In the past week, two of the world’s big religions – Islam and Christianity – have each been exposed to a potentially explosive “text”. The first is a crude and almost childishly irreverent trailer for a film that depicts the Prophet Mohamed as a nasty, vicious, sexually incontinent man. Its release has created mayhem and stirred violence right across the Muslim world. The second is the emergence of a scrap of papyrus showing, according to some scholars at least, that Jesus was actually a married man. Those scholars are still alive. Yet there have been no death threats. No one has died.
Now it’s true that the trailer was a crude and deliberate insult to Islam, whereas the scrap of papyrus is a historical artefact that forms part of scholarly debate. Yet in many ways, its entry into public debate should have been even more incendiary than the silly snippet of film. The idea that Jesus, far from being celibate and removed from the life of fleshly pleasure, was not celibate after all is a shocking idea for so many ordinary Christians: it goes to the heart of their religious beliefs and feelings.
By contrast, the trailer for the laughably bad film was made by people no one had heard of and could have easily been dismissed as the crackpot ravings of unimportant nogoodniks. Why? And what accounts for the huge contrast in the way the adherents of the two religions react? The essential reason has to do with the very different roles that history and attitudes to historical truth have played in the two religions.
Many other (non-religious) factors also need to be invoked to explain the Muslim reaction, not least centuries of Western imperialism and the feelings of resentment and inferiority that that has created. It is also worth stressing that Christians are certainly not incapable of expressing outrage at what they see as betrayals of or attacks on their beliefs: Martin Scorsese’s fascinating and rather brilliant film The Last Temptation of Christ – which ends with St Paul preaching about the death and resurrection of the celibate Christ while deliberately ignoring the married Jesus who is standing in the crowd of enthralled listeners – provoked international protest. But again, there was no violence.