Quaker Universalist Voice

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Inter-religion Talk Time

A Book Review of Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert Gregg (2016)

Robert Gregg’s book, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Oxford University Press)  is helpful to understanding the cultural roots of inter-religious conflicts we face today and the role of story telling in the compilation of scriptures and other revered writings of religious traditions, which mold human understanding of reality and their practice.  It is helpful in providing resources for religious education for our children.

The book has a poor and misleading title.  A more accurate title is “Shared Stories, Different Tellings in Scriptures and Revered Writings in Search of Truth:  Jews, Christians, and Muslims”.  There is little treatment of actual encounters among the three traditions. The time frame is very broad, from the 7th century CE to the 16th century CE.  The impression is left that these are three ships, each focusing inward, which pass, but do not engage, each other in the night over these centuries.

The stories shared by the three religious traditions include Sarah and Hagar, Jonah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Jesus’ mother Mary, and Cain and Abel.  The treatment of each is akin to the description of the elephant by the blind men of Hindustan (See wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant).  All three traditions recognize and embrace each story, but their early understandings and renditions were substantially different in content, coverage, tone, and assessment.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, receives far more, and positive, press in the Qur’an than she receives in the latter testament of the Bible.  Early Jewish authorities treat Mary in negative words, variously as the mother of a pseudo-Messiah, a prostitute for Roman soldiers, and a victim of witchcraft.

In the treatment of Sarah and Hagar, Jewish commentators position the star over Sarah.  In the Qur’an, the commentators place the star over Hagar and her abandoned son Ishmael.

In the treatment of Joseph and Potifer’s wife (Zulaykha in the Qu’ran), the focus of all three traditions is on the resolution of the temptation for consensual sexual behavior, but the interpretative resolutions diverge.

The diversity of treatment of common story traditions in the three religious traditions reminds us that the Christian, Jewish, and Moslem scriptures are held in common.  These scriptures are assemblages of stories retold from a shared, murky, oral past that are applied in the then current context of the later writers.  These stories are read and interpreted diversely in shared efforts to reach truth in their later contexts.  The human interpretive effort in these writings is universal in form, shared in content and jointly useful in individual and collective explorations of the path of truth and sound practice.

The Gregg book provides a basis for reflection on the role and veneration of scriptures and other venerated writings in the distant Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions. For the future, we humans can grope toward a shared resolution to venerate all these scriptures comparably and subject them all to the discernment process of experience, tradition, and reason.  It is a step in the right and practical direction for the benefit of us all. Gregg’s book can help. This book is an excellent resource for teachers at all student levels.

Quakers: This book is an excellent tool for a potential practical approach, currently implicit in our current Quaker understanding, to religious scriptures and other venerated religious documents for both teaching and living:

  • All scriptures are equal in veneration.
  • All scriptures should be venerated.
    • Veneration is respect and being taken seriously
  • All scriptures are open to review, study, and scrutiny in discernment.
  • Discernment is the reflective use of a combination of experience (personal and community), tradition (including scriptures and revelation), and reason.
  • From discernment, the process is translation of discerned insights regarding truth to practice applying the interim guidelines of testimonies.

Is there something missing or mistaken in this approach to scriptures?

  • How do Quakers teach children when we have access to the understandings of the same stories from several religious traditions?  


  • Robert Gregg, Shared Stories, Rival Tellings:  Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Oxford University Press) (2016)
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