The 7th of January is Christmas day according to the Julian calendar (for a short explanation and a comment we made two years ago, see HERE). The countries that follow this religious calendar are Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Ethiopia. The 7th of January date for Christmas is also respected by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, while the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria celebrates Christmas either on the 7th or on the 8th of January, depending on the concordance of the days between the lunar and the solar calendar. The appropriate date for Coptic Christmas is Khoiak 29th. In 2013, Christmas falls again on the 7th of January and it is taking place in a new state of affairs for the Coptic community in Egypt given the political developments of the last two years.
These can be seen in the wider context of coexistence and dialogue between differing religious views supported by citizens and authorities in the same country. Although examples of problematic relationships inside a single state can be found globally – like the renown case between Theravada Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka – the Western world is mostly occupied with the difficulties in establishing harmony between Christians and Muslims. In this scope, Coptic Christmas is of special importance and it made us think of the way understanding has been attempted or can be achieved between different religious communities living next to each other.
The coexistence or neighborhood of Christianity and Islam are documented – among other means – by the medieval and modern literary production that is relating the views of Christians about Mohammed and of the Muslims about Jesus. In various instance the last year, we have come across references to two major manuscript traditions concerning this topic, namely the Legend of Sergius Bahira and the Gospel of Barnabas.
The Legend bears testimony to the tradition according to which a Syrian monk foretold that the adolescent Mohammed would become the Prophet of God. The Christians explained away this tradition by blaming the monk Sergius Bahira as the heretic who inspired the Quran. In both cases, the Legend functions as counterhistory (term introduced by Amos Funkenstein) in the sense that it achieves “the distortion of the adversary’s self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory” (quoted from the latest study of the Legend by Barbara Roggema, The Legend of Sergius Baḥīrā, Eastern Christian Apologetics and Apocalyptic in Response to Islam, Leiden 2009, p. 31).
On the other hand, the Gospel of Barnabas consists of 222 chapters of Gospel-like literature that seem to have been compiled – to a certain extent – on the basis of more ancient material, but by Muslim circles that were attempting to present Jesus as the precursor of Mohammed in a manner reminiscent of the way John the Baptist was the precursor of Jesus himself. Leaving aside the originality of the manuscripts upon which the Gospel has come to us (for the latest discussion, see Oddbjørn Leirivk, Images of Jesus Christ in Islam, London – New York 2010, pp. 132-144), the work is surely a very interesting reading (see HERE and HERE), and it has caused many debates, analyses and propaganda, among which we’d like to mention the book by Ahmed Hamoud Al-Maamiry “Jesus Christ as Known by Muslims” (1989) for two reasons: because it is not usually mentioned in the related reference lists, and because it attempts to re-evaluate the polemics in which the Gospel of Barnabas has been used as the most effective weapon with an attitude of kind appropriation of the figure of Jesus, obviously a proselytization dressed with the costume of an attempt to bridge the gap between the two religions.
From our own perspective, knowledge of the other’s belief system is an important factor in the success of any such effort. Therefore, the analysis of works like those mentioned here should be made with an honesty that leaves no space to doubt and suspicion as to the motivations for undertaking such an exploit, and with the sharpness of a critical reading that does not allow itself any bias from a personal, social or ethnic background of a particular religious faith. If such exercises are too demanding, a starting point for everyone might be to participate with positive spirit and wholeheartedly to the ceremonies of the various religious communities of our neighborhood. This can prove a most useful lesson for the citizens of either Norway or Greece, or our beloved countries along the Nile. So, we hope that it is in such an atmosphere that the Coptic community celebrated Christmas today in the Arab Republic of Egypt…