Islam and Christianity
Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective
By John Renard
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Sacred Sources and Community Origins
Two major theological themes occupy this chapter. First, at the heart of the formation, reception, and history of interpretation of their sacred texts, the Christian and Muslim traditions exhibit several noteworthy similarities as well as important differences. Though both came eventually to revolve around a unique sacred text, the Muslim community grew even as the scripture was being revealed. For the Christians, the multiauthored New Testament was relatively delayed, by contrast, in its formation as a unified canon. Second, the earliest communities of Christians and Muslims bore very different relationships to their sacred sources but also showed some intriguing analogies in the ways the core circles of original adherents related to their founding figures.
SCRIPTURE, EXEGESIS, AND TRADITION
As the two largest "Peoples of the Book," Christians and Muslims are keenly aware that their traditions are rooted in authoritative sacred texts. Both global communities have also generated complex histories of scriptural interpretation. In both traditions, exegesis begins with, and within, the primary revealed texts themselves. In this section I will outline the principal varieties and histories of exegetical methods in the two traditions and conclude with a look at the "historical" implications of how the respective scriptures talk about the "foundational figures" Jesus and Muhammad.
Both Christian and Islamic traditions have long histories of explicit awareness of the challenge and delicacy of interpreting communications believed to be of divine origin, whether as product of "inspiration" or as the mediation of the very words of God. This awareness begins with the sacred texts themselves, in the ways they incorporate, or allude to, previous "books" as well as in their more explicit comments on the limits of human interpretation and the inherent differences in various types of sacred communication.
Varieties of Christian Exegesis
Christian traditions of exegesis begin with the twenty-seven "books" of the New Testament. The "inspired" authors of the New Testament works found themselves at an exegetical crossroads of sorts. As Jews, they were heirs to already well-established methods of Jewish exegesis. But as members of the fledgling Christian community, they recognized the need to reorient their interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures so as to make clear how and to what degree the new faith distinguished itself from ancient Jewish beliefs. The crux of the matter lay in a dramatic departure from Jewish messianic expectations, which Christians regarded as being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, for Jewish-Christians the long wait for the Messiah was over, but for their Jewish brothers and sisters it was not. This fulfillment required a new mode of interpretation for the texts of the Hebrew scriptures long thought to refer to the expected Messiah, as well as a reorientation of formerly nonmessianic texts the better to reflect the characteristics that Christians now associated with the long-awaited deliverer.
Elements of continuity linking Jewish and Christian exegesis included a variety of methods, as evidenced by the ways New Testament texts cite the Hebrew scriptures. Verbatim quotation can be qualified by "thus fulfilling the words of ... [followed by a quotation of an Old Testament text]" or simply by citing an Old Testament text and assuming that readers would recognize the allusion, as when Mark 15:34 cites Psalm 22:2. Near quotes appear often, with or without contextualizing comment, as in Matthew 11:2–5. In addition, many New Testament texts allude to more ancient scriptural texts, clearly referring to the literal sense but further clarifying the text's meaning for Christians. For example, all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:34) allude to Psalm 22:18's reference to dividing by lot the garments of a "type of Christ." Finally, the Gospel of John and the Pauline Letters often quote or allude to Old Testament texts in ways that clearly move well beyond a literal sense by "spiritualizing" the meaning (as, for example, John's prologue and Romans 16:25–26, both reminding readers of the connection between the Old Testament and the "hidden meaning" of it, revealed in Christ).
Jewish exegetical methods employed by New Testament authors include allegorical readings of Old Testament narratives, such as Galatians 4:21–31's reinterpretation of the various elements of the story of Abraham. Sarah and Hagar represent the two covenants (old and new), Isaac and Ishmael free persons and those still under the Law respectively, and places such as Sinai refer to eschatological concepts such as the New Jerusalem. Line-byline commentary, known as pesher, occasionally appears, as when Romans 10:5–13 provides a Christian rereading of each verse of Deuteronomy 30:12–14, showing how each is actually a reference to Christ. In short, the Pauline Letters give solid evidence of early "typological" thinking, that is, discerning precursors (types) of New Testament figures or truths in the Old; but beyond that one might also see Paul's distinction between "letter" and "spirit" as a precursor of Christian exegetical concepts of "historical" (i.e., more literal) and "allegorical" interpretation.
Traces of the "Seven Hermeneutical Principles of Rabbi Hillel" occur in various guises throughout the New Testament. One of the last rabbinical "pairs of teachers" (along with Shammai), Hillel is credited with systematizing a set of guidelines for scriptural interpretation. One of those principles, the "light and heavy," argues that if a given action is acceptable in a clearly serious and highly restrictive setting, it is surely acceptable in a far less momentous situation. Mark 2:23–28, for example, has Jesus referring to the account in which David and his hungry men ate bread from the Temple's ritual supplies (1 Samuel 21:1–16). Implicitly applying the principle of the "light and heavy," Jesus responds to those who criticized his followers for eating grain on the Sabbath (thus violating the prohibition of labor on the holy day). If David could eat even from the sacred and therefore forbidden ritual offerings of the Temple (the heavier case), Jesus argues, there is clearly no problem with the apostles nibbling on some grain that has obviously not been consecrated for ritual use (the lighter case).
As for the specific purposes of New Testament authors, use of the Hebrew scriptures to assert that an ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in the life of Jesus is among the most prevalent methods. Few details of the life of Jesus go unsupported by Old Testament texts. Many allusions to the Old Testament are meant to establish unshakable historical bases for certain Christian practices, including apparent departures from ancient Jewish prescriptions. Arguments both for and against circumcision based on Old Testament texts appear. For example, Acts 15:16–18 cites Amos 9:11–15 (God will rebuild the fallen house of David) as proof that circumcision should not be required of new converts; but Galatians 3 cites Habakkuk 2:4 (life comes through faith and not through the Law) to bolster the Pauline case for the supersession of the Jewish law (which mandates circumcision). Conversely, some New Testament texts (John and Hebrews in particular) also validate "new" ideas or beliefs by reframing Old Testament references as "prefiguring" imperfectly the reality of Jesus. So, for example, while Israel is the "vine" and God's people fed on the "bread" of desert manna, Jesus is the "true" vine and the "true" bread (Isaiah 5:7; Exodus 16:11–31; John 15:1–5, 6:35, 41).
In short, New Testament exegesis functions largely to characterize the relationships between the old and new dispensations. In some cases the point is that the new flows directly from the old (prophecy fulfillment); in others, that the new builds on the old by deepening its underlying themes (allegorical and typological); and in still others, that the New Testament reading represents a dramatic rupture with the Old (supersession, as in Hebrews 10, with its dual argument that Jesus supplants Moses and that Jesus' sacrifice renders all subsequent sacrifice nugatory and the Temple obsolete).
During the second Christian century (known variously as the postapostolic period or the period of the apostolic fathers), exegetes continued to refine methods and varieties of interpretation. The basic structure of the "Muratorian Canon" of the New Testament was not formalized until around 180 C.E., and it was in 367 that Athanasius first listed the canon as now accepted. Early interpreters therefore continued to focus largely on further exegesis of the Old Testament. Apostolic Father Justin Martyr (110–65) argued for the identity of "letter and spirit" in the interpretation of scripture, and saw witness to "Christ as Logos" as the key criterion of scriptural authenticity in the process of canonization. Typological interpretation was a staple, so that, for example, Justin read Old Testament references to "wood" as "types" of the cross of Christ. Drawing on Paul in Romans and Galatians, Irenaeus (130–200) advanced this typological method with his concept of recapitulation, whereby New Testament figures "renew" the Old Testament. Hence, for example, Christ is the "new Adam," Mary the "new Eve." Later second-century figures such as Tertullian of Carthage and Clement of Alexandria further developed the concept of the New Testament as an allegorical fulfillment of the Old Testament. Tertullian, however, remained more conservative in his appeal to allegorical exegesis, using evolving church teaching as his touchstone. Clement espoused a more individualistic approach based on what the individual's own faith moves him or her to discern in scripture.
Origen of Alexandria further refined Clement's methods of allegorical interpretation, so that by the mid-third century, the Pauline distinction between letter and spirit had blossomed into a tripartite exegetical model (the historical, the typological, and the spiritual sense). It is likely that the Alexandrian Jewish exegete Philo (c. 20 B.C.E.—c. 50 C.E.) influenced Origen in this regard. In turn, Basil of Caesarea (330–79), Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa taught the superiority of images to mere words as the foundation for a further development into what came to be called the "four senses of scripture." On the basis of the work of these Cappadocian Fathers, exegetes came to refer to the four levels of meaning as follows: historia ("What God and Fathers did"), yielding a typological interpretion; allegoria ("Where our faith is hid"), resulting in a spiritual interpretation; tropologia ("Rules for daily life"), or ethical interpretation; and anagogia ("Where we end our strife"), reading texts for their eschatological meanings. So, for example, one might understand texts about "paradise" variously as referring to the garden of Eden (historical), Christ and the church (allegorical), the realm of the four cardinal virtues (tropological), and the heavenly reward at the end of time (anagogical). By the same token, references to Jerusalem would mean the Holy Land, the church, the soul of the believer, and the heavenly city, respectively.
Subsequent major early exegetes like Augustine, Jerome (345–420), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350–428), and Gregory the Great went on to argue for varying emphases on the respective "senses" of scripture. Ephraem of Syria (d. c. 373) and other Syriac-writing exegetes of the central Middle East are of particular importance in this context, as their work arguably set the stage for the exegetical writings of Islam's earliest Qur'n commentators.
Over the course of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Christian exegetes further refined the interpretative options. The story of the last millennium and a half is too long and complex to retell in detail. Here a few general characterizations concerning major developments must suffice. During early medieval times major figures such as Alcuin (735–804) and John Scotus Eriugena continued the quest to reconcile exegesis with the Neoplatonic concept of emanation (as in the increasing materialization of spiritual realities) and integrated exegesis into the traditional schema of liberal education. A favored system identified quadripartite patterns everywhere, from the Gospels to the seasons, cardinal directions, ages of the world, and cardinal virtues. In the reforming monasteries and emerging universities of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe, exegetes further refined a full range of traditional hermeneutical styles, from the strictly literal to the highly symbolic. Earlier emphasis on the link between scripture and prayer yielded to a more academic approach to exegesis as a topic for university lecturers.
During the later Middle Ages (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), exegesis took second place to the emergence of Scholastic systematic theology, but early Reformers such as Wycliffe and Hus again tilted the scale in favor of scripture study. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other sixteenth-century Reformers revitalized exegesis further by reorienting the principles of patristic hermeneutics. No longer would church teaching be the decisive criterion in how to read the sacred text. Now holy writ would become the authoritative commentator on itself. As a result, Reformation exegetes emphasized finding the "spirit in the letter," severely limiting the use of allegory, in the interest of adapting scriptural preaching to an age of exploration and discovery.
In the early modern and modern periods, changing political, social, and cultural dynamics played a major role in shaping exegetical theology and hermeneutics. With the rise of nation-states, for example, the church's relationships with political power shifted dramatically. In more recent times, increased consciousness of the decisive influences of race and gender has given rise to heightened awareness of how cultural and social dominance can skew interpretation in favor of those already at the top of the power pyramid. With that much too brief summary of an enormously complex subject, we must move on to the Islamic side of the story.
Muslim Traditions of Exegesis
Unlike the New Testament, the Qur'an does not specifically "quote" earlier scriptures. It does, however, make multiple allusions to figures and narratives that appear in both Old and New Testaments. Early Muslim exegetes also made considerable use of narrative material called Isra'iliyat (stories about the people of Israel), a practice roughly analogous to New Testament allusion to Old Testament stories. In other words, much Qur'anic narrative material has what one might call "biblical resonances." At the same time, the Muslim scripture evidences a variety of distinctive hermeneutical principles. First, Muslim tradition assumes that explicit citation of what Jews and Christians acknowledge as authoritative versions of their sacred texts is not only unnecessary but would lead to serious error. Behind this assumption lies the concept of tampering (tahrif), according to which any perceived discrepancy between biblical and Qur'anic texts and accounts is traceable to deliberate interference by Jewish or Christian scholars.
Second, the concept of abrogation (naskh) arises from the notion that God revealed his word gradually as a concession to the inability of humankind to receive and absorb all of the divine truth at a stroke. As a result, exegetes interpret texts of the Qur'an that may appear at first glance to contradict each other as sequential rather than mutually incompatible.
Following upon the need to distinguish "abrogated" texts from "abrogating" revelations, Muslim exegetes have insisted from very earliest times on the importance of identifying as precisely as possible the historical context of every Qur'anic text. Naming these occasions of revelation (asbab an-nuzul) gave rise to the practice of labeling each sura of the Qur'an with an acknowledgement of its location in the original order in which the texts were revealed to and through Muhammad. Not unlike the Christian concept of context in the life of Jesus (Sitz im Leben), the circumstances of revelation anchor the text in the concrete setting of the early community and life experience of the Prophet. A key methodological difference, however, is that the Christian exegetical principle arose centuries later with the historical-critical method rather than out of a concern to anchor a text explicitly in an already established chronology. (Continues...)
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