A review of The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, Volume I: The Peoples of God, by F. E. Peters

There was once, so the story goes, a magic ring—no, not J. R. R. Tolkien's ring, nor even Richard Wagner's, but Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's (and Boccaccio's before him). As the wise Jew Nathan tells the story to the Muslim Sultan Saladin in Lessing's Nathan the Wise (and not far out of the hearing of a Christian crusader), the ring possessed the wondrous power of conferring many blessings on the one who owned it. In each generation the owner would pass it on to the one among his sons who most excelled in wisdom and virtue. Then in one generation there were three sons, each of them with outstanding qualities, so that the father could not decide which one should receive the ring. To resolve his dilemma he summoned a master artisan who created two more rings, so identical to the original that neither the father himself nor anyone else could ever tell the difference, and gave one ring to each son. After his death each of the three sons claimed that he had the true ring. When they brought the dispute before a judge, he advised that each one should behave as though his ring were the one, but in the awareness that there were in fact two others:

They search, dispute, lament, 
In vain; the proper ring could not 
Be found; 'twas hid as well almost 
As—the true faith from us today
Nathan explains.

The parable of the three rings is poignant, almost irresistibly charming—and devastatingly relativistic, just as Lessing intended it to be. Without citing the tale, F. E. Peters in effect sets forth an alternative to it, a modern way of coping with the "conflict and competition" between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the three monotheistic "peoples of the Book" all claiming descent of one kind or another from Father Abraham. A professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and History at New York University, Peters opts for "the instruments of the historian." Using those instruments, he has undertaken "not to make peace or stir up war, or even ill feelings, among the three religious communities, but simply to lay out their common roots, their evolution over time, and what I see as their striking resemblances and their equally striking differences." Instead of narrating the history of each community from beginning to end on the basis of a common template à la Plutarch, or of giving an account of their interactions in each historical period or region (for example, the Middle Ages in Spain), Peters has taken the bold step of choosing a thematic approach, almost a taxonomic one. Volume I bears the subtitle The Peoples of God, Volume II The Words and the Will of God. Under each category, the individual chapters are more or less comparative—for example, "Orthodoxy and Heresy" in the first, or "Scripture and Tradition" in the second—with subsections of one or two pages as well as sidebars that concentrate on one or another of the three. There are no footnotes or endnotes, and no bibliography (it would, of course, have to be immense). But there are generous citations, with chapter and verse, from the three scriptures and from many other classic texts of the three traditions, often with the technical terms in one or another of the root languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Arabic).

Anyone who has attempted to concentrate on the history of only one of these three faiths must admire both the imagination of the enterprise and the elegance of the results. In 800 pages of very readable exposition, Peters demonstrates a command of highly complex materials, a sensitivity to the nuances of religious beliefs and practices in each tradition, and what Max Weber called "musicality," the opposite of the historical tone-deafness that so often marks the outsider's interpretation of other and alien faiths. Inevitably, so ambitious a journey will run into a detour or a roadblock or at least a pothole here and there. Just as Christians will often speak about "Reformed Judaism" when it should be "Reform Judaism," so here the Calvinist churches of Protestantism, which (especially in German) refer to themselves as "Reformed [nach Gottes Wort reformiert]," come out as "Reform Protestantism." More seriously, the customary Christian attachment of the misnomer "Nicene Creed" (from the Council of Nicaea in 325) to the amplified creed that was adopted only at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 seems to have led here to the impression that the historic marks of the Church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" were legislated already by the former council rather than only in the later confession of faith. 

And still more seriously: Peters announces near the beginning his intention to restrict the title "Bible" to the Jewish Bible (although "scripture" is used for the sacred canons of all three faiths). But "Bible" is not Hebrew but Greek, a neuter pluralBiblia (little books), which in Latin and then in its daughter languages was parsed as though it were a feminine singular—all of this happening in early and especially medieval Christian usage. Having just completed a book entitled Whose Bible Is It?, which narrates the history of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and of their interaction through the centuries, I am keenly aware of the ambiguities of terminology especially in speaking about Holy Writ. When Peters observes at one place that "in religious communities disputes about the calendar are always [italics his] about something other than counting," that is true a fortiori about nomenclature. But it does seem draconian—and, to use his word in another context, "reductive"—to resolve the issue this way. (I finally settled for "Bible" and "Scripture" or "the Scriptures" as the titles in both communities, with "Tanakh" for the Jewish Scripture as such, even in the Greek translation of the Septuagint, and "Old Testament" only for its place in the Christian Bible.)

There is another, more structural difficulty with this use of a synchronic rather than a diachronic method. What Peters observes about "overlaps and repetitions" in the distribution of the Law across the entire Pentateuch applies to his two volumes even more than it does to Moses' five volumes: the notorious "satanic verses" of the Quran, now permanently associated with the name of Salman Rushdie, are explained twice, once in each volume; the distinctive tenets of the Pharisees and their view of the relation between Scripture and tradition appear over and over again; and the political theology of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham receives an exposition at two places in the narrative. 

As a consequence of this structure, the reader is forced to flip around, with the aid of the numerous cross-references and a fine index, to get anything approaching a comprehensive interpretation of some of the most important figures in the history of each of the monotheistic faiths. Ghazali's Revivification of the Sciences of Religion is "arguably the most influential book written by a Muslim," but it takes two pages here and another page or two there to begin to understand why. The same happens to Augustine, for whom there is a one-page discussion of religious coercion, a three-page exposition of nature and grace, a page-and-a-half summary of The City of God, and more. Moses Maimonides, "the Rambam," is one of the heroes of the piece, as indeed he deserves to be (Peters does not quote the rabbinical kudos, "From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses," but he does document it very well); but there is a fragmentary, almost tantalizing, quality to his many notices across the entire two volumes.

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Corresponding to this is a surprising neglect of certain topics that would appear to be indispensable. The "interconfessional passage of believers from one faith community into another" or individual conversion (as distinct from "social conversion" or "coerced conversion") is almost declared out of bounds as inaccessible to the historian's probings. There is virtually nothing about hymns, spirituals, and chorales. And it is quite astonishing to read that "private and individual prayers and private rituals…are generally not the subject of discourse in the three monotheistic religious communities," a judgment that an all-but-apostolic succession from Tertullian and Origen in the 2nd and 3rd centuries to William James and Friedrich Heiler in the 20th (not to mention the almost endless stream of other commentators on the Lord's Prayer and the Ave Maria) would find puzzling.

Compensating for these difficulties are the often striking, and sometimes brilliant, parallels and comparisons. Peters rightly dismisses the overly facile parallelism of some modern Western visitors to the Middle East who "thought they could best understand the Sunnis and Shiites as, respectively, a version of Catholics and Protestants," when in fact, "functionally speaking, the opposite seems closer to the truth." As a result of comparisons, "it is by now almost an article of Jewish faith—a dogma, no less—that there are no dogmas in Judaism." Although Muhammad and Jesus "are both recognized as in some sense the founders of the two religious communities that claim more adherents than any others," closer comparison shows that "they have little in common" and that "the two lives show remarkable differences."

Another comparison between the Christian and the Muslim tradition proves to be more telling: "Far from separating church and state, [John Calvin] described their union in his Institutes in language that would be as at home in Tehran in the late 20th century as he convinced the Genevans it should be in the 16th, though Calvin gave civil officials far more latitude to decide church matters than the Iranian Constitution granted their secular counterparts." Again, in an almost epigrammatic comparison involving all three traditions: "Since the lawyers of Islam were essentially rabbis and not bishops speaking comfortably ex cathedra, they had early begun to employ various forms of legal reasoning that have been the staples of lawyers always and everywhere." Or this: "The least bishop in Christendom could pronounce more loudly and consequentially on the faith than either this Jewish rabbi [Maimonides] or this Muslim historian [Ibn Khaldun]."

Such epigrams and one-liners dot the pages throughout and would, even by themselves, be worth the price of admission. Inquiring how monotheists could have a demonology without lapsing into metaphysical dualism, Peters explains that "Satan is no prince; he is the dean of a college." He describes the conflicts between (and within) the three communities over the Western Wall in Jerusalem as "a not untypical example of how a Jerusalem holy place began with the presence of God and ended up in the hands of lawyers." The inhabitants of Mecca who opposed Muhammad may have "thought monotheism would lessen Mecca's appeal as a pilgrimage center (surely one of the gravest miscalculations in the history of commerce)." The translation of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen from Greek into Arabic, at least partly at the hands of Christian scholars (followed some centuries later by the retranslation of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin) was "technology transfer on a massive scale, this passage of the intellectual goods of one culture into the quite different idiom of another."

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Always lurking as a subtext, and repeatedly breaking into the exposition (as it repeatedly breaks into the headlines of our newspapers), is the story of how the sibling rivalries in this "fractious family" have erupted into persecution and open war, to which we are indebted for "crusade," "jihad," "pogrom," "auto-da-fé," and many other terms that have so enriched our vocabulary. "Monotheists," Peters explains, "are bred-in-the-bone fanatics, an attitude they learned at the (allegorical) knee of the Creator, who was, as he himself noted, 'a jealous God'"; "whatever the monotheists lack in tolerance," therefore, "they make up in conviction." Christians and Muslims have been guilty of intolerance and persecution far more often than Jews, at least partly because they had more of an opportunity; but excluding a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism from aliya, the Law of Return in the modern State of Israel, did prove to be a test case. More often than not, "forbearance" rather than "tolerance" has been the characteristic stance; and even when it has existed, it was usually limited to other monotheists and did not extend to polytheists or atheists. The great laboratory was medieval Spain, where "the three communities by no means loved one another, but there was a degree of respect and, more obviously, an effective degree of convivencia, or coexistence." The same has been true, though much less often, in the Balkans and in Sicily. Peters does not allow himself to speculate about the prospects for any convivencia in today's Middle East, nor does he mention Samuel Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilizations. But he clearly does hope, as a historian, that the kind of sympathetic understanding he manifests for all three traditions may become contagious while we still have time. One can only agree—and, yes, pray to the One True God—that we do still have time.