Religion 101

Religion 101

Religious Illiteracy Redux (Part One)

Here’s a new statistic (well, it’s actually about five years old, now, but it’s a new one to me), which I only just happened to stumble upon the other day. This one surprises even me.

Evidently back in 2007, Newsweek magazine conducted a “What You Need to Know Poll,” questioning American adults on a broad variety of topics. As the weekly magazine itself put it, “The results were mixed, to be charitable.” Among the many large gaps and gaping holes found among average U.S. citizens’ collective common knowledge (or, as the periodical itself phrased it, their “general cultural confusion”), a couple of religion-related items naturally caught my eye.

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure). And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”


I want to look more closely at both of those two surprising statistics, but one at a time (and in separate blog entries for each one). So, let’s start with that first finding:

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure).”

That’s an awful lot of people who don’t know that Judaism is older (much older) than Christianity or Islam. From my perspective as a comparative religions instructor, being cognizant of the relative ages of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is so essential to any adequate understanding of world religions in general — and to Western religions in particular — that immediate clarification seems rather urgently called for here.


The simple fact of the matter is that Jews were practicing Judaism centuries before Christians were practicing Christianity. (And Christians were practicing Christianity centuries before Muslims were practicing Islam.)

To put it all in a nutshell, the roots of Judaism stretch all the way back to the second millennium B.C. Christianity emerged from Judaism during the first century A.D. Islam appeared on the scene in the seventh century A.D.

So, their respective historical “points of origin” are all separated by many centuries.

Judaism’s age, of course, depends upon which particular incident in its development you want to consider as its specific or actual point of origin. Abraham, generally regarded as the first Hebrew patriarch, is traditionally dated (assuming he existed as an actual historical figure at all) at somewhere around 1800 B.C. Alternately, if one takes the view that Israelite religion as such didn’t really get started until God (Yahweh) gave the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai, then that pushes its date of origin up to somewhere around 1250 B.C. (the traditional date of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, under Moses).


(Just to further muddy the waters, many scholars distinguish between Judaism per se, and the ancient Israelite religion which preceded it; according to this view, “Judaism” proper — with its rabbis, synagogues, and scriptural canon — did not technically emerge until after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C. And for that matter, “rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today [as distinguished from the priestly sacrificial system of Temple-based biblical-era Judaism] can be viewed as to some degree a product of the first century A.D., having developed its characteristic “rabbinic” form only in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D. On the other hand, one might conversely argue that, from yet another perspective, Judaism in a sense began with Adam and Eve, at least insofar as those two were traditionally the first humans — and so were also the first humans who presumably believed in, and interacted with, the Hebrew/Jewish God.)


In any case, we can at least affirm that Judaism certainly has roots traditionally stretching perhaps as far back as 1250 or even 1800 years before Christ (literally, “B.C.”). That puts Judaism’s current age at anywhere from 3250 to 3800 years, if one uses either of these very early “traditional roots” dates. A looser, more conservative age of approximately 3000 years might not be too far amiss, if one takes Judaism per se as perhaps having actually developed just a bit later in history.

Insofar as the Christian religion actually began as a Jewish sect before fully separating itself from Judaism, Christianity in a sense shares those same Hebraic roots. But on the other hand, of course, Christianity per se did not actually itself manifest upon the historical scene until the advent of Jesus of Nazareth (4 B.C.? – 29 A.D.?), and the subsequent development of a distinctive new religious movement centered upon an understanding of Jesus as being “the Christ” (by which Christians understand to mean a particular type of divine savior, and one who is also uniquely close to, or even in some sense identical with, God). This early Christian movement soon splintered off from the first-century-A.D. Judaism within which it had been born, eventually becoming an entirely separate “standalone” religion altogether.


The widely adopted Western (Gregorian) calendar counts the years from what its creators  took to be the birth of Christ (e.g., starting with the year 1 A.D.). On that basis, the fact that this is currently the year 2012 amounts to a way of simply saying that Christianity is now 2012 years old (give or take, depending upon precisely when “Christianity” per se, or as a religion, actually got started). Of course, it has also since been determined that the historical Jesus was actually probably born between 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. (not 1 A.D.), so the calendar is off by  a few years, anyway.

But in very round numbers, yes, Christianity is now roughly two millennia old.

Fast forward now to the seventh century A.D., and the birth of Islam. Since the word Muslim simply means “one who submits (to the will of God),” many Muslims sometimes affirm that Adam and Eve were actually the first Muslims, technically speaking, at least insofar as they were the first such “submitters.” From this perspective, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and everyone else down throughout biblical history can likewise all be seen as “Muslims,” insofar as they also believed in, worshipped, and submitted to the will of that selfsame Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (whom Muslims refer to as Allah, which is not a personal name but simply the Arabic word for “God”).


However, the religion of Islam per se did not arrive on the scene in seventh-century Arabia until the advent of the prophet Muhammad (570-632 A.D.). The series of divine revelations experienced by Muhammad, which would later be collected to comprise Islam’s holy scripture, the Quran (or Koran), began in the year 610 A.D. These revelations continued periodically for the rest of the prophet’s life.

Some view the occurrence of Muhammad’s initial prophetic revelation in 610 A.D. as, in effect, marking the “birth” of Islam. Others instead view the centrally important historical event known as the Hijra (“flight,” “migration”) of Muhammad and his companions from hostile Mecca to welcoming Medina, which occurred in 622 A.D., as the critical “turning point” which marks the real birth of Islam. (The Islamic calendar in fact begins counting its years from the date of the Hijra, which thus begins with the year 1 A.H.)


In either case — regardless of whether one takes 610 A.D. or 622 A.D. as the correct actual “start date” — the upshot is that Islam today is now right around 1400 years old.

So, just to sum things all up (once again, putting it all in a nutshell):

Judaism = at least 3000 years old (3250 years since Moses, 3800 years since Abraham) 

Christianity = about 2000 years old

Islam = about 1400 years old

Now, in my next blog post, we’ll be taking a closer look at that second surprising statistic uncovered by that 2007 Newsweek poll — the finding that 77% of adult Americans don’t know which country in the world has the largest Muslim population.


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