Book Review

Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert C. Gregg

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred as “Abrahamic” faiths due to their common ancestral heritage and their belief in one God.  But do these religions worship the same God? Six years ago, Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University, wrote: “for more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one…but this idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.”[1] This argument is gaining grounds in some recent scholarly works that emphasize differences in religions as a foundation for interreligious dialogue. Gregg C. Roberts’ new book, Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an example of a work that seeks to explain how “Abrahamic” religions have developed different interpretations of their shared stories.  Gregg, a professor of religious studies at Stanford, observes the overlap of these religions with the aim of exploring “how interpreters told the stories using story expansions and noticeable twists in order to advance their communal interests.”[2]

The book departs from the usual narrative common in some interfaith dialogue literature that seek to show how common religious traditions can join hands and enhance each other by demonstrating that Abrahamic religions bear in common the potential of mutual understanding due to their shared stories.[3] Gregg shows that these religions have difficult and irreconcilable differences in beliefs and practices. He reasons that understanding and appreciating these differences instead of romanticizing similarities will enhance mutual understanding.[4]

Gregg advances his argument by tracing five shared (scriptural) narratives as they were later understood by Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpreters. They include: Cain’s murder of Abel, his brother; the clash between Abraham’s two women, Sarah and Hagar; Joseph the young Hebrew slave in Egypt, tormented by the sexual advances of the wife of his master; the disobedient prophet Jonah and the whale, and finally the saga of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Through exploring sacred scriptures (Bible and Quran), text interpretations, sermons, and artistic works such as paintings and sculptures, Gregg shows that these religions “shared sacred stories but lived by rival interpretation of them.”[5] He further reveals how interpreters deliberately sought to build and sustain their own religious society’s identity, purpose, and confidence in their uniqueness as God’s special people.  In order to accomplish their objectives, interpreters often employed combative and satirical techniques to discredit the other religions. This is manifested in the manner in which they twisted the five stories to enhance the development of their tradition and to lay claims to a unique identity. They used shared stories to draw lines of exclusion and distinguish “us” from “them”. Gregg’s book exposes major points of contention and how interpreters fashioned their commentaries around this points, thereby developing unique identity.

All stories except Mary’s (the Hebrew Bible does not have the account of Mary) seem to follow the same pattern – Judaism tells the story of the one God, the creator and his holy people, Christianity takes up that story but incorporates Jesus as a bridge between God and his holy people and finally Islam recapitulates some basic components of the same story, affirming Judaism and then Christianity, but taking the story onward to another climax where they assert their superiority. It is through such interpretations that the core theology of these religions is revealed. For instance, Jewish interpretations of the story of Cain and Abel portray their belief about the world – it is based on God’s justice and equity. Thus, their interpreters sought to examine whether the world works in accordance with God’s judgment of what is right, or in accordance with God’s (unjust) favoritism. Their conclusion – Cain is punished and Abel considered right – help us understand their belief that God is a deity whose dealings with his covenant people are fair and equitable. This further explains why they tended to make Cain’s crime and his criminal nature the chief point of the story. Their working system finds its dynamic in the struggle between God’s plan for creation – to create a perfect world of justice – and man’s will.[6]

On the other hand, Christian interpreters sought to demonstrate that followers of Jesus were on the side of God-approved Abel, the righteous brother, and were called upon to battle Cain-like people who threatened them both within and outside their own church communities. These early Christian interpreters strove to creatively enhance the shared stories in order to educate and build up the faith of believers. They understood their religion to be anchored in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ who is God became human.[7] At the center of their religion is Jesus – who is a fulfillment of the prophecy told in the old Hebrew Bible and also as a fulfillment of Gods promise to David. Hence, the Christian interpreters whose work Gregg analyzed tried to present their commentaries in a manner that reinforces the centrality of Jesus in God’s covenant with Abraham. For Christians, the story of Abel, Sarah, Jonah, Joseph and Mary points to Jesus and his mission.

Saint Matthew was concerned with linking Christ with Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, his account followed a formula explanation (e.g. all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the lord) with a strategy of proving to the believers that indeed Jesus was the promised messiah. On his part, Saint Luke was preoccupied with filling gaps in the Jesus narrative through using versified speeches declared to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.[8] Neither the Jews nor the Muslims bought this idea of Jesus being the messiah for it sought to contradict the very foundations of those religions.

Given the significance of Jesus to Christians and their claim that he was the promised messiah, Jews interpreters were obliged to challenge devotion to Mary and her child and to annul their places in the divine scheme of things. They mocked writings or interpretations that reinforced the idea of Jesus as a messiah, and insulted Mary, his mother as a whore. They portrayed Jesus as an illegitimate son – fathered by a Roman soldier (Joseph Pandera), hence discrediting the immaculate consumption of Mary.[9] The interpreters argued that Christians misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy – they pointed out that Isaiah prophesied about the birth of King Hezekiah and not Jesus. Since the story of Mary and Jesus is not contained in the Bible, Jews interpreters were generally reacting to Christian interpretations. In fact, they managed to use the real events of Jesus’ life against him. This reality of being aware of the other interpreters’ works perhaps explains how Muslim commentators approached their interpretations.

Gregg demonstrates that Muslim interpreters had knowledge of both Jewish and Christian doctrines, hence they did not have to retell the five stories in their entirety – even the Quranic narrations gives the indication that the audience was familiar with some of these stories. They retold the stories, filled the gaps and offered extensions that reinforced their beliefs that Muhammad is God’s prophet and that the world order is based on God’s justice and omnipotent sustenance of the universe.[10]  Their major goal was to prove that Islam was the true religion. For instance, Gregg presents the Qur’anic instance where the Muslims fault Jews for claiming that they killed Jesus.[11] He also presents a Quranic verse that demonstrates that Jesus was not God.[12] All these reinforce the Muslim interpretation of Jesus as just a Prophet, hence reinforcing the claim that Muhammad was the last prophet of God and there is no such thing as Jesus being God.

These shared stories though different, are connected through their intended outcome – to show that these religions had different beliefs and they did not necessarily care for the same things. Stephen Prothero developed four-part approach for distinguishing religions whereby he argued that at the heart of every religion is a problem, solution, technique and an exemplar. For instance, Christianity has the problem of sin, hence their solution is salvation, which can only come through a combination of good works and faith through the examples of saints and ordinary people of faith.[13] Islam unlike Christianity does not believe in the concept of original sin, thus their problem is different. Prothero’s approach though simplistic, can actually help us understand the differences in the five stories Gregg has presented.

Conclusion

Gregg has demonstrated how “Abrahamic” religions interpreted five shared sacred stories to reinforce their beliefs and position themselves as God’s chosen people. For instance, through the story of Cain and Abel, we saw how they focused on those elements that defined their belief in and about God and through the story of Abraham and his two women, Gregg demonstrated how the narratives of these women were fashioned to serve each community, resulting in their becoming mothers to three families – three diverging religions.

Gregg’s book is unique in that it goes beyond the textual interpretations to incorporate artistic works such as paintings and sculptures. These include archeological works going back to second century. Gregg’s exploration on its own does not help peacebuilders or practitioners trying to promote interfaith relations. However, it does help counter the notion that the way toward interreligious understanding among the Abrahamic faiths is through emphasizing similarities in the religions. Stephen Prothero’s work goes a step further to suggest a new path for interfaith relations – Interfaith Dialogue 2.0. [14]  This path open to all religious traditions and its foundation is the genuine recognition of the existence of boundaries and fundamental differences in religions.

Perhaps the major weaknesses in Gregg’s book are that he does not explain how the differences in the religions can utilized in interfaith dialogues. Even Prothero does not comprehensively explain how this can be implemented. This could be area peacebuilding scholars and practitioners can do more research.

[1]Prothero, S (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

[2] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.

[3] James L. Heft, S.M (2006). Passing on the Faith: Transforming traditions for the next generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

[4] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 598

[5] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.

[6] Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 16

[8] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 463 – 472.

[9] Ibid. Pg. 517 -518.

[10] Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers. Pg. 27.

[11] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 543

[12] Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 545 – 546.

[13] Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 26 – 27.

[14] Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world  and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 434.

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