Crossing Confessional Boundaries

Exemplary Lives in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Tradition

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John Renard
S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     350 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a 2014 Journal of the American Academy of Religion article regarding the history of yoga and contemporary yogaphobia, Andrea Jain concludes: “In the history of religions, there are no original ideas or practices, and there are no unchanging essences. Religious phenomena arise from continuous processes of syncretism, appropriation, and hybridization” (“Who Is to Say Modern Yoga Practitioners Have It All Wrong?: On Hindu Origins and Yogaphobia,” JAAR 82, no. 2 [2014]: 459). This is the case no less for the South Asian and Euro-American contexts regarding the phenomena of yoga than it is for the late antique and medieval contexts of the Mediterranean basin and its environs regarding the phenomena of exemplary figures. If this was in question before the publication of John Renard’s Crossing Confessional Boundaries, then it certainly no longer is now.

Renard brings together the findings of the most recent scholarship on the lives of exemplary figures in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, along with their attendant and subsequent intra- and inter-traditional devotional communities, institutions, texts, practices, pilgrimages, and more. From these Abrahamic traditions—a contested category, but one Renard uses nonetheless—patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, rabbis, Hasidim, geonim, martyrs, ascetics, sages, saints, Friends of God, miracle-workers, and more are introduced over three parts and nine chapters. In this book, Renard seeks to establish more firmly a new subfield in religious studies and comparative or interreligious theology: comparative hagiography.

The book does not supply an innovative thesis that challenges any academic consensus or dominant argument concerning the function of exemplary figures in these three traditions of late antiquity and the middle ages; with a few exceptions, it also does not spill too much ink on actual comparison that leads to novel insights. Rather, Renard offers “a large narrative on the basis of recent publications by scores of scholars in Late Antique and medieval sources, by distilling from their remarkable contributions the outlines of a more expansive picture” (ix). In this respect, the book is a smashing success; the literature Renard reviews is extensive and his ability to present the most salient points toward future scholarship is impressive. He elaborates a genealogy of the exemplary figure that will surely shape any future work in the field. However, if one is looking for close engagement with primary sources in comparison or for a sustained argument regarding the sociology, theology, anthropology, pedagogy, and/or spiritual practices and rituals concerning exemplary figures, then one will have to wait for future scholarship—which  Renard readily admits in his preface and conclusion.

The title arguably does not represent the bulk of the book’s content. The examples of cross-confessional or interreligious exemplary figures are sparse. This  the point: there is a lacuna of scholarship concerning comparative hagiographies and interreligious exemplary figures such that a standard text that collates and compares secondary literature is necessary to set the stage for future work. Renard outlines the major scholarly findings from studies of hagiographical discursive and institutional traditions diachronically and thematically, juxtaposing in serial order Jewish, Christian, and Islamic viewpoints on any given subject of a chapter.

For example, when Renard explores the literature on “the founder” as one category in his fourfold typology of exemplary figures (the other three are warriors, martyrs, and women), he distinguishes three sections with bolded titles: Jewish Founders, Christian Founders, and Islamic Founders (179–183). While similarities are often emphasized at the end of these sections, there are rarely any explicit comparative conclusions. In these serial juxtapositions throughout the book, Renard often spills slightly more ink on the Islamic traditions; given that he is a scholar of Islamic hagiographies, sainthood, and the Friends of God, it is unsurprising. Additionally, it should be noted that this publication is part of the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies, and so the book is itself structured with the assumption that readers have less knowledge of the Islamic traditions than either the Christian or Jewish (and Renard makes note of this).

Especially impressive was part 1, wherein Renard details the sacred topographies of three geographical regions shared by the Abrahamic traditions historically—contemporarily or sequentially: the Central Middle East, Spain and North Africa, and from Anatolia to the Balkans. Renard succinctly presents each regions’ history, and so these chapters could easily be used in a course to introduce the chronology of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic interactions. More importantly, however, is that Renard outlines how the adoption, adaption, or appropriation of various holy sites—be it Christians of Jewish sites, or Muslims of Christian sites—is a noteworthy example of the ongoing debate regarding religious syncretism, hybridity, assimilation, and supersessionism.  

Boundaries among these religious traditions were often porous and religious adherents wavered between wholly acknowledging and sustaining the sacredness of a given site or exemplary figure related to a tradition that preceded them and rejecting or proscribing any continued devotional practices thereat or thereto. In several places, Renard points to imbalance of treatment between, on the one hand, Christians and/toward their Jewish forebears and, on the other hand, Muslims and/toward their Jewish and Christian forebears (24, 49, 148–149). Renard’s exposition suggests that Islamic attitudes toward the People of the Book were less harsh than Christian treatment of Jews; Muslims were often more open to cross-confessional exploration than their Christian counterparts, perhaps demonstrating that they were less supersessionist (as Renard avers) and more subordinationist.

Each chapter is effectively a carefully crafted review of literature on the topic but lacks conclusions that move the chapter’s subject matter in one direction or another. However, Renard’s brief conclusion points the reader to the various paths a field of comparative hagiography could tread: community boundary formation, maintenance, and/or disruption, posthumous orality and visuality of hagiographies, cosmic hierarchies of exemplary figures, and more. Furthermore, the field could address other contexts: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain exemplary figures and holy sites in South and Southeast Asian contexts or the exemplary lives of persons from the Three Teachings (Ruist, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions) in China.

Renard’s book will be beneficial as a textbook that introduces emerging scholars to the nuts and bolts necessary for the successful framing of scholarship in comparative hagiography. Chapters or even short sections could be assigned independently in an undergraduate or graduate course, too; combined with supplemental readings (either secondary sources Renard presents or primary sources for comparative study), a whole course could be organized around his book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Axel Marc Oaks Takacs is assistant professor at Seton Hall University and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Interreligious Studies.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Renard is professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University. His many books include Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of MuslimsWindows on the House of IslamFriends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and ServanthoodTales of God’s Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation, and Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader.



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