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One God: The Enduring Biblical Vision
Baruch A. Levine
Question: Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God? Answer: Yes, of course, but ...
We customarily refer to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three monotheist religions. All three are linked to the Hebrew Bible, where monotheism, as we know it, was first expounded. The New Testament draws heavily on and attributes authority to the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), which was incorporated fully into the Christian canon. It is surely reasonable, even inescapable to conclude that the God of the Old and New Testaments is to be identified as one and the same divine being, the God of Abraham. In the relationship of Islam to both Judaism and Christianity, the issue of divine identity, though more complex, evokes the same conclusion. The Qur'an, in its own ways, acknowledges the historic priority of both Judaism and Christianity and endorses the revelation of the Torah to the People of the Book, a designation that can refer to Christians as well as Jews. The Qur'an often speaks of biblical personalities, Patriarchs, kings, prophets, and others, and appropriates the Hebrew biblical narrative in large part. Muslims are "Children of Abraham" and worship the God of Abraham.
It has been said that there is "a sociology of questions," special factors that explain why certain issues come to the fore when they do. As a result of recent efforts at dialogue, undertaken in free and open societies, Jews and Christians, for their part, have made considerable progress in repairing their religious relationship and in resolving issues between them. (The same can be said for the different Christian churches among themselves). This has been accomplished by emphasizing commonality over difference and by affirming the right to freedom of religion.
The same process is just beginning with respect to Islam and significantly during a period of Islamic resurgence and social and political upheaval in many Arab and/or Muslim societies. In limited circles, Jewish-Christian dialogue has been expanded to include the third monotheist religion, Islam, and in some secular circles there is now more interest in what Islam has to say. We are hearing a still, small voice of reconciliation amidst the clamor of contention coming from every side. By raising the age-old question of "divine identity" we are presumably operating on the premise that the present confrontation between Islam and the West can be addressed more effectively by emphasizing the shared belief in one and the same God; that what has changed for the better in the Jewish-Christian relationship can, as a parallel, be replicated in relations with Islam. Surely, that would be a most welcome outcome.
It must be conceded, however, that in large part, history challenges this premise. The histories of the three monotheist religions show they have often been in conflict, with Christians and Muslims variously prevailing over, or being dominated by, each other and with Jews being restricted, at the very least, by both. There is also a crowded history of Christian and Muslim "sectarian" conflicts.
It must be remembered that open dialogue has been productive only when the requisite political, social, and cultural conditions have been obtained in the several societies so as to allow for it, which is often not the case, and when the will to coexist peacefully is strong enough to resist exclusionary pressures. Ontological determinations, in and of themselves, hardly tell the whole story. This is the qualifying but in the answer to our question, cautioning us against unwarranted expectations.
Who Holds the Rights to the One, True God?
In the study to follow, I will focus on historic relationships among the three monotheist confessions, (of which two are vast in number and one severely limited in number), rather than on ontology or on theology as such. I do so with the recognition that it is precisely the "oneness" (=unity) of God that forces the issue of exclusivity in the human-divine encounter. In real time, nations and empires, Christian and Muslim, and others, have fought against each other and competed with each other, and have applied restrictive policies to the Jews within their orbits. So, whose side is God on? The mythological warring among gods is over. All power is now concentrated in one divine being. To put it differently: historically, the issue that has informed conflict among the monotheist religions has been that of rival claims to an exclusive relationship with the one, true God, not that of identifying the universal deity, on which there has generally been theological agreement.
This analysis is borne out by the histories of the three religions. First, there were the Israelites/Jews, who represented themselves as the exclusive recipients of God's revealed word through Moses and the prophets and who considered themselves bound to God by a unique covenant. In the light of events yet to come, the historic priority of the Israelite revelation, recorded in the Hebrew Bible, lends to post-biblical Judaism, the religion of a very small people, a disproportionate degree of importance in the history of religions. Then, there were the Christians, who announced a subsequent revelation that has them assuming the role formerly assigned to the Jewish People. Christianity reconfigured the human-divine encounter by its introduction of a savior, Jesus Christ, son of God. The earlier Israelite revelation is not denied; it remains true as far as it goes, but it is now deemed insufficient—some would say that it had been superseded. Henceforth, the path to God was to be exclusively through Christ, mediator of the New Covenant.
Then, centuries later in Arabia (precisely, in the early seventh century C.E.), revelations from God were transmitted by the Prophet, Muhammad, as preserved in the Qur'an and recorded in Hadith literature. Once again, the preexisting revelations, now of both Old and New Testaments, are acknowledged but are deemed insufficient, or thought to have been superseded. Henceforth, only Islam pronounces God's will and his truth in full. So, we have three religious communities aware that they are worshiping the same God and cognizant of their formative intersections, yet in competition with each other, if not in actual conflict. At certain times in the past, elements within these communities have engaged in dialogue across religious lines, but it has usually been polemical in character. There is also a history of mutual influences. There appears to be no intellectual barrier to communication when there is a desire to communicate; the three groups understand where they are coming from. This is, in briefest outline, the historic background of our problem.
The Dynamic of Competing Monotheisms
The first step in probing the history of competing monotheisms is to recognize that the first Christians were themselves Jews living in the biblical homeland. Initially, they bore a message of redemption to their own people, conveyed through Christ, the Savior, whose Jewish lineage is clearly registered. Very soon, and following in the footsteps of Jewish missionaries, early Christians embarked on missionary activity directed increasingly at the Gentiles of the Roman Empire, but with a critical difference: whereas the early Christians affirmed their commitment to the single God of the Hebrew Bible and, like the Jews, utterly rejected polytheism and longed for freedom from imperial domination, they were forming a new religious identity—or to put it another way, a new religious polity. They came to see themselves as the new Israel, the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, bound by a new covenant with the God of Israel, under which there would henceforth be no Jew and no Gentile (Gal. 3:28). This message, in particular, impacted the Gentiles of the Roman Empire, many of whom were converted to Christianity over a period of several centuries during which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. At the same time, the Jews as a body and their religious leaders insisted for the most part on fulfilling the commandments of the Torah as given and in reaffirming Jewish peoplehood.
The reception process with respect to the origins of Islam was understandably more complex. The first Muslims were not Jews but rather peninsular Arabs, fiercely iconoclastic, to whom Jews were certainly no strangers, and who were familiar with biblical traditions and postbiblical Judaism. Scholars have noted efforts to persuade the Jews of Arabia to join the Islamic monotheist polity, but as before, the main body of Jews in Arabia turned down the offer, so to speak, as did the majority of Jews elsewhere who came under Arab conquest. Once again, we encounter an ironic situation: the Jews, whose ancestral proclamation of the true God was being endorsed as a definitive tenet by yet another new religion are themselves rejected, or at the least restricted, for refusing to join that monotheist polity.
It is arguable that the emergence of Christianity in the first century C.E. was possible only because Israelite-Jewish monotheism had survived a series of "crises of faith," each of which might have broken the chain had it not been met successfully. It is my purpose here to trace these crises, which began in the Neo-Assyrian period, continued at intervals through the loss of both the Northern Israelite and Judean Kingdoms. The exiled Judeans endured separation from the homeland during the Babylonian and Egyptian exiles without a temple in Jerusalem. They overcame difficulties in reconstituting collective existence in the homeland during the Persian Period and subsequently dealt with the religious and cultural challenges of Hellenism. In particular, the restoration of the cult of Yahweh in the Temple of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, who stood their ground against the religious persecutions of Antiochus IV in the second pre-Christian century, saved Jewish monotheism, whose continued existence was hanging by a thread. The very obstinacy, later attributed to the Jewish People by the heirs to their monotheist belief system, had earlier served to assure the survival of monotheism in late antiquity!
Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible: The Ascent of the Israelite God
The great historian, Arnold Toynbee, was fascinated by the fact that it was Yahweh, originally the tribal-national God of a numerically negligible, and in international terms, relatively powerless people, the ancient Israelites, that ultimately emerged as the universal God of a large part of humankind. How did this happen?
The short answer has already been posited: it was the consequence of the rise of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, later followed by the expansion of the Islamic polity over vast areas of the world. Both religions affirmed belief in the God of Abraham.
Searching for the long answer will take us back to the pre-Hellenistic period, to a discussion of the evolution of the Israelite-Jewish God idea and the factors that contributed to the survival of Judaism and of the Jewish people during what has been called the second commonwealth (or second temple period), preceding the advent of Hellenism in the late fourth century B.C.E. It is doubtful whether monotheism, as a belief system, would have survived at all if the Jewish collective endeavor in the homeland after the Exile had ended in failure. Christianity has recognized its debt to the heroic Maccabees, who took up arms in defense of Jewish monotheism, and thereby saved it, when it could have been lost to the ages. However, the debt to the restored Judean community of the Persian period has not been sufficiently acknowledged.
In the pre-Hellenistic period (from the late eight to the latter part of the fourth century B.C.E.), prophetic monotheism envisioned a world composed of many nations, who would abandon the idolatrous symbols of imperial power and unite in the belief that there is only one God, Yahweh, who alone rules over all nations. The Israelites, especially the Judean kings from Hezekiah and onward, are counseled to submit to Assyria, then Babylonia, and wait for Yahweh to bring down those evil empires. In this vision, Jerusalem was not slated to become the capital of a world empire, but rather to be the unique locus of oracular revelation, enabling conflicts among nations to be resolved without recourse to war (Isa. 2:2-4 // Mic. 4:1-3). We tend to forget that the fulfillment of the prophetic vision was to be international peace, not merely a universal theological confession.
These predicates represent remarkable responses, first to Assyrian, then to Neo-Babylonian imperial power. They demonstrate how the previously regional horizons of the Israelite prophets expanded to address an imperial world. The prophetic vision was introduced in the late eight century B.C.E. by First Isaiah (10:5-11, 14:24-27) and was endorsed a century later by Jeremiah (chaps. 25, 27). Whereas Sennacherib, the Assyrian, and Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian, were Yahweh's instruments of punishment, Cyrus the Great, was to be the instrument of Israel's restoration, as proclaimed by Second Isaiah, during or soon after the Babylonian Exile (Isa. 45:1-7). Yet, the doctrine is the same: Yahweh rules over empires either way. What is new is the vital reinterpretation of First Isaiah and Jeremiah by the author of Second Isaiah that allowed for an exception to the predicted downfall of empires, more specifically, for an enabling role for the Achemenid empire. The restored Judean community endured and its territory was enlarged, all the while under far away Persian kings, not under a dynastic Davidite. Would this same community survive oncoming Hellenism, in general, and the religious persecutions of Antiochus IV, the Seleucid ruler, in particular?
Exile and Return: The Great Survival Challenge
The prophetic vision worked on two levels:
1. Acceptance of the prophetic policy of submission to empire by Hezekiah, King of Judah, ca. 701 B.C.E., and subsequently by Manasseh and the Judean leadership, enabled Judah to continue to exist, albeit weakened and at times in vassalage to Egypt, for about a century up until the final Babylonian destruction and the ensuing exile (587–586 B.C.E.).
2. The prophetic doctrine, as reinterpreted, legitimized the Judean restoration under Persian rulers, and a second temple was built on the very site of the first. Collectively, the Judeans were able to survive exile and to uphold strict monotheism in the process and then to operate successfully under a temple-centered system in Jerusalem. The restored Judean community, in what became known as Yehud, successfully parried divisive challenges by the Samaritans and adapted religious practice to the realities of a mixed society in the homeland. In the late fifth century B.C.E., what we now call Judaism emerged as an Israelite-based religious system, accommodated to the new facts on the ground, whereby sizable diaspora communities continued to "network" with the homeland.
There is now great attention being given to the Persian period (538–332 B.C.E.), which, until recently, had seemed to most scholars like a dark age. Our particular concern is in "survivability," on the assumption, already stated, that if the restored community had failed, or had totally assimilated, monotheism might not have survived. Our interest is, therefore, in the religious and social strategies of the restored community, where we encounter two distinguishable "voices," the one contractive and the other expansive. Once we get past issues involving the praxis of religion, the defining issue becomes that of boundaries: Who is a Jew, and who can become a Jew, and how so?
Was religious conversion as a transformative act, such as was practiced in Judaism of the Greco-Roman period and beyond, operative in pre-Hellenistic times? Some have inferred from Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, echoed in Nehemiah (13:1-3), that it was not. There we read of efforts to cleanse the restored Judean community of intermarriage. As Ezra tells it, the Judean returnees, including their leaders and sons, had taken to marrying the daughters of "the peoples of the land," whose practices were as abominable as those of the "peoples" of Canaan, with whom the Israelites had been forbidden to marry when they first entered Canaan, according to Deuteronomy (7:1-11). This practice is repeatedly referred to in Ezra as "the sacrilege of the exiles," namely, of the returning exiles. It has been argued that if formal conversion had been operational at the time, there would have been an obvious remedy available to the zealous among the religious leadership of the returnees, an alternative to the disruptive and cruel banishment of foreign wives. These wives could have simply been converted to Israelite-Jewish religion.
Excerpted from Do Jews, Christians, And Muslims Worship The Same God? by Jacob Neusner, Baruch A. Levine, Bruce D. Chilton, Vincent J. Cornell. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted February 14, 2013
Our Sunday School class chose this book for study. It is what our class called a "hard read." The first 3 chapters were very difficult to get through, but the 4th chapter was easier to understand. It was the concensus of our class that this book probably was written for seminary students rather than for lay people. We are fortunately in that our class is led by an ordained minister who could explain the book to us. However, we were in agreement that the book led to some interesting discussions, and we were glad to have studied it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.