Religious Rivalry, Then and Now: An Interview with Robert Gregg

By Dan Clendenin

Robert C. Gregg is Professor in Religious Studies, Emeritus, at Stanford University. As a historian of religions first trained in early Christianity, he has specialized in the competition of religions in the late Roman-early medieval Mediterranean and Levant. Bob is an Episcopal priest, and for twelve years was Dean for Religious Life and Memorial Church at Stanford.

Dan Clendenin: Welcome to JwJ.

Bob Gregg: Thanks for inviting me to this conversation.

You recently published a new book that, given your expertise in religious competition, looks like the culmination of your career: Shared Stories, Rival Tellings; Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (New York: Oxford University Press), 721pp. This book was twenty years in the making, I think.

Yes, it’s my final big project, by agreement with my wife Mary Layne and with myself. The years of its making were more like this: after publishing in 1996 a translation and study of 250 Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin inscribed stones (Jews, Pagans, and Christians in the Golan Heights), I began to probe the role of scripture interpretations in the early encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Many of my Stanford course offerings from 2000 to 2004 had titles like “Three Sacred Stories Told Three Ways.” With very bright student companions, I was gauging how much interpretive material, literary and artistic, was “there” for the studying, and which narratives most appealed to me and to potential readers. In effect, I didn’t begin active writing of the book until 2005, when I phased out my teaching and retired to my research home in the Stanford Library.

I’ve heard you describe how the book started with a talk you gave in 1995 at, of all places, Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station on the Monterey Bay.

This is a fun story. Though I had been doing comparative studies of the ways communities understood and deployed their authoritative texts for years, a prompt from Mary Layne was needed when I was asked to speak to people whose main interests had to do with marine biology. Using a desk there while finishing the book on ancient Golan inscriptions, I noted that most of the shelved volumes around me were devoted to “stalk-eyed crustaceans!” I did not feel competent to discuss these or other water creatures. ’Twas the season when the whales run along the coast, and Mary Layne made the saving suggestion that I talk about Jonah the prophet and his being swallowed by the “great fish.” What followed was a spiel introducing Jonah/Yunus as seen through the eyes of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the first millennium of the Common Era. Years later, Jonah/Yunus became one of the five stories taken up in Shared Stories, Rival Tellings. As you know, Dan, this section of the book, with its consideration of commentaries, sermons, and art objects picturing the prophet, takes up 130 pages. My 1995 talk in Monterey was a mere 50 minutes long.

A little later, after leading a series of undergraduate seminars at Stanford on the material, you said the book fairly well “exploded” on your desk. Describe that experience for us.

I might have said “blew my mind” — as I discovered the bounty and the richness of materials revealing how the three religions differently retold and re-interpreted a story common to their particular communities. Recoverable, when I began digging, were not only multiple sources, but accumulating evidence that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture interpreters knew and “played off of” each other’s teachings and viewpoints — always attentive to a story’s best sense in support of their own community, which was understood to be God’s favored people, and always attentive to correcting the views of the two other “people(s) of the Book.” Another dimension that opened my eyes in a dramatic way was the genius in all of these interpreters in their steady and careful searchings out of a narrative’s layers of meaning — for example, the “historical” or literal, the moral level, the metaphorical, the allegorical level, and what was often identified as the “mystical” level. These tools of interpretation were found not only in writings, but also in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim works of art. I love avocados and their layers. I was deeply engaged by the resources I came upon — for the same reason.

In her own review, your former student Mira Balberg, now at Northwestern University, called your book “a work of love.”

I welcome Mira’s recognition of the enthusiasm generated in the course of my research and writing, which she says is conveyed in the book’s pages. In retrospect, I realize that apart from computer malfunctions, I never experienced a bad or boring day during the book’s making. But I should also say plainly that it is preeminently my love affair with religious history, and its fabulously varied data, that sustained me in this years-long “work.”

Tell us about the two illuminated manuscripts of the Jonah story on the cover of your book. One is from the Compendium of Chronicles by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1247–1318), a “world history” of sorts, with versions in Persian, Arabic, and Mongolian. The other is from a Hebrew Bible illustrated by Joseph ben Kalonymus in Xanten, Germany, in 1294.

The designer of the book’s cover made these two selections from the many pieces of art featured in the volume, and I am delighted with his two choices for both general and specific reasons. The Islamic painting at the top is striking in its portrayal of Yunus, who wears a prophet’s beard and is identified in the Persian writing on his body. He has been ejected from the large carp that contained him, but appears naked (in a weakened state, the Qur’an says) and is crouched helplessly on the fish’s lip. The angel Jabril, or Gabriel, flies to him with clothing or a towel, acting as God’s agent in the saving of this once “angry” messenger. Yunus is about to be placed under the gourd bush where he’ll be protected for a while. In Muslim interpretations of the story, we find Yunus’s sojourn in the fish occurring either before or after he has prophesied to the people of Nineveh. The lower image from the Xanten Bible uses the figure of Jonah emerging from the fish in order to mark the point where the Book of Jonah commences. The artist portrays Jonah in a cap of the sort worn by Medieval Jews. It is just possible, given interpreters’ questions about whether Jonah ever asked forgiveness from God when he called out to him for rescue from the deep, that the artist hints at a positive answer by suggesting that the head-covering reveals the prophet’s prayerfulness. The three lines of Hebrew written in the margin contain instruction: read this book in the season of Yom Kippur, a custom known to have been in place since at least the 4th century C.E. I was eager throughout the book to present, side by side with writings, many pieces of art also intent upon proposing creative meanings within the stories. The book jacket designer could not have chosen better images to put “up front.”

How has your thinking evolved across the years? Did you have any surprises or mid-course corrections based upon your research for this book?

I was not surprised that my comparison of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture interpreters would bring to the surface evidence of similarity and dissimilarity. What impressed me as I proceeded was the creativity of the exegetes, commentators, teachers, preachers, and artists in retelling the sacred narratives in ways advantageous to their respective systems of belief and behavior — and in their close attention to their rivals’ errant “takes” and viewpoints. Counter-arguments as well as anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim slights and polemics underline the extent to which each community of faith sought to gain more definite identity in and through its story-telling — each progressively moving to become a separate and independent religion.

Given the nightly news, your book couldn’t be more timely.

True, even though my main interest in its issues did not hinge on the many current global tensions and hostilities which have — to greater or lesser degree — religion and specifically religious violence at their core. Nonetheless, one yield of my study is its highlighting of how tugging, friction, and worse are part of the social dynamics of the forming of groups, of setting boundaries of protection (and, simultaneously, exclusion) between peoples. The firmer the formation and identity of a religion or an ideology become, the more likely, or even inevitable, are conflicts; “the closer the relationship[s], the more intense the conflict[s],” as sociologist Lewis Coser stated decades ago. So it was during the periods of the emergence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a historian, and as a concerned witness of today’s many terrible clashes, I despair, but I also labor to promote fuller knowledge of “others” — the fundamental things in their traditions and in their corporate lives — on their terms. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear generates opposition and hatred. Strangers can become less so. A “cosmopolitan,” an educator, a person with commitments to human justice and compassion, each of which I try to be, has to embrace this strategy, I think.

Our secularist friends might hope that religion will “wither away” (Marx), but demographers tell a different story. Low birth rates in secular countries and high birth rates in the rest of the world suggest that religion will assume a greater rather than a lesser importance in the coming decades.

If you live in the “Western World” with its suspicions of institutions and their encroachments on personal liberties, it is easy to lose sight of the vital human investments in communities of belief around the globe. No, religions are not going to vanish anytime soon. They are systems of imagination and commitment that continue to nourish and sustain, through thick and thin, millions of people’s daily lives and their future hopes.

And besides, history shows that religions are very adaptable to their environments.

Dan, we all recognize (and participate in the reality) that adaptation of institutions is inevitable. Since the world does not stay still, life within it innovates and changes. Interestingly, those groups most determined to hold to their past — its documents, values, folkways, etc. — spend an incredible amount of energy devising philosophies by which the new can be believed to be the old, and incorporated as such. One interesting approach in the comparative study of religions is to trace the way these traditions read their new understandings back into their pictures of how things have been “since the beginning.”

The title of your book points to two realities. On the one hand, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share important similarities. All three faiths are monotheistic. All three share a kinship with Ishmael. And all three are text-centered religions. In fact, you note that, depending on how you count them, there are twenty-seven sacred stories that are shared in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and the Qur’an.

Let me start with your last comment about the twenty-seven stories shared by the three religions. There are commonalities in their sacred lore. They all know (in their own languages) the names of Adam and Eve, Noah, Kings David and Solomon, Elijah the prophet, et al. But other things claimed by many moderns as commonalities do not stand the test of close inspection: Jews, Christians, and Muslims are not “monotheists” in anything like the same way, as the writers and artists featured in my book clearly know. Israel’s distinctive God is the chief deity — the Lord — among the Gods, Christianity’s experience of and advocacy for a single God in three persons is unique to that belief system, and Islamic doctrine holds (in reaction to Christian teachings) that God has no “associates” and stands far above having a son; there is no God but God. Straightforward discussions of the fact that the three religions do not seem at all to have the same God in mind would offer a new starting place for interfaith understanding — based on acknowledging and honoring the fundamental differences in theology. Likewise, close comparison of the interpretations of the three religions’ shared stories opens the way to seeing why Jews, Christians, and Muslims think of Abraham/Ibrahim and his women and sons in significantly different ways. I think the modern designation “Abrahamic” is problematic on the grounds that it does not point to nor highlight the efforts of the three religions to distinguish themselves, especially through their retellings of shared stories. This somewhat abstracted observation about variance in doctrines stands at some remove from what the interpreters specifically wish to clarify: such matters as the rabbis’ inclination to see “the evil one” at work in Cain’s fratricide, Jewish and Muslim commentators discussing whether the brothers fell into dispute over their preferences for their wives-to-be, the Christians’ attraction to reading Jonah’s three days and nights in the whale as a prefiguring of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Muslim insistence that Maryam was best and most properly venerated in the phrase “`Isa ibn Maryam” (“Jesus, son of Mary”), rather than in what Muslims regarded as the blasphemous Christian naming of her as “mother of God.”

Balberg observes that, contrary to popular ideas about a text with a “divine origin,” our ancient, sacred stories aren’t static or stable. They’re dynamic. She says that they “need to be and can be reproduced, reshaped, and reinvented time and again.”

Well, this is what all stories important to groups of people undergo. In one sense, the reckoning of a story as “canonical” — set in an approved book or collection of writings — can promote the idea of its fixity. We know, of course, that many pieces of writing deemed authoritative had earlier oral forms, predating the written. For me, it’s a truism that no story of importance to people goes uninterpreted by people who care to “live” out of their sacred stories. To put it bluntly: what is an arresting story good for — except to hear it again, expand upon it, and come to a new sense of its meanings relevant to hearers and readers in changed and changing historical conditions?

Whereas this might sound threatening, Balberg believes that our re-tellings play an essential and positive role in religious communities, for it’s how they “renew and revivify themselves through imaginative re-creations of foundational stories.”

How about an “Amen!”?

Your book explores in depth five of these shared stories — Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Jonah, and Mary the mother of Jesus.

I chose these because they deal with important questions, are dramatic in their content, and by their nature compel explorations of both what is told, and what seems hidden “between the lines.”

You show how the three traditions “differently heard, read, and used these [same] sacred stories” from the first to the sixteenth centuries. You explore the work of the text-interpreters — story tellers, scholars, preachers, and teachers.

Yes, though this book treats five scriptural stories (and in each chapter pays initial attention to what modern biblical and qur’anic scholars identify as these narratives’ main purposes at the time of their composition), my actual subject is the history of interpretations in the three different communities that shared them. I should probably comment that the chronological stretch of this book is largely due to the fact that figural art in the Muslim traditions starts relatively late — the 14th and 15th centuries. With this exception, the “encounters” of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpreters of the five stories center in the initial centuries of their interactions — the 1st–8th centuries in the case of Jewish and Christian dealings, and from the 7th–13th centuries in the case of the trialogue created by the rise of Islam.

Your book isn’t only about texts. You also consider the artistic contributions of a stunning breadth of image-makers — your book contains over fifty plates of paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, sarcophagi, gems, cups and bowls, furniture, mosaics, and architecture. It’s a breathtaking combination of the verbal and the visual.

Thanks for noting this, Dan. I’ve always been interested in studying the material evidence of religions — especially forms of art and architecture. I will here own the shrewdness of my inclusion of art, alongside literature, as a mine of information about the work of these religions’ creative meaning-seekers. And I’m pleased that Oxford Press welcomed my plan to intersperse the art works, with their analyses, throughout the chapters, rather than collect these as “illustrations” in a separate place.

The “trialogue” that you mentioned pushed and pulled in different directions. On the one hand, the sacred stories helped to form the internal development of each tradition, and in particular their claims to a unique identity. You write, “Telling, retelling, and refashioning sacred narratives were intentional efforts at reinforcing each community’s core beliefs, codes of behavior, and modes of worship.”

This insight was imposed upon me by the texts and the artifacts themselves — it was not an organizing principle held by me at the outset. Interpreters had their business to do, and they understood its purposes.

On the other hand, the shared stories also functioned to differentiate and draw boundaries, to oppose and repudiate, to confront one’s religious competitors. You describe how the interpreters sought to “defend their respective faiths’ belief systems against attacks and, whenever possible, to score victories over their opponents’ arguments.”

Again, that’s what was exposed to me as I did my research, and that’s one of the main reasons I chose to write in an expository mode — hoping the reader would increasingly see what and why the writers and artists were doing what they did.

There’s also rivalry not only between different religions but within a single tradition — Sunni-Shia-Sufi versions of Islam; Orthodox-Conservative-Reform Judaism; and Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox forms of Christianity.

Yes. You know your religious history, Dan. To study Christianity as a historical phenomenon in itself is to come to terms with the multiple differences of opinion and belief that generated doctrinal disputes, and, to use a fancy term, the fissipiration intrinsic to Christianity and to all religions (and to all societies). “Whose truth?” is a question historians bring to their studies of the internal, as well the external conversations concerning religions.

No one has a monopoly on rivalry?

Well, every group has the liberty to claim that rivalry was visited upon them while it was peacefully minding its own business. However, to be committed to a set of beliefs that are alone true and are exclusively possessed is to set oneself up for offense or defense — probably both.

So, a hopeful paradox. Whereas some of the roots of human violence are also found in religion, so too is its subversion, for the original promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 was that “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” To bless the Other, not to curse him, is the sign and spirit of the Abrahamic faiths.

Ah, Dan, to recover not only among the religious, but among a multitude of folks around the world, this instinct to “bless the Other, not to curse him” — in this time of danger for humanity and all creation — is something to be hoped and prayed for.

Notes:

See Mira Balberg, “Scripture in the Age of Non-mechanical Reproduction,” Marginalia (February 13, 2016)

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