The Predominance of Texts Monotheistic Religions

Texts believed to be revealed are more definitive sources of authority in the three monotheistic religions than in other religions. Furthermore, the most serious disagreement among the monotheistic religions concerns which of them possesses the truly revealed, authoritative scripture. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim to believe in a monotheistic deity and all three claim that the deity has spoken to humankind in trustworthy, definitive revealed scriptures. But each claims its scripture as the one reliable scripture, and predictably, as each of the three religions emerged into history, it claimed that its scriptures fulfilled and replaced previously recognized texts. Also predictably, those who did not follow the new revelation claimed it to be the work of misguided usurpers. Thus, Jews regard the Hebrew Bible, the oldest monotheistic scripture, as the valid revelation and do not recognize either the Christian New Testament or the Muslim Qur'an as revelations. Christians recognize the Hebrew Bible, virtually identical with what they call the Old Testament, as genuine revelation, but claim that their New Testament is the culmination and fulfillment of that scripture. However, they pay little attention to the Qur'an, which emerged later. Muslims, on the other hand, claim that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were genuine messages from the deity, valid in their own time, but now made obsolete by their own final and definitive revelation.

Fundamental to claims of authority for these scriptures is the claim that revelation has now ceased; each of the three monotheistic religions in turn makes the claim that the deity said all it intends to say now that its scripture has been revealed and that humans can expect no further revealed messages. Thus each religion in turn has declared the canon to be closed.

Within each of the three monotheistic traditions, similar problems have developed in the process of living with a definitive, final revealed text that cannot be amended or changed. First, who determines that the canon is, indeed, closed? In the Muslim tradition, this issue was solved relatively easily. The entire Qur'an was revealed during the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed (570-632 c.e.) and Muslims of his own day and later times never questioned whether any other texts could be part of the Qur'an. But the issue was not so easily solved with the New Testament or the Hebrew Bible, in part because the idea of a definitive revealed scripture as the charter of the religious community was not yet well established.

By the beginning of the common era, the contents of the Hebrew Bible had been roughly agreed upon, though one class of literature, the Apocrypha, usually included in Roman Catholic Bibles but not in Protestant or Jewish Bibles, had an ambiguous status. Many new texts about Jesus and the meaning of his life were being circulated in the Roman Empire as Christianity began to form and to split from Judaism. Were they revealed scriptures? Many texts about Jesus did not make it into the New Testament canon as Christianity gradually defined its orthodoxy and rejected the texts of the defeated Christian groups. Bishops began to circulate lists of texts that they regarded as appropriate reading material for their congregations; they had a list in common sometime between the second and the fourth centuries c.e. that closed the New Testament canon. Christians also accepted the texts that had already become sacred to Jews, but they read them in Greek (or later in Latin), not in Hebrew. The Apocrypha circulated as part of the already established Greek translation, which is why Christians continued to regard it as scripture until the Reformation.

Jews experienced very chaotic times after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., when they were dispersed to all parts of the Roman empire, and Christianity became dominant. In these conditions a group of rabbis regarded as religious authorities met to come to a firm decision about which texts were authoritative for Jews. They came to the conclusion that the Apocrypha should be set aside, leaving the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings as the three parts of the Hebrew Bible.

One way or another, the authority of a specific text is established. All three monotheistic religions agree that life should be based on that text, that the text is the final arbiter of the deity's wishes and commands for human beings. But how is what the text really says determined, and who gets to make those determinations? These are the fundamental issues about religious authority in the monotheistic religions. Deeming the text authoritative does not solve the problem of which persons or institutions should determine the text's meaning or the text's solution to various unforeseen circumstances that inevitably arise.

This problem is solved by authorizing a specific group of people to determine the text's meaning. In all three monotheistic religions, these people must be well educated in the text and commentaries upon it because they should derive their interpretations from the text, not impose them upon the text. In time, commentaries become as important, if not more important than the root text, as each generation adds its layer of commentary, which becomes part of the whole authoritative tradition.

In Judaism and Islam, the revealed text is regarded above all as the guideline for daily life. Religious authority involves not only questions of belief or ethical behavior but also of diet, inheritance, marriage and divorce, testimony in court, and all the other myriad details that make up a whole society. The most respected scholars in the tradition are those who know the all-encompassing religious legal code and how to bring it to bear on any new situation that develops. The revealed text has often been compared to a constitution and the process of interpreting it to the development of constitutional law. This fact helps explain why the separation of religion and government is so difficult for many Muslim societies; there can be no real separation between religion and the affairs of daily life that governments oversee if the revealed sacred text is, in fact, a constitution setting forth a daily routine and way of life. Muslims and Jews usually regard this code for daily living as a great blessing rather than a burden. They say that having such matters as diet or family law predetermined by religious authority makes life simpler and less stressful.

Valid "constitutional law" that develops in this process is regarded as having equal authority with the original text. In Judaism, the oral Torah of the Mishnah and the Talmud, compiled in the early centuries of the common era, is regarded as having been contained, in a hidden way, in the written Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). It was the job of skilled, well educated rabbis to draw out those meanings, for often Jewish law as practiced in contemporary Orthodox Judaism goes well beyond the literal text of the written Torah. In a similar fashion, Muslims rely on the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Mohammed that are not part of the Qur'an, to answer questions seemingly left unanswered by it. If more resources are needed, reasoning from the text is considered a valid source of authority in Islam. The fourth source of authority in Islam is the consensus of the whole community, a source of authority much less explicitly recognized in most other religions.

Christianity did not develop the same kind of overarching blueprint for daily living and so the same kind of detailed attention to the development of religious law did not occur. However, matters of theological doctrine drew the same intense scrutiny, the same creative reasoning to prove that doctrines most historians would regard as later developments really are present in the Biblical text itself. Early Christianity was very diverse and many different forms of Christianity competed for dominance, especially before the legalization of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine in 313 c.e. and the formation of the Nicene Creed in 325 c.e. With those events, a dominant form of Christianity, under the authority of the bishop of Rome (the popes) emerged.

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