The Voice, The Word, The Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims

The Voice, The Word, The Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims

F. E. Peters
Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. 320 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

This new book by F. E. Peters, a professor at New York University, provides an extremely readable and entertaining introduction to contemporary scholarship on the origins of the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur'an. Peters writes from a secular (and at times seemingly skeptical) viewpoint, which can be a change for those accustomed to approaching these texts from the perspective of religious faith or esotericism.

Peters traces the development of the Abrahamic scriptures from oral prophetic experience through the development of recited and then written texts, which are finally fixed in the forms in which we know them today.

According to Peters's schema, first there is a book in heaven. It is authoritative because it is written by God himself. At some point, God speaks the contents of the heavenly book to his prophet (for Israel, God gives a written copy to Moses as well) to be recited to his chosen people. This occurs in the preliterate or oral stage of the society, when communication and memory are solely or primarily through the spoken word. But as writing becomes more common, the revelation is committed to writing out of a fear (common to oral societies in transition) that the original oral version will be lost or become "inaccurate." Thus the recited scripture becomes the written scripture. The book is copied and finally printed, and both the Bible and the Qu'ran now circulate widely in societies where both the oral and the literary cultures still exist side by side. Yet the oral quality of the revelation never quite disappears; the book continues to be recited even though written copies are available.

The main thrust of Peters' work extends through the translation of the various scriptures into the classical tongues and into the (relative) fixing of the text through the development of printing. He also includes extended discussions of the performance of the text through pictorial art and recitation, chanting, and singing.

The Voice, The Word, The Books will hold great interest for a wide range of readers, including those personally formed by one of the Abrahamic traditions as well as interested observers of these religions as a result of their cultural and political importance. Moreover, Peters' careful investigation of the translation of revelation or spiritual experience into oral transmission and then into text is likely to engage any Theosophist, as we see a similar process in all spiritual traditions, ancient and modern.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement.