An instant blend of brevity, belief and erudition

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions

May 16, 2003

This is one of a series of Cambridge illustrated histories. The book's main distinctiveness is that it does indeed contain many illustrations - 50 in full colour, 150 half-tones and ten maps. It includes a useful comparative time chart of religiously significant events. It divides up the material so that each religion is treated separately in a historical way.

The list of contributors is impressive. Some of the best and most reliable scholars have been enlisted to write about the traditions in which they have specialised, and they do so in a very accessible and deceptively simple way. The whole thing is overseen by John Bowker, who has an international reputation as a scholar in the study of religions.

So the first thing that must be said is that this book is a reliable guide, but it is also an extremely short one. Greece, Rome, Egypt and Mesopotamia get two pages each. Even in the longer articles, centuries of history have been compressed into paragraphs. It is an impressive achievement to add brevity to reliability and include lots of pictures and dates, resulting in an attractive book that can be firmly recommended both for library use and for personal pleasure.

It has to be said, however, that it is not true, as the publicity claims, that each religion is treated in depth. That is absurd for a book of this size, and it is time publicists stopped writing in such exaggerated terms.

Similarly, since the cover claims that this is a comprehensive review of religious history from the earliest times, the Cambridge editors seem to have failed to get to grips with the meaning of "comprehensive". It is true that the book covers a wide spectrum of religions but quite untrue that it says anything like all the important things that could be said about any, let alone all, of them.

This, however, should not detract from the book's merits. What we get is a set of very good scholars giving brief histories covering the main events and some of the main beliefs and practices of a range of religious traditions, all set in historical context. But anyone who wants to pursue questions of religious history adequately would need to complement this volume with other works - and the bibliographies provided are up to date and helpful in this respect.

There are a few oddities. In the chronology, Zarathustra appears to have lived from 6000BC to 1200BC, and Christianity is said to have come to India in the 1540s, a claim that would very much annoy not a few Keralan Christians, who claim to have been there since apostolic times. Reference to the appropriate articles explains the oddities, but these are small reminders that brevity can lead to misleading elisions.

Overall, this should be taken as a readable and well-illustrated introduction to world religions in a broad historical perspective, written by authoritative scholars, though necessarily so briefly that it constitutes a series of historical sketches.

As an attractive introductory overview of the world's religions, as an admirable series of outline sketches of the history of those religions and as a coffee-table book of quality, the volume succeeds well. I hope it would not be the only text on the religions of the world in a school library, but it should certainly be there.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity, University of Oxford.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions

Editor - John Bowker
ISBN - 0 521 81037 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 336

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