It was a curious preference, inspired by what was, to me, an even more curious distinction.
But is it a helpful distinction?
The use of the phrase “people of the book” to describe those religions that claim the Bible as their Holy Script is often attributed to English translations of the Koran. The phrase pops up from time to time in Jewish, Christian, and popular cultures, though the identity of the “people of the book” changes depending on the user.
A couple of recent news stories have touched on the issue of religious identity and holy text. The purchase of a building off the National Mall that will house the large private Green collection of biblical manuscripts, and the mystery surrounding the world’s oldest and most complete biblical manuscript, the Aleppo codex, highlight the continuing interest that some religious communities have in the preservation and study of ancient manuscripts.
The interest goes beyond simple, archeological curiosity. Of course, there is that too, but there is also a good reason why the public does not have an insatiable appetite for ancient Ugaritic or Hittite texts from the ancient Near East. The texts that are connected to actual living traditions attract the most attention, and earn the highest appraisals in the antiquities market. In the 1940’s, an American collector offered $20 million for the aforementioned Aleppo codex, a tidy sum for a medieval document. The 40,000 artifacts of the Green collection are estimated to be worth $40 million.
Such prices give a crass indicator of the value these ancient manuscripts have earned in large part due to their religious significance. The texts are valuable to the religious community because of the witness they provide to the historical transmission of the holy teaching through the historical worshipping community. After all, the contemporary worshipping community finds much of its own identity through its connection with past worshipping communities.
An analogy can be found in the value that most Americans find in the Constitution of the United States. Regardless of impassioned arguments about how the Constitution should be interpreted, the majority of Americans agree that the Constitution is valuable as a source of political interpretation, in fact the source of political interpretation. British author Evelyn Waugh illustrated the consistency of his distaste for America when he told Igor Stravinsky that he deplores “everything American, beginning with the Constitution.” Regarding our nation’s constituting document, the opposite would be true as well. If Waugh were to say that he loves everything American, but hates the Constitution, he would have some explaining to do.