Some (additional) thoughts on the Scriptures of Christians and Muslims

Echoes from Sinai: Looking Inside the Gospels and the Qur’an

In the capacious byways of Amazon.com you can probably discover–and perchance even purchase–everything I had to say on the subject of the Scriptures of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Or almost.  Authors do not normally hold back on their readers unless they are planning a sequel, a Son of Sinai, which I am not.  But as every author knows, writing is a form of discovery and, more curiously, so it is editing, even the homely task of copy editing or reading proofs.  You discover new things as you scan the already old things you have just written.  Sometimes the discoveries are insights, new lights on a familiar topic, but more often, in my experience at least, they are genuine discoveries, a new shard buried next to where you had been digging or an unexplored island in the archipelago you thought you had thoroughly mapped. So this will be a brief tour around the Lesser Antilles of Scripture, some additional thoughts from the Outer Islands.

But first, a glance at the mainland. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all revealed religions. Their adherents have long asserted that in the past the Creator God communicated His will to His Creation, that beginning with the tented patriarch Abraham, and thereafter from Sinai in the Bronze Age to Medina in the seventh century of the Common Era, He spoke in an intelligible way to the humans He had created. What’s more, they claim that they have recorded and preserved His Words in books that are still in their possession, books whose contents continue to ground their faith and practice. They are indeed preeminently “People of the Book,” as the Muslims have always thought of them. But it is not, for good or ill, the same book, nor, in fact, the same books, since the Jews and Christians at least treasure not a single Sacred Book but a collection of the same, which they refer to collectively as “The Writing” or, more commonly in English, “Scripture.”

It is said in those books that God’s long history of communicating with humankind began with a promise. God’s special favor, all its claimants agree, was mediated through a compact or covenant made between the Creator God and one of His creatures. That creature was, and on this too they all concur, one Abraham or Ibrahim, a minor tribal shaykh who had migrated with his extended family and his herds from Mesopotamia across the Fertile Crescent and settled in the land of Canaan, the wedge of territory caught between Syria and Egypt and later called Palestine. This Abraham was, somewhat inexplicably in the Bible—the Quran (21:51-71) claims to know more about it—an early (perhaps the earliest?) worshiper of the One True God, and it was to him that the deity had promised His hopefully eternal favor, to Abraham, the “friend of God” as the Muslims call him, and to his descendants.

God’s conversations with Abraham were recollected and recorded, and that record constitutes the foundation document of what the monotheists call the Covenant and of monotheism itself.  And, the story goes on, God continued for a time to speak to His favored creatures, always and necessarily the same One True God, though by the end of the story He appears to be speaking to different sets of worshipers.  But if these privileged conversations—”revelations” or “unveilings” as they are almost always described in one very common image—all proceeded from a single divine source, they were also occasional in their occurrence—the divine Words were heard “at sundry times and in diverse places”, as the Christian Paul put it— and as such they were directed to different persons, the various “prophets” and “messengers” who served as the mediums of revelation.

These Scriptures are, all of them, complex works, and so too is their history. That history was first written by believers who had what may be called the “workshop product” before them: God’s Words inscribed on paper or papyrus or parchment and written in an unmistakably human hand. The stories of how this came to be, when and where—less often how—God came to speak to humankind, questions that seem to bother modern historians more than they did the original believers, is sometimes explained in the Scripture itself. The Bible is particularly helpful in this regard; the Quran considerably less so. But accounts of the origin of Scripture were also found in stories circulating orally among the believers just outside the Scriptural orbit, out among those tales that never made it into the canon, were never included among in the Sacred Books.

We can collect and unpack these Scriptural and extra-Scriptural stories and compose out of them some relatively coherent account of the revelation as the believers understood it. That is a modestly circumscribed goal, “as the believers understood it,” because the secular historian, with limited tools and a deliberately limited imagination, cannot, or perhaps need not, understand revelation at all.

There is no such easy escape from the rest of the process, however. The historian does have the tools, and the obligation, to attempt to explain the passage of the now safely “alleged” Words of God from the prophet—or poet, or seer—who heard, or thought he heard them, to his earliest followers, who in turn recorded them in memory or symbol or script, and passed them on to still later followers who copied them and tidied them up into the form of the Books we have today. How? When? Why? These are all legitimate questions for the historian and some answers have been suggested in what I and others have written.

The answers must of necessity be tentative, however, not out of inhibition or delicacy but because of the thinness of the reliable evidence and the reluctance of the witnesses to testify. Those faith witnesses to the appearance and transmission of Scripture have always been far less interested in those questions of how and when and why than are we and, perhaps more consequentially, those same witnesses had, and their spiritual descendants continue to have, their own issues of inhibition and delicacy regarding Scripture, their own Scripture. The faith of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, the identity of each as a community and their shared hope for salvation, are all inextricably tied to those divinely revealed books that are the very charter of their existence. The custodians of the Words of God, whether they be Jews or Christians or Muslims, are most reluctant to stand and deliver on the historians’ favorite topic, the Works of Man, and their reluctance is perfectly understandable: To rule man into Scripture is, in that precise degree, to rule God out.

If we look somewhat more closely at the books themselves, Scripture for the Jews, what we shall call the Bible, is quintessentially “Instruction” (Torah) which becomes, in its “published” form, a “Recitation” (Miqra). For the Muslim, the Quran is, from the outset and self-professedly, likewise a “Recitation” (Qur’ân), and then, also by self-designation, a “Remembrance” (Dhikr), and in both terms the thrust is toward the integration of God’s Word in the mind and heart of the believer.  The Christians’ “New Testament/Covenant,” on the other hand, is by its title both assertive and argumentative, while its core documents, the four Gospels, are markedly different from both the Torah and the Quran.  They are each called the “Good News” (euangelion), and their kerygmatic purpose was already clear well before they became the documents of faith.  “Go, then, to all nations and make them my disciples,” says Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. “Baptize them…and teach them to observe all I have commanded you…” (Mt. 28: 19-20), which is precisely what Paul and the others did, proclaiming the “Good News” before it became either a text or a book (Acts 8:35, 11:20; 1 Cor. 1:17 etc.).

Am I rehearsing the obvious? Only to a degree since our own knowledge of these books is by no means equally shared. Christians are familiar with the Bible: they read, or have it read to them in church, at least slices of the Jewish Scripture. The reason for this interest runs back into the vitals of Christianity. As we shall have occasion to note, the case for Christianity, the case for the Messiahship of Jesus, rests heavily on the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of Scripture, the only Scripture of his day, the Bible. So Christians not only read the Scripture, they search it, and throughout the later Middle Ages Jews and Christians argued publicly and often about the results of that search. The Christians always won those debates because the judge was of course a Christian, but the Jews always scored the most points because they knew Hebrew and the Christians either didn’t know Hebrew, or didn’t know enough Hebrew, and when it comes to exegesis, philology always trumps rhetoric.

So the Christians do read—indeed they must read—the Jewish Scripture they call the Old Testament, but Jews and Muslims do not—in fact, need not and perhaps must not—reciprocate. Both regard the New Testament from a hostile distance, the Jews because they have viewed Jesus as at best a terribly mistaken or misled rabbi and at worse a blasphemous sorcerer; and the Muslims because they believe that the Gospel, like the Jewish Bible, both undoubtedly true revelations to begin with, have been irretrievably corrupted by the people who possess them. And in any event, the Quran has superseded the revelations given to both the Jews and the Christians.

The Quran is a book newly arrived in the consciousness of most non-Muslim Westerners, but what we may somewhat carelessly call the religious establishments of both Judaism and Christianity have long taken note of the Muslim Scripture and passed judgment upon it. If Muslims do not read the Bible or the New Testament on principle, the Jews and Christians have their own exclusionist principles. The Jews have a firm conviction that prophecy ended with the Bible, and if they are still open to the coming of a Messiah—an indulgence that has brought some immense sorrows over the centuries—they no longer attend to prophets of any stripe, Galilean or Meccan. The Jews of Medina in the Prophet’s own day made the original call: Muhammad was not a prophet, his Quran was not revelation.

Christians were not even willing to look in that direction. If the closure of Jewish prophecy is a somewhat mysterious event that occurs outside our line of sight and was achieved by the same kind of rolling consensus that created the canon of Scripture, the Christian closure of the divine economy was, on the other hand final and unmistakable.  The divine work of redemption was completed by Jesus’ death on the cross and its truth confirmed by his resurrection from the dead. If the age of the prophets ended with Daniel, the age of the Holy Spirit began with Pentecost, and henceforward the Holy Spirit will work through the Christian Church and not through the prophets of Israel, much less through those of the heathen.  Thus Muslims have no standing among Christians and the Quran no spiritual purchase there.

If the believers make value judgments about one another’s Sacred Books, the historian makes none.  Indeed, the historian’s very first act is to discard the notion of “sacred”: these are merely books or, to move from the purely descriptive to the functional, they are documents; in short, literary evidence.  But not, as the believers think, evidence for divine providence but rather evidence for the belief systems, historical memory (or imagination) and material culture of both the people who created them and those who transmitted them.

The historian has plentiful and effective instruments for the study of documents. The oldest and perhaps the principal heuristic tool developed for the study of documents is textual criticism.  In its early practice by the Greek scholars at Alexandria in the third century BCE or by the Christians Origen and Jerome in the third and fourth centuries CE, it was employed chiefly for the emendation or improvement of texts, but from at least the time of the Renaissance scholar and papal gadfly Lorenzo Valla, a close and critical inspection of the text also proved useful for determining the authenticity of documents.  The story is well known of how this analytical technique, which was first applied to the secular texts of Roman history was eventually used on Scripture itself.  The Words of God, do not much encourage or invite such scrutiny in their original state as what Homer called the “winged words” of oral discourse, but once those words lost their wings and were committed to earth-bound writing, they were fair game indeed, and by the 19th century the Scriptures, hai graphai, those “things written down,” were commonplace objects of textual criticism.

The Bible and the New Testament have long since assumed the quality of “something written” and have sat quite patiently for their textual portraits.  Not so the Quran.  Alone among the monotheists revelations it identified itself from the outset not as “something written,” nor even as “something recited,” but as the latter act itself: al-qur’an, “The Recitation.”  Eventually the Quran began to call itself “The Book” as well, but even then  it was not thinking of “leaves between covers,” as a later expression put it, but rather of Scripture in the transcendental sense, a “virtual Scripture,” as Angelika Neuwirth has aptly described it.

Source criticism is another critical technique developed for the analysis of documents; its object is resolve them into their older and/or primary components. Source critics resolved or reduced the Pentateuch, for example, not into its editorial components, the Five Books of Moses, but into other constituent elements that had nothing to do with Moses nor with any other known figure for that matter.  It discovered within the text of the present Pentateuch older and not entirely assimilated documents which it has dubbed E and J, and then another called P, and then, finally, D for Deuteronomy. Some efforts have been made to find an individual behind the anonymous letters — Harold Bloom’s identification of the author of J. as a woman being the most notorious if not the most convincing effort — but source critics have generally contented themselves with describing the tendencies of the document and making a stab at their provenance and, less surely, their date.

In New Testament studies source criticism has proceeded in a similar manner, with a focus on the documents behind the Synoptic Gospels or John in the first instance.  The Synoptics indeed almost reach out and seize the source critic by the lapels.  Here are three texts with some very high degree of interdependence betrayed by great swatches of identical verses in each.  Once it was decided, or at least agreed — there is no absolute certitude here, of course — that Mark’s Gospel was prior to those of Matthew and Luke, the key turned remarkably easily in the lock.  Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source: those verses that they share and are also found in Mark are the evidence of their borrowing.  More, there are some 235 additional verses that they share almost verbatim between them and yet are not found in Mark’s Gospel.  The conclusion, as the French like to say, imposes itself.  Matthew and Luke had before them another textual source alongside of Mark and they borrowed from it as well.  Let us call it, the source critics said, “Q”.  And there was still more.  There are some material (M) that appears only in Matthew and other (L) that shows up only in Luke’s Gospel.  The source critic had thus  elicited four independent sources from the Synoptic Gospels, only one of which, Mark, was one of those Gospels.

All this is well known and has proved a fruitful hypothesis for trying better to understand the source for the foundation events of the Jewish and Christian traditions. These are documentary sources, however, the texts behind texts, and they say nothing of the individuals whom the faith traditions have always maintained are the true sources of these books. What of Moses, the reputed author of the first of them, the five-volume Pentateuch?  Historians of Israel have not in fact shown a great deal of interest in the “historical Moses,” the actual individual who stands behind the literary figure called “Moses” who dominates the narrative of most of the Pentateuch and whom Jews have traditionally regarded as its author.  Like Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses may indeed have been a real person, but at this remove, and with the sources at our disposal, that Moses is inaccessible, unrealizable.[1]

Even as we move forward in the Bible narrative, David and Solomon have more historical heft than Moses because they were political figures in a sedentary society and may possibly have left their material traces on the landscape, the kind of clues that the historian finds reassuring and can at least search for, even if they have not found any. But Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who put up no walls and chiseled no inscriptions upon them, still remain unsubstantial presences behind the dazzling prophecies that bear their names. Isaiah is, in fact, the poster boy for authors with names but no substance since he has long since been dissolved by the critics into three quite distinct Isaiahs.

With Jesus we are in a very different source critical world.  The source critics have worked in their documentary fashion on the Gospels, as I have already described, and the results have been passed on to the historians.  But the New Testament historian is no longer engaged with the phenomena as they emerge from the text, as was the case with the Pentateuch, for example, or Ezra-Nehemiah or even the Prophets, but now with the historical reality of the person the documents purport to be about.  If the quest for the historical Abraham or the historical Moses is on what may be a permanent hold, the quest for the historical Jesus is, as we are all aware, very much alive and doing very well indeed.

To put it another way, the Pentateuch is not studied by the historian because it is thought to tell us something about the historical Abraham or the historical Moses but rather because of the light it might cast on the evolution of Israelite religion. There may be history in the Pentateuch, but it is a traditional historian indeed who thinks that it is history.  The Gospels, on the other hand are investigated chiefly because they are a source on or for the life of Jesus. Even if they turn out to be poor history, it is still Jesus who is driving the quest and not Evangelical Studies.

I make these points, which are commonplace in biblical studies, not because I am chiefly interested here in either the Old or the New Testament, but because I am leading you in the direction of the Quran, and I wanted to take you across the same critical terrain that I just covered, but now in the matter of Muslim Scripture. Some Islamicists may be born such, but more others are, like myself, made. The “made” variety seem to come to the Quran from either of two directions, either backwards, from a more general study of Arabic letters, chiefly, if I were to guess, from Islamic history or law, or, forward, so to speak, from Biblical or New Testament studies. These are not hard and fast categories, of course, but the general direction does seem to make a difference. That difference has recently caught the attention of Claude Gilliot, Professor of Arabic at the University of Province:

it has long been remarked that students, and a fortiori scholars, who have been formed on the historical study of the Hebrew Bible and the beginnings of Christianity and then take up the study of Islam, are surprised at the absence of a critical spirit that they inevitably notice in introductory works on Islam, and above all on the Quran.[2]  Without any intention of denying it, this astonishment has provoked even hilarity on the part of some when it is a question of the genesis and history of the establishment of the text of the Quran. It must in effect be recognized that despite a great deal of learned work, we are here still in a “land of marvels” or a legendary terrain. It can be that the risk of a decline in the critical spirit is a very real one in our own day.  Because of their fear of falling into “occidentocentrism”[3] some have allowed themselves to become destabilized by a kind of “Saidism.”[4] And to that must be added considerations of political opportunism[5] and other inhibitions that fall under the heading of “respect for others,” none of which should become the methodological criteria of someone engaged in research.

Faced with the Quran and its history should one… resolve to adhere entirely to “the teaching of the old women” (madhhab al-‘agha’iz’[6], that is, to traditional representations of the history of the Quran?

The Muslims’ Scripture is called, as I’m sure we are all now well aware, the Quran.  The Quran now rests before us as a book, presently a printed book, most copies of which go back to a fixed type edition published in Egypt in 1923 and, before that, to a number of 19th century Muslim lithographs. As far as Europeans are concerned, the Quran was read in Arabic chiefly in an edition first published by Gustav Flügel in 1834, with minor corrections in 1841 and 1858. Before Herr Flügel and before those lithographs, the Quran was almost exclusively in manuscript books, copied the  And recopied with loving care, and with remarkably few variants, from the 10th century even unto the present.

The printed or written page is not how most people access the Quran, however. “Most people” includes a very large percentage of the world’s nearly one billion Muslims who hear “The Recitation” actually recited for liturgical, devotional and even juridical purposes in their everyday lives. This is important and interesting, but the historian, and even more obviously the text critic, deals in texts, not recitations or, if recitations, then recitations frozen in transcription. If we intend to investigate how Muhammad produced the Quran, and we must look closely at its recitation.  If our goal is, on the other hand, you understand other words that came forth from his mouth came to be written down, we must begin with the text and tried to work backwards.

Before we look at the text of the Quran, however, we must pause and reflect why the Quran is not at first regard a text that leads to the historical Muhammad as the Gospels are thought, or hoped, to lead to the historical Jesus. The Gospels are about Jesus; the Quran is not about Muhammad.  The Gospels, those hopelessly devoted biographies of Jesus, had human authors, and so not even the most conservative of the Christian Fathers maintained that it was the Holy Spirit that actually moved the pen that the Evangelist held impotently in his hand. But that is very close to what happened with the Quran, say that we must gently remove the pen from the Prophet’s hand. God it was the auctor of Scripture, the medieval scholastics said, and the evangelist the scriptor.  Not so with the Quran. God revealed the Quran’s orally, we are told, but Muhammad did not write it down: he recited The Recitation. If we are looking for Quranic scriptores, we must look elsewhere

Muhammad, then, is related to the Quran not as its subject, as Jesus is to the Gospels, but as its human medium.  Even so, Muslims have never been concerned with the Prophet’s qualities as a rawi or reciter, his particular skills of voice, memory or diction, his gifts for rapid or imaginative improvisation.  Rather, what the biographical tradition concentrated on was his moral qualities, his trustworthiness, his purity of soul, indeed, his freedom from all sin. Muhammad’s accuracy in repeating what he had heard was never an issue in the Muslim biography or Islamic theology.  And yet there is a subtext.  The Quran was recited first by God and then by the Prophet in the Qurashi dialect of Muhammad’s Mecca. This was the judgment of neither the Quran nor Muhammad himself but the reported decision of the Caliph Uthman in his instructions to the committee of editors he charged with preparing the first standard edition of the Quran.  In cases of doubt or dispute, they should prefer the Qurashi reading, that is, Muhammad’s native speech.  It is a rare but illuminating example of the mortal medium conditioning the eternal message.

The Quran then is not about Muhammad but about Islam, that “submission” to the One True God that that same God was proclaiming, through the medium of Muhammad, to the idolatrous pagan Arabs of Mecca. The Gospels attest to Jesus, the Quran to Islam.  The canonical Gospels are not necessary for Christianity: Jesus and his followers during his own lifetime, and after his death there were Christian converts like Paul, for example, as all the believers to whom Paul’s letters are addressed who had come to the new faith before our Gospels were written.  But there was no Islam in the formal sense before there was the Quran. Muhammad did not summon his followers as Jesus did; indeed, he had no followers in that apostolic sense.  Muslims were originally converted not by the charisma of the leader, as occurred in Jesus’ circle, but by the charisma of the Quran,[7] and even if one professed Islam as a result of instruction, as happened later, the Quran was still what the Christians call the regula fidei, their anchor in the true faith.

These differences in the two Scriptures mean that they are approached differently.  In a matter of authorship, for example, each of the four canonical Gospels is credited to a quite specific and quite human author, and their very titles, “The Gospel according to Mark,” is a fairly explicit confession that this is a conditioned document.  It is marks “take” on Jesus, and if Mark’s credentials are later flourished as impeccable — he was a follower of the Apostle Peter, and his Gospel reflects Peter’s recollections of Jesus — he was nonetheless a fallible human author.  Mark and the others were protected from gross error by the inspirational guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it was still possible to think that his style and syntax were not perfect, and that if Homer nodded, the Evangelist himself might catch, if not forty winks, then one or two of those restful moments on occasion.

.  The terrain surrounding the Quran is entirely different, beginning with the title page.  There is no author listed there: this is not “The Recitation according to Muhammad.” But the “author” does identify himself within the work.  The “I” and the “we” and even occasionally the “he” of the Quran is unmistakably the God who created the world and will judge it on the Final Day. And his pronouncements are directed in many instances to a singular “you,” who appears to be Muhammad, and though the actual name appears only three times in the entire work (3:144; 33:40; 47:2), we are quite sure that Muhammad is God’s messenger.  God, then, is the author of the Quran, which is mediated to an audience through Muhammad.  We know that there was an audience because the primary speaker in the Quran, God, tells us how they received The Recitation– many with disbelief –and instructs Muhammad how to respond.

These are all elements of enormous interest, but let us stay for the moment with the difference between the two Scriptures. As is clear from these few remarks, the Gospels present themselves rather precisely as documents, as an essential part of a testamentum or diatheke. The New Testament was, the early Christians decided, a judicial document, a rewriting of that original berith contracted with Abraham (with Torah codicils in God’s own hand!). The Gospels are its historical briefs, presentations (with argument) of the life and teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.  Admittedly a “gospel” is a mixed genre. While the form and structure of the Gospels leave little doubt that we are somewhere in the biographical tradition, it is biography with a message, somewhere out there with hagiography or the campaign biography or an obituary written by the deceased’s heir.

The Quran is a message, an angelion. It is just more forthrightly delivered and not embedded within a biography. We must assent if we are to be saved.  The Gospels for their part demand historical as well as moral assent: it is impossible to mistake the tone of Luke’s “In the 15th year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being ruler of Judaea…”(Luke 3:1). It is not the Gospels that command us to believe or to act; rather it is Jesus who is portrayed in them making those demands.  “Repent,” Jesus is made to say, “Believe,” “Pray,” “Love your neighbor,” “Render to Caesar…”, all of them “on his own authority” (Mark 1:22), and while the Muslim Scripture makes many of the same demands, they are always in its own name that is, on the authority of God who is not shown speaking in it but who speaks immediately through it.

There is history in the Quran, to be sure, or, more accurately, a variety of historical events are put forward, only far our moral contemplation and never to suggest anything remotely like “what actually happened.” The Quran uses history only to illustrate, and chiefly to illustrate what happens to those who disbelieve God and his prophets.  The events are presented as vignettes, though in some cases the narrative line appears to have trumped the exemplary point and to have expanded into a full-blown tale. This is famously so in the case of the Biblical Joseph whose story takes up the entirety of Sura 12, or the ripping good tale of Moses and the Pharaoh which is recited vividly and at length a number of times in the Quran (7:103-137; 10:75-92; 22:24-29), or that surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus (10:16-34). They are, in any event, God’s stories and not the Prophet’s; Muhammad is merely cued—“Recall to them the story of…”—to repeat them to the audience.

If, as I remarked, the Gospels were not necessary for conversion to Christianity, the fourth and fifth generation of Christians were faced with the problem of authenticity raised by the circulation in their assemblies of various gospels as well as Pauline letters and other documents. It was they who created the New Testament, both the idea of a testamental dossier—the Jewish collection of Scripture was called simply “The Books” (ta biblia). This explicitly designated “New Covenant” or “New Testament” would contain the documents that authentically testified to the fact that the Abrahamic covenant had been redrawn in the person of Jesus. The argument rests principally on the four historical briefs that are the Gospels.  And among the many of the gospels that were circulating at the time, these four were included in the Scriptures because of a unanimous judgment on the part of those early Christian assemblies, the ekklesiai, that these documents were authentic testimonies not merely to “what really happened” — the ancient world had no problems with the expression — but to the truth in a larger sense.  In the judgment of the churches, is not only of the “historical Jesus” who is present in the canonical Gospels; it is also the “real Jesus.”

There is no question of canonicity with respect to the Quran.  Unlike the Bible and the New Testament, the Quran pronounces itself Scripture.  Human agents are not asked to judge it but simply to assent to it.  The Quran is not about advance the way those other Books are; rather it is about Truth itself, and the auditor must accept it or suffer the terrible consequences that the Book itself spells out in some detail.  There were of course doubters of both Gospels and Quran, but the Gospels present them as disbelieve in Jesus; the Quran’s doubters doubted the Quran itself.  In the New Testament doubts regarding Jesus are resolved by an appeal to a basic historical criterion: the eyewitness testimony of reliable witnesses to the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).  The Quran’s doubters are confronted with the Quran itself.

The New Testament does not tell us much about those who doubted the testimony of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus save the suggestion by some that his body was stolen from the tomb in order to support the resurrection story (Matthew 27:62-66).  We know to that the fanatic yeshiva student name shall was sufficiently exercised by the Jesus story and its immediate aftermath — the acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord?  — that he initiated a pogrom against them, “entering house after house, dragging men and women off to prison” (Acts 8:3; cf.  Galatians 1:13).  The Quran is more forthcoming.  The Quran’s skeptics found various reasons to doubt what they were hearing.  They found the content ridiculous in places (79:10-12 etc., on the bodily resurrection), but more generally they could not believe what was emerging from the mouth of Muhammad was from God.  How, then, to explain the remarkable performance they were witnessing from this ordinary fellow whom they saw having his supper and walking in the suq (25:7)? There was apparently no shortage of suggestions. Some thought the material was being given to him by others, dictated or recited to him, which he then had written down for himself (25:5).  And who were they?  We can guess (16:103) that they might have been Jews or Christians, but the only clue the Quran gives us is that their speech was “foreign” (‘ajami) or perhaps simply “outlandish”: they were outsiders. The Quran asserts that the charges are untrue and offers in evidence the “clear” or “convincing” (mubin) Arabic of the Quran.

The other allegation made by Muhammad’s audience and referred to in the Quran is that he was a poet or perhaps a seer (kahin), which in either case would involve inspiration not from God, the High God of Mecca, as Muhammad claimed, but from the more problematic jinn, the familiar spirits of tribal Arabia with a somewhat spotty moral reputation. Again, the narrative voice of the Quran, God, summarily rejects the suggestion (52:29).

There is a striking immediacy to these remarks.  The accusations seem to been made yesterday, and retorts heard now even as we listen to them from the lips of the Prophet.  The Gospels are more self-consciously aware of their status as history.  We can hear the author’s voice, and we can also sense the space between the events being described and the world inhabited by the author or authors. Even Mark, the earliest of them, turned aside to whisper in the readers here an explanation of the Pharisees’ somewhat peculiar habit of washing their hands and the things they handle (Mark 7:3-4), and John attempts to tell us, while maintaining the illusion of contemporaneity, that in his day, some 70 years after the death of Jesus, the Messiah’s followers were being persecuted by their fellow Jews and being driven from the synagogues (John 9:22; 16:2).

The Gospels are a history of Jesus, and they invite the reader to agree that they are true accounts of events and, moreover, that those events demonstrate, with textual assistance from the evangelists, that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. The Quran is not about Muhammad, nor even about events.  It is about beliefs and practices and, on the enormous stage that is made to unfold in pinched, provincial Mecca; it is about the presence of eternity.


[1] Which is not to say that interest in the more general question of the historicity of the patriarchal traditions has in any way diminished.  See William G. Dever, What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It?  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

[2] [Gilliot Note 1]. “See Rippin, Muslims 1. The Formative Period p. x.”

[3] [Gilliot Note 2] “It is good form in certain colloquia to begin one’s contribution with a nasib (the introduction to a classical Arabic poem) in the form of a mea culpa for one’s “Occidentalism” and in our field, to refer to the Orientalism of Edward Said. For a brief critique of Said, see A.  El-Affendi, “Studying My Movement,” pages 83-94.”

[4][4] {Gilliot Note 3] “This qualification is my own. One should consult Kraemer, Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam,  page xvi, who very correctly writes: ‘Arab and Muslim anti–Orientalist discourse on Europe and the Other replaces fundamental geo-historical facts with metaphors and political myths.  Anachronisms abound, morphology becomes mythology.  Edwards said nimbly Redford gets the pair is Europe-West, Asia-East on ancient Greece thus creating an essential and eternal Occident and Orient and making ancient Greece the same as the modern West and, astonishingly, even “Orientalism”.”

[5] [Gilliot Note 4] “Having proposed to a great daily newspaper of Paris destined for cultivated public an article on the history of the redaction of the Quran in which a certain place was given to Charles Luxenberg.. we were told by one of the religious reporters of this organ of the press that he was preparing himself an article on the subject and that in any event it would not do to “excite the Muslims…Calculating subscriptions or scientific inquiry? Probably both… There are, however, notable exceptions in the press with critical inquiries which are not of the type “DuPont and Durand in the Land of Marvels”, e.g. T. Lester, “What is the Quran?”  In the Atlantic  Monthly.

[6] [Gilliot Note 5] According to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328): “the Hanafite Abu Bakr Al-Khwarizmi (died 1312) used to say, ‘Our religion is that of the old women and we have nothing to do with kalâm’.”

[7] The distinction is drawn by Angelika Neuwirth, “Referentiality and Textuality in Surat al-Hijr” (2000), p. 146, note 14): “…in the case of the Qur’an, the phenomenon of the aura emanating from the ‘the bodily contact of the charismatic leader’ so essential to the Gospels, is totally absent, its place been taken by the aura of the spoken and the orally received word.”

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