My religion told me about your religion! The student of religion is very often discouraged and deterred by the discovery that all religion spends so much time and effort commenting upon, and criticizing the religions of others.
For the good Muslim, it is God who speaks in the Qur’an; it is God who writes the poetry of the Qur’an, and in this poem God mentions the Jewish people and the Christians by name. To be more precise, God devotes more than twenty per cent of the Qur’an to talking about Judaism, Christianity and other religions.
God discusses the failings, or otherwise, of the Sabeans, possibly the Mandaeans, and of numerous ancient religions of various Arabic tribes.
The Qur’an mentions Jesus over twenty times, presumably to set the record straight. I ask the student to keep in mind that this is what God chooses to ‘reveal’ as He reveals Himself to us. This revelation of truth through an angel addresses the cultures and practices of allies and enemies.
Similarly, the Christian Scriptures – namely the New Testament, which contains the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, letters of Paul, other letters, and the book of Revelations – spends roughly fifty per cent of its time and energy talking about the Hebrew people and the many Greek and Roman cults of the first century.
For the good Christian, the New Testament is the revealed voice of God, and God spends most of his time talking about the Jewish people, Jewish religious leaders and schools of Judaism in Roman Judea.
Often, the student can be unaware of the dependency of Christianity upon Judaism, as well as being unfamiliar with the open hostility of Christianity towards Judaism. There were, from time to time, a few students in my class who were very surprised to find that, in the traditional narrative, Jesus was Jewish.
An important part of Christian Scripture continues the religious cause of the Hebrew Scripture, a substantial part of which chastises the religions of the various peoples of antiquity. At the inception of Christianity, both Jewish literature and early Christian literature present the Roman Empire as an un-godly oppressor and ignore or deny the very religious nature of the Roman Empire.
Islam and Christianity deride Judaism. Much of ancient Judaism is, indeed, a commentary on the gods and religious practices of others.
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah complains that the Babylonian civic gods are made from the same wood as their furniture. In the Nevi’im, (the second of the three subdivisions of the Hebrew Scriptures; Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim) the prophet Habakkuk declares that the cults (communities of believers) of image-gods cry ‘Awaken!’ to wood and stone, but there is no ‘breath’ in them.
The gods of the numerous Northwest Semitic ancient religions are depicted by the ancient Israelites as ogres who demand of their followers the murder of their infant children.
In the traditional narrative of Judaism, the ancient Israelites treat the gods and practices of ancient Egyptian religion with distain, implying that the Egyptian religion was filled with charlatans and deceptive tricks.
The central feast of Passover celebrates the moment when Yahweh shows his superiority to the Egyptian gods, as is written in the book of Exodus: ‘Against the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment.’
The authoritative voice of Hebrew Scripture insists that morality was not possible in most religions of ancient peoples, but only in the religion of the ancient Israelites.
Occasionally, the Hebrew Scriptures give a thumbs-up to the behavior of a neighboring god; for example, in the book of Isaiah, applause is given to the god of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.
Zarathustra, the Persian prophet of Zoroastrianism criticizes the religion and practices of the ancient Persians and intends the reformation of Persian religion by acknowledging only two gods from the ancient pantheon of gods.
Buddhism and Jainism directly criticize and contradict ancient Indian religion. Sikhism addresses Islam and Hinduism directly; the founding Guru Nanak was a student of both, and Islamic and Hindu writings that predate Nanak are included in the Sikh sacred scriptures.
It can be very discouraging to discover that so much religious controversy is embedded in the religions of the world, and this is a common reason to give up trying to study and understand the history of religion. Courage and determination is required if we are to investigate and know something about religion and religious behavior.
Image at top: Christian tradition once claimed that the apostles Peter and Paul were incarcerated for their beliefs at the Tullianum prison in Rome.