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The Abrahamic Religions as a Modern Concept

Abstract and Keywords

The modern concept of the Abrahamic religions has roots in Christian theology, the academic study of the Near East, and the study of Islam. In the nineteenth century, Protestant theologians built on the idea of the ‘Abrahamic covenant’ in developing the idea of a spiritual connection among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At the same time, students of the Near East understood the three religious traditions as sharing a common genealogical bond. Such recognition was enhanced by Islam’s own sense of the religion of Abraham, which was communicated to a broader public by western Islamicists. Although the concept of the Abrahamic religions does not preclude the privileging of one religion over the others, it has provided both scholars and laypeople with a useful way of exploring the common ground of the three faiths.

Keywords: Covenant, Judaeo-Christian, supersessionism, monotheism, dispensationalism, premillennialism, Joseph Pomeroy Widney, Louis Massignon

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the term ‘Abrahamic’ began to be used with increasing frequency as a way of associating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as related faiths, and as an indicator of religious values shared by members of these religious traditions. The term itself was more than two centuries old, however, and its history bears importantly on contemporary usage. That history is intertwined with the history of the term ‘Judaeo-Christian’, which earlier in the twentieth century came to be used in a comparable way to associate Judaism and Christianity and to indicate a common system of values. This chapter on the modern evolution of the idea of the Abrahamic will therefore make reference to the related idea of the Judaeo-Christian.

‘Abrahamic’ first appears in the 1730s as the adjectival form of the patriarch. The English deist Thomas Morgan, for example, refers to ‘the Abrahamic Family’, ‘Abrahamic Righteousness’, and ‘the Abrahamic Covenant’ in his popular work, The Moral Philosopher. It is noteworthy that, in one of the earliest uses of the word, Morgan interprets God’s covenant with Abraham in universal terms: whereas the Mosaic Law applied merely to the Israelite nation, the Abrahamic Covenant possessed, according to him, ‘the only true justifying Faith and Righteousness, by which all Nations, and every Man, must be accepted and rewarded of God’ (Morgan 1739: 53, 70, and passim; 105). By contrast, contemporary Anglicans embraced the traditional Christological view of the Abrahamic covenant. Thus, at the end of the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Joseph Sullivan contended that ‘the whole design of Christ’s mission was to restore the old religion, and the true Abrahamic righteousness, by which Abraham, Noah, Enoch, and all good men, from the beginning of the world, had been justified and accepted of God’ (Sullivan 1794: 176).

That such ‘Abrahamic faith’ was intended for all humanity was advanced by John Murray, the English preacher who brought Christian Universalism (the belief that all (p. 72) people are saved through Jesus) to America in the late eighteenth century. According to historian George Huntston Williams, Murray conceived of Abrahamic faith as belonging to all those who recognized the ‘revolutionary implications’ of the gospel preached to Abraham (Williams 2002: xiii). In antebellum America, the Universalist George Rogers saw Christ as enabling every creature to return to the Abrahamic covenant. A hymn entitled ‘Abrahamic Covenant’, which Rogers published in 1838, begins, ‘The Abrahamic Covenant all people embraced | By it all who fell in Adam are in Jesus embraced’ (Rogers 1837: 130). Universalists also used the concept to refer to their own community. ‘Brethren of the Abrahamic faith!’ wrote the Universalist pastor Thomas J. Whitcomb in 1844. ‘Let ours be faith in the great cause of human emancipation, remembering that the foundation of God standeth sure—and his promises are no more Yea and Nay, but Yea and Amen!’ (Whitcomb 1945: 54).

The universalist Abrahamic faithful were, of course, building on St Paul’s formulation of Jesus’ mission as involving a restoration of God’s covenant with Abraham. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing, ‘Abrahamic’ appears most frequently conjoined with ‘covenant’, very often in order to draw an invidious distinction between this earlier compact between God and man and the subsequent one with the Israelites at Mt Sinai. The point, as the authors of a late eighteenth-century Bible commentary put it, was that Romans 11: 17 provided ‘incontestable proof that we Gentile Christians are taken into the Abrahamic covenant, (for the Sinai covenant is abolished) as truly and fully, as the nation of the Jews was’ (Dodd et al. 1770: 193). The Abrahamic covenant was, in the words of the Anglican divine Edward Stopford in 1837, ‘the true and everlasting covenant’ (Stopford 1837: 87).

Within Anglo-American Protestantism, conflict did arise over how this covenant was passed on to the next generation. In 1807, the Massachusetts pastor Samuel Worcester argued that Romans 11 showed that ‘the Abrahamic church was continued in its true character; and that the Gentile believers were brought into the same church, and admitted to a participation in the same privileges and blessings’ (Worcester 1807: 26; Worcester 1820: 65). Admission to the ‘Abrahamic church’ had been through circumcision, which God ordered Abraham to perform on his son Isaac when Isaac was eight days old. For Worcester and many other Congregational, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian clergy in antebellum America, this constituted a powerful argument on behalf of infant baptism, against the growing numbers of Baptists and others who, following the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, vigorously asserted that baptism, the rite of passage into the covenant of grace, could only be undertaken by professed believers. In a debate with the Baptist Alexander Campbell in Ohio in 1820, the Presbyterian minister John Walker said, ‘My opponent has endeavored to lead, to coax, and to drive me from the Abrahamic Covenant, but I will not give it up. It is the main pillar upon which I stand, and I will not relinquish it.’ On the other side, in 1842, the Georgia Baptist clergyman J. H. T. Kilpatrick went so far as to preach against the belief that the Abrahamic covenant was the ‘real proper covenant of grace’ (Kilpatrick 1847: 139). The contest over the relevance of circumcision to baptism dominated discussions of the Abrahamic covenant in America in the first half of the nineteenth century.

(p. 73) During this period, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ also came to be used to sort out connections between Christianity and Judaism. Initially, the adjectival ‘Judaeo-’ was employed in different ways to signify a hybrid Jewish phenomenon, such as by calling Yiddish ‘Judaeo-German’ or ‘Judaeo-Polish’. In 1829, a missionary to the Jews named Joseph Wolff described being advised ‘to establish a Judeo-christian church’, by which he meant one that permitted Jews to maintain such practices as circumcision and Saturday worship (Wolff 1829: 314). In 1841, an article on the Jews of Poland in the Foreign Quarterly Review identified as ‘Judeo-Christians’ the followers of the self-proclaimed messiah Jacob Frank, whose teachings combined elements of Judaism and Christianity’ (Foreign Quarterly Review 1841: 249). But ‘Judaeo-’ was most widely used (in French as well as English) to refer to the early followers of Jesus who opposed Paul in wishing to restrict the Christian message to Jews and who insisted on maintaining Jewish law and ritual. These were the Judaeo-Christians par excellence, and they were commonly referred to as such, in both academic and more popular writing. The famous British physicist John Tyndall, addressing the Glasgow Sunday Society in 1880, thus noted that ‘James was the head of the Church at Jerusalem, and Judeo-Christians held that the ordination of James was alone valid’, while Peter ‘ate with the Gentiles, when no Judeo-Christian was present to observe him; but when such appeared he withdrew himself, fearing those which were of the circumcision.’ So far as the interpretation of the New Testament was concerned, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ pointed to a restriction of the divine promise to the Jews, even as ‘Abrahamic’ indicated an extension of that promise to the Christians.

At the same time, Judaeo-Christian terminology began to be used to identify a tradition set apart from other religious traditions as well as from more secular outlooks. In the 1870s, the German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann predicted that the religion of the future would combine Hindu and Judaeo-Christian elements—as the Belgian academic Eugène Goblet d’Alviella characterized it, one that would ‘borrow the conception of the Divine immanence from India, and the idea of the Divine unity from the Judeo-Christian tradition’ (d’Alviella 1885: 310).1 Von Hartmann likewise contrasted the ‘Hindu idea’ with the ‘Judeo-Mahometano-Christian idea of the world’ (Hartmann 1876: 163). At the end of the century, the French novelist Anatole France had one of his characters contrast the world system of Laplace with ‘the old Judeo-Christian cosmogony’. Altogether, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ usage was more descriptive and analytical, less theologically loaded than ‘Abrahamic.’

Yet the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw the development of less theological Abrahamic language, pointing not to the covenantal relationship with God but to ethno-religious lineages that included Jews, Christians, and others as well. In 1778, for example, a review of an Arabic grammar in the English Monthly Review used biblical genealogy to argue that the posterity of Ishmael could be considered ‘pure Arab’ because both the ‘Abrahamic family’ and the Arabians had a common (p. 74) progenitor. In 1812, William Magee, of the Church of Ireland, referred to Abrahamic manners, ‘such as were common to all the seed of Abraham, Israelites, Ishmaelites, and Idumaeans’ (Magee 1812: 103). In his Manual of Comparative Philology (1838: 229), the Bedfordshire divine William Balfour Winning identified three ‘Abrahamic races’ linked, respectively, to Jacob, Ishmael, and Esau. From Jacob came the Israelites, or Jews; from Ishmael, the Arabians and thence the Mahometans; and from Esau, the Edomites, whom Winning, relying on rabbinic sources, identified with the Romans/Christians. A few years later, the Essex divine Charles Forster discussed the identical three ‘Abrahamic stocks’ in his two-volume Historical Geography of Arabia; or, the Patriarchal Evidences of Revealed Religion (1844: 2). In this way, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam made their appearance as the three Abrahamic religions on the strength of biblical genealogy, with an assist from the rabbis.

To be sure, the genealogical approach could be apologetic and polemical as well as descriptive. In his two-volume Mahometanism Unveiled (1829: 417, 423), Forster had concluded—from his ‘establishment of the descent of the chief Arab tribes from Ishmael, and from other members of the Abrahamic family’—that the religion of pre-Islamic Arabia ‘must have emanated originally from the patriarchal revelation’.2 Indeed, drawing on a phrase of the eighteenth-century Bishop of London, Thomas Sherlock, Forster found ‘clearer understanding of the divine truth among the ancient Arabians, than among the privileged descendants of Abraham’, i.e. the Jews. It was no doubt the privileging of the Abrahamic covenant in Christian theology that made such ethnographic imagining possible. In the right hands, it could lead to outright appreciation of the third Abrahamic faith. In an 1849 work titled The Hand of God in History, the Presbyterian minister Hollis Read went so far as to portray Muhammad’s establishment of Islam as God’s fulfilment of ‘his promise [in Gen. 17: 20] to a great branch of the Abrahamic family, the posterity of Ishmael’, as well as a way ‘to check effectually the power and progress of idolatry, and to scourge a corrupt Christianity; to rebuke and humble an apostate church by making her enemy a fairer example of God’s truth than she was herself’ (Read 1849: 256).

It is thus simply not the case, as University of Rochester religion professor Aaron Hughes argues in Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History, that prior to the twentieth century ‘Abraham’ and ‘Abrahamic’ were used solely as ‘vehicles of exclusion based on the ideology of superiority’, and that ‘Abrahamic’ is ‘never invoked objectively, but always religiously’ (Hughes 2012: 55). That is not to say that Hughes is wrong to call attention to the supersessionist character of much nineteenth-century usage: the Abrahamic covenant was the means by which Christians understood themselves to have supplanted the Jews as the ‘true’ Israel. Even so eccentric a belief as Anglo-Israelism held that the English became the true Israel through the Abrahamic covenant (Cooper 1893: 514). But it is important to understand that supersessionism is not, as Hughes suggests, the antithesis of ecumenical acceptance of another religious (p. 75) tradition. It is an ambivalent doctrinal stance—one that acknowledges the truth of an antecedent religion even as it declares its superiority over it. This ambivalence provided a range of options—from the claim to have entirely replaced an antecedent Abrahamic faith all the way to acceptance of its continued validity.

For that reason, it is significant that the Abrahamic covenant was understood as coming in the middle of a sequence of arrangements between God and man, all of which were legitimate. The eighteenth-century English hymnodist and theologian Isaac Watts, for example, distinguished among patriarchal (Noachite), Abrahamic, Jewish, and Christian religions (Watts 1753: 511). Schemas of this sort made it possible for later writers to recognize the Abrahamic family of faiths as set apart from the other religions of the world. In 1888, the Irish Protestant evangelist Henry Grattan Guinness and his wife set out seven eras from the Adamic to the Christian in The Divine Programme of The World’s History. The Abrahamic era came third; it featured God’s promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed by Abraham’s seed.

How are we to decide which of the earth’s nations have been influenced by Abraham’s seed and which have not? The question is easily answered. All the monotheism in the world is traceable to Abraham. Wherever we find a nation which worships the one and true God, there we find a nation and a family that has been blessed through the patriarch and his seed. Hence not the Jews only, but all the professing Christian nations and the Mohammedan one as well, must form our first group of nations; while the second will consist of those nations professing polytheistic, pantheistic, and other forms of religion, as well as those which have none; including thus all idolators and all the fetish and devil worshippers of every kind.

As far as the Guinnesses were concerned, the Abrahamic portion of the divine programme was going well, with some 600 million people subscribing to Abrahamic monotheism and 800 million not (Guinness 1888: 156–7). While no one would accuse them of putting Judaism and Islam on the same footing as Christianity, their presentation of the three Abrahamic religions as joined in a common divinely sanctioned project represents what might be called a moderated or ecumenical supersessionism. It also testifies to the rise of the idea of monotheism in western thought. As measured by Google’s N-gram Viewer, ‘monotheism’ barely existed in English writing until the late 1820s, but in the half-century from the mid-1840s until the mid-1890s its usage increased fifteen-fold.3 While this is not the place to examine the history of that concept, suffice to say that it resulted from increased experience of the religions of the world in the age of imperialism and the growth in the academic study of those religions. There can be little question that the acceptance of monotheism as a basic category of religious civilization contributed greatly to the readiness of western (p. 76) Christians to acknowledge that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam occupied contiguous spiritual territory.

In the United States, the foremost proponent of Abrahamic monotheism may have been Joseph Pomeroy Widney, a Midwestern Methodist who shaped metaphysical religion in California in the early twentieth century. Born in Ohio in 1841, Widney emigrated to the Golden State for his health after briefly serving in the Civil War. Becoming a doctor, he spent two years as a surgeon in the Indian wars, during which he had a profound spiritual experience of the oneness of God in the Arizona desert. He went on to a distinguished career as a physician, helping to establish and serving as dean of the University of Southern California Medical School, and taking an active role in boosting Southern California’s civic and commercial culture generally. Above all, he cared about his adopted home’s religious life. An early enthusiast of the Holiness movement, he was instrumental in founding the Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles in 1895. He then returned to the Methodist church, ministering to thousands as a member of its City Mission. But he was most committed to the mission of creating a ‘wider faith’ than Methodism, for which he built his own chapel, called Beth-El and dedicated to the ‘All-Father’. There he conducted Sunday services in the latter decades of a very long life (Frankiel 1988: 95–100).

Because of his early experience in Arizona, Widney was convinced that monotheism was a creation of the desert, and that it pre-existed Abraham—indeed, that Abraham was called out of Ur of the Chaldees in order to save this pure faith. ‘The Unity of God is the heirloom of the desert peoples, and it is their message to humanity’, he wrote in The Genesis and Evolution of Islam and Judaeo-Christianity, a volume he published in 1932 with the aim of promoting the ‘evolution of one general world-faith out of many’. Although, in Widney’s view, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all desert religions, Islam ‘most nearly represents the primitive generating faith’. By contrast, Christianity had been corrupted by contact with ‘the polytheism of the West’ (Widney 1932a: xiii, 19, 20, 27). This, he wrote in The Faith That Has Come to Me (also published in 1932), placed it ‘at a disadvantage in the contest with the simple monotheism of Judaism and Islam, those other great Abrahamic religions of the world’ (Widney 1932b: 241). This is the first appearance in print of the expression ‘Abrahamic religions’ recorded in Google’s book digitization project. Notably, it is not used in a way to indicate the superiority of the writer’s religious tradition over the others. Indeed, it does the opposite.

Widney was at the furthest liberal extreme of the Protestantism of his day, but a readiness to recognize the authenticity of the other Abrahamic monotheisms can be found at the opposite end of the spectrum as well, thanks to the dispensational understanding of history that captured evangelical imaginations in the late nineteenth century. The idea that history unfolded in a series of divinely determined epochs culminating in the millennial age dates back at least to the writings of the Calabrian monk Joachim of Fiore in the late twelfth century. In Anglo-American Protestantism, these epochs, or dispensations, were closely tied to the covenantal concept. The eighteenth-century dissenter Micaiah Towgood (1751: 31), for example, merged the two, referring to ‘the Abrahamic and Mosaic dispensations’. ‘[T]he evangelical (p. 77) covenant is the same as the Abrahamic covenant, and’, wrote the American Methodist Peter P. Sandford (1832: 450), ‘the Abrahamic Church is the same as the Christian Church, only under a different dispensation’. Not surprisingly, the followers of the millenarian preacher William Miller saw the imminent Second Coming as the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant, as was explained in an 1843 tract by Richard Hutchinson titled, The Abrahamic covenant: the grand heir, coming in his kingdom, now to be expected at every moment.

In the latter part of the century, as the war over infant Baptism lost its intensity, American Baptists no longer felt the need to steer clear of the Abrahamic covenant, so long as it was rightly understood (Palmer 1871: 314–44). It remained ‘the fundamental church covenant in every subsequent time’, with ‘a world-wide missionary import’, wrote Thomas C. Johnson (1899: 123), a professor of church history at the (Baptist) Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. Like other conservative evangelicals, Baptists increasingly turned to premillennialism, the belief that Christ would return to reign for a thousand years prior to the Final Judgement. The Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, became the pre-eminent source of dispensationalist doctrine for premillenialists, laying out a sequence of seven dispensations from ‘Man Innocent’ (before the Fall) to ‘Man under the Personal Reign of Christ’ (the millennial age). The Abrahamic dispensation (‘Man under Promise’) came fourth.

Similarly, in his widely used (to this day) fundamentalist textbook, Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics (1947), J. E. Hartill—for four decades a professor of Bible at Northwestern College in Minnesota—identifies the Abrahamic Covenant as coming fourth in line after Edenic, Adamic, and Noachic covenants. Unlike the first three, which he considers applicable to all human beings, Hartill sees the Abrahamic covenant as involving only the patriarch and his heirs, fleshly and spiritual. He therefore divides the nations of the world into ‘those who have come in contact with Abraham and his seed’ and those who have not, and likewise the religions of the world. ‘Abrahamic’ is his term for the ‘Monotheistic group’, which includes ‘Jews, Mohammedans, and professed Christians’. The non-Abrahamic are those attached to ‘Pantheism and Idolatry’. Hartill ties the covenantal principle of biblical interpretation closely to dispensationalist theology, providing (in line with the Scofield Bible) a Dispensation of Promise that corresponds almost exactly to the period covered by the Abrahamic Covenant: from Abraham’s ‘call’ until the Exodus. To be sure, the premillennialist schema presents the Abrahamic dispensation as a way station on the road to the Second Coming, but by associating Judaism and Islam with Christianity as manifestations of God’s promise, it puts the three Abrahamic religions on the same footing relative to the other religions of the world. Among millenarians, an institutionalized expression of this point of view can be found in two small Adventist denominations, both of which call themselves the ‘Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith’. In 1965, the Restitution Herald, one of their official publications, included Judaism and Islam with Christianity as manifestations of ‘Abrahamic Faith’ and identified Abraham as ‘the physical or spiritual ancestor of peoples who alone in a polytheistic or atheistic world teach the worship of the one and only God’.

(p. 78) If Christians learned early on to see themselves as the heirs to God’s covenant with Abraham, even more did Muslims recognize themselves as restorers of what the Quran calls the millat ibrāhīm—the way or religion of Abraham. Following such self-understanding, non-Muslim students of Islam in the nineteenth century created a separate current of Abrahamic discourse by calling attention to Islam’s relationship to Judaism and Christianity. In his book, Aaron Hughes dismisses this identification as part of an orientalist reductionism that invoked the Abrahamic merely ‘to show that a particular Islamic custom, belief, or practice is unoriginal and derives its ultimate origin from another religion, be it Judaism or Christianity’ (Hughes 2012: 48). Again, however, Hughes overstates his case. Nineteenth-century French Islamicists regularly identified Muslims as belonging to ‘the great Abrahamic family’ without drawing invidious distinctions between Islam and other religions. Indeed, in Mahomet (Fontane 1898: 362), the tenth volume of his popular Universal History, the prolific Marius Fontane writes that the ‘genius of the Prophet’ was to create ‘a Judeo-Christianity purged of complications’; and, in what was hardly meant to be a negative assessment, goes on to say that Muhammad ‘does away with the priest, rejects mythology, and suppresses the supernatural’.

The Islamicist who did the most to advance the concept of the Abrahamic religions was Louis Massignon, who began teaching Muslim sociology at the Collège de France in Paris in 1919. As a student, Massignon had been profoundly affected by the Muslim spirituality of a family he lived with while doing archaeology in Baghdad. He later converted to Christianity, became a lay Franciscan (adopting the spiritual name Ibrāhīm), and ultimately was allowed to become a priest as part of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which uses Arabic as its official language and permits priests to marry. Deeply committed to enhancing Christian–Muslim relations, and politically involved on behalf of Muslims in the French colonies, Massignon lifted up the figure of Abraham as a way to bring Jews, Christians, and Muslims together. In 1935, his book The Three Prayers of Abraham: Second Prayer connected Abraham’s blessing of Ishmael to Islam. In 1949, an abbreviated version, titled The Three Prayers of Abraham, Father of All Believers, called Islam ‘a mysterious response of grace to Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael and the Arabs’ (Massignon 1989: 14).

At a time when the Catholic church took a dim view of ecumenical outreach of any sort, Massignon was attacked by co-religionists for being overly committed to Islam and to Abrahamic dialogue generally. He died on 31 October 1962, just as the Second Vatican Council was getting under way, but it would turn out that, in its new-found ecumenism, Vatican II’s change of attitude towards Islam would owe much to his emphasis on the figure of Abraham. In Lumen gentium, approved in November, 1964, the Council declared that God’s ‘plan of salvation’ included the Muslims, ‘who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind’.4 In Nostra aetate, approved in October, 1 (p. 79) 965, the Council proclaimed its ‘esteem’ for the Muslims, who ‘adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.’ Nostra aetate went on to say that the church ‘remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock’, i.e. the Jews.5 The Council did not, to be sure, place Islam or Judaism on the same level as Christianity. But the two other Abrahamic faiths were singled out for special status as worshipping the same God the Christians worshipped.

Massignon’s work at the intersection of scholarship and interfaith promotion was carried on by his student James Kritzeck, a professor of Oriental Studies at Princeton and a devout Catholic as well. Kritzeck had written an article on Christian–Muslim relations for The Bridge, the yearbook of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, and in 1965 he expanded it into a slim volume titled Sons of Abraham: Jews, Christians and Moslems. The book reviewed the history of the relations among the three faiths, culminating with the author’s translations of passages from Nostra aetate. Kritzeck concluded:

There will be further efforts among Jews, Christians, and Moslems to understand one another better, and to realize more fully both their common tradition and their common debts. This realization will enable them the better to know, to love, and to serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Peace to all the sons of Abraham: shalom, salām, and, in God’s mercy, salus. (Kritzeck 1965: 95)

Salus means ‘salvation’ rather than peace (shalom, salām); behind the punning equivalence of his final sentence Kritzeck hints at his belief in his own faith’s superiority.

Other Christian Islamicists were prepared to go a bit farther. In a study published the following year, William Montgomery Watt, a priest in the Episcopal Church of Scotland as well as a professor in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh, read God’s promise to raise up a prophet in Deuteronomy 18 as referring to Muhammad.

With a little stretching of the sense here and there, Muhammad might perhaps be said to be one fulfilment of this prophecy. He cannot be said to have guided the people of God as a whole, but, insofar as the Arabs were on the fringe of the Abrahamic tradition, he may be said to have given guidance to a part of the people of God.

Watt goes on to say that while Christians and Jews would vigorously deny the claim of ‘Muslim polemic writers’ that ‘only Muhammad properly fulfills that prophecy’, he nonetheless ‘belongs to the Abrahamic tradition, and that tradition had envisioned advances through charismatic religious leaders’. This identification of the Abrahamic (p. 80) tradition with the prophetic figure closely tracks the neo-orthodox view that Hebraic prophetism was at the core of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Watt himself says as much, identifying Muhammad as ‘a charismatic religious leader within the Abrahamic (or Judaeo-Christian) tradition’ (Watt 1961: 270). In a subsequent book, he portrays Islam itself as an equal partner with the earlier faiths, writing that it ‘stands within this Biblical or Judaeo-Christian tradition, or, to use a phrase which avoids any suggestion of inferiority, within the Abrahamic tradition’ (Watt 1974: 55).

Whatever their own religious commitments, by the late 1960s academics were increasingly making use of the concept of the Abrahamic religions. In The Myth of Asia (1969: 72), for example, Emory University English professor John M. Steadman argued that there was a need to ‘recognize a third category of faiths, distinct from the “Nirvana religions” and the Abrahamic “religions of Law”’. In 1970, the Cambridge History of Islam effectively canonized the concept when it declared that Islam had ‘strode forth from its homeland with the essential determinations and decisions already made. It had placed itself in the line of the Abrahamic religions’ (von Grunebaum 1970: 474). But another decade would be needed for the concept to begin to establish itself in the larger public sphere. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, it was the Judaeo-Christian concept that held sway.

In the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, Judaeo-Christian language began to be used by interfaith organizations such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews to indicate a common religious cause (Schultz 2011). It also served to signal opposition to fascism, whose adherents and fellow-travellers were increasingly using ‘Christian’ as a signature term, giving their organizations names such as the Christian American Crusade, the Christian Aryan Syndicate, and the Christian Mobilizers. In its 1941 handbook, Protestants Answer Anti-Semitism, the left-liberal Protestant Digest described itself as ‘a periodical serving the democratic ideal which is implicit in the Judeo-Christian tradition’. During the Second World War, the term and a host of related ones—Hebraic-Christian, Hebrew-Christian, Jewish-Christian, even Judaistic-Christian—were widely employed in a series of annual convocations held in New York City by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc. Organized by Lyman Bryson of the Columbia Teachers College and Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conference originated, in the words of the political scientist Carl Friedrich, ‘essentially as a rallying point for Judeo-Christian forces in America against the threat presented to them by the Axis ideology and actions’ (Friedrich 1944: 620).

After the war, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ gained nationwide popularity, as pastors, politicians, and pundits seized on the term to mobilize the spiritual forces of America against ‘godless communism’. As Daniel Poling, president of the Military Chaplains Association of the United States, asserted at the association’s 1951 convention, ‘We meet at a time when the Judeo-Christian faith is challenged as never before in all the years since Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees.’6 The following year, in a speech before the Freedoms (p. 81) Foundation, President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, ‘Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal’ (Henry 1981: 41). Judaeo-Christian language was also employed theologically, by neo-orthodox Protestants interested in emphasizing the ‘Hebraic’ over the ‘Hellenic’ dimension of Christianity. Led by Reinhold Niebuhr, they identified what was shared by Judaism and Christianity less in terms of articles of faith or moral ordinances than in a common understanding of the flawed nature of humankind and in a commitment to the prophetic critique of human institutions. Some were prepared to abandon Christian supersessionism altogether and acknowledge the spiritual sufficiency of Judaism via a ‘dual covenant’ theology.

Notwithstanding the inclusionary political and theological impulse behind it, Judaeo-Christian terminology provoked significant Jewish ambivalence. As early as 1943, a well-known publicist named Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1943: 11) called it ‘a totalitarian aberration’ to tie Jewish-Christian goodwill to a shared religious identity. In 1970, the writer and publisher Arthur A. Cohen published The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, a collection of articles in which he denounced the Judaeo-Christian tradition as the invention of German Protestant higher critics interested in promoting a ‘de-Judaizing of Christian theology’ that ‘could not be more evident than in the pitiful inability of the Protestant (and to a slightlybut only slightlylesser extent, Catholic) Church to oppose German National Socialism’ (Cohen 1970: xviii, 199). That, of course, turned the history of the term’s use upside down. Cohen’s book nevertheless received a warm reception that signalled a general fatigue with the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition’, which an enthusiastic reviewer for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal called ‘the catch-all of textbook writers, Western Civ. Lectures, Brotherhood Week toastmasters, and Jews and Christians who cannot think of anything else to speak of to one another when it comes to religious convictions’ (Arnold 1970: 96–7). As America left its cold war consciousness behind, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ began to take on some outright negative connotations as well. In ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’, a widely read article published in Science magazine in 1967, the medievalist Lynn White (1967: 1206) blamed ‘the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation’ for instilling in western society an ethic of exploitation of the natural world.7 In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building, the radical American historian Richard Drinnon (1980: xiii) dismissed ‘Judeo-Christian teleology with its reified time, which had and has little or nothing to do with the cycles of organisms’.

The sense among progressives that ‘Judaeo-Christian’ had outlived its usefulness opened the door to using ‘Abrahamic’ as a substitute, especially after 1979, when the Iranian Revolution thrust political Islam onto the world stage. In 1980, John Howard (p. 82) Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, told Studs Terkel, ‘The world has always been saved by an Abrahamic minority.’8 A decade later, the liberal Protestant theologian Harvey Cox gave a talk in which he called for a return to ‘Abrahamic faith’.9 After the attacks of 11 September 2001, Roland Homet, an Episcopal layman and international lawyer, described attending an interfaith forum that came to the conclusion that coercing others to adopt our values ‘does not represent the best of the Abrahamic tradition’.10 ‘Abrahamic’ was, however, much less frequently used to point to a common value system than to designate what Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had (or did not have) to share. In 1990, for example, New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted ‘the strong refusal of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—to identify God with the world’ (Steinfels 1990). On the presidential front, Jimmy Carter titled his 1985 book on the Middle East, The Blood of Abraham—blood that, according to Carter, ‘still flows in the veins of Arab, Jew, and Christian’ (Carter 1985: 208). In 2009, Barack Obama issued a proclamation noting that the ‘rituals of Hajj and Eid-ul-Adha both serve as reminders of the shared Abrahamic roots of three of the world’s major religions’.11

Where Abrahamic language came into its own was through a range of conferences, interfaith ‘trialogues’, academic centres, and books designed to enhance understanding among members of the three faiths in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 1995, the Library of Congress created an ‘Abrahamic’ subject heading that by the end of the century had accumulated three dozen titles. The best-seller of the genre has been Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of the Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler, a popular writer on various religious and lifestyle subjects. Published in 2002, the book perfectly caught the post-9/11 wave of interest in helping American Christians and Jews better understand Muslims. In it, Feiler described travelling through time and space in search of Abraham and discovering the ‘Great Abrahamic Hope’ not in ‘an oasis somewhere in the deepest deserts of antiquity’ but rather in ‘a vast, underground aquifer’ stretching around the world (Feiler 2002: 215). On the strength of the book’s success, Feiler set about organizing public forums called ‘Abraham summits’ and small group meetings called ‘Abraham salons’—interfaith gatherings for ‘The Descendants of Abraham’ that were intended to ‘trace us back to Abraham and the love of one God’.12 Meanwhile, on the academic front, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and religious thinkers came together, in conferences and between hard covers, to identify similarities and points of contact among the three faiths. Historians of religion undertook comparative studies of their intellectual and cultural relationships. As in the days of Massignon, these scholarly efforts were connected to a strong commitment to interfaith understanding.

(p. 83) But the Abrahamic project was far more politically fraught than Jewish-Christian dialogue had been. Judaeo-Christian language was deployed in the mid-twentieth century against a common foe, be it fascist or communist. Abrahamic language was intended to include the very ‘other’ that was popularly perceived, particularly in the wake of 9/11, as the principal ideological opponent of western values. Ironically, resistance to the new inclusiveness often turned up in Judaeo-Christian garb. For even as enthusiasm for ‘Judaeo-Christian’ waned on the left, it was embraced by the Christian right, which burst onto the American scene at the end of the 1970s.

In his best-selling manifesto, Listen America! (1980: 134), Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, described the refusal of the state of Alabama to participate ‘in any conference that did not establish traditional Judeo-Christian values concerning the family’. In 1983, the Moral Majority’s publication denounced a ‘systematic pattern of discrimination against … [books] which display philosophical positions rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition’.13 In this way, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ came to be deployed as a kind of rhetorical talisman against what was perceived as a rising tide of secularism—and, in due course, of alien religious forces as well. In 1992, when Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition had succeeded the Moral Majority as the Christian’s right’s marquee organization, Robertson rhetorically asked himself, ‘How dare you maintain that those who believe in Judeo-Christian values are better qualified to govern America than Hindus and Muslims? My simple answer is, “Yes, they are”’ (Robertson 1992: 319). After the midterm elections of 2006, Rep. Virgil Goode, a Virginia Republican, achieved some notoriety by publicly criticizing the decision of the first Muslim elected to Congress to take his oath of office by placing his hand on a Quran. In an op-ed titled ‘Save Judeo-Christian Values’ published in USA Today on 2 January 2007, Goode explained:

Let us remember that we were not attacked by a nation on 9/11; we were attacked by extremists who acted in the name of the Islamic religion. I believe that if we do not stop illegal immigration totally, reduce legal immigration and end diversity visas, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion, rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon for freedom-loving persons around the world.

In sum, just as progressives had once adopted Judaeo-Christian language to include Jews under an umbrella of shared values, so they employed ‘Abrahamic’ to make sure that Muslims were similarly included. And just as ‘Christian’ had served as a fascist cue for hostility to Jews in the 1930s, so did ‘Judaeo-Christian’ become an emblem of evangelical hostility to Muslims in the post-cold war era.

In contrast to Jewish ambivalence about ‘Judaeo-Christian’, Muslim interfaith partners showed no reluctance to be considered Abrahamic. Not only was this because of their traditional identification with Abraham, but also, as the most recent of the (p. 84) Abrahamic faiths, they did not have to worry about being subjected to supersessionism on the part of their Abrahamic partners. The Abrahamic project did run into liberal criticism on the left for its exclusivity in a society increasingly conscious of the existence of non-Abrahamic religious communities in its midst. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, criticized the use of the Abrahamic concept to define American values.

What intrigues me about this new notion of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic (aka Abrahamic) America is how it manages to be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Obviously, it admits Muslims in what had once been a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish club. But by stressing such Western religious staples as monotheism, it obviously excludes religions that affirm no God (Buddhism) and those that affirm many (Hinduism).

I see both the Judeo-Christian and the new Judeo-Christian Islamic one as rear-guard efforts to keep the Christian America model alive—efforts that will likely fail. We live in a country where Buddhists and Hindus are now asking for a place at the table of American faiths…

Other religion scholars took issue with ‘Abrahamic’ on more scholarly grounds. In 2012, Jewish Studies professor Jon Levenson published Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam, which picked apart the competing understandings of Abraham in the textual traditions of the three religions. Levenson, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School, singled out for criticism an initiative of Harvard’s Global Negotiation Project called Abraham’s Path. Dismissing its use of the figure of Abraham to forge interfaith understanding, he undertook a close reading of the several Abrahamic scriptures to show how each faith’s understanding of the patriarch differed in significant ways. ‘There is no neutral Abraham to whom appeal can be made to set aside the authoritative documents and traditions of the separate Abrahamic religions’, he wrote (Levenson 2012: 204). Hughes’s Abrahamic Religions dismisses the Abrahamic project on broader grounds, identifying the problem not so much through competing textual understandings of the patriarch as in the failure of contemporary ecumenists to understand the long history of sectarian interpretations of their connection to Abraham. Hughes, a nominalist in his view of religious phenomena, was above all critical of the readiness of religion scholars to lump Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into a universal category, contending that the very idea of each tradition as a singular entity with essential features was problematic.

Both Levenson and Hughes harked back to the kind of Judaeo-Christian fatigue that began to afflict intellectuals in the 1960s, when that term began to seem like, at best, an empty signifier of goodwill and, at worst, a bar to understanding the realities of mutually hostile and problematic religious worldviews. Yet ‘Judaeo-Christian’ survived, and not only among the ideologists on the conservative side of the American culture wars. The linkages and interactions—historical, liturgical, theological—between Judaism and Christianity were too evident, and too much worth investigating—to keep the term from enjoying a vigorous life in print. According to Google N-gram, in the first (p. 85) decade of the twenty-first century ‘Judaeo-Christian’ occurred between four and five times more frequently in English books and periodicals than it did in the 1950s, and more than twice as frequently as ‘Abrahamic’.

‘Abrahamic’ too is on the rise; its English usage doubled between 1980 and 1995, and doubled again by 2005. There is every reason to expect that, like ‘Judaeo-Christian’, it will continue to enjoy favour in academic as well as popular usage. For the religiously committed, whatever their sense of their own privileged position, and however differently they understand the figure of Abraham, the idea that all three religions trace their origins to the patriarch provides a powerful reason for considering them members of the same spiritual family. For more secular scholars of religion, it is hard to deny the importance of studying the mutual influences of the three traditions, especially between the formative period of Islam in late antiquity and the fertile era of intellectual exchange in the high Middle Ages.

From its origins in the eighteenth century, the term ‘Abrahamic’ has carried with it an important dimension of inclusion—of reaching beyond one’s immediate religious community even when that community is understood as having a superior claim on religious truth. That dimension has persisted even among those less than enthusiastic about the Abrahamic project in the post-9/11 world. In 2007, Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was faced with considerable opposition among his co-religionists to the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. Baptists were suspicious of Mormons, whom they particularly objected to calling Christian. ‘Judaeo-Christian’ had likewise become too close for comfort for American evangelicals to bestow on Mormonism. So Land proposed calling it ‘the fourth Abrahamic religion’.14 Whether that was a promotion or a demotion wasn’t clear to Time magazine, and the Mormons themselves showed no interest in signing on. But it demonstrated, if further demonstration were needed, how easily the Abrahamic covenant could once again be made to extend even to bitter rivals.


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                                                                                                            (1) Alviella cites the French edition of Hartmann’s work (Hartmann 1876).

                                                                                                            (2) Sherlock’s use of the phrase may be found in Sherlock (1812: 169).

                                                                                                            (3) The N-gram Viewer graphs the frequency of a given word over time in the books and periodicals digitized by Google through 2008. The program can be utilized on-line at <>.

                                                                                                            (6) New York Times, 23 July 1952.

                                                                                                            (7) Perhaps not coincidently, White’s blaming of the Judaeo-Christian harked back to Aldo Leopold’s blaming of the Abrahamic in the foreword of his environmentalist classic, A Sand County Almanac (1948): ‘Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.’ (Leopold 2013: 4.)

                                                                                                            (8) Washington Post, 16 October 1980.

                                                                                                            (9) St Petersburg Times, 20 April 1991.

                                                                                                            (12) Abraham Salon website: <>.

                                                                                                            (13) Moral Majority Report (May 1983), 8.

                                                                                                            (14) Time, 24 October 2007.