20 August 2008

Why their prophet is better than the other guys’ prophet (or vice versa)

The latest book I downloaded from Google Books is the volume 3 of William Turner’s Journal of a Tour in the Levant published in 1820. This is the more than 550-page account of Turner’s travels in Turkey and the Middle East in 1815.

I haven’t read the book yet, but while skimming thru it, the following sentence on the bottom of p. 528 attracted my attention.

The Greek priests are very fond of pointing out to the Turks the first verse of the 110th psalm, to which they have often boasted to me, the infidels could give no answer, as it can only relate to the supremacy of Christ.
Before I proceed, an explanation is necessary to clarify Turner’s statement: what he means by "Turks" is "Moslems who are Turks." I should also point out that most Turkish peasants of the 1810s were illiterate and probably did not know enough Arabic in any case to understand the Koran, which had traditionally been supplied in Arabic (and was translated into Turkish only relatively recently).

After I read Turner’s statement, I got curious about the first verse of the 110th psalm that was so "decisive" a weapon in the struggle of Christianity against Islam. Lacking a copy of the Bible, I e-mailed Deniz and she got back to me with the subject verse.
The Lord said to my Lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool.
At first, this was a puzzle to me. I couldn’t see any significance in it. I had my lunch and went out for a walk.

While walking, I started thinking about the 110th psalm and suddenly understood its significance as if I had received an inspiration from above! So there is a God! Ha, Ha, Ha...

The Greek priests were probably implying that not only was God directly communicating with Jesus, but that he was also letting Jesus be his "right hand man," so to speak, and that at the same time, assuring Jesus that he was going to subdue Jesus's enemies. In summary, it seemed that God was siding with Jesus.

If the poor, illiterate Moslem Turks could have read and understood their Korans, they could have easily come up with an equally effective and unanswerable (by the priests) counter statement from the Koran to establish the supremacy of their prophet Mohammed. For example, here is what the opening paragraph of sura 72* says:
He [Allah] has taken no wife, nor has He begotten any children.
And according to sura 48:
Mohammed is Allah's apostle.
So, there you have it; the Greek priests were wrong. Or were they? There are probably many more statements in the Bible and the Koran that demonstrate that Jesus and Mohammed each is more supreme than the other. But who is right and who is to decide? Certainly not me, for I have left all of this below me a long time ago.

The deeper issue here is that we are dealing with 2 religions that supposedly believe in the same god but nevertheless have conflicting teachings. If they resolved their conflicts, they would become more or less one and the same religion. But neither side would accept a resolution, because that would mean that their previous conflicting "God-given" beliefs were in fact wrong.

As long as each side thinks theirs is the "true" religion and continues to stick to their conflicting beliefs, all arguments and counter arguments are pointless, unresolvable and just stupid.

*From the translation by N.J. Dawood published by the Penguin Books, 4th ed., 1974. Exact wording differs between translations.


Duane Smith said...

Nice post. Your interpretation of this verse is quite orthodox, meaning Christian orthodox. Some parts of the Jewish tradition see the psalm as prophetic of the yet to arrive messiah in somewhat the same way. The Christian New Testament puts the first verse of this psalm on the lips of Jesus, Matthew 22:41-45. The Hebrew is fairly clear. What is usually translated "The Lord" is the god's personal name (YHWY). What is translated "my lord," is exactly the language one would expect of a servant speaking of his master. The word translated "lord" in "my lord" does sometimes refer to god but that would make no sense here. More likely we should think that the author of the psalm referring to David, "The Lord said to my master (David)." The superscript of the psalm calls it a "psalm of David." Some literalists think this means that David wrote it. And at one level, I guess that is what we are supposed to think, but it is better to think of the words "psalm of David" as designating a royal psalm. The language at the beginning of Psalm 110 is a little weird but it doesn't refer to Jesus (how could it?) and one can also surmise from the language that David didn't write it although the language may well be claiming that its contents came from god via David. For reasons that I will not go into here, some scholars think this psalm was written long after David, even after the fall of Jerusalem. Others see it as a coronation hymn for some king in the Davidic dynasty but not necessarily David himself. I guess I tend to think the latter but I'm not sure.


Duane, thanks for the confusing clarification. What matters for the purpose of this post is not how I interpret the subject verse, but how the Greek priests did back in 1815 so that what Turner said makes sense. If God was talking to David, then that particular verse had nothing to do with Jesus & the whole argument is moot.