Monday, July 26, 2010

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.