Quran Read-A-Long: Al-‘Imran 64-71 Appeal to Jews and Christians to Worship Only God

To all of the wonderful participants and readers of Quran Read-A-Long,

I’m so sorry for the extended hiatus I took. Not only did I move from San Francisco to Atlanta over the past month and a half, both breaking down one life and setting up another anew elsewhere, but I traveled during part of the interim to San Diego and twice to Washington, leaving me very little time to address any facet of this blog, much less something that takes the thought and energy of reading the Quran (fortunately I’d set a few motivational posters to future-post). In any case, I really appreciate your patience and hope that you’re willing to resume reading the Quran with me each Wednesday. Most of the rest of this blog will be ignored for a while, but I think that Quran Read-A-Long is the one thing that is important to me to continue doing each week. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and input.

Thank you so much for being a part of this project,

Jay

Without further ado, let’s discuss Al-‘Imran 64-71.

Verse 64 seems to be an amicable outreaching towards both Christians and Jews, hoping that neither will recognize or worship any but God. At its most obvious level, this is a dig at Christianity, asking Christians to set aside the notion that a man – however prophetic – could also be divine. Interestingly, Asad’s note from this verse indicated that this was also aimed at the Jews who sometimes attributed a quasi-divine status to Ezra or certain Talmudic scholars.

Though I’ve heard of prophets and even the greatest Talmudic sages being described as shining with the light of God or some other comparable phrase, I’ve never heard or read anything about these people actually holding some kind of divine or even quasi-divine status as a being more than human. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t believe that such a belief amongst Jews could be true. The reverence ascribed to some of these figures and the language used to discuss them could definitely get muddled through the generations and in the right environment (read: a Christian environment where the idea of a human having a touch of the divine is conceptually acceptable) could certainly come out this way. However, having not heard of it, I can only imagine that this occurrence was few and far between (and gone now), making this verse an open invitation to all whose revelation came before and, in its specifics, is aimed primarily at Christians.

Amen to the appeal offered in verse 65. The idea that Abraham (or, in Judaism, the other forefathers like Isaac and Jacob) obeyed the laws of the Torah is absurd. Let’s exercise a little reason. Now, I’ve no doubt that the rabbis sometimes knew they were being silly and fanciful when they suggested that instead of being sacrificed, Isaac went to study Torah with the sages for three years (and other comparable stories), but it gets a little nutty when other people can’t recognize those capricious words for what they are and start insisting that the forefathers did such things and obeyed the Torah. The same goes for the Gospel. Abraham wasn’t an obedient Christian (though some of his behavior, I would agree with parts of Paul’s letters, does provide a model for what a good Christian is supposed to be – namely, Abraham’s faith, particularly as seen through the eyes of Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling) just as he wasn’t a good Jew.

I’m most curious about the note that Asad includes at the end of verse 70. He writes, “Lit., ‘when you [yourselves] bear witness:’ an allusion to the Biblical prophecies relating to the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.” I think that we’ve already encountered one or two of these that got brought up, but I’d love to hear about more places in the Bible that are considered to be allusions to Islam and Mohammed. Is there a list of those anywhere online or a book that someone’s written?

Overall there’s a certain frustration evident in these verses. It seems as if Mohammed is getting tired of the back and forth with the local Jews and Christians. Certainly many of them have been and still are hassling him about his new religion and prophetic claims, but I’m wondering if there’s anything particular in history that is ascribed to these verses – a notable argument with a notable Jew or Christian or something. They just seem like they’re uttered in frustration.

That’s it for this week, but I’m so glad to be back and doing Quran Read-A-Long. Please leave your own thoughts and comments below, and as always, please answer any of my questions or pose and answer any of your own.

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Al-’Imran 64-71

64. Say: “O followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God.” And if they turn away, then say: “Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.” 65. O FOLLOWERS of earlier revelation! Why do you argue about Abraham, seeing that the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed till [long] after him? Will you not, then, use your reason? 66. Lo! You are the ones who would argue about that which is known to you; but why do you argue about something which is unknown to you? Yet God knows [it], whereas you do not know: 67. Abraham was neither a “Jew” nor a “Christian,” but was one who turned away from all that is false, having surrendered himself unto God; and he was not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him. 68. Behold, the people who have the best claim to Abraham are surely those who follow him – as does this Prophet and all who believe [in him] – and God is near unto the believers. 69. Some of the followers of earlier revelation would love to lead you astray: yet none do they lead astray but themselves, and perceive it not. 70. O followers of earlier revelation! Why do you deny the truth of God’s messages to which you yourselves bear witness? 71. O followers of earlier revelation! Why do you cloak the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth of which you are [so well] aware?

Paul Doesn’t Want Christians Getting Married in Corinthians 7 Because the World is Ending

My latest Nashville Free Press column for No Holier Than Thou is out, and it’s all about the Apocalypse, the impending end of the world and the Christian and Mayan predictions about such things. It also has a brief analysis of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7 in which he says marriage isn’t a great idea.

You can read it by clicking HERE. The article is called, “In Case of Rapture, I Owe You Ten Dollars.” Feel free to leave comments there, here or in both locations if you really want to show me some love (or hate).

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Fun with the Bible: A New Year Message of Forgiveness in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians

If we look at Colossians 3:13, we see a wonderful message – a central message of Christianity – that I think we could all use a second of reflection on. The message is one of forgiveness and the verse reads thus:

“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” Now, the verse ends, “just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Personally, I find the latter half of the verse less necessary. As a more theologically infused message, I don’t find it as helpful as the beginning of the verse. However, if we use it as an exemplary injunction rather than a theological one – that is, God forgives us as an example to us that we should forgive, instead of, ‘ask God’s forgiveness if you want to go to Heaven’ – then I think we really have something there. But in either case, let’s focus on the beginning of the verse.

Forgive each other! What a wonderful message.

Breath in deep, exhale and with that, let it go. What’s it? Whatever it is that’s bothering you. Have you been holding onto it for a day, a week, a month or all of 2008? Maybe longer? Whatever period of time, it’s the New Year, and though every moment of life is a chance to start fresh and a time for new beginnings, many of us appreciate the more chronological breaks in life. Thus, the New Year is a perfect time to start fresh.

Don’t live 2009 with the grudges and angers of 2008. Forgive your friends and loved ones and even your enemies. Let it go. Life will be better without the anger and the hurt.

New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep but resolving to forgive more and have a grudge-free year should be delightful.

I’ve been holding onto some anger from 2008 and I’m ready to let it go. I’m breathing in. I’m exhaling. And I’m letting it go. My life will be better for it.

Will you join me? Will you try to let go of your anger? Please share a situation that you’ve been angry about and tell us about your decision to let it go.

What do you think about these verses?

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Fun with the Bible: Philippians 4:8 and Paul’s Understanding of What is Right

The Basics

Philippians 4:8 reads: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

People love to quote this verse of the Bible. I see it all the time on Facebook profiles, but to be fair, it’s a great verse.

The plain sense of this verse in isolation tells us quite simply that we should think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise. Seems simple enough. Don’t turn your mind to evil things – think only of what is right and good. A pure mind leads to a pure heart and a pure body. It’s a simple exhortation about walking the right path and being good people. That’s a wonderful message to send others.

The Context

But, as I’ve been known to say, there’s a lot more to any biblical verse than the line itself – there are all of the lines around it, which we call context. Let’s just read the very next line, which says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Now, when we put these two lines together, we’re getting a little bit closer to what Paul meant.

The context for this letter is that Paul, the architect of Christianity, is in jail (we’re unsure where), and the people of Philippi have written sending him a gift and their best wishes. Paul is writing back, and though his letter is generally lighter and spirited, he has a concern: other people preaching the gospel different from his message.

Reading the letter to the Philippians in full – the context, obviously, of verse 4:8 – we learn that these other people have a different concept of righteousness than Paul, one based on law and not, as Paul would have it, on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (what Jesus himself wanted we won’t get into now). This conflict between the early followers of Jesus was quite a serious one and wasn’t over until after Paul’s death. What we see, though, is that there is a competition between Jesus’ followers to convert people to their version of belief in him. Paul wants to ensure that the people he converted to Christianity maintain his brand of Christianity. When Paul says in 4:8 to act and think on these things, he knows what true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise things are: the things he’s taught the Philippians.

A Dual Lesson

So what can we take away from this? In the first place, we learn about the importance of reading in context if we want to understand what a line of the Bible means the way it was originally written. People love this line – as they should – but I imagine that it’s rarely thought about just as Paul thought about it. Though Paul’s theology was still developing at this point, he meant something very specific when he exhorted people to meditate on what was just and good, etc. – he meant, among other things, Pauline Christology.

As luck would have it, no one in the world (or at least no founded church that I’m aware of) follows Pauline Christology exactly. Yes, Christianity today is descended from Pauline Christological conceptions and Paul definitely won his battle with the early Judeo-Christians who favored the law, but there has been significant development since then in Christological thought. If we read all of Paul’s letters start to finish and create a theology precisely on what he said, this becomes rather apparent.

In part, the result of this has been the cherry-picking of certain lines from the Pauline letters, particularly Philippians 4:8, a favorite amongst many. On the one hand, this process ignores what I see as a fascinating history that for me, deeply enriches the original text and this line, but on the other hand, doing this allows Christians – and non-Christians, for that matter – to take the very best gems of Paul’s thought and carry them around in their pockets for use when necessary.

If people walk around telling themselves to think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and worthy of praise – and they don’t have a warped conception of what these terms refer to but just use it as a reminder when they are thinking about doing something they really shouldn’t – then I couldn’t be happier that the Bible is influencing them in positive ways.

What do you think of this verse? What do you think about the context of the verse? Have you been told that the verse means something else? Was this something else explained to you with the verse’s surrounding context or as an individual line? Will you share that with us? If your denomination understands this verse a certain way will you please tell us about that? I would be delighted to learn more.

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