How should we understand the three “Abrahamic” religions?

How should we understand the three “Abrahamic” religions? February 28, 2015


Why aren’t the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) one main religion?


Nihal posted his query while preparing a 9th grade school report, and unfortunately this response comes too late to help. On the specific question of”why” these three faiths exist the way they are the best a mere journalist can say is “God only knows.” However the interrelationships, overlaps, and differences among these great religions are certainly worth pondering, and not just in schoolrooms.

Christianity and Islam are #1 and #2 in size among world faiths and together encompass a majority of the people on earth. They are major competitors today and their past political confrontations, raised recently by President Obama, were often violent. However, it’s been 1,169 years since Muslims sacked Rome and the original St. Peter’s Basilica, 920 years since Pope Urban launched the First Crusade in an ill-fated attempt to protect Christian access to Jerusalem, 724 years since the vile Crusades ended, and 332 years since Muslim troops last threatened to conquer Vienna.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam emerged in the same sector of the Mideast and jointly uphold Abraham as a founding ancestor who established worship of the one God (“monotheism”). Judaism’s roots are by far the most ancient. Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the early 30s A.D. Islam, the youngest of the three, dates its history from 622 (“Common Era”) when founding Prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina.

The three share broad similarities on aspects of God’s nature and morals. And following the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. there was an upsurge of discussion about three “Abrahamic religions,” with what Protestant sociologist Peter Berger calls the “admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred.” He sees similar motivation in the 1950s talk of “Judeo-Christian religion” to counter lingering anti-Semitism. Berger says back then scholars said it was artificial to substitute “a fuzzy commonality for the sharp differences” between Judaism and Christianity. Likewise with the “Abrahamic” concept: “The way in which the Quran interprets Judaism and Christiaity is hardly compatible with the self-understanding of these religions.”

Similar thinking comes from Jon Levenson, the prominent professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School, in his “Inheriting Abraham” (Princeton, 2012). Levenson favors interfaith dialogue and spells out the religions’ similarities. But important differences persist and his realism about that has dominated discussion of the book. Levenson asserts that “one of the most defining aspects of the three Abrahamic religions is that each of them thiks the other two are not fully Abrahamic,” which rules out some sort of “neutral Abraham.”

For Judaism, Abraham is the first Jew, both biologically and spiritually. For Christianity, he is the father of all believers who prefigures faith in Jesus Christ. For Islam, he is neither Jew nor Christian but a Muslim and forefather of its one true faith. (Abraham is biologically the father of the Arabs through his son Ishmael but not of all Muslims, who come from varied ethnicities.) Just like the Jewish and Christian Bible, Islam’s Quran teaches that after Moses led the Exodus from Egypt God granted the Holy Land to the Israelites “because of their endurance” (Quran 7:137).

In Judaism, God is revealed in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity enshrines as the “Old Testament” while adding “New Testament” books to its Bible. Islam’s later Quran is far different though it depicts some of the Bible’s personalities and events. Judaism and Christianity say the Bible is God’s Word that was written by divinely inspired human authors. Islam believes its Quran existed eternally and was dictated verbatim by angels to Muhammad, who was a mere channel. Islam asserts that the Quran was needed because Jews and Christians had corrupted God’s revelation in the Bible.

Jesus Christ is central to the religions’ doctrinal disagreements. Most important, Judaism and Islam share strict monotheism. Christianity worships Jesus Christ as the divine Son with the Father and Holy Spirit, three persons constituting the one God (the “Trinity”). Christianity and Islam agree that Jesus, born of a virgin, was the messiah and a worker of miracles; Judaism dissents. Judaism and Christianity say Jesus died by crucifixion, which Islam denies. Christianity’s belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead is rejected by both Judaism and Islam. Christianity and Islam look forward to Jesus’ second coming in the end times, which is not part of Jewish teaching.

The chief day of weekly worship is Friday for Islam, Saturday for Judaism, and Sunday for Christianity, which can make weekend schedules complicated in some natins. And there are differences over salvation and other important beliefs, as well as many religious practices.

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