Western religious traditions are just that: traditions. They are not traditional in quite the same way in which we speak of persons who favor wing-tip shoes, or curtsy, or bring gelatin molds on picnics, or like to do things “the way Grandma and Grandpa do them.” Rather, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are traditional in a more complex and encompassing way. They do indeed preserve centuries of accumulated judgments about the value of certain beliefs and behaviors. But, additionally, they are hardwired to challenge traditional meanings, promote interpretation, and adapt to changing historical circumstances. In short, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are dynamic traditions, poised between their embrace of the past and the articulation of new meanings.
There is an additional, more specific meaning of tradition of which we must be aware as we begin this part. Each of the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is, in fact, the product of many distinctive, competing traditions. These many traditions, which frequently overlap in certain aspects but nevertheless retain unique elements, coalesce to form the larger tradition. In this part, we explore this process, observing how various traditions are consolidated within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We see as well how that process of consolidation is never complete, how these three religions are constantly interpreting and judging the strands of traditions that shaped them, sometimes in the process creating the stuff of new traditions.
All these strands of traditions characteristically are kept alive orally or in writing. In the latter case, we may speak of a specific book, one that is highly valued by a community of believers and passed from generation to generation, as one strand of tradition in the makeup of a religion. Historically, certain of these books, these traditions, acquired such authority that they became “scripture” and are preserved unchanged from century to century. Scripture, however, must be interpreted and applied. It must be mined for meanings that respond to the questions and concerns of each new generation. Accordingly, scripture itself becomes the source for a wide range of traditions of interpretation, of books that are considered valuable by the community because they articulate the meanings in scripture.
Western religious traditions are “traditional,” then, in several related ways: each is itself the product of the intertwining of many strands of traditions. Those various strands in most cases survive as books, and some of them eventually were recognized as scripture. The commentaries on scripture that arose with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam themselves became traditions of interpretation, so that
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam preserve tradition in scripture while they also generate new traditions that are grounded in that scripture.
This part on scripture and tradition is, in short, not merely about the names and dates and authors of certain holy books. It is about the processes by which those books came to be judged as authoritative by religious communities. And it describes the ways in which communities have acted to confirm the authority of scripture through the practice of interpretation.
According to the stories recorded in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Judaism has its historical origins in an act of obedience. One day long ago, for reasons never clearly explained, the Creator of Heaven and Earth announced to an obscure Mesopotamian peasant named Abram a stunning proposal:
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall consider themselves blessed through you. Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him. (Gen. 12:1–3)
Abram, the Bible relates, went forth as he was told, neither questioning nor resisting the divine command. God soon changed his name to Abraham, “the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). And the rest, as they say, is history.
The pages that follow trace the impact of the Hebrew Bible’s image of Abraham’s obedience, as well as that of many other biblical heroes, upon the history of Judaism. But in order to do so, it is important to keep a basic postulate in mind: the history of Judaism portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, as a history beginning with Abraham’s act of obedience, is a vividly imagined interpretation of the Israelite past that has a profound impact upon later Jewish generations. But, for all that, it is not an actual record of an event from the past.
Before beginning our discussion of the history of Judaism, we must explore for a moment the meaning of this observation and its implications. As comparative historians of religion, our task is not merely to repeat the biblical story of the origins of Judaism. Rather, our task is, first, to offer a theory of how that story came into focus at a particular moment in the history of the Jews. Second, we attempt to show how that story was understood through centuries of interpretation. We ask, How did the story of Abraham’s obedience come to define a model of piety in ancient Judaism? How was it transformed, as successive generations of Jews found in it the meaning of their own obedience to God?
The Interaction of Scripture and Tradition
In order to begin historical thinking about the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of the origins and history of Judaism, it is important to keep in mind two terms of special significance for historians of religions. These terms are “scripture” and “tradition.” By scripture, we mean a writing or a collection of writings
preserved by religious communities as authoritative sources of teaching or worship. Scriptures are commonly memorized, recited aloud as the basis for inspirational teaching, may be quoted in the course of a community’s prayer services, and commonly serve as the basis of elaborate interpretive reflection by members of religious communities.
The main point to remember about scriptures is that they are historical objects crafted in human cultures. The texts are preserved by human memory and recorded in human languages, even if they are believed to have originally been delivered to the writers, complete and perfect, by a God or heavenly messenger. They enjoy special prestige as “holy” or “sacred” texts only because human communities have at some point agreed to treat them in certain ways. Any text regarded as scripture came to be so because a community, formally or informally, so decided. This decision is often a source of conflict, as different segments of a larger community might dispute whether this or that writing is truly authoritative for all members. Thus it often happens that a text that is treated as “scripture” in one community is regarded simply as “a book” in another. The disputes within the early Christian communities over the status of the “Old Testament” as a Christian scripture—about which you will read elsewhere in this part—are a case in point.
The decision to regard a text as scripture often brings into play the second term we have introduced, “tradition.” Most simply, tradition means “that which has been handed down from the past.” It is the tradition of reciters and readers that sustains a writing in the life of a religious community long enough for it to acquire the exalted status of scripture. There are relatively few examples of writings penned by a single known author that have attained scriptural authority in that author’s own lifetime; even the Qur’an, as you will learn in your study of Islam, is an ambiguous case. Usually, a writing has been transmitted for some generations—or even centuries—before achieving its scriptural place in a community. That is, a particular writing was a tradition, a book handed on as valuable, before it became a scripture, a book authoritative because it is holy.
Once a traditional literary work becomes scripture, it is usually preserved in a more or less fixed text that can be changed or emended only with difficulty. Copies are made, but great effort is invested in ensuring that the text is reproduced word for word and letter for letter, for nothing in the holy writing can be lost or altered. This leads to yet another way in which tradition is important in understanding the life of scriptures. As scriptures are handed on from generation to generation, they must be interpreted so that the unchangeable text continues to remain meaningful to those who revere it.
Unfamiliar words, used by authors now centuries removed from their current readers, cannot be replaced with more up-to-date terms; rather, they must be defined. Obscure concepts or morally troubling events or teachings cannot be revised to suit contemporary tastes; rather, they must be explained. In many cases, translations must be made for those who are unfamiliar with the original language of the scriptural texts. All of this work of transmitting the meaning of scriptures without altering the original texts is also tradition—the tradition of interpretation. Commonly, religious communities sharing identical scriptures—think of Judaism and Christianity in relation to the Hebrew Bible—will differ dramatically in their interpretive traditions. Such differences of interpretive tradition have nourished religious controversy, given birth to competing religious communities, and even inspired religiously motivated persecutions of communities stigmatized as “nonbelievers” or “heretics.”
Scripture and tradition, to summarize, are intertwined realities, two sides of a coin. Scripture is the collective term for literary traditions that enjoy the veneration of a specific community. A “canon,” or closed collection of scripture, is also a tradition, passed on as a unique and unchangeable record of communal memory, belief, and discipline. Finally, there are continuously evolving traditions of scriptural interpretation, which transmit to new generations the rich meanings latent in the unchanging scripture. We can perhaps capture the intertwined life of scripture and tradition in a single phrase: fluid literary traditions solidify into unchangeable scripture; scripture in turn generates new forms of fluid literary tradition through interpretation
Abraham and the Origins of Judaism
Perhaps this excursion into the nature of scripture and tradition will help us clarify the problem with which we began—the relation of the biblical picture of the Israelite past, such as the story of Abraham’s obedience, to actual records of historical events. The Hebrew Bible, which sketches the core images of Judaic origins as remembered by all forms of Judaism, did not come into being all at once as a collection of writings between sober black covers. Rather, it began life as an amorphous body of diverse traditions, many preserved in oral form, in virtually
complete independence of one another. These traditions were formulated at a time well before anyone could point to a Bible as the official collection of revealed writings.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel
The biblical books of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings describe the history of the two kingdoms that divided Israelite political and religious life from the tenth through the sixth centuries BCE. The Kingdom of Judah was, according to the biblical texts, founded by David (ca. 1000 BCE). A dynastic battle ensued after the death of his son Solomon (ca. 961–922 BCE). This resulted in the formation of two kingdoms, that of Judah in the southern part of Canaan, and that of Israel in the north. Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and Judah was conquered by Babylonia in 587 BCE.
Many historians claim that the competition of these kingdoms for religious and political legitimacy is part of the background of the Genesis stories describing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Judean traditions, for example, claim that King David’s first capital, Hebron—a Judean town—was purchased by Abraham (Gen. 23). Similarly, northern traditions portray Jacob as having purchased Shechem, the capital city of the Kingdom of Israel (Gen. 33:19). Both southern (Gen. 28: 10–19) and northern traditions (Gen. 35:1–7) locate Abraham’s grandson Jacob at the shrine at Beth El, which lies in a territory over which each kingdom claimed control.
It is impossible to prove that such stories first originated in the context of political and religious rivalry between the two kingdoms. But the coincidences are suggestive.
This means that nearly all of the literature of the Bible reached written form many centuries after the events it describes. That is, most biblical writings were composed by people who did not personally witness the history they recorded. Rather, they relied upon stories received from tradition for their knowledge of the past. Moreover, they often revised or combined traditional stories in order to make points of contemporary relevance. As you might imagine, this has important implications for our interpretation of the Abraham story.
On the basis of the lifestyle ascribed to him in the book of Genesis, that of a herder sometimes forced to migrate with his flocks in search of food, Abraham seems to have lived a life typical of the Middle East in the early second millennium BCE. The problem with claiming that stories about him come from that era is simple: the same kind of life was not unusual throughout all subsequent centuries and, in fact, continues to be lived by some Middle Eastern peoples even in modern times. More important, stories about Abraham do not seem to have been known until the eighth or ninth centuries BCE. These were the early centuries of the ancient Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Israel. In these kingdoms, stories of Abraham’s migrations in the land were closely associated with religious or political centers important to each kingdom. Finally, the present version of the Abraham story is recorded in a written text, the book of Genesis, which most contemporary historians believe could not have been composed in its present form earlier than the fifth through the fourth centuries BCE.
So, although the image of the absolute obedience of Abraham makes a powerful statement of what it means to follow the God of Israel, it is not a statement that originates in the eighteenth century BCE. Rather, as we know it from the book of Genesis, it seems to be a product of a more recent period. It tells us that Jews of that (as yet unspecified) period believed in their ancient origins, and it tells us how they proposed to act in light of those beliefs. But we learn nothing from it about the actual religion of Abraham or even whether he ever existed as a human of flesh and blood. The Bible’s story of the first Hebrew, Abraham, is best read as a picture of what later Jews sought to become.
This sobering thought applies equally to all of the Bible’s most famous depictions of the early history of Israel—including God’s rescue of his people from Egyptian oppression, God’s revelation of covenantal teachings to Moses and all Israel at Mt. Sinai, and God’s exile of his ...