05 April 2008

Using the Bible in Interfaith Dialogue

Turkish Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Izmir (Smyrna). Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford


Most of us, at this stage, I am sure, are sensitive to ways we can and should use in the Bible in inter-Church dialogue and at inter-Church events.

We are all aware of the insensitive occasions when someone has asked rhetorically: “We all share the same Bible, don’t we?”

Even among Anglicans, there can be differences of opinion about how we use those books that the 39 Articles say the Church reads for “example of life and instruction of manners,” without “apply[ing] them to establish any doctrine. But when the Lectionary provides for readings from those books described as part of the Apocrypha or Deutrocanonical books, how do you call for a response at the end? Do you say: “This is the word of the Lord?” [see Article 6.]

And what about those Deutrocanonical books or parts of the Apocrypha that are included in some bound versions of the NRSV or RSV, such as the Common Bible, which are not listed in Article 6, but which are regarded as canonical by other traditions, such as the Orthodox Church?

Can you use Apocryphal readings at inter-Church events, or inter-Church family events, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals?

Can you say “This is the Word of the Lord” at the end of a reading?

When the New Testament writers quote not from the Hebrew Bible but from the Greek Septuagint, how this change our understanding of what is being said in Article 6?

In your ministry, many occasions will arise when you will need to be more than aware there is more than one idea of what is canonical and what is apocryphal.

If we have to be sensitive about how we use the Bible in ecumenical or inter-Church encounters, how much more sensitive we must be when it comes to inter-faith events and dialogue and inter-faith events.

In the process of inter-faith dialogue, there is a difference in degree between our dialogue with the other great monotheistic Abrahamic traditions especially Jews and Muslims, and I would say Sikhs also, and our dialogue with other faith traditions, such as Hindus and Buddhists, even when those other traditions have their sacred scriptures.

Today, we commonly refer to Jews, Christians and Muslims as the Children of Abraham to refer to many of our shared and common understandings of faith and tradition, and this is emphasised even further by Muslims when they refer to members of these three traditions as “People of the Book.”

But how do we use the “Book” when we are in dialogue with these traditions, and more especially, how do we use the Bible?

Jewish-Christian dialogue

1, It is important to develop and to retain an understanding the Bible as Jewish Scripture in its own right and on its own terms.

The Bible is sacred Hebrew Scriptures and remains so to this day. It is not merely a preface or preamble to the New Testament: it is an account of God’s living covenant with the Jewish people. That is how Jesus and the early Church saw it, and it remains so for Jews to this day.

The Apostle Paul says “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness” [II Timothy 3: 16]. When he wrote this, he could hardly have been aware of the later Petrine or Johannine epistles or the Book of Revelation. Could he even have imagined at the time that his own letters to Timothy and Titus, for example were going to be regarded by the Church at a later date as canonical?

So what was Saint Paul referring to? What did he include within the parameters of “all scripture”? As a writer in Greek, did he include the Apocryphal books in the Septuagint?

Saint Paul was referring to what we now call the Old Testament, but which is never partial or incomplete for Jews, because for them it is the Bible, whole and complete. For them, it can never be the Old Testament. It is not out of date for them; it is still living Scripture for every believing Jew.

If we call it the Old Testament, do we imply that it has been superseded by the New Testament?

The term “supersessionism” describes the belief that the Church has replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Many argue that supersessionism was responsible for the persecution of Jews throughout history, culminating in the Holocaust.

But the term “supersessionism” has also been applied to the belief that Christianity is superior to Judaism, as well as the view that the New Testament fulfils or supersedes the Old Testament. Paul rejects the idea of supersessionism and the implication that God has broken his everlasting covenant with the Jews (see Romans 9-11).

As Christians, do we believe that Christianity is superior to other ways of explaining the world? Is there another reason for being a Christian if you do not think that Christianity is the better way? In considering this, we should be mindful that, on the other hand, there are some people who will have obvious difficulties with the idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people, feeling that this implies that God loves the Jews more than he loves other people. How do you respond to this? Does supersessionism offer the possibility of arguing that Jews and Gentiles are equal in God’s sight (see Galatians 3: 28)?

The Bible is authentic Scripture for Jews today. Their reading of it without our understanding of Messianic promise, and certainly without an understanding of Christ as that Messiah, is a valid reading of the Bible for Jews. It was so for believing Jews at the time of Christ, including Jews he worshipped with in the Temple and in the Synagogue.

How do we respond when Jews interpret the Messianic passages in the writings of the prophets as referring to the whole Jewish people, and when some Jews read the passages about the suffering servant in the hindsight that comes from the experiences of the Holocaust?

2, In Jewish-Christian dialogue, we need to be aware of how Jews will respond to those parts of the New Testament that appear to be anti-Jewish. In Jewish-Christian dialogue, Christians often face embarrassing difficulties because historically the Jews were often persecuted under Christian rule, and the Bible was used often and regularly to justify discrimination, ghettoisation and persecution.

Some will say that there were times when Jewish authorities persecuted the Christians. But the Jewish persecution of Christians was never as bad as the Christian persecution of Jews, it was never systematic, and it was never at the hands of a government that used religious belief, faith and scripture to justify it.

During the controversy over the Passion of the Christ, critics of Mel Gibson argued that his interpretation of the Gospels is not historically accurate when it comes the death of Jesus, pointing out that the Romans played a bigger role in it than the Jews.

But what about the use of the term “Jews” throughout the Johannine writings? Can we distinguish between “Judeans” and Jews? How many of the references translated as Jews should really be translated Judeans? For example, we don’t translate the title of the Epistle to the Hebrews as the Epistle to the Jews. Can we tell the difference between those who were Judeans by provincial origin (as opposed to Galileans) and those who are Jewish by religion?

There are references in the New Testament to Jews who eject Christians from the synagogue, because they see Christians as abandoning monotheism. But is that a conflict within a community that should influence how we use the Bible in dialogue with Jews today, or in our understanding of how Christians should relate to Jews?

And then there are references to Jews, Judaising parties and synagogues in the Pauline and Johannine writings that are references not to all people of the Hebrew faith, but to people who were Christians and wanted to retain or introduce Jewish practices into the Christian communities.

3, Are there insights and contributions that Messianic Jews can offer that may be helpful in understanding scripture as part of the process of Jewish-Christian dialogue?

Messianic Jews often face difficult problems within the Jewish community, and their presence can be a difficult area when it comes to dialogue with Jews. But Messianic Jews and Jews who become Christians do not see themselves as abandoning their Judaism, as has been pointed out beautifully by Michele Guinness in many of her books.

Within the Christian community, these offer us important insights. For example, Michele Guinness and others help us to understand both the Friday night rituals in Jewish families and homes that help n understanding the many meals Jesus had with his disciples and with people such as Zaccheus and Simon the Pharisee, or in understanding the Seder or Passover meal within its Jewish context. Both give us fresh insights into our celebrations of the Eucharist.

A writer like David Stern has made an interesting translation, the Jewish New Testament, that expresses the Jewishness of the New Testament.

We need to be sensitive about the ways in which we use the Bible in Jewish-Christian dialogue, but we need to be aware of how we can gain fresh insights into the roots of our faith and our liturgy from Jews too, but those who remain faithful Jews and who interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in a very different tradition of understanding, and those Jews who have become Christians but do not wish to lose their Jewish identity.

Christian-Muslim dialogue

1, It is more difficult when it comes to the question of how can we use the Bible in dialogue with Muslims, despite the fact that Muslims see Jews, Christians and Muslims as People of the Book.”

Muslims give a very high degree of reverence to the Quran, even in how they handle it, and where they place it in a bookshelf. They are shocked if they see us placing the Bible on the floor, or marking it with a highlight pen, as so many of us probably do during Bible studies or lectures. They would even be shocked to see us place it on a bookshelf and then to see us place other books on top of the Bible.

So what do Muslims think the Bible is? For Muslims, their prophet Muhammad did not start a new religion, and the Quran was revealed to him within a tradition of scriptural revelation and prophecy.

For Muslims, the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels are revealed Scripture. They believe that God has never left people without revealed scripture or without prophetic messengers. And while they are often taught that Jews and Christians have misinterpreted or rewritten Scripture, they are still interested in what we have to say about the Torah (tawrat), the Psalms (zabur) and the Gospels (injil). There is a whole chapter or sura in the Quran about Mary and the birth of Christ, and another sura devoted to the Last Supper.

Many Muslims are interested in the parables in the Gospels, the parallels between Bible stories and the stories in the Quran about the prophets and Christ, and I have had interesting conversations with a senior Iranian cleric about both Saint John’s Gospel and the hermeneutical approach to the Pauline epistles when it came to debates about the ordination of women.

The Quran is seen by Muslims as the confirmation of the truth revealed in early scriptures, and the people of the book, the followers of the revealed scriptures, have a special place in the Quran, particularly those who carry the Abrahamic legacy. Significant portions of the Quran focus on the story of the Biblical prophets and their followers, the Jews and Christians. It presents their stories as the story of the journey of faith, reminding the followers of the last revelation of the ups and downs in the struggle of the early communities of faith.

Some commentators have focused on the Quranic critique of the People of the Book, pointing out that the Quran says there were several excesses and mistakes by the followers of the Biblical prophets, and warning Muslims against committing similar excesses. Yet the Quran is full of stories of great struggles and shining examples of the followers of early prophets whose commitment and devotion were crucial for establishing the monotheistic traditions and translating divine guidance into social practices. For example, the strong faith of Saul (Talout) and those who stood firmly with him (2: 249); the devotion of the people of the Trench who remained true to their faith in the face of a horrifying aggression committed by ruthless enemies (85: 1-11); and the unwavering commitment of the followers of Christ to the ethical code and compassionate spirit he brought to humanity (61: 14).

2, Christians need to read and to be familiar with the Quran, and will be surprised at the many parallels with Biblical stories in the Quran.

But can we use the Quran in a Christian setting or in dialogue with Muslims?

I remember my reaction to hearing the Fatiha or the opening sura of the Quran being used as a reading at a funeral.

The sura al-Fatiha (Arabic: الفاتحة‎), “The Opening,” is the first chapter of the Quran. Its seven verses are a prayer for God’s guidance and the stress the lordship and mercy of God. This chapter has a special role in traditional daily prayers of Muslims, who recite it at the start of each unit of prayer, or rak’ah.

Muslims believe that the Quran is a direct divine revelation from God in the Arabic language. Translations into other languages are considered by many to be merely superficial “interpretations” of the meanings and so they are not reliable versions of the Quran. Although some liberal Muslims may use translations as part of their daily prayers, translations are used mainly for personal spiritual use by non-Arabic speakers.

The text of the Fatiha with transliteration and translation in English is as follows:

1 بِسْمِ اللّهِ الرَّحْمـَنِ الرَّحِيم
Bismillāhir rahmānir rahīm
In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful:
2 الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِين
Al hamdu lillāhi rabbi l-'ālamīn
Praise be to God, the Lord of the Universe. 3 الرَّحْمـنِ الرَّحِيم Ar raḥmānir-rahīm The Most Merciful, the Ever-Merciful.
4 مَـالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّين
Māliki yawmid-dīn
King of the Day of Judgment.
5 إِيَّاك نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِين
Iyyāka na'budu wa iyyāka nasta'īn
You alone we worship, and you alone we ask for help
6 اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ
Ihdināṣ-ṣirāt al mustaqīm Guide us to the straight path;
7 صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّين
Ṣirāt al-ladīna an'amta 'alayhim ġayril maġdūbi 'alayhim walād dāllīn
The path of those whom you have blessed, not of those who have deserved anger, nor of those who stray.

This sura has often been compared with the Lord’s Prayer, both because of its sentiments and because of the way it is used in traditional Muslim prayers. The Islamic mandatory prayers require every practicing Muslim in the world to recite the Fatiha at least 17 times a day. This surah is sometimes described as “the mother of the Book” (Umm al-Kitab) and “the mother of the Quran” (Umm al-Qur'an), and “the cure of diseases” (Sura-tul-shifa). When recited during daily prayers, many Muslims end their recital of the Fatiha with the word Amen (Amin).

The first verse, transliterated as bismillāhir rahmānir rahīm, is heard so often and so regularly in Arabic and Muslim societies that it is familiar even among those who are not Muslims and who do not speak Arabic. This verse appears at the start of every sura in the Quran (except for at-Tawbah). The verse is said before reciting a sura or part of a sura during daily prayer, and also before public proclamations and before many personal and everyday activities as a way of invoking God’s blessing and proclaiming one’s motives before an undertaking.

But what about the concluding verses? Can they be said within a Christian context? It is always important to respect the fact that people of other faiths interpret their own Holy Scriptures in the light of their own traditions and hermeneutical approaches. For Muslims, the “straight path” in verse 6, is the way of Islam, while verse 7 is understood always to refer to (without naming them explicitly) Jews and Christians.

A Muslim would be shocked to gear the Fatiha being recited in a church. And so, no matter how we might want to appropriate some of its words with different meanings, it should never be used as a reading in a church under any circumstances – out of respect to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

3, What does the Quran says about interfaith dialogue?

There are voices within the three monotheist Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – who, in the light of current tensions, argue that it is difficult if not impossible to find understanding and to build trust among the followers of these three traditions.

Those who quote selectively from Islamic sources often paint Islam as an intolerant religion. This is often misleading when it comes to both the historical record of Muslims in dealing with people of other faiths, and, most importantly, what the Quran has to say itself. There are plenty of examples in history of Muslims encouraging multi-religious societies where people with diverse religious backgrounds lived in considerable harmony. Two prime examples are provided by the tolerance of mediaeval Muslim Spain and the invitation to Jews expelled from Jerusalem to return to the city upon the defeat of the Crusaders.

The Quran teaches that true and honest living is the assured way for spiritual and social harmony, and for protecting the long-term self interests of every human being. The Quran asserts that humans are fallible and can never be free of error in understanding and judgment. Human knowledge is imperfect, and subject to bias and error. Knowledge of intentions and inner thoughts are beyond human capacity, and so is the knowledge of the final destiny of individuals. People of faith must show humility and put their trust in divine wisdom and the absolute justice of God, and must focus on doing what is right and just, instead of sitting in judgment on the eternal salvation of others.

The Quran is clear that only God knows who is true and sincere in worship and service, and who has gone astray.“Your lord knows best who strays from his way: He knows best who they are that receive His guidance” (6: 117).

“And we granted them clear signs in matters (of religion): it was only after knowledge had been granted to them that they fell into schisms, through insolent envy among themselves. Verily, your lord will judge between them on the Day of Judgment as to those matters in which they set up differences” (45: 17).

The duty of believing Muslims, therefore, according to the Quran, is not to judge others or to look down on those with different religious understandings and faith, but to respect their choices and try his or her best to live an upright life and manifest the values of his and her faith through good work and good deeds.

“To you 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 has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that has come to you. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, he would have made you a single People, but (his plan is) to test you in what he hath given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is he that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute” (5: 48).

The Muslim prophet Muhammad repeatedly emphasised that his mission confirmed those of early prophets. He directed early Muslims to seek refuge in Abyssinia, pointing out that the country was ruled by a just Christian King. This was the beginning of a strong alliance between Muslims and Christians in Abyssinia that lasted for 1,000 years.

Muslim attitudes towards the followers of other religions, particularly the People of the Book, can be one not of self-righteousness and pride, but of compassion, mutual respect, and concern for the well-being and welfare of other communities. The Quran an encourages Muslims to co-operate for the common good and to search from a common ground, based on mutual respect and help.

“Say: O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah.” If then they turn back, say: “Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah’s Will)” (3: 94).

Muslims are asked to seek common ground with the followers of other religions in a society in which people are free to worship God. In such an open society, Muslims can display a positive attitude and an unwavering respect for the followers of other faiths. Dealing with respect and positive engagement does not mean that differences in doctrine and interpretation do not matter. Rather, it means that those differences must be addressed through free and open dialogue.

It is this open, free, and dignified dialogue that allows the followers of various religious traditions to affirm their diversity and discuss their similarities and differences, and it is what Islam requires from its followers. Muslims have a moral and religious obligation to engage in interfaith dialogue with other communities of faith, and they must do that by maintaining ethical standards required by the Quran, including the directive to “argue with [the follower of the revealed books] in ways that are best and most gracious.”

Dialogue with other faiths

The principal Sikh scripture is the Adi Granth (First Scripture), more commonly called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs do not speak about this as their “holy book” but as their perpetual and current “Guru,” Guide or Master. The Granth is 1,430-page long, divided into 39 chapters, and was written between 1601 and 1604. All copies are exactly alike, and Sikhs are forbidden from making any changes to its text.

Because it talks about the one God shared by the great monotheistic faiths, how can we have discussions with Sikhs about it?

Some time ago, I was buying two ties in a Beijing hotel. The helpful shop assistant pointed out that I should have three ties for the price of two, and tried to press on me a third tie with Chinese characters. I asked her to translate them, and was told they were quotations from Buddhist scripture.

How could I wear a tie like that, out of respect to Chinese Muslims and out of respect to Chinese Christians?

Many years ago, I stayed as a guest of Japanese monks from the Nichiren school of Buddhism. Their life is punctuated with chanting repeatedly: “Namu myoho renge kyo” – “Praise to the Lotus sutra.” This phrase is known as the daimoku, and the practice of chanting the daimoku is called shōdai and is supposed to bring absolute happiness.

Many Buddhists will place passages from scripture in a prayer wheel, and turn this in prayer. When you visit a Buddhist temple or monastery in Japan or China, and you are asked to turn a traditional prayer wheel, how do you respond?

What about Hindu scriptures? Hindu literary tradition is dominated by the Sanskrit scriptures, including great religious epics such as the Upanishads, the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita, which are still revered as scripture by Hindus today. How do you feel about them being used in one well-known Dublin school to teach Sanskrit?

I know one Turkish scholar who argues that because the Bhagavad Gita (literally the Song of the God) is devoted to one God Hindus can be respected as People of the Book and that it is evidence of God’s plan to provide all people with revelation.

Some questions for discussion

How do you respond to the concept of God always providing revelation and prophets for people in every age?

How do you respond to the concept of the Hebrew Scriptures being respected in their own right?

Have you a separately bound copy of the New Testament (you will receive one on your ordination as deacon)?

Have you ever read the Quran?

Have you ever read the scriptures of other religious traditions?

Did you ever receive a copy of the Book of Mormon?

How do you respond to people in other traditions bringing their own interpretations to the Bible?

Some further reading

The Quran (various English interpretations are available through most popular books shops).

Colin Chapman, Cross & Crescent: responding to the challenge of Islam (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995).
BE Inze, IA Omar (eds), Heirs of Abraham: the future of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Relations (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2005).
Michael Ipgrave (ed), Scriptures in Dialogue (London: Church House Publishing, 2004).
Jacques Jomier, The Bible and the Qur’an (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002).
Joseph Stallings, Rediscovering Passover: a complete guide of Christians (San Jose CA: Resource Publications, 1988.
David H. Stren (trans), Jewish New Testament (Jerusalem: Jewish New Testament Publications1994 ed).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes during a seminar with Year II students on the NSM course on 4 April 2008.

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