Similarity and closeness have an ironic way of creating division and distance. There is almost no better example than conflicts between people of faith – whether within a church, a sect, a religion, or a group of religions with a common origin. It is more important than ever to understand the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other minor faiths. Inaccurate conceptions breed intolerance and hostility: Ultimately, this negatively impacts everyone, including innocent nonbelievers.
Judaism: The Beginning
Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, its origins going back to Abraham and Sarah in the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia. The events of the Pentateuch, Judaism’s original holy text, happened in the 6th century BC, but were not officially canonized until the 1st millennium AD. The Pentateuch records the beginning of humanity with Adam and Eve, the faith of Abraham and Sarah (including Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac), the Jewish people’s takeover of Canaan, the exodus from slavery in Egypt, and God’s bestowal of the Ten Commandments and other instructions through Moses.
The Tanakh, which contains the Pentateuch, is the complete text of the Jewish religious history and prophecy- it was compiled from 200 BC through 200 AD. The Talmud added around the same time period, is a highly inspired and educated commentary on the Tanakh, written by elite rabbis.
If you want to understand Judaism in connection with Hebrew language and culture read here my article on this topic.
Throughout most of Judaism’s history, the faith has been transmitted orally – only scribes could read and write Biblical Hebrew. Because Jews saw their faith as literally coming from ancestry (tracing back to Abraham), their faith has never been evangelistic – there is little inclination or demand to spread the faith to non-Hebrews. This is likely why, despite being the oldest of these religions, Judaism has the fewest followers.
Culturally, however, there is considerable dispersion (Jewish Diaspora): Jews have been captured and exiled so much throughout history that they have become a socially significant minority in countries all over the world.
Christianity: The Promising Offshoot
Christianity originates from Judaism, as evidenced by the fact that a significant part of the Christian Bible is the Old Testament, which overlaps considerably with the Tanakh. Christianity was founded with the life and teachings of Jesus in the 1st century AD. Not surprisingly, Christianity shares geographical origin with Judaism. However, for Christianity, it is more specifically the Palestinian region (now basically equivalent to modern Israel).
The epicenter of Christian faith is Jesus’ death on the cross and His rising from death three days later – events which Christians see as proof that He is the Messiah, or Savior, anticipated in Jewish prophecy. Jesus’ teachings could be described as a new, inventive look at Judaism – one of the biggest additions Jesus made was the teaching that anyone of faith, even a non-Hebrew person, could be loved, forgiven, and saved by the one creative and sustaining God. Jesus also began Trinitarian worship – conceptualizing God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit/Ghost. This is not to say that there are three Gods, but rather, that God can be considered/revealed in three different ways.
Christianity’s development was stunningly rapid: The New Testament, the definitive text of Christianity, was also written in the 1st century. Christianity was fully formed within a 100-year period, although different canonizations and interpretations of the New Testament text have happened throughout the millennia AD.
Most early Christians were taught orally. In fact, Jesus himself never recorded His own teachings. However, Christianity was, at the start, an evangelistic faith, with Jesus commissioning his followers to spread the Truth all over the world. Indeed, missionaries have spread Christianity all over the globe, but it quickly became the dominant religion of the West (by the Catholic and Orthodox churches).
Islam: The Final Update
Islam, the youngest of the major Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, did not exist until the 7th century AD prophecies of Muhammad, its founding prophet. The holy text of Islam, the Quran, was compiled throughout Muhammad’s life. Later, Muslim scholars generated the Hadith, which gives further guidance to living by the Islamic faith. Muslims consider Muhammad the final prophet of God (called Allah), and believe that, therefore, his prophecies are most authoritative. Muhammad received his prophecies in Mecca, Saudi Arabia – making this city a holy site for Islam.
Islam is evangelistic – anyone who submits (Islam translates to “submission”) to Allah’s message through Muhammad’s prophecy is a Muslim. Therefore, much like Christianity, Islam spread rapidly after its founding. It quickly dominated the Middle East, before spreading into sections of Europe and northern Africa, then parts of Asia and farther down the African continent. Muslims can be found all over the world today.
Muslims value many of the basic ideas and accounts in the Tanakh and Old Testament. However, they subscribe to different versions and interpretations of the Old Testament/Tanakh accounts. Most prominent differences: Muslims claim that it was Abraham’s son Ishmael who was almost sacrificed; and Muslims respect Jesus as a great prophet, but do not see Him as the Messiah, or even as the most authoritative prophet.
Comparison: Similarities and Differences Between Judaism, Christianity, Islam
The most prominent similarities between these three faiths is that they are all Abrahamic and monotheistic – that is, they trace their origins to Abraham; and they all believe there is only one God, that deifying other beings, spirits, or objects is wrong. They all view God as being perfectly just, but also understanding each human’s struggles, so as to be forgiving of individuals who humble themselves to His will. They view God as the ultimate creator and sustainer. All of these religions view prayer and connection with this God – both individual and as a group of believers – as critical to living out the faith.
Jews literally trace their family lines back to the patriarch Abraham. Christians do not rely on literal ancestry but a sort of metaphorical ancestry that comes from sharing devotion to the same God as the Jews. Muslims more loosely regard ancestry: Muhammad is claimed to be related to Abraham through his son Ishmael. (Ishmael allegedly is the line from which all Arabs came.) However, Muslims ultimately view anyone who submits to Allah by the word of the Quran as Muslim.
The early followers of all 3 of these faiths were Semitic peoples – people from the Middle East who spoke related languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) and exchanged and shared many cultural elements. Semitic also refers to ancestry – Semites are allegedly related to Shem, a son of Noah.
Islam and Judaism could be described as more strictly monotheistic – even the Trinity of Christianity is regarded as wrong by Islam’s tawhid, the concept of God as an indivisible entity (Judaism has a similar concept). However, Christians would never say that there are 3 different Gods or parts of God, rather that God has 3 different ways of being known to humans.
Anyone doing a study of similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic monotheistic faiths quickly realizes that they largely share the same prophets. Both Muslims and Christians revere the Pentateuch as a forebear of the ultimate prophecies and revelations to come.
Both Jews and Muslims view Jesus as a significant prophet but do not see him as the Messiah or a final authority on the word of God. Along with Christians, Muslims view the Old Testament as true and inspired text but, ultimately, not the final word from God – Islam and Christianity view Muhammad and Jesus, respectively, as bringing a final update to God’s word. It is a theological debate whether these updates are better viewed as replacements or explanations.
Emphasizing Contrast: Similarities and Differences Between Judaism, Christianity, Islam
While the emphasis on similarity is favored in collaborative interfaith dialogue, these religions have explicit differences. One could argue that respectfully observing differences is equally important, because differences are often the source of belittlement, exclusion, or even fatal conflict.
Even though all worship a single God, who has many of the same characteristics and powers in all 3 faiths, this God does seem to give contradictory teachings for each faith. The most prominent contradiction is that each faith sees followers of the others as unsaved by God. At best, they respect those of the 2 other faiths as people reading inspired texts, looking for truth from God – but ultimately, the others are not on a path to the ultimate revelation of truth or salvation.
Similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious practices coincide intuitively with the histories of each faith. Ultimately, most worship services and holidays are meant to help people remember their faith’s legacy. For example, Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Christ, only exists in Christianity; Jewish Hanukkah, which overlaps with the Christmas season, is a celebration of the Second Temple’s dedication. (The Temple is an important symbol of connection to God in Judaism.)
Because Islam uses a purely lunar calendar, their years do not coincide with the Gregorian solar-lunar calendar used by Christians or the primarily lunar Jewish calendar. Therefore, they do not have any holidays that inherently overlap in time with Christmas or Hanukkah. However, a similarly substantial holiday at the end of their year is Hajj, the month of pilgrimage to Mecca.
In fact, Judaism and Islam share many of the same basic traditional practices – many times, there is just a slight variation on the same ritual. Both have religious legal systems (Sharia of Islam and Halakha of Judaism), rituals concerning ablution (washing before worship and after certain life events), prescribed times for fasting, and more. In contrast, such rituals are entirely absent from Christianity. However, Judaism and Islam do not perform the Eucharist (also called Communion), a definitively Christian sacrament.
All Have Varied in Tolerance of Others
At one time or another throughout history, groups of people from all three of these religions have had a serious conflict. Conflicts have ranged from discrimination and persecution to all-out war and genocide.
Conflict has been especially violent between Muslims and Christians, possibly due to each’s rapid growth. The most famous example is the medieval Crusades, in which Western Catholic Christians journeyed east to recapture from the Muslims the region of Palestine, which they considered the Holy Land of their faith. Of course, this area was also holy to Jews, many of whom were also negatively affected by the Crusades.
Catholic Christians discriminated against Jews and Muslims (along with any non-Catholic Christians) during the late-medieval Spanish Inquisition. During the Inquisition, many Jews and Muslims were either exiled or forced to convert. Forced converts were generally considered suspect, however, and so Muslims and Jews in areas of Spanish rule faced lifelong persecution.
Strife with unbelievers or those of polytheistic faiths has been an issue for all three: Historically, Jews have more often battled nonbelievers – as in their takeover of Canaan or the Maccabean Revolt against pagan Rome; in the mid-20th century, Muslims mass-killed non-Muslim Indonesians to gain religious dominance in the area; and while medieval Christians did later became frequent aggressors, the early Christians struggled to survive in the brutal persecution of the pagan Roman Empire.
All this said, there have always been instances where these three faiths live in relative harmony with each other and with nonbelievers. The majority of Muslims, Christians, and Jews of the modern USA coexist peacefully. Also, ironically, prior to the Inquisition, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in harmony in Muslim-controlled areas of medieval Spain.
Related Minor Religions
There are many minor Abrahamic monotheistic religions in the world, but the largest is Baha’i. Baha’i is highly inclusive: It views major figures in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (as well as figures from Hinduism, Buddhism, and others) as manifestations of the same all-powerful God bringing a series of progressive revelations to humanity.
Rastafarianism, which started in Jamaica, gained popularity in the mid to late 20th century through reggae music. Rastafarianism applies the Jewish Diaspora’s longing for the Promised Land and Temple to the African Diaspora resulting from Western slavery. Rastafarians promote an eventual return to Africa as a homeland. Spiritually, this faith emphasizes the presence and guidance of God, known to them as Jah, in each human being. (This is reminiscent of Christianity’s Holy Spirit.)
The Philosophical Challenge for Monotheists
There are a variety of similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other related faiths. However, the critical divide between these is the belief that those of the other faiths are, at best, unsaved and, at worst, living in sin and, therefore, not worth treating with respect. History gives us an extensive display of shared damage from religious conflict. Fortunately, many leaders from all religions are stepping up to confront the pandemic of religious violence and discrimination.