What attitude does the First Testament suggest with regard to religious plurality? Different parts of the First Testament suggest a variety of perspectives on this question. Two insights emerge from the First Testament as a whole. One is that it is possible to recognize foreign religions as reflecting truth about God from which Israel itself may even be able to learn; the other is that nevertheless the First Testament sees these religions as always in need of the illumination that can come only from knowing what Yahweh has done with Israel.
I grew up as a Hindu and the spirituality and symbols of my parents’ religion suffused our house. I remember my mom doing her daily prayers before the festal lamp. I remember receiving blessings from temple priests on holidays. I remember how excited I was to get an Om Hindu necklace as a gift when I was a child.
When I converted to Christianity as a teenager, though, it did not take much for me to dispense with attachments to Hinduism. While I was surrounded with Hindu practices and images growing up, I was not formally taught “the Hindu way.” So, setting it aside was simple. In fact, I probably felt the need to put any such elements of my “former life,” so to speak, at a far distance, and I treated any other religion aside from Christianity with suspicion and, to be honest, repugnance. This was rather easy for me to do in America where I was born and raised, but the challenge multiplied when I paid a visit to India to see my relatives, as I had often done with my family while growing up.
Once I was re-immersed in a Hindu environment, surrounded by Hindu relatives who loved me deeply (and had no problem with my being a Christian, I might add), I found it quite difficult to untangle my Christian faith from my deep and loving relationships with my Hindu family. I never felt tempted to accept any particular Hindu beliefs or rituals, but I found it impossible to despise the piety of people like my gracious Nani (grandmother). Interreligious relationships are complex because people are complex. Somewhere along the way, though, I had been taught—as a Christian!—to hate the non-Christian other. How did that happen?
The New Testament and Other Religions
For the apostles and the earliest Christians, Jesus Christ was not just a word of good news, but Jesus was the good news, the gospel. The early Christians contextualized this good news in view of a distinctly Jewish narrative of a world originally created good but thrown off balance and plunged into darkness and depravity by sin. At just the right time, though, Jesus was sent as Messiah to put things right in the world. As Lord, kyrios, he would reign as king of a whole new world order.
Today, especially in North America, most people are monotheists—Jews, Christians, Muslims—and polytheists (like my parents) are viewed as peculiar. But in the first-century Roman Empire, it would have been quite the opposite. The average John or Jane, Phoebe or Marcus, worshipped as many deities as necessary to ensure personal, familial, and national blessings and ward off curses.1 Jews and Christians, monotheists, were the “peculiar” ones.2 Why worship one when you could worship all? (That reminds me of when a Hindu took a Bible course with me and said she found the Bible interesting enough that she wanted to add Jesus to the groups of gods to which she paid homage. That makes sense to many Hindus.)
But the Christians were insistent that there was only one solution to the problem of sin in the world, so there is only one Savior. The early Christians, according to the New Testament, simply could not imagine the world being restored through another being in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. Jesus alone is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:10), the one mediator between mortals and the one God.
For someone like Paul, religion was not about finding a route to heaven. As a Jew, Paul believed that there is one Creator God, and he created humans in his image, created them to be like him; the human soul bends and gravitates towards imitation of the living and true God. With sin came the corruption of human hearts and the creation of idols. The tradition of the Old Testament would have taught Paul that idols are the work of human hands, creatures making gods for themselves. But idols are not gods—they are dumb, deaf, blind, lacking efficacy, and devoid of life itself.3 Because humans were created to reshape themselves into the master image, as sinful humans they will become like their gods of wood, metal, or stone—blind, deaf, weak, lifeless, and useless. No wonder when Paul entered Athens he became deeply troubled by the many gods and many idols (Acts 17:16). For Paul there was only one God the Father and only one Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 8:6)—and the gospel revolves around their unified work and no other.
Interfaith Dialogue in Early Christianity
When I became a Christian, I got into many arguments and fights with my parents over my new faith and how it affected my life. At the age of sixteen, I had nearly written off my parents and spurned their authority. (Did I mention I was a teenager?) There would be no “interfaith dialogue” as far as I was concerned. The assumed “models” for interfaith dialogue for me were represented in two places in the Bible. First, we have Elijah and the prophets of Baal—framed in that way, it was a clash of religions and Elijah felt quite comfortable resorting to mockery and scorn. His goal was to triumph victorious and humiliate the Baalists into repentance. So I thought “dialogue” should be.
The second kind of model I assumed was Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees. When I was young in my faith, I saw the Pharisees as the quintessential villains, Jesus’ opponents, and I simply presumed that the way Jesus interacted with them—woe to you, hypocrites!—was his model for how Christians should view and treat “the other.” Separate. Accuse. Reject. Despise.
As I came to penetrate more deeply into Scripture, though, I was better able to see the heart of God, not simply what I saw as the rejection and wrath of God.
Pagans Will Surprise You!
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has a clever nickname for his disciples: “little faith-ers” (oligopistoi). On the one hand, Jesus commends them for their willingness to follow him and how they can see and understand things that the Jewish religious leaders cannot (see Matt 16:17). However, the real heroes of faith in Matthew are the pagans. Matthew seems to go out of his way to demonstrate that the very last people you would expect to demonstrate faith in Jesus are the very ones who seem to really “get” who Jesus is. For example, when the Roman centurion shows unwavering trust in the power of Jesus to heal—from a distance—the centurion’s servant, Jesus is stunned: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith!” (8:10). Jesus says much the same for the Caananite woman (your faith is great!) when he sees her faith and heals her daughter (Matt 15:28).
Again, what is surprising about this is that these pagans do not know Torah; they were not expecting the Messiah; they were steeped in the worship of foreign gods. But what Matthew seems to be drawing out of these examples is that your past does not overprivilege you in respect to the gospel, nor does it underprivilege you. All that matters is whether you place your trust in Jesus. Jesus was not commending their belief systems or religious rituals. He was responding to their trust in him.
We Christians must be careful not to draw too distinct of a line in the sand to keep pagans away from Jesus, because sometimes they are the ones who respond to him most impressively. In the case of the Canaanite woman, when she first tried to approach Jesus, the disciples wanted to get rid of her. They said to Jesus: “Tell her to go away. She is bothering us with all her begging” (Matt 15:23 NLT). They did not want her to be with Jesus because they found her annoying! How much they forgot the way of Jesus, and how little they understood the faith that pagans could demonstrate. Are we listening to Matthew’s lesson about the possibility of great-faith-pagans-for-Jesus, or are we like those disciples who dismiss outsiders as nothing but a nuisance?
Learning to Translate the Gospel into All Cultural Languages
When Paul, a devout Diaspora Jew who came to serve and follow Messiah Jesus, entered into the strange territory of Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:16–34, he could not convey the gospel in the way Peter had done to the men of Judea in Acts 2:14–36. He had to translate the gospel, not into another language, but into another culture and worldview. He found common ground, and identified Jesus Christ with something in their own realm (i.e., the altar “to an unknown god,” 17:23). Paul clearly saw his role as someone who had to interact with the wider world around him in the Roman Empire and bring his own perspective to the table of discussion rather than simply to interject it.
Non-Christian Jews faced similar challenges. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the middle-to-late first century CE, found himself struggling to defend his Jewish commitments while also engaging with Roman attitudes and practices. Professor John Barclay explains how people like Josephus had to operate under these conditions.
Jews who knew something about Greek and Roman religion were not compelled simply to assault it, as a unitary system, from the outside. Rather, they could insert themselves into the internal debates among their pagan contemporaries, positioning themselves not outside the Greco-Roman tradition, but at least partially within it, as contributors to long-running internal discussion about the appropriate means to represent, worship and speak about the divine.4
Today, I believe there is an element of self-inflation in what I have seen as a Western Christian resistance to try to learn and understand the religious perspectives of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others. At least part of this alienating tendency is due to the general acceptability of Christianity in the West (despite its unpopularity). We can learn much about interfaith dialogue from how Christians interact with their neighbors in places that do not know Christendom.
Not long ago, New Testament scholar David deSilva spent an extended period of time teaching at a seminary in Sri Lanka. DeSilva paid particular attention to the way his Christian Sri Lankan students related to the majority-Buddhist world around them. He noticed that they could easily relate to the challenges faced by Paul regarding living as Jesus followers in a society with a different understanding of religion. DeSilva explains that, in such a context,
Finding constructive bridges between the Christian gospel and the Buddhist dhamma is an area of great concern so that Christian converts can articulate their faith in a way that shows respect for, and ongoing engagement with, the Buddhist heritage shared by so many outside the church. Such engagement could also help allay the fear of non-Christians that converts to Christianity from Buddhism are (or will become) opponents of Buddhism and agents of Western imperialism.5
DeSilva came to recognize that his Christian Sri Lankan students reinforced the early church’s tradition of preparatio evangelica, reflecting on former cultural and religious traditions and experiences as positive contributions on the way toward embracing the Christian gospel, rather than simply obstacles.6 This is, perhaps, a salutary reminder of how the early Christians probably approached life alongside those who worship other gods—the gospel cannot simply be shot as an arrow into the heart of the other, but rather it must be planted with proper attention to the unique “soil” of each person and community.
At the Well: John 4:1–42
In his famous work The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Lesslie Newbigin describes the modern Christian tendency to place the focus of interfaith dialogue on getting to the truth because souls must be saved for heaven. Newbigin insists that it is a futile exercise to ask “what happens to the non-Christian after death?” because this is a question only God can answer.7 A more fruitful approach that Newbigin offers, and one that avoids the temptation towards gnosticism, focuses on this question: “What is the meaning and goal of this common human story in which we are all, Christians and others together, participants?”8 There is a striking similarity between this argument by Newbigin and how biblical theologian Walter Moberly reflects on how one should and should not use John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”) in interfaith dialogue. Moberly urges that the tendency in a “this religion, not that religion” approach is to position Christianity as the better option as a religion. Proof texts like John 14:6, when unmoored from the context of the Fourth Gospel and its theology, do more damage than good. According to Moberly’s careful theological reading of the Gospel of John, the true vocation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not to win out against Judaism (or Hinduism or whatever), but rather “to bear witness to the truth of what it means to have life in all its fullness in God’s world.”9
If there is one story from the New Testament that points the way forward towards healthy interfaith dialogue today between Christians and others, it is probably the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Conversation at the well (John 4:1–42). John tells us that Jesus is compelled to travel back to Galilee through Samaria (4:4). Jews and Samaritans were not on “friendly” terms, which makes Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan all the more striking. The Samaritans were descendants of pagan tribes settled by the Assyrians in the northern kingdom. Samaritans acknowledged only the five books of Moses as Scripture. That Jesus considered her religiously “other” is clear enough when he says, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was such that the woman was shocked that Jesus asked her for something (4:9a). John adds, as a narrator aside, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (4:9b). Despite this natural barrier between them, Jesus chose to converse with her at a well.
No doubt John wanted to highlight the location as part of a “betrothal-type scene.” That is, in the Bible, when a man and woman find themselves meeting a well, a marriage is coming (Gen 24:10–61; Exod 2:15b–21)! Normally, in the Old Testament patriarchal narratives as well as in the history of Israel, there is concern that one marry someone of the same nation (endogamy). Here part of the controversy is Jesus speaking intimately with a “foreigner.”
Obviously they do not get married literally in John 4, but perhaps John is underscoring a betrothal of “worship and mission.”10 What happens at the well is a conversation that is born out of caring on the part of Jesus. He has addressed the yearnings and hopes of the Samaritan woman, and he has done so in a warm and gracious environment. Obviously this encounter with Jesus had enough of an impact that she immediately becomes a “missionary” for the good news Jesus offers, as she returns home and proclaims this Messiah to her own neighbors.11 So enamored was she with Jesus that she abandoned her water jar at the well (4:28).
Needy people. Jesus does not approach this conversation, at least not exclusively, with an offer of salvation. It begins: “Give me a drink” (4:7). This is not a ploy, a conversational “hook.” Jesus is “tired out by his journey” (4:6). He has no bucket, so he cannot draw water. By asking her for water, he is exposed as a person in need. No doubt part of why this woman dared to engage in conversation with this Jew was because he did not come across as threatening, but as someone—like herself—who was willing to be vulnerable.
Perhaps evangelicals have a hard time exposing their needs and being vulnerable in interfaith dialogue because it may weaken their position. But we all know that deep relationships can only truly form when we seek to eliminate the barriers that we put up to make ourselves feel safe.
One common hope. The Samaritan woman has many questions for Jesus and, when she discovers that he is a prophet, she challenges him on the location of worship—should it be Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim (4:20)? While Jesus eventually does uphold the Jewish way as proper, his first concern is to imagine the redemptive nature of what it will be in the end (4:21)—all will worship in spirit and truth (4:21–24). Jesus is less concerned with the proper place of worship than with the proper heart of worship. His interest here is the satisfaction of her deepest yearnings to worship God.
Interfaith dialogue sometimes tries too hard to score points by making contrasts and comparisons between religious views, as if in a chess game with moves and countermoves. What Jesus does is deconstruct the compare-contrast approach and he simply dreams out loud about the rich vision of final redemption. Because of the sterile and often “academic” nature of how we do interfaith dialogue, we forget that spiritual and emotional longings lie at the heart of worship.
In John 4, Jesus engages is what we may think of as a form of “interfaith dialogue,” perhaps the clearest example in the New Testament (with the back-and-forth of true dialogue). He is witness-bearing, he speaks directly and transparently, but all of this transpires in a context of sharing and conversation.
I believe the New Testament writers were clear on the exclusive nature of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. Embracing the gospel requires rejection of other gods and turning towards the “living and true God” to serve him and anticipate the complete reign of his Son Jesus Christ the savior (1 Thess 1:9–10). Because people like Paul considered this one gospel of the one God to be for all people, his apostolic ministry took him to Gentiles across Asia Minor and ancient Macedonia and beyond. Undoubtedly, he conversed with pagans on street corners, in the workshop where he plied his trade, in houses, and on the highways. His passion to translate the gospel arose, not out of a sense to proclaim the “truth” per se, but because he believed the gospel was good news for everyone, that new creation is life-giving. If “evangelical interfaith dialogue” is worthy of its name, it must be dialogue that bestows on the other blessings (Rom 12:14).
Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
See R. M. Grant, Gods and the One God, Library of Early Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1988).
See N. K. Gupta, “They Are Not Gods: Jewish and Christian Idol Polemic and Greco-Roman Use of Cult Statues,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 76 (2014): 704–19.
John M. G. Barclay, “Snarling Sweetly: A Study of Josephus on Idolatry,” in Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 331–44 (332).
David A. deSilva, “Neither Tamil Nor Sinhalese: Reading Galatians with Sri Lankan Christians,” in Global Voices: Reading the Bible in the Majority World (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013), 39–56 (42).
Ibid., 42. This reminds me of something C. S. Lewis mentioned in Mere Christianity: “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through…. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth … being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others” (Mere Christianity [New York: HarperCollins, 1980], 35).
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 177.
R. W. L. Moberly, “Johannine Christology and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, ed. M. N. A. Bockmuehl and A. J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 45–58 (57).
See J. L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 53.
See Patrick J. Hartin, Exploring the Spirituality of the Gospels (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), 68.