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Bismi Allah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem.  In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful

"The Bible has not been important in Jewish life so much
as has the idea of the Bible"
(Cantwell Smith)

Discuss the Jewish case,
and compare the relation of one other religious tradition with its own scripture.

The title-statement of this essay makes uneasy discussion, even in the light of the extensive study of the question presented by Cantwell Smith in "What is Scripture?".

The primary difficulty is in assigning to the Bible the role of the Jewish scripture. In my own opinion, and the idea creeps up in some arguments in the relevant chapter of Smith ("Bible in Jewish life"), the only item which can rightfully be called "Jewish scripture" is Torah, in any one of the possible meanings of the word(1).

Calling the Jewish scripture "Bible", with the three books it includes, the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings, seems to me to be the result of the Christian influence, even if at the time Christianity emerged, it must have been borrowed the opposite way. In different order, it includes the same books as the Christian Old Testament, and the Jewish word for it - TaNaKh, has come into existence in the recent centuries only, which coincides with the time Jews came into greater (and more beneficent) contact with the surrounding Christian culture.

If I choose to define the Jewish scripture as "Torah", the situation becomes quite different from that presented by the title. If the word "Bible" there is substituted by "Torah", the statement would still make sense, but holds much less strength. To support my assertion that the scripture we ought to discuss is Torah, preferably in the narrowest meaning - the Pentateuch, it could be noted that this is the only part of the Jewish Holy Books (kitve qodesh) which never lacks any "scriptural" quality, and is always exalted above the rest. In fact or in ideal, all other sacred books (in some ways even the rest of the Bible) derive their authority from Torah, even if the actual links are more of a pretence.

Indeed, in the nearest substitute for a Jewish creed, Maimonides' 13 Principles, Bible as a whole is never mentioned yet Torah given to Moses at the Sinai is named as the revelation and the basis of religion, and the major source of religious guidance as such. Admittedly, it is problematic to talk about Torah from the Sinai as Pentateuch only, because of the concept of the Oral Torah, which was also given to Moses there and then. Yet at no time was the Oral Torah, mainly in the shape of Mishna, Haggada, Midrashim and the Talmuds, considered self-sufficient. It had always been perceived as a more detailed supplement to the written part.

Similar combination of fixed-content, written scripture with an oral supplement exists in Islam. There, the balance is slightly different, only Quran is a revelation from God, and the authority of the "supplement" (hadith collections(2)) is based on the example of the rightly guided individuals, without any immediate interference from God(3). On the other hand, Quran has higher status than Pentateuch, because it is believed to be the direct and unaltered word of God, while it is permissible for the Jews to view Torah as inspired by God, but actually written by Moses in his own words.

In both cases, the relationship is not always straightforward. The difficulty is in the fact that both the earlier Jewish oral tradition and the Islamic legal/ritual constructs often not only lack references to their respective scriptures, but sometimes come near to contradicting them. On p. 114, Smith discusses this lack of references in the Mishna, and their superficial nature in the Talmud. He concludes that both texts are in fact original works, products of their own times and conditions, and have no real relation to the Torah. His conclusions remind me Joseph Schacht and Norman Calder's analysis of the early Islamic legal writings. In particular, Calder concentrates on Mudawanna and Muwatta, both attributed to the early Muslim scholar Malik ibn Anas. The former is a collection of Malik's authoritative rulings, the latter - a hadith collection with his commentary. He infers that the earlier works have discursive format, and because they lack references to the Quran and Hadith, it means that at the time those did not yet become the authoritative sources of Islamic Law. It makes him overturn the traditional assessment that Muwatta is older than Mudawanna. Mudawanna is indeed based on the sayings of Malik with no other material to support his rulings, because he himself is seen as the final authority. However, with all the efforts, it is hard to point out in this book, and others like it, decisions which would be unacceptable by the standards of the Quran, something that would be contrary to a clear Quranic rule.

I think, the scholars who are looking for the page-references in the ancient legal sources are disregarding a religious factor I would call "the spirit of religion". What I mean is common knowledge of religion and its scripture among people, especially those involved in religious or legal debates. In many situations, this is the best method of ensuring that further development of religion remains within the bounds of religious "correctness". It is nearly impossible for a religious leader to promote a decision which contradicts existent religious standards in a society where religious sources are well known. This would apply equally to both cases, whether early Islamic texts or Mishna and Talmud. With the latter ones in particular, there is a reason to presume widespread knowledge of Torah in the society at the time, even if not among all the lay members, surely among a large section of population(4). The whole society, its culture and customs, was largely built on the principles contained in the Scripture, so I am inclined to accept "Oral Torah" as indeed the customary expression of the Written Law, with some limited amendments made by the Rabbis.

As a consequence, it is not true to say that the lack of references means lack of connection. In Islamic tradition in particular, proper references have hardly ever became a rule to the present day, in religious literature in particular, and the quotations are frequently untraceable. In both tradition, there appears to be a stage when no references were needed, even though Jewish writings of later period are very well referenced(5).

An even more important part of the (original) question is how Torah has been of great importance in Jewish life throughout history as an idea rather than a document. Cantwell Smith expands on the way Bible was used to justify any idea, how a medieval Jewish writing, of any degree of originality, would be presented as a commentary on the Bible. Tradition of giving exegetical form to books seems completely opposite to omitting Biblical references in religious writings. I would connect it with a change in the whole idea of authorship, authority, and innovation. Middle Ages brought about a very definite attitude to personal authority as something acceptable only on very limited terms. An ordinary author had to rely on a more highly regarded contemporary, or, more often, predecessor to make almost any kind of claim. It came to the point when books written by one author would be attributed by the author himself to another, more famous one. This is related to us by al-Jahiz, a great Arab writer of the 9-th century, who used this tactic to promote his early works. In the West it was common that books were simply not signed.

This attitude meant that the Scripture, being the highest possible authority, was the best back-up. Only what the Scripture said was good, could be called "good". The Scripture being for all times and places, anything new had to be found in and justified by the Scripture.

As a result, the Scripture became a "variable": the same passage, verse, phrase, or even word could be used to justify a number of contradictory conclusions(6).

This is one side of the uneasy relation between a Scripture and its religion: the fact that Scripture is interpreted in order to be used and understood. In Judaism a clear schism of this nature had appeared in the Kara'ite interpretation of the Torah. Kara'ites rejected Talmud and its claim to preserve the Oral Law. In particular, this meant they had to re-interpret anew legal parts of the Torah. For example, the prohibition of lighting fire on Shabbath is justified by the verse in Exodus 35:3: "Ye shall not kindle fire in all your dwellings upon the sabbath day". It has been understood by the Pharisaic-to-become-mainstream Judaism to mean prohibition of actually lighting or extinguishing fire, so that only fire lit before Shabbath could burn, and it had to be allowed to die out by itself. Anan ben David and the later Kara'ites(7) understood it to mean that no fire could be left during Shabbath, making Shabbath a rather dark and cold affair. This is an example of how a single word - "kindle" can be understood in very different ways. (Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology, p.11)

Quran, being frequently much more vague then Bible, Pentateuch in particular, gives greater opportunities for various groups to contest its true meaning. Only the link between religion and state governance in Islam prevented complete dissention over religious issues - through imposition of state-enforced interpretations.

In both religions, there are authoritative collections of scriptural interpretations. In Judaism they are commentaries, Midrashim, Haggadah; in Islam they are a number of Tafseers. More often than not, they actually take over the function of scripture in terms of spiritual authority, being a prism through which everything written in the Scripture is perceived. For centuries, right up to the present time, a Quran or, especially, a Bible would be printed with the commentaries included, right beside the text. This is true both for Bibles and Qurans printed in their own language and for the modern, translated ones. In any case, most translations would be done in accordance with an authoritative commentary. This phenomenon is common to many scriptural religions, probably, because obscurity seems to be a universal characteristic of Scripture.

What is peculiar to Jewish and Muslim view of Scripture, which makes these two religions so close to each other, is perception of Scripture as a guide to absolutely everything in life: law, politics, family relationships, mundane everyday actions. Jews and Muslims (excluding the Reform - "Christianised" variety) perceive religion as a complete way of life.

The guidance is attributed to Scripture. In fact, to be such guide, the Scripture has to be interpreted and significantly extended. This is the most indirect part of relationship between Jewish and Muslim Scriptures and respective religions.

In Judaism the very ground basis for legislation is Torah (which points again to its superiority as a candidate to be called Scripture), in Islam it is, of course, Quran. In both religious traditions, Scripture is supplemented by a large body of material which provides the actual guidance. Mainly, it is Talmud in Judaism, and collections of hadith in Islam, or on even more practical level, Shulchan Aruch for the Jews and scholarly writings for Muslims, for example Hidaya in India.

There is a term in each of the two religions for such religiously inspired way of life. Halacha in Judaism, sunna in Islam. Neither refers to the Scriptural guidance. Halacha is prescribed in the Talmud, sunna is the way of life described by ahadith.(8)

Both traditions have a concept of a chain of transmission. It means that Talmud is the Oral Torah written down, handed down the generations directly from Moses. Yet, something which is in full accordance with the understanding of tradition, even if it is clearly a late ruling, is accepted, paradoxically, as Oral Torah of Moses.

This is not quite so in Islam. The actual chain of authority leading back to the Prophet Muhammad or his Companions, and its accordance with the criteria developed for determining reliability of such chains, carries more weight than the meaning of the text. This leads to existence of many contradictory ahadith, which in turn have to be explained and interpreted.

Hadith are used for interpreting and explaining Quran as well as for determining matters of worship and legislation. One example of Quranic interpretation: in Sura an-Nisa (4:15) Quran tells to punish women guilty of adultery by house arrest "until Allah appoints a way for them". This last phrase is understood to mean "appoints the way through new legislation", pointing at the hadith which prescribes stoning for married adulterers. Here the same hadith "explains" the Quran and provides a piece of legislation. This is an extraodinary case where Quran is in effect superseded by a hadith. A more straightforward example is interpretation of 9:29: "Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture and believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low." The verse is understood to call for a war against Jews and Christians, and obliging them to pay jizya(9). The last words, "being brought low", led to a set of regulations of their own, those prescribing the exact manner of collecting the jizya, so as to make the payee be "brought low". This begins with a requirement that the payee's hand be below that of the collector, and then included all sorts of humiliating details added to it.

Jewish interpretation of the Ten Commandments can be quite startling too. A Yeshiva(10) student once explained to me that the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" applies only to stealing people, i.e. kidnapping. Yet other parts are understood very literally: "Thou shalt write it <the First Commandment> on your door posts" means placing a mezuzah on the door - a box containing a piece of parchment with the First Commandment written on it. This is short of actually scribbling it on the door.

Arguably, understanding of the phrase as a command to place mezuzah on the door post is of more consequence than the actual words of the Torah. Clearly, the hadith prescribing stoning for adultery is more significant in everyday life than the Quranic ayat which this hadith "complements".

Excessive use of Talmud and ahadith does make an impression that they are the true guides to religion, especially as it is carried out in everyday lives. Actions performed by a practising Muslim or orthodox Jew in the course of their lives are not really dictated by the Quran or Torah. This leads to an argument that it was ahadith or Talmud which were of true importance and significance for their religious traditions.

An example can be the Jewish prohibition of eating meat and milk together. Bible simply says: "Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk". The interpretation extends the phrase to include consumption of any kind of meat together with any kind of milk. This leads to the regulations about separate pots and dishes, cutlery, surfaces, kitchen sinks. The time which have to pass between eating a dish containing meat and one containing milk is fixed too. Every new piece of domestic equipment leads to new regulations regarding its use for meat and milk. There is nothing in the Bible to justify all the expenses and difficulties associated with keeping them. It apparently proves that it is not the Scripture which is of consequence in lives, but the books interpreting and extending it.

But yet in all the cases the interpretation uses the actual words of the Scripture, and legislation cannot bluntly contradict Scripture. Importantly, knowledge of Scripture is required of any proper Jew or Muslim. The words of the Torah or Quran can be bent into the desired meaning, but they cannot be disregarded. Because of this I do not agree with the proposition that Torah or Quran served more as an idea of authority than the actual authority itself. In the view of a believer, authority rests with a Scriptural passage, an interpretation follows. Correctness of an interpretation can be argued, Scripture is sacred. Torah or Quran are not ideas, they are documents.


1.) Cantwell Smith, "What is Scripture", 1993

2.) F. Denny and R. Taylor, "The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective",

University of South Carolina Press, 1993


1 - Torah can mean 1 - the Five Books of Moses (Pentateuch), or 2 - the Five Books of Moses and all the commentaries and legal supplements written on them, or 3 - the Five Books of Moses, the rest of the Bible, and any piece of exegetical or legal writing.

2 - Hadith is a short story relating descriptions, words or actions of the Prophet Muhammad, one of his Companions or Successors.

3 - His guidance came via general inspiration to enable these individuals do right, not by instructing them in each separate case.

4 - Many instances in the Gospels seem to prove that

5 - Which makes it harder to accept that the tractates lacking scriptural references could have the same connection to the scripture as those which quote it on every page

6 - Consistently with my own definition of exegesis: reading into Scripture what is claimed to be read out of it

7 - As well as some ancient groups before them, but it is not clear whether the interpretation was borrowed from them or re-kindled afresh

8 - Plural of hadith

9 - A poll-tax levied on the Jews, Christians, and, in some cases, Zoroastians by the Muslim state

10 - Institution of Jewish religious higher education

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