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Comparative Religion For Dummies


by William P. Lazarus and Mark Sullivan




About the Authors

A native of Maine who grew up in northeast Ohio, William Paul Lazarus began studying religious history as a child and has never stopped. By age 13, he was teaching Sunday school. After moving to Florida in 1986, he branched out by teaching at various institutions, including Daytona Beach Community College and Stetson University. A professional writer, he regularly speaks at churches and synagogues around Florida, and had a successful radio show on 1340-AM, WROD, in Daytona Beach. This is his ninth book on various aspects of religious history. He and his wife live in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Mark Sullivan was born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, and grew up in a traveling, academic family, something like a fantastic traveling circus. He returned to NYC for college, at Columbia University, where he studied Comparative Literature and European Languages. He later attended the Juilliard School of Music for studies in composition.

He has worked in book publishing, in various roles, and as an author, for the past 17 years. His interests include languages, music, swimming, and travel. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Mariko.


Bill’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to all the people who encouraged me both professionally and academically from the first time I decided to write and to learn about religious history: my wife, Kathleen; daughter, Maia; my parents; my three brothers, all of whom write and are published, although no one knows where the writing gene came from; and friends like Cynthia Schuster-Eakin, Jon Swebilius, Michael Silverstein, Tom Nimen, and Susan Cerbone.

Mark’s dedication:

To my mother, Maureen, and my father, Art, whose love of all things interesting opened my mind from the very beginning of my life. And to my wife, Mariko.


Authors’ Acknowledgments

Bill’s acknowledgments:

This book could not have been written without the witting efforts of editors and colleagues, and the unwitting efforts of educators like Arthur Tirson, Herbert Mermelstein, and Rabbi Dov Pikelny. They devoted so much effort to helping a young boy learn about faith, even when they realized the knowledge would eventually carry him far away from their beliefs. I couldn’t be more grateful for their unselfish — and given my attention span, often heroic — work. I also want to thank Mark Sullivan, who suggested this book and has been unflinchingly encouraging in our collaboration.

Mark’s acknowledgments:

Many thanks, first, to Amine Bouchentouf for leading the way at Wiley. His hard work and desire for excellence in his own writing were exemplary.

My appreciation and thanks, also, to Tim Gallan and Vicki Adang for their editorial skills that made this a better book, and to Lindsay Lefevere for getting it all started.

And to my teachers — my parents, Ed Tolk, Edward Said, Michel Riffaterre, Frank Camper, and others — thank you so much for helping me become a better thinker and more appreciative of art and ideas.

To Bill Lazarus, the most industrious writer I know — it was a real pleasure working on this book with you and learning from your prodigious knowledge of these religions.

Finally, to my beloved wife, Mariko, thanks for putting up with “the process” one more time!


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

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About This Book

Foolish Assumptions

Conventions Used in This Book

How This Book Is Organized

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I : History Is a Happening Thing

Chapter 1: One God, Three Faiths

Holy Toledo! How Many Gods Are There?

Monotheism Develops

Following Abraham’s Lead: Judaism

Christianity: Crossing in a New Direction

Islam: Submitting to God

Chapter 2: Following Abraham’s Path

What We Do and Don’t Know about the Historic Abraham

Abraham’s Early Years

The Beginnings of Judaism

In Islam, Ishmael Finds a New Way

Jesus Joins the Genealogy

Three Faiths: One Founder

Part II : The Development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Chapter 3: Judaism: Oy Vey, What a History!

From Abraham, Judaism Takes the Long Road

Moses, Receiver of God’s Laws

The Days of the Judges

The Time of Kings

Getting Conquered: The Jews Find Themselves in Hot Water

Christianity’s Emergence Puts the Jews on the Defensive (Yet Again)

How Jews Have Influenced Society

Flying the Blue and White Banner of Israel

Chapter 4: Judaism Finds God in Everything

A Little of This, A Little of That

Maintaining Daily Practice

Observing Jewish Holidays

Understanding Jewish Rituals

Understanding Jewish Symbols

Chapter 5: Jesus and the Origins of Christianity

Jesus’s Life and Death

The First Believers

A New Religion Grows

It’s Hard to Keep Everyone Happy

Christianity Today

Chapter 6: Christian Beliefs and Practices

The First Noel: Christmas and the Roots of Christianity

Other Christian Holidays

Happening upon Christianity’s Holy Sites

Rituals: Outward Expressions of Faith

The Different Symbols of Christianity

Many Christians, Many Sects

Chapter 7: The Birth of Islam: The Prophet Submits to Allah

Islam, Born in the Desert

The Prophet Arrives

Muhammad Takes Command

Breakdown at the Start-Up: Sunnis and Shi’ites Can’t Get Along

The Ottoman Turks Dominate Islam

Chapter 8: Islam: Submission of the Faithful

The Core of Islam: One God with Muhammad as His Last Prophet

Allah: The Almighty of Islam

The Pillars of the Faith

Meeting Some Muslim Sects

Gender Equality in Islam

Observing Muslim Holidays

Getting to Know Saints in Islam

Common Rituals and Daily Practices

The Story Behind Symbols and Colors

Part III : Shared Aspects of the Faiths

Chapter 9: Reading the Holy Words

The Hebrew Bible

The Christian Bible

The Koran

Understanding the Texts

Unrolling the Dead Sea Scrolls

Perusing Other Sacred Books

Chapter 10: Houses of Prayer

Early Sacred Sites: Stone Mounds and Altars

The Many Lives of the Temple in Jerusalem

Christians Choose Churches

Mosques Reflect the Prophet

Who’s Welcome for Worship?

Chapter 11: Religious Leaders: Keeping the Faith

Great Jewish Leaders of the Past

Rise of the Rabbi

Modern Jewish leaders

Christian Leaders

Church Leaders from the Early Days Until Now

Following Muhammad

Chapter 12: Sacred Sites

Jerusalem: Important to All Three Religions

Sacred Sites of Judaism

In Islam, All Roads Lead to Mecca

Christian Sacred Sites

Chapter 13: Thy Kingdom Come: The Messiah Concept

The Origins of the Messiah Concept

Christians Adopt Jesus as the Messiah

Islam Develops a Messiah: Madhi

Chapter 14: Holy Catastrophe: End of the World

Where Did the Idea of the End of the World Come From?

Judaism’s Belief in the End and Its Influence on Christianity

Islam’s View of the End

How the End of the World Will Take Place

Part IV : Shared Ideas Among the Faiths

Chapter 15: Dealing with Sin

What Is Sin, and Where Does It Come From?

Facing Punishment for Sins

Receiving Redemption

Excommunication: When Redemption Isn’t an Option

Chapter 16: Good Heavens: Life after Death

Where Do Ideas about the Afterlife Come From?

What Is Heaven?

Angels: God’s Helpers

Chapter 17: Hell in a Nutshell

Starting with the Roots of Hell

What Is Hell Like?

Speaking of the Devil

Watching Out for Devilish Assistants

What Happens to Satan?

Chapter 18: War and Peace: Why Can’t We All Get Along?

A Shared Heritage

Differences, Disagreements, and Conflicts

War and Not So Much Peace

The Jews Struggle

Finding Solutions in Secularism

Part V : The Part of Tens

Chapter 19: Ten Misconceptions about Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Judaism Struggles against Anti-Semitism

Christianity Focuses on Fundamentals

Islam Emerges to Slow Understanding

Chapter 20: Ten Films Drawn from Biblical Accounts

The Ten Commandments

King of Kings

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Jesus Christ Superstar

The Passion of the Christ

The Prince of Egypt

The Last Temptation of Christ

Solomon and Sheba

David and Bathsheba

Samson and Delilah

Chapter 21: Ten-Plus Ways Religion Influences the World

Read All About It: Literature

Music as an Expression of Faith

Politics and Religion: Not Always Easy to Separate

Bringing the Bible to Life through Art

Recording Biblical Stories on Film

Spreading the Word through Television

Seeking Insight into God through Science

Education: Wearing a Skullcap and a Thinking Cap

Being Holy Improves Your Health and Well-Being

Social Welfare: Doing unto Others

Disagreeing about Environmental Issues

Part VI : Appendixes

Appendix A: Timelines for Religions




Appendix B: Genealogies

Judaism and Christianity


End User License Agreement


High school students in Ohio — and maybe elsewhere as well — used to take a course that introduced them to many of the world’s religions. In classes filled with children of many beliefs, teachers would talk about how a particular faith developed and how it spread.

Today, when it seems that the faithful in one religion can’t resist taking potshots at believers in another religion, people may have forgotten how life was in past eras. People of different faiths used to live and work side by side with little concern. At one time, Jews served as advisors and heads of state in Muslim countries. Christians and Jews labored together to build the culture in Catholic Spain. Christians lived in harmony with Muslims in the Middle East.

Less than 1,000 years ago, Catholic Roger II of Sicily relied on Arab scholars and financiers to run his widespread Mediterranean kingdom.

At one time, Jewish and Christian icons were included with the Ka’baa, the holiest religious monument in Islam, located in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Even today, Jerusalem is home to the Dome of the Rock, a sacred Islamic mosque, and the Wailing Wall, the last surviving piece of the great Jewish Temple that once existed there.

Visitors to Jerusalem can see religious Jews wrapped in prayer shawls, trudging along ancient streets alongside Muslims and Christians. Overhead, the cry of the Islamic muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer, rings out along with the tolling bells of Christian churches. The flag of Israel flutters in the breeze with the Star of David in its center.

Such situations are too rare. Members of the three religions seem to fight more than they pray together. Over time, the three great religions have become separated by seemingly unbridgeable chasms. Actually, they are very much alike.

bullet Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common heritage. They each tie their history to a single event and a single person, Abraham, who lived maybe 4,000 years ago.

bullet The three religions all worship the same God and shun the pagan concepts of multiple deities. In Judaism, his name is Yahweh. In Islam, the name is Allah, which means God. Christians simply call him God.

bullet They have similar holidays. Easter, for example, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, is tied directly to Passover, one of the most significant holidays in Judaism.

bullet Each religion believes Jerusalem is a sacred city.

There are many more links among the three faiths — they share many likenesses and have fewer differences.

But in spite of the similarities between these primary Western faiths, fissures between them continue today. These disputes can be seen in the Roman Catholic pope’s apologies for comments he made about Islam, as well as Jewish and Arab fighting over Israel, American battles in Iraq, Iranian insistence that the American president is the “devil,” and more acrimonious and violent behavior.

Maybe it’s time to review the histories of these religions and use this understanding as a way to create a peaceful path into the future.

About This Book

This book examines and compares the three great religions that believe in the same God. They are among the oldest and most widespread religions on earth. Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be found on almost every continent and in every country.

Each chapter in Comparative Religion For Dummies will bring you closer to understanding what each faith’s followers believe, how their beliefs compare with their counterparts, and how each religion reached this point in time.

“Dummies” is actually an affectionate term. This is a book for people who don’t know about these three great faiths, but want to find out more. All three of these religions encourage education. They can claim most of the world’s greatest scholars — some who devoted their lives to helping others understand the world. This book continues that honorable process.

All the topics in these pages, of course, have been extensively researched by many people over the centuries. You can find books that devote thousands of pages to tiny aspects of each religion, as well as whole libraries focused on the founders of each faith. This book gives you an overview, with each chapter standing on its own. You can pick and choose what you want to know. Then when you need additional information, you’ll know where to go to find what you’re looking for.

Foolish Assumptions

You don’t have to be a religious scholar to understand or appreciate this book. We don’t assume that you have a background in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. But if you are familiar with or believe in one of these religions, we think you’ll find the comparisons presented in this book to be enlightening. The three religions are more similar than most people realize, and we hope that developing an understanding of the similarities and differences can only improve the current state of affairs in our world.

Conventions Used in This Book

Historians today are moving toward connoting time by using CE (of the common era) and BCE (before the common era.) The old way — BC, meaning “before Christ,” and AD, standing for “the year of our Lord” in Latin — was seen as too religious. With so many scholars from so many different faiths working together, no one wanted to offend anyone else’s beliefs.

We don’t either. However, BC and AD are such a part of our lives and the lives of our readers, we decided to stick to them. We don’t want to offend anyone. We’re just trying to reduce chances of misunderstanding. We are sure our readers will agree.

A note about translations: Nothing is harder than taking an ancient text and trying to convert it into modern English. It’s worse than wrestling pudding. At least, if you do that, everyone agrees that you’re talking about pudding. With the ancient documents, particularly those seen as holy, some people even object to the concept of translating.

In Chapter 9, we try to explain why it’s so hard to translate the Bible and the Koran, the two principal sacred documents of the three faiths. Nevertheless, they are often the only texts that deal with the oldest portions of religious history, and we relied on the best translations we could find. Other writers may translate the words in a different way, but the gist is the same.

Finally, we use the following conventions to help you understand new words and concepts:

bullet We italicize all new words and terms that are defined.

bullet We boldface keywords or the main parts of bulleted lists.

bullet We use monofont for Web addresses.

bullet We’ve put quick little stories or fun trivia facts in shaded boxes called sidebars. The stuff in these sidebars is interesting, but you don’t have to read them to gain an understanding of the topic at hand.

How This Book Is Organized

The book is divided into six parts.

Part I: History Is a Happening Thing

This section introduces the origin of religion and explains the rise of a belief in one God. That’s when the curtain opens on Abraham, a nomadic tribesman who is credited with fathering the three faiths. Little is known about him, but historians have uncovered lots of information about his time and beliefs.

The section also explains how all three religions link their history back to Abraham.

Part II: The Development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

This part explains how three different religions were nurtured on Abraham’s vision. Each developed in a separate environment, endured hardships and setbacks, and then became firmly entrenched in the mind of man.

Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on Judaism, the oldest of the three religions. The next two chapters, 5 and 6, look at Christianity, which developed directly from Judaism. The third section, Chapters 7 and 8, discuss Islam, which is younger and was born about 600 years after Jesus lived.

You’re introduced to beliefs, customs, traditions, and rituals that characterize each faith. In many cases, you see how one belief influenced another or was the source for some idea.

Part III: Shared Aspects of the Faiths

In this section, you get the scoop on how members of the three religions have developed similar approaches to worship and to expressing their faith. You discover their sacred texts that serve as a bedrock to their beliefs, and you tour their holy cities.

Part IV: Shared Ideas Among the Faiths

This part focuses on similar religious ideas and concepts that help link the three religions. They all look to a messenger from God (called a messiah), foresee the day when the world ceases, provide ways to forgive sin, and propose ideas of what comes after death.

Part V: The Part of Tens

Like all For Dummies books, the last few chapters are top-ten lists. This part lists the main misconceptions about the three religions, our favorite religious films, and the top ways that the religions have influenced the world.

Part VI: Appendixes

We conclude the book with two appendixes. The first provides a timeline so you can see when events happened. The second attempts to trace Abraham’s family tree back to Adam, the first man, and ahead to Jesus and Muhammad.

Icons Used in This Book

Information in the book has been highlighted to help you pinpoint exactly what you need to know.

This icon denotes an important point to keep in mind as you read on. It will help you understand what follows.

This icon indicates information that reflects some disagreement among scholars or even within a particular faith.

Where to Go from Here

You don’t have to read this book from cover to cover. The chapters can stand alone, so check out the Table of Contents and read whatever topic interests you.

Finally, please let us know what you think about this book. It took a long time to write and produce this book, so we’d love to hear your thoughts. You can write us through the publisher at www.dummies.com. You are also welcome to write the authors at wplazarus@aol.com. We’ll try to respond to all legitimate comments.

Part I

History Is a Happening Thing

In this part . . .

Say hello to Abraham, a simple shepherd who moved away from his own country and faith possibly 4,000 years ago. Abraham’s quiet announcement of a belief in a single God rocked his own society and still reverberates through the centuries. His revelation inspired three great religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that now dominate the world.

Those religions developed in the heat and turmoil of the Middle East. Each one centered on the idea of one God, and then diverged in ways of worship. Abraham’s genealogy includes two distinct branches that both link and divide Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.