Monday, December 5, 2011

Abrahamica: Introduction

 "Abrahamica" addresses the three major faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, their origins, nature, and interaction. Collectively these are known as the Abrahamic religions. Of necessity this endeavor focuses on 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. In addition, there is some attention to noncanonical texts, such as the so-called Intertestamental Writings; Mishnah and Talmud; noncanonical gospels; and the Muslim Hadith collections.

The study highlights motifs (precepts, doctrines, personalities, and legends) connecting the scriptures of all three traditions (intertextuality).

In an inquiry of this kind, recourse to the critical-historical approach is indispensable. This method, which has gone from strength to strength over the last 150 years, has demonstrated that many truisms believers cherish about their faiths are undemonstrable, some being simply false.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is the nexus linking monotheism, intolerance, and violence.

Optimistic proposals for reconciling the three faiths, such as Henry Corbin’s Harmonia Abrahamica project, have turned out to be naive and ill-founded.  Still, one cannot simply throw the Abrahamic heritage out, bag and baggage, as the New Atheists would have us do. Abrahamic motifs have been--and still are--too important to Western civilization, as they are to every part of the modern world, except for East Asia and the Hindu-Buddhist realms of South and Southeast Asia.

For many years I emphasized the positive contributions of this religious heritage in my college classes in art history, a realm where its concerns and themes have nourished and helped to define countless works of art. Yet further research, conducted during the years of my retirement, has revealed how problematic the role of the Abrahamic faiths has been.

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? Perhaps the following texts will offer some useful information in  addressing this issue.

Abrahamica: Chapter One


Who was Muhammad? Some recent scholarship posits that he was a military leader operating in northern Arabia  in an area close to the Byzantine (Christian) Empire. Long considered secure, Muhammad’s role in the cities of Mecca and Medina is, according to these scholars, problematic.

Very different from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the book associated with this figure, the “Holy Qur’an,” constitutes a mélange of disparate performance pieces known as suras. Some of the components of the Qur'an probably stem from the period before Muhammad’s purported encounters with the Archangel Gabriel, while others are considerably later. In all likelihood, editors assembled this hybrid at least 150 years after the death of the Prophet in 632 CE.

Far from being written in “pure classical Arabic,” the Qur’an is a linguistic and cultural amalgam abounding in imported Aramaic and Greek-Christian words and themes.  Even though the contrast has long been commonplace, the distinction between the suras produced in Mecca and the ostensibly later ones composed in Medina is not sustainable. While the suras and other foundational documents frequently mention these cities, the connection is tenuous. As we have it, the Qur’an is a blend of fact and fiction.

The hadiths (reputed utterances of the Prophet) are mostly of dubious authenticity. The supposed early biographies of Muhammad are not trustworthy as historical sources.

All this is startling--and quite possibly true.

When the primary Muslim sources find themselves summoned before the bar of the historical-critical method, conclusions that challenge the traditional wisdom emerge. Over the last two centuries, biblical critics have perfected this method as a tool for cracking the secrets of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Every reputable scholar acknowledges the necessity of using this resource if we are to achieve an accurate understanding of the import of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) and the Christian New Testament. Until recently, the Qur’an had eluded such scrutiny. Now it is the turn of this and the other revered foundational documents of Islam. And indeed the task is well under way.

Such critical work remains little known to the the Western public at large, but specialists are diligently addressing the task. Even today, though, this endeavor is far from receiving its due. In Islamic countries the blackout is almost complete. Very rarely does one detect even a hint of the results of the critical endeavor in those nations, where allegiance to the conventional wisdom is mandatory. Elsewhere the situation is better, but not by much. In the English-speaking world naive apologists like John Esposito (2002, 2004, 2010) and Karen Armstrong (1991, 2006) continue to parrot the litany as though it had never been challenged.

The main discussion of Islam is reserved for Chapter Six, where the appropriate references are cited.

This and the following chapters of this book deploy the historical-critical method to examine the major Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writings, hopefully without illusions and preconceptions. This approach is intended to bring us closer to the original meaning of these texts, stripping away the copious deposits that have come to disfigure them over the centuries. In this necessary task of debunking, the barnacles themselves merit attention.

How and why did they get there? In addition, this enterprise also affords revealing glimpses of the connections between the scriptures cherished by the three faiths--their intertextuality, as the relationiship is sometimes termed.


A venerable image of the kinship of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam stems from a medieval parable found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (I, 3), a text written ca. 1350. The gist of the Tale of the Three Rings (as is called) 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 he answered to this effect. "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 suggested, 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 question of which one is right must remain in abeyance.

It has been suggested that the ring parable derives from a Jewish source, but this has not been definitely proven. A remarkable feature of the parable is that it assumes that the three rival faiths are equal in dignity--at least in accordance with present knowledge. 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. 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.

Our own later, global standpoint prompts one to recognize a further limitation, for the parable equates “religion” tout court with the three faiths in question. No other candidates need apply. The model implicitly ignores the claims of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, animism, and others. That is of course true. Yet because of the kinship and salience of the three religions this focus is not unwarranted, at least as a subject of scholarly investigation such as the one attempted here.

As has been indicated, the parable of the three rings goes back to the Middle Ages, when, of course, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam found themselves locked in deadly, though often unequal combat. In this violent era, it represented a rare ray of sunlight.

Yet another motif, also apparently of medieval origin, casts a very different light, negative one. 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 ascribed the blasphemy to canon Simon of Tournai (flourished 1184-1200), and in fact the notion may have enjoyed some broader circulation at the time. In 1239 Pope Gregory IX accused Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen of asserting 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 was a handy device for smear tactics. (Minois, 2009.)

Despite their intrinsic interest, 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. Awareness of the kinship has tended to linger, without much analysis, in the collective unconscious of our societies.

In recent times, however, the expression “Abrahamic religions” has taken hold. 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 because of a '”family likeness” and certain theological commonalities. However, relationships among them have varied from time and place and have often been characterized by mistrust and hatred, even warfare and persecution. One need only recall the Crusades; the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Christian Spain; the humiliations and penalties historically inflicted on Jews and Christians in Islamic countries (what is sometimes termed dhimmitude); the Arab-Israeli conflict; and today’s jihadism.

The idea of the Abrahamic religions reflects 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." In this usage the term embodies the Muslim claim to be returning to Abraham's monotheism, purging this heritage of accretions introduced by Jews and Christians. There is also a traditional assertion of Muhammad’s 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 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, just as Ishmael was born to his concubine Hagar. Challenging the traditional view, modern scholars have cast doubt on Abraham's very existence. However, this phantom status need not be an obstacle to the use of the term “Abrahamic religions.” For example, we refer to “Ossianic poetry,” even though no such person as the fabled Ossian ever actually existed.

There are other reasons why the Abrahamic designation is far from universal. Some observers object that the term is unhelpful because it exaggerates the degree of historical and theological continuity. Closer examination of the details 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 decisively rejected by Judaism and Islam. Christians have discarded the Jewish dietary laws and the requirement for male circumcisions. For the most part Muslims retain these. 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 is considerable overlap.


Today the triad of the Abrahamic faiths has extended over much 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.

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

1) Manichaeism 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,

Its founder Mani 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 portraying 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. As such 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 Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), who emphasized 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 which two celestial personages appeared to Joseph Smith. The faith has its own scripture, the Book of Mormon, ostensibly translated by Smith. Mormons claim that they are Christians, though some 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 attempted here. Our remit is to examine the historic record of the Big Three.


Before proceeding further one should note an approach that has some traction now among scholars of comparative religion.  This is the conviction that, at bottom, all religions are one.  This approach actually goes back to the Italian Renaissance when, for example Marsilio Ficino wrote of a "prisca theologia," a primordial ground that links all religions.

When one comes to details, though, the yield is meager.  Life after death?  Not all religions maintain that view.  Absolute separation of good and evil?  Some religions see the two as intermixed.

Sometimes we hear that observance of the Golden Rule is universal.  The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity states either of the following: 1) One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. (positive form); or 2) One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative form; also known as the Silver Rule   This concept requires commitment to reciprocal, or "two-way," relationship between one's self and others that engages both sides equally and mutually.

Rushworth Kidder maintains that this concept figures prominently in many religions, including “Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and the rest of the world's major religions."  Greg M. Epstein holds that “'do unto others' .  .  .  is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely."  Simon Blackburn states that the Golden Rule can be "found in some form in almost every ethical tradition.”  (Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, 2003. p. 159; Epstein, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. 2010); Blackburn. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, 2001, p. 101.)

All this must be taken with a grain of salt.  As George Bernard Shaw once said, "the golden rule is that there are no golden rules."  Shaw proposed an alternative principle: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same" (Maxims for Revolutionists, 1903).  Along similar lines, Karl Popper wrote: "The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by" (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945). One satirical version of the Golden Rule holds that"whoever has the gold, makes the rules."

More to the point, despite much massaging and stretching of the evidence, the Golden Rule has not in fact been found to be a religious universal.


This study addresses both sides of the Abrahamic 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 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 (players on the A-team, as it were) claim to be monotheistic, worshiping an exclusive God, though one known by different names, even in the foundational Hebrew scriptures, which alternate between Yahweh and Elohim. For all three, God is an activist figure: he creates, rules, reveals, loves, hates, 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 holy as a city to Judaism over three thousand years ago. (Archaeology has failed to confirm this early date, but it is held all the same.) 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 Arab Muslims and Christians who continue to live there. The city is a central focus of both Christian and Muslim pilgrimage.

For several centuries during Late Antiquity, Palestine--with its profuse collection of 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 role as a source of conflict among the three faiths has become acute.

A number of shared theological motifs permeate the Abrahamic faiths. All three religions affirm one eternal God, who is not an abstract force but an intensely personal being. 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 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. 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. (One should note, however, that some Jews dissent from these last claims.)

The theological continuity among the three A's is striking. By way of comparison, the great religions of South and East Asia, the dominant schools of Greek philosophy, 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 make a choice 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 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.” However, 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 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 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, 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 their 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 dark feature is the toleration of slavery that 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 is a mixture 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 launched 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, etc. 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 the numbers of serious readers are regrettably declining. 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 or reject it.

No aspersions of superficiality can be cast at the vast three-part fresco of 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.” Thus the distinction that some observe between Christianity (good) and Christianism (bad); Islam (good) and Islamism (bad). This separation seems all-too-convenient. What if the views of the fanatics, some of them at least, are part of the core and not alien accretions belonging to the the periphery?

To be candid, the distinction between the beneficent core and the noxious accretions is redolent of Pollyannaism, perhaps even of the credulity of a Candide. 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 distortion and outright fabrication, of intolerance and fanaticism that have persistently riddled their endeavors from top to bottom. This blight is not just a matter of the past, but survives and is even being vigorously touted in many religious quarters today.

Sadly, there may be few grounds for optimism. Draining these vast swamps of filth and desolation is a mind-boggling task that may be beyond human capacity.

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 can help to remove misunderstandings that are a source of contention among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. However, his effort to be agreeable, and to forge consensus by a display of reasonableness seems a little naive.


Many studies of religion emphasize the communal or performance dimension, including ritual and liturgy; hymns; and acts of praise of the deity and other holy figures. There are also private aspects, involving prayer and mystical exercises.

There is no doubt that these enactments--both public and private--are very important to believers, and there are many good studies of religion in practice. Yet this study is different. It concentrates on texts, what is conventionally known as Scripture. Each of the three religions is buttressed by a body of holy writings, commonly thought to be divinely inspired. Not only are these writings foundational, they are the usual vehicle for the mutual influences among the religions. They also serve to permit us to reconstruct earlier stages of the faiths. In the world today these scriptures continue to have resonance, even among nonbelievers.

Utilizing the tools of the historical-critical approach, a major aspect of this study is the effort to discern what the texts meant in their original context. This means labeling later accretions as just that--encumbrances that obscure the quest for original meanings.

Another major emphasis of this study is intertextuality. At first this term seems somewhat exotic; in fact it was imported from French structural analyses into English as recently as 1975. Some of the strangeness disappears when we acknowledge that intertextuality incorporates much of what traditional literary scholars are accustomed to terming allusion and influence.

However, the scope of the new term is broader. Intertextuality is the shaping of textual meanings by other texts. It is what might be termed their mutual interanimation. In an extended sense the concept of intertextuality also provides a method for examining the relation of works of art and music to other works in those media--and indeed in other media.

Some observers have complained that the ubiquity of the term "intertextuality" in postmodern criticism has crowded out related terms and important nuances. For example, Linda Hutcheon argues that excessive interest in intertextuality obscures the role of the author, because intertextuality can be found "in the eye of the beholder" and does not necessarily entail a communicator's intentions. Moreover, intertextualitity may embody types of playful allusion, irony, and parody that are alien to the relations among religious texts. While some intertextuality involves precise references to earlier texts, in other cases it is the general form and tone that are uppermost. For instances of the latter type some prefer the term interdiscursivity. It may be said that the Christian pairing of the Old Testament and the New Testament represents a massive instance of interdiscursivity.

At all events, every reader of the New Testament is aware of the way certain passages quote or allude to passages in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians term the “Old Testament,” in part because of this relationship). In quest of such parallels Christians heed the call to “search the scriptures.” In the Hebrew Bible itself, books such as Deuteronomy or the Prophets refer to events described in Exodus, to cite but one book that has been so targeted.

Moreover, this process of referencing continues down to later poems and plays, paintings and sculpture that depend on Biblical narratives, just as other productions in these media build networks around Greco-Roman history and mythology. Even a casual acquaintance with the Qur’an discloses significant motifs and stories that refer back to Jewish and Christian archetypes. Instances of this echoing are the narratives of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus.


In all three faiths resourceful scholars, sometimes termed exegetes, have worked out sophisticated rules and theories for scriptural interpretation. For example, most exegetes distinguish been literal renderings and various forms of allegorical (or “spiritual”) interpretation. While such exercises may strike outsiders as arcane or fanciful, they are governed by an overarching theoretical structure known as hermeneutics (Grant and Tracy, 1988).

Now neglected, the traditions of medieval and early modern Christian exegesis nonetheless rank as a remarkable intellectual achievement. Dominated by various forms of allegory, this vast fresco constitutes the immediate background for the emergence in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries of the historical-critical approach. Modern scholars had to free themselves of this formidable legacy before they could proceed to create what we now recognize as a truer way of understanding the historical documents.

This relationship makes it is necessary to examine the precursor development in some detail. The following account looks first at the exegetical technique of typology and the Christocentric principle that is closely connected with it. Then we turn to fourfold exegesis, the full-fledged system of interpretation developed by the medieval exegetes.

In Christian Biblical exegesis, typology is a doctrine or theory focusing on a purported organic relationship linking the Old and New Testaments. Events and persons in the Old Testament--that is, the Hebrew Bible--are understood as prefiguring events and persons in the New Testament. In this perspective the later exemplar is the "antitype" corresponding to each type.

The Gospels provide several influential models. The Book of Numbers ascribes the creation of a bronze snake to Moses (Numbers 21:6). In Hebrew the object is known as the Nehustan, while Christians generally refer to it as the Brazen Serpent. Raised high up on a pole, the serpent had magical curative powers, for whenever a serpent bit someone the individual had only to look up at it and live.

In the Gospel of John Jesus compared himself to the Brazen Serpent. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The comparison rests on two main factors, the lifting up and the promise of life. In this way the Brazen Serpent is a type of Christ.

Another example of typology is the story of Jonah and the great fish as told in the Book of Jonah. In the original story, Jonah authorized the men aboard the ship to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard. Jonah told them by taking his life, God’s wrath would pass and the sea would become calm. Subsequently Jonah then spent three days and nights in the belly of a great fish before he is spat up onto dry land. Typological interpretation of this story holds that it prefigures Christ's burial, the stomach of the fish being Christ's tomb. As Jonah was freed from the whale after three days, so did Christ rise from His tomb after three days. In the New Testament Jesus can be thought to invoke Jonah as a type: “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.’” (Luke 11:29-32; see also Matthew 12:38-42; 16:1-4). Jonah called the belly of the fish “She’ol,” the land of the dead (translated "the grave" in the NIV).

Thus, whenever one finds a depiction or allusion to Jonah in medieval art or medieval literature, it is usually an allegory for the burial and resurrection of Christ.

The previous two examples reflect the overlap between typology and Christocentrism. But the Christological emphasis need not be present, or may only appear by implication.

Places can also be types. Egypt was thought to represent a state of bondage such as holds the sinner prior to his conversion (Galatians 4:2; Romans 6:17; 1 Corinthians 10:lff). Jerusalem or Zion typifies the church and finally heaven (cf. Galatians 4:25, 26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2), while Babylon, which held God’s people captive in the Old Testament, pictures the condition of an apostate church that has departed from the simplicity of the New Testament pattern (Revelation 11:8; 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2ff).

Events may also be significant. The flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 6-8) typified the sudden destruction of the world yet to come at the end (Matthew 24:37-39). The manna from heaven in the wilderness (Exodus 16:14-16) was a type of that spiritual bread who came down from heaven to nourish humanity (John 6:32).

Using these scriptural comparisons as models, medieval exegetes developed a vast repertoire of such comparisons whereby persons, places, and events under the Old Law were held to foreshadow persons, places, and events under the New Law.

In the fullest version of the typological theory, the later outcomes are seen as the actual reason why the Old Testament events occurred. Less commonly, typological relationships are detected within the Testaments. The theory of typology began in the the early Church, reaching the summit of its influence in the High Middle Ages, when it suffused Christian literature, art, and preaching. Even after the Reformation, typology continued to be popular, especially in Calvinism. With the rise of the historical-critical school, triumphing in the nineteenth century, the typological method faded, so that to all intents and purposes it has disappeared from the mainstream of exegesis. Occasionally, though, even today the ministering clergy revert to such connections for their edifying value.

Typology may be regarded as a form of symbolism or allegory. The Early Church also had recourse to allegory as a method for reconciling seeming disparities between the Old Testament (the Hebrew bible) and the New Testament. While both testaments were studied and seen as equally inspired by God, the Old Testament contained features that Christians found discordant, for example, the Jewish dietary laws and male circumcision. The Old Testament could therefore be seen in places not so much as a literal account, but as a symbolic. Of course, most theorists adhered (or claimed to adhere) to the literal truth of the Old Testament accounts, but regarded the events described as shaped by God to provide exemplars foreshadowing later developments--as we have just seen. Others inclined to the view (sometimes prudently declining to avow their stance) that some parts of the Bible are essentially allegorical.

This approach to the Bible stemmed ultimately from the thought-world of Hellenistic and early Roman Alexandria, where Philo and other Hellenized Jews had sought to present the Hebrew Bible in Platonic terms as essentially an allegory. In the third century Origen Christianized the system, yielding an approach widely influential in both the Greek East and the Latin West, where it was adopted by such figures as Saint Hilary and Saint Ambrose. Guided by Ambrose’s insistence that "the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), Saint Augustine became the most influential Latin proponent of the system, though he also insisted on retaining the literal historical truth of the Bible. The encyclopedist Isidore of Seville and Rabanus Maurus compiled popular works setting forth standardized interpretations of correspondences and their meanings.

In due course, this method was formalized in the hermeneutical technique of distinguishing four categories of interpretation. The first focuses on the literal understanding of the events in historical terms with no underlying meaning. Strictly speaking, this is not allegorical, though the other three are. The second approach, called typological, links the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament; in particular drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ's life with the stories of the Old Testament. The third is moral (or tropological), serving to determine how one should act in the present; it provides the "moral of the story." The fourth category, also allegorical, is the anagogical, dealing with the spiritual or mystical as it relates to future events of Christian history, heaven, hell, the Last Judgment; it concentrates on prophecies.

In summary, the four categories of allegory deal with past events (literal), the connection of past events with the present (typology), present events (moral), and the future (anagogical).

The allegorical method served not only to interpret the bible, but to generate new creations. The High and Late Middle Ages saw the appearance of major allegorical works deploying sophisticated techniques of exposition. Perhaps the most important literary monuments of this type were the French Roman de la Rose; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Langland’s Piers Plowman; and the English Pearl Poem.

These developments, which have only been lightly sketched here, show how pervasive the allegorical trend had become by the high and later middle ages. This popularity would make it hard to dislodge. In due course, this was done. Before turning to this development, we must cite a parallel Jewish exegetical endeavor.


As we have seen, the first steps to the allegorical approach to the Bible were taken by an Alexandrian Jew, Philo. For a long time, however, Philo’s influence was felt mainly among Christians. As recorded in Mishnah and Talmud, the early medieval rabbis were chiefly concerned with the literal interpretation of Scripture (however fanciful this may seem in some instancesto outsiders).

This conservative approach did not last. Some thousand years after Philo and the early Christians had made their fateful venture into the realm of allegorical interpretation, some Western (Ashkenazi) rabbis began to emulate them. During the High Middle Ages in Western Europe Judaism created the exegetical technique of the Pardes, setting forth four approaches to Torah study. The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronym reflecting the initials of the names of these four approaches, which are 1) Peshat — "plain" ("simple") or the direct meaning. 2) Remez — "hints" or the deep (allegoric) meaning beyond just the literal sense. 3) Derash -- from Hebrew darsh: inquire (“seek”): the comparative (midrashic meaning, as given through similar occurrences. 4) Sod -- “secret” (“mystery”), or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Types 2-4 of Pardes interpretation examine some aspect of the presumed extended meaning of a text. In principle, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning. Overlap sometimes occurs. as when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a "hint" is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word.

While the details vary, it is evident that Pardes is an adaptation or mimicry of Christian fourfold interpretation, which had assumed its mature form centuries before. Evidently, the rabbis did not want to be left behind in the exegesis race. The kinship is shown by the fact that both systems begin with the literal meaning, and then add three allegorical ones as a kind of superstructure. Of course, the content of the latter three had to be adjusted to suit Jewish purposes. This borrowing was facilitated by geographical contiguity: the fact that Catholic Christians and Ashkenazi Jews shared much the same living space. It is significant that the method did not develop among Jews living in Islamic lands, or for the most part in Orthodox Christian countries.


The Islamic exegetical tradition is quite different from the two previously discussed. Each verse in the Qur’an can be interpreted as a sign (ayah; plural ayat). There are two types of ayat: 1) verses that are Mukhamaat (clear in essence and law, provided one makes sure to pronounce and grammatically construct them properly); and 2) those that are Mutashabihaat (passages that can be understood in more than one way, yielding what may appear to be ambiguous, confusing, or multiple interpretations. In this way the basic Muslim distinction is not between literal and allegorical meaning, but reflects a recognition that there are different degrees of difficulty in interpretation.

Unlike Christianity, which was confronted with the necessity of harmonizing two inspired scriptures (the Old and New Testament), Islam had only one, the Holy Qur’an. This reliance on a single source exempted Muslims from the sort of intellectual fancy-foot work that Christian exegetes felt compelled to undertake. It is true that they needed to confront the hadiths, extra-Qur’anic utterances ascribed to the Prophet. However important these are as aids to interpretation, they are not on the same plane as the divinely inspired Qur’an, which in the view of some pious believers had existed from the beginning of Creation, being merely transcribed in Muhammad’s time.

In addition, in the Islamic world jurists tended to play a more important role than theologians. For this reason Muslim interpretation is sometimes said to be more about orthopraxis (right conduct) than orthodoxy (right belief). To a considerable extent, this generalization also applies to most varieties of Judaism where, however, the rabbis perform both the exegetical and the juridical role. For its part, Christianity seems to be unique in its emphasis on creeds and doctrinal rigor. 
Arguably, it was in Christianity that allegorical extravagance was most florid. This is one reason why, eventually, a correction became imperative. In fact, of the three religions, only Christendom came forward initially to challenge the interpretive excesses that had come to encumber Holy Writ. It did so with the rise of the historical-critical approach, discussed in the following pages.

This was an astonishing reversal. While the older approaches survive here and there in Christendom, any objective judgment must conclude that the victory of the historical-critical method has been complete. Many obscurities linger in the Bible, yet we have come vastly closer to an understanding of the original meaning and circumstances of composition of the texts. By contrast, rabbinical Judaism still lags behind; Islamic orthodoxy even more so.


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, Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention that make them more affordable, thereby 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 were at first somewhat limited, even timid, but 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. In this way 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 this scholarly movement occurred. Profiting from earlier research, that period embraced 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 criticism 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 effect 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 important accretion 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 produced, containing a translation into Greek from the Latin text. After seeing this, Erasmus yielded, agreeing to restore the traditional wording, which he did in later printings.

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 Five will show how the doctrine of the Trinity now so enshrined in Christian doctrine and worship was not 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 disfiguring 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 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 Mill’s example, other scholars in England, France, and Germany adduced 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 substantial sharing 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 are widely divergent.

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 the 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 hypothesis (Matthew → Luke → Mark). The Two-Source Hypothesis crossed the channel into Britain in the 1880s, primarily through 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. Later scholars have advanced numerous elaborations and variations on the basic hypothesis, and even completely alternative hypotheses. Nevertheless, the Two-Source Hypothesis still today commands the support of most biblical critics from all continents and denominations.


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 size of the text, and the fact that the New Testament was long of primary interest to theologians, detailed criticisms of the Old Testament were somewhat slow to emerge. Some see the origins of this endeavor in such seventeenth-century philosophers and theologians 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, they began to question the traditional idea that they were all written uniformly by Moses. But lacking a specific method they could go no further.

The first significant step in this direction was taken 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 and arrive at what they believed was the most authentic text. Astruc began by identifying two markers which served to tag consistent variations: the use of "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. The parallel columns thus constructed contained two long narratives, each dealing with the same incidents. Astruc suggested that these were the original documents used by Moses, and that Genesis as composed by Moses had looked just like this, parallel accounts meant to be read separately. Jean Astruc 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 extended Astruc's analysis beyond Genesis to 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 importance 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: several smaller sections were identified, such as the Holiness Code comprising Leviticus17-26.

Biblical critics also attempted to identify 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 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 sifted and combined 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. Vocabulary items such as the names of God, or the use of Horeb (E and D) or Sinai (J and P) to designate God's mountain; ritual objects such as the ark, mentioned frequently in J but never in E; the status of judges (never mentioned in P) and prophets (mentioned only in E and D); the means of communication between God and humanity (J's God meets in person with Adam and Abraham, E's God communicates through dreams, P's can only be approached through the priesthood)--all these criteria and more formed the toolkit for discriminating between sources and allocating verses to them. This matter must seem rather technical, but it remains foundational for the study of the Hebrew Bible.

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 (Nicolson, 2003).

The triumph of the historical-critical school has been more general. Even the Vatican has adopted the view that "light derived from recent research" must not be neglected by Catholic scholars, urging them especially to pay attention to "the sources written or oral" and "the forms of expression" used by the "sacred writer.” Up to this point, Catholics had played little role in advancing this research, which was largely the work of German Protestants.

Up to this point we have focused on internal evidence, conclusions that could be drawn from comparison of the various components of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Alongside these advances great changes were taking place in our understanding of the world we live, expecially those put forth by the natural sciences. These advances inevitably eroded confidence in the Biblical world-view, which can be retained, many would say, only by disregarding such findings.


Famously, Archbishop James Usher (1581-1656) calculated that the universe had begun in 4004 BCE. The Bible tells us so. Other calculations differed somewhat, but all agreed that the earth--and the rest of Creation--had existed for less than 6000 years.

This compressed time-scale was to be drastically revised as a result of two major scientific advances: the geological chronology deduced from the study of fossils, and the Darwinian theory of evolution.


In classical antiquity Aristotle recognized that fossil seashells from rocks were similar to those found on the beach, deducing that the fossils were once part of living animals. He reasoned that the positions of land and sea had changed over long periods of time. Much later the principles underlying geological time scales were later laid down by the Dane Nicholas Steno 1638-1686). Steno argued that rock layers (or strata) are laid down in succession, and that each represents a "slice" of time. He also formulated the law of superposition, which states that any given stratum is probably older than those above it and younger than those below it. It took some time for the full implications of this finding to be realized (Toulmin and Goodfield, 1965; Gillispie, 1996). 
In fact the first serious attempts to formulate a geological time scale that could be applied anywhere on Earth were made in the late eighteenth century. The most influential of those early attempts (championed by Abraham Werner, among others) divided the rocks of the Earth's crust into four types: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. According to the theory, each type of rock appeared during a specific period in earth history.

The Neptunist theories popular at this time proposed that all rocks had precipitated out of a single enormous flood. A major shift in thinking came when James Hutton presented a paper entitled Theory of the Earth; or, an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land Upon the Globe before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March and April 1785. Hutton proposed that the interior of the Earth was hot, and that this heat was the engine which drove the creation of new rock: land was eroded by air and water and deposited as layers in the sea; heat then consolidated the sediment into stone, and uplifted it into new lands. This theory was dubbed "Plutonist" in contrast to the flood-oriented theory.

The identification of strata by the fossils they contained, pioneered by William Smith, Georges Cuvier, Jean d’Omalius d’Halloy, and Alexandre Brogniart in the early nineteenth century, allowed geologists to divide earth history more precisely. If two strata (however distant in space or different in composition) contained the same fossils, chances were good that they had been laid down at the same time.

When William Smith and Sir Charles Lyell first recognized that rock strata represented successive time periods, time scales could be estimated only very imprecisely since the various kinds of rates of change used in estimation were highly variable. Still, a set of decisive steps had been taken. While creationists reckoned in terms of thousands of years, geologists had ascertained that millions of years were needed for the unfolding of geologic periods.

Just how many millions remained for a long time in doubt. Lord Kelvin, for example, thought that 100 million years would be enough. Yet in 1898 Marie Curie discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity, and by 1904 Ernest Rutherford, a British physicist, realized that the process of radioactive decay could be harnessed to date rocks. At this point, enter Arthur Holmes (1890-1964) who won a scholarship to study physics at the Royal College of Science in London. There he developed the technique of dating rocks using the uranium-lead method and from the age of his oldest rock discovered that the Earth was at least 1.6 billion years old.

Some geologists thought this allocation of years was too generous, and for a considerable period the results remained controversial. Still, in the 1920s the age of the Earth crept up towards 3 billion years. Embarrassingly, this figure took it beyond the age of the universe itself, then thought to be only 1.8 billion years old. It was not until the 1950s that the age of the universe was finally revised and put safely beyond the origin of the Earth, which had at last reached its true age of 4.56 billion years.

Succeeding discoveries and refinements have proved this general conclusion--sometimes termed the “Deep Time” theory--to be correct beyond any reasonable possibility of doubt.


Imprecise as nineteenth-century estimates proved to be, they formed an essential platform for the advances of Charles Darwin and the evolutionists who followed him (Hodge and Radick, 2003). Darwin needed enormous amounts of time for the process of evolution to unfold. As Thomas Huxley, Darwin's chief advocate, remarked: '’Biology takes its time from Geology.”

As Donald Worster notes, “Darwin is surely the most influential scientist in modern times, not only as the founder of evolutionary biology and ecology but also as the inspirer of anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and philosophers. Despite the stubborn resistance of many religious people, his science has profoundly reshaped our modern world view–indeed, evolution is its very foundation. His book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, argued that life has evolved by wholly natural processes, without any supernatural intervention.” (“Historians and Nature,” American Scholar, Spring 2010).

In 1858 Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace produced complementary versions of a new evolutionary theory, which was explained in detail in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin advocated the principles of common descent and a branching tree of life. His theory was based on the idea of natural selection, and it synthesized a broad range of evidence from animal husbandry, biogeography, geology, morphology, and embryology.

In England the religious reaction to Darwin’s publication was quite mild, at least at first. The creationist idea that the world arose in six days as an act of God some few thousand years before had been pretty much driven from the field by the patient work of the geologists. For his part, Darwin wrote with great tact, even seeming to allow for some intervention of the divine principle in the course of the evolution. It was only in America in the 1920s that religious opposition to Darwin’s theory became white-hot.

At all events, the debate over Darwin's work led to the rapid acceptance among scientists of the general concept of evolution. Yet the specific mechanism he proposed, natural selection, was not widely accepted until it was confirmed by advances in biology that occurred during 1920s through the 1940s. Before that time most biologists assumed that other factors were responsible for evolution. The synthesis of natural selection with Mendelian genetics during the 1920s and 1930s yielded the new discipline of population genetics. In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, population genetics permeated other biological fields, resulting in a widely applicable theory of evolution that encompassed much of biology. The result is what is termed the modern evolutionary synthesis.

In recent years new schools of Creationism have sought to revive some aspects of the biblical view. This revival has attracted many traditional Christians, especially in the American heartland, and in some circles in other English-speaking countries such as Britain and Australia. It does not seem to be making much headway in the rest of the world--with the exception of some sectors of Islamic opinion, where a similar view is being cavased.

Notwithstanding this groundwell of resistance, the general consensus in the scientific community is that these efforts at rehabilitation have failed. The enormous advances over the last few centuries of research and thinking have dealt a blow to biblical theories of history from which they cannot recover.

Still is far to ask the following question. Is Darwinism incompatible with any and all forms of theism? In fact, some scientists working in this realm say that there is a zone where the two can coexist. Some biologists and paleontologists in fact affirm that they are believers. A careful look at the matter shows, however, that this compatibility is more limited than one might think.

The noted Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, who is of Jewish origin, has suggested that science and religion are “overlapping magisteria,” each valid in its own sphere. Most of us are aware that our makeup is a complex intermix of rational and emotional dimensions; in this light Gould’s epistemological dualism has a certain appeal. Yet when the magisteria overlap how is the contest to be decided? Do we simply flip a coin? The idea seems ludicrous. To be sure, there is a long history of dualistic theories of knowledge, going back at least to the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, when all is said and done the procedure seems intellectually unsatisfactory, for ultimately knowledge must be unitary, the result of the logical application of but one set of primary principles.

Another way of reconciling modern science with religion is what is sometimes termed the anthropic principle. In some ways this view is a reminiscent of the pantheism of earlier centuries. Common to both views, though, is the rejection of the idea of a personal God.

Finally, there is a recent notion called the “God of gaps.” This holds that God intervenes in the evolutionary process only at a few crucial points--when the transition from inanimate matter to life occurs, for example. There seems little doubt that further scientific advances will close this gap leaving God with even less to do. Somehow the idea that for aeons God contented himself with playing golf (or whatever the heavenly equivalent is), only deigning to interfere on those rare occasions when he might be needed, is radically at variance with the biblical view of God--he who controls the fall of every sparrow and numbers the hairs on our head.


Yet another 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 “paralleloomania.” 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 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 (see Chapter Three).


Looking back over the many topics canvassed in the preceding sections of this chapter, it is evident that the early modern period saw the beginning of a major transformation. There were three distinct components to this change. So significant are these features that they deserve to be termed the Great Upheavals.

The three major upheavals are as follows:

1) The textual transformation effected when the solvents of the historical-critical method were applied to the words and structure of the Bible. As we have seen, this change has affected both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

2) The Scientific Revolution (geology and evolution), which showed the time scale presupposed by the Bible to be impossible.

3) Archaeology, which presents an entirely different picture of the ancient Near East than the one enshrined in the Bible.

Gradually but inexorably these three fundamental shifts stripped the Bible of all cognitive authority. Its logical status has been gravely compromised. To be sure, for some believers, the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures retain moral authority. But they can no longer be regarded as controlling forces in the advance of human knowledge. That role now belongs indisputably to the sciences, with their canons of experience, empiricism, and proof.

Today the regime of Truth is defined by the human and natural sciences, not by the Bible. In this radically altered context, the Bible must struggle to maintain itself in a world that either hostile or uncaring with regard to its claims. In due course, the Qur’an will find itself in a similar situation.

In these collisions, science prevailed over Holy Scripture. Textual studies and archaeological investigations are continuing, while at the same time biologists are coming closer to their goal of creating life ex nihilo. One should not underline the obvious, but they are unlikely to give any comfort to those who continue their increasingly quixotic effort to salvage the authority and reliability of the Bible.

We now return to issues grounded in the texts, with particular reference to the bible as understood by Christians.


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). Retrospectively, 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 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 was 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, 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, 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 is a group of about 150 individuals, 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, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The seminar adopted the 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 apocalytic 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 now 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. 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 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. The most radical contemporary proposal has come from Thomas L. Thompson, who suggests that the final redaction of the Tanakh occurred as late as the early Hasmonean monarchy, that is, in the second century BCE. I defer the main discussion of the minimalist group until Chapter Three.

I have presented the findings of the historical-critical school at some length because they undergird the entire discussion that follows. Although it is less developed in some areas, the method is just as valid for Jewish and Muslim documents as for Christian ones.

Assuming this method as a given, it will be possible to uncover the original meanings and circumstances of production of countless passages, some of them quite influential in the respective Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations. For better or worse, this heritage has lingered until today.

With these tools we will also be able to observe intertextual relations that link the three sets of scriptures. HIstorical vicissitudes have dictated that in the event they were not propagated in isolation, but became entangled in a complex web of mutual influence.


So what is the Hebrew Bible to mean to us now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century? An answer that occurs frequently these days is that it is literature, to be studied and admired as such. But how much of this very big book is literature? I would hazard a guess that only Genesis, some passages from the prophets, most of the Psalms, and the three wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes qualify for this. Most of the Hebrew Bible is not literature. It is true that Mary Douglas, an innovative scholar, has written a book entitled “Leviticus as Literature.” In the New Testament one might single out the Gospel of John and some eloquent passages in Paul’s letters. Again this is a meager yield.

Part of the trouble with the Bible-as-literature movement is that it exempts one from the hard work of mastering existing scholarship. It is all just a seamless narrative, so why bother with this technical stuff? Then too the literary approach can cause one to overlook the baleful influence of such passages as the prohibition of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and 20, of which the second specifies the death penalty. 
Still, it cannot be denied that the course of the last half-century or so, the English-speaking world has seen the rise of a trend to study the Bible simply as literature. If this approach involves study of particular literary techniques, common to all literature, such as plot and genre, metaphor and synecdoche, there can be no objection. In the course of reading these often tedious documents, it is occasionally useful to pause and examine the beauty of particular passages. Yet surely these qualities are merely ancillary, mere ploys if you will, chosen by the many authors of Scripture to put across their message. It is the message, or rather the messages, of the texts that are the point.

The primary reason why the Bible has gained the sway that it has over the Western world is that it is held to contain instruction about human history, about right conduct, and about things to avoid. As James Kugel has remarked if we were to chose between say the literary merits of the bible, on the one hand, and the literary merits of, say, Dante and Shakespeare on the other, there would be no contest. The “Bible as literature” approach is also unsatisfactory because the bible is not, unlike the writings of Dante and Shakespeare just mentioned, the product of a single author. There were multiple authors writing at different times and purposes.

Finally, the approach offers a convenient--all too convenient--compromise between secularists who still seek to find value in these old writings, on the one hand, and the religious or formerly religious who can shield themselves from doubt by adopting this view.

Needless to say, the approach to the Bible as literature is not the one followed in this book. For that one must turn elsewhere.


It is time to summarize the main topics canvassed in this opening chapter.

While there have been different ways of describing the link, the kinship of the three Abrahamics has been recognized for many centuries. Despite many differences--contrasts in terms of both origins and development--it is undeniable that the three show a fundamental family resemblance. The Abrahamic family differs from, say, the Indic family, embracing Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other branches, all of which are alive and well. It also differs from Mediterranean polytheism, as seen in the extinct religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

As Muslim tradition acknowledges, the three Abrahamic faiths are all “religions of the book.” For this reason this presentation takes as its central focus the analysis of the foundational documents--or Scriptures in Bible terminology--of all three. We seek to examine the original import of the texts, separating this historical core from later accretions. However, these enhancements need to be studied for their own sake because they have been instrumental in the dialogue among the three. This dialogue, affirming the kinship in its own way, is also of central concern.

We have seen how all three--but Christians especially--developed symbolic or allegorical ways of explaining Holy Scripture. The enthusiasm for allegory reached its full flower during the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Yet it was there too that the great countermovement, the historical-critical method, began its rise in the sixteenth century. This method addressed both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Only recently (as Chapter Six will show) has this approach been applied to the Qur’an.

The historical-critical method operates within a specific sphere--a closed one, if you will. By carefully examining various clues and subjecting the texts to lexical and structural analysis, the approach seeks to discover the original import of the texts. Working with great tenacity, biblical critics have made extraordinary progress in their realm, bringing into question most of the traditional beliefs that have grown to encrust the Scriptures over the centuries.

As if these seismic shocks were not sufficient, traditional religion has had to face external challenges. Here the most decisive contributions have come from geology and biology, together with archaeology, especially as practiced in the Middle East.

As the concluding sections have noted, textual analysis of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament continues. For its part, the Qur’an has also come under the microscope, and this tendency is sure to increase.

All in all, however, the results are much more than preliminary; they are overwhelming. Never very plausible, the claim that the Holy Scriptures rank as incomparable repositories of truth has been demolished. What remains to be determined is the possible role that such texts - with their teeming factual deficiencies and inconsistencies, their exaltation of cruelty and ethnocentrism - may retain, even intermittently, as spiritual and moral guides.


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Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

---. Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

---. The Price of Monotheism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

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---. Biblical Words for Time. London: SCM Press,1962.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testa- ment and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Becking, Bob, Marjo C. A. Korpel, Karel J. Meindert Dijkstra, and H. Vriezen, eds. One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

Boman, Thorleif. Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. New York: Norton, 1970.

Cullmann, Oscar. Christ and Time. London: SCM, 1966.

Davies, W D. The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

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

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005.

Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

--- Islam: The Straight Path. Third ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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