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.