Jon D. Levenson Talks to Charles Halton about Abrahamic Religions

Which Abrahamic tradition? Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham

Inheriting Abraham Cover
Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 288, $29.95 or£19.95.

Abrahamic religions. We’ve all heard the phrase and many of us use it. It implies a touchpoint between three of the world’s “great” religions — a common ancestor that supposedly binds together 3.5 billion Jews, Christians, and Muslims the world over. Except that, as Jon D. Levenson explains in Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, these traditions view the patriarch in very different ways.

Professor Levenson is Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. He discussed his newest book with MRB Managing Editor Charles Halton.

Charles Halton: What motivated you to write Inheriting Abraham?

Jon Levenson: I’ve always been interested in the relationships among religions, especially the ways in which they perceive and misperceive each other. My graduate training was in Hebrew Bible, with an emphasis on the ancient Near Eastern context in which that collection of books originated, but I have always believed that the “afterlife” of the text is also critical and should not be disallowed simply because it “takes the text out of context,” as is often said. Instead, it seems to me that the afterlife extends, amplifies, and reshapes the originating context. This is a process that was going on even as the texts were being written and redacted, so that the life and the afterlife of a biblical text are actually, to some degree, contemporaneous. To someone with those two interests — the relationships among religions and the interaction of texts and their afterlives — a figure like Abraham has an obvious appeal, since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have historically treated him with reverence yet construed him very differently and in light of their own distinctive claims of revelation. I have been giving seminars on the figure of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at Harvard Divinity School for a long time. Inheriting Abraham grew rather naturally out of the teaching and writing I had been doing on the subject.

CH: Could you explain what you refer to as “the problem with the application of [the] Protestant principle to interreligious issues” and how this is an impediment to understanding religious traditions?

Photo by Justin Knight.
Photo by Justin Knight.

JL: By this, I mean the notion that a text means only what its original author intended. I see it as a kind of secular extension of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which affirms the authority of scripture at the expense of tradition. Of course, if one were to apply this kind of norm to Abraham, one would have to ask just who the scriptural author is whose construal is to be taken as normative. Is he an author in Genesis? If so, which one, and how does one connect those very different authors reconstructed by modern historical scholarship with the one God whom Judaism and Christianity have traditionally affirmed is the ultimate author of scripture or with the other, less religious claim that the narrative can be read holistically despite its multiple authorship? If Genesis is the norm — if Genesis alone tells us who the real Abraham is or was — then the Jew must reject at least some of the interpretations of him in the rabbinic Oral Torah, the Christian must do likewise with the New Testament, and the Muslim must substitute the scripture of Jews and Christians (Genesis) for his own Qur’an — an absurd scenario (and one whose secularizing impulse is hard to miss). In the case of Abraham, the attempt to track down a historical figure behind the narratives of Genesis has been a dismal failure. If the historical figure is the norm for interpreting the text, then the norm is totally unavailable and may forever remain so. I have no problem at all with historical research, but, to adapt the language of Paul Ricoeur, in this instance I think it is more productive “to stand before the text” than “to get behind it.” If we seek only to get behind the text, to reconstruct its underlying history (which is at best a very speculative and insecure enterprise), then we really won’t be able to identify with any of the religious traditions that stem from it. Instead, we’ll be continually disallowing them because they don’t correspond to or accurately reflect the underlying history.

CH: You discuss how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam build upon previous understandings of Abraham as they formulated their own distinct perspectives. For instance, the Muslim tradition of Abraham seeing through the idolatry of his father was appropriated from post-biblical Jewish traditions. Even though each religion sees Abraham differently, are these religions, to some extent, dependent upon each other for their own particular views of him?

JL: Yes, indeed they are, and that is one of the main things I try to trace in Inheriting Abraham. Traditions and interpretive techniques were very widespread in the world of Late Antiquity; they didn’t adhere to the traditionary borders that we historians use. So, there are complicated patterns of exchange, appropriation, and reinterpretation. The word “dependence,” though, leaves me a little uneasy because once the materials have been borrowed, they have a new integrity of their own in the religious tradition that receives them; they are not foreign. But it is certainly the case that we understand the interpretations of Abraham in each tradition much better when we use a wider lens and take into account the uses the other traditions make of him — not to mention, of course, the material inside any one tradition that may be only a minor note in that religion but constitutes a major note in the others. The variety of uses to which Abraham has been put within each of the three religions is also an important part of the story.

CH: What would be a practical result of your book’s thesis? You are challenging some deeply entrenched ideas in all three religious traditions, so what would each of these do differently if your book were found convincing?

JL: Intellectually honest study of religious texts is always unsettling to those who regard them as authoritative. The idea that historical study does not disclose the identity of Abraham (or even confirm that such a historical figure existed) is certainly no exception. The same holds for the idea that the documents about him date from centuries after he would have lived. Practitioners of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike tend to think that their own tradition presents the real, unbiased picture of Abraham, which the others have distorted to one degree or another. (By the way, even people who do not think of themselves as practicing any of those religious traditions are affected by the religious heritage of the culture in which they grew up much more than they usually recognize.) The idea that we have no non-traditional access to Abraham — that all talk about him and what he practiced, foreshadowed, or represented is tradition-specific — can be quite challenging. I hope Inheriting Abraham shows individuals of all three communities and those with a secular identity as well that the traditions about Abraham in the foundational literature of those communities are more various than they have thought and demonstrate an interconnectedness (but not interchangeability) that they have not suspected or at least with which they have not reckoned adequately. In some cases, they may discover things in their own tradition that they will find more reflective of the others, and they may find things in the others that seem counter-intuitive but can be shown to have their own logic when one considers their basis in the text and the particular interpretive conventions by which those supposed oddities have been derived.

CH: Should we continue to use the term “Abrahamic Religions”?

JL: That is a tough question! In the book, I distinguish two uses of the term. The weaker and less problematic one uses “Abrahamic Religions” as a convenient cover term for the three obviously related traditions and thus functions much as the terms “prophetic,” “monotheistic,” and “Western” have. But, like “prophetic,” “monotheistic,” and “Western,” “Abrahamic” has its own limitations and problems. (I suppose all general categories do, but we can’t communicate or even think effectively without general categories.) One reason that “Abrahamic” has become fashionable in recent years is the higher profile of Islam in public consciousness, especially after 9/11. The older and still very popular term “Judeo-Christian” (which has its own history and its own serious problems, of course) cannot do justice to Islam. Nor is “Western” very helpful, by the way, given the historic presence of Judaism and Christianity outside the West and of Islam in the West (was medieval Spain in the East or the West?). The stronger and more problematic use of “Abrahamic Religions” affirms the existence of a neutral founder-figure from whom Judaism, Christianity, and Islam equally descend and to whom they are equally accountable, and a significant part of Inheriting Abraham is devoted to showing just how wrong that assumption is. For one thing, it ignores the doctrine of chosenness or election, which, in different ways, is central to both traditional Jewish and Christian thinking. For another, it implies that Abraham is equally important in all three traditions, whereas, if we can quantify the issue, we have to say that he is most important to Islam and least important to Christianity. In the book, I illustrate the problem by asking what the effect would be of using the term “Mosaic” instead. After all, Moses is found in all three sets of scriptures. I think you can see that the claim that Abraham is a neutral figure just doesn’t hold up. I suppose my answer to your question, then, is that if people are going to continue using the term (and I think they are), they need to do so with explicit awareness of the misimpressions that it so easily conveys and the bias that underlies it.

CH: I find your writing to be engaging and accessible, a refreshing oasis within the world of academic writing filled with turgid and opaque prose. Do you have any suggestions for scholars who wish to improve their writing?

JL: You are much too kind, Professor Halton. I majored in English in college and have always believed that reading books and articles in the humanities (at least) should be an aesthetic experience: it is not enough to absorb information. How well I succeed in conveying my own love of fine writing is not for me to judge. The fact is, I usually don’t like what I have written after it has come out. To anyone interested in seeking to avoid “turgid and opaque prose,” I would suggest doing a lot of rewriting and stylistic polishing. I also prefer a somewhat elevated or formal style of prose and thus try to avoid colloquialisms and syntactical vulgarities. For example, I avoid split infinitives, and a preposition is something I try to never end a sentence with.  My high school Latin teacher had advice that I have always striven to keep in mind in both writing and teaching. She said one should never underestimate the audience’s intelligence nor overestimate their knowledge. The best course, she thought, was to assume one is talking to a highly intelligent group who have no or minimal knowledge of the subject. I think this is usually good advice for writing as well, even, for the most part, for scholarly writing, too.