Where to begin? For me a return to the fundamentals of a religion and, therefore, to its earliest history should be the starting point of any dialogue between faiths. This definition of fundamentalism implies a study of history, which is something positive. To become ahistorical implies a denial of the most important aspects of one’s belief, i.e. its origins and primal teachings.
One Christmas an Anglican Bishop stated during a radio programme that the historical figure of Jesus was not really important; what mattered was what Jesus meant to Christians today. This view is in fact illogical for if, as Muslims contend, Jesus was actually a Prophet calling his people to the worship of one God, to then worship him as God would be to go against his teaching. Similarly, if as Christians hold he may be taken as an object of worship, then to deny his alleged divinity would also be of consequence. In other words, the historical person of Jesus is of great importance.
At one extreme, the peripheral writings of John Hick in The Metaphor of God Incarnate seem to me to make a mockery of the notion that there is a religious Truth. If faith becomes merely what we make it, how does that help us? If Jesus himself did not teach that he was God incarnate dying for the sins of the world, as Hick argues, isn’t the idea that divine incarnation should be understood merely as a metaphor simply another way of saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what he taught; I wish to believe this.’ While many theologians reject Hick’s thesis, their writings often follow a similar pattern.
It could be argued that the reason fundamentalism is often frowned upon in some Christian circles is exactly because constructing a picture of the historical reality is so difficult as a result of the paucity of source material. This material is limited almost wholly to the four gospels contained within the New Testament. Two references in the writings of Josephus to the life of Jesus are now considered later Christian interpolations, but the apocryphal writings of the Church, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamadi Library are now considered an additional source. On 11 September 2001, The Guardian reported:
Vatican scholars are preparing to rewrite the Bible by incorporating revelations contained in ancient scrolls discovered beside the Dead Sea in Palestine, it emerged yesterday. … Martyn Percy, a canon doctor at Sheffield University, welcomed the initiative but suggested the results may be less than dramatic. “There has never been a settled, definitive version of the Bible; it has been an evolving book which has gone through many translations. Only fundamentalists think it came in a fax from heaven.” (R. Carroll, Vatican scholars prepare to rewrite Bible)
Despite this, the main focus of study makes it is easier to appreciate the position taken by modern theologians on the figure of Jesus. John Stott’s view that each gospel was written to present a different face of Christ highlights the problem we have. If these primary sources themselves were written with the intention of converting non-Christians and strengthening the faith of believers, the biographer of Jesus’ life is faced with an absence of material which the original authors thought unimportant in their attempt to convey a particular story. The result being that if we were to collect all the words actually spoken by Jesus in the four Gospels, removing those passages duplicated across the different books, we would find that they fit on no more than two sides of a sheet of A4 paper.
The scarcity of information means that we are not sure of the most basic questions about Jesus’ life. The gospels do not tell us what language he spoke with the result that Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and a Galilaean dialect of Chaldic have all been suggested by scholars as possibilities. The gospels fail to teach us any of the doctrines later adopted by the Church, such as the early Eastern Creeds Epistola Apostolorum, The Old Creed of Alexandria, The Shorter Creed of the Egyptian Church Order, The Marcosian Creed, The Early Creed of Africa, The Profession of the ‘Presbyters’ at Smyrna (F.J. Badcock, The History of the Creeds, p.24) and, of course, the later Nicene Creed which was forty-one lines longer than the earliest version. Nor do the gospels help us to understand that Palestine at the time was under Roman occupation.
More importantly, the gospels do not tell us anything about the authors of the books; we are merely provided with first names and are then left to guess their relationship to Jesus, whether they were eye-witnesses to the events of his life, whether they were known for their honesty and what their role in the early Church was. The seasoned argument that the four gospels prove to be reliable witnesses by virtue of the fact that they agree on the main points but differ on a few of the details, pointing to the fact that the authors did not collude in their accounts is unsurprisingly not supported by many biblical scholars. Evidence of copying from Mark is brought out by some, whilst others argue for the existence of an earlier primal document which they label Q.
Burton Mack argues in The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins, that Jesus’ earliest followers had collected his teachings, ideas, manners and calls for social reform in a book which predated the development of the gospels. In his view this text developed in layers. First there were the sayings of Jesus failing to convey the notion that he had brought a new religion (p.73-80). Later, a more sectarian attitude becomes apparent (p.131). Finally, with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, Jesus is described as the Son of God (p.173-4). At the close of the first century, he argues, the authors of the synoptic gospels used Q in the process of writing their accounts of the life of Jesus.
When it comes to a comparison with the recording of the Qur’an and the collected sayings of Prophet Muhammad there is a noticeable difference. The Qur’an itself is considered a Book sent down with the Prophet, rather than a description of his life as in the case of the gospels, and is thus not compared with the New Testament. In terms of substance, the collected sayings of the Prophet could more easily be equated with the gospels, although the method by which they were collected does not compare. If we consider that the earliest gospels are thought to have been written during the latter part of the first century, it is notable that the Muslim community during the lifetime of Muhammad himself was concerned with documenting and committing to memory every verse of the Qur’an. In their midst, the Prophet dictated, explained and arranged every verse of the Qur’an and, following his death, his community took it upon itself to continue to preserve it from corruption.
The reason that the Muslim community felt it so important to preserve it was that the Qur’an itself stated that the previous scriptures had been corrupted from within. Fearing that people would treat this revelation in the same manner they devised means by which to protect it. So successful were they that today you will hear other Muslims who have learnt the Qur’an correcting the leader of the prayer – in which it is always recited – if he happens to make a mistake during his recital. The millions of Muslims who have memorised the whole of the Qur’an are its guardians. Meanwhile, in order to preserve both the Qur’an and the stories of the Prophet’s life, his community established an intricate structure based on the law of witness.
During the lifetime of the Prophet, his companions would relate his words and actions to one another by saying, ‘The Prophet said/did such and such.’ When such a report was mentioned to a further person the source would be related along with what was said or done: ‘Aisha said the Prophet said such and such.’ As time passed by, the scholars of Islam insisted on carefully examining the source of all information which they received so that, by the end of the first century of the Muslim calendar, the practice had become a science in its own right. For a report to be accepted, scholars demanded that four conditions be met: that it was accurate, that all narrators in the chain of narration were trustworthy, that the chain of transmission was unbroken and that there was positive support for the statement from all other available evidence.
During the second half of the first century of the Muslim calendar, the sayings of the Prophet began to be categorised by subject in booklets. Again the Muslim scholars considered it necessary to establish a means of protecting the content of these books from possible adulteration. They therefore required any scholar involved in passing on sayings of the Prophet to be in direct contact with the person to whom they were being passed. So insistent were they on the role of witness, that they considered the use of a book without hearing it from the author equal to giving false evidence.
It would be impossible to imagine revisions such as those currently being undertaken by Vatican scholars in respect to the gospels or the ninth century addition of the story of adulteress woman in John’s gospel. A personal commentary added to a book had to be signed; otherwise it would be considered to invalidate the text. Painstaking restrictions were put in place even when it came to using books of the sayings of the Prophet, where reading certificates became mandatory. When transmitting such books, a detailed record of the attendance at the gathering was taken and added to the reading certificate, which then became an exclusive authorization for those listed in it to read, teach, copy or quote from that book. Other checks were also employed to ensure that sacred knowledge was preserved in a suitably respectful manner.
The point of all this is to show why I believe fundamentalism – or a return to the earliest period – need not be a troublesome issue. The insistence of scholars on preserving knowledge in the case of Islam, however, makes such a return much more realistic than it would be given the Christian’s situation. Surely if we claim to follow Jesus and Muhammad, we need to know what they themselves taught. By default this would mean going back to the source. If our inter-faith dialogue is genuinely concerned with faith, rather than contemporary politics, then a study of history, of belief, doctrine and theology is of crucial importance. We cannot throw around slogans about fundamentalism and tolerance and then expect that this will contribute to our mutual understanding.
While it may be true that Muslims need to develop an appreciation of why Christian theology has developed in the way it has, there always remains the urge to pursue the historical reality. It is because Islam speaks specifically about the role of Jesus that this situation arises. Historical reality may not be an issue for a Hindu whose sacred texts have nothing to say about Jesus, but for Muslims Jesus is explicitly referred to as a Prophet sent to the tribe of Israel to bring them back to the essence of the Law of Moses. The Qur’an categorically denies that he is the son of God and states that all an individual need do for the eradication of sin is pray to God for forgiveness. Because Islam makes this claim, Muslims naturally ask for evidence that Jesus taught the idea of divine sonship, and hence the emphasis on the earliest period.