A Fractious Family

Book cover
The Monotheistsby By F. E. PetersPrinceton Press Univ. 448p $29.95

The most dramatic event of the 21st century thus far has been the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center (for many, the symbol of the capitalist Christian or post-Christian West) in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. This act was perpetrated by men who identified themselves as Muslim fundamentalists. Since the summer of 2000, television news programs and newspapers have often carried reports about suicide bombings and military retaliations in what has been traditionally called the Holy Land. One of the more memorable images from recent years is that of the Israeli army laying siege to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in order to capture Palestinian Muslim militants who sought sanctuary there.

The irony is that Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their origins to Abraham and profess strong belief in one God (and the one God only). In the words of F. E. Peters, the adherents of these three monotheistic religions constitute a “fractious family,” whose members have much in common but are still fighting about who is the true heir of Abraham. This argument has consequences in the present, since there are in the world today some two billion Christians, one billion Muslims and 15 million Jews.


Peters, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and religion at New York University, may be known to some readers of America as the author of a lively and affectionate memoir entitled Ours: The Making and Unmaking of a Jesuit (1981), about his years as a Jesuit scholastic and his decision to leave the Society of Jesus. In academic circles he is widely admired for his books on ancient history, religion and philosophy, ranging from Aristotle and Hellenism to Islam. In many ways these two volumes bring together a remarkably productive scholarly career of research, reflection and teaching. There is no more informative, accessible and comprehensive guide to the beliefs and practices of the three great monotheistic religions than these two volumes.

The author describes his work as a guide to some of the notions and practices shared by the three monotheistic communities, with particular attention to those that have also been sources of contention among them. He wants to lay out their common roots, their evolution over time and their striking resemblances and differences. He begins with Abraham and extends the story up to the present.

The first volume, subtitled The Peoples of God, describes how the three communities came about, evolved, identified and organized themselves. It first presents accounts about Israel as a covenant people, the good news of Jesus and Muhammad the prophet. Then it considers how the three faiths developed their distinctive identities, how they defined orthodoxy and orthopraxy and how they dealt with heresy, how they have arrived (or not) at authoritative decisions, and how they have related to political systems and events (“church and state” issues). At each point Peters compares and contrasts the approaches taken by each of the monotheistic movements. He notes that whatever the monotheists have lacked in tolerance, they have made up for in their strong convictions about the one God—since their God is “not only jealous; he is absolute in power and in will” (Vol. 1, p. 309).

The second volume, subtitled The Words and Will of God, concerns the internal or spiritual life of the monotheists, the working out of God’s will in the lives, hearts and minds of believers. It describes and compares how Judaism, Christianity and Islam deal with key theological issues: Scripture, the interpretation of Scripture, the relation between Scripture and tradition, God’s law and its observance, morality, worship (prayer and ritual), thinking about God (theology), holiness, mysticism and the “last things” (eschatology). Under these 10 headings Peters manages to treat almost everyone and everything imaginable, from “Aaron” to “Zwingli.”

While making abundant use of modern critical scholarship, Peters is mainly interested in what Jews, Christians and Muslims believed happened, taking their statements at face value. Instead of playing historical detective or indulging in the hermeneutic of suspicion, he operates more out of a hermeneutic of acceptance or receptivity, and allows the representatives of the three monotheistic faiths to speak for themselves and to be understood on their own terms. He presents himself as a historian and defines his task as more descriptive than critical. The point of his work is to understand the beliefs of the communities in question as the believers understand them, not how scholars think they came to be believed in the first place.

The treatment of Sacred Scripture in the three traditions can provide a sample of Peters’s task and method. Following the lead of the Quran, he takes up the description of Jews, Christians and Muslims as “people of the book.” But, of course, they each have a different book: the Hebrew Bible, the Old and New Testaments, and the Quran. And they have different ideas about the origin, authority and value of their holy books. In fact, Christianity is not so much a religion of the book as it is the religion of a person—Jesus the Word of God—to whom the Christian Bible is understood to be a witness. All three traditions have seen the need for interpreting their sacred texts and drawing meaning out of them. But they have developed different methods with different names (midrash, exegesis and tafsir), and they have proceeded in different ways. And all three have faced and resolved in different ways the inevitable problem of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Peters guides us through the various twists and turns by which all these matters have been treated in each of the three traditions, showing where their paths have joined and where they have diverged.

Peters has a great story to tell, and he tells it very well. He writes with extraordinary clarity and evenhandedness. These volumes are obviously the product of many years spent teaching the culturally diverse student body at New York University. He treats thousands of complex and sensitive topics with meticulous learning and without offending or proselytizing. Moreover, he manages to keep the three narratives—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—going at once, and allows readers both to appreciate the distinctive character of each and to see how their stories have very frequently intertwined. The comparisons among the three religions serve to highlight their most central concerns, while allowing us to see how they have approached similar issues or crises in ways that are sometimes similar and sometimes different.

While admiring the zeal and the achievements of monotheists on many levels (religious, philosophical, political, social, etc.), Peters is fully aware of the dangers posed by the monotheists in both the past and the present. He goes so far as to describe them as “bred-in-the-bones fanatics” (Vol. 1, p. 307), an attitude that they have learned from the God who broaches no competitors or rivals and requires absolute fidelity from his followers.

In recent years such Arabic terms as jihad, fatwa, Sunni and Shia, imam and madrasa have become part of our everyday vocabulary in the United States and other Western countries. The Peoples of God and The Words and Will of God can help any reader understand the history of these words and institutions, and to appreciate where they figure in present-day world events. As a Christian biblical scholar with a lively interest in Judaism and some knowledge and experience of Islam, I learned an enormous amount about Islam from these volumes, and I also delighted in seeing what such an erudite guide as Peters regards as centrally important about the Bible and about the histories of Judaism and Christianity.

In an undertaking of this broad scope there are bound to be occasional minor slips and repetitions, and the absence of endnotes and bibliographies will disappoint those who wish to follow up on specific topics. Such readers may want to consult Peters’s three-volume annotated collection entitled Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: The Classical Texts and Their Interpretation (Princeton Univ. Press, 1990). Indeed, the present two volumes constitute Peters’s mature commentary on the hundreds of primary sources included in his huge anthology.

On the whole, these impressive volumes stand out as positive and constructive contributions toward a new and better self-understanding and toward an enriched mutual understanding among those who proudly identify themselves as the children of Abraham but have found it so hard to understand and get along with one another.

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