Jesus In The Qur’an

The image of Jesus in the Qur’an could be summarized with the words of Nietzsche, words “human all-too human.” This, in contrast to the teaching and view of the Church. It is clear that this in principle does not embody a Qur’anic innovation but goes back to early disputes in nascent Christianity.
Thus the Qur’an partially preserves traces of embryonic Christology(-ies), which were later modified or expanded upon by councils.

Taken as a whole, such Qur’anic ideas about Jesus are diffuse, and the statements taken over from the Gospels (above all from Matthew) are not noted as such in the Qur’an. In the Qu’an, Jesus is sent to the people of Israel as a prophet and a messenger of Allah, but they rejected him (6,49; 61,6); he encounters a denial decreed by Allah Himself (5,100); with the exception of a (rather) small group of Israelites (61,14).

Theologically essential is that although Jesus’ virgin birth is deemed to be true, he is never viewed in the Qur’an as a son or descendant of David (vis-à-vis other traditions, such as those from Qumran, e.g. 4Q174, a Midrashic text in which God calls the Davidic Messiah his son). No royal dignity is attributed to him, neither the cross nor the resurrection (as in early Christianity) have any salvational relevance: in the Qur’anic view, Christ’s death on the cross had no existential reality, nor did it constitute any
part of his calling. Jesus either seems to die a natural death (19,33) or is taken up to heaven (3,55; 4,158; 5,117; cf. Enoch and Elijah) and is raised together with all the dead at the Last Judgment (19,33).

Through this desoteriologization of the life of Jesus, but especially of his Passion, his removal from the economy of salvation, a brazen psilanthropism (Jesus is a mere man: 4,171 “how could he (Allah) have a child?” yakūna lahū waladun) is discernible. Basically, the Qur’anic image of Jesus in the early Suras corresponds roughly to that of the Proto-Lucan gospel.

The image of Jesus in respect to the Christology found in the Qur’an is by no means uniform and is the result of theological debates in and during Syro-Mesopotamian Late Antiquity, and which Christology also underwent development, as can be clearly seen by comparing 19,1-33 (compatible with
Christianity) with the later interpolation 19,33-40.

Jesus himself is mentioned by name in 14 suras. The name ‘Īsā is usually understood as a realisation of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς < יְהוֹשַׁע< יֵשׁוַּע “Joshua,” i.e., the “Saviour”); but this is not unproblematic. Elsewhere, we find other terms, such as, “servant of God » (ʿabdu llāhi 19,30; cf. the Gospels and Acts 3,13; 4,27, in which the deutero-Isiaian servant of God [ עבד יהוה ] is applied to Jesus); “the word of God” (kalimatu mina llāhi, 3,39,45; see the λόγος, Joh. 1,1ff.); al-masīḥu ʿīsă bnu maryama rasūlu llāhi wa-kalimatuhū ʾalqāhā
ʾilā maryama wa-rūḥun minhu … wa-rūḥun minhu
, “The Messiah, ‘Īsā, Mary’s son is only Allah’s messenger and His word, … and Spirit from him” (4,171); “The Word of truth” (19,34; cf. Jn 1,14).

Often the Qur’anic Jesus appears in connexion with Adam and in lists of previous prophets (e.g., 2,136=3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13; 57,26f.), but he is said to be more significant than those (2,253, “supported by the Holy Spirit” wa-ʾayyadnāhu bi-rūḥi l-qudusi, cf. 2,87; 5,100; 4,171f. etc.).

Our findings so far: according to the Qur’an Jesus is a human being – in contrast to the Nicaean Creed (natum, non factum, unius substantiae cum Patre – Apostle’s Creed: qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine): created and not begotten! A figure comparable to Adam – the Virgin Mary is indeed his mother, but he does not descend from the line of David, nor does he claim royal dignity; whereas he appears as the (provisional) apotheosis of the prophets – Muhammad is interpolated into the Qur’an (3,144; 33,40; 47,2; 48,29) only in later redactional stages, whereby in some of these passages it is questionable whether it is not actually Jesus who is meant as the Muhammad (i.e. the Blessed One). Allah-God is unique and indivisible (tawḥīd , e.g., 112,1 a syntax which is Aramaic and not Arabic: huwa llāhu ʾaḥadun-i; this is of course a partial
imitation of the Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel,” Deuteronomy 6, 4-9), and rules alone, i.e., a rejection of the Trinity, considered “association” (shirk).

Furthermore, the Torah and the Gospels are seen as the same revelation vis-a-vis the Qur’an, which though Jews (4:45) and Christians (e.g. 2:59;
7:162; 30:30) ‘corrupted’ (tabdīl).

This view of things is by no means new in the history of theology, and thus logically, this can not be seen as something unique, revealed to Mohammad, an illiterate merchant in distant Mecca. As explained at the beginning, the early pericopes of the Qur’an reflect long-lasting inner-Christian debates, often quite polemical in nature. We find similar theological views, for example, in the Pseudo-Clementines. This work, in a Greek (the so-called Homilies) and a Latin version (the so-called Recognitiones by Rufinus of Aquileia), represents the core of the “Teachings of Peter” (Κηρύγματα τοῦ Πέτρου), and both go back to a common source, called the Grundschirft,
probably the Περίοδοι Πέτρου of the Church Fathers (Origen, Epiphanes), the work of a scholarly anti-Marcionist theologian of Syrian Christianity in the fourth century, which is also known in later Syrian, Arabic and Ethiopian traditions.

In this once very influential treatise we have a corpus that can be regarded in many ways as a starting point for Qur’anic ideas. Here the monarchic rule of God is rigorously adhered to (μοναρχία θεοῦ), a bi- or triarchy is unimaginable (ἑτέροις συνάρχειν). Jesus did not fulfill the law as the Son of God (ὁ υἱός του Θεού < בן-אלהים), but as the Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου < בן-אדם ; i.e., ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἀνθρώπων). He was not preexistent, but merely accepted by God as his Son and annoited (Christ) at baptism (Recog. I.48 “qui in aquis baptismi filius a deo appellatus est“), understood as a fulfillment of Ps 2:7 (no longer present in the Koran); before this event, he was merely a Messiah designate.

In the Homilies, Jesus is ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατρί, born ἐκ τῆς ουσίας, all quite Arian formulations (“deus ingenitus – filius genitus”). Jesus is seen as a prophet, similar to Moses, who even prophesied about him (Dt 18,15-22). In Hom. VIII.10, we find that the concept of the ‘true prophet’ (ἀληθῆς
προφήτης
) is elaborated, as the proclaimer of the ‘eternal law’ (νόμος αιώνιος. This corresponds to the idea of the “well kept tablet,” lauḥ maḥfūẓ in Sura 85,22; cf. 5,48-59) in the past, present and future – “The true prophet, from the beginning of the world age hastening through” (“verus
propheta ab initio mundi per saeculum currens
,” Recog. II.22 ), which is identical to the “Holy Spirit” (ἅγιον πνεῦμα Hom. III.17, which ἔμφυτον ϗ ἀέννατος).

This human prophet is sinless (αναμάρτητος= צדיק , Hom. II.6; III.11), and is the only one who can “enlighten the souls of men” (Hom. I.19). Christ is not only the New Moses, but also the New Adam, since we find here the idea that the first man (Adam Qadmon) had breathed into him the breath (πνεῦμα) of God (cf. Qur’an 15,29; 38,72), and was also anointed with the oil of the Tree of Life (Recog. I.45). Thus an “anointed one,” i.e., Messiah or Christos (Hom. III.20), and could therefore prophesy. Thus Adam was sinless, and accordingly there could be no fall; otherwise, the Holy Spirit residing in him would have sinned as well.

Here we have an idea very similar to those found in the Qur’an (2:30-37; 20:115-122; 7:11-27). So, for example, no notion of original sin (e.g. Qur’an 7:23: “Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves”); in the Qur’an (e.g., 2,31), Adam does not give names to animals as in Genesis (2,19: “And the Lord
God formed of earth all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to man to see what he would call them, and that every living creature should bear the name that man would give it”), but Allah taught Adam (and not the angels) their names, a prophetic activity
(derived from the θεῖον πνεῦμα).

Explicitly, we find the equation of Adam and Jesus in the Qur’an (3:59: “Indeed, the likeness of ‘Īsā near Allah like that of Adam. He created him from dust. Then he to him ‘be’ and he was.” This is quite similar to what we find in the Gospel of John (1,3: πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν), based in turn on Psalm 33,6.9 ( כִּ֤י ה֣וּא אָמַ֣ר וַיֶּ֑הִי הֽוּא־צִ֝וָּ֗ה וַֽיַּעֲמֹֽד ), quite opposite to Paul’s conception of the Second Adam.

Thus, the teachings of Peter, based on Jewish tradition, describe how the divine spirit (θεῖον πνεῦμα), i.e. the glory of God (Hebrew שכינה), was already effective in Adam (which is why he is considered a prophet in this work, as in the Qur’an). This glory thereafter wandered through the ages to manifest itself successively in prophets – a metamorphosis and not a hypostasis – in, cf. e.g. Hom. XVII.4 (=Recog. II.47), an allusion to Proverbs 9,1 (“Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars”; cf. in the Talmud, Chagiga 12b: ז’ עמודים) —the list includes Adam-Christ Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus, the representatives of the “sevenfold mystery” (ἑβδομάδος μυστήριον, Hom. XVII.9), the ἑπτά στῦλοι υπάρχοντες κόσμῳ.

These bearers of revelation (ἡγεμόνες τὴς προφητείας, Hom. II.15 – “who are all born of women,” Recog. I.60) found their culmination in the “Jewish body of Jesus born among the Jews” (op. cit.), cf. in early rabbinical exegesis of Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again”): “Like the first the last saviour so shall the last saviour be.” Jesus, like Adam and Moses, were different from other prophets in that they possessed the ability to fortell (prognosis). Although the figures mentioned in the list of prophetic mediators of the ‘eternal law’ in the Pseudo-Clementines are subject to variation, Adam, Moses and Jesus are constant factors.

This has its counterpart in the Qur’an, which also often lists such
figures, e.g. 2,136; 3,84; 4,163; 6,85; 33,7-8; 42,13, and thus apparently continues this tradition: prophets are the representatives of humanity with whom God makes his covenant, and the truth of each former messenger is included in the proclamation of the following one, so that Mohammed, in the Islamic understanding, brings together once and for all all all the truth
conveyed by them (e.g. 33:7). Hom. VII.8 “Religion is to fear him [scil. God] alone and to believe only the Prophet of Truth” is to all intents and purposes equal to the Islamic Shahāda: “There is no God but God – Mohammed is the messenger of God.”

The reason for the successive repetition of revelation is the belief that not all parts of the Torah are equally authentic, some are even considered to be blatant forgeries. In Hom. I.18f./Recog. I,15 this is illustrated: the world is like a house filled with the smoke of ignorance, vice and aberrations, the true prophet must come to its door, open it and expel this smoke and let
in the (true sun)light (cf. Jn 3:19ff.).

Moses in this tradition, like Muhammad in the Islam tradition, only passed on what had been revealed to him orally, as ‹ interpretations’ (ἐπιλύσεις, Hom. II.38; see, IIPetr. 1,20 … προφητεία… ἰδίας ἐπιλύσεως οὐ γίνεται). This, however, was quickly corrupted by Satan and thus the true παράδοσις Μωϋσέως became adulterated with false pericopes (ψευδεις περικοπαί), by bad instruction, misrepresentation, etc. Here we find a certain influence of Isaiah 29:13 (Septuagint) and Mt 15:13 (see also Jer 8:8, Ez 20:25).

Hence, everyone was able to read into the Scriptures (Hom. III.9) what he wished. Ergo, the repeated call in the homilies: “Therefore, if some of the scriptures are true and some are false, our Master said for a good reason: ‘Be good money-changers,’ insofar as there are some true whilst some are false.”

Generally speaking, the ‘eternal law’ (Hom. VIII.10, see above) was inscribed by God’s hand into the world at creation as the first teaching to mankind (IX.10); it was known to Adam (III.48 ), and was revealed again to Moses, becoming though in the course of time increasingly obscured by errors, until it was finally elevated to eternal validity by Jesus, who had the “knowledge of the mysteries or laws” (γνῶσις τῶν απόρρητῶν, XVIII.15; secretior legis intellegentia, Recog. I.74) (cf., Qur’an 3, 48; 5, 46, 100; 57, 27).

So, Moses received a Torah that was different from the one we have today. Specifically, the group behind the Pseudo-Clementines rejected the sacrificial cult as pagan, and which had only been temporarily tolerated by Moses. Therefore necessarily Pauline soteriology, which regarded the death of Jesus as a bloody atonement, is rejected outright.

In their view, Christian liberation from the Jewish sacrificial cult was not initiated by the sacrifice of the Son of God, but by the water of baptism, through which Jesus extinguished the fires of the sacrificial altar once and for all.

This understanding of Scripture, i.e., the existence of false verses or passages that corrupt the unchanging eternal law of God, which can only be reinstated through a new revelation, corresponds to the role of Mohammad in the later Islamic understanding of the Qur’an (see above on tabdīl; in Islamic theology the terms taḥrīf and kitmān are also used to denote the falsification of the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity).

Another conspicuous feature that cannot be discussed in detail here is the political rejection of the monarchy (and the glorification, as with the Samaritans, of the age of Judges, Recog. I.38), which is seen as synonymous with war (Hom. III.62); the biblical kings were rather tyrants (tyranni magni quam reges), the building of the Temple, the place of sacrifice par excellence, was considered hubris – the whole institution, also the status of
David, is said to have had no part in the “eternal law.”

Thus, as has already been mentioned, Jesus’ Davidic descent is not mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is he mentioned in the Qur’an as king
(e.g., 21,78ff.). In Islam, as with Eastern Christianity (and Mesopotamian predecessors), we find the notion of “vicarious kingship” (e.g., Caliph means ‘vicar’; ʻAbd el- Malik was Caliph, the representative of God. Allah was King, Arab. Malīk – cf., Koran 20,114; 23,116; 59,23; 62,1; 114,2; also one of the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God in Islam – whose slave or servant this ruler viewed himself as). This was probably a reason for dispute of the early Umayyads with Heraclius after his Pyrrhic victory over the Sassanids – after his reorganisation of the empire, he took the title Βασιλεύς.

In the preceding, an attempt was made, admittedly with (very) coarse brushstrokes, to show that some decisive theologumena of the Qur’an already appear in the Pseudo-Clementines. As mentioned above, versions of this literature were handed down in Semitic languages during Late
Antiquity and probably exerted, directly or indirectly, influence on various Qur’anic authors who shared these attitudes or convictions, at least partially: Jesus both as Adam novus (see above e.g., ad 3,59) and Moses novus, as the ultimate fulfillment of revelation.

As far as the equation with the latter is concerned, it is interesting to note that in the Qur’an, Mary is presented as the daughter of ʻImran (e.g., Qur’an 3,35; in Christian tradition Joachim); in the Bible though Amram is the father of Moses; in 19,28 Mary (biblically, Miriam, is listed as Hārūn’s,
i.e. Aaron’s (who is aligned with John the Baptist) sister. Some commentators see in this a confusion – but this is unnecessary. If Moses is supposed to be a prefiguration of Jesus, Moses 2.0 (or Adam 3.0), then this similarity is more than understandable (also because Mary and Miriam
are actually the same in Semitic, m-r-j-m).

Here we see again a hint of the sophisticated compositional technique of the Qur’an. Theologians were at work here, not an illiterate desert merchant! The Islamic understanding of Mohammed as the last prophet, as Jesus novus (resp. 2.0 – which partly explains the intertextuality of Jesus’ vita
with that of Muhammad in the Sira) is but a continuation (Fortschreibung) of this theme.

The notion found in Hom. VIII.6f. that the teaching of both Moses and Jesus was the same(!) revelation, that love for Moses and Jesus was the true fulfillment of religion, and those who understand this (single!) revelation are blessed by God – is rooted historically in antimarcionite polemics. Yet the idea that the Torah and the Gospel are identical, as are Adam, Moses and Jesus show that this doctrine, in an expanded form, underlay the composition of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows Muhammad leafing Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer, in heaven, in a 15th-century Persian miniature.

Looking For The God Hubal

When we look at the the later Islamic narratives of everyday life in Mecca in the days when a certain prophetic figure named Muhammad allegedly lived, for which there is no historical evidence, we would at first sight seem to be well-informed, there is a rich documentation. A closer look at these references, however, shows that they date some 150 to two centuries after the events they purport to narrate, and what they relate is often quite fantastic, in light of what we know about the ancient Arabs and the ancient Semitic world in general. An interesting case in point is the deity who is said to have been chiefly worshipped at the Meccan Kaaba in the sixth-century, namely, Hubal.

The Book of Idols (Kitāb al-Aṣnām) by the Iraqi Islamic savant, Hišām ibn Muhammad ibn as-Sā’ib al-Kalbī (see, in general, Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums), who flourished during the eighth-ninth centuries, notes, “From what I have heard, [the idol of] Hubal was made of red carnelian, having human form, but with a broken right Hand. The Quraish had received him in this condition, but had since made him a [replacement] hand of gold. He was inside the Kaaba.”

Here, as is often the case with Islamic traditions, there are many, often contradictory narrations. Al-Kalbī’s contemporary, the Baghdad judge Muḥammad b.ʿUmar b.Wāqid al-Wāqidī thought that the graven image stood in front of the entrance to the Kaaba, next to the door. The latter furthermore relates that in front of his statue seven arrows were placed for
the purpose of belomancy, performed by a ṣāḥib al-qidāh (“Arrow Lord”) – possibly a biblical motif, cf. e.g. I Sam 20; Ezek 21,26 and Hab 3,11: two are said to have been employed to establish the legitimacy of a child’s descent in case of doubt, one for necromancy, one for questions concerning marriage, and three whose function could no longer be inferred by the author.

In the well-known hagiography (Sīra) of Muhammad, attributed to Ibn Hišām, it is noted that Muhammad’s grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib almost sacrificed his son ʿAbdallāh in a narrative reminiscent of the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen 22, after an oath had been taken (cf. Jephthah in Judges 11) — according to Islamic exegesis (Sura 37,106f. refers hereto), we also find an explanation as to why Muhammad was referred to as Ibn adh-dhabīḥaini, “the son of the twice sacrificed,” i.e., his father and his alleged ancestor Ishmael.

Muhammad on the other hand, who was already fatherless at birth, was brought to the Kaaba by his grandfather for a paternity test by means of arrows, according to the Riwaya of Yūnus ibn Bukayr of the 9th-century; according to aṭ-Ṭabarī in the 10th century, the infant was brought to the idol Hubal in the Kaaba (fa-adkha-ahu ʿala Hubal fi jawfi l-Kaʿba), while the idol is not mentioned by Ibn Hišhām (fa-dakhala bihi l-Kaʿba). Either the latter interpolated his source (Ibn Isḥaq’s), or Hubal was introduced into the tradition secondarily.

By all accounts, the latter possibility would seem to be more likely, especially since later Islamic traditions tend to provide more, albeit quite peculiar and downright odd information.

In yet other traditions, we learn that Hubal cohabited with (the idols of) 360 other deities, apparently one for every day of the then current solar year (the current Islamic lunar calendar was only introduced later). This is somewhat surprising, since usually only one deity, a duad or, on occasion, a triad inhabited one and the same shrine. Allegedly then the Kaaba collapsed when Muhammed recited Q17,82.

Other accounts make even less sense: e.g. the ‘blue-eyed’ historian of the city of Mecca, Abū l-Walīd Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Azraqī, who purportedly lived during the 7th century, claims that the standard sacrifice for Hubal was a hecatomb of camels. How this should have been done in a small building like the Kaaba or on a smallish stone (fixed in a wall) remains, as is customary in such accounts, unmentioned.

Furthermore, as is often the case with pre-Islamic Arabian deities in Islamic traditions, Hubal, is not seen as an indigenous god. So in The Book of Idols (ed. Klinke-Rosenberger, pp. 33-37 Arabic), the arrival of various idols, among these Hubal, is associated with the journey ʿAmr Ibn Luḥayys to Syria (note the similarity of this description with that of Naaman and Elisha in 2Kings 5).

According to al-Azraqī, Hubal is said to come from Hīt in Mesopotamia; Ibn Hišām on the other hand claims that he came from Moab, in the country of Balqā’. To what extent these statements can be seen as containing historical information remains uncertain, also because Islamic tradition attributes the building of the Kaaba to Abraham and must see to preserve a certain memory of his “true monotheism” from primeval times, which was then corrupted by external influences, as is the wont of foreigners.

It is striking that outside of these Islamic sources, Hubal seems to be unknown in the Hejaz. He is not even found as a theophoric element in Arabian personal names. Wellhausen (Reste arabischen Heidentums, 1897, attempted to explain this conspicuous omission by asserting that Hubal was originally seen as the given name of God, i.e. Allah – just as Yahweh is the name of the Jewish God (‘ɛlōhīm). This is not a convincing argument, merely a desperate guess conditioned by the lack of data.

However, for the time being, for the sake of argument, let us view the Islamic material as historically credible – if Hubal is to be viewed as a newly arrived divine resident foreigner, this could, to some extent, explain why he seems to have been largely unknown; also because, according to Islamic tradition, written history began only with the Koran after Mohammad’s death.

If this were actually the case, however, one would expect that this god be attested elsewhere, in his alleged homeland(s), for example, namely, Mesopotamia, Palestine or Syria. In the onomasticon attested especially in ancient North-Arabic and later Aramaic inscriptions, we find a name HBL (variants WHBL, ‘HBL), which superficially at least would seem to be concordant with the Islamic findings related in the preceding.

However, this is not a theophoric element, but rather a verb which modifies such, i.e. whb + ‘l “God’s gift” (cf. e.g. Deodatus, Nathaniel, etc.). In secondary literature, a Nabataean inscription from the Ḥegra (Madāʾin Ṣāliḥ), in contemporary northern Saudi Arabia, is often brought to bear (Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum II, Paris, 1889), No. 198).

Certainly corroboratory mention of this deity in a text written to the Arabic Nabataeans (who, however, customarily used an Aramaic dialect as their written language) would certainly lend Islamic tradition considerable substantiation. This inscription is a funerary text for two women, scil. Kmkm and her daughter Kljbt, dated roughly to the year 0 AD. As often the case with such inscriptions, curses are pronounced against those who may come later to desecrate the grave (lines 3-8):

…wjlʿn dwšr’ wmwtbt w’lt mn ʿmnd wmnwtw wqjšh mn jzbn kpr’ dnh ’w mn jzbn ’w jrhn ’w jntn jth ’w jnpq mnh gt ’w šlw ’w mn jqbr bh ʿjr kmkm wbrth w’ḥrhm wmn dj l’ jʿbd kdj ʿl’ ktjb p’jtj ʿmh ldwšr’ whblw wlmnwtw šmdjn 5 …

“And may Dušara … his ??? … and Allat of ʿAmnad, and Manūthu, and Qaiša curse he who would sell this grave, or he who buys it, or he who taxes it or he who would give it away, or removes bodies or body parts, or buries herein another besides Kmkm or her daughter or their progeny. Whosoever acts contrary to that which is stated here, shall be cursed fivefold by Dušara, and HBLW, and Manūthu…”

As was noted, this inscription is often cited as proof for the cult of a deity known as Hubal (cf. e.g. CIS a.l.ex antiquis Arabum diis“). Two points mitigate this proposition:

1) As remarked by Euting in CIS, the dative preposition l- is missing (“Euting dubitat an hic verus sit sensus, præpositione lante nomen deficiente; suspicatur ergo epitheton aliquod dei Dušara, sed vix probabile“). The editor’s doubts about Euting’s postulate are actually untenable nowadays, since no further unquestionable evidence for this deity has been found during the last century, during which our knowledge of the language as well as the number of known published inscriptions has grown considerably.

It is much more likely to interpret the word HBLW as a toponym, i.e. Dušara of hblw (cf. “Our Lady in/of/on/with …”) – cf. the place name hbltt in a Safaitic inscription (A. Jamme, Miscellanées d’ancient arabe VII,, 28, Fig. 6).

2) The content of this inscription can by no means be described as unique, since a large part of the corpus of the Nabataean epigraphy consists of such texts; and moreover, there are several approximately contemporaneous texts from the same place (with comparable inscriptions). See CIS II No. 197, 199, 205, 209, 212) that mention Dušara and/or Manûthu among others, but never Hubal. The old rule applies here: Unus testis, nullus testis.

In the preceding, we clearly see a methodological problem of Islamology. Orientalists of earlier times, the decipherers and first editors of such inscriptions, often depended on Islamic traditions to interpret these newly discovered texts. These results in turn found their way into Islamic studies – a classical circular reasoning. If this were just any any other (obscure) word, instead of hblw, nobody would think of lexicalising it as a deity.

How then is this deity Hubal, supposedly imported to Mecca, who seems to have been unknown even in his purported homeland, to be analysed? Perhaps an etymologisation of his name can help us further? Let us note briefly that among the older Semitic languages this root is only attested in Bible Hebrew, and in some later Aramaic dialects influenced (in part) by it, such as Syriac (heḇlā “Dust, Vanity”), Targumic Aramaic (“Breath, Vanity”) and the Jewish-Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmud (“Breath, Steam, Haze”) (> Arabic habalt “Fume, steam,” perhaps why in some Islamic traditions Hubal was interpreted as a rain god).

The Hebrew root HBL (cf. the dictionaries) is usually seen as an onomatopoeic term for “breath, breath” as well as “wind”, which then in Gen. 4 uses the name for Adam and Eve’s second son, the shepherd Abel (Hebrew Heḇel), as well as for “nothingness” (“Man is like a breath [la-heḇel], his days are like a shadow scurrying by! -Psalm 144:4); or “vanity” (“O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] says the preacher; O vanity of vanities! [hăḇēl hăḇālīm] Everything is vanity! [hāḇel] -Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Often, however, especially in the Deuteronomistic polemic against (supposed) idolatry, this lexeme takes on a technical theological meaning in the sense of “idol”, “idolatry,” because now only the orthodox view of the worship of Yahweh was acceptable in their eyes, everything else was considered vain vanity. We see this use of Heḇel or plural Hăḇālīm, e.g., in Deut 32:21; 1Kings 16:13,26; 2Kings 17:15; Jeremiah 2:5 (“What did your fathers find wrong with me, that they departed from me and followed vainglory and became vain? [ha-heḇel waj-jehǝbbālū]); 8:19; 10:3,8; 14:22; Jonah 2:9(8); Psalm 31:7(6) (in the last two examples in parallelism with šāw’ “emptiness, futility”).

We also find this understanding in some renditions of the Septuagint, e.g., Deut 32:21; Jeremiah 14:22; 16:19, where the Hebrew term is translated with with “idol” (i.e. εἴδωλον, in classical Greek, originally a “phantom; figure, idea;” only in the later biblical tradition did it take on the meaning “idol”) or μάταιος (actually “futile, vain,” > “idol,” under the influence of Hebrew), e.g., in Jeremiah 2:5 (cf. also Esther 4:17p [prayer of Esther], 3Maccabees 6:11; as well as this use in the NT, especially Acts 14:15).

Here we see how a word that actually means ‘nothing at all’ comes to mean something that is not and can not be. For the sake of clarity, in this specific biblical usage, the Hebrew term Heḇel (plural Hăḇālīm) does not indicate a deity (real or imagined), but it is rather a pejorative term to declare all divine beings except Yahweh, and all representations of gods (including Yahweh) to be ‘null and void’.

From the point of view of Semitic etymology then, Hubal is not a god, but rather instead Heḇel, divine non-existence. Apparently we have landed in nothingness, having shown that Hubal is nihility (which might bemuse some Islamicists), he has literally evaporated in a biblical thunderstorm. Is it possible to bring this god back?

Theologians, in order to preserve their faith in the divine (in this case anyway) can be quite inventive. If on the one hand hebraica Veritas can be helpful in understanding Islamic tradition, then one can also use Arabic (once called the Ancilla Fidei, “servant of the faith” because she was considered to be useful in the study of the Hebrew vocabulary of the Old Testament) to interpret the Bible.

For example, the Canadian Old Testament scholar William Ewart Staples attempted to use the Hebrew term Heḇel as a theological term to denote a “cult mystery” in Canaanite nature religion. Later, his Scandinavian colleague, Hans M. Barstad went even further and claimed that the Hebrew word actually implied a Canaanite rain god (cf. e.g. Zechariah 10:1-2 “Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone. The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams (Heḇel) that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd” – he rules of Hebrew grammar are willingly disregarded to inject an Islamic rain deity (see above) into this biblical verse (see Bob Becking). And thus yet another link is added to the previously mentioned circular argument.

In order though to make something out of nothing, to save what is salvageable, others have attempted to relate Hubal (the vocalisation is secondary and need not be viewed as original) to a supposed apotheosis of Abel (see, Hibil-Ziwa in the Mandaic tradition) – cf., e.g., T. Fahd, Le panthéon de l’arabie centrale à la veille de l’hégire. But this remains problematic and unconvincing (cf. Fawzi Zayadine, Journal Asiatique 257, 1969, 172) — this also applies to the proposal already suggested by Edward Pockocke in the 17th century, which is still occasionally used today, namely that Hubal is derived from Hebrew hab-baʿal, “the Baal”.

In conclusion, despite the combined efforts made hitherto by Islamologists, Old Testament scholars and Orientalists, their efforts may best be summed up by a quotation from Ecclesiastes: “But when I looked around for all my works that my hands had done, and for the trouble I had taken to do them, behold, all was vanity and a haste for wind and nothing lasting under the sun!”

This god, as his name implies, could not have existed. On the other hand, it can probably not be a coincidence that a specific Deuteronomistic term of anti-polytheistic polemics is used by a later tradition (indirectly) dependent for a similar purpose.

The fact that much of what is biblical in later Islamic tradition (note the so-called Isrāʾīlīyāt) was also adopted from Jews and Judaism is certainly not a new insight. Likewise, the Islamic polemic of Arab idolatry in the Hejaz during the so-called ǧāhilīya (“period of ignorance”) is largely ignorant itself, i.e., largely based on imaginary foundations, as the many anachronisms make clear.

One cannot escape the impression that when the Islamic historians and theologians wanted to report about the bad old days of idolatry, realising that they had no first-hand information at all (also because the formation of Islam in Mecca and Medina is historically not viable), they were dependent on those who, as is well known, possessed knowledge of times distant, namely the Jews.

Apparently, Islamic historiographers borrowed a word to indicate the vanity of idols to denote the chief idol of their holy city in an imagined past – Hubal never was. Trying to find him is like chasing after the wind!

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows a pre-Islamic anthropomorphic stele.

Destruction And Beauty

Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti.

There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction.

Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence.

The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes: “But our citizenship [“politeumaπολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”). It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome.

On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving.

Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows the crucifixion, with Christ being offered a drink of vinegar on a sponge; in the foreground, the iconoclasts, John Grammaticus and Bishop Anthony of Pamphylia, efface the image of Christ with a sponge. The Chludov Psalter, Byzantine, 9th-century.

Origins Of the Ka’ba And The Hajj

When it comes to the origins of Islam, in the popular imagination anyway, all seems to be clear. To paraphrase Ernst Renan, a French scholar of the nineteenth century, Islam was born “in the full light of history.” When, however, we look closely at the sources, a more complex and confusing picture emerges.

This applies especially with regard to the origins of the Islamic pilgrimage to the Kaʿba in Mecca, Allah’s “sacred House” (al-bayt al-ḥarām) and the activities partaken by believers. (Pilgrimage involves both the Ḥajj and the ʿUmra – note that Islamic texts are rather vague on the fusion of the ʿUmra with the Ḥajj and when it might have happened, often assuming that the latter had always included circumambulation of the Kaʿba).

In Islamic texts pertaining to these rites, there is often discomfort with regard to some of the rituals, so for example, the famous ḥadīth which has ʿUmar state his disinclination to make istilām (greeting or kissing) of the black stone of the Kaʿba is well known, and so too is al-Ghazālī’s admittance that some of the Ḥajj rituals lack obvious aesthetic pleasure or rational explanation. We also often find mention of the Hajj to ʿArafat not to the Meccan Kaʿba, which only seem to have been conflated at a later period.

In the Qur’an, according to Islam, a revelation to Muhammad, at least three passages assume that the Hajj is directed towards the bayt which, in one passage, is identified as the Kaʿba:

  • In 3:97 we read that mankind owes the duty of ḥijj al-bayt to Allah;
  • In 2:158 it is stated that “whoever makes Hajj of the bayt, or ʿumra” (man ḥajjaʾl-bayt awi ʿtamara) and includes the names of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa;
  • 2:196 which starts with the command to “fulfill (or complete) the Hajj and the ʿumra for Allah,” goes on to mention ʿArafāt in verse 198;
  • 22:26-29 notes firstly that Allah showed Abraham the place of the House, whereupon he is ordered to proclaim the Hajj to all humanity, which seems to suggest that it is the “House” or bayt that constitutes the object of Hajj – verse 28 then refers to the slaughter of animals which are to be eaten and shared with the poor, and verse 29 prescribes a final circumambulation of the“ancient House” (al-bayt al-ʿatīq), once the tafath (usually interpreted as ritual dishevelment) has been completed.

Taken together, these passages would seem to suggest that it is the bayt that is to be the object of Hajj, and they probably have much to do with the widely accepted idea that the Kaʿba has always been at the centre of the Ḥajj. The Kaʿba is equated with the bayt in 5:97, which states that
Allah made the Kaʿba, al-bayt al-ḥarām, as a support(qiyām) for mankind (al-nās). These passages are, even when taken together are rather vague.

Scholarship has shown that verses in the Qurʾan which allude to Abraham and the bayt are adaptations of Jewish and Christian midrash, and we know that in the Late Antique Middle East there were numerous sanctuaries associated with Abraham and where an annual festival during a specific month was celebrated.

It would therefore seem that much of the quranic material focusing on the bayt (esp. 3:97 and 22:26-29) as the focus of a festival or celebration (ḥajj) has originated with reference to a place other than the Kaʿba at Mecca, and indeed the key term ḥajj in this meaning is a borrowing from Syriac (which in turn borrowed it from the Hebrew Bible). Only later did it become attached to the Kaʿba, which was identified as Abraham’s foundation.

The material which can be gleaned from Islamic sources pertaining to the history of the Ḥajj during the early Islamic period – between the death of the Prophet and that of Ibn al-Zubayr – shows it as a symbol of religious and political authority, but does not suggest any way in which it might have been connected with Muḥammad or Abraham.

The legitimate question in light of the evidence available, or the lack thereof, is whether the Prophet ever took part in the Ḥajj? Before the Prophet’s “Farewell Pilgrimage” (ḥijjat al-wadāʿ) we have no real evidence, and it should be noted that there are many variant reports about the Farewell Pilgrimage, and it is clear that over time these underwent considerable literary amplification.

One might be tempted to envisage a development that was begun by the Prophet and still in formation in 72 AH (Ibn az-Zubayr), although this does seem rather far-fetched by all accounts. The attention the sources give to the re-building of the Kaʿba by Ibn al-Zubayr, and to the alterations made to its form, seem at odds with the sense of continuity in its history that Muslim tradition generally seeks to present.

Based on the available Islamic sources relating to the period between the death of the Prophet and the fitna of Ibn al-Zubayr, it is hard to make the case that the Ḥajj was focussed on, or even associated with, the Kaʿba, which is not mentioned as frequently as one might have expected, and based on the same evidence, one is even led to call into question the historicity of the traditional accounts of the Farewell Pilgrimage.

Apart from al-Yaʿqūbī’s report about ʿAbd al-Malik’s designs regarding the Dome of the Rock, it is rarely, if ever, clearly stated that the Ḥajj involved visiting the Kaʿba. Depending on our attitude to the reliability of the reports, we might conclude that the Meccan sanctuary was a building of some religious importance, possibly associated with an anachronistic notion that the Prophet may once have prayed inside, and that when people came to Mecca for the Ḥajj they may have visited it.

Nonetheless, Muslim tradition on the Meccan sanctuary before Ibn al-Zubayr’s construction work really makes no mention of the site’s Abrahamic associations. It is well known that Ibn al-Zubayr justified his rebuilding by an appeal to the alleged wishes of the Prophet and by the claim that he was restoring the building as per the original foundations laid down by Abraham. It is rather unclear why that should have been necessary at the time, but the tradition gives the impression that an
inappropriate, or at least an imperfect, jāhilī structure was to be replaced with a properly Islamic (i.e. Muḥammadan and Abrahamic) one.

At this point, we should ask ourselves a few pertinent questions.

What is a Kaʿba and is it unique?

As was noted, there were numerous contemporary shrines dedicated to Abraham:

Traditionally, the term Kaʿba is taken to mean “cube”, vis-à-vis the present shape of the Meccan sanctuary (cf. the root’s quadratic semantics in modern Arabic, which are later and derived from the Islamic shrine).

However, in Arabic, the primary meaning of the root k-ʿ-b denotes “swelling” (cf. ابو كعيب ābw kʿyb – “mumps”), often of the breasts of young girls during puberty (or compare كواعبkāwʿb), hence unsurprisingly كعبةk’b, etc. “virginity.”

In EpiphaniusPanarion, we find a reference to the mother of the Nabatean God Dusares ( ذو الشرىdhu al-sharaa) as Χααβου or Chaabou, because, like Mary, she was a virgin. Now then, both mother and son were widely venerated by both Arabs and other Semitic peoples in antiquity, hence the numerous shrines attested in literature.

A Kaʿba then, a shrine dedicated to this goddess (and her son), is analogous to the Parthenon, i.e. a building dedicated to a virgin goddess (or the many Christian Churches named after “our Lady”, a pre-Christian appellation for a goddess). What though does any of this have to do with Abraham?

If we look at the modern Kaʿba, we might still be able to find some clues. To the North-West of the structure, we find a low-standing semi-circular wall which is part of the sacred precinct (around which the Tawaf is performed), called الحطيم (āl-ḥaṭim ,“something destroyed”?), in which we find the ,حجر إسماعيل (ḥiǧr Ismāʿil, traditionally seen as Ismael’s grave; outside thereof we find that of Hagar.

Now in Islam, like in Judaism, there is a taboo on corpses, unlike in Christianity in which churches once needed to contain the relics or to be built on the grave of a martyr or biblical figure (especially since St Helena, Constantine’s mother). The fact that the only two people allegedly buried in an Islamic shrine are buried in المسجد الحرام (al-masjid al-haram, the Grand Mosque) is surprising at least.

It is clear that the Arabs traced their lineage to Abraham through Ismael, not an indigenous tradition, but one developed by Josephus and later amplified by Church Fathers, especially Saint Jerome. In the fifth century, we see that this is used to convert pagan Arabs, i.e., by converting to Christianity they might be able to reclaim their birthright – Ismael was Abraham’s firstborn, and present when God made His covenant with him.

For Arab and Semitic Christians especially, who rejected Pauline soteriology, and who saw in the person of Jesus a human prophet who did not repudiate the Law, Abraham and Ishmael were important. Some insight in this longstanding theological debate, which also sheds some light on traditions that would go on to become incorporated in Islam, can be found in Galatians chapters 3-4, esp. 4:21ff. The Arabs of the seventh century, who rejected Chalcedonian Christology, saw themselves as both the spiritual
and biological heirs of Abraham through his son Ismael.

As was noted in the preceding, we find no real evidence for Mecca as the site of the Ḥajj before Ibn az-Zubayr. As noted, he rebuilt the sanctuary, allegedly according to its original intent or design. At the same time, the criticism brought to bear in (later!) Islamic texts against his contemporary and adversary, ʿAbd el-Malik, was that the latter allegedly diverted the pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem.

However, these texts leave one with the impression that later authors knew of the Umayyad pilgrimage to Jerusalem – but did not understand that Mecca only gained primary significance later. There do not seem to be traditions about the Umayyads being connected to Mecca – and therefore later authors assumed that they had rerouted the Ḥajj. In this time there is no evidence associating Mecca with either al-’Isrā’ wal-Miʿrāj’ (which is only centuries later), nor is Jerusalem referred to as al-quds; instead, we find a realisation of the city’s Latin name Aelia.

Indeed, the Umayyads are often criticised in these later texts for being somewhat deviant vis-à-vis later Islamic orthopraxy. The disparagement is valid, simply because Islam did not yet exist in the seventh century, only in the latter half of the eighth and first half of the ninth centuries can we see what would become Islam slowly emerging in the Abbasid capital Baghdad.

In the preceding, we have noted that the Qur’an makes no specific mention to the Ḥajj at the Meccan Kaʿba. Furthermore, Muhammad’s association herewith is spurious at best. Indeed, before Ibn az-Zubayr, during the second Fitna, we have no real tangible evidence, and by all accounts, there was a major Ḥajj to Jerusalem, hardly surprising for a monotheistic “Abrahamic” religion.

It would though seem that Mecca was also one of the many pilgrimage sites devoted to Abraham, especially in relation to the veneration of his son Ismael, and was frequented especially by Arab believers, who saw themselves as Abraham’s biological and spiritual heirs through Ismael (whose firstborn Nebaioth, Genesis 25:13, is sometimes seen as the progenitor of the Nabateans).

Originally the Kaʿba at Mecca though, in pre-Christian times, was dedicated to the Semitic deity Dusares and his mother Kaabou, who was actually a sacred stone (a Baetylus, i.e. beth-’el the dwelling of (a) god, بيت الله bayt allah). That cult sites were repurposed and adapted to new religious realities (“under new management”), needs no further explanation.

By all accounts, Ibn az-Zubayr, in the power struggle of the latter seventh century, a civil war among various Arab factions, for hegemony over an Arabic Empire (Islamic is an anachronism), chose as his site, Mecca, which must have had considerable longstanding cultic significance for the Arabs. After his demise, this site was understandably given preference over Jerusalem and incorporated over time into the primary sanctuary of what would later become Islam.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows an illustration of Mecca by Sir Francis Burton, the famed soldier, linguist, scholar, explorer, discoverer, poet and author, from his book, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, published in 1855-1856.

A Camel And The Eye Of The Needle In The Qu’ran

Not only those familiar with the New Testament will know the expression “Camel through the eye of a needle.” This phrase is attributed to Jesus, Matthew 19:23-24 (cf. Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25): “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

This metaphor is of course quite powerful, irrespective of any questions about its eventual authenticity, although the exaggerated hyperbole paradoxically results in tragic irony, since a conventional camel could never pass through the eyelet of a normal needle. This would mean that it is unreservedly impossible for a rich person to enter heaven – perhaps appealing to liberation theologians, or those who ascribe to the social gospel and/or predetermination, yet nonetheless doubtlessly a contradictio in adjecto.

Since at least Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-215 AD), a solution to this conundrum has been proposed. If we assume that an early copyist (and the first Christians who copied New Testament texts were not trained professionals, for which they were often rebuked by their opponents such as Porphyry) mistakenly wrote κάμηλον (kamelon) “camel” instead of κάμιλον (kamilon) “rope, cable” (of a ship, of a net), then the aphorism might make more sense to “fishers of men.”

One problem, is that kamelon is only attested once in what survives of ancient Greek. Nonetheless, the notion of a rope or a cable, made by twisting together strands of hemp or some other such material is quite attractive, as by unravelling, disposing oneself of material possessions, it might just be possible to finally go through the needle’s eye, or enter heaven as it were.

This apophthegm is of course found in the Qur’an in 7:40: “Lo! they who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of heaven will nor be opened not will they enter the Garden until the camel goeth through the needle’s eye (ḥattā yaliǧa lǧamalu). Thus do We requite the guilty.”

Obviously, this is borrowed, whether directly or indirectly need not concern us here, from the New Testament passages mentioned in the preceding, and thus tells us something about the history of the Qur’an – its obscurity precludes it being an independent composition.

Naturally, the same syllogistic concerns apply here as with its ultimate source. Interestingly enough, in traditions attributed to Ibn ʽAbbās (questions as to his doubtful historicity need not concern us here), and cited by some later exegetes, we find the suggestion that instead of ǧamal “camel” one should instead read ǧummal “thick nautical rope, anchor cable.”

The fact that this lexeme, like the Greek term mentioned in the preceding, has maritime semantics is noteworthy. It should be noted here that both Greek terms, scilicet, κάμηλον/ “camel” thus κάμιλον/ “rope cable” are Semitic loan-words, the former necessitates no explanation; the latter from a common Semitic root ḥbl (cf. e.g. Hebrew ḥeḇel, Arabic ḥabl).

This of course would seem to imply that not only the precept itself, but also this exegesis was borrowed from Christian traditions (in the widest sense of the word). Since the semantics of ḥbl denoting a (nautical) rope (rather surprising indeed, if we are to believe that the Qur’an originated in the Hejaz), along with the fact that ǧummal in this meaning is only really employed in Arabic in connexion with this Quranic verse (s., Lane, Lexicon, S. 461) one might ask whether a word was invented to fit the established exegetical tradition.

In old Arabic, such as is found in the oldest Quranic manuscripts, which are unpointed, ǧamal/camel/ جمل und ḥabl/rope,cable/ حبل are quite similar, حمل (j/ḥ/ḫ/ml), one can easily read this passage as ḥattā yaliǧa l-ḥablu “until the rope goeth through the needle’s eye.”

The fact that both the ropy semantics and the ǧīm were preserved, although a good Arabic alternative was available, demonstrates that the Ibn ʽAbbās tradition, that which shows the most familiarity with biblical materials, must be dependant on these, to which the neologism ǧummal testifies.

This is just another indication that the Qur’an and its early exegesis were rooted in the exegetical and hermeneutical culture of interpretation of the Bible, where occasionally something was lost in translation. We may yet ourselves be sooner able to pass through a needle’s eye before we are completely able to understand the convoluted language of the Qur’an.

Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).

The image shows the “Camel going through the eye of a needle,” a print by Maarten van Heemskerck, from his series, The Wretchedness of Wealth, from 1563.

To Be Really Creative

The first time I heard the suggestion that human beings should think of themselves as “co-creators” with God was in a liberal, mainline, seminary (Episcopal). This was in the 1970s.

The meaning at the time was something of a mish-mash of culture-notions that was little more than a way of underwriting the myth of cultural progress as a God-given program, as well as a windfall of new-age silliness. We were not only making the world a better place, we were doing so as Co-creators. I must confess that every time I hear anyone speaking about making the world a better place I hear echoes of Cabaret with a pretty blonde Nazi-boy singing, “Tomorrow belongs to me!”

I offer this as a preface to my reflections on current language regarding “co-creation” and “sub-creation” with the far healthier pedigree found in Tolkien and Lewis. Both authors, with some variation, recognized the human participation in myth-making in genres such as fiction and fantasy. But the question remains: to what extent is it right to describe ourselves with such lofty language?

The sobriquet of co-anything with God immediately raises questions concerning “synergy.” Eastern Orthodoxy is supposedly famous for its thoughts on synergy, in that we “co-operate” with God in our salvation. This stands in stark contrast to certain early versions of Protestant theology in which there is literally nothing contributed by human beings to the work of salvation: God’s work is strictly “monergistic,” belonging only to Him. That extremist view (still found in Reform circles) came to be balanced in Protestant practice by the sentiments of free-will Pietism in the mid-19th century.

Orthodoxy traditionally holds to a synergistic approach to salvation, though, I have come to think of this as problematic for those whose minds have been shaped in modern thought (whether consciously, or not). Modernity is steeped in the concept of our own freedom and the imagined power of our choices. We are said to be creating and shaping our own reality – even our own being.

The doctrine of synergy, as I’ve encountered it in contemporary Orthodox conversations, seems to me to overstate the case. It is accurate to say that we “participate” in our salvation through our freedom, that there is a necessary cooperation on some level, but, I think it is wrong to say much more than this. For one, we simply have little or no clue of the truth of our salvation: it is hidden (Col. 3:3).

The content of our salvation is nothing less than the image and likeness of Christ Himself. This is being made known to us, though in a glass darkly (I Cor. 13:12). Our participation and synergy consists in our persistent “yes” to the work of God. Our role as sub-creators is not unlike that of the Theotokos. She says, “Yes,” to God, and without her ‘yes,’ there is no incarnation. She contributes her “flesh” to that incarnation and participates in the life that grows in her womb.

This is important, even in the world of fiction and fantasy. Not every work of fiction or fantasy can properly be said to belong to “sub-creation.” Nor is every work of art a work of sub-creation. A work succeeds in these acts of creation inasmuch as it participates in the work of God, and fails inasmuch as it rejects that same work. Tolkien famously thought of his fantasy as an act of “sub-creation.”

He definitely did not see it as “allegory” (in contrast to Lewis’ fantasies). But Tolkien’s sub-creation can be described as such, not because it stands as a complete world, but in that it works with the same truth as the creation in which we live. To be good in Middle Earth would count as goodness in this world as well. Tolkien’s world is not an allegory, but every sub-creation must “rhyme” with God’s creation in order to be worthy of the term.

Tolkien succeeds, I suspect, because he was a Christian down to the deepest level of his soul. He would have been repulsed by an anti-creation fantasy. This is another way of saying that all created things are created “through the Logos,” and that “apart from Him, nothing was made that was made.”

The Logos can be discerned in Tolkien’s work, as He can in much of great literature, many times in an unconscious manner. But, there are works of anti-Logos that fail. When such things, lacking in any true beauty, have influence or popularity, it is almost certain that they do so only as a result of a sort of propaganda rather than any popular love. That which is natural coinheres in the Logos. That which is contrary to nature does not, and eventually collapses in on itself.

This same process can be applied to the human life. There is much about us that is a work of “creation.” In our present culture, we speak of individuals “re-inventing” themselves. But that which we “invent” is not at all the same thing as “co-creating.”

The work of creation that is the true self is a gift. It is discovered and welcomed, but not formed and shaped. The deepest act of creation in the human life is that of repentance and the life of true humility.

We do not create ourselves – for one, we stand at the wrong point in time to do such a thing. The Scripture tells us that our life is “hid with Christ in God” (Co. 3:3). Additionally, we are told that: “…it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know, that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2).

The causality of our life is not found in the past or the present; it lies in the age to come. That which we shall be draws us forward towards our true end. God said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” The truth of our existence is eschatological and its manifestation in our present life is itself a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.

This is not only true of ourselves, but of creation itself. The “new heaven” and “new earth” are not the eradication of what exists; they are the revelation and fulfillment of creation in the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).

But what of fiction and fantasy? Both Lewis and Tolkien were greatly influenced by the theories of Owen Barfield. They shared a common belief in a transcendent realism – that behind and beneath creation as we see it are realities that form and shape the world.

None of them should be described as Platonists, but all shared the worldview that was common to the perceptions of the early Christian fathers that had much in common the Hellenistic Platonism. Lewis’ Professor Digory declares, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

That greater reality is a manifestation or reflection of the Logos (Christ), “by whom and through whom all things were made.” As this is the case, even fiction and fantasy, at their best, themselves participate in this deeper and greater reality. They serve, in their own way, to reveal what might otherwise be hidden.

It is also possible for fiction and fantasy to distort and obscure the Logos, though nothing can truly efface all evidence of His work. If you will, the very existence of language, thought, reason, cogency, etc., that mark every form of human communication is Logos-bearing. The very act of denying Him is itself impossible without Him.

This serves, as well, as a model for thinking about the self. The narrative of our own self is under constant revision. Each day’s part of the story serves to re-write what has gone before.

The beginning is always being revised by the end. The creativity that marks our own participation in creation (including the revelation of the self) is, most properly, a variation or improvisation on a theme that is being sung by the Logos. This means that listening and observing are among our most essential activities. You cannot sing along if you do not hear the music.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains,” by Winslow Homer, painted in 1868.

The Great Banquet

The story is told of a young man who lived a long time ago in Southern England. He had heard of a huge white horse which had been mysteriously carved into an unknown hillside centuries ago.

He was so captivated by this rumour that he set off in search of the fabled horse, travelling the full length and breadth of Southern England. But alas, he could not find it. Eventually he returns home disappointed, concluding that the white horse of his dreams didn’t exist, after all.

Then one day as he surveyed his own village after climbing a very tall tree and getting a good vantage point, he was astonished to see the object of his search. The White Horse had been there all the time. In fact, his village lay at the very centre of it, but he’d never been able to recognise it before, concealed as it was among the fields, trees and rivers.

The point of that story is that people particularly young people, set off on quests, like travelling the world, going to exotic places, sampling foreign cultures, do so as they look for answers about life. Sadly, in spite of all their efforts and as time goes by, they can become, increasingly disillusioned, cynical or agnostic. They don’t find the utopia, the White Horse’ they’re searching for.

Perhaps, they need to return home. Maybe if they did, they would be amazed to find that the answers they’re looking for are there already, as close as the bible on the book shelf, or the church on the street corner. They simply haven’t recognised the unique value of these things because they are too common place, too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt.

To try to break down such a wall of indifference, or even contempt, and to help people discover the importance and the relevance of the Christian message, is not an easy task.
This is especially so when many people think they know that message already. It’s a bit like the measles vaccination given to babies. All too often a dose of religion, especially if given in childhood, simply increases your resistance to the real thing when you encounter it later in life. Sunday School Exams, Unhelpful RE teachers at school, tedious morning assemblies in chapel, and the minister’s boring monologues.

They all come back into your mind like a flood, immediately an evangelist stands up to speak. ‘Oh no, not again’.

It’s like antibodies descending upon some invading virus in your blood stream. Those memories all conspire to ensure your spiritual immunity to everything that preacher might want to say. Even the best sermons fail to penetrate such defences.

If you don’t believe me. Read what Jesus says. As the world’s greatest biblical teacher and evangelist, he experienced the exact same problem. Frequently the people he had the hardest trouble with, were those with strong religious backgrounds, who carried round the biggest copy of the Torah they could get their hands on. And who looked the part.

It’s the Sabbath Day. Jesus has been invited to have a meal at the home of a ‘prominent Pharisee.’ Someone who comes from a strong religious background.
Everybody is wary of each other, at this nibbles and wine function; all trying hard to make a good impression. Vying for position. Jesus of course knows this so he tries to change the atmosphere by offering some controversial advice on how to organise a really good dinner party.

Don’t invite wealthy friends and neighbours, they’re boring he says. Instead invite the homeless youngsters and street kids you see begging on the streets. Invite the poor, the destitute, the crippled and you will be blessed. I’m sure Jesus’ words went down like a lead balloon. This was a real conversation stopper. As Jesus looked round upon the gathering, he would have noticed that there were NO street kids, poor people, or the homeless there.

During the awkward silence there is usually someone around who makes some wise comment to try and keep the conversation within everyone’s comfort zone. There was such a guy at Jesus’ table who adds his own pious comment; ‘blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’ We can just picture him can’t we. Measured, all the religious trappings, nodding head, full beard.

It was a coded way of saying, ‘oh you don’t have to worry about me Jesus, I’m very religious. I know all about the kingdom’. Now he may have been expecting Jesus reply; Amen brother, well said or a hallelujah’. But he miscalculated. Jesus was far to shrewd to be deceived by his hypocrisy and far too good a teacher to allow it to pass unchallenged.

You see this was a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. This guy thought he was spiritually ok. He knew about and believed in heaven and was quite sure he was going there.
He naturally assumed Jesus would want to support him. But Jesus doesn’t. Instead Jesus thinks quickly and tells a close to the bone story. And no doubt everyone in the group is all ears.

Jesus starts telling the story which has a strong Old Testament theme about the prophets preaching preparing the way for the coming Kingdom. All good so far, they think. But then Jesus veers off in a slightly different direction. He says; ‘at the time of the banquet he (God) sent his servant (Jesus) to tell those who had been invited, come for everything is now ready.’
The kingdom of God is here. Don’t have to wait any more. It’s arrived. Therefore, time to act and enter. Everything is ready, come on in.

But then read what happens. But they all began to make excuses. Yes excuses. The first one said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see to it. Please excuse me’. Second one said; ‘I have just been to the market and bought oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me’. Another said; ‘I just got married; so, I can’t come either’.

The amazing thing in all of this, is that people could be personally invited by Jesus to share in the kingdom of God and his promise of eternal life in heaven. And yet decline. They say NO thanks. It doesn’t add up. It’s not being arrogant, it’s just plain stupid. It’s like buying an expensive house without even looking at it. Or buying 10 oxen without seeing whether or not any of them were lame. In fact, these excuses that are offered are so flimsy they cannot be even regarded as real excuses.

Jesus is saying that when men and women turn their backs on the kingdom of God and the joy of heaven, they do so for the sake of mere trivialities. Like the pursuit of material gain, personal adventure, or sexual desire.

They choose such things above accepting God’s gracious invitation. Especially now perhaps more than ever, there are far too many counter-attractions bidding for the time, money, and attention of people. They may have been interested in going to the party once, but all sorts of things have invaded their life since then. What flimsy excuse are you the reader holding on to that is preventing you from entering God’s kingdom?

The so-called religious people Jesus is saying will be excluded; because they are basing their faith on their religious pedigree, or their back ground.

Well. then, who is to be included? Those who will be at the great banquet will be the poor, the crippled, the lame, the outcast, the destitute. Those who you least expect will be there, many of whom have no religious back grounds at all. And they haven’t offered any excuses to Jesus.

Having wealth, being busy with various interests even though they are good and wholesome like our family, can be obstacles, and distractions. And we use them as excuses. I’m too busy lord. I’ve to get my family through university; I’ve to move house, go on a holiday, change jobs. Go into a nursing home.

These poor and destitute people who have nothing to distract them or invade their personal lives will be there. But the good news is there is still room for many more. Jesus is saying the kingdom of God will be removed from you Jews, because of your hardness of heart and your feeble excuses and given to others; the invitation will be given to the Gentiles for them to come in.

This group did not like what Jesus was saying. God’s chosen people not allowed into the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that the door to heaven is permanently bolted shut for all Jews for ever and a day; it’s still open, but others will be there, besides the Jew.

Those who were expecting to enter the kingdom because they had received advance invitations through the prophets and the law would miss out. But those who expected to be shut out because they were not good enough, or had never heard of the banquet because they were complete pagans, would be the ones to enjoy it.
Familiarity, this parable emphasizes, does indeed breed contempt, and Jesus responds that contempt is a sin that God does not lightly forgive.

What does the twist in this parable mean for you and me? Some, like Jesus’ dinner guests at the Pharisee’s table come from a good religious back ground.

We have been baptised or dedicated as children by believing parents. Which is a good start. Maybe we have attended Sunday School or Bible class. That’s good too. We have come out to church regularly over the years and have heard all about the Christian faith many times. And as a result, we think we’re Christians. But are we?

That’s the question this parable puts to each one of us. We may know how to say grace before meals, and recite the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God demands more of us than just piety.

In the film, ‘A Few Good Men’ Tom Cruise is the young flash Navy attorney who questions the integrity and honesty of one of the officers Keffer Sutherland who is stationed at a military base.

Sutherland takes offence at the tone of the question. He claims he is a good US Marine, passed with flying colours from Westpoint. Comes from a good military back ground; and that only two books sit on his bed side table. The US Marine Code and the King James Version of the bible. Not just any copy of the bible but the King James Version.

He never said that he actually read either book. But the implication is that these books define who I am. I am a good patriot. We need to be so careful and ensure that ‘Familiarity does Not breed Contempt’, where we switch off, thinking I’m ok. Some may be thinking this invitation to the heavenly banquet is not for me. I have messed up my life. I’m not good enough. I put on a good front but I know inside I’m a waster. Well you are in good company with Jesus.

Heaven is made for people like you. People who know their failings, who know how they have fallen; their sin is before them. But you have to want to do something about your situation. How do we do that. Follow Jesus’ guidance. He tells people young and old to ‘repent and believe’. Repent means to change your sinful ways and believe in Jesus as the Son of God.

Don’t feel you are excluded in any way. This story tells us clearly that there is more room in the kingdom of God for misfits and sinners. The gospel is exclusive in that no one else can save you except Jesus Christ. ‘Salvation is found in no one else under heaven’.

But it’s also inclusive in that Jesus turns no one away. The invitation is for everyone under heaven no matter who you are.

So why delay, ‘come’ he says, ‘everything is ready’.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “L’Invitation au festin” (Invitation to the Feast), by Eugène Burnand, painted imn 1899.

Only The Mother Of God

The first time I offered prayers to Mary I had a panic attack – literally. I was in college and my best friend had become Roman Catholic. We argued a bit, and he won (mostly). It resulted in my return to Anglicanism, to the “high” side. So, like a good high churchman, I got a rosary and a book, and started my prayers. Then came the panic attack.

Many Protestants are viscerally opposed to Catholicism. It’s in their heart and bones. I had no idea at the time that my bones (and heart) were as firmly orange as they seemed to be (let the Irish explain). My experience showed me otherwise. But, theology wins. I spent the next nine months reading about Marian devotion and early Christian practice. After that long “cooling-off” period, I picked up my rosary and gave it another try. No panic. I’ve never looked back.

Western devotions to Mary have forms that differ from Orthodox practices, and I’m not at all sure that the Western, Catholic understanding is the same (I’ll admit that I don’t know). My Anglican use of the rosary and devotion to Mary, which largely followed Catholic practice, certainly made my conversion to Orthodoxy ever so much easier. Indeed, her presence in the text of an Orthodox service far exceeds anything you’ll ever see in Rome.

The Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God is grounded in its understanding of salvation. As such, the veneration of Mary is an expression of the most foundational doctrine of the faith. This is generally misunderstood by the non-Orthodox for the simple reason that they do not understand salvation itself. Salvation is about a union or communion with God. It is a participation in the very life of God. We were created for this communion, breathed into us in the act of our creation. Through sin, we have broken that communion and become subject to death and disintegration.

Christ, in becoming a human being, united Himself to our human nature. He suffered death and was buried. But in His death, because He is also God, He tramples down death and rises from the tomb. Our human nature is raised with Him. When we are Baptized, the Scriptures say we are Baptized “into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” In Holy Communion, we eat His very Body and drink His Blood, a true communion and participation in His life.

When this fundamental doctrine is understood, Mary’s role in history and her place in the Church become clear. Christ does not enter her womb as though it were a borrowed space. The Creed says, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Christ’s humanity is not a separate creation, but “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh.” She is truly His mother.

The Scriptures recognize this in various ways. In particular, when Mary brings the Christ Child to the Temple on the 40th day, the Prophet Simeon prophesies the coming sufferings of Christ and adds, “…and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” This is far more than saying, “It will make you unhappy.” In Christ’s suffering on the Cross, Mary suffers as well. This is because of the peculiar union that was their relationship from the beginning.

Christians describe the life of salvation as “beholding Christ face to face.” Mary would have done this quite literally numerous times a day for nearly three years as she nursed Him. In St. John’s gospel, at the Wedding in Cana, there is a level of communication between mother and Son that transcends words.

At the wedding feast, she comes to her Son and says, “They have no wine.” She does not ask Him anything. His response is frequently misinterpreted. He says, in the Greek: “Tί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,” (Jn. 2:4). (“What is this to me and you?”) It is a very strange phrase in the Greek, but is a direct quote from the widow of Zarephath when she is speaking to Elijah about the death of her son (1 Kings 17:18). Christ is warning His mother that “it is not my time.” But, if He acts in helping with this wedding and its wine, it will set in motion something that cannot be stopped – His kairos – His time. And when His time comes, she will be like the widow of Zarephath, a widow whose son is dead. All of this is contained in this tiny conversation of but a few words.

Her response is equally terse, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is similar to her first words to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She is ready for what will take place, including its most fearful consequences.

But all of this can only be rightly understood if we remember the nature of the union between mother and Son. It is also a union that will be our own salvation. Christ has become what we are by nature, that we might become what he is by grace. This is the great “exchange.”

Orthodox prayer gives expression to this communion. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays within us saying, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Those words are the words of the Son (the one says, “Abba”). We do not pray as strangers, but as members of the household, now emboldened to speak with the very voice of the Son of God. It is this same voice that speaks of Mary as “Mother,” and gives her honor. That honor, or veneration, is the expression of love. Just as she loves Him, so she loves us.

In my experience, devotion to the Mother of God comes very slowly for converts to the faith. Five hundred years of Protestant thought have created a Christianity in which Mary has little place other than on Christmas cards and in badly produced movies. English translations of the Scriptures often butcher Marian passages conveying false images.

The Wedding at Cana passage cited above is frequently rendered: “What do I have to do with you, woman?” which is simply inaccurate. It gives the impression of disrespect, as though Mary were being a bother to her Son. What is deeply lacking is the spiritual consciousness rooted in salvation through union with Christ. None of the doctrines expressed in the Great Seven Ecumenical Councils make any sense apart from that awareness. Put simply, it is how both the Scriptures and the early Fathers understand our salvation. Union (communion, participation) is the fundamental grammar of Christian teaching.

When this grammar is properly grasped, it becomes clear that we cannot speak of Christ apart from Mary (nor Mary apart from Christ). By the same token, we cannot speak of Christ apart from the Church, nor the Church apart from Christ. We are told in 1 Cor. 12:21 that the “head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,” and this in the very passage in which we are told that Christ is the “head of the body (the Church).” We cannot speak of one member of the Body apart from all the others, for the life of each is the life of all and the life of all is the life of each.

In our devotional life, this is expressed in the communion of saints, our prayers that gather all together in union with Christ: “Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed lady, Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

On the personal level, the experience of the Church has taught us private devotions as well. Within those, we begin to discover the mystical bonds that only such devotions reveal. Years ago, in a reference I have long since forgotten, I read a quote in which St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “There are things about Jesus you cannot know until His mother tells them to you.”

This part of the Orthodox life is difficult to describe. It is a perception of Christ, though with a greater fullness, one that extends into the persons of the saints. In Mary, that person encompasses an intimacy with Christ that is without equal. In my own experience, this intimacy includes the depths of her maternal love, for her Son, and for all creation.

The absence of Marian devotion and awareness has created a Christianity with an absence of the feminine. I do not suggest that Mary is a cipher for an abstract universal, or of a “divine femininity,” but it is simply bizarre to have a Christology that speaks of the “humanity” of Christ that is somehow devoid of a human mother (for all intents and purposes). Orthodox Christology begins its formal expression in the 3rd Ecumenical Council in which the largest and most central question was Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (Birth-Giver of God). Classical Christology began with consideration of Mary.

The most egregious example I have ever encountered of anti-Marian sentiment is a treatment in which she is seen as a mere “container” for Christ. It is an insult to every woman who has ever borne a child.

I offer no speculation as to the damage done to Western culture by a distorted Christology. Secularists would argue that Christology has nothing to do with our cultural constructs: such is the ignorance of our own foundations. Secular modernity is built on the foundation of a distorted version of Christianity. We are children who deny our parents, imagining that we have created ourselves.

Now that is a cause for panic. Holy Mother of God, pray for us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows the play of light on a mural of the Virgin and Christ, inside the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey). Photo credit: Dr. Shafi Ahmad.

Should Faith Just Be Private?

Culture in the broadest sense can be defined as a way of life. The great historian Christopher Dawson created an entire corpus focused on the intersection of religion and culture. He claimed that four central pillars form the foundation of culture: people, environment, work, and thought. He describes how “the formation of culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a four-fold community—for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood.”

When Dawson refers to the importance of thought, he means especially religious thought, which provides the inner form for the material organization of society. He describes how “every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order,” because “it is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture.”

Although Dawson recognizes that we live in the first secular culture in human history, he also rightly claims that the modern world has its own spiritual ideas, or pseudo-religions, that guide how we organize the material world: ideas of inevitable social progress, extreme individual liberty, the primacy of material prosperity, and the dominance of empirical science. These ideas have created a spiritual imbalance, which made Dawson aware that “the real evil lies deeper—in the breach that has taken place between the technical development of our civilization and its spiritual life.”

Dawson not only recognizes the problem, but also offers a solution: “The recovery of our civilization is therefore above all a question of restoring the balance between its inner and outer life. The unlimited material expansion of our civilization has weakened it by making it superficial, and the time has come for a movement in the reverse direction—a movement of concentration to recover its inner strength and unity.”

Our culture has displaced faith from its central role, relegating it to the private sphere. Dawson recognizes that this has created a deep spiritual crisis within the individual, with material needs satisfied in abundance, but deeper, spiritual ones neglected. Christians play into this crisis by accepting the divide between the interior and exterior elements of life – communicating only spiritual ideas, while leaving them divorced from their social and cultural context.

The crisis can be resolved by placing religion back at the heart of culture, for “it is only through the medium of culture that the Faith can penetrate civilization and transform the thought and ideology of modern culture.” And he continues: “A Christian cul­ture is a culture which is oriented to supernatural ends and spiritual reality, just as a secularized culture is one which is oriented to mate­rial reality and to the satisfaction of man’s material needs.” And for Dawson, only the faith is strong enough to penetrate and transform the depth of the crisis facing the West.

The Church has increasingly recognized the importance of culture and has given it a central role within her efforts of evangelization. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes provides the Church’s first extended treatment of culture, stating that “man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture” (§53).

Ten years later in 1975, Paul VI emphasized the importance of culture for evangelization in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, teaching that “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time . . . Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel” (§20).

John Paul II strengthened this focus on culture by stating that “creating a new culture of love and of hope inspired by the truth that frees us in Christ Jesus . . . is the priority for the new evangelization.” He explains this priority further in Christifidelis Laici: “Therefore, I have maintained that a faith that does not affect a person’s culture is a faith ‘not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived’” (§59). Faith must be lived out as a way of life and cannot remain simply an interior belief; it must shape and guide all that we do.

Building upon these insights from Dawson and the directives of the Magisterium, I propose to address how our efforts at rebuilding a Christian culture should begin with the family. First, I will look generally at how family life relates to culture and culture and then propose four points to give direction for our catechetical efforts to help families live the faith as a way of life.

Culture, Catechesis, And The Family

Building upon the principle that the family forms the foundation of society, Pope John Paul II stated prophetically: “The future humanity passes by way of the family.” In light of the deep crisis we face in family life, it is imperative that we increase our efforts to support the family. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that “the evangelization of the family is a pastoral priority.” When faith enters the family, it naturally forms culture, for “Christianity is a creator of culture in its very foundation.”

He also said in an address to the members of the Roman clergy on March 2, 2006: “Only faith in Christ and only sharing the faith of the Church saves the family; and on the other hand, only if the family is saved can the Church also survive. For the time being, I do not have an effective recipe for this, but it seems to me that we should always bear it in mind.” We have to help come up with this recipe. Catechesis plays an important role in forming the members of the family in faith, but it must also assist them to connect their faith to life as a whole.

Catechesis aims at deepening one’s faith: The General Directory for Catechesis (1998) states: “Catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways” (§105).

In relation to the family, its goal should be to strengthen the belief and practice of the faith in its domestic life. Family catechesis constitutes an urgent task, for as Pope Benedict affirmed, “only if the family is saved can the Church also survive . . . We must therefore do all that favors the family: family circles, family catechesis, and we must teach prayer in the family.”

With this focus, catechesis forms habits of faith. Family catechesis requires that families receive the message of evangelization and the content of catechesis, but the effort to form family culture through catechesis looks to the next step of how to apply and live that message or content. The goal of family ministry cannot focus on content alone, but should look to the incarnation or inculturation of faith in daily life, translating patterns of belief into a hostile surrounding culture.

In Catechesi Tradendae, §20, John Paul speaks of “the specific aim of catechesis,” which is to enact change in how one thinks and lives. He describes this aim as the development of faith, “which he explains is “a matter of giving growth, at the level of knowledge and in life, to the seed of faith sown by the Holy Spirit with the initial proclamation and effectively transmitted by Baptism. Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word. Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to.”

This catechetical approach points to the family as the means for translating faith into the concrete expressions of daily life. The General Directory of Catechesis makes clear that “the care of the family always remains central, since it is the primary agent of an incarnate transmission of the faith” (§207). Faith meets culture primarily within the family. John Paul taught that “God’s plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations.” The family constitutes the domestic church, where the faith of the parish and school meets the outside world, where the work of inculturation happens (or does not happen) in one’s life.

The family should be recognized as a cultural unit and producer of culture. John Paul proposed that “it is necessary to demand a healthy primacy of the family in the overall work of educating man to real humanity,” because it is the “fundamental creative environment of culture.” The basic cultural task of the family is to transmit culture by initiating children into a way of life. “The family transmits cultural heritage. It is in the bosom of the family that culture is passed on ‘as a specific way of man’s ‘existing’ and ‘being.’” We all enter into a specific way of life through our family.

Creating a Christian culture occurs simply “when the truths of the Faith are applied by the laity in their daily lives.” The Catechism speaks of “creating a home,” where children receive an “education in the virtues,” learn how to “subordinate ‘the material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones,’” are shown a “good example” or witness of the Christian life, and receive discipline (§2223). The home is a locus of Christian culture, as it should embody the spiritual realities of the faith concretely in the many small ways of interaction, instruction, rejoicing, and even correction. The home should be a sacrament of the Church’s broader life.

We generally design catechesis narrowly in relation to sacramental preparation for children or adult faith formation. These tasks flow from the mission of the parish, but as parents are the primary educators of the faith (See: Gravissimum Educationis §3), catechesis for the family should assist the family in recognizing and fulfilling its distinct, catechetical role.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul situates religious education within the domestic church, stating that this role should “make the family a true subject of evangelization and the apostolate within the Church.” Catechesis makes the family the subject not just the object of imparting the faith, enabling the family to fulfill its own unique ministry. This mission “builds up the Kingdom of God in history through the everyday realities that concern and distinguish its state of life,” creating conditions which “foster . . . a living faith and remain a support for it throughout one’s life.” This makes clear that the role of religious education does not consist in a function, but in the creation of a family environment that conduces to faith. The creation of a culture, that is, a way of life, in which faith can grow organically in the fertile soil of family life.

Forming Culture Tn The Family

he constituent elements of family culture relate to the four general pillars proposed by Dawson. First, its foundation consists in a particular bond between people, particularly the members of the family but also the broader community. Second, the locus of culture or the family’s environment, found primarily in the home, but also the parish and places of work. Third, the function or mission of the family, its work and social life, which includes education. Finally, we have Dawson’s notion of thought, which includes the religious beliefs and practices of the family.

Pope Francis, in his long series of Wednesday audiences on the family, stretching from December 2014 to September 2015, affirms these key elements that form the rhythm of the family’s way of life: “celebration, work, prayer.” In addition, in this same group of audiences, he addresses the topics of education, evangelization and community. These six topics provide the central themes for a catechetical revitalization of family. I will address them as follows: Prayer and celebration first; then education through the lens of imagination; followed by work; and finally, community. All of these themes relate to the overarching goal of the evangelization and catechesis of the family.

Prayer As A Way Of Life

Just as religion stands at the heart of culture, so faith should provide the center of the family’s way of life. There can be no Christian culture unless a supernatural, grace-filled, relationship with God animates the life of the family. The supernatural life comes to us from the sacraments, which we receive in the parish. It from the domestic church, however, that we enter parish life and we live out the sacramental life within the home. As Pope Benedict noted: “The family . . . is the fundamental school of Christian formation on the supernatural level.”

The family will become a school of the Christian life primarily through prayer. Prayer is the font of Christian culture. If this is true, then the first and most significant priority of our catechetical efforts consists in teaching families how to pray. Prayer should set the rhythm of life in a fundamental way, as we “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5:16) or as Pope Francis said, give “time back to God.” The liturgy shapes time by creating a rhythm for the day, by praying in the morning and evening, for the week, by keeping the Lord’s day, and for the year, by celebrating the seasons and feasts of the Church. The supernatural life of the family springs from its “worship in church . . . and as its prolongation in the home” through family prayer.

Ordering the life of the family through prayer constitutes no small task. The domestic church may find inspiration from the monastery, with its daily rhythm of prayer and work within the stability of the monastic family: “Just as the monastery’s life is ordered toward God, so must the family home be.” Ordering life through prayer must be taught, and in this endeavor another religious community, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, provides helpful advice: “Please remember that merely saying the prayers is not the goal. The goal is praying: personally encountering the Lord, listening to Him, and giving Him your heart.” We may be tempted to focus simply on outward rituals with children, but the heart of the family community, like the religious life, is a search for God (quaerere Deum), meeting God in silent prayer.

Interior silence, though, progresses to outward celebration, arising naturally from the festivity built into the Catholic cycle of the liturgy. Sofia Cavaletti speaks of “celebration [as] a universal expression; it is not restricted to the religious world. Rather, it corresponds to the need of human beings to periodically experience basic realities of daily life in a particularly intense and focused way.” She says further that liturgical celebrations help us to live our biblical history: “Liturgical celebration is an essential instrument in rendering past events concrete and powerful in the lives of believers.”

The liturgical seasons provide opportunities to celebrate God’s goodness and the blessings he has bestowed upon the family. Echoing the thought of Josef Pieper, Pope Francis describe the nature of this affirmation: “Celebration is first and foremost a loving and grateful look at work well done . . . It’s time to look at our home, our friends we host, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world. And he does so again and again, because God is always creating, even at this moment!” Pieper also affirms that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.”

Sunday is a moment each week to stop and to make this affirmation with rest and the enjoyment of family life.

Enlivening The Imagination

Although it may not be obvious, focusing on the imagination relates to prayer. Prayer builds upon our experience of reality, as the soil from which it draws life. Msgr. Timothy Verdun describes how the family cultivates the foundation for prayer by imparting language and by stimulating the mind through experience: “There is in fact an art of prayer that can be transmitted from masters to disciples as from parents to children. The places designated for its transmission are indeed, first, the family, where children initially learn words and gestures with which to enter into relation with God, and then the community of other believes.” He continues, speaking of the lex orandi, lex credendi, as “a rule in the service of creativity, for faith and prayer in effect are creative responses.” In the “long history of the Church, the ‘art of prayer’—the system of words and gestures with which believers turn to God—in fact has often been transmitted through the visual arts and architecture.”

What does this mean concretely for the family? The family’s mission of education must compensate for the poverty of schooling today and overcome obstacles, such as technology, which impede the development of the imagination. I think of the immense importance Pope Benedict XVI ascribed to listening to Mozart as a family when he was young: “You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep.”

Contrast this experience with the normal child today, deprived of beauty and immersed in distraction. The basic education parents can give their children, essential for any schooling, career, and even prayer, should focus on learning to listen (no small task today), to understand, and to communicate. We can no longer take these foundational points for granted. In terms of the imagination, we have to teach children how to see, to appreciate, and to discern the worth of things.

Pope Benedict reflects on the need for “the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media . . . Within this framework, training in the proper use of the media is essential for the cultural, moral and spiritual development of children.” Interestingly, he continues by insisting that we introduce our children “to what is aesthetically and morally excellent,” such as “children’s classics in literature, to the fine arts and to uplifting music.”

Without this formation in beauty, in a cultural patrimony, we experience a breakdown in identity: “The crisis of a society begins when it no longer knows how to hand down its cultural patrimony and its fundamental values to the new generations.”

Catechetically speaking, we have to impart a Catholic identity through the imagination, so that the family’s way of thinking and values reflect the Gospel. Cardinal Francis Arinze challenges us to consider the effectiveness our catechesis in this regard: “The Church in every country can ask herself what image of the Gospel is present in the mass media and in cultural thought patterns in the country in question . . . How much are they contributing to cultural patterns in their society? . . . What are the laity contributing to the fabric of society so that life in society will be as near as possible to the Gospel ideal?” We cannot bring the Gospel to the world, if it has not penetrated our own minds and habits.

Family Work

Unlike immersion in the digital world, we form imagination most profoundly through a direct experience of reality. This experience in turn draws us naturally to work, our creative encounter with the physical world. Many thinkers have described the crisis of the family in modern culture as arising in large part due to a lack of common work, common purposes that hold family members together.

This element of family formation consists literally in helping families to form culture, that is, to learn to make things, to shape their home environment, and to become co-creators with God. John Paul exhorts us: “family, become what you are” and the Church needs to help families achieve this even in a natural sense.

John Paul describes what he means by this phrase: “Accordingly, the family must go back to the “beginning” of God’s creative act, if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is but also of what it does in history.” Pope Francis describes this looking back to the beginning for families as well: ““The family that responds to the call of Jesus consigns the stewardship of the world back to the covenant of man and woman with God. Let us imagine that the helm of history is entrusted entrusted—finally!—to the covenant of man and woman. . . . The themes of earth and home, of the economy and work, would sing a very different tune.”

Pope Francis affirms that work must be taught in the family for the “family is a great workbench.” Teaching work is not drudgery, but emphasizes the need for creative expression in the formation of Christian culture. David Clayton notes that we have been “good at forming consumers of Catholic culture, but not good at forming creators.” We need to learn “the practice of beauty-in-the-making. We are incarnational and learn by imitation and doing, and ultimately, as this progresses, by the creation of new works.” Teaching work as a cultural expression elicits the creative potential of each child. Clayton continues: “Each of us is called to be creative in a special way and to contribute to the culture. Our formation also, therefore, ought to involve a process of discovery of personal vocation.”

Work is also good for the family, drawing the members of the family together in a common effort, rather than allowing work and school to isolate members of the family in their own individual activities.

James Stenson, in his essay “On Fatherhood,” looks back to past home dynamics: “The home was a place of social and intellectual activity; people talked, read, played, worked, and prayed together.” Now, however, “the home itself has become a place of play rather than work,” even to the point that for our children, “life is play.”

Stenson also gives a description of how fathers should teach their children about hard work and the right use of material things: “Successful fathers . . . work alongside their children at home, teaching the relationship between effort and results, along with the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. They are sparing in allowances. They make the children wait for things, and if possible, earn them. They give generously of time and money to the needy, and they encourage (but don’t force) the children to do the same. They don’t fill the home with expensive gadgets and amusements. They budget and save for the future, and thus teach the children an important lesson: Money is an instrument, a resource for the service of our loved ones and those in need. And that’s all it is.”

Work is a key element of culture and families will have to rediscover its value as something that gives life and creativity to the home. Catechesis does not teach this work in itself, but rather helps families to understand the role of work in human development and its importance for family life and culture.

Forming Intentional Family Community

Families must overcome what has become a key characteristic of modern culture, isolation. The restoration of culture will not occur as long as this isolation remains, especially within families. The culture they form does not exist for themselves alone, but for the world more broadly. Families also need support for their efforts, as children see the values of the family reinforced by other adults and peers.

Pope Francis has urged us to recognize that “strengthening the bond between the family and the Christian community today is indispensable and urgent.”

Providing an example, Rod Dreher quotes Marco Sermarini, the founder of a community of families, the Tipi Loschi in Italy: “It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. ‘If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.’”

The mission of culture-building necessarily includes community, as culture itself, as a common way of life, unites people to accomplish a common vision. Therefore, “true Christian communities and culture at large, then, arise from the association of Catholic families that take it upon themselves to enculturate the Faith.”

Dilsaver continues: “For the formation of communities is but the extension of the formation of families.” Pope Francis also emphasized that the building of community by the family should have a broader impact: “The family and the parish must work the miracle of a more communal life for the whole of society.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland has taken this principle farther, in looking at the future of parish life: “The parishes of tomorrow will be “communities of intentional disciples” sustained by committed and formed lay people. The key to this will be the formation of cells, or smaller gatherings of committed people who meet and pray and develop together their understanding of faith, and who find there the courage to engage in mission and outreach.”

The family must counteract the individuality that fragments modern culture, reversing “the community desertification of the modern city.” Intentional and committed fellowships of families will recreate a sense of belonging, stability, and support so lacking in our parishes and families today. John Paul has called for a “special solidarity among families” and an “apostolate of families to one another.” The more families embrace their mission to form culture in the home, the more this culture will spread to other families throughout the Church and society.

Families also have a gift to offer others in opening their homes for this fellowship and to those especially without a sense of belonging. Familiaris Consortio notes that we should recognize an “ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms”

Hospitality indicates that a family does not simply exist for its self, but to serve by opening the life of the family to others. This points to a mission the family exercises in sharing the culture it forms without even leaving the home. Christian culture overcomes isolation in that it exists not for its own sake, but as a service for the good of humanity.

We should focus our catechetical efforts on helping families to live their Catholic faith, both within the home and in conjunction with other families. I call this effort the creation of an “open source movement.” It is a “movement” in that it encourages particular, spiritual practices. It is “open source” in that it inspires families with a vision, assisting them to form the culture with, in, and through the parish. This approaches makes the family central, relying on their own initiative, rather than on an office or program (although they will need inspiration to begin this process). This entails a movement from the family as object to the family as subject of catechesis.

The final consideration, and one that requires further elaboration, consists in how to bring about this new approach to family catechesis. We have relied traditionally on classroom settings to impart the content of faith. This will need to continue, but the task of forming culture focuses rather on establishing practices and habits to change family life. Therefore, it is necessary to model Christian culture to families. This can be done through retreats, small group mentorship, and parish missions. Any such event must include the formation of relationships and family communities so that families receive support in following through with their new practices.

John Paul affirmed that faith requires culture to be true to itself and complete (see, Christifidelis Laici, §59). Families need Christian culture to be faithful to their mission to live and communicate their faith in the modern world. In light of the general crisis of culture, catechesis cannot remain focused solely on imparting the content of faith, but must embrace the work of rebuilding Christian culture.

Families, as the foundation of society, are the ideal place to begin this slow, but necessary, work. Family catechesis ordered toward imparting a Christian way of life provides our best opportunity to begin the renewal of public Catholic culture.

R. Jared Staudt, PhD, works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver and serves as Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate. This article appears courtesy of Church Life Journal.

The image shows, “A Girl Praying,” by Roberto Ferruzzi (1853-1934).

A Matter Of Truth

Surveys in business magazines and management books confirm that the personal characteristic employees most value in their employer is Honesty. Above all employees want to be dealt with truthfully. The same is true of employers.

What they most want from their employees is the assurance that they can believe what their employees say and trust what they do.

When single people describe the perfect partner, they dream of meeting and someday marrying; they inevitably say they want an Honest man or woman who can be trusted in every way. They can’t conceive of a marriage based on any other foundation than absolute trustworthiness.

Friends who have walked through life together for many years often name Honesty as one of the keys to the success of their relationship. We made a commitment to never lie to one another they say, and we never have.

In an age and a culture in which lies, fake news, and deceit are common currency of news articles, movies, talk shows and politics; the pursuit of Honesty in personal life and relationships sometimes seems like a lonely and outdated endeavour. You need to put a spin on things. Distort it so that it seems like the truth.

Of course, public displays of dishonesty are not the only sources of our repugnance. Most of us have been betrayed or lied to at some point in our lives in a brazen hurtful way, where recovery has been difficult.

Do you remember the first time you were betrayed or lied to? The first time a confidence was broken or the truth twisted in order to hurt you. I am sure you remember the experience in vivid detail. Did it make you want to withdraw from the human race or scream out in anger? If it’s any consolation God feels that way as well.

The ninth commandment says, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” In other words, don’t Lie. Don’t distort the truth. Don’t use your words to play around with reality.

God knew from the beginning of time that without a total commitment to truth telling; marriages and families would disintegrate, friendships would disappear, business dealings would fall apart, churches would be split by divisions, governments would not be able to govern. The very fabric of relationships and society would unravel.

Throughout the Bible we are called to the standard of truth telling, but nowhere more graphically than in the book of Proverbs, where a man ‘with a corrupt mouth’ is called a scoundrel and villain. Proverbs 6: 12. And where the suggested antidote to lying is that a perverse tongue will be cut out. Dishonesty is bad stuff, says the writer of these proverbs, and we need to get rid of it; whatever it takes.

One reason the writer of these proverbs spoke so strongly against a corrupt mouth is that he knew how deeply dishonesty disrupts one’s relationship with God. The Lord detests lying lips. That’s pretty strong stuff. To detest something is repulsive. Its abhorrent.

Seldom does the Bible use such strong language than this to describe God’s response to sinful behaviour. God simply detests lying. It like saying; it turns his stomach; it makes him vomit. That’s why he cannot maintain a relationship with a person who lies.

The reason God detests dishonesty so much is due to the second consequence; it destroys other people. Proverbs 15 verse 4: “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life; but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

She promised to be faithful, sobs a devastated husband who has just learned that his wife wasn’t faithful. He said, he would never come home again drunk cries a teenager reeling from the rages of his alcoholic father. He promised me that he would never place another bet, as the wife checks her bank account. I finished the job because the contractor gave me his word that he would pay me, but he didn’t. Now how can I pay my workers? I transferred my savings into the account that would give me 8 per cent interest. The company left no forwarding address.

On and on it goes; people’s spirits crushed by dishonesty and deceit. I suspect that if successive Governments wanted to save billions through austerity measures, they should launch a major offensive outlining what dishonesty and deceit costs the tax payer every year. If people complied by being honest in their financial dealings The national debt would be eradicated in twenty years.

The main reason why Greece is in financial meltdown is because the majority of its tax paying citizens refuse by deceit to submit any income tax returns. In fact, it’s seen as a badge of honour to get away with it. Children are taught to do the exact same thing and follow their parents’ example. And they wonder why they are in the state they are in.

I know of several people and perhaps you do as well who lament that life is not working well for them. They are left with broken dreams, faded hopes and thwarted goals. However, in many cases, if you trace their disappointment back far enough you discover a trail of dishonesty.

It may have started with a slight departure from the truth; but all too often that first dishonest step leads to deeper forms of deceitfulness and from there to downright lies. Along the way, the dishonest person begins to experience the inevitable breakdown of his or her relationships with God and with others; whether in the home, at school, on the building site, in the office, or at church.

It’s easy to place the blame on other people or on forces beyond one’s control when the real cause of trouble is one’s own careless or malicious mishandling of truth. Have you told any lies lately? Any harmless ones. We’ll do lunch sometime. I’ll pay you back next month. Can I have a minute of your time. My door is always open. Will phone you tomorrow.

Do you ever exaggerate the truth? Tell a story and put an extra spin on it. Describe a personal achievement in inflated terms? Do you ever minimize the truth? Confess to a sin less serious than the one you committed? Do you ever twist the truth to make someone look bad? The list is endless.

Have you ever described another person’s words or actions without explaining their context and thereby made that person appear stupid or cruel? Have you ever got yourself into a jam and then told a whopper to get yourself out of it? The wife was driving the car, so she gets the penalty points.

Do you remember the last time you lied? Most of us feel a little queasiness in our stomachs or a little heat on the back of our necks. But the worst thing is that we don’t know what to do with our eyes.

We have only two choices; to look the person we’re lying to straight in the eye or to look at the floor.

Lying is a messy business. It’s always going to be a messy business because we’re created in the image of a truth telling God.

At the core of God’s character is an essence of purity that renders him incapable of dishonesty. Wherever Jesus went, he often spoke to the crowds saying; I tell you the truth. I tell you the truth. As he did so he was holding himself up for public examination and scrutiny. Check it out and see if there is anything incorrect, I am telling you. That was the undercurrent of his message.

Could anyone point the finger at Jesus. No not one. The closest any of our politicians come to this; is when they are being interviewed and an awkward question is thrown at them, they say; let me be clear about this. But it’s not quite the same thing. Or if a politician is asked, “do you condemn IRA or IS violence?” ‘Do you condemn anti-Semitism?” Some will say blandly, “I condemn all violence.” But they still have not answered the question. They are not telling the truth.

Because of the piece of that purity which God has placed in our own core, it will always feel unnatural for the majority of people to lie. There are of course professional liars; spin doctors and the like; but God has given up on them. They are destined for destruction according to scripture.

There will always be warning bells and whistles going off in our minds and that sick feeling in our stomachs, because we were not created to lie. The only reasonable response for any of us is to stop lying; completely. No more half-truths, no more exaggeration, no more verbal twisting of reality.

No more only telling part of the story. For those of us ready and willing to make a firm commitment to honesty the book of Proverbs offers some refreshing practical hints for our journey from deceitfulness to truth telling. What do we do about it?

The Bible says; If you want to sin less with your words, then talk less. Proverbs 10.19” “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I wish I could meet the man who wrote that and have a chat with him.

If you have a propensity to talk a lot, the facts state you will lie more. Generally speaking, if you talk less, the less you will lie. The less you talk the less you will exaggerate. The less you talk the less you say things you will regret. The less you talk the fewer promises you make, that you can’t keep.
Proverbs says, “the heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.”

The wisdom of Proverbs also tells us something important; that we don’t have to participate in every conversation. You don’t have to chip in. You don’t have to express every thought that you hear or comes to mind. But we do have to pause and carefully consider our words before we speak.

When we are writing a letter on the computer there is a spell check. If you spell a word incorrectly it will be underlined in red. Your attention is drawn to it to correct it. Well Proverbs says that we have to have a lie check feature, a little switch that is flipped on just before we open our mouths.

When our ideas and words are forming in our brains, it will ask us two things; are our forthcoming words necessary; and are they true. If they’re not we should not spend more than a minute thinking about them.

There is so much we could say in this area of truth telling. One more thing. There is a potential downside to all this. Truth telling is not always easy especially in the age of obsessive PC correctness. People are sacked in jobs for telling the truth; whistle blowers. Others are shunned or passed over for promotion. ‘We don’t rock the boat in this company’.

We are called to avoid unnecessary words, or to keep silent rather than utter untruths. But at the same time when a given situation demands that a word of truth be spoken, we are commanded to speak it without holding back, even if it costs us dearly.

When it comes to saying the hard truths that certain people, need to hear, we find ourselves hesitating. At least I do. Such as the proverbial round peg in a square hole comes to mind. Someone who is doing a job they are basically useless at and at the same time they are keeping back the best person for it.

Why do we stay silent and hold back from telling the truth? And how you say it; how you go about it. It’s not easy. You can be seen as always being critical, always on the lookout for mistakes or self-righteous.

The person with the pushy attitude, who succeeds wherever they go in getting everyone’s backs up without even trying. Better to say nothing in case he is offended. We are afraid to speak the truth. What is wrong with me? A close relation who hasn’t a clue about money matters and who is utterly unreliable and reckless. Just leave it. Someone else might say something. What’s the matter with me? There are a million and one scenarios.

Or, you have become acquainted with someone. A decent, kind, hard working person who always sees the good in people. You have numerous conversations with them about all manner of things. But to date you have not had the courage to tell them the most important truth in life; that God loves them and he has opened the gates of heaven to them because of what Jesus did on a cross on their behalf. He died for their sin.

This person told me they do not attend church; yet you have not shared one word with them about the basic truths of the Gospel. What’s the matter with you? Why have you not said anything to them of God’s love and forgiveness.

Well, you know what’s the matter. You shrink back from telling the truth because it might cost you something. It might create discomfort in the relationship. You might be misunderstood or rejected. Heaven forbid that that person would say, stay out of my life, its none of your business. Get lost. Would that really be the end of the world? There is a balance here between peace keeping and truth telling. But most of us, most of the time choose the former.

I silence words of truth because they might create ripples on the pond of my life and I would much prefer to have the seas of tranquillity lapping around me. I want smooth waters; not rough seas. We need to remind ourselves of Proverbs 3 verse 3: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

The writer of Proverbs says cling to the truth and reveal the truth in your marriage, family and friendships.

Have you ever been thankful that at some point in your life someone dared to speak the truth to you and it helped alter the course of your life? I know I have.

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Do you really know what it means to follow Jesus? Please think carefully about those two questions.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Capture of Christ,” by Guercino, painted in 1621.