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Journal of ReligionPeters has made an important contribution to the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
— Barry Dov Walfish
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that their Scriptures preserve God's words to humanity, and that those words were spoken uniquely to them. In The Voice, the Word, the Books, F. E. Peters leads readers on an extraordinary journey through centuries of written tradition to uncover the human fingerprints on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran, sacred texts that have enriched millions of lives.
Bringing the latest Biblical and Quranic scholarship to a general audience, Peters explains how these three powerfully influential books passed from God's mouth, so to speak, to become the Scriptures that we possess today. He reveals new insights into their origins, contents, canonization, and the important roles they have played in the lives of their communities. He explores how they evolved through time from oral to written texts, who composed them and who wrote them, as well as the theological commonalities and points of disagreement among their adherents. Writing in the comparative style for which he is renowned, Peters charts the transmission of faith from the spoken word to the printed page, from the revelations on Sinai and Mount Hira to Mamluk ateliers in Cairo and Gutenberg's press in Mainz.
Peters is an acknowledged expert who has written extensively on these three great world religions, each of them an inheritor of the faith of Abraham. Published in conjunction with an exhibit at the British Library, this illustrated book includes beautiful images of the rare editions on exhibit and constitutes Peters's most ambitious and illuminating examination yet of the sacred texts that so inform civilization both East and West.
"This is undoubtedly one of the best single volumes on the history of sacred text in the Abrahamic faiths."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Many readers will appreciate this probing interfaith investigation for the insight it offers into sacred books that both link and divide the world of faith."—Booklist
"In today's culture of interfaith outreach, this book, agreeably approachable, offers insights into the parallel and intersecting paths the sacred books of the three great Abrahamic religions followed."—Suzi Brozman, Atlanta Jewish Times
"Highly readable...The Voice, the Word, the Books, with its lavish illustrations and adequate index, will prove very valuable for those teaching an introduction to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran."—Patrick J. Ryan, The American
"Readers who have some knowledge of biblical history and scholarship will already be familiar with much of the territory Peters surveys. But here that familiar territory borders on a detailed discussion of the Qur'an, and the frontier between these two traditions makes for an illuminating and often surprising adventure of ideas...The depth of the author's scholarship is...evident on every page."—Lawrence S. Cunningham, Commonweal
"The open critique, dialogue and reworking of a tradition, which has been essential to the relevance of Judaism and Christianity to the modern world, awaits its day in Islam. In Peters' work you will find clues as to how big that task will be."—Rachael Kohn, Australian Review of Public Affairs
"F. E. Peters offers here a remarkably well-informed, thoughtfully conceived, and elegantly written comparative. . . . The scholarship is, in my opinion, an example of the comparative study of religion at its finest. The author's argument is grounded in first-hand, extensive knowledge of each tradition he handles, nourished by wide and incisive readings of secondary scholarly studies, and shaped overall by a clearly envisioned comparative. . . . In my opinion, Peters has not only delivered fully on this promise to mark the histories of the Abrahamic scriptural traditions as a passage from spoken word to text and back to spoken utterance, but also presented the field of religious studies with a model for comparative studies beyond the Abrahamic traditions as well."—Martin S. Jaffee, Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"In these days it is especially a pleasure to encounter a gentle, intelligent work, written for the educated general public, that promotes understanding, even empathy, for the other. Peters . . . offers new information and insights for practitioners of these faiths as well as for the inquiring and the curious."—Robert W. Lebling, Saudi Aramco World
"Peters has made an important contribution to the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."—Barry Dov Walfish, Journal of Religion
Peters, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at NYU and author of The Children of Abraham, lucidly explains how Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities understand and interact with their sacred texts—the Tanakh, the Bible and the Qur'an. Unsurprisingly, he opens with discussions of authorship and canonization: who wrote the books, how did the sacred texts achieve their final form, and how do religious authorities discern what counts as "the Word of God"? He also takes up the question of translation, elucidating the theology that underlies the Islamic belief that "a translated Qur'an is not really a Qur'an." But the truly fascinating sections of the book investigate quirkier topics, such as the different religions' regulations about the conditions under which people are allowed to handle sacred books. One of the most interesting chapters addresses the relationship between art and text, examining how various scribes and calligraphers have illustrated holy books; Peters makes an intriguing claim about the Qur'an, suggesting that despite Islamic insistence that the meaning of the text lies solely in the words, "Qur'anic decoration"—geometric and floral imagery—may "add another layer of meaning." This is undoubtedly one of the best single volumes on the history of sacred text in the Abrahamic faiths, and many readers will find it an invaluable resource. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
At a time when books like Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacychallenge contemporary Americans to learn more about other faiths in our post-9/11 world, Peters (Middle Eastern & Islamic studies, NYU; The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam) examines the similarities and differences in the function of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran as scripture for each respective religious community. Addressing a broad general audience, he employs a historical critical methodology to try to determine how each faith developed, canonized, and passed on its version of God's revelation to humanity. In nine chapters, he details, e.g., the human composition of each collection of scripture, its transmission through different versions, and its use and application in each religious community. He further traces its historical development from its origin on Mount Sinai to the invention of the printing press in 1454, by which time the collection of sacred scripture for all three religions had become stabilized. In its important comparative analysis of the historical development, role, and function of sacred scripture in the three major monotheistic religions, Peters's book helps promote interfaith understanding. Highly recommended.
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Before embarking on the perilous how and when of the Holy Writ of the three monotheistic communities, it is useful to review the contents of each. The Christians do read-indeed they must read-the Jewish Scripture they call the Old Testament, but Jews and Muslims do not-in fact, need not and perhaps must not-reciprocate: both regard the New Testament from a distance, and Jews and Christians have even less of an idea of what is in the Quran.
To begin, the faith of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the identity of each as a community, and their shared hope for salvation are all inextricably tied to a book; they are indeed preeminently "People of the Book" as the Muslims call them. But not the same book, nor, in fact, the same books, since the Jews and Christians at least have in their possession not a single Sacred Book but a collection of the same, which they refer to collectively as The Writing or, more commonly in English, Scripture.
Scripture for the Jews, here called the Bible, is quintessentially "Instruction" (torah), which becomes, in its "published" form,a "Recitation" (miqra). For Muslims, the Quran is, from the outset and self-professedly, likewise a "Recitation" (qur'an), and then, also by self-designation, a "Remembrance" (dhikr). In both terms the thrust is toward the integration of God's Word in the mind and heart of the believer. The Christians' New Testament/Covenant, in contrast, is by its title both assertive and argumentative, while its core documents, the four Gospels, are markedly different from both the Torah and the Quran. They are each called the "Good News" (euangelion), and their kerygmatic purpose was already clear well before they became the documents of faith. "Go, then, to all nations and make them my disciples" says Jesus at the end of Matthew's Gospel. "Baptize them ... and teach them to observe all I have commanded you" (28:19-20), which is precisely what Paul and the others did, proclaiming the "Good News" before it became either a text or a book (Acts 8:35; 11:20; 1 Cor. 1:17, etc.).
The earliest chapters or suras of the Quran, not the first chapters in our copies of that Book but rather what are thought to be Muhammad's earliest revelations recorded in it, are even more manifestly preaching than the Gospels: the Gospels proclaim a message embedded in a life; the Quran straightforwardly announces the message itself; it is the Message Itself. The Torah professes to explain how all this came about, when and why this people then called the Israelites and now the Jews came to believe that there was one God and how that God rewarded them for their beliefs by singling them out for His special favor and His special reward. In the Bible's account, the radical assertion of monotheism, that "There is but One God," is taught early on to the Israelites, even before they were known,, as Israelites and were simply identified as Hebrews or "wanderers," one undistinguished family of nomads among many such in the Middle East of the Bronze Age.
God's special favor, all its claimants agree, was mediated through a compact or covenant made between the Creator God and one of His creatures. That creature was, again they all concur, one Abram or Abraham, a minor tribal shaykh who had migrated from Mesopotamia across the Fertile Crescent and settled in the land of Canaan, the wedge of territory caught between Syria and Egypt and later called Palestine. This Abraham was, somewhat inexplicably in the Bible-the Quran (21:51-71) claims to know more about it-an early (the earliest?) worshiper of the One True God, and it was to him the deity had promised His hopefully eternal favor, to Abraham, that is, and to his descendants.
The worshipers of that One True God are one in affirming that He spoke to Abraham and that that conversation was recollected and recorded: its record constitutes the foundation document of what they call the Covenant and of monotheism itself. And, they further agree, God continued for a time to speak to His favored creatures, always and necessarily the same One True God, but in the end, it was to different worshipers. These privileged conversations-"revelations," as they are almost invariably described-all proceeded from a single divine source, it is agreed, but they were also occasional in their occurrence-Paul's "sundry times and divers places"-and as such they were directed to different human agents, the various "prophets" and "messengers" who served as the mediums of revelation.
It is to the recollected and recorded utterances and writings, the Scripture, that issued from those various privileged mediums that we now turn. What we possess, however, are the words not as they came forth from God's mouth, nor even from the prophets' mouths or inspired pens, but in a redacted book form, or rather, in the collections of writings that the monotheists call their Scripture. There is a great deal to say about how they became such, but we begin by inspecting their present contents, a surface worn smooth by public and private repetition and polished to near perfection by centuries of careful and controlled exegesis.
"Thus Spake Yahweh": What Is the Bible?
It is easier to describe the Bible than to discover its original name. The expression "in the books," where "books" is a rendering of the plural of sefer, is used in reference to earlier revelations in the Hebrew text of the Biblical book called Daniel. The oldest Greek version of the Bible, the one used by both Jews and Christians, translates it as biblia, "books," and that same word occurs in a similar Scriptural context in the non-Biblical books of Maccabees. The New Testament refers to Jewish Scripture exactly as such, hai graphai, "the Writings," but among the Greek-speaking Christians and Jews biblia eventually won out and the Jewish Scripture came to be called the Bible by Jews and Christians alike.
Formally the Bible begins "in the beginning," the very beginning, with the story of Creation-the first book is called Genesis-and its opening chapters (1-3) provide the common template for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understanding of the creation of the universe and of the primal couple, Adam and Eve, the garden or paradise (a loanword from Persian) in which they were placed, and their sin and consequent expulsion. Jews and Christians read the same text-the Bible is Bible for both-and the story is not repeated but retold in the Quran, though in bits and pieces, not as a consecutive narrative. Each group puts different emphases in the story-the Christians' explosive explanation of the fall of Adam and Eve into the Original Sin of humankind is probably the best-known example-and each has later added details, like the parallel fall from grace of another set of God's creatures, the angels, and the rise to prominence of one of them, Satan, all of which go unmentioned in Genesis itself.
The literary critic looking at Genesis recognizes in its narrative of Creation a myth, a transcendental account that is neither history nor science. Myths are not "true" in themselves; rather, they reflect truths. The Jews who told the creation story, and the Christians and Muslims who repeated and enriched it, knew no such distinction. Scripture was not only "true," each and every word of it; it was also inerrant, incapable of being false. All three communities have been more than able to treat Genesis as "myth," to unpack from it the moral and spiritual "truths" found within the narrative. But they have also treated it as what we would call "science." Once exposed to the ancient rationalist tradition in its most invasive Hellenic form, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all made strenuous and obviously well-intentioned efforts to reconcile what their scientific cosmology instructed them about the Creation and the present form of the universe and what their Scripture asserted on the same subject.
That process of reconciliation and assimilation began in Jewish circles in Alexandria in the third century BCE. It continued down to the days of Galileo and Copernicus, when a radical change in the scientific model of the universe left the Jews, and more particularly the Christians, who were far more committed to harmonizing Genesis with contemporary science, with a grave-and still unresolved-problem. The Jews generally preferred a more mystical reading of the text, and there is a rich store of Jewish esoterica called "The Work of Creation" and clearly labeled with a warning against general consumption. Christians, from the hexaemeron or "Six Days" literature of the Christian Fathers down to the summas of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, had possessed themselves of a prodigiously wrought model of the universe. But after the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a universe that no longer worked, and a scientific interpretation of Genesis that no longer convinced.
Galileo and Copernicus arrived late in Islam, but Muslims were less affected by the paradigm shift when it did arrive since they had been far less ardent to in linking Scriptural creation to science. And since the Quran adverted to Creation rather than describing or explaining it, there was abundant space within which Muslim commentators could and did construct their explanations of how the world began. What lingers, however, in Muslim no less than in Christian and Jewish minds, is the absolute conviction of the "truthfulness" of Scripture, and nowhere has that truth gauntlet been more daringly cast down than in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis.
Genesis 4-11 tells the story of humankind from Adam's own children down to Abraham, who dominate the narrative thereafter. The task is not an easy one. Genesis 6:1-5, for example, is constrained to have the "sons of God" mingle with the "daughters of man" to produce a very mixed breed of "giants" (nephilim) to confound believers forever after. Even more puzzling is the somewhat later information that "the Lord," that is, the Creator God of Genesis who had begun to be worshiped by humans in the generation of Adam's grandchildren (4:26), now "repented that He had made humankind" (6:6), and resolved to destroy it, all, that is, save Noah and his family and two breeding specimens of all animal life. There follows the story of the building of Noah's ark and of the flood that destroys the rest of the human race (6:14-7:19).
After the waters recede, Noah builds an altar and offers animal sacrifice on it. God is pleased with the odor of the burnt offerings and pledges not to destroy humankind again. More, the Lord makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants (9:1-17), the prototype of the later one with Abraham and his. Circumcision will be the sign of Abraham's covenant, but the symbol of Noah's is God's "bow in the clouds," the divine weapon hung up and harmless. By the terms of the new covenant Noah and his heirs are given permission to eat the flesh of all animals-humans were apparently vegetarian up to this point-except they were not to eat flesh with its own blood still in it.
Genesis next hurries through the generations of Noah's descendants (9:18-11:32), pausing only to tell the engaging tale of the builders of the "tower of Babylonia" the ill-advised architectural project that caused the Lord to turn his human creation into confused polyglots (11:1-9) and would lead, many centuries later, to the ticklish problem of how to bring God's Word to babblers who no longer speak God's Sacred Tongue.
The story of Abraham that follows (12:1-25:11) unfolds episodically but in circumstantial detail. The family of sheepherding nomads was originally from Mesopotamia ("Ur of the Chaldees") but had chosen to migrate to the land of Canaan. It had reached as far as Harran, in what is now southern Turkey, when Abraham's father died, and it was there that God spoke-we are not told why-almost abruptly, but grandly and with an emphatic optimism, to the seventy-five-year-old Abraham, now the family shaykh: "I will make you a great nation ... and in you all nations will be blessed" (12:3-4). This is a promise perhaps and not yet a covenant, but the terms of a blessing and a land are repeated and expanded and refined in the following chapters of Genesis and other details added to it.
The family history of Abraham continues to unfold through Genesis, with secondary speaking roles assigned to Lot, Abraham's nephew, and to his own wife, Sarah. There is an encounter with a strange personage who appears to be an unrelated worshiper of the Lord, Melchizedek, king of Salem and "priest of the Most High" to whom Abraham gives a tithe (14:18-20). The aged and childless Abraham has doubts, however, about the many offspring and the spacious lands that have been promised him, and this provokes a great oracular confirmation and a very formal encounter with the Divine Will (15:1-20). "That day the Lord made a covenant with Abram" Genesis says, and the land of the promise is grandiosely described as "this land from the river of Egypt to the Great River, the river Euphrates" (15:18).
In chapter 16 of Genesis a solution to the heir problem comes not from the Lord but from Abraham's wife, Sarah, who suggests that he father a child on her Egyptian slave girl Hagar. Abraham is agreeable and a son, Ishmael, is born to them. This does not please Sarah, or at least Hagar does not, and there is an uneasy peace in Abraham's tents. The Covenant meanwhile grows more formal: Abraham is commanded, as a "sign of the Covenant," to have himself, all the male members of his family, and even his male slaves circumcised (17). The Lord later recalls that Sarah had laughed when they had been promised a son. "No, I didn't," she says. "Yes, you did," the Lord insists (18:1-15). The Lord is right, of course, and for all her laughter the elderly Sarah becomes pregnant by the even more elderly Abraham. A son is born, Isaac, and the vengeful Sarah has her way: Hagar and Ishmael are cast forth from the camp to what would have been certain death in the wilderness had not God intervened (21:1-20). The Lord confirms that the promise will descend through the line of Isaac, but Abraham is consoled by the Lord regarding Ishmael: he, the firstborn, will also father a great nation.
The final piece in the great Abrahamic mosaic is the Lord's unexpected and heart-chilling command to Abraham to "take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love," to a mountaintop and to make of him a burnt sacrifice to God (22:2). It is a test, we are told, of Abraham's obedience, which he passes in quite extraordinary fashion. He is ready to plunge the knife into the heart of his only son when God restrains him, and then rewards him: "By My own Self I swear it because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I shall bless you abundantly and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will possess the cities of their enemies. All nations on earth will wish to be blessed as your descendants are blessed, because you have been obedient to Me" (22:16-18).
Abraham's death occurs in Genesis 25:7, aged 175 years. He is buried by his sons-Ishmael reappears for the event-at Hebron, where his grave is still shown.
Excerpted from THE VOICE, THE WORD, THE BOOKS by F. E. Peters Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Introduction. The Voice from Sinai 1
Chapter 1: Sacred Words, Sacred Book 5
"Thus Spake Yahweh": What Is the Bible? 7
"Then the Lord Said": What Is the New Testament? 17
"Recite! in the Name of God": What Is the Quran? 28
Chapter 2: Book Shaping: The Making of a Canon 38
From Biblia to Book: The Making of the Bible 41
The Making of a "New" Testament 51
The "Old" and the "New" in the Covenant 61
The Collection of the Quran 67
Chapter 3: Reciters, Rhapsodes, and Scribes: How the Bible Reached Us 80
The Matter of Authorship 81
The Higher Criticism of the Bible 83
Composing and Performing 85
The Scribes 87
From Recitation to Writing 88
Authors behind the Authors 90
Enter J, E, and Company 92
The Writing Begins 94
Who "Wrote" the Books? 96
Writing in Scripture 98
The Levites 100
The Masoretes 101
Chapter 4: The Reporters: The Good News and How We Got It 105
Jesus: The Setting 105
The Gospels 106
Extracting Q 107
Dating the Gospels 108
The Gospels as Documents 109
From Aramaic to Greek 110
New Approaches 111
Community Authorship 113
Paul and the Rest 114
The Apocryphal Gospels 115
Thomas and His Twin 117
Chapter 5: The Poet in Performance: The Composition of the Quran 120
The Revelations 120
Biography and the Quran 122
Approaching the Quran 126
The Cultural Environment 127
Writing and the Quran 128
Writing in Arabia 130
Oral Poetry and the Quran 132
Muhammad, Poet and Performer 133
The Bible in the Quran 135
The Mantic Seer 137
The Oral Performance 139
A Change in Style 140
The Writing Down of the Quran 141
Other Possibilities 143
Uthman or Later? 147
In Sum 150
Chapter 6: The Book in Mortal Hands 152
The Word Made Flesh: Books and Bookmaking in the Ancient World 152
Scrolls and Books 153
Searching the Scriptures 155
From Notebooks to Books 157
The Christians Adopt the Codex 159
Toward a Standard Edition? 160
The Shape of the Page: Chapter and Verse 164
Dividing the Text 164
Marking the Text 167
Suras and Ayas 169
The Sacramental Text 172
Sefer Torah: Torahs and Their Arks 174
Washing Their Hands of the Christians 180
A Matter of Etiquette: The Book in Our Hands 182
Chapter 7: In Other Words 189
The Loss of God's Tongue 190
Targums and Methurgemans 192
Scripture for the Hellenized: The Septuagint 195
Origen: Multitasking the Bible 198
From Old Latin to the Vulgate 200
Hebraica Veritas and the Latin West 203
The Polyglot 208
Enter the Humanists 210
Translating the Untranslatable Quran 214
Chapter 8: Picturing the Word 219
The Rabbis and the Second Commandment 219
Adorning and Illustrating the Hebrew Bible 223
Christian Images 228
Icons and Iconoclasm 229
The Bible with Pictures 233
Printing with Pictures 238
The Reformation and Images 240
The Word Unpictured: Islam and Images 242
Drawing in the Book 243
Chapter 9: Giving Voice to the Word 247
Talking Back to God 248
Reading through the Torah 249
The Scripture in Church 251
Praying the Quran 256
The Scripture as Libretto 258
The Cantorial Scripture 259
The Divine Office 260
The Art of Qira 263
Epilogue. Three Books, Side by Side 271
List of Illustrations 281