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Fighting Words

Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts

John Renard (Editor)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 262 pages
ISBN: 9780520274198
December 2012
$29.95, £19.95
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One of the critical issues in interreligious relations today is the connection, both actual and perceived, between sacred sources and the justification of violent acts as divinely mandated. Fighting Words makes solid text-based scholarship accessible to the general public, beginning with the premise that a balanced approach to religious pluralism in our world must build on a measured, well-informed response to the increasingly publicized and sensationalized association of terrorism and large-scale violence with religion.

In his introduction, Renard provides background on the major scriptures of seven religious traditions—Jewish, Christian (including both the Old and New Testaments), Islamic, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Sikh. Eight chapters then explore the interpretation of select facets of these scriptures, focusing on those texts so often claimed, both historically and more recently, as inspiration and justification for every kind of violence, from individual assassination to mass murder. With its nuanced consideration of a complex topic, this book is not merely about the religious sanctioning of violence but also about diverse ways of reading sacred textual sources.
1. Exegesis and Violence: Texts, Contexts, and Hermeneutical Concerns
John Renard
2. A Brief History of War in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Interpretive Tradition
Reuven Firestone
3. Annihilate Amalek: Christian Perspectives on 1 Samuel 15
Bernhard A. Asen
4. Violence in the New Testament and the History of Interpretation
Leo D. Lefebure
5. Finhas of Medina: Islam, “The Jews,” and the Construction of Religious Militancy
Michael A. Sells
6. The Baha’i Tradition: The Return of Joseph and the Peaceable Imagination
Todd Lawson
7. Justifiable Force and Holy War in Zoroastrianism
Jamsheed K. Choksy
8. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita
Laurie L. Patton
9. Words as Weapons: Theory and Practice of a Righteous War (Dharam Yudh) in Sikh Texts
Pashaura Singh
Glossary of Names and Technical Terms
John Renard is Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of many books, most recently Tales of God’s Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation (UC Press).
"Many qualified contributors have come together in this work to offer strong interpretations of how religious texts can justify violence. Each essay manages to be both interesting and thought-provoking--quite an accomplishment for such a broad examination of religious traditions."—Daniel Smith-Christopher, author of Jonah, Jesus, and Other Good Coyotes: Speaking Peace to Power in the Bible


Exegesis and Violence

Texts, Contexts, and Hermeneutical Concerns

John Renard

Thomas Hobbes famously observed in his Leviathan that human life is "nasty, brutish, and short." He and other influential philosophers have identified violence as virtually a "state of nature" that humankind has struggled endlessly to ameliorate, and with precious little success. Religious authors in every age and culture have likewise filled libraries with their analyses of the roots and remedies of this scourge, this "mark of Cain." Every credible religious or ethical system condemns murder, yet sacred texts claimed by adherents of most (if not all) religious traditions describe in often grisly detail how believers have had recourse to divinely sanctioned violent means in defense of a "people" or to spread the sacred message. For millennia, preachers and teachers of religious values have discerned in their scriptures a divine logic both for and against engaging in large-scale violence, yet confusion among religious believers remains pervasive.

Many people across the globe find themselves asking whether "religion" is not in fact more of a catalyst than a cure for much of the violence in our world. Unfortunately, when the scale tilts toward blaming religion as a major (or even the chief) contributing cause of mayhem, the blame is too often ladled out exclusively against "them." Religionists are too seldom willing to entertain the possibility that their own faith tradition is as much a contributor to the problem as a counterforce. Adherents of a given tradition often insist on how it could scarcely be more obvious that someone else's sacred text and historical record are rife with a divine mandate for the indiscriminate slaughter of unbelievers and all they hold dear, while claiming that their own revealed patrimony sanctions only self-defense. The present collection of essays invites readers to explore these vexing questions by mining the sacred texts and exegetical traditions for important examples of scriptured communities of faith.

Background and Methodological Issues

Comparative studies of the world's religious traditions take countless different forms, depending on their guiding purpose. Many books survey the full range of aspects of multiple traditions, including sacred texts, basic beliefs and rituals, schools of thought or "denominations," organizational features, and paradigmatic figures. Narrower in scope, a number of studies have dedicated themselves to a general comparison of the sacred texts of many traditions in a single volume. Work in the relatively new subdiscipline bridging religious studies and theology known as Comparative Theology typically focuses on explicitly "theological" themes across two, or occasionally three or more, traditions. Several recent comparative works have focused on violence in the name of religion. But general studies of the vast topics of scripture as a category or of violence as a theme seldom assist the reader in understanding the logic behind marshaling sacred texts in support of or against resorting to violent action, the widespread practice of decontextualizing those texts in service of extremist interpretations, or the range of exegetical methods evidenced in the history of a given text's interpretation.

Why Exegesis and Violence?

One of the critical issues in interreligious relations today is the connection, both actual and perceived, between sacred sources and the justification of violent acts. Unfortunately the connection has been relatively little studied in a way that makes solid text-based scholarship accessible to the general public. The present volume begins with the premise that a balanced approach to religious pluralism in our world must build on a measured, well-informed response to the increasingly publicized and, sadly, sensationalized association of terrorism and other forms of large-scale violence with religion.

Such a measured response must begin with the sacred texts so often cited as inspiration and justification for every kind of violence, from individual assassination to mass murder to the total obliteration of a society. In pursuing a balanced approach to this complex topic, this book is not merely about the religious sanction of violence. It is fundamentally about the diverse ways in which interpreters of the various sacred sources have handled texts that appear either to prescribe or to describe violence, including interpretations that militate against violence. The desired result is a representative overview of the virtually universal phenomenon of variant methods of interpreting sacred texts that sanction, mandate, or explicitly rule out violent means. "Scripturally sanctioned [or forbidden] violence" is clearly an expansive and ideologically loaded term. The present collection uses the category as a general organizing concept that embraces a wide range of scriptural traditions, exegetical methods, and hermeneutical concerns.

Two major underlying assumptions motivated the development of this project, and though they are background issues, it is essential to state them up front. First, concern with issues of violence, vengeance, war and peace, and claims to religiously legitimate wrath is a demonstrable current running through parts of the texts and commentaries of many of the world's faith communities. Secondly, however, persons of faith are not to be held accountable for violence committed by those who claim, without warrant, to speak for them.

Scope and Method of the Volume

A widespread assumption seems to be that religiously sanctioned violence is characteristic of, perhaps even unique to, the so-called Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. An important goal of this volume is to demonstrate that, however a tradition's "core" teachings concerning violence are perceived, interpreters from many major traditions have had to deal with references to violence in those sources. Whether prescriptive or descriptive, such references are by no means monopolized by Abrahamic or West Asian traditions.

Essays by eight specialists in the scriptural and exegetical sources of seven scriptured faith traditions explore a wide variety of approaches to the complex subject. They address three broad areas of concern: key relationships between sacred text and context, major strands of exegesis within and among the traditions represented, and historically significant examples of exegesis in practice.

The essays focus on one or more texts from their respective tradition's sacred scriptures that relate in some important way (whether by sanction or repudiation) to the use of violent means by divine mandate, considering both the immediate and broader context of the scripture(s) in question. Most of these texts have been cited throughout the centuries as justification for the violent actions of members of the tradition in question. The essays also examine major exegetical trends, underscoring the historical fact of alternative readings within each faith tradition. Thus, an important function of the collection is to highlight alternative interpretations or methods of exegesis evidenced in the various traditions. Overarching questions include: What exegetical resources have been espoused-even if only by a historical minority-for advancing a moderating approach to the use of violent means? And how, precisely, have interpreters read particular texts as justification for recourse to violence?

An Overview of the Major Scriptural Traditions

A brief general introduction to the sacred texts and the remarkable variety of exegesis manifest in each of the faith communities treated in these essays will offer students and other nonspecialist readers essential general background.

Judaism and the Hebrew Bible

According to a traditional Jewish reckoning, the Hebrew Bible is a collection of twenty-four "books" divided into three main groupings: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Jews, as well as Christians generally, identify five books of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are also known as the Pentateuch, from the Greek meaning "five vessels" or "scrolls." In the category of "Prophets" (Nevi'im), Jewish tradition includes eight books. Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel as one book, and 1 and 2 Kings as another together comprise the four "former prophets." The four "latter" prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the collection of the twelve "minor prophets" (trei-assar in Jewish [Aramaic] parlance, including Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi-"minor" because they are shorter texts). Under the heading of "Writings" (Khetuvim) are a total of eleven books, with Ezra and Nehemiah considered as one, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles. The "Five Scrolls" (megillot) include the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Daniel complete the Writings. Taken together the Torah, Nevi'im, and Khetuvim are designated by the acronym TaNaKh.

An important theme in Jewish thought is the complex relationship between the "written" and "oral" Torah. Torah is a Hebrew word generally translated as "teaching," "instruction," or "custom." It is sometimes used to refer to the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy. According to tradition, Moses himself composed the whole of the Torah under divine inspiration. This ancient attribution lends maximum authority to these sacred texts by association with the man most identified with the divine revelation that shaped Judaism. But Torah also has a broader meaning. In its larger sense, Torah means revealed or divine Law, that is, all that God requires of Jews, and this meaning applies to a larger corpus of literature than the Pentateuch or even the entire Hebrew Bible. The historical evolution of the Hebrew scriptures is far longer and more complex than the present shape of the Bible might lead one to suspect. The editing that eventuated in the final shape of the Pentateuch alone represented already multilayered interpretative developments. In a sense, the "later" books of the Hebrew Bible represent early forms of exegesis of the earlier texts.

Jewish extrabiblical literature is vast and expansive. Two large bodies of literature are generally known as Talmud and Midrash. Talmud consists of the systematization of successive waves of originally oral commentary by religious scholars on sacred scripture. First, views of earlier generations of rabbis were codified in the Mishna. Subsequent generations further commented on the Mishnaic material, and that was brought together in the Gemara. Then the Mishna and Gemara were combined in the Talmud, which was produced in two versions, the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud and the considerably larger Babylonian Talmud.

Medieval European rabbinical scholars devised still more comprehensive and elaborate exegetical frameworks. Perhaps the most famous is summed up in the acronym PaRDeS (an ancient Persian term meaning "Paradise"). Each of the upper case consonants stands for a Hebrew term referring to one of the four principal levels or methods of exegesis. Peshat is the literal sense and the kind of interpretation prevalent in oral Torah, remez looks for the allegorical meaning, derash (study) derives the homiletical or ethical significance, and sod (more) unveils the mystical significance of a text. Jewish exegesis has devised highly sophisticated methods of drawing out the various meanings of the sacred text and has preserved the results in an enormous library known as Rabbinical literature.

Much of the content of the Talmud is described by the term halakhah, a word that means literally "proceeding, walking." It refers to the bulk of Talmud and more generally to the literature interpreting the specific rules and legislation found in the scripture. The plural of the term, halakhot, came to mean all the specific laws derived through exegesis, even if not explicitly mentioned in scripture. Halakhic literature peers into every conceivable nook and cranny of Jewish daily life, prescribing in minutest detail how the Torah should be used as a guide here and now. The term midrash means "study, commentary, amplification" and originally meant the method used by all scholars of sacred scripture. Hence, much Talmudic material is midrashic, for example. But eventually midrash came to be more popularly identified with the non-halakhic material in the Talmud and with another type of literature called aggadah (or haggadah, meaning "narrative"). Works of aggadic midrash, like halakhic works, primarily comment on scripture. But unlike halakhah, aggadah is more concerned with reading between the lines. Aggadic works tell the story behind the story and say little about specific legal implications. As such, aggadah is generally much more appealing and entertaining, offering interpretations that are frequently very moving, charming, and droll.

Against this broad backdrop, Reuven Firestone's "A Brief History of War in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Interpretive Tradition" explores a number of critical junctures in biblical history, highlighting the divine initiative and support of violent means in ancient Israel's dealings with other peoples. Firestone identifies as a key element the early transition from a sort of revolving henotheism to monotheism, and from a tribal to a universal theology. In this context, prominent historical moments include especially the extended period of initial conquest of Canaan, expansion under the monarchy, restoration during the Second Temple Period, and various revolts against Roman rule during that period and after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. An especially important turn away from any possibility of "offensive" war characterized rabbinical thought during subsequent centuries. Twentieth-century events again turned Jewish concerns back toward greater willingness to understand the use of violent means as rooted in a theological reading of Israel's history and the right to continued existence as an unfolding of the modern Zionist project. In the course of his chapter, Firestone provides a broad overview of both a range of literary exegetical genres and diverse ways of interpreting the biblical library.

Christianity and the Old Testament

Christian communities identify and enumerate the canon of the "Old Testament" differently both from mainstream Jewish tradition and, in some instances, from one another. In theory, Christian churches agree in dividing the whole corpus into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, but they count their books differently and thus arrive at a total of thirty-nine. But for pedagogical purposes, one could argue, Christian biblical studies distinguish the Pentateuch (the Jewish Torah), the Historical books, Prophets strictly so-called, and Wisdom literature. The Historical books include a group known to some Christians and Jews also as the "former prophets" (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings), along with the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Among the "latter prophets," known to most Christians simply as the prophetic texts, are the three major prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; the twelve "minor" (so-called because they are "shorter") prophets counted as one in the Hebrew scriptures; and Daniel. Finally, among those books known to Jews as the Writings is a set of works some Christians call "Wisdom literature," some traditionally attributed to David and his son Solomon, and the minianthology called the Five Scrolls (or megillot). Protestant versions call "apocryphal" seven texts that are part of Catholic versions of the Bible. Among these are the "historical" Books of Maccabees and the "wisdom" books Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom. Finally, Protestants and Catholics both call "apocryphal" three other short works, III and IV Esdras (Ezra) and the Prayer of Manasseh.

From the very beginning, the emergence of Christianity as a distinct tradition depended on the young community's exegesis of the Hebrew scriptures. Since the majority of the earliest Christians were Jewish by birth and education, they naturally regarded the Hebrew Bible as their own authoritative divine revelation. But the tradition of messianic expectation that had evolved especially in the later writings evoked continual scrutiny and reexamination among Jews everywhere: When would the Messiah come? And how was one to identify Him? Largely on the basis of their reading of scripture, the early followers of Jesus found the answers in Jesus. By a process that would come to be known as "typological exegesis," early Christians saw in numerous Old Testament personages, events, and institutions anticipations or "types" of Christ. Abraham, for example, was a type of God the Father in his willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, who was in turn a type of Christ. Jonah's emergence from the belly of the whale was a type of Christ's resurrection from the grave. Typological exegetes saw in Jesus the perfection of realities only adumbrated in the Hebrew scriptures. Aaron's priesthood, for example, was merely temporary (as evidenced by the destruction of the Temple), but that of Christ is eternal (Hebrews 7). In addition to discerning these and other typological antecedents of Christ, interpreters saw in many prophetic writings veiled allusions to the Christ who was to come. In the "suffering servant" texts of Deutero-Isaiah, for example, early Christians detected such striking parallels to what they believed were the very essence of the life and death of Jesus that the prophet could only have been referring to this Messiah. In the New Testament, Jesus suggests a parallel between himself and Isaiah's references to a Spirit-filled anointed one who preaches good news to the poor, frees the imprisoned, and heals the blind, and he likens himself to Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:16-30). These are only a few of the ways in which early Christians found legitimacy for their views in Jewish tradition.

Since Christians consider the Old Testament integral to their revealed message, biblical exegetes have struggled to make sense of countless texts originally associated with the history of Israel. Even for Christians who have considered themselves the "New Israel," appropriating much of the historical record's specificity with respect to real estate, political power (or the lack thereof), and enemies long defunct requires more than a little exegetical dexterity. In "Annihilate Amalek: Christian Perspectives on 1 Samuel 15," Bernhard Asen explores Christian interpretations of an important Old Testament "text of terror" that mandates uncompromising violence against a perennial nemesis of Israel. He begins with an analysis of the context of 1 Samuel 15 before taking up the phenomenon of "total warfare" as articulated there and interpreted in subsequent scripture and tradition. He then reflects on how Christians have dealt, and might in the future deal, with the patrimony of such texts. In the process, Asen offers a fine example of how focusing on a single, arresting text exegetically can generate further reflection on the reality of large-scale violence in service of what religious communities might consider a divinely revealed mandate. Asen concludes with a reflection on related New Testament themes in a way that provides a transition to Leo Lefebure's essay.

Christianity and the New Testament

Two broad types of literature comprise the bulk of the uniquely Christian scripture. Among the earliest documents are the letters of Paul of Tarsus. Tradition attributes fourteen of the New Testament's twenty-seven "books" to Paul, but several were actually penned by later followers of Paul in his name as "letters from the dead." These writings function as a medium by which Paul could remain active "in spirit" among the Christian community. The largest and most important of the texts are addressed to local Christian communities collectively (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philippians). Four are addressed to individual Christian leaders with whom Paul worked (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon). The addressees of the Letter to the Hebrews, almost certainly not written by Paul, are curiously diffuse and not geographically identifiable as the local churches are. These epistles provide a great deal of information about the spread and organization of the early Church, and, to a lesser degree, about the personality of this man of prodigious energy called Paul, a man some regard as the true "founder" of Christianity. Seven other letters, two attributed to Peter, three to John, one to James, and one to Jude, afford small glimpses into the variety of theological and practical issues facing the Christian "diaspora," the communities developing beyond the central Middle East.

At the heart of the Christian scriptures are four documents called "gospels" (from the Greek euangelion, "good news"). Mark's gospel, likely the earliest, is also the shortest of the four. Matthew's, addressed chiefly to those of Jewish background, and Luke's, addressed to a largely Gentile or Hellenistic readership, followed within the next twenty to thirty years. Luke's gospel also has the distinction of being part of the only consciously crafted two-volume work in the New Testament, since it is completed by Luke's account of the post-Jesus church in the Acts of the Apostles. Because of their similarity of perspective and emphases, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" Gospels. John's Gospel, often referred to as the most theological of the four, was almost certainly written later, around the end of the first century C.E. Last but not least is the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse.

Christians believe the sacred texts collectively called the New Testament are divinely inspired, but composed by human authors. Some take that a step further, insisting that divine inspiration consisted of a literal transmission from God through the author, who communicated the message unaltered. As I have suggested above, early Christian exegesis of the Hebrew scriptures had already moved beyond merely literal interpretation. Though the literal meaning of the sacred text naturally remained the bedrock of exegesis, typological understandings of Jewish tradition soon developed into more specific varieties of figurative exegesis to be applied to the Greek as well as the Hebrew scriptures. Within a few generations of the death of the last people who actually lived during the time of Jesus, Christian literature gives evidence of what would eventually develop into the "literal" and the "spiritual" senses, the latter then branching into three types. Taken together, the four senses are the literal meaning (historia); the symbolic or figurative meaning (allegoria); the moral or ethical implication (tropologia); and the eschatological parallels, that is, what the text suggests about the goal of human life (anagogia). A simple but useful mnemonic rhyme helps keep the four levels of meaning straight: what our forebears did (history), where our faith is hid (allegory), rules for daily life (tropology), where we end our strife (anagogy). A good example of how major early Christian interpreters applied the four senses might be the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in Genesis 2:10-14. Their literal meaning is simply that of historical identity-the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. On the figurative level, the rivers might symbolize the four gospels, the divine revelation fanning out to all the world's four directions. In addition, one might understand these four streams as the four cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. And finally, the earthly rivers have their heavenly counterparts in the Paradise awaiting true believers.

When Christians study their scriptures, they can take any of a number of approaches, as already suggested. A common pastoral approach nowadays reads the scriptures almost entirely as if they are addressed to twentieth-century Christians. They are thus in a way "timeless" and not subject to historical conditions. Another approach tries to get behind the words as much as possible to understand their meaning in their original context. This second approach by no means disregards the personal, pastoral, and deeply spiritual implications of the sacred text. Historical-critical scholarship looks, for example, at the differences in how even texts as generally concordant as the synoptic gospels show divergences in vocabulary, major themes, and the order of events in the life of Jesus, and points of view tailored to different audiences. It notes how the inspired authors, as much editors as original writers, interwove Jesus's words and actions, telescoping time and space. As skilled literary communicators, the inspired writers also made use of stylized scenes that followed predictable patterns in their description of the main actors, actions, and crowd responses. Combining analyses of the literary, linguistic, and historical elements, the historical-critical method seeks insight into how these documents, two millennia and many layers of culture removed from us, appear to speak in so many distinct voices about the same great spiritual reality. Underlying it all, the method suggests, are the unique theological insights granted to each of the sacred authors. Each offers a characteristic reflection on the deeper meaning of the "good news" and of Jesus the Christ. For Mark, Jesus was most of all the Suffering Servant; for Matthew, the Messiah; for Luke, the Savior guided through his life by the Holy Spirit; and for John, the Divine Son. These are not exclusive, but complementary insights. Unlike a predominantly spiritualized or pastoral method of interpretation, whose immediate concern is to deal with apparent inconsistencies among the sacred authors by "harmonizing" them into a seamless historical reconstruction, the historical-critical method seeks to understand the text in its original language as clearly as possible across an enormous chasm of time, space, and culture.

Against the backdrop of Christian ambivalence and a certain scriptural ambiguity with respect to violence, Leo Lefebure's "Violence in the New Testament and the History of Interpretation" examines a series of key texts within the major bodies of New Testament scripture. Beginning with the Synoptic gospels and moving through the Johannine literature, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline Epistles, and the Revelation, Lefebure pursues the theme of conflict, especially between the followers of Jesus and the prevailing religious establishment. Here a key theological element is the evolving Christian understanding of the relationship between the "new" revelation of the New Testament and the Mosaic/prophetic dispensation embodied in the Hebrew scriptures. In the second part of his essay, Lefebure addresses exegetical questions raised in the course of two millennia of Christian encounters with Jews, Muslims, and heretics. He concludes with a reflection on prospects for "Jews and Christians reading the New Testament together."

Islam, Qur'an, and Hadith

In about the year 610, Muhammad began to deliver orally the messages he believed were of divine origin. The Prophet's followers initially memorized his enunciations of the revelation, and, according to traditional accounts, the Qur'an was not produced in full written form until some years after Muhammad's death in 632. What began as "an Arabic recitation" retained that name even after it was written down, and the resulting book is still known as "The Recitation" or Qur'an.

The sacred scripture contains about 6200 verses, roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, arranged in 114 sections called suras. Muhammad's earliest revelations tend to be short, rhetorically potent utterances in an ancient form of rhymed prose similar to the preferred idiom of pre-Islamic seers and soothsayers. Later suras tend to be lengthier and less poetic, and often take up more practical concerns. Suras are arranged in more or less descending order of length, so that many of the earlier sections are actually found in the latter part of the book. The heading of each sura contains the title, the number of verses, and an indication as to whether it was revealed at Mecca or Medina. Interpreters consider it very important to place each text historically, for the "circumstances of the revelation" are critical in unwrapping its original meaning. Tradition has identified the suras, or the portions of them where it is clear that a single sura is actually a composite, as either early, middle, or late Meccan (610-22), or Medinan (622-32). Muslims generally believe the Qur'an is the direct, literal word of God, unmodified in any way by the Prophet who uttered them at God's bidding.

Since the Islamic interpretation of history overlaps in significant ways with those of Judaism and Christianity, one should not be surprised to find that some material in the Qur'an parallels biblical material. Some narrative treatments of various biblical patriarchs and kings, whom the Qur'an identifies as prophets and messengers, immediately recall aspects of biblical accounts. But there are also interesting variations in the stories. Adam and Eve's fall, for example, is sometimes connected with eating from a forbidden tree, but alternatively with eating an ear of wheat. Sprinkled throughout the scripture are references to Abraham's near sacrifice of his son (whom Islamic tradition takes to be Ishmael rather than Isaac) and to Moses's mission to Pharaoh, David's musical gifts, Solomon's royal grandeur, and other variant narratives. Perhaps the single most important parallel is the story of Joseph. Sura 12 of the Qur'an retells the tale found in Genesis 39-50 with its own distinctive flavor and variations in detail. Only Joseph's story is told in its entirety, and all in a single sura dedicated solely to it.

Jewish and Christian readers have often concluded that Muhammad "borrowed" from the Bible, but Muslim tradition views the situation very differently. The way the Qur'an tells the stories, mostly in short excerpts and allusions, suggests that Muhammad's listeners must have been already familiar with at least the general drift of the narratives. There are also some accounts of nonbiblical prophetic figures, called H?d, S?lih, and Shuayb, which are in some ways unique to the Arabian peninsula. It is important to note that Muslim tradition has discerned in both the Old and New Testaments references to the coming of Islam's prophet. God promised to raise up for Israel a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18), namely Muhammad. The prophet Isaiah sees two riders approaching, one on a donkey and the other on a camel: Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus promised to send a parakletos ("advocate," John 14:16), but Muslim commentators argue that with the correct vowels, the Greek word is periklutos, meaning "highly praised," the exact meaning of muhammad in Arabic.

Second only to the Qur'an in both authority and antiquity is the large body of works containing sayings attributed to Muhammad, along with hundreds of anecdotes about him. This material is known collectively as Hadith (sayings or traditions). When Muhammad died, neither the scripture nor the Prophet's words and deeds had been formally committed to writing. And even long after the Qur'an had been carefully edited, Muslims hesitated to produce written versions of Muhammad's sayings. Custodians of these Prophetic Traditions kept them by heart, much as the earliest followers had preserved the Qur'an.

Not until some two centuries after Muhammad died did his community deem it necessary to gather and edit the Hadith on a large scale into "canonical" collections. The impetus to do so came in part from legal scholars, who believed that the only way to interpret the spirit of the Qur'an faithfully in cases not explicitly treated in the scripture was to have a sound testimony of the Prophet's own views. Through much of the ninth century, Muslim religious scholars undertook the massive task of traveling widely and gathering and recording thousands of Hadiths from countless individuals known for their reliable memories. These scholars, often working independently and at some distance in time and space, then sifted through what they had gathered. Since the very existence of this treasure trove depended on its oral transmission from one generation to another, scholars looked first at the chains of transmission to see whether all the individuals listed were trustworthy. If they were not, one could reasonably dismiss the Hadith itself as not entirely reliable. By the end of the ninth century, half a dozen authoritative collections of the Hadith were available (and many lesser ones as well), complete with scholarly evaluation of the relative soundness of each saying and anecdote. Muslims traditionally consider the content of the Hadith to be divinely inspired, though expressed in Muhammad's own words, unlike the Qur'an, which is in God's own diction.

Discussion of the Qur'an is a regular activity in most mosques, usually in connection with the Friday congregational prayer (which, in the United States, is also sometimes held on Sundays). One or more discussion leaders might present a text and then open the floor to comments and questions. The first concern is generally to establish the "circumstances of the revelation." What was the specific occasion on which this particular text was revealed to Muhammad? Was it revealed in connection with any unusual or momentous event? Was it a direct response to some question or predicament that had arisen in the early Muslim community? Contemporary Muslims can dip into an enormous reservoir of traditional scholarship for help in interpreting the Qur'an. Exegetes began compiling detailed and extensive commentaries on the sacred scripture at least as early as the eighth century. They refined the tools of a specialty called tafs?r, "explanation, elaboration." Scores of multivolume works in Arabic (plus countless more in various other languages) of great antiquity and authority are still widely available from publishers of Islamic books, and many are now being translated into Western languages. Classical commentators and modern-day interpreters alike look first to the Hadith for help on obscure passages of the Qur'an, for Muhammad himself often responded to questions about specific texts. Careful study of Arabic grammar and a wide knowledge of other works of Arabic literature for purposes of comparison are also essential background for professional exegetes. In addition to elucidating the basic or literal meanings of a sacred text, Qur'an commentary can also probe into further levels of meaning. Muslim mystics especially have written allegorical or symbolic interpretations, often referred to as ta'w?l (from a root connoting "retrieval of original meanings"), to uncover the deeper spiritual implications of the scripture.

Most readers of this volume will be aware of a variety of narratives that underscore "distinctively Islamic" views of religiously sanctioned violence. An essential element in such narratives concerns the identity of those whom Muslims are purportedly enjoined to despite, fight, or kill. Michael Sells's chapter, "Finh?s of Medina: Islam, 'The Jews,' and the Construction of Religious Militancy," addresses the assumptions that drive militant interpretations of the Islamic teachings regarding Jews. As a test case, Sells explores two qur'anic statements that some contemporary Muslim militants view as divine condemnation of Jews. The first part of Q 5:64 reads, "The Yah?d say the hand of God is bound. May their hands be bound and may they be cursed by [through, on account of] what they said"; and the first part of Q 3:181 reads, "We have heard the words of those who said we are rich and God is poor." Sells begins by asking about the text's "frame of reference." Early historical reports passed down from the companions of Muhammad suggest that it was one man named Finh?s, or that it was Finh?s in conjunction in a few others, who uttered the two statements quoted and criticized in the Qur'an. Sells argues that the Finh?s reports provide an influential frame of reference in qur'anic exegesis over a period of several hundred years. Even exegetes with an anti-Jewish agenda reproduced these reports that radically undermine the notion of a generic divine condemnation of Jews as a people by specifying one or a handful of Jewish elders as those subject to the divine rebuke. Even if we doubt the authenticity of the Finh?s reports, Sells suggests, we are left with the question: what then was the frame of reference? When the original frame of reference is forgotten, Sells demonstrates, the way is paved for militant interpretations that portray sacred texts as propounding divinely ordained conflict between unchanging, monolithic groups-in this instance, between Muslims and Jews. The consequences of forgetting that group names are spoken (even within divine revelation) under specific conditions and with specific frames of reference are, Sells argues, enormous.

Baha'i Tradition

On May 23, 1844, a young Persian (Iranian) merchant named Sayyid Ali Muhammad (1819-50) proclaimed himself the recipient of a long-promised divine message. He assumed the title of the Bab (Arabic for "gate" or "door") and announced that his mission was to prepare the way for the fulfillment of this world-transforming revelation. In his principal writing, the Bayan (Clarification, Elucidation), the Bab announced or foretold the imminent arrival of a new and more important messenger who would teach a way of reform and reconciliation to the world's major faith traditions. His religious mission also involved bringing Islam to its fulfillment while superseding the Qur'an's injunctions. Despite understanding himself as the messenger for the advent of another, greater teacher, the Bab's followers and those who would identify themselves later as Baha'is saw the Bab's revelation as a distinct and independent, though short-lived, revelation. During his brief public ministry, the Bab's message elicited considerable opposition. He was imprisoned in 1847 and was executed three years later, becoming a martyr of the new "Babi" tradition or "dispensation." One of the Bab's crucial texts, composed in proclamation of his mission in 1844, is his commentary on the Qur'anic story of the prophet Joseph (sura 12), on which Todd Lawson comments in his chapter.

At a gathering in 1849, a follower of the Bab named Mirza Husayn Ali (1817-92) took the name Baha' (later to become known as Baha' Allah, Splendor of God). After assuming a leadership role among the Babis following the Bab's imprisonment, Baha' (Mirza Husayn Ali) had to contend with the increasing persecution of the community by Persian authorities. He endured imprisonment in Tehran when he gave himself in for ransom for the Babi community, and went into exile in Baghdad in 1853. There the Babi community grew under his tutelage, and there he wrote the Persian "Book of Certitude" (Kitab-i Iqan). In 1863, Baha' publicly identified himself as the messenger whom the Bab had predicted. Once again, opposition forced him into a five-year exile in Turkey, during which he wrote a major Arabic text, the "Most Holy Book" (al-Kitab al-Aqdas). Released from confinement, Baha' migrated to what is now northern Israel/Palestine (in the environs of Haifa, the site of the world headquarters of the Baha'i faith), where he would spend the rest of his life. Before his death in 1892, Baha' appointed his eldest son, Abd al-Baha' (1844-1921), who according to tradition was born on the very day that the Bab announced that he had been called to proclaim a new message of truth, as the center of his cause and its final authority. Also known as Abbas Effendi, Abd al-Baha' presided over major developments in Baha'i religion, including the spread of the faith to Europe and America. Among his major writings are the fourteen-part Tablets of the Divine Plan, addressed to the growing American Baha'i community. Like his father, Abd al-Baha' suffered seasons of persecution and died in Haifa.

Abd al-Baha's grandson Shoghi Effendi (1857-1957), the first and only "Guardian of the Cause of God" (wali amr Allah), was largely responsible for the translation and dissemination of Baha'i sacred texts, the consolidation and growth of the international Baha'i community, and the beautification of the Baha'i holy places in Haifa and its environs. All Baha'is have access to the core writings in the form of books and numerous compilations and anthologies excerpting letters, proclamations, prayers, and testimonies of the foundational figures, much of which has been translated into dozens of the major languages of the world. Today, the affairs of the Baha'i faith are the responsibility of a three-level administrative system: Local Spiritual Assemblies, National Spiritual Assemblies, and, at the top, the Universal House of Justice, whose headquarters is in Haifa.

Todd Lawson's essay, "The Return of Joseph and the Peaceable Imagination," studies the Baha'i scriptural theme of peace in the face of violence. Baha'i tradition stands out in the present context in that a central theme in its earliest texts is the promotion of harmony. Ironically, the original teaching suggests, religion itself is all too often the cause of disharmony. Sacred sources understand violence writ large as a key to the scenario of divine engagement with humanity through a long succession of prophets, continuing through the Bab, all of whom were violently rejected by a majority of the people to whom God sent them. In the first section of his contribution, Lawson provides a literary-theological overview of key ingredients in the Baha'i vision of the prophetic mission. He introduces the reader to the distinctively Baha'i understanding of a divinely inspired mode of living in the world, with explicit reference to the tradition's dramatic response to the classic Islamic concept of justifiable struggle (jihad). The second section of the essay illustrates an intriguing aspect of Baha'i "exegesis" of the Qur'anic story of the prophet Joseph, the ultimate human symbol of the divine qualities of patience, forbearance, and wisdom. Lawson follows up by exploring Baha'i tradition's further explicit analysis of Joseph as the paradigm of the "true" mujahid, understood not as "warrior" but as "seeker." He concludes with reflections on Baha'i interpretation of the larger global setting, again with reference to the classic Islamic juxtaposition of the era of jahl (the world before final revelation) and the age blessed with the Baha'i reinterpretation of divine disclosure.


The core beliefs that have come to be identified as Zoroastrianism date even from before the Achaemenid monarchy (c. 550-330 B.C.E.), which many Iranians still associate with the origins of their nation. Visitors to the ruins of Persepolis today can still see 2500-year-old icons of the Zoroastrian faith, such as images of the winged human figure of the deity Ahura Mazda. The roots of Zoroastrian tradition, however, go back considerably further in time and farther to the northeast geographically. Scholars generally consider a "prophet" named Zarathustra (Zoroaster, modern Persian Zardosht) the tradition's foundational figure, and date him to between 1800 and 1500 B.C.E. In what is now northwestern Central Asia and northern Afghanistan, amid a culture of warrior-heroes (whosestories are still vividly recounted), cattle, goat, and sheep herding pastoralists, and settled agriculturalists in the Bactrian Bronze Age, Zarathustra preached against practices designed to stoke the ire of men bound for combat. Unlike other cults of the surrounding region, Zoroastrian theology evolved as a blend of monotheism and dualism.

The principal textual collection that comprises the main Zoroastrian scripture is a complex anthology called the Avesta. Assembled finally sometime between 300 and 500 C.E., but reflecting a much older and well-preserved oral tradition, the Avesta includes a variety of genres and themes in its four large parts and half a dozen minor texts. First is a collection of liturgical hymns called the Yasna (sacrifice, or worshipful deeds), within which is a set of seventeen hymns attributed directly to Zarathustra, called the G?th?s. Part 2 of the Avesta, the Yashts, hymns the praises of twenty-one lofty beings, including divine powers, angels, and ancient Iranian heroes. Mithra, who went on to become the center of a major cult in parts of the Roman Empire, stands out among these figures. A twenty-two-chapter work known as the Videvdad comprises a set of instructions for warding off evil forces (daivas). Among the several lesser texts is an assortment of hymns, litanies, a month's worth of daily prayers, and blessings. Perhaps the most important of these is the Khorda, known as the "Little (or Short) Avesta," because it gathers selections of prayers from elsewhere in the larger scriptural anthology. Scholars suggest that the canon was set around 325 C.E.

In addition to the core scriptures, a small library of texts in the Middle Persian language known as the Pahlavi books was collected in western Iran between the ninth and twelfth centuries C.E. by magi or Zoroastrian priests. Their goal was twofold: to preserve their hitherto orally transmitted exegetical traditions; and to answer new concerns arising among the laity and priesthood as Zoroastrianism (formerly the demographically dominant faith in Iran)dwindled to a minority religion under the Islamic caliphates. The principal Middle Persian texts include a major source of exegetical material called the Zand (interpretation), dating from centuries before the Pahlavi books, as well as elaborations of cosmogonic, cosmological, and eschatological myth and theory. One of these texts referred to prominently in Jamsheed Choksy's contribution to this volume is the Bundahishn, a cosmogonic text. Zoroastrian texts in a variety of other languages developed among the minority communities in Iran as well as the diaspora communities of India.

Although the relatively small number of Zoroastrians living today too often leaves the tradition out of consideration in surveys of "world religions," important Zoroastrian concepts have made their way into the theological lexicons of other traditions, particularly the Abrahamic ones. During important developmental and transitional periods of Zoroastrianism's history, the tradition influenced Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought. Prominent among cross-traditional concepts are eschatological themes and related notions of retribution, apocalyptic scenarios, and characterizations of good and evil forces such as angels and demons.

In "Justifiable Force and Holy War in Zoroastrianism," Jamsheed Choksy introduces the reader to an important theme in the tradition's sacred texts, as well as to the major elements in the broader historical and theological contexts essential to the interpretation of that theme. Coming to the fore are teachings of Zarathustra's principal spiritual descendants, the magi, concerning the contest of cosmic forces of good and evil, particularly as represented respectively by the deity Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the leader of the hordes of chaos. Drawing from all the formative periods of Zoroastrian history, from Achaemenid times through Late Antiquity and medieval times, Choksy provides a superb overview of the tradition, concluding with a brief reflection on implications for adherents of the faith in our time.


At the origins of the long history of Hindu scriptures stands a set of texts called the Vedas. They consist of four distinct collections of texts, each with its own distinctive purpose. The name Veda comes from a Sanskrit root meaning "wisdom" or "vision," the same root that gives us English words like video. According to tradition, "seers," called rishis, composed the texts and communicated them orally. The rishis were able to see the truths revealed to them because they were also "hearers" of the sacred word. In fact, Hindu tradition groups the most sacred of its scriptures in the category of "that which is heard" (shruti) to distinguish them from a secondary level of revelation called "that which is remembered" (smriti). The Vedas evolved over a period of centuries, and religious specialists eventually wrote them down in an ancient form of Sanskrit. The earliest and most important of the four scriptures is called the Rig Veda, an anthology of more than a thousand hymns to various deities. A second collection, called the Sama Veda, includes material from the Rig edited for ease of ritual use according to melodies and poetic meters. In the Yajur Veda, the early priesthood gathered the most important sacred mantras. A final collection of ritual incantations makes up the Atharva Veda. Many of the Vedic hymns are especially beautiful and offer a unique insight into how the early ritual specialists who made up the priesthood sought to understand and affect their world through contact with forces beyond human control.

Over a span of perhaps two thousand years (c. 3000 to 1000 B.C.E., according to some Indian scholars), Hindu ritual specialists produced a substantial body of sacred literature by way of commentary and reflection on the Vedas. The earliest of these works, the Brahmanas, were manuals for priests, which were each attached to one of the four Vedas. These texts elaborated on the mythic stories to which the Vedic hymns often had made only passing allusions, expanding on the tradition much as the early Jewish rabbis had developed the oral Torah. The Brahmanas served the practical purpose of recording for posterity precise directions for correct ritual performance. Still another layer of scriptural development gave rise to a series of works called Aranyakas, "Forest Treatises." Composed by and for hermits, these texts offered further commentary on the Vedas meant to foster the contemplative life. Aranyakas were connected with the Brahmanas much as the Brahmanas were linked to the various Vedas. With their emphasis on inward reflection, the Aranyakas signal an important turn away from the ancient Vedic and Brahmanical reliance on external ritual. Another type of sacred text called the Upanishads evolved from about 1500 to 500 B.C.E. The name upa-ni-shad means, loosely, "sitting at the feet of" a mentor. These remarkable documents, many in the form of a dialogue between teacher and student, reflect deeply on the nature of the divine and of the self. Life's true meaning rests not primarily in dealing with forces beyond human control, but in understanding both the ultimate causes of all things and the relationship of the self to those causes. The Upanishads represent major developments known collectively as Vedanta, the "end or culmination of the Vedas."

During the so-called Classical Period (500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) especially, various denominations developed their own distinctive sacred texts called sutras (threads, aphorisms), shastras (treatise, rule), and agamas (what has come down). Sutras often take the form of commentary on earlier major texts and are major sources for the six philosophical schools called the darshanas (views). Some philosophical texts are called shastras, but this category is best known as a vehicle for treatments of religious law. Agamas belonging to the various sects often include material ranging from the mythic to the epic to the philosophical. Shaivites generally use the term agama to describe their twenty-eight canonical works, while Vaishnavite communities often call their unique scriptures samhitas (collections) and Shakta groups prefer the term Tantra.

Laurie Patton's contribution to this volume focuses on a sacred text that has long been a central feature of the religious traditions of India's Vaishnavite communities. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed Lord) is now nestled within the Mahabharata (Great India), one of Hinduism's two major epics-yet another important category of sacred Hindu texts. The Gita was a particular favorite, and long-time spiritual focus, of Mahatma Gandhi, who made it his task to explain how a sacred text set in the context of war represented an invitation to peace. In the context of the history of variant approaches to the meaning of the Gita, in which the supreme deity enjoins killing even one's kin for the sake of duty (dharma), Patton explores the underpinnings of Gandhi's complex attempt to reconcile deity and destruction by means of allegorical/metaphorical exegesis, and concludes that such an approach is ultimately less than convincing. She proposes in its place an "ethical interpretive dynamism around the question of necessary force," and "an alternative hermeneutic that moves away from Indian philosophical approaches and is grounded instead in Indian aesthetic theory." In the process, Patton points indirectly to a problem shared by interpreters of virtually all the great scriptural traditions: to what extent can one credibly resort to spiritualized readings of sacred texts rendered morally ambiguous-or downright scandalous-by changing religious and cultural contexts?

Sikh Tradition

Sikh tradition began in the late fifteenth century in the region of Punjab, which now comprises both a major Pakistani province and an important northwestern Indian state. In an era of increasing Muslim-Hindu tension and violence, various religious leaders of the Sant (poet-saints) tradition of North India struggled to forge links between the two major traditions. Nanak (1469-1539) was born in a religious environment suffused with the thought of the North Indian Sants along with the Hindu and Islamic traditions. He shared both the mystic and iconoclastic tendencies of Sants such as Kabir (1398-1448), Ravidas (1450-1520), and Namdev (1270-1350). Reared in the Hindu Khatri (or Kshatriya, "warrior caste") tradition, Nanak rejected certain aspects of traditional Hindu structures of authority, including the centrality of the Vedas and the caste system. His first pronouncement after his mystical experience was: "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim." To a society torn with conflict, he brought a vision of common humanity and intercommunal harmony.

Nanak gradually acquired a following of his own that became the core of the original Sikh community. He was acknowledged as the first of what would be a succession of ten "Gurus" whose teachings form the foundations of Sikh teaching. Nanak's devotional songs (shabads) and the poetic Japji (recitation), which functions as a summary of Sikh principles, came to form part of the chief sacred text, the Adi (first) Granth (or Guru Granth Sahib) written chiefly in Punjabi. Poetic-musical works by Nanak's first four successor Gurus form the second major segment of the scripture. Part 3 of the Adi Granth is in effect an anthology of short works that comment on the musical ragas of part 2, and that include devotional hymns from Hindu bhakti and Sufi traditions. It enshrines poems of Kabir as well as the works of poets from as early as the twelfth century and as late as Tegh Bahadur (1621-75), the ninth Sikh Guru. In addition to the Adi Granth, Sikhs revere a secondary collection of quasi-hagiographic narratives attributed to Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru (1666-1708), known as the Dasam (tenth) Granth.

Sikh tradition constructs the principal framework of scriptural revelation and interpretation as an unbroken succession of the Ten Gurus. Within that framework, Sikhs (literally, "disciples") understand the Adi Granth as itself a "guru" in written book form. Each of the living gurus represents the highest echelon in religious teaching authority for the individual seeker. Together the succession of Gurus establishes a pattern that recommends to each believer the need of expert guidance in the interpretation of the sacred sources and the path of bhakti, intense devotion to God alone. Under the first four Gurus, Nanak, Angad (1504-52), Amar Das (1479-1574), and Ram Das (1534-81), Sikh tradition recommended practices such as vegetarianism, and the role of the Guru tended to be rather private and devoted to spiritual pursuits, though there is ample evidence that the Gurus often spoke out unambiguously against the injustices of the ruling Muslim dynasts. Arjun (1563-1606), who compiled the Adi Granth around 1604, worked more publicly to establish the Sikh community financially and institutionally, thereby enabling it to assert itself more forcefully when necessary. His involvement in mundane affairs roused the enmity of the Muslim Mughal ruler Jihangir and landed Arjun in prison, where he died. According to some readings of traditional sources, before his imprisonment Arjun succeeded in setting his son Hargobind (1595-1644) on a more activist path, including a distinctly martial bent.

Gurus seven and eight-Har Rai (1630-61) and Hari Kishan (1656-64)-soft-pedaled the militaristic tone in the interest of avoiding conflict with the emperor Auranzeb. That tone once again tilted toward greater militancy when Hindu pleas persuaded Tegh Bahadur to confront the Mughal ruler, who had the ninth Guru imprisoned and executed. Finally, Guru Gobind Singh's signal role involved turning the Sikh spirit more wholeheartedly to the defense of justice and the community into a formidable military force. Symbolizing that transformation, Guru Gobind inaugurated the Khalsa (the pure) and instructed all male Sikhs to take the surname Singh (lion). Gobind Singh initiated an elite into the Khalsa through investiture with a set of five symbols and a regime of dietary and ethical principles befitting warriors. In the end, he proclaimed himself to be the last of Ten Gurus.

In "Words as Weapons: Theory and Practice of a Righteous War in Sikh Texts," Pashaura Singh takes the reader on a brief tour through the genealogical history of the Gurus with examples of their contributions to, and interpretation of, the sacred texts. He explores several sacred sources beyond the two Granths, embracing a wide range of literary forms and theological perspectives, anchoring his analysis in the broader context of Mughal political history. Singh traces developing Sikh understandings of violence, one of the "four rivers of fire" (along with attachment, greed, and anger), as the community's complex relationships with political power evolved over several centuries. In a marvelous minisurvey of the late medieval and early modern history of South Asia, Pashaura Singh brings out the intriguing range of metaphorical language Sikh author-teachers fashioned to address the hard realities of a world in which outward physical violence too often threatened to distract religious seekers from the essential inward struggle of the spiritual quest. He ends the body of his study with a brief discussion of "five varieties of exegesis" that aptly sums up his main themes and highlights the complexities and multiple, often competing narratives of Sikh history.

Glimpses of Shared Features in the Scriptured Traditions

Three large unifying features emerge from this broad overview of diverse scriptures and exegetical traditions: first, several thematic characteristics evident in scriptural treatments of violence; second, common literary genres and forms within both holy writ and exegetical traditions; and finally, several shared methodological concerns.

Function and Theme: The Language of Violence in Scripture

Broadly speaking, one can identify two large categories of texts concerning violence in scriptural traditions: descriptive and prescriptive/prohibitive. Descriptive texts include a variety of genres that, in general, involve three sorts of scenario. First, mythical struggles attending a religion's cosmogony typically feature divine or elemental powers in conflict, as in some major texts of both the Zoroastrian and Hindu traditions. Second, stories of "historical" wars and battles considered essential to a faith community's master narrative of emergence and establishment are key elements in, for example, Jewish and Sikh texts and, in a slightly different key, the Qur'an's recounting of the often violent rejection of prophetic messengers over the millennia. Third, descriptions of gathering, imminent, or otherwise inevitable conflagration on a cosmic scale constitute a characteristic ingredient of many eschatological or apocalyptic visions in traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Texts of this kind do not necessarily condone or condemn recourse to violence as such. Sacred sources typically describe cosmogonic and apocalyptic conflicts as simply the way things are, necessary facts of existence in the great divine dispensation. Description of historical conflict, on the other hand, may go beyond mere chronicling of a faith community's struggles by emphasizing divine guidance, approval, or disapproval (as I will discuss shortly), or by identifying participation in violent conflict as a necessary element in the community's existence. Given its essential role, such violence is often characterized as a laudable, heroic mark of cooperation with the divine plan.

By contrast, some key texts are prescriptive or prohibitive. All of the traditions represented in this collection address the complex questions of whether, under what circumstances, to what extent, and by what means the community of believers is to resort to the use of violence in service of their religious beliefs. This is often couched in terms of sacrality, one's sacred or ritual obligations. In several of these traditions (e.g., Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Zoroastrian), violence in sacred scripture is intimately connected to intimations of the deity as sovereign in every respect, including the freedom to enjoin violence under a variety of circumstances for the deity's own inscrutable purposes.

From both descriptive and prescriptive texts, one can discern common thematic threads running through the many scripture traditions. From among these I will highlight as an example the way some scriptures tend to characterize those engaged in violence divinely sanctioned. There is a consistent and widespread tendency to devise a language by which to characterize in precise terms the religious status of those who wade into the fray in service of their faith and especially the status of those who die in the process. Some traditions call these agents "holy warriors," or some rough equivalent thereof, and those who sacrifice their lives are "martyrs" or "heroes." Zoroastrian tradition, for example, with its elevation of many divine and human beings as great warriors in the cosmic battle against evil, illustrates this point vividly.

Not surprisingly, the "other," the enemy in each context, is typically identified in some way as an embodiment of evil. Scriptures often couch this assessment in the language of the deity's broad dispensation, in which the "other" functions as an object of retribution, divine justice, or apocalyptic scourge. Three other important thematic elements are worth brief mention here. In some traditions, violence has a sacral function, such as appeasing the divinity in the ritual sacrifices of Judaism, or cosmic purging in Zoroastrianism and some traditions of Christianity, or even spiritual growth or elevation, as in the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism.In other instances, such as in the Baha'i and early Christian traditions, it is nonviolence that most embodies the sacred.In either case, a fundamental theme for these traditions within their sacred writ is the sacral nature of violence. In addition, violence is often connected to revelation.Religiously legitimated violence (too often unhelpfully reduced to the concept of "holy war") naturally appears frequently in these chapters and the scriptures about which they write. It is this "revealed" authority that so often underlies recourse to such "texts of terror" throughout history. This theme is intimately related to that of "othering" so often encountered in sacred texts, and Sells addresses the issue directly with respect to the precise identity of al-Yah?d in his central qur'anic text. Sells explores from an Islamic perspective a question raised in Asen's essay-namely the tendency to identify a group named in scripture (in this instance, the Amalekites) as the quintessential enemy who reappears in other guises in throughout history. Finally, as Patton and Choksy (among others) suggest, the language of violence is often couched in narrative frameworks that give meaning and structure to the violence.Some traditions, in other words, see certain forms of violence as a dramatic-even performative-aspect of the larger cosmogonic process.

Genre and Form in Scripture and Exegesis

The sacred texts of the world's scriptured traditions embrace a broad range of literary genres, both in the scriptures themselves and in their often extensive libraries of exegetical literature. The following is only a sample of the more prominent of these genres.

First, narrative forms (typically in prose) include a rich variety of "historical" texts. Within the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament, prime examples are the five books of the Torah/Pentateuch, and the "historical" books, as well as the "apocryphal" books of Maccabees. The Christian tradition's central texts are largely narrative in structure-the four gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and Revelation all fall into this category. Important segments of the Qur'an-composed largely in a distinctive literary type somewhere between prose and poetry known as "rhymed prose" (saj')-provide narratives of previous prophets' roles in the divine dispensation. These texts are generally short ad hoc homiletical exempla rather than detailed expositions of sacred history. Of special note are the distinctively Islamic genres of Hadith and S?ra (prophetic biography), whose exegetical sections include many narrative segments employed in discussions of the "occasions of revelation."

In general, the kind of descriptive violence so abundant in Jewish historical and Christian and Zoroastrian mythic/apocalyptic accounts is rare in the Qur'an. Narrative forms play an important role in Hindu tradition as well, especially as represented by the two major epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both filled with episodes of conflict. Finally, a number of frankly "hagiographic" texts find a place in the larger category of narrative. Here the Sikh, Zoroastrian, and Baha'i traditions are especially well represented.

Second, we find across the world's scriptures a rich variety of poetic compositions. In this context, the Psalms, along with extensive sections of the "latter" prophets and "wisdom" literature ("Writings") in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, devote considerable attention to questions of war and peace. Virtually the whole of the New Testament is prose, but poetic forms are represented in Hinduism's Vedas, Zoroastrian devotional G?th?s and Yashts, and Sikh Guru Nanak's prayerful songs. An important component of the scriptures of all these traditions are hymns, typically poetic in form, and almost always functioning as prayers, chiefly of praise but also of supplication.

A third essential genre is what one might call homiletical or predicatory discourse. A good example of this is the prophetic literature from the Hebrew Bible (such as Samuel's chastisement of Saul, which is discussed in Asen's article). Later Hebrew prophetic texts whose theme is violence (such as Isaiah, which is discussed in Firestone's article) also exemplify this genre.

In a number of traditions' scriptures, one also encounters texts either explicitly legal in themselves or directly implicated in the community's elaboration of legal and ethical codes. The books of the Torah/Pentateuch, particularly the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, are rich in such texts. Christian scriptures, on the other hand, include relatively few legal texts, with the possible exception of more generally ethical gospel texts such as the Beatitudes or segments of the epistolary texts such as Romans and Corinthians. Some texts in the Qur'an, in particular some of the later "Medinan" suras, provide explicit prescriptive guidance in daily personal comportment as well as community governance and ritual.

Many traditions regard scripture as the first and best commentary on itself, but nearly all of those represented here have witnessed the evolution of interpretive traditions, some quite voluminous and still growing. Beyond the scriptural corpora strictly so-called are the often vast collections of expressly "exegetical" literature. Of the seven historic traditions represented here, four stand out for the breadth and depth of their production of exegetical literature. Beginning relatively soon after the definitive formation and closure of their "canons" and extending over many centuries, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have all generated vast libraries of texts dedicated to the sole purpose of elaborating on a set of divinely originated scriptures. Over nearly two millennia, Jewish scholars recorded their reflections on Tanakh. Early on, these were organized in thematic works of the sort that turned into the Mishna and eventually the Talmud. Commentary organized more directly according to the texts of individual books of scripture emerged in creations such as the Midrash Rabbah, for example, in which one commentary is dedicated to each of the five books of Moses, and in which there is another set of midrashim on the five Megillot (scrolls, part of the Writings). Line-by-line commentary followed, particularly during medieval times, in the works of outstanding exegetes such as Rashi.

Christian authors similarly began commenting on their sacred texts thematically during the early Patristic period, but by the fourth and fifth century, Church Fathers such as Origen, Hippolytus, and Augustine began the tradition of producing exegetical works on individual biblical books. That tradition continued through medieval and Reformation times with major classics such as those by Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. The seventeenth century was even more prolific than the sixteenth in this regard, and the production of exegetical literature continues unabated to this day. In Islamic tradition, the earliest specific commentary on the Qur'an came in the form of Muhammad's responses to queries about the meaning of specific texts, responses enshrined in the Hadith. Muslim exegetes, it appears, had recourse to verse-by-verse commentary perhaps earlier in their history than either Jews or Christians. Michael Sells addresses exegetical sources, along with the importance of an early sacred biography, the S?ra or Life story of Muhammad.

Hinduism, representing as it does one of the most expansive and variegated of all scriptural traditions, has produced a commentarial literature equally vast. With respect to the text studied here in Laurie Patton's essay, commentaries devoted to the relatively brief Bhagavad Gita have been penned by virtually all the great theologians, even through our own time. By contrast, the Zoroastrian, Baha'i, and Sikh traditions have developed comparably fewer explicitly "commentarial" forms through which to plumb the depths of texts understood more narrowly as "scripture." As Todd Lawson points out in his essay, Baha'i sacred sources themselves arguably compose a kind of unique exegesis of Islamic texts, both the Qur'an and Hadith. Zoroastrian exegetical commentary is especially represented in the work entitled the Zand, "Interpretation."

The Many Senses of Scripture: Hermeneutics and Exegetical Styles

One can find evidence of a number of similar hermeneutical principles and exegetical "types" across several major traditions. Perhaps the most pertinent exegetical modes in relation to this volume's central topic are variations on "literal" or historical interpretation, on the one hand, and the several kinds of "spiritual" or symbolic interpretation such as the typological, allegorical, ethical, or teleological/eschatological, on the other. Literalist or historical interpretations of scriptural texts on religiously sanctioned warfare, whatever the faith tradition, deal rather straightforwardly with the question of when and under what circumstances the use of large-scale violence was and is justified. As Firestone, for example, indicates, the rabbis addressed the problem by defining war as either "discretionary" (or defensive) or "commanded" (or offensive). They then argued that according to the (Palestinian) Talmud, the latter type was no longer possible because it applied only to Joshua's wars of conquest. Twentieth-century circumstances dramatically altered views of war. Muslim exegetes argued the question of legitimacy through premodern times, adducing similar reasons for restraint in general; but in our day, the recognition of constraints has again fallen victim to larger geopolitical dynamics.

An important variant on the quest for literal, historical, or outward/apparent meanings is the phenomenon of legal or juristic exegesis, which draws out implications for behavior required of, or to be avoided by, believers in defense of the faith or in imposing it on others. Firestone shows how Rabbinic Judaism made use of this technique in understanding its own relation to violence in the wake of historical events by making the legal requirements of war nearly impossible to fulfill. He shows, in addition, how that legal understanding was overturned during the founding of modern Israel as a nation-state. Material in this volume's chapter on Islam also resonates with the question of whether a reference to "the Jew" is to be identified as a specific person or a collective. A related exegetical concern is that of connecting specific texts with historical circumstances and making that connection the fulcrum of one's interpretation.

Christian interpreters of the Old Testament have, not surprisingly, taken a different approach to the scripture's "texts of terror," with their predominantly descriptive violence, as well as to apparently prescriptive texts. Though Christians over the centuries have expended great energy developing theories of "just war," the "literal" meanings of biblical warfare have been of lesser importance to Christians. In addition to discussing various theological implications of violence and power in the context of Israel's emerging monarchy, Bernhard Asen's essay introduces (at least implicitly) a "spiritual" reading of scriptural violence by exploring Christian exegesis of the prophets Malachi, Zechariah, and, in particular, Isaiah. One can also discern a hint of typological exegesis that sees in the Old Testament arch-nemesis Amalek a "biblical type" of modern "antitypes" personified in the implacable enemies of God and faithful believers in our time. Christian exegetes, as Leo Lefebure's essay suggests, also used a kind of typological interpretation when they characterized Jews as Christ-killers and Muslims as followers of a "type" of the Antichrist, Muhammad.

Leo Lefebure introduces yet another mode of exegesis with the expressly allegorical Christian reading of the Old Testament figures Sarah and Hagar as representatives of the "two covenants." Christians are well acquainted with Paul's clearly metaphorical use of martial imagery as he recommends that believers equip themselves with the sword of the spirit, the shield of faith, and the breastplate of righteousness. Allegorical or metaphorical exegesis also forms a main theme in Laurie Patton's discussion of Gandhi's desire to confront the enormous moral dilemma posed by the Bhagavad Gita. Todd Lawson's essay on Baha'i tradition describes an interpretation of the thoroughly irenic prophet Joseph as the ideal "warrior," via what one could argue is a blend of typological and allegorical exegesis.

Finally, apocalyptic/eschatological exegesis, known in Christian sources by the technical term anagogical, represents another significant thread bridging scriptured traditions. Just as Jewish interpreters understood Israel's military defeats and subjugations as divine punishments for their infidelity, so some Christian exegetes identified various threatening forces, Muslims in particular, as divine recompense for their faithlessness. More importantly, perhaps, several scriptured traditions, including the Baha'i and Zoroastrian as well as Christian and Islamic, include an ultimate sacred combat in their end-time scenarios. Lefebure's essay shows how apocalyptic texts such as 2 Thessalonians 2 have been interpreted throughout Christian history, especially to promote violence against the Jews.

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Small investigations of huge topics, however well focused they may be, often raise more questions than they answer. Several such questions turn on the perceived association of specific acts of violence, and the express or imputed motivations behind them, with particular faith traditions. Are we ever justified in identifying particular deeds or patterns of action as "Christian," "Islamic," "Hindu," or "Jewish" violence? If so, what criteria might one use, and under what circumstances is such identification justifiable? In another vein, if one can judge from anecdotal reports of conventional speech about this subject, it appears that many Europeans and Americans (and likely also citizens of many lands across the globe) take it for granted that specific threats, or even a generalized sense of danger, from a perceived enemy are more ominous when the enemy is identified as avowedly religious than as nonreligious. But are aggressors who claim religious justification inherently more fearsome, inescapable, and insidious than, say, those who allege that they are acting out of purely political or economic motives? Are the express intentions of, say, drug cartels to wipe out all obstacles or competitors to their grim trade any less to be feared than claims of "religious" warriors that their motive stems from a divine mandate to "total war"?

Finally, two variations on the Golden Rule might offer a way of stepping back and gaining a bit of perspective on these and other such difficult dilemmas. First, the Golden Rule of Ethical Pluralism: if your own faith or ethical tradition unequivocally condemns a certain course of action, it is never fair to assume that another tradition condones it. And since our subject here is the complex activity called the exegesis of sacred texts, I suggest that the Golden Rule of Scriptural Interpretation is worthy of reflection: if you don't want members of another faith to interpret your scriptures as only the extremists among your community would, do not interpret their scripture as only the extremists among them would.

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