I was contacted by Horizons Magazine, which is published by the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) for women, and asked to write an introductory article on the development and use of the sacred texts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, while also discussing the relationship between these scriptures. (Could be a dissertation topic!) This is meant for a general readership audience and I have not cited everything since the magazine was less concerned than my college professors with that sort of thing. Most of the info includes general knowledge that is easily accessible through a variety of online resources. Also note: Horizons asked me to write on Christianity from a specifically Catholic perspective since their readers are most familiar with the Protestant understanding. (I didn’t purposefully leave them out!) My guideline was 1600 words and I’m slightly over, but not too bad. The short bit at the end profiling the Sisters of Faith will be a breakout box in the issue to go alongside my article. Any questions or concerns, please feel free to chat with me, although it’s already been sent in for review and publication for the July/August 2013 issue!
The Children of Abraham: Exploring the Holy Texts of Judaism, Christianity, & Islam
Jews, Christians, and Muslims account for roughly 4.8 out of the 7 billion people on the planet today. Historically, all three faiths trace their roots to one father in the Middle East – Abraham – and all proclaim the truth of One God, with sacred scripture playing a vital role in each of the faiths. Despite critical differences that exist between these monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, they have a tremendous capacity for promoting peace and understanding in the world.
Historical Development of Sacred Scripture
The Tanakh is the epicenter of Judaism, regarded as the words of the Most High that have inspired Jewish thought, philosophy, ethics, and life for centuries. Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for Torah (law), Nevim (the prophets), and Ketuvim (historical and poetics writings), and it was not completely compiled until Talmudic times, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. By 350CE, the Tanakh was canonized in its current form, although some books like the Song of Songs and Esther were not unanimously accepted.
Orthodox Judaism teaches that Moses wrote the entire Torah, which includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, at the dictation of God. However, according to Dr. Sheldon Kopperl, professor of Religious Studies at Grand Valley State University, “Conservative and Reform Jews generally believe that the Torah was composed of a series of documents based upon the politics of the time, as well as collected stories, moral and ethical principles, and other types of literary materials.” This is commonly called the Documentary Hypothesis and is also accepted by Catholic Biblical Scholars.
In any case, the Torah was canonized into its current form by the time of Ezra the Scribe around 520BCE, since the book of Nehemiah described Ezra reading a portion of the Torah every Shabbat to the Jewish people. The individual documents were likely written between 900BCE and 550BCE, and compiled around the latter date. Ezra, or a school of rabbis (teachers) contemporary with him, likely made the decisions about which materials were to be included in the canonical Torah.
Like the Jewish tradition, the Christian New Testament took centuries to be officially compiled into the canonical version Christians use today. As with the Jewish Tanakh, Catholics believe that the scriptures were not written at one time by one person – in fact, there is over 40 years between the writing of the first books in 45CE (Galatians) and the writing of the final book (St. John’s Epistles).
“The Catholic Church does not regard the Bible as a “book” per se,” said Mary Vaccaro, Director of the Dominican Center at Marywood in Grand Rapids Michigan, “but a library containing the Jewish Tanakh, in addition to the Gospel accounts, early Church history, Pauline, and other letters. All are considered to be divinely inspired.” The first three centuries of the Church were devoted to sharing the Word of God through living voices, and the books and letters which Christians call Sacred Scripture today, arose in particular circumstances and were written to address specific needs of Christian individuals and communities.
These writings were not collected for about 300 years after the death of Jesus, until the Council of Carthage was assembled in 397CE under the influence of St. Augustine. It was at this Council that the Church decided which writings were inspired and which were not. After this process was complete, the canon was sent to the Bishop of Rome (Pope Boniface I) to be confirmed for use throughout the whole Church. The contents of this canon were reaffirmed at the second Council of Carthage in 419CE, the Council of Florence in 1442CE and the Council of Trent in 1546CE.
Christians believe the Holy Spirit guided this selection process, as it did in inspiring the writers of the canonical books of the Bible. The Council of Trent, in particular, played an important role in reaffirming the divinely inspired canon for Catholics, especially the deuterocanonical books that were rejected during the Protestant Reformation; these texts can be found in Catholic Bibles, but not in Protestant versions: Tobit, Judith, 1&2 Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, and additions to both Esther and Daniel.
Unlike the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, was revealed to one person in a relatively short period of time. Qur’an simply means the recitation in Arabic; the process of its revelation began in 610CE with the first instructions of the Prophet Muhammad. Dr. Muaz Redzic, Imam at the Bosnian Cultural Center in Grand Rapids, explained that the Prophet, himself, was actually illiterate so as soon as he would receive a revelation of the Qur’an, he would call upon his scribes and dictate the text to them.
After they wrote, the scribes would repeat it back to the Prophet to verify its accuracy; though the entire Qur’an was revealed and written during the lifetime of the Prophet, it was not compiled from into one book until after his death in 632CE.
One of the most authentic sources of the correct Qur’anic pronunciation and recitation has been the hafiz, or memorizers of the Qur’an. The memorization and recitation of the entire Qur’an has been standard practice in all parts of the Muslim world since the beginning of Islam. Children would traditionally memorize the Qur’an between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, which amounts to approximately 600 pages of memorization.
According to Imam Dr. Redzic, the Qur’an is still the most memorized text in the world, yet Muslims do not fully understand the meaning of the memorized words since the true Qur’an is only in Arabic (not vernacular languages); more than half of the world’s Muslims are not from the Middle East and do not speak Arabic.
Relationships Between Sacred Scriptures
Being the first of the Abrahamic faiths to develop, Judaism does not accept the Christian New Testament as sacred because they do not believe that Jesus was what the New Testament declares him to be, explained Dr. Kopperl. While Jewish thought respects the Islamic claim that the Qur’an is the revelation of God (Allah) or the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, Jews do not accept its sacredness.
Many of the same narratives from the Torah and Qur’an are similar, though written from differing perspectives; in Judaism, the Christian New Testament and the Qur’an are treated just as any other sacred text of another world religion would be – with respect to the text and its believers, but not with sanctity.
Since Christians believe that the Jewish holy books are divinely inspired, they are also considered sacred. The 1965 papal encyclical Dei Verbum (Word of God) states that “Old and New Testaments in their entirety…are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.”
The Church, however, does not teach the sanctity of the Qur’an. Though Catholics do not believe it to be divinely inspired, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; they profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam affirms the sacred writings of the Jewish Tanakh and Christian New Testament, but that God’s original intention and message was corrupted, so the Qur’an “came to confirm that which was revealed before,” said Imam D. Redzic, “while correcting the changes that were made over time.” The Qur’an states that it is the final revelation from God, and there are many verses that directly state that the Torah was revealed to the Prophet Moses, the Psalms to the Prophet David, and some of the Christian scriptures to the Prophet Jesus.
Sacred Scripture in Daily Living
The interaction between Jews and the Torah varies greatly over time and geographical location. However, debates and discussions about Jewish life and thought almost always return to a reading of the Holy Scriptures. Dr. Kopperl says that, “the vast majority of the 21st century Jewish community in the United States regards the Torah as a major heritage from a glorious past.”
It is read weekly at synagogues during Shabbat services, read individually in the family home, and in religious education classes for both youth and adults. Almost every Jewish congregation has some sort of organized Torah study, either led by a rabbi or qualified lay leader.
In Catholicism, the Word of God is proclaimed in every Mass during the Liturgy of the Word, which includes a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, the New Testament, and a reading from the Gospels, followed by a homily. Catholics are encouraged to read and pray with Scripture, participate in Bible studies, and allow themselves to be nourished, transformed, and strengthened by the Word of God, says Ms. Vaccaro.
Since the Qur’an is the miracle in Islam, the very words of God to mankind, Muslims have the highest respect and regard for their sacred text. According to Imam Dr. Redzic, the Qur’an is the foundation for Muslim beliefs, practices, worship, prayers, manners of behavior, and understanding so it is usually kept in a higher place in the home and wrapped in a beautifully decorated piece of fabric.
Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the answers to life’s questions, and is the ultimate guide and light in life. It is also believed to have healing powers when certain verses are recited for the sick or elderly, for example. Studying and interpreting the Qur’an is the most honorable task and acquired knowledge within Islam, and Muslims include reading and recitation in their salat, or daily prayers, said 3-5 times per day. Muslims are also encouraged to gather in small groups for discussion of the Qur’an, called halqat, and are usually led by a lay member of the mosque.
Beyond the Holy Texts
Though the scriptural roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are ancient, it is important to recognize how important they are in the everyday lives of Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide. Breaking open the power of these holy texts will help open the door to mutual respect and greater interfaith understanding between friends, colleagues, neighbors, and communities.
Sisters of Faith: Forming Interfaith Friendships
The 2007 bestselling book The Faith Club proved that an interfaith gathering of women can be an extraordinary and transformative experience. Susan Kopperl, Mary Vaccaro, and Ghazala Munir are three women who participate in a similar women’s group in Grand Rapids, Michigan called Sisters of Faith. Formed in 2008, this interfaith group of over 20 women from all faith backgrounds gather once a month; they read books, watch lectures, ask questions, and most importantly – they eat and share.
When she first joined Sisters of Faith, Susan Kopperl, a member of the Reform Jewish congregation Temple Emanuel, felt cautious and defensive of her faith. “I didn’t know what to expect and was highly conscious of being part of a minority religion,” Kopperl said. “Though I was raised a Jew and committed to Judaism, I never felt myself to be an expert.” Instead of hostility, Kopperl found an open and welcoming environment in which no one hesitated to ask tough questions – and give tough answers.
Kopperl’s initial apprehension is typical for many women who participate in Sisters of Faith – doing so requires a true leap of faith. “I think you have to first be so grounded in your own belief system, and not threatened that someone else is going to try to convert you, before you can even begin to think about opening your heart and mind to developing interfaith friendships,” said Ghazala Munir, a member of the Islamic Center and Mosque in Grand Rapids. “I also say that you must understand, first and foremost, the passion people feel for their faith and you must try to see it from their perspective,” she continued.
Mary Vaccaro, a Roman Catholic, found one hurdle in developing interfaith friendships was the unconscious assumptions we have about our faith. “When you have two people of the same faith, or even same generation, you have a shared experience, belief or understanding that is assumed.” Many times, these shared assumption are forgotten about until one enters into interfaith dialogue. “Sometimes to answer a simple question,” Vaccaro said, “requires you to explain a lifetime of experiences and beliefs.”
Yet, the fruits of interfaith dialogue abound for these women. Vaccaro says that Sisters of Faith has “deepened my wonder at how we come to believe what we believe,” and Kopperl notes that, “everyone in the group has taught me something about their religion – something to ‘chew’ on and mull over.” Munir advises women who are new to interfaith to join a cause where there is already camaraderie – a book or quilting group, a Habitat for Humanity build, or even a tennis team or golf team. These women agree that by asking questions and listening with an open mind, you begin to care about each other as friends, praying for each other, and simply connecting as human beings, no matter the differences in faith.
Dr. Sheldon Kopperl is a professor of Religious Studies and Biomedical Sciences at Grand Valley State University, and is also a lay adult and religious school educator at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Grand Rapids, MI.
Imam Dr. Muaz Redzic was born and raised in Bosnia/Herzegovina. He currently serves as the Imam at the Bosnian Cultural Center in Grand Rapids, MI where he develops and sustains religious activities and prayers, and helps to supports the Bosnian cultural identity of many of the center’s members.
Mary Vaccaro, M.A. is the Director of the Dominican Center at Marywood in Grand Rapids, MI. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the Theology and Women’s Studies departments at Aquinas College and has served in lay Catholic ministry for over 25 years.