On Halakhah, Sharia and Canon

This is a revision of a comment I made to a group on Facebook as part of a discussion on whether and to what extent religious views should influence the civil law of a country.

One of the features of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages was that each of the major religions at roughly similar times came to the realization that some codification of their principles had become necessary. Originally this was not considered important as everything was included in the Torah (Jews), the Christian Bible (Christians) or the Quran (Muslims). But over the centuries more and more principles were added to the core documents, and eventually it became impossible to track it all without some sort of compilation and (eventually) an index.

For the Jews, this framework was called the Halakhah, for the Muslims, the Sharia, and for the Church, it was the Canon.

As things turned out, for all three of these systems unanimous adoption was fleeting (and perhaps never existed). The Jews formally recognized two equally valid systems, basically Eastern and Western (Sephardic and Ashkenazic) in the publication of the major digest called the Shulhan Arukh with the “corrections” of R. Moshe Isserles. Since then even more wrinkles have further divided the notion of a uniform code.

The Muslim version of the Halakhah was the Sharia. It codified the principles of the Quran, the Haddith, and as with the Jews, different versions had to exist to deal with differences among the various Islamic movements and sects. One of the Arabic names of the Sharia is the Qānūn-e Islāmī, which brings us to the third system, the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

Christians faced exactly the same problems as did the Jews and Muslims, and went about solving them in similar ways. The Roman Church compiled a list of rules which has been subject to revision. And just as the Jews and Muslims divided along various religious fractures, the Christian church split along many different lines. But what to do about the Canon?

Of course it wouldn’t do to create new forms of the Christian church and still acknowledge the authority of the Canon, so the various major movements created different sets of quasi-legal standards. For example, the Anglican Communion spoke of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Bishops’ Book, etc.

The important point for this discussion is that in the modern world, all of this has coalesced into a series of debates about the extent to which these religious principles should be enforced on the citizens of various countries who may or may not have any connection to the religious communities that created the systems.

We all have heard (but I suspect most of us do not really understand) about the application of Sharia to citizens of some Muslim countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran (which ironically have different Sharia systems owing to the differences among the sects).

One of the fascinating aspects of the creation of the State of Israel is that for the first time since the time of the Maccabees an independent Jewish state has the ability to legislate in a way that affects Jews who might not agree with whomever is in power and even non-Jews who are also citizens of the State. To what extent (for example) should Jews or non-Jews be able to raise pigs on their farms? How kosher do restaurants need be?

And in the United States, where a majority of people identify with Christianity, how much should Christian principles define the life of the country? Not all that long ago, many states had laws which forbade the opening of shops on the Christian sabbath. And employers were free to mandate work on Saturday, which created enormous problems for those Jews who wished to observe their sabbath.

The opposition of the Catholic Church to abortion is summarized in Canon 1398: A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

The question that the United States continues to work through despite the Supreme Court’s decision upholding a woman’s right to control her own body is whether that Canon will be applied to citizens of the United States who do not recognize the authority of the Church. Protestants, and especially Evangelicals who obviously do not think of themselves as ascribing to the Canon, are nevertheless working their way ideologically through the same issues.

I suspect this argument will be going on for a very long time.

On the Definition of Christianity

During the part of my career in which the Jewish community tasked me with the job of doing whatever is in our power to retain Jewish kids for posterity, it all seemed so clear and obvious to me. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews are Jews. Secular Jews are (oddly enough from a religious perspective) Jews. Reconstructionist Jews are Jews.  Jews who join other religions are still Jews, but they are not practicing Judaism.  Christians are not Jews. For people untrained in the arcania of Jewish theology, some of this might not be obvious, and perhaps I’ll explain in greater detail in another article.  But for now, let’s take these basic principles as givens.

In the 1970s and since, some groups of Evangelical Christians set new goals for converting Jews to Christianity. Of course, most Christians would have welcomed Jewish converts. But the difference Jews noticed here was that these groups didn’t just specifically target Jews, they adopted a new strategy: the claim that worshiping as a Christian did not mean renouncing Judaism. The idea was that missionaries might have an easier time if they could convince Jews that following Christ did not mean abandoning their parents or religious community.

The Reader might recall that for centuries, the Church had made something of a big deal out of the necessity for Jews to disown their ancestral faith in order to be accepted as Christians. So this was a rather new idea, especially to Jews  who had some vivid memories concerning the Inquisition.

One of the odder consequences of this new movement is that those of us in the organized Jewish community confronted people who were not Jews in any sense that we normally understood, but who had ostensibly converted to Judaism and then, while adopting some Jewish rituals, also accepted Christ. To us, this seemed like a ruse, a subterfuge, really not fair play.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that the founder of the movement called Jews for Jesus, Moshe Rosen, was indeed technically a Jew by birth. He was raised in a Jewish home, and does seem to have made his decision to join Christianity based on a conviction that he could adopt that religion without renouncing his Jewish identity. The problem Mr. Rosen faced was that an astonishingly small number of his eventual followers could make the same claims. After decades of evangelizing, there have been very few Jews who have joined his cause.

Let me also hasten to say that although Judaism is no longer an evangelical religion, I and most Jews recognize, understand and accept that other religions (especially Christianity and Islam) are evangelical in nature. The issue for us in the matters I’ve been discussing is fair play. We believe that the Jewish students who are meeting people of other faiths are entitled to know that they are being solicited to consider abandoning the faith of their ancestors in favor of a new religion.

Inevitably, we are led to the question of “How does one define a Jew?” Is Judaism an ethnicity, a religion, a nationality? We must have some sort of definition if we want to understand what it means to be a Jew or practice Judaism (and we might have to admit that those two terms are different things rather than two sides of the same coin.) The alternative is “anything goes.” Anyone can say or do anything and call themselves Jews. Conversely, Jews can say or do anything and still claim they are practicing Judaism.

To shorten a long story, after many years of dealing with Jewish students at the University of California at Berkeley and subsequently, in the early days of Internet chat rooms (called UseNet back then), many of us worked on a definition that seemed to satisfy most people. Jews have been known for a very long time as “the people of the Book” and there is something to that notion. Jews are people who accept a specific version of the Bible as sacred (ie, originating either directly or via inspiration from God), and reject any notion that God is multiple, divisible, anything but the One. The most sacred single text of Judaism is the Sh’ma, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Even secular Jews usually have no problem with the Sh’ma. To recapitulate, Judaism is the religion of those people who teach that God is One and that God’s message is contained within a library of sacred works that most of the world calls the Old Testament. (The word “old” sometimes conveys the idea of “outmoded” so many Jews prefer to use terms such as the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew Testament or the Tanakh, which is one of the Hebrew names of the book.)

This definition works pretty well. Why aren’t Jews the same as Muslims? After all, the Muslims are if anything even more strictly monotheistic than Jews. Because the sacred scripture of the Muslims is not the Old Testament, but rather the Quran. Now the Muslims do concede that both Jewish and Christian scripture is worthy of study and religious status. In fact, the Muslims agree as Jews do not that Jesus was a Prophet. But they insist that the primary source of religious inspiration is the Quran. Neither Jews nor Christians are willing to acknowledge the Quran, so this becomes a basic measure of distinction.

As another example of the importance of canon, consider the Samaritans. The Samaritans accept the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) but do not consider the remaining books of the Old Testament to be worthy of sacred status. Jews, on this basis, reject  the Samaritans for inclusion in Judaism, and the Samaritans agree that they are not Jews.

The Karaite sect has proven an interesting borderline case. The Karaites split off from the Jews around the 8th century. By that time, the rabbis had well established themselves as arbiters of religious custom and law and generated a large body of literature designed to interpret Jewish tradition. Many Jews began to chafe under what they felt was the burden of an elite unattested in scripture. Their movement accepted the sacred status of all of Jewish scripture–the Old Testament–but rejected  rabbinic authority to interpret that scripture. Their movement became wildly popular and some historians have suggested that in its heyday, Karaism may have had adherents that outnumbered the followers of the rabbis.

In modern times, the Karaites have diminished to a relatively small population. Some of them have requested the right to live in Israel, which has led to discussion among religious Jews as to whether they should be considered Jewish or not. Unlike the Samaritans, the Karaites are not only monotheistic, but share the same exact scripture as Rabbinic Jews. While opinions have varied, the consensus has been that they should be permitted to come to Israel and enjoy the same rights and privileges as the rabbinic Jewish community.

In other words and to sum up, at least for Jews, scripture (the canon) matters.

Christians too hold that their Scriptures are sacred, but again, those books (the Gospels, Epistles and Apocrypha) were not included by most of the Jewish community as they were promulgated. Those Jews who did accept the Christian scriptures became Christians. At first and in the early days of Christianity there was a sense among Christians that Jews could indeed accept the teachings of the Christian Bible and yet continue to worship as Jews. But soon (on the scale of religious history) most Christians denied this possibility and the rabbinic Jewish community was all too happy to accept that judgment.

In addition to the scriptural issue, most Jews have historically been uneasy with Christian groups who have maintained various dual nature or Trinitarian views of God. Although the Jewish critique pales in comparison to the Islamic viewpoint, nevertheless, Jews have always had a sense that Christianity is a tad less than monotheistic in its approach to the Divine than they could accept. This is not to say that Jews have labeled Christians as polytheistic. Over more than a thousand years, those Jewish scholars who have considered the matter have concluded that Christian doctrine is sufficiently monotheistic to avoid the label of polytheism but they have held that Jews ought to know better.

In my debates with Jews for Jesus and other so-called Messianic Jews, these arguments have stood the test of time. Although bristling and adamant that Christianity is purely monotheistic and asserting that Divine Revelation did not end with the Jewish Bible, it was pretty difficult for most evangelical discussants to overcome the simple definition based on Scripture.

In recent days, all this has come to my mind because of the odd circumstance that a member of the Mormon faith will be a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States. Large numbers of people will likely be voting for Mitt Romney even though the incumbent is a member in good standing of the Protestant community. In the midst of all this, a few people have raised the question as to whether Mormonism should be considered Christianity.

Based on the discussion I recapitulated above, I had thought this would be something of a “no-brainer.” Of course (I imagined) Christians would deny that Mormonism should be considered Christianity. This was clear to me because 1) Mormons accept the authority of a prophet who lived long after prophecy was declared at an end by Christians as well as Jews, and 2) Mormons accept as Scripture a book which is rejected by most Christians.

It turns out that I was wrong. Not entirely, but enough to make things interesting. Of course, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches have a set of standards that would preclude Mormons from being considered Catholic or Orthodox. These churches have elaborate hierarchies and long historical standards regarding the canon.

But disputes about the canon are nothing new. The reason why some Bibles contain the Apocrypha (books like Maccabees and Tobith) and others do not is that some Churches accept their value as Scripture and others do not. As for the recognition of sacred persons such as prophets and saints, here too we find ample room for disagreement. In northern Israel and Lebanon there is a numerically significant group of Christians known as the Maronites. These are distinct from Roman Catholics only because they insist on recognizing as a saint a person who Rome declined to beatify. But no one would deny that Maronites are Christians.

As I looked further and further in to this, it became clear to me that there is an interesting issue here. As I said above, while we can determine pretty easily who is a Catholic and who isn’t, I was finding it very difficult to define who is a Christian. What makes a Christian a Christian?

I asked one person raised as a Roman Catholic how she defines a Christian, and her reply was instructive: anyone who believes that Jesus is God should be considered a Christian. Technically this definition could easily have excluded many of Jesus’ own followers. Today it might exclude some Unitarians and perhaps even some Quakers. This definition makes no connection to a sacred scripture. And it doesn’t appear to rule out pagans who might (for example) include Jesus as one among many gods. I pushed my friend on this question and it produced a slight refinement in the definition: A person may claim to be a Christian if they believe that Jesus is the one and only God.

Of course one lay person does not a theology make, so it’s time to do some real homework. How do the standard dictionaries define Christianity?

Oxford English Dictionary: The edition of 1971 provides four definitions. I’ll skip the first since it is denoted as obsolete and the third and fourth as they are irrelevant to our discussion. The second reads: The religion of Christ; the Christian faith; the system of doctrines and precepts taught by Christ and his disciples.

Websters: the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies.

As one might expect, the encyclopedias do a bit better job, usually beginning with a short definition, and then expanding to cover additional topics.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (on-line citation): Christianity is the name given to that definite system of religious belief and practice which was taught by Jesus Christ in the country of Palestine, during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and was promulgated, after its Founder’s death, for the acceptance of the whole world, by certain chosen men among His followers.

Wikipedia (cited 5/27/12): Christianity (from the Ancient Greek: Χριστιανός Christianos) is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings. Adherents of the Christian faith are known as Christians.

This is of course not any sort of comprehensive list, either of dictionaries or encyclopedias, but I think it is sufficient to discover a few commonalities.

First of all Jesus is important. All sources agree that Christian belief requires acknowledgment of Jesus as the founder and leader of the Christian religion. Interesting to me, none of these sources cite a requirement to believe that Jesus is God, although that is unquestionably a foundational belief in most Christian churches.

What about the canon, the list of sacred books? Several of the sources specifically cite the need to respect the New Testament.  The OED is one source that does not specifically mention the New Testament. But how should we understand the phrase the system of doctrines and precepts taught by Christ and his disciples? Where would one look to find these “doctrines and precepts” if not in the transmitted words and doctrines of Jesus and his disciples that we know as the New Testament?

My conclusion is that as with Judaism, there are two factors which in combination can determine whether it is reasonable to consider someone a Christian. First, a belief in the centrality of Jesus as the primary teacher of the faith, and second, a belief that the source for knowledge about Jesus is the canon of sacred scripture.

So does this mean that I now have a tool which can determine whether Mormonism should be considered Christian? Although I had initially thought so, on reflection, I must admit that case is not clear.

In discussion with a friend who teaches the history of Christian movements in the United States, I learned that Mormonism can be understood from a historical perspective as one of several outgrowths of American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century. The people who followed Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young saw themselves as Christians. They saw their religious documents as “perfecting” errors in the ancient scriptures. Indeed, they regarded Jesus as the primary source of their knowledge. They simply felt that the scripture revealed by Smith added to the ancient canon, and primarily in ways that related to the Christian settlement of the New World (North and South America).

For Jews, this discussion would not have mattered because Judaism teaches a sealed canon. Nothing can be added because of a doctrine which holds that true prophesy has ended. There are 22 books and there will never be more than 22 books. Jonah is sacred scripture. John is not. The Quran–not. The Book of Mormon–not.

Christianity, on the other hand, does not possess a doctrine like this. The Roman Catholics do, and therefore they can say that Mormonism is not Catholic. But can they say it is not Christian? The Protestant revolution overthrew the authoritarian structures of the Orthodox Church. In doing so, they broadened authority. Who now has the authority to determine whether a given group or sect should be considered Christian or not?

If it is possible to believe in Jesus, but also to believe that Revelation did not end with the New Testament, then Mormons are within their religious rights to deem their religion Christian.

For Episcopalians, or Lutherans or Baptists or Methodists or even Unitarians, to deny Mormonism inclusion in the spectrum of Christianity, they will have to demonstrate that the Mormons hold a belief that is inconsistent with Christianity. But without a canon, on what would such a position be based?

That is where I need to leave this question for now. I will be very interested to learn of other opinions out there.

Update on 6/13/2010: The New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece today of interest to this discussion. I’ll provide the link, but in the event that the Times doesn’t allow access or the link fails to work at some point, I will add a summary:

David V. Mason on the definition of Mormonism and Christianity

Mr. Mason is identified as a religious and expert Mormon (a member of the religious hierarchy). He states that in his opinion, Mormons should disassociate themselves from Christianity just as Christians disassociated themselves from Judaism. His arguments relate to the theological nature of Jesus and also discusses elements of the canon.