Monday, February 29, 2016

The Parables of Jesus in Islamic Literature (Part 5: Conclusion)

Sahih al-Bukhari

The time elapsed between this post and the last is the longest between any posts ince I started this blog over two years ago. I won't go into the details of what generated that gap, but it appears that I am starting to catch up with the myriad of things on my professional "to-do" list. 

One comment before I begin: I remember in my first teaching position at Berry College back in 1989, the chair of the department indicated to me that if my teaching did not generate responses from bigoted people then I wasn't doing my job. With that in mind, it is clear that these posts about Jesus' parables in Islamic literature are "doing their job." Hopefully others will learn from the trajectories we see in parable interpretations both in Islamic and in the other traditions covered in the book and in this blog.

As evident in the last post, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is reworked to argue that even though God’s revelations to Muhammad are reminders of what God had already conveyed to previous prophets like Abraham, they are also corrections to the "errors" of the Jews and Christians. 

The other major version of this parable found in the Sahih al-Bukhari in Volume 3, Book 36, #471 makes this even clearer (cf. Volume 1, Book 10, #533):

The Prophet said, “The example of Muslims, Jews and Christians is like the example of a man who employed labourers to work for him from morning till night for specific wages. They worked till midday and then said, ‘We do not need your money which you have fixed for us and let whatever we have done be annulled.’ The man said to them, ‘Don’t quit the work, but complete the rest of it and take your full wages.’ But they refused and went away. The man employed another batch after them and said to them, ‘Complete the rest of the day and yours will be the wages I had fixed for the first batch.’ So, they worked till the time of ‘Asr prayer. Then they said, “Let what we have done be annulled and keep the wages you have promised us for yourself.’ The man said to them, ‘Complete the rest of the work, as only a little of the day remains,’ but they refused. Thereafter he employed another batch to work for the rest of the day and they worked for the rest of the day till the sunset, and they received the wages of the two former batches. So, that was the example of those people (Muslims) and the example of this light of guidance they have accepted willingly.

In this version, the first workers (Jews) were hired to work from morning to evening. They only worked until midday, however, when they quit, stated they did not need the man’s money, and wanted their work to be annulled. Even though the man asked them to continue, they refused. Likewise, the second group (Christians) was hired to finish the day’s work, but they only worked until the ‘Asr prayer time. These workers do not state that they do not need the man’s money, but they likewise wanted their work annulled, told the man to keep the wages, and refused the man’s entreaty to keep working, even though “only a little of the day” remained. Therefore, the man hired a third group (Muslims) who completed the task and received the wages of the first two groups (thus double what the other two groups were promised).

This version of the parable stresses the recalcitrance of Jews and Christians and their refusal to complete the task upon which they and God had agreed. The Muslims therefore are the ones who complete the task and remain faithful to God’s commands. In all versions of the parable, Muslims receive God’s special blessing.

The differing versions in Sahih al-Bukhari illustrate how different trajectories in the traditions are developed. In this case, the message that many Christian interpreters had received from the parable—that the time of the Jews had passed—is now extended to mean that both the times of the Jews and Christians had passed and that Muslims are finishing God’s assigned task faithfully. Thus Islamic teachings and practice correct the deficiencies in the responses of Jews and Christians to the work assigned to them by God.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Parables of Jesus in Islamic Literature (Part 4)

Sahih al-Bukhari

Many of the traditions about Jesus in hadith literature stem from the Sermon on the Mount; parables appear infrequently. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard found in Sahih al-Bukhari is a prominent exception. This parable, which appears at least six times—although none of those instances ever indicates that the labor occurs in a vineyard—is significantly reworked to Islamicize its message (for a more extensive examination, see Elmostafa 2015). 

All versions follow the same basic story, but the occurrences in 3:468, 3:469, 4:665, and 6:539 (al-Bukhari 1971) are more closely related, and the occurrences in 1:533 and 3:471, where the first two sets of workers quit the assigned task, closely resemble each other.

The version in Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 56, #665 (4:665) is an example of the first category:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Your period (i.e. the Muslims’ period) in comparison to the periods of the previous nations, is like the period between the ‘Asr prayer and sunset. And your example in comparison to the Jews and the Christians is like the example of a person who employed some laborers and asked them, ‘Who will work for me till midday for one Qirat each?’ The Jews worked for half a day for one Qirat each. The person asked, ‘Who will do the work for me from midday to the time of the ‘Asr (prayer) for one Qirat each?’ The Christians worked from midday till the ‘Asr prayer for one Qirat. Then the person asked, ‘Who will do the work for me from the ‘Asr till sunset for two Qirats each?’” The Prophet added, “It is you (i.e. Muslims) who are doing the work from the Asr till sunset, so you will have a double reward. The Jews and the Christians got angry and said, ‘We have done more work but got less wages.’ Allah said, ‘Have I been unjust to you as regards your rights?’ They said, ‘No.’ So Allah said, ‘Then it is My Blessing which I bestow on whomever I like.

In this version, Muhammad is explaining to Muslims their current situation. The employer—Allah, as we find out at the end of the story—hires the first group (i.e., the Jews) to “work” until midday for one Qirat—a weight measurement seen as equal to the weight of a seed from a carob tree (.2053 grams) for gold or silver, from which we get the English word carat. At midday, the work for the Jews was over, and then the Christians were hired, also for one Qirat, to work the next period of the day. The Christians finished their work, and then Muslims were hired to finish the day/task, and they were paid twice the amount as the first two groups of Jews and Christians. The reason for the doubling of pay is perhaps explained elsewhere in the Sahih al-Bukhari, in a hadith that envisions the doubling of pay for extra work/faithfulness:

Allah’s Apostle said, “(A believer) who accompanies the funeral procession of a Muslim out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah’s reward and remains with it till the funeral prayer is offered and the burial ceremonies are over, he will return with a reward of two Qirats . . . . He who offers the funeral prayer only and returns before the burial, will return with the reward of one Qirat only” (Volume 1, Book 2, #45).

In the parable, there is an important difference between the first two assignments and the third: The first two are finished working, since Jews and Christians have completed their tasks. The third group’s mission is still ongoing, since the labor of Muslims continues: “you . . . are doing the work.”

This interpretation of the different groups of laborers representing different religious groups is similar to some earlier Christian interpretations. Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and Gregory, for example, all argue that the different agreements the owner makes at different times with workers represent the different dispensations God established throughout history (e.g., the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus). In hadith traditions, the first two dispensations are Jews and Christians, but the final dispensation is that of Muslims. In other words, this parable is reworked to argue that even though God’s revelations to Muhammad are reminders of what God had already conveyed to previous prophets like Abraham, they are also corrections to the errors of the Jews and Christians. Muhammad, the last and most important of those prophets, is able to correct those errors.

Next up: Other examples of the (re)interpretation of this parable in Sahih al-Bukhari.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Update on the book: Estimated publication date, etc!

John Everett Millais, "The Hidden Treasure"

As I noted in a blog post last week, I turned in the book manuscript and am now working on obtaining copyright/permissions for the images and texts that I use in the book that are beyond "fair use" or not in the public domain. I am waiting to hear back from a number of institutions, but I already have more than half of the images I want/need.

In the meantime, I have received additional information about the book. The title is till tentative, so I won't say anything about that, but here are some other estimates about the book's publication:

The volume is scheduled to appear in February 2017. It will be approximately 304 pages, will be a paperback, and the estimated price is $27.99 (cheap!).

Here is the Table of Contents as it now appears in the manuscript so that you can see how wide-ranging the interpretations are:

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in Antiquity (to 500 CE)
The Gospel of Philip
Clement of Alexandria
John Chrysostom
Macrina the Younger
Ephrem the Syrian
The Good Shepherd in Early Christian Art
Oil lamp (3rd Century)
Roman catacombs
Dura Europos house church
Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels 
Byzantine mosaics; S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.
Romanos the Melodist

Chapter 2: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Middle Ages (ca. 500–1500 CE)
Gregory the Great
Sahih al-Bukhari
Wazo of Liège
The Golden Gospels of Echternach
Hildegard of Bingen
Chartres Cathedral
Thomas Aquinas
John Gower
Antonia Pulci
Albrecht Dürer

Chapter 3: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Martin Luther
Anna Jansz of Rotterdam
John Calvin
John Maldonatus
William Shakespeare
Domenico Fetti
George Herbert
Roger Williams
John Bunyan

Chapter 4: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
William Blake
Søren Kierkegaard
Frederick Douglass
Fanny Crosby
Leo Tolstoy
John Everett Millais
Emily Dickinson
Charles Spurgeon
Adolf Jülicher

Chapter 5: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in Antiquity in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
Thomas Hart Benton
Parables and the Blues (Robert Wilkins)
Flannery O’Connor
Martin Luther King, Jr
Latin American Receptions
Peasants from Solentiname / José Arana
Elsa Tamez
David Flusser
Octavia Butler
Thich Nhat Hanh


Appendix: Descriptions of the Parables cited in the Interpretations


Friday, February 12, 2016

The Parables of Jesus in Islamic Literature (Part 3)

This post is one I did not expect to write, but its impetus stems from some of the responses I have received to my previous two postings about the parables of Jesus in Islamic literature. Here are two examples of very disappointing responses to my posts:

The Quran is merely Satan's deception of the Islamic peoples. It is a perversion of the Word of God and as such should be shunned.

Why do you attempt to make peace with those whom God is against ? God is against false religion false teachings and false prophets .So whose side are you on ?

I will not engage directly with the people writing such comments, but I do find it extremely troubling that some people are so scared of knowledge and of dialogue with other human beings. Such comments also parallel, in my view, the unfortunate Islamophobia in parts of the United States population.

Since I am a New Testament scholar, none of my publications have been about other religions, but I do from time to time teach an Introduction to Religion course at Oxford College of Emory University. Our students are fantastically diverse, religiously and otherwise, and I never fail to learn from them. We all cultivate an appreciation of and respect for traditions and beliefs that are different from our own, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and so on.

In one of my first posts on this blog, I used a quote from Mikhail Bakhtin to illustrate one reason why I did reception history, and that quote seems to apply here as well: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (The Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 110).

The negative comments in red above, however, are not completely foreign to me. They are vaguely reminiscent of remarks from some people who reject the need for careful scholarly study of the sources, traditions, and development of the traditions in the Gospels about Jesus--including the rejection of any "quest of the historical Jesus," when a simple reading of the Gospels side-by-side illustrates the necessity of such a scholarly exploration.  

In response to those arguments against reading historical Jesus scholarship, here is what I wrote in the conclusion of my book, What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?'' They said to him, "Rabbi . . . where are you staying?" He said to them , "Come and see" (John 1:38-39a).
. . . . [deleted two pages]

Why should we take the effort to search for Jesus and to reconstruct his message? This effort is fascinating on a purely historical level , but Charles Hedrick suggests another very important reason for Christians to ponder:
The savior worshiped in song and prayer seems so easy to understand . . . [but] studying Jesus, rather than simply affirming creedal statements learned in childhood, can bring new insights, a broader understanding, and a deeper appreciation for the complementary relationship between faith and history (When History and Faith Collide, xii).
Many Christians, at first, discover that academic reconstructions of the historical Jesus can be disconcerting if not troublesome for their faith. In the long run, however, such efforts most often lead to a more authentic, robust, and mature faith. The historical Jesus still challenges our hearts, minds, and imaginations, and, as we search for "where he is staying," he is there before us, dialogically inviting us to "Come and see . . . ."

We learn from others. The historical Jesus may not be who or what you currently think he is. He probably didn't even look like what the vast majority of people think he looked like:

"The Real Face of Jesus" according to some scientists

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Parables of Jesus in Islamic Literature (Part 2)

Sahih al-Bukhari

I do have a bit more to day about the nature of hadith literature and its traditions about Jesus (in contrast with the Qur'an) before I start talking about the specific hadith traditions about parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.        

The Qur’an is more concerned about "correcting" doctrinal errors about Jesus (e.g., that he died on a cross or is part of a Trinity), but the traditions in the hadith include many more teachings and miracles. 

In these hadith traditions, Jesus can be seen as both an apocalyptic figure—central to the Muslim concept of the end of the world—and as a figure more closely connected to popular piety and moral discourse. In addition, Jesus in hadith literature is especially concerned about “the least of these,” and he illustrates the Muslim virtues of poverty and humility (Outcalt 2014: 109). 

By the ninth century CE, sayings by Jesus in hadith traditions usually fall within five categories: (1) eschatological sayings and discussions of Jesus’s return; (2) sayings reminiscent of sayings in the Gospels; (3) ascetic sayings and stories; (4) sayings that involve intra-Muslim polemics; (5) and clarifications of the relationship between Muhammad and Jesus, including details of what Jesus looked like (e.g., a fair complexion, moderate height, and with beautiful long hair that was neither too curly or too straight; Leirvik 2010: 37–39; Khalidi 2001: 32–34).

Next up on the blog is a look at the fascinating (and quite understandable) developments in the tradition concerning the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

One note about the book: I am spending  whatever spare time I have trying to track down the remaining digital images that I want for the book and am beginning to contact copyright holders concerning the use of those images, as well as the poems, songs, film scripts, and other copyrighted items included in the book (beyond fair or public domain use).

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...