Gregory W. Dawes (Ph.D., Otago 1995) is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. He is the author of The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21–33 Biblical Interpretation Series (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998) and has recently edited The Historical Jesus Quest (Leiden: Deo Publishing, 1999 and Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000). His other publications include articles on New Testament interpretation, the academic study of religion, and interpretation theory.”


                The New Testament and the Qur'an are each faced with the task of reinterpreting Israel's religious history. The present paper examines the differing ways in which this reinterpretation is achieved. It argues that both the New Testament authors and early Christian interpreters recognize a novelty in God's dealings with humanity but are embarrassed by it. They, therefore, attempt to downplay this novelty by interpretative techniques which underscore the continuity between the old age and the new. The Qur'an removes this embarrassment by reinterpreting history as paradigm: as one would expect, God's dealings with humanity follow the same pattern from age to age. Something resembling the Qur'anic point of view is to be found in the 19th-century Christian scriptures produced by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. While retaining the Bible's narrative structure, the Book of Mormon resembles the Qur'an in adopting a paradigmatic understanding of past and present, in which differences between then and now are collapsed into the timelessness of a divine plan of salvation.




                The present paper is a first attempt at that most hazardous of undertakings: the comparative study of two religious traditions. It is a hazardous undertaking because, even when the field of comparison is strictly demarcated, there is the danger of forcing a rich and diverse tradition into the procrustean bed of some comparative schema or of condemning one tradition for not conforming to standards drawn from another. The history of religious studies is littered with such scholarly failures. Yet the value of comparative studies is not thereby negated: they continue to be a very useful way of understanding religious phenomena. It is true that, when carried out in a superficial or hasty manner, they can lead us to overlook the uniqueness of the phenomena with which we are faced. When carried out carefully, they can be a powerful way of heightening our awareness of religious diversity. In attempting a comparative study of the New Testament, the Qur'an, and, by way of further comparison, the Book of Mormon, this paper does not attempt to force all three sets of scriptures into the same categories. On the contrary, it attempts to understand the peculiar genius of each by exploring the differing ways in which they have approached their common religious past.

                The paper grew out of a course which I have been teaching on “The Bible and the Qur'an.” The question with which I have been grappling is: What sense of the past emerges from a careful reading of both the New Testament and the Qur'an? In particular, how do these two sets of scriptures view that section of the past which is the history of Israel? So the major part of my paper falls naturally into two sections: the first concerned with the understanding of the past in the New Testament and the second with the understanding of the past in the Qur'an. In  the present essay I will venture one step further, by looking at the new set of Christian scriptures which emerged from the work of Joseph Smith in nineteenth-century North America. For these scriptures also embody a distinctive view of Israel's history, which offers a striking parallel to the Qur'an's appropriation of its Jewish past.


The New Testament: An Embarrassing Novelty


                How did the New Testament writers view the history of Israel? There were of course a variety of early Christian strategies for dealing with the Jewish past (some of which we will examine below), but I will begin by venturing a suggestion which seems to be true of them all. All these early Christian strategies assume – and indeed in many cases are prompted by – the recognition of a certain novelty in the history of God's dealings with humanity. At first sight, this might seem to be a truism: the idea that something new has happened in the history of Israel is apparently implicit in the very idea of a "New" Testament. Nonetheless, this assertion of novelty cannot be taken for granted, for it was, of course, later Christian history which gave that title to this collection of writings. Within the New Testament itself, the assertion of novelty is particularly evident in the Apostle Paul's attitude to the Torah. It is found also in the resumé of the history of salvation, the first 14 verses of St. John's Gospel, and (most radically) in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chap. 8). It is the assertion that the Sinai covenant has now been made redundant, an assertion justified by reference to the alleged infidelity of Israel. The Book of Hebrews uses the phrase kainê diathêkê ("new covenant") in this context, although the phrase is already found in the Lucan and Pauline account of the Last Supper and in 2 Corinthians 3 (where it is contrasted with the palaia diathêhê ["old covenant"], apparently already in the sense of the collection of writings attributed to Moses. The assertion that God has done something new in Israel's history is, therefore, characteristic of the New Testament literature as a whole. Indeed as Anthony Tyrrell Hanson writes (1983:233), one of the characteristics of the New Testament's view of the events it narrates is that of "the utter unexpectedness of God's mode of salvation in Christ."

                Of course, this novelty was problematic, both for the New Testament writers and for later generations of Christian interpreters. The first problem here was a general cultural prejudice in favor of the old. In general terms, we may say that for the ancient world – unlike the modern – something was not necessarily good because it was new. On the contrary, it was novelty, and not antiquity, that would undermine the credibility of a religious position. (Then as now, new religious traditions would attempt to construct for themselves a venerable ancestry.) The second problem, however, was a more serious one, because it was a more distinctively theological problem. For the assertion of novelty suggests that God's ways with humanity have changed. This was particularly the case in the attitude of Pauline Christianity towards the Sinai covenant and the Torah. For the idea that the Torah is no longer binding seems to imply an inconsistency in the Divinity. What sort of God is it who apparently changes his mind and revokes his promises (cf. Rom. 11:29)? For this reason, the New Testament writers employ a variety of devices to minimize or to explain this novelty.




                The first of these devices is typology. The events of the new dispensation are described in terms which call to mind the old. Although typology can also be used to highlight the contrast between the past and the present (as Paul's use of the typological relationship between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 reminds us), a major role of typological thinking is undoubtedly that of bridging an apparent historical distance. The present is written about in terms that recall the past and which emphasize the continuity in God's dealings with humanity. A good example of this would seem to be the way in which Matthew's Gospel describes the birth of Jesus, which calls to mind the experience of the Hebrews in Egypt and the events of the Exodus. Typological thought may also be extended into the present, where it comes to represent an ongoing pattern of divine action and human response. At this point it comes closest to that way of thinking about history which – following Jacob Neusner (1996, 1997, 1998) – I will refer to below as "paradigmatic." Again the infancy narratives of Matthew's Gospel offer an excellent example of the technique. As Raymond Brown suggests in his study of the infancy narratives (1993), the first two chapters of Matthew's Gospel not only refer to the birth of Jesus in terms taken from the Exodus, but also contain an implicit reference to how the message of Jesus will be received in the Apostolic age, by suggesting that the events of each age follow the same pattern.


Promise and Fulfillment


                A second strategy employed by the New Testament authors is that of invoking the prophetic idea of promise and fulfillment. As Hanson writes (1983:233-34), even when commenting on "the unexpectedness of God's mode of salvation in Christ," New Testament writers do so by citing Old Testament texts which are seen as predicting what has happened ("The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" [Ps. 118:22] or "I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you" [Hab. 1:5]). It may be true that God has done "a new thing" in our day. New Testament writers are convinced that even this novelty must be demonstrably rooted in the past, insofar as it is predicted by the prophets.


Allegorical Interpretation


                In the letters of the Apostle Paul, we find a particular insistence on the idea that something new has occurred in Israel's history. The reason is clear: this insistence on novelty forms the foundation of his argument against those who insisted on continued observance of the Torah. It is because a new era has dawned in God's dealings with humanity that the Torah is no longer binding. Yet it is to Paul that we owe the earliest example of a third technique for overcoming the scandal of historical novelty: the allegorical reading of the Old Testament. Of course, this technique has ample precedent. It was employed in dealing with classical literature and could be utilized to great effect by a Jewish author such as Philo of Alexandria. But the first employment of allegorical interpretation by a Christian author is to be found in Paul's interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar in Gal. 4:22-31. Something akin to a "paradigmatic" reading of history is also found in the argument of Romans 4, where Paul invokes the example of Abraham, to demonstrate that even the great father of the Jewish people was justified by faith before the giving of the Law (Romans 4). Once again, the Apostle relates the history of Israel in such a way that the pattern of divine action in different ages is seen to be the same. Neither interpretative strategy may seem very convincing to the modern reader, but – to the Apostle's credit – Paul is also the only New Testament author to grapple in an explicit way with the theological problem of historical novelty (in Romans 9-11).


A Hidden Mystery, Now Revealed


                The deutero-Pauline Letters (Colossians and Ephesians) deal with the question of historical novelty in a fourth way. They do so by describing God's action in Christ as the revelation of a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world, but now revealed to his saints (cf. Eph. 1:4, 3:5 and Col. 1:26). The idea of a mystery, once hidden and now revealed, serves the same purpose as typological redescription, the appeal to prophecy, or the allegorical interpretation of Old Testament texts. This technique, too, allows New Testament authors to maintain that the novelty of God's action in Christ implies no inconsistency on his part. For while the salvation established in Christ might appear to be a novelty, it was in fact intended by God from the beginning. Yet like typology, the appeal to prophecy, and allegorical interpretation, the appeal to a hidden mystery does not deny the appearance of novelty. What has now happened may have been intended by God from the beginning, but at least the revelation of this plan is something new. In both Eph. 3:5 and Col. 1:26, for example, there is a clear contrast between "other generations" and the present: it is only now (nun) that the mystery has been made known. Once again, the New Testament writers are faced with the difficult task of asserting the existence of historical novelty, while simultaneously demonstrating that even this novelty is firmly rooted in Israel's past.


Early Christian Interpretation


                In the light of the later developments which we are about to examine, we should note that the others of the Jewish past is also a theme in later Christian tradition. In particular, the Christian writers of the generations following the New Testament period are also aware of the novelty of God's action in Christ. This affirmation is all the more striking because for them, too, it was a source of difficulty and indeed of scandal. Among the church fathers it was Augustine who dealt with this problem head-on in his work, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching: iii 22 / §3). Here he first of all warns the Christian reader against imitating some of the actions of the Old Testament figures (such as taking a number of wives). There are actions which may have been permissible to them but are not permissible to us, for "many things were done in those times (illo tempore) out of duty which cannot be done now except out of lust" (Augustine 1995:164-65). Similarly, in his Confessions (iii 7 / §13) Augustine offers a response to those who complain "that something was allowed to the just in that age (illo saeculo) are not permitted in ours, and that God gave them one commandment and has given us another" (1991:44; cf. 1992:28). His response is instructive:


                In one and the same person on a single day and in the same house they may see one action fitting for one member to perform, another action fitting for another. What has been allowed during a long period is not permitted one hour later. An act allowed or commanded in one corner is forbidden and subject to punishment if done in an adjacent corner. Does that mean that justice is “liable to variation and change”? No. The times which it rules over are not identical, for the simple reason that they are times. [Numquid iustitia varia est et mutabilis? Sed tempora quibus praesidet, non pariter eunt; tempora enim sunt.] (1991:444-45; cf. 1992:28).


It is true that the commandments of God given in different ages seem to differ. But this is simply because the ages themselves differ: the commandments of God vary according to the requirements of the age in which they are given.

                Of course, this idea that times change and that the requirements of religion can change with them seems an extraordinary one. It could easily lead to what we would call an historical relativism in matters of religion and ethics (foreshadowed in Augustine's rhetorical question, "Does that mean that justice is 'liable to variation and change'?"). So it is interesting that Augustine has to deal with what we would be inclined to think of as a very modern issue. He must counter the charge that justice is variable insofar as it differs from age to age and from person to person. He does so (once again in his De Doctrina Christiana: iii 22 / §52) by asserting that – whatever the variety of human customs – the command that we should do to others as we would like them to do to us is universal in its scope. It follows that, whatever their differences, there are elements in both the Old and the New Testament dispensations which are timeless.


                Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it – for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom – have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there is clearly no such thing as justice anywhere. To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way be modified by racial differences [nullo modo posse ulla eorum gentili diversitate variari]. (1995:154-55).


As we have already seen, a standard response to those Old Testament passages which Christians could not accept in their literal sense was to offer an allegorical reading. Augustine continues this tradition (once again in his De Doctrina Christiana, iii 15 / §54) by suggesting that in reading the Bible, what should be sought is an interpretation “contributing to the reign of charity.” If the literal sense of an expression contributes to charity, the expression should be understood literally; if not, it can be understood figuratively (cf. 1995:154-57). Indeed the realization that the scriptures could (and at times should) be read figuratively was an important step on the road to Augustine's conversion. For it offered a response to the Manichean accusation that parts of the Old Testament were unworthy and incredible. According to the Confessions (vi 4 / §6; cf. 1991:94-95; 1992:61) it was Ambrose who led Augustine to this conviction, by citing the text from 2 Cor. 3:6: "the Letter kills, the spirit however gives life" (littera occidit, spiritus autem vivificat). An allegorical reading of the Old Testament enables one to reinterpret those passages which from a Christian point of view appear scandalous. It also suggests that the apparent novelty of what God did in Christ was not really a novelty, for in a hidden form "it was there all along." Yet like the other interpretative techniques examined above, allegorical reading does not amount to a denial of the otherness of the Jewish past. Rather, it must be counted among the strategies which Christians developed for minimizing its scandal. The allegorical interpreter recognizes that the text has a literal meaning, but insists that this meaning is not the one to be followed. The generation of the church fathers, like that of the New Testament writers, was faced with the twofold task of recognizing the fact of historical novelty, while downplaying its theological scandal.


The Qur'an: History as Paradigm


                What, then, of the Qur'an? The first and most obvious difference between the Christian Bible and the Qur'an is that the Qur'an does not have the Bible's narrative structure. While it is true that not every part of the Bible is narrative, the collection as a whole does form a continuous story line, from creation to apocalypse. This fact is not in itself of critical significance, for a narrative structure can go hand in hand with the view that the past and the present are essentially the same, cut of the same cloth (as it were). I will later argue that this is the case with the Book of Mormon, which has a narrative structure but lacks the New Testament's sense of the "otherness of the past." As we have already seen, from a religious point of view, a sense of the otherness of the past is intensely problematic. For what would one expect of God, if not that his actions should remain unchanged from one generation to the next? For the believer, therefore, the Qur'anic picture of God seems more consistent than that of the New Testament. In the Qur'an the actions of God towards humanity follow the same pattern from age to age, a fact which is both explicitly stated and is implicit in the way in which the Qur'an recounts the stories of Israel's prophets.


Explicit Statements about the Past


                It is not difficult to find Qur'anic verses which state quite explicitly that God's ways are unchanging from age to age. Fazlur Rahman, for example (1980:51-52), cites the following âyât as examples. While they deal with a variety of topics, Rahman notes that they embody a consistent view of the past. (All Qur'anic quotations here are given in Yusuf Ali's translation.)


                [This was Our] way with the Messengers we sent before thee: thou wilt find no change in Our ways. (Q. 17:77)


                There can be no difficulty to the Prophet in what Allah has indicated to him as a duty. It was the practice [approved] of Allah amongst those of old that have passed away. And the command of Allah is a decree determined. (Q. 33:38).


                [Such was] the practice approved of Allah among those who lived aforetime: no change wilt thou find in the practice [approved] of Allah. (Q. 33:62)


                The plotting of evil will hem in only the authors thereof. Now are they but looking for the way the ancients were dealt with? But no change wilt thou find in Allah's way [of dealing]: no turning off wilt thou found in Allah's way [of dealing]. (Q. 35:43)


                [Such has been] the practice of Allah already in the past: no change wilt thou find in the practice of Allah. (Q. 48:23)


The Qur'anic understanding of history is aptly represented by a verse which discusses the reaction of the Meccans to the Prophet Muhammad's proclamation:


                They say: "We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we do guide ourselves by their footsteps." Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before thee to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: "We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we will certainly follow in their footsteps." (Q. 43:22-23)


The assumption in this passage is that the past offers the model against which the present can be understood. We might note that this sense of the past corresponds very closely to what philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1983:36-37) calls the “practical past.” There is no attempt made to understand the past on its own terms; the Qur'an looks to the past to provide a series of models for understanding the present. Of course, this is also true of the Bible. For the New Testament writers, in particular, the chief value of the Old Testament lies in the light which it sheds on the events of the present. Oakeshott contrasts this "practical" attitude to the past with that of the modern historian, whose more detached mode of study aims at understanding the past in its own right. In this respect the New Testament and the Qur'an resemble each other: neither has that attitude to the past that one would expect of a piece of modern-history writing. The difference between the two scriptures lies in the consistency with which the Qur'an maintains that the past and the present are essentially the same. The ways in which the people of Mecca are responding to the Prophet Muhammad, for example, are essentially the same as the ways in which they responded to other prophets in the past. The same pattern recurs from age to age.


An Implicit View of the Past


                Not only in its explicit statements, but also in the way it retells the Biblical stories, the Qur'an presents the history of Israel (as well as the history of the other prophets whose stories it relates) as a series of paradigms, a pattern which is repeated from one generation to the next. Many examples could be given of this paradigmatic way of viewing the past, but one of the clearest is found in surat al-shu`arâ (Sura 26). The theme of the Sura is set by the opening verses, in which God notes that "there never comes a new Reminder to the people from the Gracious One, but that they turn away from it." This statement is then illustrated by reference to the history of God's dealings with humanity, beginning with Moses' mission to Pharaoh and Pharaoh's rejection of that mission, continuing (with little concern for what the Biblical reader would regard as important, namely historical sequence) with the account of Abraham and his rejection by his father and his father's people, moving on to Noah's rejection, and adding stories of the Arab prophets Hud (rejected by his people the `Ad) and Salih (rejected by the Thamud). The story of Lot is told, again from the same perspective, namely that of rejection, and the account is given of the prophet Shu`ayb, and of his rejection by the people to whom he was sent. The Sura ends by returning to the theme of the rejection of the present revelation by the people of Mecca. Each account follows the same pattern and illustrates the same principle of divine warning and rejection. Finally, at the end of the Sura, that unchanging principle is applied to the present.

                In this sense, the Qur'an's understanding of the past moves both forwards and backwards, understanding the present in the light of a past which is itself conceived on the model of the present. Abraham's conflict with the people of his hometown, for instance, is presented on the model of the Prophet Muhammad's conflict with the people of Mecca, so that Abraham, too, must engage in a hijra, an "emigration" comparable to that of Muhammad and his followers to Medina (Q. 21:58, 68-71). Abraham and Lot thus become the first to make a hijra ("emigration") in the cause of Allah:


                But Lot believed him. He said: "I will leave home [annî muhâjiru] for the sake of my Lord. For He is Exalted in might, and Wise." (Q. 29:26)


Moreover, the actions of Abraham and of the Prophet Muhammad himself are paradigmatic for later Muslims, who are also called to migrate in the cause of God (either literally or metaphorically).


                He who forsakes his home in the cause of Allah [waman tuhâjir fi sabîli 'Llahî] finds in the earth many a refuge. And abundance should he die as a refugee from home for Allah and His messenger. His reward becomes due and sure with Allah: and Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (Q. 4:100)


                We may conclude that the Qur'an's depiction of history takes the form of a series of models, which each age exemplifies without changing the pattern. This paradigmatic structure sets the Qur'an’s understanding of the past apart from that found in the developing narrative of the Christian Bible, which asserts the existence of historical novelty, even as it insists that this novelty is grounded in God's actions in the past. For the Qur'an, the pattern and the means of salvation are the same from age to age, corresponding to the timelessness of God Himself. The Qur'an's message is what Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1981:72) describes as "a truth without history."

                Once again, it would be dangerous to draw too sharp a contrast between the New Testament and the Qur'an. For – as we have already seen – the New Testament writers are keen to find the Christian present foreshadowed in the Jewish past. One of the ways in which they do this is by a typological recasting of either the Christian present (as in Matthew 1-2) or the Jewish past (as in Romans 4). However, even this typological recasting of history (which comes close to a paradigmatic understanding) is but one of a number of strategies for dealing with the recognized fact of novelty. The New Testament, we might say, both recognizes novelty and attempts to downplay it. The Qur'an simply denies that any novelty has occurred.


Kashrût in the New Testament and the Qur'an


                There is one point at which the Qur'an and the New Testament display what at first sight appears to be a similar attitude towards Jewish history. This occurs in their treatment of the dietary laws found in the Torah, which therefore provides an important test case for the thesis of this paper. The question to be faced here is, Do the two sets of scriptures have the same attitude to at least this part of the Jewish past? In the writings of the Apostle Paul we find a strong affirmation that the dietary laws are no longer binding: like the rest of the Torah, they belonged to a period in the history of God's dealing with humanity which is now past. They were binding, for (whatever its other disadvantages) "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom. 7:12). However, in the present age (nuni) "the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from law" (Rom. 3:21). Of course, the Apostle adds immediately that this was "attested by the Law and the Prophets": what Christ achieved was certainly foretold in the ancient scriptures. Nonetheless, what has happened is something genuinely new.

                The Qur'an also wants to insist that the majority of the Jewish dietary laws are no longer binding. Its line of argumentation, however, is subtly but significantly different. The original command of God – it maintains – was in no way as restrictive as the commands found in the Torah (Arabic tawrah). These more restrictive commands were certainly from God, but they were imposed as a result of Israel's iniquity.


                All food was lawful to the Children of Israel except what Israel made unlawful for himself before the Torah was revealed. (Q. 3:93).


                For the iniquity of the Jews We made unlawful for them certain [foods] good and wholesome which had been lawful for them; – and that they hindered many from Allah's way. (Q. 4:160)


                For those who followed the Jewish Law, We forbade every [animal] with undivided hoof, and We forbade them the fat of the ox, and the sheep, except what adheres to their backs or their entrails, or is mixed up with a bone; this in recompense for their willful disobedience [dhâlika jazaynâhum bibaghyîhim], for We are true [in Our ordinances]. (Q. 6:146)


As a contemporary Muslim commentator writes, echoing a widespread traditional interpretation:


                in the religions revealed prior to Islam there were some prohibitions and permissions which were legislated for a temporary period, in relation to the specific conditions of the people and their environments. For example, Allah prohibited some good things to the Children of Israel as a punishment for their rebellious attitude (al-Qaradawi 1985:5).


                Interestingly, the Qur'an declares that one of the reasons God sent the prophet Jesus was to lift some of these restrictions (Q. 3:50) although Muslims would generally argue that, under the influence of the Apostle Paul, Christians have gone too far, insofar as they have removed all of them (cf. al-Qaradawi 1985:40). It follows that the Qur'an's attitude to the Jewish dietary laws corresponds to its attitude to Christianity and Judaism in general. Islam represents, not a new stage in the history of salvation, but the restoration of an original religion, that of Abraham, which corresponds to neither current Jewish nor Christian practice.


                Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian; but he was upright [hanîfan], and bowed his will to Allah's [musliman], . . . and he joined not gods with Allah. (Q. 3:67)


                And they say, "Become Jews or Christians if you would be guided [to salvation]." Say thou: "Nay! [I would rather] the religion of Abraham, the true [hanîfan], and he joined not gods to Allah." Say ye: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to [all] prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them, and we submit to Allah." (Q. 2:135)


                There is no distinction between the Messengers of one age and the next. If the Mosaic law seems to demand a more restrictive practice in the way of dietary laws than that which Islam demands, this is not because something radically new has occurred with the coming of Islam. It is, rather, because Islam corresponds to the original practice and a more restrictive practice was imposed on the Children of Israel as a punishment for their infidelity.

                It is true that the New Testament makes what might appear (at first sight) to be a similar claim. For Paul also wants to return to the example of Abraham and to argue that Abraham was justified by an act of faith which was historically prior to the revelation of the Torah and prior even to the command of circumcision (Romans 4). However, even here there is a subtle difference. For the Qur'an, the Jewish dietary laws were an aberration: they were imposed by God, but only as a punishment for Israel's wrongdoing (cf. Q. 6:147). What Islam institutes is not something new, made possible only by a new action of God, but simply a restoration of the original practice. For Paul, too, Torah can be said to have been "added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19). But the sense here is not that the Torah is a punishment. It is rather that the Law is added to reveal – or even to provoke – sin (cf. Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:20 and 7:7,13). In doing this, the Law fulfils a good and necessary function: it is in this sense that the Law is a paidagôgos (cf. Gal 3:24). What has taken its place in the new, Christian era is not a restoration of the original law, but something quite different. The Apostle's argument is that a means of salvation has now appeared which makes the Torah simply irrelevant.

                It is true that there is a certain tension in Paul's argument in Romans 4. For if Abraham could be justified by faith even before the coming of Christ, then why was the coming of Christ necessary? This tension may be regarded as a consequence of Paul's attempt to downplay the existence of historical novelty. Even so, Paul's attitude differs from that of the Qur'an. For the Qur'an, the Jewish dietary laws are an (wholly contingent) aberration in the history of God's dealing with humanity. For Pauline theology, by way of contrast, the dietary laws along with the rest of the Torah represent a necessary stage in the history of God's dealings with humanity.


The Depiction of Biblical Characters


                Finally, the Qur'an's depiction of the Biblical characters does not present its readers with the problems which faced the Christian readers of the Old Testament. That is to say, there is nothing in their behavior which would cause moral concern, and therefore, there is no need to reinterpret these texts figuratively. A good instance of this is to be found in the Qur'an's depiction of the prophet Noah. The depiction of Noah is found in a number of places in the Qur'an: in Sura 11, which recounts the story of the Flood (cf. also Q. 7:60), as well as in surat al-shu`arâ (Sura 26), as cited above. Notably absent, however, is the account of Noah's naked drunkenness, as found in Gen. 9:20-27. The Qur'an also speaks about Jonah: while it admits that he committed an offence by fleeing from God's command (Q. 37:139-148; cf. 21:87), it omits the Bible's descriptions of his regret that God did not destroy Nineveh. Similarly with David, who is remembered as a wise ruler and as the writer of the psalms, as well as the young man who defeated Goliath. Of his sin with Bathsheba, however, there is nothing: only a brief hint in one verse (Q. 38:17) of his repentance, and this for an apparently unrelated offence.

                We have already seen that the Old Testament's depiction of the human weaknesses and moral failings of the Biblical patriarchs was a source of scandal to Christians as well as Muslims. Christians reacted to this by distinguishing sharply between what was commanded in one age and what was commanded in another. Muslims, on the other hand, as the recipients of a restored and uncorrupted revelation, regard these stories as evidence of the corruption of the existing Jewish and Christian scriptures. Muslim apologists still cite "the earthly, sordid pictures of Biblical prophets as cited in the present day Bible" and contrast them with "the ideal descriptions of them in the Qur'ân" (Khalifa 1989:146). Indeed even the New Testament's depiction of Jesus can be subject to similar criticisms (see, for example, al-Hilali, 1985). In his famous study The Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson remarks that "to an outsider, it must seem a calamity that the Muslims rejected the Hebrew Bible (including its profoundly human narrative of the struggles of David and the prophets with their God) and failed to respect the study of Hebrew" (1974: 439). However, so radical is the Qur'an's critique of the Biblical presentation of the figures of the past that it is difficult to see how the Hebrew Bible could have been retained.

                What, then, do we find? In its sense of the past, the Qur'an represents a resolution of certain tensions which are found within the Christian Bible -- tensions which bothered its early interpreters (as Augustine's grappling with these issues reminds us). Admittedly, in the Qur'an these tensions are not resolved in the way in which a Christian might desire. (For a comparable, but in content very different resolution, we will shortly examine the Book of Mormon.) However, it remains a resolution, and one which contributes to our understanding of the religious power and attractiveness of the Qur'an.


The Bible and the Qur'an


                What emerges from these all-too-brief discussions? First of all, it is clear that neither the Qur'an nor the New Testament has that sense of the past which we associate with modern historical writing. However, there is in the New Testament the beginnings of a recognition that the past can be different from “other than” the present. The New Testament writers may wish to minimize this difference, but insofar as they are staking out a new and distinctively religious claim over against Judaism and insofar as they do so by reinterpreting rather than rewriting the Hebrew Bible, that difference is ineradicable. By way of contrast, the Qur'an's sense of the past may be described as much more consistently paradigmatic.

                These differences can be understood as the result of two different strategies for dealing with a sacred but awkward past. For both religions, Israel's history was seen to be religiously normative, but – equally for both religions – that history needed to be reinterpreted. However, for the New Testament writers, the record of that past which stood in the Hebrew Bible was authoritative: it represented the only sacred scriptures they knew. (The New Testament itself became sacred scripture only in a later age.) They could not eradicate the record of Israel's past, even if it did not appear to correspond to the Christian present. Given their claim that something new had happened in the history of God's dealings with humanity, their only choice was to reinterpret those ancient texts.

                The Qur'an, however, approaches that past quite differently, with the suggestion that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament may not be reliable records, or at the very least that they have not been correctly interpreted by Jews and Christians.


                Allah did aforetime take a covenant from the children of Israel, and We appointed twelve chieftains among them. . . . But because of their breach of the covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard. They change the words from their [right] places and forget a good part of the message that was sent them. From those, too, who call themselves Christians We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them, so we stirred up enmity and hatred between the one and the other to the Day of Judgment, and soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. (Q. 5:12-14)


These suggestions were taken up and developed in the widely (but not universally) held Muslim doctrine of the "corruption" (tahrîf) of the earlier scriptures. In this sense, the Qur'an is not so much a supplement to, or a reinterpretation of, the Jewish and Christian scriptures; it is effectively a replacement, an alternative view of the history of Israel.


                To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety; so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee. (Q. 5:48)


                It is not my intention to judge between these two ways of viewing the history of Israel. Indeed, it is not at all clear how one could do so. It may be that each way of viewing the past serves a different religious purpose. The Christian view highlights the idea that the message of God has been entrusted to human beings, who come to understand it only gradually. The Muslim view, on the other hand, highlights the idea that from God's side (as it were) the message has always been the same, reflecting the unity and simplicity of God himself. In this sense, the Bible may be more true to the (perhaps relatively trivial) facts of what we call "history," while the Qur'an – under the guise of history – is suggesting that there exists a "transcendent unity of religions" (cf. Schuon 1975). If so, the Qur'an's perspective may be more clearly seen in a story told by a later Muslim writer and cited by Aldous Huxley (1958:283; I have been unable to trace the original source):


                The shaykh took my hand and led me into the convent. I sat down in the portico, and the shaykh picked up a book and began to read. As is the way of scholars, I could not help wondering what the book was. The shaykh perceived my thoughts. "Abu Sa'id," he said, "all the hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets were sent to preach one word. They bade the people say, "Allah," and devote themselves to Him.


However, to follow up these suggestions would take us beyond the scope of this paper. My purpose here is merely to note the differences.


The Book of Mormon: History as Christian Paradigm


                We have seen note that, insofar as Christianity opted to retain the Hebrew Bible as part of the canon, the same difficulty was faced by later Christian interpreters as faced the New Testament writers. Paul's allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar is the first of a long line of Christian reinterpretations of the Jewish scriptures. The problem is that – while Christianity retains the Old Testament as sacred scripture – it continues to be faced with the otherness of the Jewish past. Especially if allegorical interpretation is rejected, as it generally was by the Protestant reformers, this otherness can only be a continuing source of embarrassment to Christian interpreters. The genius of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), was to realize that the only solution to this problem was to produce a new set of scriptures, one in which what is ineradicable in the Bible could be finally eradicated. In doing so, Smith adopts a strategy which is very similar to that adopted by the Qur'an. In the scriptures of this nineteenth-century, North American Christian group, the Christian and the Muslim attitude to the Jewish past come to resemble one another.

                To eradicate the otherness of the Jewish past, Joseph Smith had first to deal with the existence of the Old Testament. In a way which parallels the Qur'an's claim that the Bible is not a reliable record, the Book of Mormon insists that the clearest parts of the Bible have been lost. For the Book of Mormon claims that the "great and abominable church" had removed from the Bible "many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away" (1 Ne. 13:26). For Mormon interpreters, the idea that the Bible is incomplete is reinforced by the fact that the Bible makes reference to works which are now lost (cf. McConkie 1979:454). Moreover, the Book of Mormon claims that the parts of the Bible which were removed were those which "were plain unto the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God" (1 Ne. 13:29).

                Indeed, we find that "plainness" is a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon. Within the Book itself, large sections are devoted to the reproduction and explication of Biblical texts, especially from the prophet Isaiah, with a view to clarifying their Christian interpretation. As the American prophet, Nephi, writes in 2 Nephi:


                Wherefore hearken, I my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear to my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy, which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn. (2 Nephi 25:4)


At the end of his life, Joseph Smith was still engaged in a re-"translation" of the Bible itself: a reworking of the Biblical text which would clarify its Christian meaning.

                The "plainness" which the Biblical writings have lost and which is restored by the Book of Mormon consists in clear references to the coming of Christ and to the salvation which he would bring. For the Book of Mormon, like the Qur'an, views the past paradigmatically, although it differs from the Qur'an in two important respects. Firstly, like the Bible it has a narrative structure. Secondly, it offers itself as a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, the traditional Christian scriptures. But despite its narrative structure, the Book of Mormon's view of the past remains consistently paradigmatic. In particular, it insists that even those who lived before the coming of Christ are saved by faith in him. There is, in other words, no difference in the means of salvation between the third century ce and the third century bce. Thus, for instance, in the Book of Enos (dated ca. 420 bce), Enos is at prayer when he hears a heavenly voice:


                And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee and thou shalt be blessed. And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie, wherefore, my guilt was swept away. And I said: Lord, how is it done? And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years shall pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 5-8)


Indeed, in the Book of Mormon, believers are already called "Christians" almost a century before Christ's birth (cf. Alma 46:13-14).

                In the Book of Mormon there is, furthermore, no development in the understanding of revelation over time. God's plan to save human beings in Christ is all there from the beginning, not hidden under the literal meaning of the text (as Christians had long been finding Christian truth figuratively expressed in the Old Testament), but explicit, in the literal sense of this allegedly ancient text. For instance, the Pauline doctrine of the relationship of the Law to Christ, so painfully arrived at in the New Testament writings, is already found in the Book of Jacob, the father of Enos (dated between 544 and 421 bce). Jacob explains why this history has been recorded:


                For, for this intent have we written these things, that they [our children] may know that we knew of Christ, and had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. Behold, they believed in Christ and worshipped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son. (Jacob 4:4-5)


The Book of Helaman even takes the opportunity of tidying up the issue of the Ptolemaic and Copernican views of the universe, with an allusion to that passage in the Biblical Book of Joshua (10:12-14) which caused so much difficulty in the dispute over Galileo's work:


                Yea, if he say unto the earth – Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours – it is done; And thus according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun. (Hel 12:14-15; emphasis mine)


Once again, a passage in the Old Testament whose "otherness" (this time with regard to our modern scientific world view) could cause embarrassment is brought into conformity with what we now believe to be true.

                It follows that the Book of Mormon represents a third strategy for dealing with a religiously normative but awkward past, one which is in many respects parallel to that of the Qur'an, but which remains within the general Christian world of thought. Like the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon offers the believer what can only seem a more consistent and, in that sense, more religiously satisfying view of the history of God's dealings with humanity. In this way it assists the believer in his or her attempts to appropriate the past for contemporary use. Of course, in any such attempt there is both gain and loss. Not only is the Book of Mormon's claim to be ancient scripture deeply questionable – my own description of its origins has assumed that Joseph Smith was its author – but its rewriting of the history of the Jewish people could easily lend itself to a new form of Christian anti-Semitism. But once again, my purpose here is not to evaluate these trends. It is merely to describe them. From this point of view, the Book of Mormon remains a valuable witness to a way of dealing with the past which, in a Christian context, closely resembles that found in the Qur'an.



Religious Studies Dept.

University of Otago

                Dunedin, New Zealand




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