Friday, February 18, 2011

The Bible and the Koran

A reader of my new book, The Gospel Truth, which examines where the authors of the New Testament gathered their information, sent me an e-mail that raised some important issues.  

My book points out that nothing was written down about Jesus until decades after his death, leaving little for the Gospel authors to work with.  “The lack of recorded narrative or history about Jesus would not have stopped a lesser author, and, in fact, 40 years later is not unusual for the literate to record the spoken history,” the reader noted.

He added that, “The Quran is not unlike that. It was decades after Mohammad's death that literates recorded the memorized or interpreted content of Mohammad's prophesies, and several hundred years later that the Hadith -- or Islamic laws -- were recorded with the meticulous pedigree of tellers that substantiate each entry.”

His comparison of the two, apparently similar, sacred documents is understandable.  Without studying history, no one would know that these texts were created under entirely different circumstances.

First, the Koran: Listeners scribbled revelations of Mohammad, who was illiterate, onto leaves, scraps of cloth and similar material.  The writings were supposedly assembled -- amended and augmented -- some 50 years after his death under Sultan Uthman.  Unfortunately, more recent scholars have argued that the text contains writing elements not used in Arabic until centuries later.  That would make the date of its compilation uncertain.  It’s also possible that the Koran went through the same kind of editing as the Bible, which is known to have received hundreds of thousands of changes.  Historian Paul Johnson called the rewriting “pious editing.”

Nevertheless, the Koran has been accepted as the revelations expressed by Mohammad.  Later commentaries were based on (often inaccurate) stories passed along through generations. Nevertheless, the people who knew Mohammad were able to share their accounts, no doubt flavoring them the way all witnesses do. 

That's not true with early Christians.  All the early followers of Jesus, called Ebionites, were wiped out in a war with the Romans before the initial Gospel text, Mark, was written. The Roman war started in 66.  The Temple, the core of Jewish belief, was burned down in 70, and the revolution ended disastrously for the Jews in 73.  Jerusalem was leveled.  Records destroyed.  Perhaps 1 million people died.  No one who knew Jesus was available to pass along his stories. Any written documents – a rarity anyway – would have been lost in the conflagration

Instead, survivors followed the teachings of Paul, who never met Jesus or agreed with his followers.  Paul moved outside Israel and, by tradition, died in Rome.  His letters went to colonies founded outside Israel and the war.  The Gospels were also written outside Israel.   The Christian movement was based on Pauline teachings and galvanized by the destruction of the Temple, which convinced believers that the promised end of the world would arrive soon.

Under the circumstances, few accurate stories about Jesus existed or could have existed.  As noted in my book, historians of the day did not know him.  That includes the Jewish historian Josephus, who described the war against the Romans.  

What has come down to us are four versions of the story of Jesus.  None of them agree except superficially. Many of the sayings attributed to Jesus predate him and are attributable to multiple speakers.  The stories clearly were drawn from biblical or other accounts and superimposed on the unknown life of Jesus. 

As a result, when whoever we call Mark sat down in Rome to tell the story of Jesus, at best he knew a few oral stories about Jesus -- all enhanced by both time and the desire to add divine qualities -- and teachings about what a messiah must do. Uthman had a lot more to work with, including eyewitnesses.
As Dr. Charles Guinebert, the late professor of Christian history noted in his famed book Jesus, “Jesus was born, he lived, he was crucified and he died.  Everything else is conjecture.” 
As a result, we can be sure at least some of the non-fantastic stories about Mohammad and sayings attributed to him are likely true.  That simply cannot be said for Jesus.  That's particularly evident when stories about Jesus are compared to those about Sabbati Zevi, a 17th century mystic once thought to be the messiah.  Followers of Sevi, who were Jews in a Muslim world and knew nothing of Jesus, developed virtually identical mythological tales as did followers of Jesus centuries before.  Sabbatai adherents actually accused Christians of stealing stories about Zevi and applying them to Jesus.

At best then, much – if not all – of the Jesus story is mythology.  No one as is supposed to know that.  As Winston Churchill was advised, once he started questioning his Anglican faith, the stories of Jesus are probably not true, but it would not be wise to discuss that openly.  Once we discard the mythology, however, Dr. Albert Schweitzer realized unhappy in his book Quest for the Historical Jesus, nothing is left, especially a real person.  That's not the case with Islam.

That may also explain why Islam is growing so rapidly.  Islam is now the world’s second-largest religion and boasted an annual growth rate of 6.40 percent, according to United Nations figures.  The growth is worldwide:  Since 1989, the number of Muslims in our neck of the woods has blossomed 25 percent and in Europe a whopping 142.35 percent.  Some of that is related to higher birthrates and to natural movement of people from one land to another.  

Some of it has to do with a decline in Christianity.  In some countries, like Sweden, the Christian religion has virtually disappeared.  

Some historians actually predict Islam will eventually replace Christianity as the world’s largest religion.

Of course, when that happens, there will be a lot more questions to answer.

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  His latest book, The Gospel Truth, was published in February 2011 and is available via or on his website . 

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