Friday, March 18, 2011

"Blasphemy" in the Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition

Lindsay Jones, Editor in Chief, Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd ed.) (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005) at pp. 968-977.

The second edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion contains three articles under the general entry "Blasphemy." The three articles are "Blasphemy: Jewish Concept", "Blasphemy: Christian Concept", and "Blasphemy: Islamic Concept".

The first article, "Blasphemy: Jewish Concept", is written by Daniel J. Lasker. According to the article, some actions which would be deemed blasphemous in most religions, like arguing with God, are actually part and parcel of Jewish history and are considered legitimate. However, Lasker identifies four actions that could be considered blasphemous: "(1) cursing God and God's name; (2) using God's name in vain, pronouncing it illicitly, or destroying its written form; (3) saying inappropriate things about God; and (4) acting in a manner that would bring disrepute upon the God of Israel (and, therefore, upon the people of Israel)." (p. 968) Lasker devotes several paragraphs to the meaning of cursing God, while the other three acts receive a smaller amount of space. Interestingly, Lasker notes that, "although the Bible prescribes capital punishment for a number of crimes [including blasphemy], rabbinic law was instrumental in limiting the possibility of judicial executions" by imposing stringent requirements on proof and other restrictions. (p. 969) Another interesting feature of blasphemy in Judaism, one that sets it apart from most other religions, is the idea that pronouncing or writing the true name of God is blasphemous--and, as Lasker notes, various alternatives or euphemisms tend to be imbued with holy status over time, and become themselves forbidden.

The section on blasphemy in Christianity was written by Leonard Levy in 1987, and includes material that appear in his two books on blasphemy. Levy traces Christianity's prohibition on blasphemy to Exodus 22:28 ("You shall not revile God") and the punishment of death by stoning to Leviticus 24:16. An interesting discussion in the article is the relationship between heresy and blasphemy. For much of Christian history, according to Levy, the two terms were largely interchangeable. Over time, distinctions began to be drawn between blasphemy, which was a more narrow sin which required cursing or mocking of God directly, and heresy, which was a broader term that could encompass divergent doctrinal views. Levy notes that "Protestants during the Reformation had to reinvent the crime of blasphemy on the fiction that it was distinguishable from heresy. Because 'heresy' was the Catholic description for Protestantism, Protestant leaders tended to choke on word heretic and preferred to describe as 'blasphemy' anything they disliked or disagreed with, just as the church had used 'heresy.'" (p. 973) Levy goes on to trace how the concept of blasphemy evolved from a religious sin into a secular crime in seventeenth century England. The rest of the article is a concise distillation of the legal history of blasphemy in England and the United States, drawn all or in part from Levy's books.

The article on blasphemy in Islam was written by Carl Ernst in 1987. According to Ernst, blasphemy in Islam includes insulting Muhammad or any part of the divine revelation. Ernst notes that "[t]here is no exact equivalent to blasphemy in the Islamic tradition," (975) but that prohibitions on apostasy or "infidelity" ("the deliberate rejection of God and revelation") are comparable. The article briefly discusses the concept of blasphemy in early Islam before moving on to blasphemy in Islamic law, theology, and Sufi mysticism.

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