Monday, July 26, 2010

ABRAHAMICALIA: Critical Notes on Three Major Faiths and their Scriptures


This work addresses the nature and interaction of three major faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Collectively these are known as the Abrahamic religions.

Of central interest are the canonical scriptures honored by the three: the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh; known to Christians as the Old Testament); the New Testament; and the Qur’an. Also relevant are noncanonical texts, such as the so-called Intertestamental writings (documents of Hellenistic Judaism); the Mishnah and Talmud; noncanonical Christian gospels; and the Muslim Hadith collections, as well as opinions of Muslim jurisconsults. The study stresses motifs (precepts, doctrines, personalities, and legends) that link the scriptures of all three traditions: intertextuality in short.

Recent scholarship has highlighted the socioeconomic conditions fostering the rise and efflorescence of these belief-systems. As welcome as this contextual approach is, it must not be applied one-sidedly. That would be a little like studying the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the United States Constitution, while ignoring the substance of the actual document. Both context and verba scripta deserve careful attention.

The centrality of the written texts (scriptures) makes recourse to the critical-historical approach indispensable. This method, which has gone from strength to strength over the last 150 years, has demonstrated that many truisms religionists cherish about their belief-systems are in error.

There are also affirmative conclusions--of a sort. The most momentous finding that stems from this research is the nexus linking monotheism, intolerance, and violence. This nexus serves to set the Abrahamic faiths apart from all other major religions of our time. For this reason, the excesses of Abrahamic monotheism cannot be relativized by saying, in effect, "everybody does it."

With the continuing expansion and consolidation of the Enlightenment critique of religion, we are free--at least more so than in former times--to examine the deeply problematic elements the Abrahamic heritage has bequeathed to us. That acknowledgment does not imply that other religions do not harbor inhumane features: think, for example of Hinduism's oppressive caste system and human sacrifice among the Aztecs and Maya.

As it is, though, this study is long enough. It is legitimate to confine our attention to the Abrahamic triad, whose members constitute a kind of family. Whatever one’s attitude towards the Abrahamic faiths, one must grant that they have left a deep imprint on Western Civilization. They have shaped the cultural climate most of us still inhabit, whether we wish it or not.

The Abrahamic religions arose in decidedly unpromising settings: tribal (Judaism and Islam) and urban-marginal (Christianity). Why then do they still flourish--mightily so--in more complex societies, including our own? One answer is that these religions have served ruling circles as invaluable instruments of social control. The beneficiaries have been mainly wealthy, powerful heterosexual men; the victims have been the poor, women, and homosexuals. By fostering the Abrahamic religious ideologies, the ruling groups have been able to dispense with the more drastic physical measures that might otherwise be required to control the inferiorized groups. People who can be induced to police themselves do not need coercion. In this connection, the Marxist analysis of religion as the "opiate of the people" comes to mind. Yet it is misleading in one respect, for the power elites are not seeking comatose subjects, but a workforce that is alert, productive and, above all, obedient.

In order to qualify for inclusion in the survey that follows, a particular trait must have thrived in at least two of the Abrahamic religions. Most themes discussed herein have found their place in all three. Another criterion of inclusion is that the traits must be distinctive of the overall worldview concerned. This means leaving out some features that one might have expected to encounter. The institution of slavery is one example. Regrettably, slavery was pervasive throughout the ancient world and is not distinctively Abrahamic. So, one might say, is patriarchy, and its corollary, misogyny. However, both were connected with a particular reverence for the Biblical Patriarchs (with a capital P)--such figures as Noah, Abraham, and Moses. As this instance shows, the world of the Hebrew Bible was formative, and as such it calls for heightened scrutiny. There can be no special exemption for Judaism.

I turn now to some personal notes. Paradoxically, my interest in these matters began with a blank. My parents, who were atheists, brought me up to have no religion. Since my classmates were, most of them, religious, my curiosity was awakened. In college I decided to devote myself to the study of medieval art, most of which reflects Judaeo-Christian themes, especially those stemming from the Bible and the lives of the saints. In 1969 I completed my Ph.D. dissertation on the Stavelot Bible, a Belgian illuminated work of the late eleventh century.

To acquire even a rudimentary understanding of this labyrinth was hard work, but I rose to the task. For many years I stressed the positive contributions of Judaism and Christianity in my college classes in art history. To a lesser extent, I dealt with Islam as well. Yet further research, conducted during my retirement, has revealed how problematic, indeed deleterious, the role of the Abrahamic faiths has been.

Nowhere, perhaps, has this problematic legacy been more evident than in the realm of sexual behavior and gender norms. All too often, societies that are under the sway of the Abrahamic faiths have taken their cue in sexual matters from presumably immutable religious truths. For this reason, scholars of human sexuality are well advised to consider the issues of how the Scriptures came into being, what they actually say, and how they have been interpreted.

There are also more explicit areas of impact. Chapter 6 (on violence) deals with Christian and Muslim deployment of punishment for homosexual acts. Chapter 12 deals with the misogynistic consequences of the Abrahamic obsession with purity. The following chapter, 13, addresses homosexuality specifically.

Sexual matters even intrude where one would least expect, as in the matter of usury (Chapter 10), in as much as Christian scholars compared lending at interest with sodomy. In the afterlife, especially in the Christian tradition, sexual transgressors are punished, sometimes for all eternity (Chapter 14).

Focusing as it does on the problematic aspects of the Abrahamic heritage, this study pays little attention to its positive cultural byproducts in the realm of literature, music, film, and the visual arts. A brief summary of these aspects appears at the end of Chapter 1, below.

I do not deal with non-Abrahamic religions. To be sure, equating "religion" tout court with the Abrahamics is a major category mistake. This approach is very common (e.g. with such contemporary atheists as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens), but this pars-pro-toto error must be avoided if one is seeking a comprehensive understanding of the human propensity to create religions.

Today there are three major categories of these Others: 1) the Indic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism; 2) the indigenous Far Eastern religions aka philosophical systems (Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto); and 3) the animistic religions of tribal peoples. In addition, there are defunct systems, such as the polytheisms of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. While these faiths lack many of the blemishes that afflict the Abrahamic triad, they pose their own problems (e.g. caste in Hinduism; militarism in Shinto). A friend has suggested that I tackle these three clusters next. That would be a tall order, so we will just have to see (as they say).

At all events, the critique of the Abrahamic religions--in all their specificity--deserves to be pursued for its own sake.

For further details on some of the matters discussed herein, see my full-length work Abrahamica at



The Abrahamic faiths show many parallels, but also differences. This chapter deals with both. Earlier concepts of the kinship are reflected in the parable of the Three Rings and the Three Impostor concept.

More recent research has added much to these tentative insights.

The chapter concludes on a different note, offering a brief conspectus of the cultural harvest in the realm of literature, music, film, and the visual arts, together with some effects in public realm.


The canon of the Hebrew Bible has been stable for many centuries. However, the rabbis habitually consult other documents, especially the Mishnah and Talmud, for guidance.

After some discussion, the early Christians adopted the Hebrew Bible in its Greek (Septuagint) guise, which they came to term the Old Testament. They then built up their own canon, the New Testament. Recent decades have seen some creative efforts to enlarge this specifically Christian canon by incorporating one or more of the "alternative" Gospels. The prospects of this attempt at canon massaging are uncertain.

The 114 suras of the Qur'an are accepted by all Muslims. While efforts are under way to create a critical edition, many believers regard this effort as superfluous--possibly even harmful.


Some two-thousand years ago the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria introduced an influential method of interpreting the Scriptures in terms of symbolism and allegory. Under Christian auspices--and with many refinements, complications, and accretions-- this largely fantastic exegetical method prevailed throughout the middle ages and on into the early modern period. Notwithstanding its entrenched tenacity, the venerable method had eventually to yield to a more convincing and truthful method of interpreting the primary Jewish and Christian texts.

This corrective tendency started with Erasmus in 1515, reaching maturity in the so-called Higher Criticism in nineteenth-century Germany. The present-day minimalist school has advanced the case for further, sometimes iconoclastic revisions of the conventional views.

The critical approach to the Qur'an has been slower to take hold, but this is gradually occurring.


The opening and closing portions of this chapter deal with borrowings: in the first instance, the way in which the compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures purloined from the older, more established traditions of the Middle East; and in the second, the Qur'anic borrowings from both the Hebrew and Christian traditions.

The middle section of the chapter deals with problematic aspects of the Jesus story, including the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which is shown to be an accretion.


Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, usually gendered as gods and goddesses. These are commonly assembled into a pantheon. Polytheistic faiths tend to create elaborate mythologies and rituals, but rarely adopt a single book as their special Scripture. Examples of polytheistic religion include the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Shinto, and some Neopagan faiths today. Some polytheists, such a the modern devotees of Wotan, prefer to worship one deity chiefly, while recognizing the existence of others. This tendency is sometimes termed monolatry.

The conventional wisdom is that there is a bright line distinction between polytheism and monotheism. In fact there are borderline cases, such as Mahayana Buddhism, where the proliferation of boddhisattvas certainly suggests polytheism.

Purportedly, all three Abrahamic religions are strictly monotheistic. As the more extended discussion makes clear, that claim cannot be accepted without reservation.


With increasing clarity scholars of history and religion are coming to perceive a disturbing Abrahamic trifecta--a nexus linking monotheism, intolerance, and violence.

The fons et origo is the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Initially, Christian violence was limited to the world of imagination--as seen in the threats of Hellfire and the conflicts predicted in the book of Revelation. After Christianity acquired state power, the way was open for violent persecution of such out groups as Jews, heretics, witches, and homosexuals.

For its part, Islam was scarcely a religion of peace. In fact, it is the only major religion that initially spread by conquest and violence.


All three Abrahamic religions have shown ambivalence regarding the representational arts. Yet the degree of image avoidance has varied in each according to time and circumstance.

This Judaeo-Christian-Islamic negativity contrasts with the joyous acceptance found in ancient Greece and in Hinduism. In such polytheistic faiths the images are valued not simply for their aesthetic qualities, though these may be present, but by virtue of their religious charisma: some sculptures have been thought to be actually inhabited by the god. Others functioned as palladia, talismans that protected cities and persons from harm. In short, magic powers were invested in them.

In the Abrahamic traditions image avoidance is sometimes couched as a rejection of idolatry, holding that images were tainted by their role in polytheistic cults. Just as statues of pagan deities ("cult images") functioned as rallying points for those faiths, so did monotheism’s hostility and rejection serve to set its adherents apart. To be sure, in the Abrahamic religions distrust of images was a kind of back-handed complement: the objects were feared because they were potentially powerful, as reservoirs of some malevolent force. Images were genuinely “awful” or “dreadful,” in the original senses of the terms. Over the centuries this fear and aversion has fostered episodes of actual image breaking.


A perennial theme of all three Abrahamic religions has been preoccupation with land. Combining with the “us-them” dynamic, this drive has all too often meant the subjugation or displacement of groups perceived as alien. This pattern is evident in the ethnic cleansing (and in at least one case genocide) that were part and parcel of the ancient Israelites' acquisition of the Promised Land.

Through a process of sacralizatiion, particular portions of he Middle East have been marked off as Holy Lands. Questionable though it may be, this fetishizing of parts of the planet’s surface has proved a powerful motive for pilgrimage, both Christian and Muslim. The lure is not always benign. The Christian Crusades may be regarded as a form of armed pilgrimage. These incursions also rank as precursors of the later imperialist appropriation of foreign lands.

Ethnic cleansing was integral to the emergence of Spain as a completely Christian kingdom. Some policies of the state of Israel today bear a disturbing resemblance to the violent precedents recorded in the Hebrew Bible.


In the Judaeo-Christian tradition(s) the expression “the Law” characterizes the “revelation of the will of God” set forth in the Hebrew Bible. Among Jews this meaning applies particularly to the Pentateuch (the Torah in the strict sense).

More generically, “Jewish law” serves to render the Halakha, a set of obligatory principles that guide not only religious practices and beliefs, but numerous aspects of day-to-day life. The Halakah comprises not only the laws described in the Torah, but also the 613 commandments, later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions, (A more literal translation of Halakha might be "the path" or "the way of walking;" the word derives from a Hebrew root meaning to go or to walk.)

These usages are of considerable interest in their own right. Yet the main purpose of this chapter is to examine the role of law in the strict sense of the term in Judaism, Christianity (including canon law), and Islam (sharia), with due attention to the broader legal and cultural context.


The Hebrew Bible severely restricts the collection of interest on loans (usury). This negativity has passed into both Christianity and Islam. Since advanced economies can only flourish with some forms of money lending, various pretexts and devices have been advanced in the Abrahamic traditions to limit the restrictions on usury.

Of particular interest are Muslim banking practices, which have created elaborate stratagems to blunt the prohibition of usury in their tradition.


These terms derive from modern comparative studies, especially in the field of anthropology. A fetish is an object or practice that is the subject of great (perhaps irrational) devotion. The fetish object is often regarded as a site of mana, a Polynesian term for a special indwelling potency or charisma thought to confer special benefits. Taboo, also a term of Polynesian origin, refers to objects and situations that must be avoided as dangerous, possibly life-threatening.

In an extended sense the terms fetish and taboo refer not just to things, but to behavior. Some types of behavior are required, others are forbidden. Over time the three Abrahamic faiths came to treat a wide variety of actions and rituals as either obligatory or prohibited.


A common feature of the Abrahamic religions is their preoccupation with regulating human behavior. This drive has engendered complex codes stipulating both mandatory and forbidden acts. Human nature is such that some are attracted to such strictures: these individuals seek authoritative guidance and have a fear of freedom. Yet this regulatory tendency clashes with modern secularism with its emphasis on choice, diversity, and freedom of thought. This conflict has been one of the main reasons for the fact that religion has become problematic in modern life.

Historically, a major emphasis of the social-control apparatus in the Abrahamic religions has concerned gender relations, specifically in the interest of maintaining the subordination of women.


Comparative study shows that all three of the major monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have, at one time or the other, indicated disapproval of same-sex love and its expression. Religiously based, this sex negativity has undeniably bolstered antihomosexual attitudes in the societies that have felt the imprint of these influential systems of belief. 

Even so, one must acknowledge that such negative results are not inevitable and unalterable, as is shown by the fact that today major branches of Judaism and Christianity have embraced more positive views, some actually welcome the participation of gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy.

Moreover, the different varieties of religiously-based negativity show less continuity than one might expect. The disapproval of same-sex behavior found in the New Testament (as seen for example in Romans 1:26-27 and First Corinthians 6:9-10) does not closely track seemingly analogous passages in the Hebrew Bible (most notably in Leviticus 18 and 20). In reality, the two antihomosexual traditions seem almost independent of one another. For their part, the Qur’anic prohibitions do not directly correspond to any of these Biblical “proof texts”, although they do draw on the story of Lot and Sodom from the book of Genesis.

These differences in detail notwithstanding, the overall concordance of the three religions in condemning homosexual behavior is striking.


From a purely empirical standpoint history would appear to display a random, unpredictable sequence of events. Yet many observers are dissatisfied with this common-garden version of chaos theory. In this view, there must be a pattern or patterns--but of what sort?

In fact, the comparative analysis of historical templates discloses two dominant schemes. 1) In the linear scheme events unfold in accordance with a single time-line which has a beginning, an extended middle, and an end. Holding that the future is unknowable, some traditions are agnostic about the latter, though an end point (regardless of its timing) would seem likely. 2) Then there is the cyclical scheme. In this view, there is probably no original beginning or final end; things keep repeating themselves in a kind of eternal return. The first pattern is generally characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, while the second is found in Hindu and Buddhist thought. (It was also championed in different form by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Another issue is time scale. According to the Biblical world view, the cosmos originated a mere 6000 years ago. Many believers, who have sought to come to terms with the findings of modern science, accept that universe requires a much longer timeline. Allowing for the twelve billion or so years that would be required (a big concession), they find common ground with secular scientists in assuming that matters started at a particular point.

1. Unity and Diversity

The Abrahamic faiths show many parallels, but also differences. This introductory chapter seeks to do justice to both.


Prior to the emergence of the expression "Abrahamic religions," two major models arose, addressing the perceived affinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are the tropes of (1) the Three Rings and (2) the Three Imposters.

1) The Three Rings concept occurs in several medieval texts, notably Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1350). The gist of Boccaccio's Tale of the Three Rings (I, 3) is as follows. The great Muslim leader Saladin summoned Melchizedek, a wealthy Jew, to his palace. The sultan posed an alarming question: “Which of the three great religions is the truly authentic one--Judaism, Christianity, or Islam?" Melchizedek paused before answering. "That is an excellent question, my lord. I can best explain my views on the subject with the following story. Once there was once a wealthy man whose most cherished possession was a precious ring. He bequeathed this ring to one of his sons, and with this talisman the latter took his place as the head of family. Succeeding generations followed this tradition, with the principal heir always inheriting the prized ring from his father. And yet the ring finally came into the possession of a man who had three sons, each the equal of the others in obedience, virtue, and worthiness. Unwilling to favor one son over the others, the father had a jeweler make two perfect copies of the valued ring, and he bequeathed a ring to each son. Following the father's death, each son laid claim to the deceased man's title and estate, proffering his ring as proof. Alas, a careful inspection of the three rings failed to reveal which was the authentic one, so the three sons' claims remain unresolved.”

The same is true, Melchizedek averred, with the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The adherents of each firmly believe themselves to be the sole legitimate heirs of God's truth. The matter of which one is right must remain in abeyance.

Note that the original ring was not a "magic ring" that could confer invisibility or grant wishes, but a kind of title to the family fortune. It is the symbolism of the ring (and rings) that is important in this context. A remarkable feature of the parable is that it assumes that the three rival faiths are equal in dignity, in accordance with the identical appearance of the rings. As a rule, adherents of each religion recognize the kinship only grudgingly, serving at best as a prelude to denigrating their rivals’ case. Over the centuries, Jews have tended to regard Christianity (and later Islam) as usurpers. Christians have remained confident that their own faith superseded its Judaic predecessor, while regarding Islam as a heretical aberration. For their part, Muslims believed in a dual supersessionism: hopelessly corrupted with the passage of time, both Judaism and Christianity could rank only as inadequate approximations of the true faith.

In modern times the ring parable resurfaced during the Enlightenment. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing of Hamburg was responsible for bringing it back. Lessing’s play “Nathan the Wise” (Nathan der Weise; 1779) is a plea for religious tolerance. Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, the play describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and a certain Templar Knight seek to bridge the chasms separating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The play’s centerpiece is the ring parable: Nathan proffers it when Saladin challenges him to say which religion is true.

Initially the German writer's presentation follows Boccaccio's story line. However, according to Lessing the original ring had a secret power to make its wearer beloved of God and men. The father with the three obedient sons duly had two copies made, giving each son a ring. After the brothers quarreled over who owned the true ring, a learned judge admonished them that there was no way to know. In fact, all three rings may be fakes, the real one having vanished long ago. If that was so, none of the existing rings was imbued with the secret power of winning the favor of God and men. But there was no reason for despair. The judge advised that, even granting that one's ring was a fake, each son could live in such an exemplary fashion that it seemed that the ring's power was working. Undoubtedly, Lessing, a religious skeptic, was putting his own spin on the story. He hints that the lost archetypal ring was the emblem of the true religion. But that primordial faith is gone, so we must make do with what we have.

Be that as it may, whether we adopt Boccaccio's version (real rings) or Lessing's version (fake rings,possibly), the lesson of the parable is the same: the similarity of the three rings symbolizes the kinship of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Therein lies a significant problem, though, for despite all their commonalities, the three religions show significant, even glaring differences. They are not identical. Another drawback attending this model of affinity is that, as inert physical objects, the rings remain forever the same; by contrast, all living religions change and evolve over time.

There is yet another issue, which concerns to the scope of our investigation. Assuming the viability of such an inquiry, the question of "which religion is true?" calls for a much broader approach. One would have to include the claims of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, animism, and others. That means a perspective in terms of the modern discipline of comparative religion (Prothero, 2010).

These limitations help to explain why the ring-parable concept, originating in the middle ages and creatively revived by Lessing, has pretty much faded away. It had ceased to be useful.

2) Another motif casts a very different light. This is the “equal-opportunity offender” notion of the three impostors: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. The motif’s locus classicus, as it were, is a Latin text that probably originated in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, “De Tribus Impostoribus.” The text found favor with a number of leading figures of the Enlightenment, notably Voltaire.

The kernel of the idea has been traced to Western Europe in the thirteenth century, when the Dominican Thomas of Cantimpré (1201-1272) mentioned it in his allegory “De Apibus” (On Bees). This author attributed the blasphemous notion to canon Simon of Tournai (who flourished 1184-1200), suggesting that the motif was in common circulation at the time. In 1239, in fact, Pope Gregory IX accused Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen of maintaining that the world had been duped by the three impostors, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Of course, this accusation does not prove that the emperor actually held this view, simply that it served as a pretext for smear tactics. (Minois, 2009.)

Despite their piquant charm, neither the benign three-rings parable nor the disparaging three-impostors slogan had any lasting effect on the conceptualization of the kinship of the religious threesome. Instead, awareness of the kinship has tended to linger, unanalyzed, in our collective unconscious. We have a "hunch" that the three faiths share a lot in common. Yet with increasing advances in scholarship it is possible to give substance to this intuition.


The expression "Abrahamic religions" (also known as Abrahamic faiths, Abrahamic traditions, and the religions of Abraham) designates the ostensibly monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, emphasizing their common origin and values. For more than 1300 years their histories and thought have been intertwined, linked to one another via ”family likeness” and certain theological commonalities. However, relationships among them have varied from time and place and have often been characterized by mistrust and contempt, even warfare and persecution. One need only recall the Crusades; the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Christian Spain; the humiliations historically inflicted on Jews and Christians in Islamic countries (what is sometimes termed dhimmitude); the Arab-Israeli conflict; and today’s jihadist violence.

Textually, the meme of the "Abrahamic religions" stems from a term of Islamic origin, the Millat Ibrahim. Yet in Muslim usage the term is not ecumenical, because only Islam is seen as truly adhering to the "Faith of Abraham." The term serves to convey the Muslim claim to be returning to the pure monotheism ostensibly practiced by Abraham, cleansing this heritage of distortions and accretions introduced by Jews and Christians. There is also a traditional assertion of the Arab relationship to Abraham through the patriarch’s son Ishmael. While the Qur’an does not name the child whom Abraham was about to sacrifice, Muslims generally hold that it was Ishmael, while Jews and Christians retain the biblical view that the boy was Isaac. For his part, the apostle Paul referred to Abraham as a "father in faith” (Romans 4:11).

A pioneering advocate of the concept of the Abrahamic religions in the West was the French Orientalist and mystic Louis Massignon (1883-1962). While he remained a Catholic all his life, even taking holy orders towards the end, Massignon was strongly drawn to Islam. He composed a syncretistic work entitled Les trois prières d'Abraham (1930). Massignon’s labors became the precursor of a somewhat quixotic effort to merge the three faith, an endeavor that surfaces from time to time.

The book of Genesis depicts Abraham as the ancestor of the Israelites in a lineage that passed through his son Isaac, born to Sarah, as Ishmael was born to his concubine Hagar. Challenging the traditional view, modern scholars have cast doubt on the very existence of Abraham. However, this phantom status need stand in the way of our using the term “Abrahamic religions.” In fact, we refer to the "Orphic hymns" and “Ossianic poetry,” even though no such persons as the fabled Orpheus and the legendary Ossian ever actually existed.

Despite its current upsurge in popularity, the Abrahamic label has not found universal acceptance. Some observers hold that the term is unhelpful because it exaggerates the degree of historical and theological continuity linking the three faiths.

There is some truth in this objection. Close examination reveals that any wholesale assumption of commonality is indeed problematic, for it elides many key differences. For example, the core Christian beliefs of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and Jesus’ Resurrection are emphatically rejected by Judaism and Islam. For their part, Christians have discarded the Jewish dietary laws and the requirement for male circumcisions. Yet Muslims retain these observances. Islam honors the Jewish prophets and Jesus, but holds that their teachings have been surpassed by the truths vouchsafed to Muhammad, the Messenger of God.

Still, as will be seen at various points throughout this book, there remains considerable overlap.


Today the triad of the Abrahamic faiths has spread over much of the surface of the earth. Adhesion to one of the three, at least nominally, characterizes Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, much of Africa, and virtually all of the Americas. Only East Asia, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and the Hindu parts of India and Nepal remain immune, or largely so.

Still, a question remains. In an objective analysis, are we justified in confining our attention to the Big Three Abrahamics, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? Perhaps not, for there have been, and perhaps still are, other viable candidates for Abrahamic status. Here are three examples.

1) Manichaeanism prospered during the period stretching from the third to the seventh centuries CE. Manichaean churches and scriptures proliferated in a vast territory stretching from the Roman Empire as far as China. Southern China seems to have been the last stronghold of the faith, which faded away after the fourteenth century,

Mani, its founder, lived between 216 and 276 CE. His father Pattig was a member of the Syrian Christian sect of the Elcesaites. After experiencing mystical experiences, Mani underwent the influences of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, Indeed, one key tenet of the faith reflects the heritage of Zoroastrian dualism: its elaborate cosmology portrays the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.

Mani was executed by the Parthian ruler Bahram I. Mani’s followers depicted his death as a crucifixion analogous to the death of Christ. Manichaeans claimed to be Christian, but it is clear that theirs was a composite faith. Thus it may deserve recognition as an autonomous Abrahamic religion. If so, though, it is a dead one.

2) The Bahá'í faith is a monotheistic religion founded by the Persian savant Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), who stressed the spiritual unity of all humankind. The Bahá'í faith understands religious history as having unfolded through a series of divine messengers. These messengers have included Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others--most recently Bahá’u’lláh. This idea of a succession of prophets recalls Islam, though Bahá’i adherents--and Muslims--strongly believe that the two are distinct. Today there are an estimated five to six million Bahá'ís around the world.

3) Mormonism (more properly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) stems from an 1820 vision in upstate New York in which two celestial personages appeared to Joseph Smith. The faith has its own scripture, the Book of Mormon, ostensibly translated by Smith. Some Mormons claim that they are Christians, though many Christians doubt this. Worldwide, there are more than thirteen million Mormons.

Further study of these and other Abrahamic faiths and offshoots would be rewarding. However, that task will not be essayed here. Our remit is to examine the historic record of the Big Three.


This study addresses both sides of the coin: similarities--reflecting shared heritage and borrowings--as well as differences and conflicts. Put differently, there are both links and breaks. For this study, “Abrahamic” serves as a useful umbrella term. Properly used, the concept opens vistas affording many useful comparisons.

After these necessary caveats, we turn to some proposed common features. As F. E. Peters (1982) has observed, the three great faiths called Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their origins to a legend that each remembers as a moment in history, when God appeared to a Bronze Age sheikh named Abram, binding him in a covenant forever. Abram is the later Abraham, the father of all believers. This legendary figure functions as the linchpin of the faith(s). To these remote origins, so it is thought, attaches the primordial theology from which the three communities of God's worshipers emerged. In the mainstream traditions of each faith the origins of monotheism are commonly, albeit implausibly, ascribed to the time of Abraham.

All three religions (the A-team, as it were) claim to be monotheistic, worshiping an exclusive God, though one known by different names. This tendency to differentiation appears at the outset in the foundational Hebrew scriptures, which alternate between Yahweh and Elohim. For all three religions, God is an activist figure: he creates, rules, reveals, loves, hates, broods, judges, punishes, ponders, and forgives.

The common ground seems impressive. Yet mainstream Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity clashes with the stricter Jewish and Muslim concepts of monotheism. Those faiths reject the Incarnation of God in Christ, a pivotal concept in the Christian religion. Although Christians maintain that they do not believe in three gods, but in three personalities in one God, the Trinity concept remains problematic, not to say repugnant, for the other two. In addition, recent scholarship has detected substantial residues of polytheism in the early history of Israel. For these reasons, Muslims have some justification in holding that theirs is the only pure monotheism.


According to tradition, Jerusalem became Judaism's holy city over three thousand years ago. (Archaeology has failed to confirm this early date, but traditionalists cling to it, regardless.) Jews pray in the direction of the city; mention its name constantly in prayers; close the Passover service with the wistful aspiration "Next year in Jerusalem”; and recall the city in the blessing at the end of each meal. Today, Jerusalem ranks as the sole capital of a Jewish state, though this special role is challenged by the Arab Muslims and Christians who continue to live there. In fact, the city is prominent in the itineraries of both Christian and Muslim pilgrimage.

For several centuries during Late Antiquity, Palestine--with its numerous holy sites associated with the Savior--was essentially a Christian country. There had been a continuous Christian presence there since the time of the Apostles. According to the New Testament, Jerusalem was the city to which Jesus was brought as a child to be presented at the Temple (Luke 2:22) and for the feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41). He preached and healed in Jerusalem; cleansed the Temple there; held the Last Supper in an upper room there; and was arrested in Gethsemane. The six parts making up Jesus’ trial—three stages in a religious court and three stages before a Roman court—all took place in Jerusalem. His crucifixion at Golgotha, his burial nearby and his resurrection, ascension, and prophecy of return--all are said to have occurred there.

In Galatians 4:21-31 we are told of two brides (Hagar and Sarah) who correspond to two cities: physical and heavenly Jerusalem. This contrast gave rise to a vast body of medieval allegory concerning the Heavenly Jerusalem.

In the course of the seventh century CE, Jerusalem (al Quds) became a holy place for Muslims, ranking third only after Mecca and Medina. This eminence was somewhat unexpected, for Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Qur'an and did not play the special role it was to enjoy in Islam until a considerable time after Muhammad's death. However, the first Muslims did not pray towards Mecca, but to Jerusalem. Since 691 the Dome of the Rock, built by Byzantine architects, has formed the centerpiece of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. According to legend, this is the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven mounted on his steed Buraq.

In summary, Jerusalem has tended to divide as much as unite. In recent decades its status as a source of conflict among the three faiths has become acute.


Several shared theological themes pervade the Abrahamic faiths. All three religions affirm one personal eternal God. Having created a contingent universe, this deity providentially rules history, occasionally dispatching prophetic and angelic messengers, and revealing the divine will through inspired Scriptures.

The concept of history that all three observe is linear and teleological: history has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In no wise random, the sequence of historical development was set in motion by the deity, and it moves on a track that is constantly guided by his providence. While the details of things to come are somewhat murky and controversial--at least in terms of our limited human understanding--history is inexorably advancing towards an eschaton, or predetermined goal. Hence the use of the term eschatology for this concluding sequence (see Chapter 14). We may be assured that one day God will decisively intervene again in human history, on the Day of Judgment. On that occasion--the end point of history as we know it--he will assign all human beings their eternal place in Heaven or Hell. (Most Jews dissent from these last claims.)

The theological continuity among the A-three is striking. By way of comparison, the great religions of South and East Asia, the dominant schools of Greek philosophy, not to speak of modernity, and postmodernity--in short almost all other religious and philosophical systems--cannot claim this intensity of doctrinal overlap. Some would say that the autonomy of these other traditions counts to their advantage.

However that may be, there are substantial elements of agreement among the three A’s. Abrahamic adherents assume as a matter of course that God has guided humanity’s path through revelation. Each religion recognizes that God revealed teachings up to and including those embodied in their own scriptures. By the same token, each decisively rejects revelations claimed by its successors. Jews hold, for example, that God guided Melchizedek, Abraham, and their successors, but recognize no prophets accepted by other religions after them. Christians honor the Hebrew prophets and scripture, but reject Islam's Prophet and scriptures. Islam grants that God provided guidance for Jews and Christians for a time. However, the precepts conveyed under this dispensation must be understood in the light of Islam’s own perceived revelations.

The three religions claim a common ethical orientation. All three stress the need for the believer to chose between good and evil, a choice governed by the demands of a single God and what is thought to be divine law.

All three religions make sharp distinctions between approved and prohibited conduct with regard to sex and the family. They concur in condemning homosexual conduct. In modern times, this agreement regarding same-sex behavior has given rise to the myth that condemnation of homosexuality is a cultural universal. That generalization is signal instance of the error of projecting Abrahamic particularism onto the rest of the world.

A Semitic heritage is common to all. In so far as linguistic history can be reconstructed, it suggests that the languages that served to birth the Abrahamic religions stem from a single source tongue: proto-Semitic. While the New Testament is written in Greek (perhaps conceived in part in Aramaic), Christianity arose from Judaism, a quintessentially Semitic religion.

Since the time of Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the common heritage of the desert has been emphasized; hence the expression “desert monotheism.” Yet several qualifications are in order. Recent scholarship denies the historicity of the exodus story as narrated in the Pentateuch. In this light, it may be that the image (or if you will, illusion) of the desert experience is more important for Judaism than its purported historical reality. Apart from hermit John the Baptist, a somewhat puzzling precursor, Christianity first prospered mainly in the settled towns of Judea and Galilee and not in the desert. In addition, recent research has suggested that even Islam owes its vitality more to the fertile strip of northern Arabia than to the arid central regions of the peninsula.

As we have had occasion to note, the overlaps are impressive. Yet the very significant differences must not be elided. Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ are incompatible with both Judaism and Islam. Without the Incarnation Christianity is meaningless. For Muslims and Jews the Christian belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the Son of God, yet one with him, is alien and unacceptable. For their own part, Christians find Islamic and Jewish beliefs about Jesus stunted and insufficient, even heretical.

The points made in the preceding paragraphs will probably meet general acceptance among those who have adopted the comparative approach to the Abrahamic faiths. In keeping with much recent work, this survey has scanted the darker side. This must now be addressed.


First is the factor that Jan Assmann has termed the “Mosaic Exception.” That is that the monotheism ostensibly introduced by Moses has been accompanied by a long and distressing history of intolerance and violence. Today commonly associated with Christians in the recent past and with Muslims in the present, these evils in fact found their origin in the world of the Hebrew bible. In different ways all three faiths show a disconcerting ability at various points of their history to seek to compel belief--their belief and none other. In the historical record there is discordance and concordance in the observance of the Mosaic Exception. Exterior circumstances have, from time to time, limited its application. Still, the connection of monotheism to intolerance and violence is part of the very DNA of the Abrahamic triad.

Another negative feature is the toleration of slavery that has marred all three religions, not just at their inception but through much of their later history. To be sure, slavery characterized many, perhaps most ancient societies, including such paragons of civilization as ancient Greece and ancient China. Yet if the appearance of Yahweh-worship actually introduced a higher morality in the world shouldn’t it have banned slavery at the outset?

Then there the issue of the three scriptures themselves. Not only are they composite in the way that modern scholarship has shown, but each offers an amalgam of myth and historical data (with the latter often presented selectively and defectively). Yet the resulting mixtures are simply called Truth by those who say that they are following them. As the remainder of this chapter, and this book as a whole will show, the logical status of all of the Abrahamic scriptures has been gravely compromised--if not demolished--by scholarly advances on a variety of points.

All in all, the preceding account has been something of a seesaw, alternating between concordance and discordance. While it may seem somewhat confusing, this duality must be constantly born in mind in reading the following sections and chapters of this book.


We turn now briefly to some recent contributions touching on the Abrahamic threesome.

The beginning of the twenty-first century has seen the rise of a new militant form of atheism, very different in tone from the tradition personified by the urbane Baron d’Holbach in the eighteenth century. The implicit target of the New Atheists is the three Abrahamic religions--with other faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, and the like only noted in passing, if at all. A new militancy characterizes the bestsellers due to such authors as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, who seem surprised and dismayed at the persistence of theism. Vigorously worded, these volumes have achieved wide readership--at least among the intelligentsia in a society where serious readers are few. In my view, the New Atheist writers fail to provide the necessary close-grained analysis of the actual doctrines of the Abrahamic faiths. For his reason their work cannot constitute a platform for further study. One must either embrace their dismissal whole hog or reject it.

No aspersions of superficiality can be cast at the vast three-part fresco of the Swiss Hans Küng (1992, 1994, 2007), a distinguished Roman Catholic professor of theology, now retired from the University of Tübingen. Challenging the common error that ascribes unchanging essences to religions, Küng espouses the device of successive paradigms as the key to tracing their evolution over time. (The paradigm gambit derives from the American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.) In the unfolding of Christendom, for example, Küng discerns 1) the Jewish apocalyptic paradigm of earliest Christianity; 2) the ecumenical Hellenistic paradigm of Christian antiquity; 3) the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm; 4) the Reformation Protestant paradigm; 5) the paradigm of modernity focused on reason and progress; and 6) the paradigm of a postmodern period which is taking shape.

The Swiss thinker’s magnum opus distills an enormous amount of reading and thinking, incorporating, to the best of his ability, much earlier work by others. Nonetheless, his inquiry responds to what he views as a contemporary imperative: to advance the cause of dialogue in the interests of world peace. As a guide, he offers the following mantra: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.” (Küng, 2007, p. xxiii) . Somewhat grandiosely, he believes that the world is faced with a stark choice: we must either embrace his program of constructive dialogue or resign ourselves to endless discord and warfare.

Are there only two choices? Alas, human affairs are rarely so simple. Muddled though they may be from his perspective, there may be other, more likely paths.

Küng’s project is avowedly present-minded. As he states, “I am not writing this book as a cultural historian or a historian of religion, or as a historian of politics and law. I am writing it in order to help people to engage in dialogue in this decisive transitional phase [the early twenty-first century] towards a new relationship between the civilizations, religions and nations, so that whether they are Christian, Muslim or secular; politicians, business leaders or culture-makers; teachers, clergy or students, they may be able to assess the world situation and react to it better.” (Küng, 2007, p. xxvi).

Clearly this ambitious approach is a worthy one. One problem, though, is that Küng tends to give each religion the benefit of the doubt, seeing each as having a valid, even humanistic core, which we can readily separate from the exaggerations of fanatics, who do not represent the “true faith.” In this way he echoes the distinction that some observe between Christianity (good) and Christianism (bad); Islam (good) and Islamism (bad). This separation seems convenient, all-too-convenient. What if the views of the fanatics, some of them at least, are part of the core and not exotic outliers?

To be candid, the distinction between the beneficent core and the noxious accretions is redolent of Pollyannaism, perhaps even of the credulity of Candide himself. To understand all, the French proverb tells us, is to forgive all. This is nonsense. I would point out that there can be no progress, no rest in the quest for truth, until the adherents of all three Abrahamic religions show a sustained commitment to ridding their heritage of the vast deposits of superstition and fabrication, of intolerance and fanaticism that have persistently blighted their endeavors. These horrors are not just a matter of the past, for they survive and are even celebrated in many religious quarters today.

Also worthy of note is a less ponderous work of synthesis produced by an American independent scholar, Robert Wright. This engaging writer has done his homework by consulting some of the sophisticated products of contemporary scholarship (Wright, 2009). After some preliminary discussion of primitive religions (“animism” or as he prefers, “shamanism”), Wright turns to his main theme, the grand Abrahamic pageant. While he recognizes that religious beliefs must be examined in their own terms, he believes that their origins and development respond to changing circumstances in the real world, including economics, politics, and relations among peoples. His approach has a strong evolutionary bent, for he suggests that, like organisms, religions respond adaptively to their world. This process results in a gradual transformation of religion from its early crude beginnings to a steadily growing state of refinement. This process of improvement is what is meant by the “Evolution of God.”

Not unlike Küng, Wright believes that his findings will help to remove misunderstandings that are a source of contention among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Yet his effort to be agreeable, and to forge consensus by a display of reasonableness, seems a little naive.


Destremau, Christian, and Jean Moncelon, Louis Massignon. Paris: Plon, 1994.

Harpigny, Guy. Islam et christianisme selon Louis Massignon. Louvain-la-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1981.

Küng, Hans. Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow. New York: Crossroad, 1992.

----. Christianity: Essence, History, and Future. New York: Continuum, 1994.

----. Islam: Past, Present, and Future. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.

Minois, Georges. Le traité des trois imposteurs: histoire d'un livre blasphématoire qui n'existait pas, Paris: Albin Michel, 2009.

Peters, F. E. Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: Harper, 2010.

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown, 2009.


In the following chapters, emphasis falls on the prescriptive, often repressive aspects of the Abrahamic faiths. These are indeed salient. Still, there is another side of the coin: the creative harvest of these traditions in literature, music, and the visual arts. (There are also significant effects in the sphere of political theory and action.)

The positive contribution must be presented with some qualifications. Laudable as the cultural achievements are, most of them are, to be blunt, in the past tense. Today we cherish them as historical landmarks and not, for the most part, as components of living traditions. The explanations for this decline are complex, but one such reason, surely, is that they depended on a credulous and precritical understanding of the Abrahamic scriptures and the associated institutional structures that enforced them as norms. Then was then, and now is now. Such religion-based cultural endeavors are no longer in synch with the cyberuniverse that has come to dominate the twenty-first century.

In what follows I note, in the briefest possible compass, some salient aspects of this religion-based heritage. First come the cultural contribitions, with a brief discussion of political effects at the end.

1. Literature. The Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, to take one example, drew upon the imagery and prosody of the Hebrew Bible. Yet prior to modern times, their writings had little impact outside of Jewish circles.

More massive was the impress on literature in Indo-European languages, those in use among Christian peoples. Already in pagan times, Longinus had noted the sublime effect of of one Biblical phrase: "Let there be light." In a different way, Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate introduced a new appreciation of simple, humble discourse, the Sermo Humilis, as Erich Auerbach has shown. Later, this text served as the vehicle for the first great monument of the art of printing, the Gutenberg Bible of 1450-55,

In the evolution of English literature, the King James version of the Bible (1611) ranks as the single most important influence. Three major poems of John Milton (1608-1674)--Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes--revisit Biblical subjects.

Yet the formal properties of the Hebrew Bible were not fully appreciated until the analysis of Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787). In 1754 he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by Oxford University, for his treatise on Hebrew poetry entitled Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews). Lowth seems to have been the first modern Bible scholar to have observed the poetic structure of the Psalms and much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Lecture 19 he sets forth the classic statement of parallelism which still today is the most fundamental category for understanding Hebrew poetry. He identifies three forms of parallelism, the synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic (i.e. balance only in the manner of expression without either synonymy or antithesis).

In modern times, the free verse of Walt Whitman stands out as as an influential exemplar of dependence on Hebrew poetry--mediated of course by the King James Version.
In Britain his contemporary John Ruskin ranks, according to Michael Wheeler, as "perhaps the most Biblically literate of all nineteenth-century writers. Other echoes have been recognized in Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and countless others.

2. Music. Quite naturally, the liturgy of the synagogue migrated into the monodic early Christian chant. Later, beginning in the twelfth century, Leoninus and his successor Perotinus, both associated with Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, introduced polyphony, a revolutionary achievement.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arguably the supreme composer of the Western tradition, preeminently composed Christian choral music (his B-minor mass, passions, and cantatas). Hymns, spirituals, and the "Gospel Sound" spread Biblical and Christian themes on the popular level.

Today, the influence of religion is less evident in classical music. Yet two living composers, the Estonian Arvo Pärt and the Englishman John Tevener, have achieved striking effects by returning to older religious modes.

3. Architecture. The emperor Constantine’s adaptation of the Roman basilica type set the course for all subsequent church architecture in the West, a tradition that achieved its highest flowering in the Gothic cathedrals (ca. 1150-1550).

4. Representational arts. In part based on Jewish exemplars, early Christian iconography became the norm for narrative cycles for at least one thousand years. These effects may be seen today in frescoes on church walls, panel paintings, metalwork, and monumental sculpture. Biblical scenes are central to the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and countless other artists.

5. Film. At one time the genre of Biblical films occupied an important place in Hollywood’s array of production. For example, Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur has been filmed at least three times (1907, 1925, and 1959). Probably the supreme example of a religious blockbuster was The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille’s tour de force.

Twenty years later the mood had decidedly changed, witness Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Based on the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice musical, this entertainment gave a counterculture twist to the genre. This was followed by Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which was decidedly irreverent. Finally, in 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s controversial vision of the death of Jesus, seemed to have given new vitality to the genre of religion-themed films, but the effect did not prove lasting.

6. Islam and its arts. During the nineteenth century, Western awareness of Islam was mainly evident in the picturesque canvases of the Orientalist painters. In the following century, however, there was greater appreciation for the nonrepresentational works of the minor arts of Islam as seen in tiles, metalwork, carpets, and other such objects.


There is one other sphere, too vast to be adequately covered here, in which religion has made important positive contributions. That is the religious impetus in the area of social change.

I begin with a somewhat remote example, the career of Pope Gregory VII, who died in 1085. Following in the path of some earlier reformers, Gregory confronted head-on the problem of imperial domination of the church, and by extension the whole of Western European society. He engaged Emperor Henry IV in a fundamental power struggle, with the aim of making the papacy supreme, not the imperial power. The result, fortunately for society, was a kind of compromise in which the principle of separation of powers emerged. Today, the churches have (or should have) withdrawn from institutional participation in public life, but the principle of separation of powers is enshrined in the institutions of the United States government.

Another major issue is that of slavery. To be sure, the Bible has been used to defend the practice of chattel slavery. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, a group of courageous prelates in England began to call for the end of the slave trade, on the grounds that all individuals are equally children of God. This tradition was picked up and enhanced by the Abolitionists in North America. It reemerged later in the modern civil rights movement, where a major, probably indispensable role was played by Dr. Martin Luther King and other black clergy.

REFERENCES (see also the items noted at the end of Chapter 7: "Images").

Grabar, André. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Princeton University Press, 1968.

Hamlin, Hannibal, and Norman W. Jones, eds. The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Hass, Andrew, David Jasper, and Elisabeth Jay, eds. The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kugel, James L. The Idea of Biblical Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Mitchell, Jolyon P., and S. Brent Plate, eds. The Religion and Film Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.

Murray, Peter, and Linda Murray. The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Page, Christopher. The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

2. Canons

Muslim tradition links the three major Abrahamic communities together under the rubric of the ahl al-kitab, people of the book. Each faith cherishes its own revered Scriptures; exceptionally, Christians have purloined the holy book of another faith (the Hebrew Bible), combining it with their own New Testament. In keeping with this bibliolatry, if it may be so termed, writing and literacy are highly prized in all three traditions.

Careful scrutiny reveals that the Abrahamic Scriptures display considerable internal variety. Disregarding this diversity, those who revere them maintain that they cohere completely and are therefore invariable. Scribes must take great care not to introduce, whether deliberately or inadvertently, any alteration. To be sure, even with the best of intentions on the part of the scribes, corruptions will appear from time to time. However, these must be relentlessly detected and corrected by later critics. Such, at any rate, is the ideal.

This ne varietur principle is pervasive. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 12:32) includes prohibitions against adding or subtracting. This admonition seems to apply not just to the book itself, but to the whole corpus ostensibly revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Contrast, for example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where there is no single recognized form; instead, the text might be enlarged or reduced according to the needs of each individual who commissioned a version of it.

Is this contrast really absolute? Skeptics might well say that originally all the Abrahamic scriptures probably had the same fluidity as the Book of the Dead. Once they were set in concrete, though, the composite nature of their origins could be forgotten.


Rabbinical tradition recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic recension as constituting the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. (This collection of texts corresponds to what Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament.)

In the rabbinical view, the texts comprise three main groups: the Torah proper (that is the Pentateuch); the Prophets (Nevi’im); and the Writings (Kertuvim), an umbrella term for all the rest, including Ezra, Chronicles, Nehemiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Psalms, Lamentation, the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, and the book of Daniel.

It is important to bear in mind that the order in which the books appear in modern Bibles offers no guidance as to when the books were originally written and in what order. For example, the Pentateuch was probably composed after a number of other books in the Hebrew canon. Similarly, in the New Testament the Four Gospels are clearly later in date than some of the letters of St. Paul that appear later in the sequence.

So when were the books of the Hebrew Bible assembled? A traditional theory, now largely abandoned, holds that the Pentateuch was canonized ca. 400 BCE, the Prophets ca. 200 BCE, and the Writings ca. circa 100 CE, at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia.

The second book of Maccabees, not itself a part of the Hebrew canon, states that Nehemiah (around 400 BCE) "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2:13-15). The Book of Nehemiah (8-9) suggests (or seems to suggest) that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Pentateuch back from Babylonia to Jerusalem in the same general time frame. Both 1 and 2 Maccabees indicate that Judas Maccabeus also collected sacred books (about 167 BCE). These hints do not suffice to prove that the Jewish biblical canon was fixed in the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. While these sources sustain the view that some held that the canon was closed, they do not particularize which books were included. There is no certainty that the roster was identical with what was later recognized as the Masoretic text.

The Septuagint, or simply LXX, is the name commonly given in the West to the translation into Koine Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures. The translation occurred in stages from the third to the first century BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. The roster of books accepted differs in some respects from the later Masoretic (Hebrew) canon, and some texts differ in length.

In its day the Septuagint enjoyed great prestige: Philo and Josephus (giants of Hellenistic Judaism) ascribed divine inspiration to its translators. The Old Latin versions of the Bible follow the Septuagint. In addition, the Septuagint served as the basis for Gothic, Slavonic, old Syriac, old Armenian, and Coptic versions of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint is quoted in the New Testament and by the Apostolic Fathers writing in the latter part of the first century and the second century CE.

At the beginning of the rabbinic era, in the third century CE, Jews abandoned this Greek rendering of their Scriptures. Yet recent scholarship has brought renewed interest in it in the field of Judaic Studies. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls provide Hebrew texts that differ from those represented in the Masoretic text; in some cases, these newly found texts accord with the Septuagint version, serving to vindicate it as the witness of an authentic tradition.

The first reference to a 24-book Jewish canon appears in 2 Esdras (a so-called Intertestamental text; 14:45-46), which was probably written in the first half of the second century CE: “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people.”

The short answer to the quest for the origin of the canon of the Hebrew Bible is that no one knows for sure. It may even have been the case that the idea of a definitive canon was not important to the early rabbis. They were satisfied that there were indeed certain holy books Moreover, the ranks were expanded to include the Mishnah, Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud (or Bavli), and the midrashim. Today, however, these texts are generally assigned to the Oral Torah, distinct from, but ostensibly concordant with the Written Torah or Tanakh.

The Masoretic text ranks as the authoritative Hebrew text of the Tanakh; this recension is almost universally accepted as the official version. It defines not just the books of the Jewish canon, but also the letter-text of the biblical books, including their vocalization and accentuation. The fact that help is supplied for pronunciation suggests that Hebrew had ceased to be a living language at the time of the compilation of the Masoretic text. This text is widely used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament found in Protestant Bibles, and in recent years (since 1943) also for some Catholic Bibles.

What is the origin of the Masoretic text? Between the seventh and tenth centuries CE, groups of learned Jews known as Masoretes copied, edited, and distributed this recension. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Masoretic text date from approximately the ninth century CE. Earlier versions, notably those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, differ from the Masoretic text in various details, showing that the latter is essentially a new edition, and not simply a faithful copy of some earlier authoritative text.


There are two issues here, because there were two canons. The first issue reflects the controversy as to whether the Christians were to accept the Hebrew Bible as scripture, however its contents were to be defined. The second concerns the formation of a distinctively Christian canon, that is, what we now term the New Testament. The first instance involves canon adoption; the second canon creation.

From its earliest days the Christian movement honored the Tanakh according to the canon of the Septuagint. That allegiance was mandatory for Jews of the time. Yet the apostles did not presume to set forth a new set of scriptures of their own. Instead, what came to be called the New Testament developed over time.

On an individual basis--and not as some carefully crafted series--the writings attributed to the apostles enjoyed wide popularity among the earliest Christian communities. Yet they were not destined to remain in this solo role, for it seems that the Pauline epistles were cobbled together as a set by the end of the first century CE. In the early second century Justin Martyr mentions the "memoirs of the apostles," which Christians called "gospels." In Justin’s time the view was gaining ground that this corpus deserved to take its place alongside the revered Hebrew Scriptures. Thus there emerged the concept, which remains unacceptable to most Jews, of the partnership of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Partnership, but not true equality, since the brash Christian contender speedily ascended to an extraordinary pinnacle. This enhancement occurred even though the newcomer was less than a third of the length of the Hebrew Scriptures. Learned Christians began to interpret the Old Testament teleologically as a kind of extended dress rehearsal for the new Christian creation. Only in recent times have scholars begun to recognize this view as a distortion, because it hinders the task of examining the earlier texts in the light of their own origins and meaning. In order to preserve this necessary autonomy the terms Hebrew Bible and Tanakh are now preferred to “Old Testament.”

Around 140 CE, the brilliant but wayward Christian scholar Marcion of Sinope offered a kind of sacred honor roll that included 10 epistles he ascribed to Saint Paul, as well as his own truncated version of the Gospels. He believed that the four Gospels could be boiled down to one, the Diatessaron.

The first major figure to essay in depth the task of codifying the Christian canon was the industrious Origen of Alexandria, a scholar well educated in both theology and pagan philosophy. Working in the early third century, Origen devised a canon that would include all of the books in the current Catholic roster except for four books: James, Second Peter, and the Second and Third Epistles of John. By contrast, Origen also included a text known as the Shepherd of Hermas, which was later rejected. Even though later scholars judged that he was not quite there yet, this accounting ranks as a major milestone in task of compiling the books and letters the Christian church was to recognize as its primary repository of authoritative and inspired teaching.

Somewhat earlier (ca. 160) Irenaeus of Lyon had offered strenuous arguments for a four-Gospel canon--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and this was generally accepted. Nonetheless, matters remained in flux in some time. Finally, in his Easter letter of 367 Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of the very books that are now accepted as the New Testament canon.

Some hesitation remained about the book of Revelation, but basically matters remained this way for more than a thousand years. Then the protestant Reformation, with its intense interest in interpretation and translation of the Holy Scriptures, unleashed some doubts and questioning. After much soul searching, Martin Luther attempted to exclude the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation from the New Testament canon (echoing the consensus of several Catholics, such as Cardinal Ximeniz, Cardinal Cajetan, and Erasmus), in part because they were perceived to go against the Protestant doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide (reliance upon scripture and faith). However, these exclusions were not generally accepted, even among his his followers. To this day though, these books are relegated to the last position in the German-language Luther Bible.

Printed Bibles in many languages had the effect of ratifying the traditional canon. Nonetheless, full dogmatic articulations of the canons were not made until the Council of Trent (1546) for Roman Catholicism, the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563) for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) for British Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) for Eastern Orthodoxy.


So matters stood until the latter part of the twentieth century, when scholars were increasingly drawn to examine the large body of non-canonical Christian literature. For example, we now have, in whole or in part, the texts o some eighteen “other” Gospels, in addition to the familiar four ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But what makes them so special? How do we know that those four--and only those four--belong in the Bible?

One can proceed to make alterations by compression as well as enlargement. As noted above, Marcion had attempted to create a kind of Reader’s Digest version, compressing them into one text. More recently, the American Jesus Seminar has attempted a kind of slimming down process, by questioning the authenticity of many passages. However, this approach is not really new, and the Seminar has issued publications that include the entire New Testament canon of books (and then some, as we shall see).

In other quarters, recent scholarship has seen a concerted (and seemingly fairly successful) effort to reconstruct the mysterious Q, a posited Gospel text that served, alongside Mark’s Gospel, as the basis for the narratives of Matthew and Luke. Yet since the material already appears embedded in accepted texts, the yield is not really new.

Matters are quite different with the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, a well- preserved text discovered in a cache of manuscripts secreted near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. This work is one of a group of books known as the Nag Hammadi library.

The Coptic-language text comprises 114 sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. Almost half of these sayings resemble those found in the canonical Gospels, while the other sayings were previously unknown. Some have described the inspiration of the Gospel of Thomas as gnostic, though others dispute this characterization.

Unlike the canonical Gospels, Thomss does not offer a narrative account of the life of Jesus; instead, it consists of logia (sayings) attributed to Jesus, sometimes presented as stand-alone items, sometimes embedded in short dialogues or parables. In logion 65, the text contains a possible allusion to the death of Jesus, but it does not specifically mention the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Daringly, the Jesus Seminar has printed the Gospel of Thomas on an equal footing with the traditional four (see Robert W. Funk, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper, 1999). In his ebullient set of translations entitled The Restored New Testament (New York: Norton, 2009), the polyglot translator Willis Barnstone goes farther, offering not only the Gospel of Thomas, but two other non-canonical Gospels, those of Mary Magdalene and Judas. (The latter, a sensational find, was only published in 2006.)

These adjuncts may have theological implications. If the canon is now malleable, interpreters are free to exclude as well as to include. In such choices theological considerations may play a role. For example, some feminist scholars have sought to bring to the fore certain texts in which women’s roles are more prominent. Thus far, though, such attempts to enlarge the canon have not found their way into standard editions of the Bible


Modern standard editions of the Qur’an comprise 114 suras (or chapters). After the first sura, they are arranged according to length, from the longest to the shortest.

Islam holds that in a series of charismatic sessions Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad orally through the angel Jibril (Gabriel) over a period of approximately twenty-three years, beginning in 610 CE, when the Prophet was forty, and concluding in 632 CE, the year of his death. Muslims further believe that the substance of the Qur’an was memorized, recited, and written down by Muhammad's companions after every revelation as dictated from memory by the Prophet. Seemingly, Muhammad (who may have been illiterate) approved the written form of the suras as they were read back to him. In addition, Muslim tradition holds that the suras were welded together into a single book--what we now know as the Qur’an--shortly after Muhammad's death by order of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, at the suggestion of his successor Umar. When Uthman, the third Caliph, noticed differences in the dialectical forms used of the Qur’an, he requested that Muhammad’s widow Hafsa provide him with her copy so that the text could be adjusted to as single standard based on the Quraish dialect (also known as Fus’ha, the basis for Modern Standard Arabic.) Because of this clear chain of transmission, we may rely on what is termed the “Uthmanic recension,” that is to say the authentic version known to Abu Bakr and Umar, with minor adjustments on purely linguistic grounds.

This is a reassuring story, but is it true? Modern scholarship suggests that some suras may incorporate pre-Islamic materials, some stemming from old Arabia, with other parts reflecting the adaptation of a lectionary in Syriac, a related Semitic language (Luxenberg, 2007). There may be other accretions added later. Thus the Qur’an is a composite that may not have reached its present form until at least a century after the death of the Prophet, perhaps even later.

In fact there is no critical edition of the Qur’an, and currently accepted versions rely upon a text published in Cairo in 1923. Finally, in 2007, a team of researchers at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences began preparing the first installment of Corpus Coranicum, purporting to be nothing less than the first critically evaluated text of the Qur'an ever to be produced. Headed by Professor Angelika Neuwirth of the Free University of Berlin, the German research team is in the process of analyzing and transcribing some 12,000 slides of Qur'an manuscripts that have survived from the first six centuries of Islam. This material stems from photographs collected before World War II by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl. The project is currently funded till 2025, but could well take longer to complete.

Once that task has been completed, the way will be open--in principle--to producing a reliable text that records and correlates the variants found in the early manuscripts. Such a project must needs encounter pressures, and there are indications that some bending to the demands of established Islamic opinion has already occurred. In this light some skepticism is warranted as to whether the aims of the ambitious Berlin-Brandenburg project will be fully attained.

At all events, interpretation of the holy work presents many difficulties. As is typical of early texts in Semitic languages, the earliest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. Not only are no vowels marked, many consonants can also be read in a number of ways due to the absence of diacritical marks. It is claimed that we can rely on the stability of the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. Comparative studies suggest, however, that oral traditions are anything but stable. They are unreliable because of the so-called “telephone effect,” in which each reciter tends to introduce, whether consciously or unconsciously, subtle changes that are in turn passed on to the next reciter. Nowadays this problem is obviated by the control of a standardized text, but this not available in the early decades. We are told that Muhammad was illiterate, and so too must have been many of his followers. So a good deal of variation must crept in between the time of the original recitations and the final emergence of a standardized text. Pious Muslims, claiming that the Qur’an is beyond critique, deny this possibility. However, objective scholarship must not be content with such taboos. One must go in whatever direction the evidence takes.

As we have it, the Qur'an is often highly obscure. The style is allusive, and the text employs expressions unfamiliar even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit. Some passages seem to present fragments wrested from a larger context that is no longer available. It has been estimated that about 20-25% of the text of the Qur’an is opaque or simply unintelligible.

One explanation that has been advanced for these hermetic features would be that the Prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious communities with which he was acquainted, descanting upon revered texts such as hymns, lectionaries, and prayers, many of theme derived from Syriac, a cognate Semitic language.

One scholar, Gerd Puin, has termed the Qur’an a “cocktail of texts.” If one assumes that the individual segments were produced individually over many generations--some perhaps originating a hundred years before Muhammad, others considerably after his death--the heterogeneity of these scriptures becomes understandable, even if one cannot adequately analyze the component liqueurs, as it were, that make up the cocktail.

In the present state of our knowledge it is not possible to answer these questions in any definitive manner. It would seem though the the traditional view will have to yield to some modification.

As we have indicated, everyone agrees that the order in which the suras appear is not the one in which they were delivered to Muhammad (granted for the purposes of argument that they came into being in the manner that tradition assumes). For some centuries Muslim scholars have recognized two groups, those delivered at Mecca, and those delivered after Muhammad moved to Medina in 632. In a series of refinements followed by many Western scholars today, the German Semitic scholar Theodor Nöldeke (1836-1930) sought to discern a number of subcategories in the corpus of Medinan suras. Both approaches assume as a matter of course that the suras making up the Qur’an all came into being in an orderly fashion over a period of twenty-three years. However, this traditional view may not be correct. In fact, it may be a “just-so” story.


The canon of the Hebrew Bible has been stable for many centuries. When one purchases a Jewish Bible, one may be certain of what one will get. However, the rabbis will also consult other documents, especially the Mishnah and Talmud, for guidance.

After some discussion, the early Christians adopted the Hebrew Bible in its Greek (Septuagint) guise, which they came to term the Old Testament. They then built up their own canon, the New Testament. Recent decades have seen some efforts to enlarge this specifically Christian canon by incorporating one or more of the "alternative" Gospels. The prospects of this attempt at canon massaging are uncertain.

The 114 suras of the Qur'an are accepted by all Muslims. While efforts are under way to create a critical edition, many believers regard this effort as superfluous--possibly even harmful.


Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. New York: Norton, 2009.

Elliott, J. K. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Fernandez Marcos, Natalio. The Septuagint in Context: Introduction to the Greek Versions of the Bible. Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Funk, Robert, ed. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.

Ibn Warraq, ed. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2007.

Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.

McDonald, Lee Martin, and James A. Sanders. The Canon Debate. Gaithersburg, MD: Hendrickson Publishing, 2002.

Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. New York: Harper, 2009.

Ohlig, Karl-Heinz and Gerd R. Puin, eds. The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2010.

Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed. The Qur'an in Its Historical Context. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

3. Historical-Critical Perspectives

Some two-thousand years ago the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria introduced an influential method of interpreting the Scriptures in terms of symbolism and allegory. Then, in the early third century, the Christian scholar Origen adapted the approach to Christian purposes. With many refinements, complications, and accretions, this largely fantastic exegetical method prevailed throughout the middle ages and on into the early modern period. Notwithstanding its entrenched tenacity, the venerable method had eventually to yield to a more convincing and truthful system of interpreting the primary Jewish and Christian texts. That achievement is the theme of this chapter.


Several developments favored the rise of the historical-critical method in Western Europe during the sixteenth century. The first was the spread of the printed book, Johannes Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention that made these essential objects more affordable, facilitating communication among scholars. Beginning with Martin Luther’s posting of his theses in Wittenberg in 1517, Protestantism opened paths for diverse interpretations. With respect to Scriptural interpretation these departures from earlier precedent were at first somewhat limited, even timid, but nonetheless an important step towards independence from the repressive apparatus of the Roman Catholic church had been taken. Protestantism also encouraged lay people to practice private reading of the Bible in the vernacular. At the other end of the erudition scale, the humanistic interest in classical languages increased the corps of trained scholars who could read Greek and Hebrew. With this knowledge they were no longer dependent on the faulty renderings that tainted the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome.

Yet it was only in the nineteenth century that the full flowering of the critical movement occurred. Profiting from earlier research, that period posited a distinction between the Higher and the Lower Criticism, somewhat to the disparagement of the latter. Ostensibly, Lower Criticism concentrates on the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes made mistakes--not to speak of deliberate alterations--when copying manuscripts by hand: the critic must endeavor to correct these by comparison of several manuscripts. By contrast, Higher Criticism embodies the effort to establish the authorship, date, place of composition, and true essence of the original text.

What were the first stirrings of the tendency? In fact, the so-called Lower Criticism came first. Profiting from advances in the philological study of classical Latin and Greek manuscripts, this demanding discipline laid the foundation for all that was to come after.

We turn first to the revolution of New Testament studies, then to a similar effort in the study of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament as it was still generally termed).


The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus published the first printed edition (the “editio princeps”) of the Greek New Testament in 1515. Up to that point most scholars in Western Europe had been limited to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate rendering, which was not the original source. Unfortunately, Erasmus has only a few, relatively late Greek originals at his disposal. Nonetheless, he was able to remove some errors and additions. The most egregious intrusion was the so-called Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8), the only explicit acknowledgment of the doctrine of the Trinity in the entire Bible. In the Vulgate this reads: “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and these three are one.” (trans. by Ehrman, 2005, p. 81 ). In his Greek manuscripts Erasmus did not find the words referring to “the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.” Accordingly, he omitted these words.

As the contemporary biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman remarks, “[w]ithout this verse, the doctrine of the Trinity must be inferred from a range of passages combined to show that Christ is God, as is the Spirit and the Father, and that there is, nonetheless, only one God.” (Ehrman, loc. cit.) In other words, the New Testament itself contains no unambiguous assertion of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Erasmus’ omission caused an uproar. Somehow, the Dutch scholar would have to be made to back down. Eventually, a spurious Greek manuscript was brought forth, containing a translation into Greek from the Latin text. After seeing this forgery, Erasmus yielded and agreed to restore the traditional wording, which he did in later printings.

As a rule, many, perhaps most textual corrections are minor. In some instances, though, as in this one, textual emendation can have serious theological consequences. Regrettably, the results of Erasmus’ initial discovery have still not been assimilated by most mainstream Christian denominations. Chapter Four will show how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, now so entrenched in Christian doctrine and worship, was not in fact the belief of the first Christians, including those who composed the New Testament.

Despite Erasmus’ valiant efforts, his Greek New Testament, even in its revised editions, contained many lingering errors and imperfections. Yet for generations this text was accepted as standard (the textus receptus). “Warts and all,” it formed the basis for pioneering English translations of William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536). Much of Tyndale’s work found its way into the King James Version of 1613, which is actually an amalgam of earlier renderings. Much loved, that version is nonetheless radically unreliable, and in fact many parts of it are nowadays incomprehensible to lay readers.

While some minor tinkering occurred, confidence in the basic accuracy of Erasmus’ New Testament text continued for some two-hundred years. In 1707, however, John Mills, a scholar at Queens College, Oxford, published his Novum Testamentum Graecum, cum lectionibus variantibus MSS (Oxford, 1707). After some thirty years of painstaking labor requiring the scrutiny of some one-hundred Greek manuscripts, the English scholar was able to pinpoint an amazing 30,000 discrepancies. Some of these were minor, but a significant number were in fact consequential. As Bart D. Ehrman pertinently asks, “[i]f one did not know which words were original in the Greek New Testament, how could one use these words in deciding correct Christian doctrine and teaching?” (Ehrman, 2005, p. 84).

Following John Mills' example, other scholars in England, France, and Germany adduced yet other manuscripts, disclosing further discrepancies. Gradually, scholars became aware of broader problems in the context of what later came to be termed the Higher Criticism.

In the study of the Four Gospels, this endeavor focused initially on the Synoptic Problem: the question of how best to account for the differences and similarities among the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke (Sanders and Davies, 1989). The answer has implications for the order in which the three were composed, and the sources on which their authors drew. Any solution to the synoptic problem needs to account for two features:

1) The "triple tradition." The three gospels frequently share both wording and arrangement of pericopes (identifiable segments displaying incidents or stories). This overlap accounts for the label synoptic ("seeing-together"). Where they do not concur across the board, Mark and Luke will agree over against Matthew, or Mark and Matthew will agree against Luke, but very rarely will Mark be the odd one out. Matthew's and Luke's versions of shared passages usually turn out to be shorter than Mark's.

2) The "double tradition." Not infrequently, Matthew and Luke share material which is not present in Mark. In these cases Matthew and Luke sometimes parallel each other closely, but at other times they diverge.

So much can be learned from careful scrutiny and comparison of the texts themselves. But how can one account for this complex situation?

The solution that has usually been adopted is the Two-Source Hypothesis (or 2SH), which posits that Matthew and Luke were based on Mark, and on a lost, hypothetical sayings collection often called Q. The Two-Source Hypothesis was first articulated in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse, but it did not gain wide acceptance among German critics until Heinrich Julius Holtzmann endorsed it in 1863. Prior to Holtzmann, most Catholic scholars subscribed to the Augustinian hypothesis (Matthew → Mark → Luke), while Protestant biblical critics favored the Griesbach formulation (Matthew → Luke → Mark). The Two-Source Hypothesis crossed the channel into Britain in the 1880s primarily due to the efforts of William Sanday, culminating in B. H. Streeter’s definitive statement of the case in 1924. Streeter further argued that additional sources, referred to as M and L, lie behind the material in Matthew and Luke respectively.

The strength of the Two-Source Hypothesis stems from its explanatory power regarding the shared and non-shared material in the three gospels; its weaknesses lie in the exceptions to those patterns, and in the hypothetical nature of its proposed collection of Jesus sayings (Q). Later scholars have advanced numerous elaborations and variations on the basic findings, and even advanced alternative proposals. Nevertheless, today the Two-Source Hypothesis commands the support of most biblical critics, whatever their denominational affiliation.


We turn now to the emergence of the historical-critical approach regarding the Old Testament. Nowadays, this vast and disparate collection of texts is properly designated the Hebrew Bible; here, however, we retain the traditional Christian designation, since almost all the significant advances in the study of the text and its composition have been made by Christian scholars.

Because of the vast bulk of the text, and the fact that the New Testament long detained theologians, detailed criticisms of the Old Testament were somewhat slow to emerge. Some see the origins of this endeavor in such seventeenth-century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon. (The independent Jewish scholar Spinoza is of course an exception to the generally valid observation that these advances were due to Christian scholars). These writers began to ask questions about the origin of the biblical text, especially the Pentateuch. Having detected contradictions and inconsistencies in the text of those foundational books, they began to question the tradition that they were all written uniformly by Moses. But lacking a specific method they could go no further.

The first significant breakthrough was made by a French physician, Jean Astruc. In 1753 Astruc published (anonymously) his Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse ("Conjectures on the original accounts of which it appears Moses availed himself in composing the Book of Genesis"). He applied to Genesis the tools of literary analysis which classical philologists had developed for such texts as the Iliad to sift variant traditions so as to attain what they believed was the most authentic text. Astruc began by identifying two markers which served to tag consistent variations: the use of either "Elohim" or "YHWH" (Yahweh) as the name for God, and the appearance of doublets, such as the two narratives of the Creation in the first and second chapters of Genesis and the two accounts of Sarah and a foreign king (Gen. 12 and Gen. 20). He displayed the results in columns, assigning verses to these, the "Elohim" verses in one column, the "YHWH" verses in another, and the members of the doublets in their own columns beside these. From the parallel columns two long narratives emerged, each dealing with the same incidents. Astruc suggested that these were the original documents used by Moses, and that as composed by Moses Genesis had looked just like this, parallel accounts meant to be read separately. The French savant then surmised that a later editor had combined the columns into a single narrative, creating the confusions and repetitions previously noted.

The tools Astruc tentatively proffered for biblical source criticism were enormously refined and improved by subsequent scholars, most of them German. From 1780 onwards Johann Gottfried Eichhorn succeeded in extendiing Astruc's analysis beyond Genesis to cover the entire Pentateuch, and by 1823 he had concluded that Moses had had no part in writing any of it. In 1805 Wilhelm de Wette proposed that Deuteronomy represented a third independent source (D), apart from J (Yahwist) and E (Elohist). About 1822 Friedrich Bleek identified the book of Joshua as a continuation of the Pentateuch via Deuteronomy, while others detected signs of the Deuteronomist in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In 1853 Hermann Hupfeld suggested that the Elohist material (E) was really two sources, which should be split, thus isolating the Priestly source. Hupfeld also emphasized the role of the Redactor, or final editor, in producing the Torah by fusing the four sources. However, not all the Pentateuch could be traced to one or other of the four sources, and several smaller components were identified, such as the Holiness Code comprising Leviticus17-26.

Biblical critics also attempted to specifyy the sequence and dates of the four sources, and to propose who might have produced them, and why. In 1805 Wilhelm de Wette had concluded that none of the Pentateuch was composed before the time of David. Since the time of Spinoza, D had been connected with the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah in 621 BCE. Beyond this, scholars argued variously for composition in the order PEJD, or EJDP, or JEDP: the subject was far from settled.

In 1876-77 Julius Wellhausen published his landmark monograph Die Composition des Hexateuch ("The Composition of the Hexateuch,” i.e. the Pentateuch plus Joshua), in which he perfected the four-source concept of Pentateuchal origins; this work was followed in 1878 by his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel"), a study which traced the religious evolution of the ancient Israelites from an entirely secular, non-supernatural standpoint. In reality, Wellhausen was more a consolidator than an innovator. He carefully synthesized the achievements of a century of scholarship to produce a coherent, comprehensive theory on the origins of the Hebrew Bible and of ancient Judaism, one so persuasive that it has dominated scholarly debate on the subject ever since.

Wellhausen's criteria for distinguishing between sources were those developed by his predecessors over the previous century: style (focusing on the choice of vocabulary, though not exclusively); divine names; doublets; and occasionally triplets. In Wellhausen’s view, J gloried in a rich narrative style, while E was somewhat less eloquent. P's language was dry and legalistic. He offered many other trenchant obseravions, most of the too complex to describe here.

Wellhausen's starting point for dating the sources was the event described in 2 Kings 22:8–20: a "scroll of Torah" (which can be translated "instruction" or "law"). Ostensibly, the High Priest Hilkiah discovered this document in the Temple in Jerusalem in the eighteenth year of king Josiah (traditionally, ca. 623 BCE). What Josiah read there triggered a drastic campaign of religious reform, as the king destroyed all altars except that in the Temple, banned all sacrifice except at the Temple, and insisted on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. In the fourth century CE Jerome had already speculated that the scroll might have been Deuteronomy; de Wette in 1805 suggested that it might have been only the law-code at Deuteronomy 12-26 that Hilkiah found, and that he might have written it himself, alone or in collaboration with Josiah.

With D anchored in history--at least to his own satisfaction (and those of many others following him)-- Wellhausen proceeded to arrange the remaining sources around the body of material. He accepted Karl Heinrich Graf’s conclusion that the sources were written in the order J-E-D-P. This sequence went against the general opinion of scholars at the time, who regarded P as the earliest of the sources. Wellhausen's sustained argument for a late P was the chief novelty of the Prolegomena. J and E he ascribed to the early monarchy, approximately 950 BCE for J and 850 BCE for E; P he placed in the early Persian post-Exilic period, around 500 BCE.

The four were combined by a series of Redactors (editors), first J with E to form a combined JE, then JE with D to form a JED text, and finally JED with P to form JEDP, the final Torah. Taking up a scholarly tradition stretching back to Spinoza and Hobbes, Wellhausen pinpointed Ezra, the post-Exilic leader who re-established the Jewish community in Jerusalem at the behest of the Persian king Artaxerxes I in 458 BCE, as the final redactor.

Wellhausen wrought well. Still today, his reconstruction constitutes the framework within which the origins of the Pentateuch must be discussed (Nicholson, 2003).

The triumph of the historical-critical school has been far-reaching. Even the Vatican has adopted the view that these findings must be respected. Until recent decades, though, Catholics had played little role in advancing this research, which was largely the work of German Protestants.


A major source of critique of the biblical record stemmed from the decipherment (1851-57) of the cuneiform documents in the Akkadian language (Adkins, 2003). Since both Akkadian and Hebrew were Semitic tongues, scholars who were familiar with the latter made rapid progress with the newly discovered material, gradually assembling a large corpus of Mesopotamian literature from the third millennium onwards. It has been estimated that this corpus is now twenty times the size of the Hebrew Bible. Eventually, the documents in Sumerian, some of which were even older, were added to the store of ancient Mesopotamian writings.

Almost at the outset. it became evident that these venerable texts showed similarities with such key biblical motifs as the story of Creation, the Flood, and the law codes. In some instances, this early enthusiasm for comparison became excessive, and scholars began to caution against “parallelomania.” There was also a tendency to focus exclusively on Mesopotamian material (“pan-Babylonianism”), neglecting the evidence from ancient Egypt, the Hiittite empire, and Canaan--all of them providing useful comparative material as well.

All in all, however, the similarities were numerous enough to undermine traditional beliefs in the narrative of the Hebrew bible, which came to take its place in a larger constellation of Middle Eastern texts. Traditional Bible scholars who would defend the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the doctrines, laws, and narratives found in the Hebrew Bible were faced with a very difficult, not to say impossible task.

All the while, archaeological excavations in Iraq and Syria produced more and more tablets, which were gradually deciphered, as well as other sorts of evidence for the actual tenor of life in ancient times, including significant works of art (Lloyd, 1980). The general public may now admire these works in such venues as the British Museum, the Louvre, the University Museum in Philadelphia, and (despite the recent losses) in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the work of the American biblical archaeology school under William F. Albright concentrated on excavations in Palestine itself. These purported to confirm that even if the texts of Genesis and Exodus only received their final form in the first millennium BCE, they were still firmly grounded in the material reality of the second millennium. Unfortunately subsequent work has rendered these conclusions inoperative.


The quest for the historical Jesus is the attempt to use historical rather than religious methods to construct a reliable biography of Jesus (Schweitzer, 2001). As originally defined by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1966), the quest began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), culminating in the work of William Wrede (1859-1906). The quest is commonly divided into stages, and it continues today among scholars such as the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

Working courageously in virtual isolation, Reimarus composed a treatise rejecting miracles and charging Bible authors of fraud, but he prudently declined to publish his findings. However, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing did so in the Wolfenbũttel fragments. Then David F. Strauss's biography of Jesus (1835-36) set Gospel criticism on its modern course. Strauss explained gospel miracles as natural events misunderstood and misrepresented. In France Ernest Renan achieved popular success as the first of many to portray Jesus simply as a human person.

Albert Ritschl expressed reservations about the quest approach, but it became central to liberal Protestantism in Germany and to the Social Gospel movement in America. For his part Martin Kähler protested that the true Christ is the one preached by the whole Bible, not a historical hypothesis. Finally, William Wrede questioned the historical reliability of the gospel of Mark. In his classic account of this scholarly trajectory, first published in 1906 and enlarged in 1913, Schweitzer showed how historical accounts of Jesus had reflected the historians' bias and place in their time. His own view emphasized eschatology. As far as could be determined, so Schweitzer held, Jesus was a prophetic figure focused on apocalyptic thinking. Until recently, this view has been largely dominant. During the 1920s interest in the quest for the historical Jesus declined. The two most influential Protestant theologians of the time, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann had very different interests. Still, the 1950s saw a brief groundswell in the New Quest movement.

Finally, in our own day, the Jesus Seminar initiated a Third Quest. The Jesus Seminar comprises a group of about 150 individuals centered in the United States, including scholars with advanced degrees in biblical studies, religious studies, and related fields, as well as published authors who are notable in the field of religion. The Seminar was Founded founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and worked under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The Seminar adopted a method of voting with colored beads to decide their collective view of the authenticity of New Testament passages, specifically with respect to what Jesus may or may not have said and done as a historical figure. The members published their results in three volumes entitled The Five Gospels (1993),The Acts of Jesus (1998), and The Gospel of Jesus (1999).

The Seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrays him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage who did not die as a substitute for sinners nor rise from the dead, but in fact preached a “social gospel” couched in striking parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological doctrines and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience. He preached of "Heaven's imperial rule" (the Basilea, traditionally translated as “Kingdom of God”) as being already present but unseen; he depicted God as a loving father; and he chose to associate with outcasts and marginal folk, decrying the establishment.

The Seminar treats the gospels as historical artifacts, transmitting some of Jesus' actual words and deeds, while mingling them with the inventions and elaborations of the early Christian community and of the Gospel authors. The fellows placed the burden of proof on those who advocate any passage's historicity. Freely crossing canonical boundaries, they have controversially suggested that the Gospel of Thomas (not one of the four) may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John.

While analyzing the gospels as fallible human creations is a standard feature of the historical-critical method, the Seminar's premise that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic world view remains controversial. Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world, the fellows argue that the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God's children to join in repairing the world.

Many scholars and laymen--some conservative but not all--have questioned the methodology, assumptions, and intent of the Jesus Seminar. The following are the main points of the critique. The Seminar creates a kind of abstract Jesus who is separated from both his cultural setting and his followers. The voting system--with its red/pink/grey/black categories, is seriously flawed. The exclusion of apocalyptic material from Jesus’ ministry is arbitrary and unjustified. The Jesus Seminar tends to treat canonical accounts of Jesus in a hypercritical fashion, while credulously welcoming late extracanonical documents. The composition of the Seminar is odd; according to one critic only about 14 of the fellows rank as leading figures in the world of New Testament scholarship, Even these, it is alleged, have introduced their own biases into the discussion.

To their credit, members of the Seminar have sought to address and refute these criticisms. However, the work of the Seminar has ended, and its conclusions remain in doubt.


No one can quarrel with the need to study the foundational texts of the Abrahamic faiths in the original languages instead of simply relying, as most observant people do out of necessity on vernacular translations. In addition to the fact that a multitude of nuances, some actually quite important, are lost in this process, all translations are products of their time, often importing anachronistic concerns into the text. For example, a number of recent translations import contemporary concerns with gender-neutrality, even going so far as to write “our father and mother,” when the original text speaks only of a male creator God.

In practical terms this attention to the original texts means proficiency in four languages: three Semitic (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) and one Indo-European (koine Greek). A few early texts are preserved only in Armenian and Ethiopian versions; for these even the most resourceful linguists may be pardoned for consulting translations. Sometimes the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome offers help in interpreting difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible, though clearly such comparisons must be treated with caution.

Over the years scholars have assembled a formidable body of comparative linguistic usage to assist interpretation. Naturally, this material is most abundant in Greek, though allowance must be made for shifts from classical Greek, the form most familiar to philologists, and the koine Greek in which the New Testament is actually written.

Until recently, the situation with Hebrew has been less satisfactory. One cannot be confident in utilizing rabbinical usage because this form of Hebrew stems from hundreds of years after the closure of the canon of the Tanakh. Early Hebrew inscriptions found in Israel and neighboring countries are a help. However, the greatest addition to the classical Hebrew stock stems from the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which are versions of individual Bible books. In some cases the texts differ markedly from the textus receptus of the Hebrew Bible. Help is also afforded by comparative studies of other Semitic languages, most notably from the the Canaanite documents from Ras Shamra, which precede the redaction of the Hebrew Bible by hundreds of years.

Study of the vocabulary of the Qur’an is complex and controversial. Clearly there are many borrowings from Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, though the scope of these is disputed.

Fortunately, a series of specialized dictionaries has appeared seeking to incorporate these growing bodies of lexical material. The first landmark is due to Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842), a major German orientalist and Biblical critic. Gesenius strove, with considerable success, to free Semitic philology from the trammels of theological intervention, inaugurating the scientific and comparative method that has since largely prevailed (Miller. 1927). In 1810 he brought out the first volume of the Hebräisches und Chaldäisches Handwörterbuch, which he completed in 1812. Revised editions of this fundamental dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic have appeared periodically in Germany. The latest version, incorporating the latest discoveries, is still in course of publication.

The publication of an English-language adaptation was started in 1892 under the editorship of Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs,now well known as the Brown Driver Briggs lexicon or BDB for short. Despite its age, this Hebrew and English Lexicon (now equipped with several additional features) is still in common use in Britain and America.

Note that the most important foundational studies of Hebrew have been achieved by German and English Protestants. For a long time Jewish scholars lagged behind, hobbled by their allegiance to the often fantastical elucidations of the rabbis of late antiquity and medieval times.

In the study of New Testament Greek, Walter Bauer occupies a place similar to that of Gesenius for Hebrew, though he worked at a later period. The origin may be traced to Preuschen's Vollständiges griechisch-deutsches Handwörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testament und der übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur (1910). Bauer extensively revised this work, publishing the result as Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur. In 1957 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich published their translation of the fourth German edition (1949-52) into English. Arndt died that same year, to be replaced by Frederick Danker, with whom Gingrich prepared the second English edition published in 1979.

Kurt Aland, with Barbara Aland and Viktor Reichmann, published a sixth German edition following Bauer's death in 1960. Gingrich died in 1993, leaving Danker to complete the third English edition, incorporating substantial work of his own. New Testament scholars commonly refer revised English-language edition by the acronym "BAGD." Danker brought out the third English edition in 2000. In view of the extensive improvements in this edition (said to include over 15,000 new citations), it is now known as "BDAG," or sometimes "The Bauer-Danker Lexicon."

These lexicons are of great practical value. During the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, however, a more ambitious approach to Biblical words arose, drawing upon recent advances in the linguistic discipline of semantics. A monument to this approach is the multivolume work by the controversial German biblical scholar Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948). In 1933 he took over the task of producing a new edition of the dictionary of Hermann Cremer and Julius Kögel. The first volume of this work, the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (ThWNT), appeared in Stuttgart in 1933 under the auspices of the W. Kohlhammer Verlag. There is a complete English translation by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1964ff.).

Seeking to mediate between ordinary lexicography and the specific task of exposition the various authors represented in Kittel’s ThWNT treat more that 2,300 theologically significant New Testament words, including the more important prepositions and numbers as well as many proper names from the Hebrew.

Presenting the words in the order of the Greek alphabet, the Kittel work discusses the following topics for each word: its secular Greek background, its role in the Hebrew Bible, its use in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and its varied uses in the New Testament.

Broadly speaking, the approach espoused by Kittel and his collaborators is based on the history of ideas. The more ambitious entries treat the word as the springboard for a wide-ranging, sometimes speculative essay on a particular theological concept. As a result there is a tendency to obscure the fact that Bible word are in fact simply words (Barr, 1961).

Still the approach had wide appeal for a time. The effect may be illustrated by an influential book by the Alsatian theologian Oscar Cullmann. In his 1946 monograph Christus und die Zeit (Christ and Time), Cullmann asserted that the Greeks had two very different words to expresss the concept of time. One is chronos, the steady measurable procession that is tracked by human instruments and that we recognized as built into the structure of the cosmos. Contrasting with this, Cullmann held was the tern kairos, which designates the special character of a particular moment. When we are advised to “seize the time,” kairos is what is meant. Yet as the Scottish theologian James Barr showed, the Greek language shows no absolute contrast between the two (Barr, 1962). Language, at least, offers no warrant for Cullmann’s interesting dichotomy.


In the study of the Hebrew Bible, the twentieth century saw significant modifications of the Documentary Hypothesis, notably in the work of German scholars Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, who argued for the oral transmission of ancient core beliefs: guidance out of Egypt, conquest of the Promised Land, covenants, revelation at Sinai/Horeb, and so forth.

The overall effect of such refinements was to aid the wider acceptance of the basic hypothesis by reassuring believers that even if the final form of the Pentateuch was late and not due to Moses himself, it was nevertheless possible to recover a credible picture of the period of Moses and of the patriarchal age. While this confidence eventually waned, it served for a time to reassure those who were uneasy about the Documentary Hypothesis, so that by the mid-twentieth century it had gained wide acceptance, at least by progressive Christian scholars and those without institutional affiliation.

After showing some initial interest in the latter part of the nineteenth century, rabbinical Judaism turned against the Documentary Hypothesis. A few traditional Jewish writers, like Umberto Cassuto, rejected it outright. However, the majority thought that it was simply irrelevant to the pastoral and communitarian tasks of the Synagogue.

In my view, the ostrich approach is unwise. To be sure, some contemporary Jewish scholars who are not active as rabbis, such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Israel Shanks, have accepted the Documentary Hypothesis, though with reservations.

At all events, for most unbiased scholars the traditional views of the origins of the Hebrew Bible simply cannot be sustained. The documentary hypothesis continues to be affirmed and refined. For example, William H. Propp has completed a two-volume translation and commentary on Exodus for the prestigious Anchor Bible Series relying on the DH framework, and Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O’Brien have published a "Sources of the Pentateuch" presenting the Torah sorted into continuous sources following the divisions of Martin Noth.

Today the choice is not between the traditional view and the DH, but between the DH and more radical advances. These have duly come forth with the so-called minimalists. To their contribution we now turn.


For some years news has been seeping out about the iconoclastic work of the minimalist scholars concerning the historicity of the Hebrew Bible. While the term “minimalist” was not chosen by these researchers, it has taken hold as a convenient way of designating their approach. Boldly, these scholars question the reality of the Exodus, the era of the Patriarchs, and the so-called United Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon. Some doubt that the last three persons ever existed.

According with the archaeological evidence, the new view offers the following insights. From at least as early as the first half of the fourteenth century BCE, Palestine’s central highlands were home to the Apiru, a marginal group made up of runaway serfs and others from the small city-states in the plains and valleys of Palestine. In these redoubts they lived as outlaw bands of freebooters. As new settlements appeared in the highlands over a century later, at the start of the Iron Age, they reflected new political structures emerging among those same groups. These Iron I settlements attest a return by those groups to a settled, agricultural lifestyle, and the start of a retribalization process. Ancient Israel was the end-product of this dual pattern of flight and reconstitution.

Some minimalists hold that the Hebrew Bible as we know it was written as late as the Persian or Hellenistic periods. For example, the Danish scholar Niels Peter Lemche argues that in its present shape the Hebrew is a Jewish-Rabbinic amalgam that was put together no earlier than the second century BCE. This conclusion challenges the traditional early chronology, which fixes the culmination of the composition process in the sixth century, when the editors incorporated prior versions or traditions that were even earlier, ostensibly dating from as far back as the tenth century.

What was the origin and purpose of the Hebrew sacred texts? The Bible stories may be compared to, say, Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.” The play is based in real history, but was not written to provide a complete or authoritative account that history; instead, it is an composite that fuses bits of historical truth with invented or imaginative adjuncts. This comparison suggests that the Bible narrative is more akin to literature rather than to history as the term is usually understood. Yet while literature is designed to achieve an aesthetic purpose, for the most part the Bible has no such intention. Its plot and set of characters serve a theological theme concerning the purported covenant between the people of Israel and their God. It is a kind of spiritual propaganda. In this light, minimalism treats "biblical Israel" as an ideological construction rather than an objective presentation of reality.

Among the leading scholars of the minimalist trend are Philip R. Davies (University of Sheffield), Niels Peter Lemche (University of Copenhagen), Thomas L. Thompson (University of Copenhagen), and Keith W. Whitelam (University of Sheffield).

Somewhat similar are the views of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), who is critical of the claims of earlier generations of investigators, with their assertions that excavations confirmed the biblical narratives of settlement, conquest, and empire. He has demoted the Jerusalem of the tenth century--reputedly the time of David and Solomon--to the status of a mere village or tribal center. Still, Finkelstein parts company with the full-strength minimalist chronology that places the composition of the Tanakh in the Persian or Greek period; he argues that much of the Hebrew Bible was indeed written during the period from the seventh through the fifth century BCE.

How did the minimalists reach their conclusions? An revealing example is Thomas L. Thompson’s experience. After completing graduate work at a major German university in the nineteen-sixties when that country was still the main center of Bible scholarship, Thompson found his thesis rejected, even though it was a solid piece of work.

A setback of this type should cause alarm bells to go off. Kept out of a teaching job, for a time he had to make his living as a house painter. German Bible scholars were scarcely evangelical rigorists, as they came from a school that had questioned many beliefs cherished by Christian denominations (see Chapter One, above). What was it that Thompson said that was so frightening to the Old Testament establishment (as it was then termed)? Perhaps they had reason to be scared, as their views were in fact under threat. Today in fact the old guard seems to be fading away, squeezed as it is in the middle between two extremes. What is left are the followers of inerrancy and Creationism, on the one hand, and the minimalists, on the other.

Thompson’s book The Mythic Past (1991) presents the findings of the new school to a lay audience. The following paragraphs summarize his approach and that of his minimalist colleagues.

The perspective goes back to the nineteenth century. At the same time as the findings of the Higher Criticism were coming into view, major discoveries were arriving from the Middle East. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics and the cuneiform documents could at last be read. From this material it developed that there were three major empires—Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, and the Hittites. This triad came to dominate the Middle East during the time to which the Biblical patriarchs were thought to have flourished. After all, the Exodus story purports to tell of the relationship between the children of Israel and one of these empires. Following the occupation of Canaan it seems that the Israelites established a polity of their own, the United Monarch of Saul, David, and Solomon. Covering a large territory--or so we are told--this state created cultural achievements seemingly on a par with the others. Among these accomplishments were Solomon’s impressive Temple and the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.

There followed a search for archaeological evidence to flesh out these assumptions. Excavations took place at a number of historic sites; archaeologists worked out stratifications; and masses of pottery, amulets, and other items of material culture came to light. While this material is indeed tangible, prior to the seventh century none of it can be correlated with the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. Yet in the areas when its help would have been most useful. the discipline of Biblical Archeology has not delivered. In particular, it has failed to turn up evidence for the supposed great state of the United Monarchy. No one has found the archives and monumental inscriptions, the bureaucratic directives and diplomatic correspondence, that one would expect. Yet these appurtenances are standard equipment, even for such middling states as Mari and Ugarit. So it looks as if the United Monarchy of ancient Israel is a fiction.

The larger picture is as follows. The Hebrew Bible went from being the inspired word of God to a compilation of the perspectives of a number of differing religious writers. What is it now? Some say that Scripture has universal value. To be sure some parts, e.g. the ethical admonitions of the prophets, the poetry of Psalms and the Song of Songs, and the skeptical insights of Job and Ecclesiastes, may have this quality. For the most part, however, the Hebrew Bible is, with all due respect, a chauvinistic compilation designed to advance the interests of a particular people. Call it the Higher Madison Avenue.

Many Christian exegetes, of course, continue to hold that the Old Testament (as they term it) is a teleological construction focused on the coming of the Messiah, known as Jesus Christ. In reality there is nothing to support this assumption. The Hebrew Bible is a Jewish book--nothing more, nothing less. Of course it has come to mean much to non-Jews, but in like fashion the Buddhist and Confucian writings been influential among those who are not Indian and Chinese. To understand the Israelite writings, we need to acknowledge their national setting. Even so, the Hebrew Bible differs from those Asian texts in that it does not merely arise from an ethnicity, it strives to e s t a b l i s h an ethnicity.

The previous paragraphs have offered a preliminary sketch of the work of the minimalist scholars. Their demolition of early Israelite history as narrated in the Hebrew Bible finds increasing acceptance among mainstream scholars—even if the latter do tend to drag their feet on some aspects. Such resistance is to be expected.

Powerful as the work of the minimalists has been, we are not obliged to follow them in every respect. As we have them, the texts may not be in fact as late as the second century BCE. That late dating probably goes too far. It suffices to demonstrate that the texts are appreciably later than has generally claimed, presenting a mythical fabrication rather than a faithful historical image.

The crucial finding is that the account presented in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible is an ideological artifact, probably assembled after the return from the Mesopotamian captivity in 539 BCE. That means that the accounts of the exodus, conquest, and settlement presented in the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, and the book of Judges are highly unreliable. Moreover, in a thorough review of the evidence, the Egyptologist D.B. Redford has found no evidence at all for the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. (Redford, 1992).

Television is still peddling these Bible fables for a gullible public. Yet in all likelihood these events never happened in the way that we are told. The beginnings of Israelite history lie in what may be termed Greater Canaan, an area most of the protagonists never left.

The results are drastic, for almost of millennium of Biblical history—from ca. 1400 to 539 BCE--has been essentially erased. This period spans the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the so-called Monarchy period. In all likelihood, the First Temple era—wasn’t. Or rather the Second Temple era, after 539, was the First Temple era.

We conclude this section with the convergent observations of a prominent Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog. “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people--and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story --now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence are radically different from what that story tells.” (Herzog, article in Haaretz, 1999).


Application of the historical-principles to Islam has only recently risen to prominence. Scholars working along these lines, who mostly reside outside Islamic countries, have taken the logical step of seeking to apply the principles of the Higher Criticism systematically to the Islamic documents. This approach, which attained maturity with Julius Wellhausen and others in nineteenth-century Germany, laid the foundations for all subsequent serious study of the body of Judeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible.

A useful point of entry is the collection of relevant scholarly essays, classical and contemporary, contained in the volume “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad,” edited by Ibn Warraq (2000). The book is aptly titled, for the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the quest for the historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others, while at the same time applying themselves to the specific circumstances of Muslim historiography. In fact the questioning of the received view of Muhammad goes back to the work of Henri Lammens a hundred years ago.

Some contemporary scholars go so far in their critique as to assert that there is no reliable evidence connecting Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. In this view, the association with Mecca was forged in order to connect the faith with the cult of the Kaaba, the sacred meteorite housed in that city. Instead, these scholars have concluded, the evidence suggests that the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern border of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As any reader must acknowledge the Qur’an reverts, almost compulsively, to many events and personalities recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, endowing them of course with its own “spin.”

Another finding is that the individual suras (segments of the Qur’anic text) are a varied lot (Ibn Warraq, 1998, 2002). The Qur’an is not a unitary text, but an amalgam pieced together from various components that originated at different times. They may have assumed their present “canonical” form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as an organic whole. The pious notion that it was dictated by the Archangel Gabriel in accord with an archetype laid up in heaven simply serves to conceal this diversity.

The Qur’an combines precepts that purport to be of universal validity with references to contingent events and persons. As a rule, however, these historical sidelights are unconfirmed by other sources, and thus of questionable authenticity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom is quite different. In the nineteenth century Ernest Renan maintained that “in place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, [Islam] was born in the full light of history” (Ibn Warraq, 2000.) Although widely accepted, this view is mistaken. Many adjustments, alterations, and inventions characterized the gradual birth of Islam. In consequence the accepted account comes close to ranking as a “just so” story—-if you will, a tale out of the Arabian Nights.

Modifying Renan, we may say that there are two types of religion. Organic faiths (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism) developed gradually from time immemorial. Contrasting with this pattern is the historical type, exemplified by Manichaeism (third century) and Mormonism (nineteenth century). For a long time Islam, its historical foundations securely anchored, seemed to belong to the latter type. One can no longer have confidence in this claim. The origins of the religion now reside in uncertain territory, with each aspect requiring careful weighing as to its historicity.


In Islamic countries, where apostasy may be punished by death, it is not healthy to espouse these revisionist views in Islamic countries today. One need only recall the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. But slowly the results of the historical-critical examination are trickling through, with the Internet giving a big boost. Reception of these challenges is gradually progressing in the West. Not so in the Muslim world, though. One day, perhaps, a Reformation—-so often noted as the missing element in the saga of Islam—-will take place, and as a result a similar reexamination can take place in the Islamic countries.

Even in Western countries, the situation is not altogether conducive to free inquiry as regards the origins of Islam. Demographic changes in Western Europe have helped fuel the aggressiveness of Islamic militants in those countries. Through violent acts they seek to overturn established Western values of tolerance and free speech. In the face of this assault compromisers urge us to be patient, while honoring Islam as a religion of peace.

Regrettably, Islam is not a religion of peace because it divides the world into two parts, the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb). It is the task of Believers to reduce, by whatever measures are required, the latter to the condition of the former. This contrast assures constant strife in those parts of the world that have not yet submitted to Islam. Islamic militants are simply making this underlying situation clear. For this reason, they are not an aberration.


My concern with Islam--its texts, origins, and character--stems from my overall project of uncovering the intertextual relations linking the three Abrahamic faiths. I would point out that if an outsider like myself can readily assemble the materials making up the main elements of the new critical approach to Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an, then other writers--such as the highly regarded Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong--can assimilate this material as well. As to why they have not attempted to do this, I cannot say.

As has been noted above, the conventional account serves up a number of ostensibly well-established facts marking the origins of Islam. Muhammad was born in the year 570 CE in a locality close to Mecca, a city in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. Strategically located, Mecca owed its prosperity to trade. It was also religiously significant because of the polytheistic cults centered on the Ka’ba or sacred stone. For these reasons, we are told, it is not surprising that city would go on to play a prominent role in the rapid spread of Islam. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by an uncle and other relatives. The young Muhammad went to work for Khadija, a wealthy widow who owned a prosperous international trading company. In due course, he had the good fortune of marrying this woman, an event that dramatically bettered his fiscal position and social standing. In connection with business matters he traveled with caravans to north Arabia and Syria, where he encountered sophisticated Jewish and Christian ideas.

In the year 610 CE when he was forty years old, Muhammad--or so he believed--began to receive messages from God, a transmission that would continue throughout his life. Conveyed by Jibril (the archangel Gabriel), these messages confirmed the Meccan merchant’s status as God’s Ultimate Prophet, the bearer of God’s final word to mankind. Never claiming divinity himself, Muhammad did maintain that God was speaking through him; he was the human conduit for God’s final and perfect instructions to man.

Unfortunately, these initial messages from God threatened the interests of Mecca’s ruling elite, so that the new dispensation was summarily rejected. Muhammad’s position in Mecca became untenable. In 622 CE he went to Medina (Yathrib), a town that was more receptive to his messages. There Muhammad established the first Muslim community. Having consolidated his position in Medina, he was able to return to Mecca, where he succeeded, by and large, in converting the inhabitants to Islam.

By the time of his death in 632 CE Muhammad and his followers had conquered the entire Arabian peninsula, previously the domain of quarreling pagan tribes. By the turn of the eighth century, Muhammad’s followers had subdued a vast realm stretching from Spain to the frontier of India, a dazzling feat.

For the pious Muslim, this stupendous conquest seems only logical. The Prophet Muhammad had received and transmitted the final and perfect word of God. Empowered with God’s support and direction, Muhammad established his Islamic state and spread the word of God as commanded by him. Under the leadership of the four Rashidun, the “rightly-guided” caliphs--Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib--Muhammad’s achievement was consolidated and extended.

Today, Muslims affirm this account of the origins of their religion without question, relying on these seemingly well-established facts as the cornerstone of their faith. Pious Muslims hold that Muhammad’s many revelations from God were memorized, recorded, and ultimately canonized in the body of the Qur’an during the first few decades following his death in 632. According to the story, the third caliph Uthman employed the scholar Zaid ibn Thabit to compile the “true” Qur’an and to destroy all remaining copies, rendering the Uthman version the final and perfect word of God as received and transmitted by the Prophet. According to the received account, the final, codified version of the Qur’an that we have today was canonized and formalized no later than 650 CE. This scripture is an authentic source of history as evidenced by the fact that is a perfect literary creation and could only have been only produced by God.

Except for the feature of divine inspiration, Western scholars have generally endorsed this account. At least they have done so until recent decades, when a new school of critical scholars has challenged these seemingly rocksolid findings. These scholars, most of whom reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the Higher Criticism to Islamic documents.

A few revisionists have gone so far as to assert that Muhammad never lived. This claim probably goes too far. Still, the connection with Mecca or Medina is less substantial than is generally supposed. While it probably reposes on a genuine core of historical fact, the core was probably extended and embroidered in order to emphasize the connection with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Kaaba. The Mecca-Medina connection needs to be balanced with another that leads to northern Arabia, a borderland region strongly imbued with Christian ideas. The many reminiscences of Biblical persons and ideas found in the Qur’an surely stem from this source.

The earliest cryptic mentions of the name of Muhammad begin to appear no earlier than two generations after his death. From the later biographical sketches many sought to retroject the basic facts of his existence into the Qur’an. Yet even a brief examination of that book reveals that it bears no comparison with the Christian gospels, which are lives of Jesus. The Qur’an was never intended to be a biography of Muhammad, and in view of the probable late date of its compilation we cannot cannot take on face value such details of the prophet’s life that appear there.

The earliest surviving biographies of the Prophet are the two recensions of Ibn Ishaq's (d. 768) Life of the Apostle of God compiled by Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). The original text has not survived. According to Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. After Ibn Ishaq, the most widely used biographies of Muhammad are al-Waqidi's (d. 822) and then Ibn Sa'd's (d. 844-5). While many scholars accept the basic reliability of these late-blooming biographies, the details of their accuracy cannot in fact be ascertained. Even Muslim scholars are not in accord as to the reliability of these texts; Al-Waqidi is often criticized by Muslim writers who claim that the author is unreliable.

These accounts hardly rank as biographies in the modern sense of the term. The writers did not seek to create an objective account of the life of Muhammad, but rather to describe Muhammad's military expeditions and to preserve stories about Muhammad, his sayings, and the traditional interpretations of verses of the Qur'an.

There are also the Hadith collections, which include accounts of the verbal and physical traditions pertaining to Muhammad. Muslim tradition informs us that many thousands of sayings and accounts of deeds of Muhammad were transmitted from the seventh century.

As with the “biographies” (Sira) just discussed, these often cryptic items are late, recounting earlier events long after their purported occurrence. For example, the compilation considered most authentic, that prepared by the scholar Al-Bukhari, was not organized, compiled, and ultimately endowed with canonical status until the early ninth century. Criteria for authentication have proved very elusive. At the turn of the ninth century it is estimated that that there were as many as 600,000 Hadith in circulation. It was obvious that many of these were blatantly false and contradictory. In fact, Al-Bukhari ultimately rejected 98% of the original 600,000.

In addition to being subject to the scrutiny of Muslim scholars, who have generally accepted al-Bukhari’s reduced canon, Hadiths have also attracted critical analysis on the part of Western historians. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher completed a fundamental study of the Hadith and the Muslim principles for certifying authenticity. Even in the privileged group, of supposedly authenticated items, Goldziher concluded that the vast majority were unsubstantiated forgeries that sorely lacked corroboration. He held that the Muslim compilers derived the vast majority of their Hadith material from collections compiled around 800 (or later), and not from documents originating in the seventh century.

Several decades later, the legal scholar Joseph Schacht, based at Columbia University, undertook additional Hadith scrutiny. Schacht concluded that early ninth-century schools of law sought to buttress their own biased agenda by ascribing their own doctrines to Muhammad and his companions. Patricia Crone, in her own research on the authenticity of the remaining (canonized) Hadith has similarly rejected the "grain of truth" argument asserted by many Muslim historians. This rejection has been made on basis of the later date of the Muslim sources, together with the evident bias of those proffering them. Simply put, and contrary to conventional Muslim assertions, Hadith can not be relied on as authentic source material.


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