My article on Jewish-Christian dialogue, “The Jewish Jesus in the California Desert: A Report from the Tabernacle Experience,” went live yesterday morning at The Interfaith Observer. Do check it out when you get a chance. Thanks to Paul Chaffee, the editor of TIO, for working with me and publishing it!
Since I am a grad student in Biblical Studies and interreligious dialogue, I recently volunteered my services to my church for adult formation. After a quick poll, our priest found that church members were most interested in two things: biblical studies and interreligious dialogue. Throwing the two together, the “Bible-Qur’an Study” was born. This month I have been leading a small group of people through examination of selected texts portraying shared characters in the Bible and the Qur’an. So far we have done Noah and Mary. In both cases people were perplexed and fascinated.
Now, I should be clear that I approach this with a certain level of respect and humility. Muslims in America are having a PR problem at the moment, to put it mildly! I try to be careful to not feed into whatever misconceptions people carry (consciously or not) about the religion and its adherents.
At the same time, the Qur’an does address itself as guidance for all humanity. In fact, it seems to specifically address Jews and Christians at many points, either by direct address (“O Children of Israel” in Surah 2) or by its repeated echoes and allusions to biblical tradition. So I see myself as merely responding to that address.
Furthermore, four evenings is enough time to only scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is this sacred text. Muslims spend a lifetime pondering it, and they do so within a 1,400-year tradition of pondering it. We are reading small selections in translation.
So how do I get people into the Qur’an in four evenings? Biblical characters are a good place to start. It’s a feature of the Qur’an that Christians naturally find accessible and familiar. It’s also a way for us to return to our own Bible with new questions.
The class so far, in brief:
In the first class I introduced the Qur’an and gave some background on the Qur’anic notion of prophethood.
In the second class we looked at Mary in both traditions, focusing on the infancy narrative in Luke and the narratives of Mary in Surah Maryam (19) and Surah al-Imran (3). I argued that in both texts Mary is described prophetically, even if the religious traditions following those texts generally don’t focus on that reading. Given how many non-Muslims think of Islam as a uniformly patriarchal and gender-oppressive religion, I felt it was important to focus on a strong female figure in the text. (If I remember correctly, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an.)
Next week we will look at Jesus. I don’t know what we are doing yet.
Two books that have been really helpful to me are John Kaltner’s Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers and Michael Lodahl’s Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side. Both are written by Christians committed to dialogue with Islam, and both focus on shared characters and how each text portrays them differently. For an Islamic perspective on the Qur’an I have been using The Study Qur’an.
One of my firm beliefs is that interfaith dialogue must begin with some commonality, before we can engage the differences. One of the unfortunate casualties of our oppositional, argument-driven media (both mass media and social media) is that sense of meeting someone as a human and finding common ground. In reading Bible and Qur’an in parallel, we find common symbols, common figures, common theological problems, and, of course, common ground.
And perhaps we even find something of beauty. Beauty breaks down fear and invites dialogue and love. This is what I have found when showing The Saint John’s Bible; people who have uncomfortable associations with the Bible relish this Bible because of its beauty.
Hopefully in October we will host a speaker from Islamic Networks Group to give our congregation some background on Islam more generally. We as a parish wish to engage with one of our local mosques, to counter this time of division and hate in America. But for at least a few people from my church, their small glimpses into the Qur’an will have well prepared them to better appreciate and love the people who follow this text.
Today I had the honor of leading a workshop on how to read the Quran for the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. In a brief hour and a half I managed to walk though the traditional origin story of the Quran and some of its literary structures. We looked at Surah al-Fatiha (“The Opening”) and Surah al-Baqara (“The Cow”).
Both surahs contain much that is crucial for learning how to read the Quran. Like any text far removed from the culture of 21st-century educated Americans, the Quran requires a guide to understand its message. Of course, Muslims who keep salat recite al-Fatiha several times a day, so it is a core verse for Islamic devotion. According to Raymond Ferrin, it also has some neat chiasms in it. Al-Baqara, the longest surah in the Quran, gives great insight into the relationship between Islam and previous “Religions of the Book.” Verse 256 of al-Baqara, “there is no compulsion in religion,” will be quoted in pretty much any Muslim interfaith dialogue.
Anyway, I had a great time leading this workshop. I posted my powerpoint on Academia for anyone who is interested. A big thanks to my teacher, Ghazala Anwar, for recommending me for this opportunity.
One of the things that struck me while preparing for this workshop was the need for a guide.
While preparing, I came across a reflection paper I wrote when I first encountered the Qur’an, as an undergraduate taking an “Islam 101” course:
I have been exasperated by flipping around the Qur’an, trying to find verses here and there in a text that seems to have no coherence, narrative thread, plot, or anything else approaching what I consider good literature.
For the record, reading that makes me cringe.
I now see that the problem was not the Qur’an itself, but the abysmal translation my professor assigned. I’m talking about Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translation first appeared in 1934. If you visit a mosque and they give you a free Qur’an, Yusuf Ali is likely the translation. The Saudis have invested a lot of money into printing a lot of Yusuf Alis.
I’m not a specialist in Arabic (someday, inshallah), so I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the Arabic. But as a native English speaker, I can say its English sounds pretty bad to my non-1934 ear. It feels stilted, loaded with artificial thee’s and thou’s, wooden and literal. Yusuf Ali read classics at Cambridge, and his translation reads to me a lot like the old Loebs.
In short, I think part of the reason I failed to appreciate the Qur’an was lack of a guide, that is, a good translator. It was only when I started studying Qur’an with a Muslim professor who unpacked the Arabic original that I began to really get a glimpse of its profundity.
So I hope that in my workshop today, I was a faithful guide. And even if I messed it up entirely I recommended some books that are recognized as good guides by Muslims and non-Muslims alike: Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an, Carl Ernst’s How to Read the Qur’an, Abdel Haleem’s translation, and of course The Study Qur’an.
Early on in grad school, I was told to seek as much advice as possible from as many different people. One solid piece of advice I received is not to turn down opportunities because of my own nervousness about being prepared to do something. In this case my mentor felt I was prepared and offered me the opportunity. I’m glad I did, and from what the students said, they were too.
The GTU’s academic calendar does intersession, which means that apart from one week of crazy intersession madness, I have been off of school. I’ve been taking this time to prepare my conference paper for next month’s “Illuminating Words, Transforming Beauty” conference at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Although my “guild” is biblical studies, I’m attending this Conference on Christianity and Literature conference because it has a special focus on the Saint John’s Bible. If you haven’t heard about the Saint John’s Bible, well, let me tell you – it’s a treat. And I get to show it as part of my work at SCU Archives and Special Collections.
Although there is much publicity on the project, there is very little analysis or critique of it. I basically read all of it – a few journal articles here and there. There are two books that go through each illumination and give some background, explain visual allusions, and meditate on them. These two books, one by Susan Sink and the other by Michael Patella, are very good. They focus on the intentions behind the art, what the artists and theologians creating this Bible meant. I use them all the time in figuring out what illuminations to show people.
What has not taken place yet is a thorough evaluation of this Bible and what it means as a milestone in contemporary biblical interpretation. We have the statements from the artists of what they think their art means – which is amazing considering we don’t have such documentation from all the famous medieval illuminated Bibles like the Book of Kells or the Winchester Bible. And while all biblical art – heck, every physical copy of Bible – is to some extent a theological interpretation, this Bible is especially so. The artists working on it were advised by a team of theologians and biblical scholars who sent them lengthy packets covering which passages to illuminate, current scholarship and prayerful reflection on those passages, and ideas on how to illuminate them.
But as of now, we have a lot of “wow!” and not much critique or analysis. As a graduate student in biblical studies and someone intimately familiar with this Bible from showing it to over 150 people in classes, churches, and community groups, I felt called to contribute to this analysis.
Specifically, I am writing about New Testament illuminations in the light of Jewish-Christian dialogue. This Bible was created by Catholics – specifically Benedictines – and we have a boatload of ecclesial statements since Nostra Aetate laying out right relationship with Jews, theologians engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and parish-level work cultivating bonds between church and synagogue. (When I was Catholic, my church was right next door to a synagogue!) This has seeped into New Testament scholarship emphasizing the Jewish elements of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (Think of the “New Perspective on Paul” and The Jewish Annotated New Testament).
So does the Saint John’s Bible reflect this new approach to Judaism? Is it an effective tool for dialogue between Jews and Christians? Do any of its illuminations still unwittingly reproduce Christian polemic against Jews?
Yes, yes, and yes. And that’s my paper in a nutshell.
This is my first major writing project since my two senior theses, and I’m refining how I’m working on it. Mainly (1) I’m trying to be more rooted in primary sources before I dive into the murky waters of scholarly commentary; (2) I am using Zotero which saves a LOT of time; and (3) I am writing much earlier in the project. Writing helps me think. After reading the primary sources and deciding which illuminations I want to use, I wrote a “draft 0” that just lays out the very broad outline. I’ve found it works better for me to write crap and revise it like crazy than to store thoughts in my head forever and write something perfect.
This project works well with how I think – very interdisciplinary. I’m bringing together New Testament scholarship, Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly on liturgy and scripture, and work on art as biblical interpretation, or what Martin O’Kane calls “visual exegesis.”
Through it all, I’m trying to ask: How would a Jew steeped in scripture see these illuminations? Once I get this good enough to show to another human being, I will ask a few of my Jewish mentors. But until then I’m trying to imagine how it would feel for someone to tell me that their religion perfects and completes mine, and that I am, so to speak, only the beta test. Then I remembered, um, every conversation I’ve had with a Muslim friend about Jesus. That might be a bit similar.
In 1947, Jules Isaac delivered his “Eighteen Points,” bullet points for the removal of anti-Judaism* from Christian doctrine. A French schoolteacher who had lost his wife and children in the Holocaust, Isaac would spend the rest of his life tracing the Christian tradition of anti-Judaism throughout history, a project that culminated in his magnum opus Jesus and Israel and his meeting with Pope John XXIII that influenced the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate so heavily. This short book, a transcript of a lecture Isaac gave, is a short introduction to his ideas. Isaac traces Christian anti-Judaism back to the second and third centuries at least, to the “deplorable divorce” between the two religions. He argues that while the pagan Romans were anti-Jewish, Christian anti-Judaism was even worse, more systematic, and rooted more directly in religious teachings. So developed the ideas that Jews were degenerate, sensual, rejecters of Christ and committers of deicide. Isaac calls on Christians to repudiate these teachings, which he says are not part of the essence of Christianity.
These days it is pretty commonplace to admit the fact of anti-Jewish bigotry through history. Now scholars see it not just in patristic writings, but even in the New Testament itself. But much of that conversation was sparking by the Holocaust and its immense psychological impact on both victim and aggressor. This book was a good entryway into the work of Isaac, a real visionary, who I imagine must have been despised by many for his efforts to trace the Holocaust not simply to 19th-century racial ideologies, but theologies dating back to the first centuries of Christianity.
*Throughout his work Isaac uses the phrase “anti-Semitic,” as that was the lingo of his day. However, the more accurate term is anti-Jewish, to emphasize the religion rather than the race, and the fact that there many Semitic groups who are not Jewish.
Schafer’s book, Jesus in the Talmud, examines what can only be a scintillating subject: how does Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, appear in the Talmud? Schafer emphasizes that in the vast ocean of Talmud, passages referring to Jesus (implicitly or explicitly) are only a few minor drops. But those drops are important to analyze to bring together the fractured histories of Judaism and Christianity. While Talmudic references to Jesus are far too late to be of use in understanding the historical Jesus, he argues that these passages are counternarratives to the Christian stories about Jesus and Christian polemics against Jews.
In each chapter Schafer takes a Talmudic passage and unpacks it. Chapter one, “Jesus’ Family,” paints Mary as a prostitute who conceived Jesus by a Roman soldier named Pandera/Panthera. Chapter two analyzed Talmudic passages depicting Jesus as a failed rabbinic disciple who “public spoils his food dish,” a euphemism for sexual licentiousness. Schafer argues that this relates to the Talmudic narrative of Jesus’ bastard birth and Gentile blood, but also to the Gnostic language of Jesus loving Mary Magdalene. In chapter three, we see Jesus as rabbinic disciple of Yehoshua b. Perahya, but an utterly failed disciple who “practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.” This chapter actually explains the origins of Christianity: Jesus was peeved because his teacher was impatient with him!
Chapter four, “The Torah Teacher,” introduces a rabbinic follower of Jesus, R. Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer becomes a stand-in for critiques of Christianity. Eliezer is also accused of sexual impropriety, and elsewhere in the Talmud is depicted as a weak debater who must summon God to ratify his points (this is a famous rabbinic story). According to Daniel Boyarin, Eliezer is a liminal figure who represents the borderline between Judaism and Christianity.
Chapter five deals with spells of healing in the name of Jesus. While the Talmud depicts this magic as effective, it is also dangerous and prohibited because Jesus is, well, not kosher. Just because Jesus has divine power does not mean God approves. The power is an open conduit, and immoral and moral men alike can use it.
The next chapter is very interesting. Talmudic sources on Jesus’ execution actually accept Jewish blame for the charge, in keeping with a long Christian tradition of deeming Jews Christ-killers. But here the Talmudic sources accept responsibility and defend the penalty, arguing that Jesus was an idolater and a blasphemer who was sentenced fairly according to the law. Wow.
The next two chapters describe Jesus’ disciples as dead failures, and paint a vivid portrait of Jesus’ afterlife eternally trapped in a bath of boiling excrement in hell. Yuck.
Schafer’s final chapter examines some of the broader themes of Jesus in the Talmud. For example, many of the accusations against Jesus have to do with sexual immorality, implying that he was the son of a prostitute and was himself licentious. Another theme is magic, which is connected to the accusation that Jesus was an idolator and blasphemer – we see this accusation against Jesus in the gospels too (e.g. Mt. 26:63-65). Schafer also discusses differences between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds in their depiction of Jesus. Most of these slurs only appear in the Babylonian Talmud; he argues that this is because Jews under the Sassanians were not under a Christian empire, so they could speak more freely. Schafer also argues that the rabbis of the Bavli must have been familiar with the New Testament because there are explicit references to NT texts in these counternarratives, particularly to John.
I really liked Schafer’s book. The book itself is only 129 pages, and his writing is very clear and to-the-point. I would highly recommend this book.