The Workshop “Revelation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” on July 21-22, 2016

Our report is also available in Arabic: ورشة عمل حول مفهوم الوحي


Prof. Dr. Georges Tamer (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg) welcomed the audience and gave a few introductory remarks on the concept of revelation, the topic of this workshop: As the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the notion of revelation demands particular attention, but while it is often simply equated with scripture, it is in fact a much more complex, multi-layered concept. For example, revelation goes through a process with many stages before it is encoded in a canonised scripture. Moreover, as revelation needs to be acknowledged by its recipients to fulfill its purpose, the human recipients of a revealed content are actively engaged in the process. As a consequence of this human engagement, the historical circumstances also come into play here.

After this short introduction, Prof. Tamer introduced the chair of the workshop’s first panel, Dr Clare Amos from the World Council of Churches.

The Concept of Revelation in Judaism

Prof. Schmitz gave an introduction to his subject. He clarified that revealed scripture in Judasim is not limited to the Hebrew Bible, but also comprises the Talmud etc. (the “oral Torah”). While the revealed commandments were given collectively to the people of Israel, every Jew is thought to be individually invited to follow them. Scripture as the word of God stands at the center of the religion of Judaism, but in itself it is only words – the task of the believers is to put it in action and turn it into a reality.

There is a discusssion within the Jewish tradition about the respective status of the written and the oral Torah. While the orthodox opinion is that the oral Torah is also God’s word, which was revealed to Moses but only written down later after oral transmission and discussion. But there are groups that only accept the authority of the written Torah. In any case, Jewish law (Halakha) is regarded as having been given directly by God himself, much like the Muslim Sharīʽa: Whatever the Status of the oral Torah, Moses was given everything that was revealed as a whole, and nothing new was added later.

In the last 200 years, there has been a debate between orthodox and progressive Jews about the nature of revelation. The orthodox understanding is one of revelation as a fixed set of laws, that was added to (but not revised!) in the oral tradition and is now complete and unchangeable. On the other hand, progressive thinkers see revelation as a continuous process, that began in a certain historical process and whose content changed within the development of the oral tradition because times and circumstances changed. This would allow for modern adjustments, too, as there is no reason why this process should be regarded as fixed and complete at a certain point in time. In this model, the Bible is to be regarded as having been written by humans who were inspired by God in a certain time and context.

Discussion: Fragmentation of the logos, the translation of the Bible and pluralism in interpretation

Dr. Amos asked what the story of creation in the book of Genesis can tell us about the understanding of revelation in that it teaches us about the relationship between God and man. She also wanted to know more about the nature of the canon in relation to revelation: Is an end put to the process of revelation once scripture is canonised? Dr Amos asked about the “scandal of particularity” that religions of revelation have to deal with: How does one reconcile the idea of the specialness of a chosen people or of the time and place of revelation with its universal message? The Jewish and Christian answers to that question, of course, differ quite strongly.

In response to this, Prof. Schmitz cited Daniel Boyarin’s notion of the “Zersplitterung” (fragmentation) of the logos, which describes the efforts of the rabbis of late antiquity to promote a more open interpretive logic that allowed more indeterminacies, against the dialectical, dogmatic Christian theology of that time, which aimed at bringing together interpretations of revelation in one teaching. He also called attention to the fact that interpretation is always connected to the texts themselves, and that therefore the process of interpretation can be regarded to be a part of what is revealed.

Another question from the audience concerned translations: Today in the US, some Christians believe that the translators of the Bible were themselves divinely inspired and that the King James Version is thus closer to God’s word than other translations. Is there a similar concept in Judaism? Or can revelation only take place in Hebrew?

Prof. Schmitz drew attention to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the second century BC. This translation was soon discarded from the Jewish tradition and used only by Christians. Only the Hebrew text allows the reader to understand the nuances of meaning based on knowledge of all possible meanings of one word or root. Jewish theology is thought in Hebrew terms, which need their connotations to be understood completely.

Another question concerned a story mentioned as an example in the presentation, according to which God resolves a discussion between two rabbis by saying “My children are right”, thus declaring both positions valid. Is there a parallel to the principle “kullu muǧtahidin muṣīb” from Islamic law, i.e. the principle that any scholar with the requisite expertise who has made a sincere effort in understanding the law is accepted as giving a valid opinion?

For Prof. Schmitz many hermeneutical rules in Judaism are identical with their Islamic counterparts. In this context, it is important to remember that, while the Hebrew (consonants-only) text of the revealed scriptures is fixed, its vocalisation and precisee meanig leave room for interpretation by the rabbis.  Prof. Tamer drew attention to a similar phenomenon in Islam: According to one tradition, Muhammad was once asked about a verse from the Qur’an by two people who recited it in different ways, and he replied that both were correct. This idea of course leaves open the question of who is authorised to produce such interpretations.

The Concept of Revelation in Christianity

The second panel, with a presentation by Prof. Christoph Schwöbel (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen), was chaired by Prof. Bertram Schmitz of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.

According to Prof. Schwöbel the disclosure of God is of foundational significance for the monotheistic religions, which means that debates about revelation have far-reaching concequences for religious discourses. Innerreligious debates often focus on the identity of the author of revelation and the correct or authoritative content of revelation. Also, the relationship between revelation itself and the witness to revelation (i.e. scripture) and the question how an appeal to “revelation” should happen are subjects of debate. Today, this is linked to the issue of modern fundamentalisms which often claim the inerrancy of scripture as basis for the authority of revelation.

In interreligious discussions on revelation, the question needs to be answered how the traditions are interrelated in the development of the understanding of revelation. To what extent was the articulation of the concept of revelation influenced by stating similarities and differences in an encounter with another religion? The development of Christian theology since the Middle Ages, for instance, is only one third of the story. It is necessary to also understand its interactions with Judaism and Islam, for example Thomas Aquinas’s references to ibn Sīnā. Religions were never self-contained wholes either during or after the time of revelation.

The controversy between positions often labeled as “foundationalism” and “antifoundationalism”, that is the question of the epistemological significance of which tradition one belongs to, plays a major role in conversations with those outside the religious traditions. Are there pre-supposable universal principles to which all knowledge-claims have to adhere? Or are any such principles inherent in the perspective of those who make these claims and thus dependent on, among other things, their religious background? In the latter case, an attitude of dialogical pluralism which takes these differences in approaching the truth seriously is necessary in order for a common reasoning to make any progress.

“Revelation” in Christianity is a polymorphic concept, comprising a variety of phenomena, such as words, deeds, or signs. It is also a relational term which stands for a constellation of circumstances, content, recipients, the effects, and the author of revelation, and cannot be understood in terms of just one of these aspects alone. Retrospectively, it can be analysed by the following formula:

[A], the author of revelation, discloses in the situation [B] the content [C] for the recipient [D] with the effect [E].

These placeholders can be filled with concrete elements from the biblical accounts. With regard to [A], it can be said that revelation often takes the form of self-identification, for example in the book of Exodus. [B] can stand for a variety of situations, including ones where the recipient is listening to music, reading scripture, or praying. The signs of earlier revelation can thus become the medium for a new disclosure experience. The content [C] quite often comprises either self-identification or instructions for action, and only in a secondary sense dogmatic propositions. Concerning [D], it is important to note that there is no abstract revelation, but always particular recipients. The fact that the particulars around a revelatory experience are always mentioned in the scriptures is an indicator of their importance. The effect [E] is usually characterised by a great certainty, an unambiguous, unconditional mission or faith for which no alternatives are given. This certainty then becomes the starting point for later ambiguity and variety of intepretation. If revelation does not have this effect and is not recognised as revelation, it cannot be said to be revelation as it does not fulfill its purpose. “Revelation” in that sense is a “success word”.

A difficulty in Christian-Jewish relations is posed by the fact that the New Testament contains appropriations of Jewish scriptures: The Old Testament is read from the perspective of faith in the ultimate, eschatological disclosure of God in the resurrection of Jesus. This claim is in fact seen as the starting point from which all of history, which becomes itself  a process of God’s self-revelation, is to be interpreted. In this sense, the book was historically only a secondary authority, for example when it was used in preaching or pastoral care. The private reader with a book as a main vessel of revelation is a modern phenomenon.

One central question in debates on revelation among the Christian communities and between Christians and non-Christians is how the authenticity of the witness to revelation can be secured. This question is solved by establishing a chain of witnesses transmitting the original apostolic message, and establishing an open canon. His process ends with the formulation of the dogma of the Trinity, which confirms the ontological identity of the author, the content and the process of revelation.

In the medieval period, discussions between Christian theologians were heavily influenced by the confrontation with Muslim and Jewish scholars. For example, in Thomas Aquinas’s borrowings from scholars such as ibn Sina, we find a large amount of unknown “imports” from Muslim and Jewish thinking in authoritative Christians writings.These debates often focused on the question whether it is possible or even necessary to use reason in order to explain the truths of revelation. Reason, in these debates, is either seen as constitutive in knowing the content of revelation on its own, or as a mere explication of a given revelation, as reason is always dependent on some form of a given.

In modern philosophy, after the Enlightenment had questioned all claims to revelation by making reason the criterion for the assessment of truth and left revelation with only an educational role, revelation was restored as a philosophical concept, for example, by Hegel, who understood it as divine self-communication in the dialectics of the history of the Spirit. This structure of thought was taken up by theologians in the 20th century, making revelation the “key concept” (Peter Eicher) of modern Christian theology.

Today, as a result of a debate on the foundations of human knowledge, different philosophical and religious positions are engaged in “dialogical pluralism” (Nicholas Wolterstorff) with two possible results: one ist relativism which takes all truth to depend on the group of people affirming it. The other possible solution is an attitude of “epistemic humility”, which consists in the recognition that our knowledge always depends on some given, which is constituted for us. In this case, we must recognise that no religion can be absolutised and the claim to interpreting revelation in this broad sense cannot be restricted to one interpretation.

Discussion: Faith as an effect of revelation, pistis and īmān and the divinity of Jesus Christ

Prof. Schmitz wanted to know if the idea of revelation as a “success word” that can only be applied if revelation is accepted as such is a modern understanding of revelation or if it would have been recognised by theologians in the past. He also asked whether the idea of the constitution of faith as an effect of revelation is indicative of a concept of faith that is limited to Christianity. Prof. Schwöbel answered that these theses are an internal perspective of a Christian theologian and systematician, not a historian. His strategy in interreligious dialouge is at first to define the terms from the point of view of his own religion and then to ask members of other religions to what extent they would use the same concept. Faith as an effect of revelation in this dominant sense only exists in Christian theology; Judaism and Islam have different concepts of faith, as do all mystical traditions.

Prof. Tamer remarked that unlike Judaism with the Torah and Islam with the Qur’ān, Christianity has no “hard copy” of revelation. He also pointed out that etymologically, the meaning of the Greek pistis (faith) is different from that of the Arabic īmān. Prof. Schwöbel agreed that Christianity is not really a religion of the book, but is centered instead around a person. Nevertheless, faith is always based on some medium of communication, which is enshrined in the scriptures, even if they derive their spiritual meaning from the fact that Christ is thought to be present through them. On the subject of the difference between pistis and īmān, Prof. Schwöbel explained that Christianity is based around the logic of promise, rather than that of law, and that pistis is understood as the reponse to that promise.

Prof. Afsaruddin, however, pointed out that faith is not any less central in Islam than it is in Christianity, as four of the five pillars of Islam are meaningless without the first one, the affirmation of faith. Moreover, God’s promise, which is known through revelation, is at the centre of faith in Islam, too, so that it is questionable what the difference between īmān and pistis actually is. In response to this, Prof. Tamer insisted that etymologically at least, the word ašhadu which stands at the start of the Muslim affirmation of faith does not carry precisely the same meaning as the Latin credo.

In his reply, Prof. Schwöbel reconciled the two viewpoints by saying that these differences are there, but they are relativised as soon as we speak about God instead of about the different religions. This is because in all three monotheistic religions, these concepts are centerd on God. Such a theological debate, in his view, comes closer to real dialogue than an approach within religious studies.

With regard to the idea of incarnation, Dr Amos asked where in the New Testament Jesus claims any divine name. Prof. Schwöbel replied that the divinity of Jesus Christ consists solely in his relationship to God the Father.

The Concept of Revelation in Islam

After being introduced by Prof. Maha El-Kaisy Friemuth (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen) Prof. Afsaruddin (Indiana University Bloomington) spoke about five aspects of the concept of revelation as drawn from the Qur’ān: 1. Revelation as communication between God and humans, 2. The Qur’ān as the primordial revelation and a mercy to humankind, 3. The manner of communication, 4. Revelation as a message to all humankind, 5. Revelation as an affirmation of monotheism.

  1. The Arabic term waḥy (revelation), mentioned five times in the Qur’ān, stands for God’s message to humans through signs and applies expecially to the Qur’ān as words directly from God. The concept of waḥy is focused on God as the initiator of revelation. The word tanzīl (sending down) on the other hand refers to the transmission of revelation from God through intermediaries. In Q 26:22-26, for instance, the angel Gabriel is mentioned as the messenger through whom the revelation is sent down. Aṭ-Ṭabarī confirms this in his commentary on Q 53:5. This tanzīl is a firm chain of transmission which protects the Qurān from falsification or alteration. According to Q 15:9, the Qur’āns incorruptibility is guaranteed by God himself. According to Fakhr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī, Q 53:3 is a clear rebuttal of those who accuse Muhammad of soothsaying or poetry. Mohammed Arkoun argues that the semiotic structure of the Qur’ān itself imposes a communicative situation of revelation and thereby points to its divine origin.
  2. The idea of the Qur’ān as the primordial revelation is linked to the notion of al-lauḥ al-maḥfūẓ (“the preserved tablet”) or umm al-kitāb (“the mother of the book”). Acordiang to aṭ-Ṭabarī, these terms refer to a celestial archetype of the book that protects the Qur’ān from alteration. Q 4:163-165 calls the Qur’ān a manifestation of God’s kindness and justice towards humankind.
  3. God’s communication with humans can only take place through waḥy, or from behind a veil, or through an angel. Waḥy is also applied to non-humans, in the sense that God inspires the cosmos, animals, or angels. It is also sometimes used in the sense of divine inspiration for certain humans who are not prophets, such as Moses’ mother. Additionally, waḥy can be transmitted through prophets to non-prophets, e.g. in Q 19:11 where it is said of Zachariah that he “inspired” (auḥā ilā) his people.
  4. As a message from God to humankind, revelation is universal, but also particularised by time and place. The transmission of the message of revelation is the primary role of a prophet. By referring to that message  as a book (kitāb), it is linked to earlier revelations, such as in Q 5:46 where Jesus is said to have confirmed what was before him. This means that previous revelations have to be taken seriously from a Muslim perspective. Traces of discourse between different religious communities who were familiar with each other’s scriptures can be found in the Qur’ān. The many appeals to reason in the Qur’ān suggest that the rational capacities of its recipient are an important aspect of revelation.
  5. The notion of revelation as an affirmation of monotheism provides some common ground between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This is exemplified in the expression kalima sawā’ (Q 3:64): a common (or just) word that all religions can agree on, which is identified by aṭ-Ṭabarī as the common belief in the unity of God. This is taken up by some modern-day interpreters as a common starting point for an interreligious hermeneutics.

In conclusion, revelation is a key concept for the religion of Islam, too, as it is direct communication from God to man and divine guidance for erring humans, which is an expression of mercy towards humankind. It also has a unifying aspect as it underscores our common humanity and dignity as recipients of God’s communication.

Discussion: Covenant and the fragmentation of revelation in Islam

Prof. El-Kaisy asked about the meaning of “covenant” in Islam, in comparison with its meaning in Judaism. Prof. Afsaruddin replied that the Arabic word often translated by “covenant” stands for an agreement or pact, with no specific reference to the Hebrew nation. In a reciprocal relation, it comprises a promise of salvation in return for faith and good actions within a mutual understanding between God and humanity. Faith in Islam is thus closely linked to gratitude for this promise. This reciprocal relationship can be explained in terms of “covenant”; however, this is perhaps a misleading translation because of its Biblical connotations. Prof. Schwöbel added that a covenant in the Hebrew Bible is necessarily one-sided, as one party of the agreement has reated the other, so that any mutuality in this is automatically asymmetrical. Prof. Afsarudddin agreed that this is asymmetrical, but God places the restriction of mercy on himself in response to humanity.

Prof. Tamer drew attention to the fragmentation of revelation (a concept already mentioned in Prof. Schmitz’s presentation) in Islam, which is shown in the idea that there are as many as 24,000 prophets, while there is only one source of revelation which is revealed in portions in many different contexts. On this subject, Prof. Schwöbel later remarked that only monolithic unities can be fragmented, other unities are built up by plurality.