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David Lyle Jeffrey

People of the Book

It appears that the familiar phrase "People of the Book" may have been coined by Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. In the Qur'an the term is used self-consciously to distinguish a religious culture in which revelation is handed down orally (Islam) and the two religions in which it is both handed down and authoritatively transmitted in writing (Judaism and Christianity). The Qur'an attaches the phrase primarily to the Jews as a term of opprobrium: "The People of the Book," we are to understand, are those who "demand that thou cause a Book to descend upon them from heaven," for the Qur'an a blasphemous importunity exceeded only by "an even more preposterous demand from Moses: they demanded, 'Show us Allah visibly.' " 1

The Qur'an implicates Christians in the opprobrium both by association:

There is none among the People of the Book but will continue to believe till his death that Jesus died on the cross, and on the Day of Judgment Jesus shall bear witness against them. 2

and directly:

People of the Book! … Indeed, the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was but a Messenger of Allah and the fulfillment of glad tidings which He conveyed to Mary and a mercy from him. So … say not: there are three gods. Desist, it will be better for you. 3

As a development from Judaism, Christianity clearly also stressed from the beginning the importance for faith of written revelation, namely the Jewish Scriptures. Soon enough there were, of course, additional writings, the books and epistles of the New Testament, which augmented the scrolls of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings of the Jewish canon. The first Epistle of Clement (A. D. 95) cites "the Scriptures" in the familiar Jewish way (cap. 28); while the ancient Christian sermon known as Clement II (A. D. 100) affords the first known citation of the words of Jesus as "Scripture" (cap. 3). With respect to the central place of "Scripture," therefore, in the early days of Christianity there would have been little by which an outsider ...

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