One God, three religions

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.

If the flash of language provides moments of pleasure for the reader of this work, its deeper, more continuous and more instructive pleasure lies in the third dimension -- of depth, as it were -- that arises from its consideration of familiar religious topics from three standpoints instead of the usual one or two. Many Jews know little or nothing of Christianity; many Christians ditto of Judaism. In the West, a latter-day minority on both sides, especially perhaps among American scholars, has become accustomed to reading Western history as a common but doubled history.

As Heinrich Heine prophetically and aphoristically put it, Wie es sich christelt, so judelt es sich; “There is a Jewish analogue to everything that happens or happened in Christianity, and vice versa.” After the rise of Islam in the 7th century, this doubling became a tripling, but here the mutual ignorance becomes even more profound. It is this tripling that Peters puts in evidence to repeatedly splendid effect.

The triplication of “The Monotheists” defies summary or even easily sampling, but consider the historical and conceptual reach of the following:

“Modern Iran [after Khomeini] differs from sixteenth-century Geneva [after Calvin] in several important respects.... The Geneva revolution displaced one ecclesiastical regime by another, with the very important, even critical assistance of outsiders. The Iranian revolutionaries were all homegrown, and they replaced a secular regime with a religious one. But the two revolutions worked toward very similar ends. Both attempted to install a collective leadership in place of an aggressively monarchical one and, more importantly, they both subscribed to the notion that the behavior of members of the polity should be overseen and regulated by clerics.... “

To put it mildly, it is rare in discussions of Calvin’s Geneva to find Khomeini’s Iran mentioned, or vice versa. But the comparison instructs, at least when it has Peters’ depth of learning behind it, and Peters offers comparably novel and instructive comparisons by the score. Yes, most readers will begin from the indices and read Peters as one would an encyclopedia for concise, reliable summaries covering a remarkably long list of people, movements, doctrines, practices and so forth. But Peters’ learned peers may read him as well for new conceptual departures whose straightforward, perhaps indeed occasionally “telegraphic” formulation does not mask their rigor and originality.

Readers may wonder, as I did, whether it is the work of a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. I chose not to make any prior inquiry on this point and to wait for the author to tip his hand in the writing. But though I take myself to be a fairly astute reader of the clues to religious identity, Peters never tipped his hand. His name suggested that he was not a Muslim but did not decisively announce that he was either a Christian or a Jew. If forced to, I would have guessed that he is Jewish simply because he is a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies as well as of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University.

It was Amir Hussain, a Muslim professor at Cal State Northridge, who informed me, after I had submitted what I thought was this review’s final draft, that Peters, whom he admires, is an ex-Jesuit. As an ex-Jesuit myself, I hasten to add that this fact does not mean that Peters (whom, as you’ll infer, I have never met) is still a Roman Catholic, a Christian or even a believer. For all I know, he may have converted to Judaism. Know, then, that his is a work of perfect detachment.

As a synthesis, “The Monotheists” is not exceptional for that detachment alone, or for its erudition, or even for its originality. It is exceptional because Peters has created a new genre for it. I doubt that anyone will soon offer a second effort in this demanding new genre. But no matter: Peters’ first effort -- a major accomplishment by any measure -- is destined to remain in use for a very long while. *