Review: Byrne’s “The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam”

Máire Byrne, The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue. Continuum, 2011. 171 pp. Many thanks to Continuum for a review copy.
Continuum | Amazon

Máire Byrne is a Catholic scholar and Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Old Testament Theology at Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Ireland, and the St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland. In this book, she points out that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a limited ‘common language’ and therefore are in need of a universal starting place for discussion. Comparative theology provides one example where the reading of other religious texts can provide deep spiritual insight and wisdom. Coupled with biblical theology, the two disciplines can greatly benefit from one another (e.g. reading the OT as a Christian text but also as a text to the Jewish people).

In “Names and Naming” (ch. 2), Byrne notes that a ‘personal name’ is typically seen as a proper noun whereas a ‘common name’ is often used, for example, for a plant or animal with regard to its appearance. Names aim to distinguish one person from another as well as associate a person with a group. “Linguistic scholars,” Bryne points out, “[argue that] names have referential, denotative meaning, but no connotative meaning” (p. 13). For example, in my context I know that ‘treat’ refers to the last name of a guy working upstairs in the library. When I leave the library, the context changes and ‘treat’ can mean it’s break-time! In short, “the context from which the text is based needs to be appreciated otherwise we run the risk of failing to deduce the meaning of a name, either inaccurately or failing to realize [the meaning] at all” (p. 13).

Chapters 3-5 outline divine names in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam according to their etymological background, use in particular contexts, and exegetical work. Some intriguing conclusions arise: “there is no indication in the Hebrew Bible of a theology being built around the meaning of the name [YHWH]” (p. 23), and “God as a character in the New Testament is starkly different to that of the Hebrew Bible” (p. 47). Throughout, Byrne looks at twenty-three names in the OT, ten names in the NT (specifically limited to the Gospels), and sees that the names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer similar images of God that create a significant starting point for interfaith dialogue. Her particular approach to comparative theology does not result in a mere “compare and contrast” (see ch. 6) when it comes to the names of God. Rather, when “the method allows the beliefs (or unbeliefs) of those who undertake the exercises to be included in the research, and even alluded to, during the task and the results” then the result is a twofold benefit: the academic study of the names of God, and a developed understanding of the divine names by those who undertake the study (p. 123).

Overall, the book demonstrates a great deal of breadth across all three religions and their particular arguments and conclusions but often lacks depth (though this may be intentional in order to capture the breadth). Those interested in comparative theology (or who find “interfaith dialogue” to be possible between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) will find this book to be a helpful resource. It may serve as a good introduction but might also frustrate others looking for more details or depth. Therefore, it may be worth supplementing this book with Soulen’s recent work, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity. WJK, 2011.

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About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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