriptures themselves differed--witness their different names--not only from the beginning but particularly after the Jews and Christians began tampering with their Books, as the Muslims believe.
The Jews would deny flat out the assertion that there was more than one People of the Book, to wit, themselves: there were no further revelations after the closure of the biblical canon. Christians would agree that both they and the Jews were indeed People of the Book, in that their faith was rooted in the Bible, the only Scripture the earliest Christians knew. When the early Christians spoke of "Scripture," they meant the Jewish Scriptures or Tanak (see below), and it took some time (and a major separation from Judaism) for them to begin the process of assigning their own writings about Jesus to the same category of sacred Scripture. But eventually the Christians too came to regard their own books as Scripture, that is, "a Book" on a par with the Hebrew Bible, though in this case it records the New Covenant or Testament that God had concluded with his people (see below). Jesus' redemptive act was decisively effective for all humankind, however, and so there would be no future revelations before the End. Finally, Muslims see themselves as People of the Book par excellence, since the Quran has superseded the two earlier Scriptures, which were, nonetheless authentic. (On the Muslim political implications of the essentially theological concept of People of the Book, see I/8.)
The Bible (from Greek biblia, "books") is really a collection of twenty-four separate books recognized by the Jews as the authentic record of God's dealing with them. It is often called Tanak, an acronym for its three major divisions. Torah (Law) is the five books (Pentateuch) of Moses--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nebiim (Prophets) includes both the former prophets (what we might regard as books of history), namely Joshua, Judges, then Samuel and Kings (both of these latter in two books, though counted as one), and the latter prophets, that is, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets (again counted as one book). The mixed collection called Ketubim (Writings) includes such diverse works as the hymns called the Psalms and the Song of Solomon; the moral stories of Job, Ruth, and Esther; the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet), the threnody of Lamentations, the apocalyptic Daniel, and the historical Ezra-Nehemiah (counted as one book) and Chronicles (again, two books counted as one).
Even when they returned from Exile, the Jews were losing their native Hebrew and adopting Aramaic, the Semitic language that served as the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean. Parts of the latest books of the Bible were actually written in Aramaic, as were later legal works like the Talmuds (see II/3). Diaspora Jews eventually adopted the Greek "common tongue" (koine) as their ordinary language (Hebrew never entirely disappeared as a learned language), and later spoke, and wrote, in everything from Arabic to English and a number of patois between. So there was need for the Bible to be translated. This need produced assorted Aramaic translations (called targums), which often paraphrased rather than simply translated the Bible. A Greek translation done at Alexandria in the mid-third century B.C.E. gained great currency among Diaspora Jews like Philo and Paul, and then universally among Greek-speaking Christians; it is called the Septuagint ("Seventy") from the myth of its making.
Note: The prevalence of Greek-sounding titles (Genesis, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, etc., and the very word Bible) in a collection of Hebrew books is attributable to the fact that they were most commonly cited in the literature at large by Christians, who from the beginning used the Greek Septuagint. In Hebrew the books are universally cited by the opening words of each book's first line. Thus what is commonly referred to as Genesis is called in Hebrew Bereshit ("In the beginning . . .").
What eventually drove the Septuagint out of circulation among Jews was precisely the ever-increasing Christian use of this rather loose translation, with its elastic canon (many of the Apocrypha like Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ben Sira, and 1 and 2 Maccabees were included in the Septuagint and so became part of the Christians standard Old Testament until the Protestant Reformers reverted to the Hebrew canon of twenty-four books) and the Christians' even looser interpretation of it for their own theological purposes. In the second and third centuries C.E. the Jews opted for a series of more literal Greek translations and effectively discarded the Septuagint. Jerome (d. ca. 420) used the Septuagint as the basis, though with corrections from the Hebrew, of his own Latin translation of the Old Testament, called the Vulgate, and so it passed in this form into Christian currency in Western Christendom.
One element in understanding Jesus' significance is that his intentions were finally recalled in the form of biography, the Gospels, rather than as a mere collection of his sayings. Originally both forms may have been in competition, the narrative biography as witnessed by Mark's Gospel, for example, and a sayings collection like the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas or the famous "Q" that modern scholarship has reconstructed out of the identical, but non-Marcan, verses shared by Matthew and Luke. But it was the Marcan-type biography that quickly prevailed in the churches and constituted the "Good News" for Christians. This triumph of biography over sayings may also have influenced the easy and very rapid transition from the native Aramaic of Jesus and his followers to the Greek of our New Testament, which does not appear to be a translation. It was not important, at any rate, that Jesus' own words be recalled in their original language, and the few times that Jesus' actual Aramaic is set down in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 5:41; 7:24), they give the impression that those who recollected them thought they were sacred formulas or even magical incantations rather than a historically authentic speech.
The issue of a sacred language thus scarcely arose among the Christians, and the New Testament quickly passed into a variety of vernaculars: Egyptian Coptic, the Syrian Aramaic called Syriac, Latin, Slavic, and eventually the entire range of European and Asian tongues. In Western Europe the Latin translation done (or supervised by) Jerome finally gained currency as the versio latina vulgata or, in English, simply the Vulgate.
Note: The Vulgate translation, like the Septuagint among the second- and first-century Jews, gained a status among medieval Christians close to the inspiration of Scripture itself. Its accuracy required increasingly spirited defense, however, against the doubts raised on purely scholarly grounds by humanists like Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457) and Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536) (see below) and by the increasing number of vernacular translations varying in understanding of what was being translated. Luther's own translation of the Scriptures--beginning in 1522 and often revised during his lifetime--went behind Jerome to newly available and more reliable editions of the original: Erasmus's of the New Testament (1519) and the Soncino edition of the Hebrew Bible (1495). The Roman Church responded at the Council of Trent, which affirmed the authority of Jerome's version but at the same time called for a new critical edition of the Vulgate. This was not achieved until 1590, and had almost immediately to be revised (1592-1598). The most famous of the early English translations, the King James, appeared in 1611.
If Jesus' Aramaic quickly disappeared behind other linguistic versions of his teachings and work, the careers of the languages of the Jewish and Muslim Scriptures had quite different trajectories. Both Hebrew and Arabic were, and are, the working language of clerical elites in Judaism and Islam (as was Latin in European Christianity). Jews at large, however, began losing their Hebrew as a vernacular sometime after the Exile and increasingly spoke whatever language prevailed where they lived. It is not surprising, then, that if a German-or Arabic-speaking Jew of the Middle Ages fancied becoming a rabbi, he had perforce to learn Hebrew, just as a Persian or Turk who wished to study sharia did so not in his native tongue but in Arabic. The tension in Muslim countries between the secular vernaculars and the religious Arabic is graphically illustrated in both the Turks' 1924 abandonment of Arabic script in their desire to create a new secular republic and in the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran's mandating the study of Arabic for high school students.
The connection between religious learning and language is obviously dictated by the language of the sacred text itself, or, to put it more pointedly, by the language of the Words of God, one version of which is found in Hebrew and the other in Arabic. Jewish and Muslim clerics have been equally enthusiastic in praising each of the two tongues as "the language of God" or "the language of the angels," but there is a very distinct difference in the relationship of each to the Book in which it is found. First, the Bible is not entirely in Hebrew: parts of the canonical books of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, and those other near-canonical extensions of God's intent for his people, the Mishnah and the two Talmuds (see II/3), show a growing mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew in the recorded rabbinic discussions. But more fundamentally, the Bible is not merely God's direct speech--indeed, direct discourse forms only a small percentage of the whole--but a composed narrative framework within which actions as well as speech unfold, and most often it is the speech of mortals. The Jews understood that the biblical books had authors, and to that extent they were linguistically conditioned, though nonetheless inspired.
The Quran, in contrast, seems to present itself as the ipsissima verba of God, and in "manifest" or "convincing" Arabic (Quran 16:103, etc.). It has no framing narrative however, no authorial signature or presence. In the Muslim view, Muhammad is not even a transmitter; he merely announced with absolute accuracy what he himself had heard. The consequence, then, is that the Quran contains the precise words of God, without human intervention or conditioning of any sort; that God had spoken, and Muhammad had heard and reported, Arabic speech.
Finally, both Jews and Muslims use the text of Scripture as the essential base for their liturgical prayers. Though the Mishnah (Sotah 7:1) explicitly allows the use of the vernacular ("any language") for the central liturgical prayers, the pull of the original tongue is strong among Jews. Among Muslims the practice of using Arabic in liturgical prayer is almost universal.
The Bible was, then, originally composed in Hebrew--though, as already noted, some of the later passages are in Aramaic--and it is available in various English translations, either alone or in combination with the New Testament. It is notable that where once sectarian differences among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants created marked discrepancies in their respective translations, the differences have presently narrowed to so few words or passages that it is possible for Jewish and Christian scholars, Catholics and Protestants, to cooperate on collaborative translations.
There had been earlier collaborations on scriptural translation. As we shall see, in 1142 Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), abbot of the monastery of Cluny, conceived of a project to assist in the conversion of Muslims. Among other pieces it was to contain a translation of the Quran, into Latin, of course. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Quran was translated again, on this occasion to save the fading tradition of the ancestral faith of the Moriscos, the converted Muslims of Spain. The Muslims of the northern parts of Spain, who had early passed under Christian sovereignty as Mudejares, eventually spoke, wrote, and read a Romance tongue rather than Arabic. They attempted to compensate, at least symbolically, by writing Romance texts in Arabic script, the practice known as Aljamiado, since the writing as well as the language of the Quran was regarded as God's gift. But the loss of the language meant they could no longer read the Quran itself. Between 1456 and 1462 the Muslim cleric who was head of the Mudejar community in Segovia produced not only a Castilian Quran but a kind of Islamic primer for the benefit of Muslims who were rapidly descending into religious illiteracy.
In 1698 Europe got its first printed translation of the Quran, a learned version by Ludovico Marraci, once again in Latin. Although there were professors of Arabic at both Cambridge and Oxford in the 1630s--a considerable work on Islam by one of them, Edward Pococke (d. 1691), whose Arabic tutor in Syria said knew the language "as well as the Mufti of Aleppo," was still in Latin--the first English translation of the Quran directly from Arabic did not appear until 1734. It was the work of George Sale (d. 1736), an English lawyer who learned Arabic privately from tutors in London. The incentive may have come from the British Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, which enlisted him to translate the New Testament and Psalms into English. Sale had access to a range of standard Muslim commentaries (perhaps from Pococke via Marraci), which he used to explain the text. Even more remarkably, the translation was prefaced by a long "Preliminary Discourse" that gave English readers a detailed explanation of the Arabian background to the rise of Islam as well as a life of Muhammad. Sale's version was the standard English translation of the Quran until well into the second half of the nineteenth century.
Muslims, for their part, have been far more reluctant to translate, and so transform, God's own dictation. Even where the Quran has been translated by Muslims for the benefit of other Muslims without Arabic, like those living in the West, for example, the effort has sometimes been modestly disguised as a paraphrase or summary of the sacred book's contents. A few English translations of the Quran are in print, also commonly though somewhat less properly spelled Koran. The diction of the Quran is extremely elliptical, and any English version of it will, of course, sound far more alien to Western ears long attuned to the familiar rhythms and images of the Bible and the New Testament.
But it is more than familiarity that makes both Bible and Gospels better served by their translations than is the Arabic Quran. God's message to Muhammad was delivered in the highly charged, affective images of the sacred poet. It is allusive rather than explicit, a great body of warning, command, injunction, and instruction delivered against a background of people and manners as barren to our eyes as the steppe itself. We feel Sinai and Canaan in the Bible; Palestine, its houses, mountains, rivers, and lakes, its towns, cities, and the men and women who lived in them are all present in the Gospel narrative. In the Quran, however, we search without success for Mecca, for the profane but vividly commercial life of the Quraysh, for Muhammad's family and companions. In its pages there is the voice of God alone. When it was heard, it overwhelmed hearts, as it still does in its written form, but it leaves the historian attending vainly, and deafly, for context.
Almost from the beginning, each of the Peoples of the Book has studied its Scripture seriously and in detail but always with the respect and veneration owed to the Word of God. In European academic circles of the nineteenth century, a new approach began to be followed. It differed from earlier study of the same texts in that it regarded the Scriptures--Bible, New Testament, Quran--merely as documents, no different from Homer's Iliad or Livy's Histories. This critical method, as it was called, was not directed solely at Scripture; indeed, it made its formal debut as a way of studying early Roman history. The results there were startling, as long-held assumptions about the age and validity of our Latin sources began to totter on their venerable foundations, pushed over in some cases, propped up in others, by the new science of archaeology. Once the same techniques were employed on the Scriptures, people were not merely startled; they were scandalized as the results of the new critical investigations began to trickle down into popular consciousness. The faith itself seemed under attack, as perhaps in many cases it was.
Note has already been made of scriptural criticism in discussing the lives of Jesus and Muhammad. It will not otherwise be much on display here since the point of the present undertaking is principally to understand the beliefs of the communities in question as the believers understand them, not how scholars think they got to be believed in the first place. But the "higher criticism," as it was called, is important on two scores. First, its roots run deep back into the three religious traditions that were exposed to earlier and equally potent strains of rationalism and had to react or adapt to them. Second, the critical method is now ignored only by the most radically conservative members of the three monotheistic communities. Many of the findings of scriptural criticism have been incorporated into the traditions themselves for their own use or else the communities have devised mechanisms to respond to them.