An Introduction to the Three Major "Western Religions"
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.


Basic Terms: Faith & Belief

Scriptural Texts about Faith & Believing:

Types of Belief in God or gods (lots of -isms):

Classifying the Major World Religions:

SUGGESTED NAME How/why is this name appropriate? How/why is this name problematic?
“Western Religions” In the past and today, most Jews, Christians, Muslims have lived further “West” than most Buddhists, Hindus, adherents of other so-called “Eastern” religions. But many Jews, Xns, Muslims also live in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (esp. Muslims), while some Buddhists, Hindus, etc., live in the “West.”
“Religions of the Book” All have foundational religious texts/scriptures, collected in one main book: Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, Qur'an.
(But not the same book for each!)
Judaism emphasizes not just the “Written Torah” (Hebrew Bible), but also the “Oral Torah” (traditions, Talmud).
Christianity is more properly based on a person (Jesus), not just the book (Bible, seen as culminating in the life of Jesus).
Only for Islam is the book/message (Qur'an) really more important than the person/messenger (Muhammad).
“Major Monotheistic Religions” Belief in only one God is the core for all three religions. “Monotheistic” is a technical religious term that needs to be explained (esp. Christian belief that Father/Son/Spirit are still one God, called a “Trinity” or “Trinitarian Monotheism”).
“Religions of Abrahamic Origin”
(i.e. stemming from Abraham)
All see themselves as “Children of Abraham” in some way; stresses their common or familial beginnings. This puts more emphasis on Abraham than on other figures considered even more important: Moses in Judaism, Jesus in Christianity, Muhammad in Islam.
“Religions of Judaic Origin”
(i.e. branched off of Judaism)
All revere Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, other biblical prophets; all believe God spoke to the Israelites/Jews. May imply that Judaism is better/more important than the others;
Christianity early on incorporated many Gentiles, not just Jews;
Islamic origins are in Arabia, less closely elated to Judaism.
“Religions of Near Eastern Origin” Judaism & Christianity started in Israel; Islam in nearby Arabia; all three part of the “Middle East.” This may be the best collective term! All began in the Near East; but does this overemphasize the geographical beginnings?
“Judaism, Christianity, Islam” Not using a collective term emphasizes the many significant differences between these three religions. Using the three names separately obscures the fact that these faiths have much in common, more than they do with other world religions.

Common Elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

Here are some of the main similarities mentioned by my students in a recent course:

A Comparative Overview of the Three Main “Western” Religions:

Adherents Jew(s) Christian(s) Muslim(s) (Moslems)
Corresponding Adjectives Jewish; Judaic Christian Muslim; Islamic
Number of Adherents Today ca. 15 Million (0.25% of world) ca. 2.0–2.2 Billion (33% of world) ca. 1.2–1.5 Billion (20-25% of world)
Geographical Concentrations USA, Israel, parts of Europe
(esp. urban areas)
S&N America, Europe, Australia,
parts of Africa & Asia
S.Asia (India, Pak., Bangl.), SE Asia
(esp. Indonesia),
Mid-East, N Africa
Major Branches Today * Orthodox
* Conservative
* Reform/Liberal
* Reconstructionist
* [ Secular / non-religious ]
* (Eastern) Orthodox (12%):
   Greek; Russian; Armenian; etc.

* (Roman) Catholic (50%):
   Latin, Byzantine, other “rites”

* (Western) Protestant (25%):
   many “churches/denominations”

* (Newer) Independent (18%):
   local & “non-denominational”
* Sunni (85%)
* Shi’ite (15%)
Mystical Traditions Kabbalah Monasticism Sufism
Core Scriptures Tanakh (Hebrew Bible; Mikra) Bible (OT & NT) Qur'an (Koran)
# Books / Chapters / Verses 24 / (diff. systems) / 23203 Protestant OT: 39 / 929 / 23145
Catholic OT: 46 / 1074 / 27570
NT: 27 / 260 / 7956
1 / 114 / 6346
Structure of Scriptures
(and main organizing principle)
Three Sections (in content/genre groups):
Torah, Nevi'im, Khetuvim
Two Parts (mostly chronologically):
Old Testament & New Testament
One Book: 114 Surahs
(by decreasing length, except #1)
Scriptural Language(s) Hebrew (and some Aramaic) Greek (later Latin, etc.) Arabic
Other Key Early Literature Rabbinic Writings:
Mishnah, Midrash, Talmuds
* Patristic Writings
* Conciliar Creeds
Hadith (“traditions” of Muhammad)
Historical Origins 2nd millennium BC/BCE 1st century AD/CE 7th century AD/CE
Main “Patriarchs” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, 12 Sons Abraham, Isaac, Jacob Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael)
Main “Prophet” Moses Jesus of Nazareth Muhammad (Mohammed)
Foundational Event(s) * Call and Migration of Abraham
* Passover / Exodus out of Egypt
* Incarnation/Birth of Jesus
* Death & Resurrection of Jesus
* Call of Muhammad as a prophet
* Migration from Makka to Madinah
Other Early Leaders * Joshua & Judges; David & Solomon
* prophets, priests, kings
* Peter & Paul, James, John, etc.
* apostles, evangelists, bishops
* First Four Caliphs (“successors”)
* Imams (“leaders”)
Holy Cities * Jerusalem * Jerusalem
* Constantinople; Rome; others?
(wherever God/Jesus is found)
* Makka (Mecca)
* Madinah (Medina)
* Jerusalem
Main Worship Centers * Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed 70 AD) * Church of Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem)
* Holy Land Sites (wherever Jesus was)
* Cathedrals, Basilicas (world-wide)
* Kaaba (in Makka)
* Mosque of the Prophet (in Madinah)
* Dome of the Rock (in Jerusalem)
Local Worship Buildings Synagogues (Temples, Congregations) Churches (Chapels, Centers, etc.) Mosques (Masjids, Islamic Centers)
Local Leaders * Priests (cultic officials; until 70 CE)
* Rabbis (teachers; since 70 CE)
* Bishops, Priests, Deacons (Cath & Orth)
* Pastors, Ministers, Elders (Prot.)
* Imams, Mullahs (Sunni)
* Ayatollahs (Shi'ite)
Communal Worship Day Saturday, or Friday eve
(Exod 20:8-11; 31:12-17; 35:1-3; Lev 23:3)
Sunday, or Saturday eve
(Luke 24:1-35; Acts 20:7)
Friday, noon (Surah 62:9-10)
Most Common Prayer Shema (Deut 6:4-5) Lord's Prayer/Our Father (Matt 6:9-13) Fatiha (Qur'an 1:1-7)
Major Annual Feasts * Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
* Pesach (Passover / Exodus)
* Easter (Resurrection of Jesus)
* Christmas (Birth of Jesus)
* Ramadan (month of fasting/prayer)
* Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca)
Season of Penance/Renewal
High Holy Days (10 days b4 Yom Kippur) Lent (40 days before Easter) Ramadan (9th lunar month)
Day(s) of Fasting Yom Kippur (25 hrs) & 3 “minor” fasts Ash Wednesday & Good Friday Ramadan (29-30 days)
Calendar Type Luni-solar (leap-month in 7 of 19 years) Solar (leap-days; new moon anytime) Lunar (12 months of 29/30 days)
Length of Year 353-355 days (383-385 in leap years) 365 days (366 in leap years) 354-355 days (no leap months or years)
Year 1: Traditional Calendar Creation of the World (3760 BCE) Birth of Jesus (actually 6-4 BCE) Migration of Muhammad (620 CE)
Most Recent “New Year” 1 Tishri 5767 (Sept 23, 2006)
A.M. = Anno Mundi, “Year of the World”
1 January 2006
A.D. = Anno Domini, “Year of the Lord”
1 Muharram 1427 (Jan. 31, 2006)
A.H. = Anno Hijri, “Year of the Migration”
Name & Titles for God YHWH (Yahweh? Jehovah? not spoken);
Adonai/Lord; Elohim, El, Ja, G-d
Father, Almighty, Lord, Creator;
TRINITY: Father, Son & Holy Spirit
Allah, the Merciful, Compassionate;
99 Names for God (devotional)
Key Theological Concepts * Covenant = “Promises” of God/people
* Torah = God's “Teaching/Instruction”
* Incarnation = Jesus “became flesh”
* Redemption = JC died for our sins
* Islam = “Submission” to Allah/God
* Qur'an = “Recitation” of the Message
Basic Response
Expected of Believers
Fidelity to the Covenant between God
and Israel, the Chosen People
Faith in Jesus as Christ/Messiah,
Lord, Savior, Son of God
Submission to God and the Message
of Muhammad, the ultimate prophet
Relationship of
Believers to Abraham
Descendants (literally), thru Isaac
and Jacob/Israel (Exod 3:14-16)
Children (figuratively), by faith
& adoption (Gal 3:6-9)
Relatives (analogously), who submit
to Allah as Abraham did (Qur'an 3:67-68)
Views about Jesus 1st-century Jew; not the Messiah:
at best: a wise teacher, prophet, healer
at worst: a rebel, fraud, blasphemer

Lord, Christ/Messiah, Son of God:
“Second Person of the Trinity”;
fully human and fully divine
Prophet (last one before Muhammad);
miraculous birth, but not divine
Artistic Focus Symbols & decorated ritual objects
(Torah Scrolls, Menorahs, Seder Plates, etc.);
but don't depict God/gods, humans, animals
Images (crosses, paintings, statues, mosaics)
of Jesus, saints, biblical stories, etc.
(used for veneration, but not worshiped)
Calligraphy (esp. the Arabic Qur'an),
Architecture & geometric designs;
but no depictions of God or prophets
Dietary Regulations Kasruth/Kosher: no pork, shellfish, etc.;
separation of milk & meat products;
meat slaughtered by proper methods
(only some Xns avoid alcohol, meat, etc.)
Halal: no pork; no alcohol;
meat slaughtered by proper methods

Questions for Group Discussion and/or Personal Reflection:

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