The Bible And The Qur’an

codex-sinaiticusIt has been a conviction of a certain segment of scholars since at least the middle period of the German Enlightenment that all religions are essentially the same. The current twin controversies in the West (chiefly Europe and the USA) over what to do with Muslim “refugees” (a disputed term of discussion) and recent violent Jihadist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have provided an opportunity some apologists for one side of this social argument to defend their case by flattening out the differences between the Qur’an and the Holy Bible.

Tension with and fear of Muslim immigrants seems to be rising across the West. In Oslo and in Germany  the number of violent attacks (e.g., rapes) attributed to Muslims has skyrocketed in recent months. Americans are afraid of more episodes like San Bernardino in the USA, which has seen a number of Jihadist attacks (e.g., Fort Hood, Boston, Houston, Chattanooga, Moore, OK) since 9/11, when 2,996 Americans were murdered by Muslim Jihadists.  In reaction both in Europe and in the USA Nationalism seems to be on the rise. Just yesterday a populist/nationalist political candidate in the USA called for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration to the USA.

The History Of Religions School
These moves have provoked a counter-reaction arising from the old History of Religions School (Religionsgeschichte Schule; hereafter HRS), which says all religions are essentially the same. When offensive portions of the Qur’an (e.g., those calling for the death of infidels) are highlighted for discussion those who  operate under the assumption of the HRS make a tu quoque (you also) argument to the effect that anyone who holds to the Bible is disqualified from criticizing the Qur’an because just as many equally offensive passages (e.g., this video currently circulating or this NPR article arguing that the Bible is more violent than the Qur’an) can be found in the Bible as in the Qur’an.

The Actual History Of Religions
Is the Bible morally equivalent to the Qur’an? Let us make some distinctions. In a time, in the West, when people were generally more culturally literate, this sort of explanation would not have been necessary, but as we descend into a new dark ages in which most in the West have never read the classics, let alone the Bible or the Qur’an, some sort of response is necessary. The term Bible (book) refers to a complex document composed of 66 books traditionally understood to have been written beginning about 1500 BC and completed in the early 90s AD, in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). In those 66 books one finds a wide array of literary genres and teaching.

In distinction from Jews, Christians regard the Bible as being composed of two great parts, the Old and New Testaments. Broadly, the denominator Old Testament encompasses the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures in 39 distinct books. The New Testament encompasses the Greek, Christian Scriptures in 27 distinct books. Jews accept the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures as authoritative and Christians accept both the Old and New Testaments as authoritative. Christians regard the New Testament as growing organically out of the Old Testament and as the authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament.

There are violent passages in both the Old and New Testaments but there are also violent passages in Shakespeare. Any argument that suggests that a body of literature must be rejected because it contains violence is too silly to bear serious consideration. There are passages in the Old Testament calling the Israelites to do battle with and even wipe out other communities. There are passages calling for the imposition of the death penalty for various civil-religious crimes (e.g., homosexual sex, heterosexual adultery, bestiality, Sabbath breaking). In the late-modern West capital punishment does seem harsh but a culture that has condoned the death of 50 million innocent children (abortion) and witnessed the wholesale slaughter, in one century, of more people than in all of human history previous it may be that our moral compass is not a perfect standard for judging the Old Testament.

In an age when many Americans no longer know when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World (1492), when Abraham Lincoln lived, or when World War II ended, we may fairly suppose that most do not know when the Qur’an was actually composed. The Qur’an is received by Muslims as given by Allah to his prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The present text dates to the 7th century AD. In some respects the Qur’an was a precursor to the 19th-century Book of Mormon. Both feature a prophet and a new revelation mediated through an angel. There are parallels between the early history of both movements since both led immediately to military movements. These histories distinguish both from the Christians. The Mormons, however, adapted whereas the history of Islam was one of continual violence against the West through the 18th century, which resumed in 1972, after an interlude of roughly 150 years. Like the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an is heavily dependent upon the Bible and like the Book of Mormon, the teaching of the Bible is filtered, re-arranged, and even distorted in the Qur’an.

Some Differences Between The Bible And The Qur’an
There are significant differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, too many to be catalogued in a single, brief essay. One major difference is that the Old Testament command to conduct holy war against neighboring nations was temporary and focused. The Israelites were never commanded to kill all infidels everywhere. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the currently popular, facile comparison of the Qur’an and the Bible is grossly misleading. Put bluntly: Christians receive the New Testament as explaining the Old. Further, in light of the New Testament we see more clearly what was understood through (what the New Testament book of Hebrews calls) “types and shadows” (illustrations of future realities). The religious animal sacrifices of the Jews, their holy wars, and their strict code of civil justice was not arbitrary. It was intended to point Old Testament Israelites to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

The New Testament itself appeals to many Old Testament passages as evidence of this intentional connection of promise and fulfillment. New Testament authors appeal many times to Psalm 110, which features a dialogue between two divine characters, the first of which the New Testament says was God the Father and the second of which they claim to have been God the Son, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. Further, there are several Old Testament passages foreshadowing the coming of a Suffering Servant. There are multiple passages in the prophet Isaiah, which the New Testament sees as fulfilled in the suffering and death of Jesus, who explicitly taught that he was the fulfillment of the hopes of Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets.

The ethic of the New Testament reflects this shadow-reality/promise-fulfillment relationship between the Old and New Testaments. According to the New Testament the Old Testament civil-religious codes about the Sabbath, ritual washing, circumcision, and holy war have been abrogated and are no longer in force. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explained the true intention of the moral teaching of the Old Testament, in contrast to the way the rabbis had construed it. Christians are commanded to live peacefully as suffering servants, in imitation of Jesus, who unequivocally taught his disciples to “turn the other cheek.” Christian theologians refer to this development from Old to New as progressive revelation. The realities made clear in the New Testament were implied in the Old and gradually become clearer through history.

The Christians in the 1st century (c. 30s to 100 AD) were a small, sometimes violently persecuted religious minority.They established no social institution. They fomented no revolutions. They were, however, unjustly accused by the Roman emperor Nero of setting fire to Rome (when he himself was responsible for it). To cover up his crimes (as a pagan historian of the period acknowledged) he had Christians arrested and set on fire. In the following two centuries Christians continued to suffer continual social and religious criticism (from Jews and pagans) and from outbreaks of violent, government-organized persecution. Christianity did not become a legal religion in the empire until the early 4th century and it only gradually became the state religion in the centuries afterward. Though the Muslim narrative is that they were victims of the crusades, the history is much more complicated. It is arguable, in fact, that Christians learned how to crusade from the Muslims themselves and that the early crusades were, in part, a response to what we today call radical Muslim terrorism.

Finally, the central story of the New Testament is not of a military conquest by a prophet with a new revelation. It is the story of the arrest, torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom both the religious and civil authorities found to be morally and legally innocent of any crime. Jesus himself said that he came not to establish an earthly kingdom but to inaugurate “the Kingdom of God” or “the Kingdom of Heaven.” He called his disciples not to holy war nor to bring others into submission by force but to preach, persuade, teach, and, when necessary to die because they bear his name. Jesus and his disciples explained his death as necessary for the deliverance of believers from divine judgment or salvation. After Jesus’ death, that Christians spoke about a spiritual struggle with sin and spiritual warfare in prayer, not military conquest by which to advance Jesus’ kingdom.

Read the Bible then read the Qur’an. A reasonably literate person should observe these basic, striking differences between the two texts. The HRS fails because it assumes far more than it can prove. The popular appropriation of the HRS in the current controversy fails for the same reason: it cannot account for actual particular facts. Moses is not Muhammad. Jesus is not Joseph Smith. He did not claim to have received a new, superior revelation. Rather, he claimed to be the intended focus and culmination of the old old revelation and the Savior of sinners, and that is what Christians believe him to be.

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  1. Anybody who has a muslim friend who is willing to investigate and discuss the differences between the bible and qur’an should check out this study guide. (Or anybody who wants to study on their own, or perhaps use the book as a resource for a small group)

  2. Question: what is the Jewish view of the Apocrypha?

    One of my favorite summaries of the differences between Christianity and Islam: Muhammad rode out of the city on a horse to conquer, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey to die.

  3. The 3rd sentence in 3rd paragraph in the section “The Actual History Of Religions” should read, I think, “There ARE passages in the Old Testament”.

  4. Many, arguably most, Christians actually recognize that the bible contains more than 66 books with 73 being the Catholic answer and the Orthodox varying somewhat by denomination but more than Protestant or Catholic. It would be better for you to acknowledge this and also to point out that those differences do not affect the basic validity of your argument.

    • John,

      It is true that a majority of Christians, defined sociologically, globally probably accept the Apocrypha. T

      he earliest Christian churches, however, did not receive the inter-testamental apocrypha as canonical. The 66 books received by most Protestants is the same canonical list approved by Athanasius and Jerome. We use the same sorts of distinctions they employed. Thus, we have always recognized the historical value of 1 & 2 Maccabees and, there was a time when the apocrypha were bound in the back of Protestant editions of Scripture but they are not canonical.

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