The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.
I first heard the phrase “people of the book” in conversation during college when I was living in Bahrain, the small island country located on the western edge of the Persian Gulf. The discussion was political, not heated but lively, with a group from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. At one point, a Muslim friend whom I had known for several months commented about his preference for discussing such issues with known Christians, because he knew that he could trust them to debate fairly, as they were “people of the book.”
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.
Of course, this is not an exact comparison. No analogy is, but it does remind even the most modern mind that allowing a textual tradition to influence, affect, and make claims on one’s identity is not such a naïve act.
To submit one’s identity to a textual community, to become a person of the book, the modern person must give up the notion that the contemporary moment provides all the perspective one needs to live a successful human life. Rather, there are voices of the past, prophets who have proclaimed truths and worshippers who have received them, that speak over the centuries and millennia to the modern predicament.
Contrary to the stereotype of the true believer who spouts endless certainties, the person of the book should be marked by an epistemological humility that springs from a historically democratic view of human knowledge. She realizes that many of today’s certainties will become tomorrow’s quaint superstitions, and for that reason, the best perspective is the historical one, rooted in a worshipping tradition, giving voice to revealed truths of the past, even if they challenge some of the recent trends of the present.
Believers will point out that most religious traditions adhere to sophisticated doctrines of their holy scriptures. One need only read the psalms of the Old Testament to see how the ancient poets personified the torah as a teacher, comforter, and friend (see Psalm 119). The New Testament perceived the written Word of God as incarnated and finalized in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4). For the communities of these texts, the Holy Scripture is God’s Word, not merely human historical witness.
The doctrine of the holy scriptures is a large and complicated edifice, no matter the religious tradition you query, but the role of the past speaking into the present is a common feature in each of the major religions.
The idea of a “people of the book” is a helpful distinction, though it does not justify the misbehavior of some who claim that label. We should not be ignorant of the textual history that continues to speak today, particularly when it challenges our contemporary conceits.
Dr. Scott Redd is the president and assistant professor of Old Testament at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Reformed Theological Seminary.