Neighboring Faiths, by David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg is a very learned historian who tackles topics of a scope that would be too daunting for most other writers. In Neighboring Faiths, he addresses themes that are critically significant for contemporary debates, and by no means only within the realm of religion.

Nirenberg’s approach runs directly contrary to familiar modern assumptions about the nature and definition of “Great Religions” and about how people belong to them. Particularly in the West, we know that an individual adheres to one faith at any given time, although conversion is certainly possible. The frontiers between those faiths are clear and well patrolled, and dialogue between them is a cautious and tentative enterprise. It is difficult then to imagine non-Western societies—or indeed, earlier Western communities—where such boundaries were much more fluid. But they were. For instance, recent scholarship has stressed how very slow and gradual was the break between Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity; in some regions the process stretched over several centuries.

For much of Western history, Chris­tians lived in societies where they were the overwhelming if not exclusive majority, and other faiths were encountered rarely. Jews and Muslims were imaginary beasts whose views demanded little consideration or respect. Yet historically, such exclusivity was not always the rule, and particularly in the Mediterranean world the three faiths often coexisted for centuries.