Stephen Prickett

The concept of the Bible as a holy book contains special pitfalls. Even the apparently simple question of definition raises acute problems of circularity and question-begging. Conventional academic methodology would presumably begin with defining what is a 'holy book' and then proceeding to enquire in what ways the Bible might or might not be held to conform to this genre. Yet even the most cursory inspection of the historical material reveals how much our idea of a holy book is rooted in, and stems directly from, the Bible. The result has produced a curious paradox: because our word for 'book' has a common semantic root with the title by which our own holy book is known, there is a sense in which the idea of a book, any book, has become 'holy' in Western thought; at the same time, the Bible itself has acquired— and it is important to recognize that it is a historical acquisition rather than an innate right—a unique and exclusive status. Books are symbols of spiritual power. As Heine in the nineteenth century prophetically remarked, 'Wherever books are burned men also, in the end, are burned.' Film clips from the 1930s of Nazis ceremonially burning books is a twentieth-century illustration of the awesome power, and therefore potential danger, attributed to the status of a book by at least one secular modern European state—however disturbed and irrational an example Hitler's Germany might be. The uneasiness aroused by the sight of the same thing being done before television cameras in Bradford in the 1980s is not merely a reflection of inhibitions in our own collective psyche stemming from the consequences of Hitler's Third Reich, but also, indirectly, of the complex relationship that seems to exist between two self-defined holy books. If we needed an example of the degree to which our notion of the category is essentially singular and exclusive, we need only look at the difficulty Western Christendom has had, since at least the Crusades, in coming to terms with the existence of that other holy book, the Koran.

The depth of this cultural clash between Christianity and Islam immediately suggests a further hidden agenda to the whole question of definition. If, on the one hand, we can all freely acknowledge that there are many examples of holy books to be found in the various major religions—past and present—it may on the other hand also be true, to a greater degree than we are consciously prepared to recognize, that, deep down for us in what might be called our cultural psyche, the category is totally exclusive. There may be many books in the world that have been reverenced as 'holy' by the adherents of particular religions: other cultures, Buddist, Hindu, Zoroastrian or even ancient Egyptian, may indeed have allowed for a plurality of such works; but, if the category is to have an internalized as distinct from simply a formal meaning for us, in the last resort we, as Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, as the case may be), know that there is, and can be, only one genuine holy book—the rest can safely be assigned to a spectrum of categories ranging from 'possessing some divine insight or even inspiration' through to 'blasphemous nonsense'. At least for Jews, Christians and Muslims, the various 'people of the book', that last noun can only be in the singular. The 'People of the books' would be a meaningless Babel.

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