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One God, three religions

The Monotheists Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition Volume I: The Peoples of God Volume II: The Words and Will of God F.E. Peters Princeton University Press: Volume I, 328 pp., $29.95 Volume II, 406 pp., $29.95

February 15, 2004|Jack Miles | Jack Miles, a MacArthur Fellow (2003-07), is senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and the author of "God: A Biography" and "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

Among the religious and biblical reference works in my home library, "The Dictionary of the Bible" by John L. McKenzie, S.J., is one for which I have a special admiration. Published in 1965, this remarkable one-man effort glosses every proper name in the Bible and offers succinct, penetrating entries on a long list of relevant topics, all between the covers of an affordable paperback numbering fewer than 1,000 pages. McKenzie's dictionary has been overtaken by later, larger ventures, most notably by the 1992 "Anchor Bible Dictionary," but in certain regards McKenzie has not been and is not likely to be replaced.

The "Anchor Bible Dictionary," besides being more up to date than McKenzie, comprises six jumbo-sized volumes. Many of the ABD's extended essays are minor masterpieces of erudition. And yet its team of editors, not to speak of the small army of scholars who contributed to it (of whom I am one), chose not to gloss every proper name in the Bible. In that one perhaps humble regard, McKenzie has not been replaced. McKenzie's effort is a personal synthesis, and there is something to be said for the personal synthesis, even after the proverbial explosion of knowledge.

First, the author of a personal synthesis may notice, as a team of editors might not, the occasional breathtaking omission. So it happens that McKenzie has entries for "Jew" and "God," while the ABD, rather stunningly, has none. Second, when the author of a personal synthesis writes with style as well as learning, as McKenzie certainly did, when he is unafraid to introduce the occasional bold formulation into a genre known for its numbingly measured language, the result may offer the pleasures of literature no less than those of scholarship.

Such a personal synthesis is at hand in F.E. Peters' astonishing "The Monotheists." Works of religious scholarship typically arrive with several pages' worth of abbreviations for the dozens of learned journals and reference works to be cited in the hundreds or thousands of footnotes to come. Not this work: no footnotes, no list of abbreviations, no "apparatus," not even a bibliography. Peters chooses to speak on his own authority, but it is an impressively earned authority.

Peters' orientation is broadly historical: He traces Judaism's origins to the 19th century; Christianity's origins to just past the Reformation; Islam's origins to, however briefly, the present. Yet as he states in his preface, his work is "an introduction rather than a history, a guide to some of the notions and practices shared by the three monotheistic communities, notions that have also been sources of contention among them." Though he speaks quietly and simply, Peters announces here a titanic undertaking.

In manner, Peters is encyclopedic -- or, better, an encyclopedist -- rather than discursive in the manner of a historian. Open either volume at random and you do not find yourself midway in a discussion running tens of pages. What you find, instead, is a capsule account running two pages at most -- an account of just the length and in much the manner that one might encounter in an encyclopedia.

The learning behind these "entries" is so exceptional that I can easily understand why Peters chose not to provide the reader with an account of all the primary sources and second scholarship they distill. Volume I contains, for example, a two-page entry on "Religious Tolerance: The Romans on Jews and Christians." A vast subject, that one; it has been addressed by dozens of works. Does Peters know, to name one, Peter Schafer's "Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Ancient World"? I have little doubt that he does, and in the more usual sort of learned book I would expect him to indicate as much. But I applaud his decision not to do so here, not even by listing Schafer in a bibliography. (Neither of Peters' two volumes has a bibliography; each, fortunately, has a careful index.) Had Peters given us not just the fruit but also the roots of his learning, this work might easily be five times its current length.

It is a long, demanding read, however, only when read start to finish, and it will be so read by only a minority of the scholars and students who will use it. For the majority, it will be the kind of indispensable handbook that, over time, finds its author's surname substituted for its title, as in "Have you checked that in Peters?" or "Let us open the discussion, as usual, with Peters." When you read him that way, Peters, like McKenzie, inspires gratitude for his brevity. And like McKenzie, he has the capacity to surprise and, even, with the occasional lapidary boldness of his expression, to delight.

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