It always disturbs me to participate in interfaith dialogues when the Muslim representative quotes the Koran about Jesus or Abraham. In their sacred writings, these two pillars of our faith are depicted quite differently from the way we see them in the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures.

Against all rules of dialogue, I'm often tempted to blurt out, "Why don't you read about them in the original documents, not in your seventh-century rewriting of them?"

Of course, I never actually say anything like that, not just because we're dialoguing, but also because we Christians are guilty of the same thing.

No Christian author rewrites the Hebrew Scriptures better than Matthew. In just his first two chapters, we find more than a half-dozen references to Jewish writings that he claims are predictions of Jesus' coming. Scripture scholars believe none of these quotes applies to Jesus, even the famous "prediction" in Sunday's Gospel (Mt 1: 18-24): "The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel."

Who's who?

Even a quick reading of Isaiah will convince anyone that the Emmanuel can't be Jesus and the virgin can't be Mary (Is 7: 10-14). Isaiah is providing a sign for Ahaz to convince him not to join with the Israelites and the Syrians in a revolt against the Assyrians who dominated the Middle East in the eighth century before Christ.

The king doesn't have 700 years to wait to discover what path to take. He needs an answer yesterday. That's why the "virgin" can only be Mrs. Ahaz, and the "Emmanuel" must be Hezekiah, her son. (The word "almah," which we Christians insist on translating "virgin," can simply refer to a woman who has not yet had a baby.)

Like the authors of the Koran who wanted to demonstrate both the uniqueness of Mohammed and his deep roots in ancient faith traditions, so Matthew reinterpreted the text he quoted in order to give Jesus the same two attributes.

Though Christians and Muslims both reinterpret other people's scriptures, there's one basic difference. We Christians still read from those "other people's scriptures" almost every weekend. I know of no other religion which does this.

Sunday's readings provide a classic example. We hear both Isaiah's original oracle and Matthew's slant on it. We Christians employ a liturgical process that stops us from believing that our faith is just a matter of learning the "predictions," then seeing how they're fulfilled in Jesus. Our Jewish brothers and sisters could listen to the same reading in the synagogue that we do in church and never apply it to Jesus.

Now and then

Those who composed the Christian and Muslim scriptures often use a prediction/fulfillment structure. Real faith isn't that simple. Faith starts from the present, not the past. We experience something here and now that turns our head and opens our eyes to God among us.

Though our present insight helps us to look at the past in a different way than we viewed it before our faith-insight, the past was never as clear then as it is now. Never forget that the angel's annunciation to Joseph was composed at least 45 years after Christians first realized Jesus had saved "His people from their sins." It couldn't have been narrated in this form the day after it happened.

That's why the most important part of Paul's introduction to his letter to the Romans (Rom 1: 1-7) isn't his reference to the prophets predicting Jesus "long ago," but his realization that he's been called by the risen Jesus to be an apostle, to "spread Jesus' name and bring to obedient faith all the Gentiles." Only after Paul had been called, did he begin to look at the Jewish prophets from a Christian perspective.

Perhaps some of us have fallen into the same post-biblical trap of concentrating so much on a sacred past that we ignore our sacred present.

(12/16/04)