In the past week, two of the world’s big religions – Islam and Christianity – have each been exposed to a potentially explosive “text”. The first is a crude and almost childishly irreverent trailer for a film that depicts the Prophet Mohamed as a nasty, vicious, sexually incontinent man. Its release has created mayhem and stirred violence right across the Muslim world. The second is the emergence of a scrap of papyrus showing, according to some scholars at least, that Jesus was actually a married man. Those scholars are still alive. Yet there have been no death threats. No one has died.
Now it’s true that the trailer was a crude and deliberate insult to Islam, whereas the scrap of papyrus is a historical artefact that forms part of scholarly debate. Yet in many ways, its entry into public debate should have been even more incendiary than the silly snippet of film. The idea that Jesus, far from being celibate and removed from the life of fleshly pleasure, was not celibate after all is a shocking idea for so many ordinary Christians: it goes to the heart of their religious beliefs and feelings.
By contrast, the trailer for the laughably bad film was made by people no one had heard of and could have easily been dismissed as the crackpot ravings of unimportant nogoodniks. Why? And what accounts for the huge contrast in the way the adherents of the two religions react? The essential reason has to do with the very different roles that history and attitudes to historical truth have played in the two religions.
Many other (non-religious) factors also need to be invoked to explain the Muslim reaction, not least centuries of Western imperialism and the feelings of resentment and inferiority that that has created. It is also worth stressing that Christians are certainly not incapable of expressing outrage at what they see as betrayals of or attacks on their beliefs: Martin Scorsese’s fascinating and rather brilliant film The Last Temptation of Christ – which ends with St Paul preaching about the death and resurrection of the celibate Christ while deliberately ignoring the married Jesus who is standing in the crowd of enthralled listeners – provoked international protest. But again, there was no violence.
And that is because Christians have, in a sense, become all too accustomed to the rewriting of Jesus. He has been rewritten from the time of his death. He has, in fact, suffered the fate of all historical figures.
So why hasn’t Mohamed suffered the same fate? He is in many ways, after all, a far more solidly established historical figure than Jesus was. It was Paul – bandy-legged, touchy, brilliant theologian – who began the process still with us today of refashioning Jesus. Paul transformed the religious holy man into the divine Christ and created Christianity.
When Jesus died he had about 100 followers. Some 20 years after Jesus’s death, Paul began to turn his small Jewish cult into one open to Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus was refashioned as a celibate. Judging by his fellow holy men who were also raising people from the dead, the historical Jesus was probably married. He became a celibate only after his death. This was a way – Paul’s way – of creating a distinctive religious brand. Christianity needed to define itself against paganism: one way of doing that was by bringing sex into the religious/moral realm, by making it a moral problem and sanctifying sexual denial.
And the reason that most Christians can accept this ever-changing Jesus, while most Muslims find any reinterpretation of Mohamed utterly intolerable, is, I believe, because of the two religions’ very different attitudes to their respective sacred texts.
Of all the “religions of the book”, Islam treats its sacred text as outside the pressures of history. It was revealed by the Angel Gabriel to Mohamed over a period of 23 years. Mohamed the living man is important only as the mouthpiece of the text itself which comes from God. The Koran is outside the human earthly realm. For Christians, the Bible is a sacred text, revealing the word of God but, crucially, it is revealed through the insights of particularly spiritually gifted men. The Bible is human as well as sacred. That means it can be fallible and so can be subject to interpretation. But as the Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol says, “If you say the Koran is a human text, then you cease to be Muslim.”
In the 19th century, geologists and philologists began to undermine the historicity of Christianity. Philologists discovered contradictions and anomalies in the Bible. Geologists found that they could not reconcile their discoveries about the origins of the world with the biblical version. “If only the geologists would leave me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses,” wrote the agonised John Ruskin.
For many Christians there was a splitting of the ways – the fundamentalists said the Bible was the truth and the scientists were wrong; but those Christians who wanted to reconcile their scientific understanding with their faith dehistoricised faith. The Bible became literature, a myth, an “as if” story. It is the line followed by the liberal wing of the Anglican church. It means you can change the story.
Some Islamic scholars, especially in the West, are beginning to do the same for Islam. The Koran, they argue, is the word of God but God was speaking from within the norms of the seventh century, so he can speak now from within the norms of the 21st century. If these scholars can persuade ordinary Muslims that to bring the teachings of the Koran more in line with current Western thinking is not a blasphemous rewriting of God’s words but simply a reinterpretation of them, then there really is a possibility that the violent antagonism between the faithful and the secular worlds can be healed.
Selina O’Grady’s ‘And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus’ has just been published by Atlantic Books