The Catholic convert Ali ibn Hassan has described a belief that Jews and Christians falsified the Bible:
In theological conversations with Muslims, you may come across an argument that goes something like this:
The original message of the Bible has been corrupted by centuries of copying, translating, and passing down information. The result is a mishmash of contradictions and errors, the consequence of which is that the original gospel message is lost. In contrast, the manuscripts of the Quran are uniform and unaltered. Their textual accuracy and word meanings are clear, and as a result, whereas God’s message in the Bible is unreliable, we can trust that God’s message has been faithfully transmitted in the Quran.
Ibn Hassan breaks down this anti-Torah and anti-Gospels polemic into three basic ideas:
- The Jews and Christians altered the Bible and lost its original message;
- Muslims, unlike the Christians and Jews, have not altered the Quran;
- Only the Quran, therefore, preserves the message of God.
The above polemic explains to the credulous why the Bible emphasizes the role of Isaac, the nominal ancestor of the Jews. It is supposedly because the Jews altered a previous version of the Torah in order to minimize the role of Ishmael, the nominal ancestor of the Arabs.
Teaching that the Jews altered the Torah may make great theology, but it is not history. Public schools are only allowed to teach what the doctrines of the various religions are. They are not allowed to denigrate the authenticity of one faith’s scriptures in order to praise those of another.
The Anti-Defamation League sets forth the distinction:
In sum, there is a critical difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. While it is constitutionally permissible for public schools to teach about religion, it is unconstitutional for public schools and their employees to observe religious holidays, promote religious belief, or practice religion.
A Newton School Teacher Makes a Mistake
At some point after I graduated from high school in Newton, Massachusetts in 1971, a well-intentioned administrator there decided that it would be a good idea to teach students about various faiths. Teachers in the Newton Public Schools (NPS) now instruct their students about religion, but they do so without adequate supervision. A Newton North High School teacher assigned a reading to students which claimed that the transmission of the Quran was more reliable than that of the Bible.
NPS has in the past advanced a religious purpose. I had to sit through readings from the “Old” and New Testaments in Miss O’Toole’s fourth-grade class at Angier Elementary School in Newton in 1962-1963. Why assume that NPS could never advance a religious purpose now?
In a previous Times of Israel blog post I described the current failure of the Newton Public Schools to do its job and remove biased information about Israel and Judaism from its curriculum. Unfortunately NPS repeatedly ignores such complaints.
As matters stand today, any entry-level Newton teacher who graduated with some trifling degree in Ethnic and Indigenous Studies from Radical State Teachers College can insert incorrect information about Islam and Judaism into her classes. There is no meaningful action taken when teachers distribute misinformation.
Nat Hentoff once wrote that “A professor with tenure is not answerable to anyone or anything, and certainly not to mere facts.” Most Newton school teachers have tenure too. They are similarly not answerable to mere facts. Hopefully Newton teachers restrict themselves to factual assertions, but nothing happens when they do not.
Newton teachers have other advantages besides tenure. They have legions of Newton parents whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend their public schools against the howls of Neanderthal outside critics who probably don’t bath regularly and watch Fox News. Such crude outside critics cannot be compared to the sublime intellectuality of the Newton Public Schools, its dedicated teachers and devoted administrators who want nothing else but what is best for the kids.
The reality is that school systems are massive bureaucracies. They are run first of all for teachers, secondly for parents, and thirdly for kids. It was that way in Newton 50 years ago when I attended public high school there, and it is still so.
An ongoing lawsuit by Newton residents against NPS and some of its teachers and administrators seeks to change that. It provides scores of examples of Newton teachers including improper materials in their lessons. My previous blog post mentioned just one of them, an assigned reading at Newton North High School which included the following passage from page 19 of the 1998 edition of Islam: The Straight Path by Professor John L. Esposito, the founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Esposito declares:
Arabic is the sacred language of Islam because, in a very real sense, it is the language of God. In contrast to Judaism and Christianity, whose Scriptures were not only translated into Greek and Latin at an early date but also disseminated in vernacular languages.
Esposito writes “in a very real sense it [Arabic] is the language of God.” That “very real sense” is Esposito’s own opinion. Stating that opinion in a public school setting serves a religious purpose. It thus should not be stated as fact in any assigned reading in Newton schools.
Furthermore, the above required reading falsifies Jewish history. Hebrew was the primary language of religious study among religious Jews for centuries and even today. Jews did read the Torah in the original Hebrew. The reason Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic are written in Hebrew letters is because Jews already knew the Hebrew alphabet as a result of their studying Torah.
For centuries Jews did not read the Torah in translations. The first attempts to translate the Bible into Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews, were In the early part of the sixteenth century. By that time Persian-speakers had been using Koran translations for centuries. The Columbia University Library website notes:
At a first glance a Persian translation of the Quran appears as a blatant violation of the Islamic dogma of the inimitability of the Arabic Quran’s perfect language. Yet Persian glosses of the Quran are preserved in tenth-century Quran manuscripts and in early Persian translations of Arabic Quran commentaries. The point at which Persian interlinear translations of the complete Quran became fairly common is a matter of debate, since most of the extant Arabic-Persian Quran manuscripts were copied after 1500 CE.
Esposito’s claim that Muslims historically never translated the Quran into non-Arabic languages is completely, totally false. Esposito’s false claim echoes the anti-Torah and anti-Gospels polemic used by Muslim proselytizers.
The bottom line is this. A public school teacher can speculate about whether there were original versions of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Quran which differ from the versions we have today. Maybe there were. Maybe there were not. No such original versions have survived. Perhaps Muhammad wrote the Quran in a single draft. Perhaps he did not.
Either way it is not up to the Newton Public Schools to claim that the Quran is closer to its original form than the Hebrew Bible is. That comparison is not a provable, factual statement, regardless of John L. Esposito’s personal belief about the matter. Others do not agree with his claim. When teaching about religion, public schools need to stick to provable facts.
The Job of the Newton Public Schools
It is the job of the Newton Public Schools to review its required readings for their suitability for use in public schools. It is not John L. Esposito’s job. It is not his publisher’s job. It is the Newton Public Schools’ job, and so far NPS has not been doing its job. It is unconstitutional for Newton teachers to assign required readings which favor one religion’s claims over another’s. If Newton teachers cannot provide accurate information about Judaism then they should not provide any information at all.
Teaching about Judaism is what Hebrew schools and synagogue religious schools are for. Newton school teachers are clearly not up to the job. It cannot be NPS’s job to bring its Jewish students to what its teachers consider to be an enlightened view of Judaism and Islam. No one even agrees on what an enlightened view is. For John L. Esposito it is enlightened to claim that the Quran is textually unchanged while the Bible is not.
If public high school teachers in Newton want to advance a religious purpose then they should go teach in a seminary. Muslim religious high schools can favor the Quran or praise it for its supposed textual inerrancy. The Newton Public Schools cannot legally do so.
I really don’t know precisely what Esposito was getting at in that passage which NPS assigned some of its students. He definitely endorsed a common misbelief which some Muslims hold. Esposito surely knows that Muslims in Iran translated the Quran into Persian about one thousand years ago. I don’t know why he chose to state otherwise. But whatever Esposito’s motivation was, he was expressing an anti-Torah and anti-Gospels polemic that must not be presented as factual in the Newton Public Schools.
NPS, please stop insisting that you are right all the time and fix your curriculum.