Creating a usable history: On Paul and the Qur’an

In the next couple weeks, my students will finish their study of the Qur’an and read about the conquest of Mecca and the death of the Prophet. In the last couple iterations of the course, that’s where I ended, but this time around I decided to add back in one last day where we do The Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi, as a representative sample of the hadith. I anticipate that what they will experience when they read the hadith will be the same thing as past classes have experienced: relief.

And given the privilege that the hadith traditions — which gather sayings or incidents from the Prophet’s life in bite-sized units, with varying degrees of historicity — in the Islamic tradition, I imagine many Muslims feel the same way. The Qur’an is, to say the least, an unwieldy text. I admit that I find it to be a bit puzzling that Muslims memorize the Qur’an phonetically without knowing its meaning, but at the same time, even a native Arabic speaker might be hard-pressed to decipher its idiosyncratic language. Even aside from that, the text is deeply embedded in particular contexts and debates for which it provides no guidance — indeed, even in its retelling of biblical narratives, the presentation is often fragmentary and decontextualized. And the text is quite simply difficult to navigate, given that the surahs were organized by length rather than theme or chronology of revelation.

Faced with these obstacles, it seems that, broadly speaking, legal scholars isolated the passages that provided something like legal guidance, and other than that, the primary use of the Qur’an was in recitation (or calligraphic copying) as an act of worship. For everything else, the hadith traditions about the Prophet’s example — which the Qur’an itself explicitly encourages Muslims to imitate — were much more useful and convenient.

This brings me to my subtitle. One thing I’ve become increasingly focused on is the possible relationship between the Qur’an and St. Paul. I don’t mean that the Qur’an is directly responding to Paul by any means — he is not mentioned, nor is he much of a figure in later Islamic tradition. The parallels seem to me to emerge more or less spontaneously from their odd position as “too late” apostles. This leads Paul and the Qur’an to independently discover the same rhetorical tropes and theological moves. Most striking to me is their deployment of Abraham to get “back behind” the existing monotheistic tradition(s). The featured image, for instance, is a verse that stands out to me as a nearly exact parallel to Paul’s usage of Abraham in Galatians and Romans: “And they say, ‘Be Jews or Christians and you shall be guided.’ Say thou: ‘Nay, rather the creed of Abraham, a man of pure faith; he was no idolater'” (Qur’an 2:135, Arberry trans.).

I’m going to give a talk on Paul and the Qur’an at a conference in June, which will be my first “official” scholarly intervention on this long-simmering theme. I’ll probably post that talk at the time, so I won’t belabor the argument here. What I do want to focus on is the way that this parallel has led me to think about a possible reconstruction of Christian origins. I don’t want to claim that this is definitive by any means, but the thing is — we will literally never know for sure. I think this is at least a plausible reading of evidence that I’ve spent my entire life immersed in, studied in the original languages, read representative tracts of the scholarship on, etc.

My first hypothesis is that Nietzsche is right: Paul is effectively the founder of Christianity. There were other Jesus-followers, including people who had known and worked closely with Jesus during his lifetime, but Paul’s vision of the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection made Christianity much more clearly “a thing.” It not only provided an explanation for why the crucifixion had to happen, but it gave Christianity a missionary impulse that clearly distinguished it from Judaism and, crucially, gave people something to do.

The problem is that the body of texts he left behind is a mess. Like the Qur’an, their language is idiosyncratic. Like the Qur’an, they were embedded in contexts and debates on which it does not provide any background. Though I agree with scholars who see the letters as carefully constructed rhetorical interventions (just as I agree with Angelika Neuwirth that the individual suras are much more structured than they might initially appear), Paul’s writings are ultimately fragments.

So here’s where I’m going to lose people [added: and further discussion with various readers has convinced me that it’s probably more productive to read the remainder of the post as a thought-experiment in how far I can push this hypothesis than anything like a definitive account of Christian origins]: I think this gap is basically what inspired the production of the rest of the New Testament. Like the generation of the hadith traditions, the generation of the New Testament writings was an attempt to create a more usable history. This seems to have taken two basic paths: crafting narratives directly about Jesus (though also about Paul) and ghost-writing more coherent letters supposedly by Paul (and some other major figures). That’s right — I’m claiming that the gospels were directly inspired by and informed by Paul’s teaching, meaning they don’t offer a path “back behind” our favorite cantankerous apostle. Surely it is no accident, for instance, that the most complete and authoritative of the synoptic gospels is explicitly attributed to a companion of Paul and accompanied by a sequel that culminates in Paul’s ministry.

I’m not sure what to do with John here, but then, I’ve never known what to do with John. For the sake of this post, let’s say it’s an attempt to synthesize the gospels and the epistles by putting lengthy theological discourses directly into the mouth of Jesus — and also to more forcefully distance Jesus from Judaism. For instance, John the Baptist does not explicitly baptize Jesus in John. We “know” John baptized him and so we supply that detail automatically, but the gospel text does not literally say it happens. But that’s another post!

And what happened to the original core of the letters of Paul in this context? They were mined for legal-sounding language and otherwise set aside. In part that’s because what seemed to be Paul’s main problem — the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in light of Christ — seemed to be settled. They never took on quite the sacred status of the Qur’an, since they were not unambiguously “revelations” in the same way, but they did take on a liturgical role where reading them out loud was treated as an act of worship. And other than that, they just sat there like time-bombs, waiting for Augustine and Luther to come along….

What I like about this theory is that it doesn’t require us to postulate unattested texts and traditions — but I know New Testament scholars have got to keep themselves employed somehow. Anyway! Happy Sunday!

4 thoughts on “Creating a usable history: On Paul and the Qur’an

  1. The strange thing about the Gospel of John is it contains incidents, sometimes they are interpolations, that do seem important and taken from other sources – my unevidenced hunch is that they were taken from one of the Jewish Gospels (probably the Gospel of the Hebrews) that have been purposefully excised from the synoptics, probably by Pauline factions.

    The Pericope Adulterae is surely an allusion to the Jews treatment of Jesus’ mother.

    The raising of Lazarus is another such incident. The synoptics, which are all iterations on Mark (with Matthew and Luke incorporating Q/James source material), seem aware of Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Simon the Pharisee (or Simon the Leper) in Bethany, but omit to mention the raising of Lazarus.

    The raising of Lazarus in John is the critical juncture where the plot turns, the episode which ignites the Roman and Jewish authorities to arrest and execute Jesus – so you can see why they omit it. I guess the naked young man running away in Mark is meant to be Lazarus? Is it James or Lazarus that is meant to be the Beloved Disciple? The passages in Secret Mark seem to attest to this, though I know that’s a controversial and perhaps fraudulent opinion.

    Contra Paul. The biblical narratives in the Qur’an and and even in the gospels are fragmentary and decontextualized, like dreams. But the dreamer doesn’t dream the dream at all – the conscious mind assembles the dream narrative upon waking. The stories do seem to have wide and popular circulation in their times. The wager in this kind of storytelling is that knowledge is a kind of fiction, the truth lies in the echo, a gist. A sense.

  2. You’re right, scholars categorize one third of the Quran as laws. The other third is about Allah ﷻ, and the last third is stories of the unseen, past and future.

  3. My layman’s pet theory about the Fourth Gospel is that it is, precisely, an attempt to “get back behind” the synoptic and Pauline traditions, by appealing to the only authority who could possibly outrank Paul or the Twelve in eyes of an early Christian: John the Baptist himself.

    The Fourth Gospel begins by declaring that “A man named John was sent from God … and this is the testimony of John.” To me it seems logical to read this as suggesting “the doctrine that follows is what John the Baptist taught – regardless of what you may have read in any other gospels or epistles to the contrary”. To speculate about the identity of an alleged “John the Evangelist” is a red herring – the gospel’s author does not identify himself at all, and gives no sign that he considers his own identity important; what matters to the anonymous author is to put his doctrines in the mouth of the Baptist. David above correctly notes that the raising of Lazarus is the structural hinge point of this gospel – and it might be relevant to note here that the raising of Lazarus is directly preceded by the gospel’s very last mention of the Baptist: “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.”

    Of course, the Fourth Gospel is such a mess structurally that I doubt if scholars will ever untangle its original form.

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