Overview of novum opus

From William A. Percy
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The Abrahamic faiths show many parallels, but also differences. This introductory chapter deals with both.


Muslim tradition links the three Abrahamic communities together under the rubric of the ahl al-kitab, people of the book. Each faith cherishes its own revered Scriptures; only Christians have purloined the holy book of another faith (Judaism), which they have welded together with their own New Testament. In keeping with this bibliolatry, writing and literacy are highly prized in all three traditions.

While the Abrahamic Scriptures reveal considerable internal variety, those who honor and follow them maintain that they are essentially invariable. Scribes must take great care not to introduce, whether deliberately or inadvertently, any alteration. To be sure, even with the best of intentions corruptions will appear from time to time. However, these must be relentlessly detected and corrected by later critics.

This ne varietur principle applies whether the texts are regarded as divinely inspired throughout or simply consecrated through long usage. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 12:32) includes prohibitions against adding or subtracting. This admonition seems to apply not just to the book itself, but to the whole corpus ostensibly revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Contrast, for example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where there is no single, recognized form; instead, the text may be enlarged or reduced according to the needs of each individual who commissions a version of it.


Some two-thousand years ago the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria introduced an influential method of interpreting the Scriptures in terms of symbolism and allegory. Then, in the early third century, the Christian scholar Origen adapted the approach to Christian purposes. With many refinements, complications, and accretions, this largely fantastic exegetical method prevailed throughout the middle ages and on into the early modern period. Notwithstanding its entrenched tenacity, the venerable method had eventually to yield to a more convincing and truthful system of interpreting the primary Jewish and Christian texts.


Far from being pure and consistent revelations dictated by God, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures, amount--each of them--to a salmagundi compounded of various elements, some of them none too unsavory.

As one might expect from one of the junior peoples of the Middle East the Israelite account of origins teems with borrowings from older, more venerable traditions.


Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, usually gendered as gods and goddesses. These are commonly assembled into a pantheon. Polytheistic faiths tend to create elaborate mythologies and rituals, but rarely adopt a single book as their special Scripture. Examples of polytheistic religion include the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Shinto, and some Neopagan faiths today. Some polytheists, such a the modern devotees of Wotan, prefer to worship one deity chiefly, while recognizing the existence of others. This tendency is sometimes termed monolatry.

The conventional wisdom is that there is a bright line distinction between polytheism and monotheism. In fact there are borderline cases, such as Mahayana Buddhism, where the proliferation of boddhisattvas certainly suggests polytheism.

Purportedly, all three Abrahamic religions are strictly monotheistic. As the following pages will make clear, that claim cannot be accepted without considerable reservation.


With increasing clarity scholars of history and religion are coming to perceive a disturbing trifecta--a nexus that links monotheism, intolerance, and violence. Today the Islamic jihadists are the most prominent exponents of this noxious triad. As will be seen below, however, the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is where it all started.

To be sure, violence is a human universal. To take an extreme example, consider the wars waged by the Aztecs to procure victims for their rituals of human sacrifice. These conflicts were bloody, but they were not undertaken to maintain and extend an intolerant monotheistic faith. The Aztecs were quite content to leave the polytheistic beliefs of their neighbors, just as they were. After all, they were polytheists themselves.


All three Abrahamic religions shown ambivalence regarding the representational arts. Yet the degree of image avoidance has varied in each according to time and circumstance, as will become clear in the following pages.

This Judeo-Christian-Islamic negativity contrasts with the joyous acceptance found in ancient Greece and in Hinduism. In such polytheistic faiths the images are valued not simply for their aesthetic qualities, though those may be present, but by virtue of their religious charisma: some sculptures have been thought to be actually inhabited by the god. Others functioned as palladia, talismans that protected cities and persons from harm. In short, magic powers were invested in them.

In the Abrahamic traditions image avoidance is sometimes couched as a rejection of idolatry, showing that images were regarded as polluted because of their role in polytheistic cults. Just as the large-scale statues of pagan deities functioned as emblems of those faiths, so did monotheism’s rejectionist stance work to set its adherents apart. To be sure, in the Abrahamic religions distrust of images was a kind of back-handed compliment: the objects were feared because they were potentially powerful, ranking as reservoirs of some malevolent force. Images were genuinely “awful” or “dreadful,” in the original senses of the terms. Over the centuries this dread and aversion has led to episodes of actual image breaking.


The concept of territoriality stems from the study of animal behavior, where it refers to a pattern of controlling particular domains, a behavior that entails repelling or expelling competing individuals or groups. For example, in nature a cat requires a certain prey quota in order to survive, and that prey population will be distributed over a certain amount of territory. In claiming that territory the cat assures its ability to eat. Other species, more sociable, resort to similar practices in group terms. Human beings are animals, of course, so the concept applies to them as well. And it has particular poignancy in the Abrahamic worlds.

In fact, a perennial obsession of all three Abrahamic religions has been preoccupation with land. Combining with the “us-them” dynamic, this drive has all too often meant the subjugation or displacement of groups perceived as alien.

Through a process of sacralizatiion, particular portions of he Middle East have been marked off as Holy Lands. Questionable though it may be, this fetishizishing of parts of the planet’s surface has proved a powerful magnet for pilgrimage. The lure is not always benign. The Christian Crusades may be regarded as a form of armed pilgrimage. These incursions also rank as precursors of the later imperialist appropriation of foreign lands.


In the Judeo-Christian tradition the expression “the Law” characterizes the “revelation of the will of God” set forth in the Hebrew Bible. Among Jews this meaning applies particularly to the Pentateuch (the Torah in the strict sense).

More generically, “Jewish law” serves to render the Halakha, a set of obligatory principles that guide not only religious practices and beliefs, but numerous aspects of day-to-day life. The scope of Halakah embraces not only the laws described in the Torah, but also the 613 commandments, later talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions, (A more literal translation of Halakha might be "the path" or "the way of walking;" the word derives from a Hebrew root meaning to go or to walk.)

These usages are of considerable interest in their own right. Yet the purpose of this chapter is to examine the role of law in the strict sense of the term in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with due attention to the broader legal and cultural context.


For centuries individual Jews have excelled in money lending, banking, and finance. Yet the Hebrew Bible severely restricts the collection of interest on loans (usury).

How can this paradox be resolved? That is, in large measure, the purpose of this chapter.


These terms derive from modern comparative studies, especially in the field of anthropology. A fetish is an object or practice that is the subject of great (perhaps irrational) devotion. The fetish object is often regarded as a site of mana, a Polynesian term for a special indwelling potency or charisma thought to confer special benefits. Taboo, also a term of Polynesian origin, refers to objects and situations that must be avoided as dangerous, possibly life-threatening.

Over time, the things classified as fetish and taboo may come to seem almost ordinary: mere do’s and don’ts. Yet this commonplace description fails to capture the superstitious awe with which they are usually surrounded.

Several terms from the Abrahamic traditions are relevant, especially for things forbidden. The Hebrew Bible terms things that must not be done to’ebah (usually rendered as abomination in Christian Bibles). Treif is a term common among modern Jews for foods that must not be eaten (“not kosher”). The New Testament uses the term anathema (Greek for something that is set aside). In Islam the appropriate negative term is haram.


A common feature of the Abrahamic religions is their obsessive concern with regulating human behavior. This drive has engendered complex codes stipulating both mandatory and forbidden acts. Human nature is such that some are attracted to such strictures: these individuals seek authoritative guidance and have a fear of freedom. Yet this regulatory tendency clashes with modern secularism with its emphasis on choice, diversity, and freedom of thought. This conflict has been one of the main reasons for the fact that religion has become problematic in modern life.

Historically, a major emphasis of the social-control apparatus in the Abrahamic religions has had to do with gender relations, specifically with maintaining the subordination of women. That theme receives special attention in the following pages.


Comparative study shows that all three of the major monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--have, at one time or the other, indicated disapproval of same-sex love and its expression. Religiously based, this sex negativity has undeniably bolstered antihomosexual attitudes in the societies that have felt the imprint of these influential systems of belief.

Even so, one must acknowledge that such negative results are not inevitable and unalterable, as is shown by the fact that today major branches of Judaism and Christianity have embraced more positive views, and actually welcome the participation of gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy.

Moreover, the different varieties of religiously-based negativity show less continuity than one might expect. The disapproval of same-sex behavior found in the New Testament (as seen for example in Romans 1:26-27 and First Corinthians 6:9-10) does not closely track seemingly analogous passages in the Hebrew Bible (most notably in Leviticus 18 and 20). In reality, the two traditions seem almost independent of one another. For their part, the Qur’anic prohibitions do not directly correspond to any of theseBiblical “proof texts”, although they do draw on the story of Lot and Sodom from the book of Genesis.

These differences in detail notwithstanding, the overall concordance of the three religions in condemning homosexuality is striking.


From a purely empirical standpoint history would appear to display a random, unpredictable sequence of events. Yet many observers are dissatisfied with this common-garden version of chaos theory. There must be a pattern or patterns--but of what sort?

In fact, the comparative analysis of historical templates discloses two dominant schemes. 1) In the linear scheme events unfold on a single timeline which has a beginning, an extended middle, and an end. Holding that the future is unknowable, some traditions are agnostic about the latter, though an end point (regardless of its timing) would seem likely. 2) Then there is the cyclical scheme. In this view, there is probably no original beginning or final end; things keep repeating themselves in a kind of eternal return. The first pattern is generally characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, while the second is found in Hindu and Buddhist thought. (It was also championed in different form by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Another issue is time scale. According to the Biblical world view, the cosmos originated a mere 6000 years ago. Many believers, who have sought to come to terms with the findings of modern science, accept that universe requires a much longer timeline. Allowing for the twelve billion or so years that would be required (a big concession), they find common ground with secular scientists in assuming that matters started at a particular point.

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