‘Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam’ at New York Public Library:
The joy, and the complexity, of text.
One approaches “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam,” a new exhibit of religious texts at The New York Public Library, with caution. The animating idea might cause you to roll your eyes at its surface naiveté: at a time of heightened tensions among Muslims, Jews and Christians, the curators suggest we should emphasize what we all share in common.
Or should we?
Whatever each religion shares, what makes Islam Islam, Christianity Christianity and Judaism Judaism is what they don’t. We’d go further in creating accord if we spent less time talking about facile points of convergence than trying in earnest to understand what makes us different.
Which is not to say that “Three Faiths” necessarily falls into its own trap. In fact, it goes a long way in avoiding the kind of wishful thinking that so often dooms interfaith dialogue. Though the show is organized around four major themes common to each religion —monotheism, divine revelations, Abraham as a founder, and holy scriptures — the wall texts and artifacts do a commendable job limning what makes each faith unique.
Naturally, the show begins with bibles, which are, after all, a fundamental point of convergence as well as departure. All of the 200 religious texts on view are taken from the library’s own collection, which is to religious books what the Louvre is to fine art. A magnificent Torah scroll from Germany, finished in 1294, is encased near a 14th-century Koran, its Arabic script in praise of Muhammad bedizened with small golden discs.
Not far is a gold-plated 18th-century New Testament, taken from a Slavic church in Moscow. Its miniature pastel paintings of Jesus and his four canonical apostles are a revelation unto themselves.
But if the bible of each faith, all of which praise Abraham, is a common touchstone, it is also a superficial one. The wall texts explain why. Moses, for instance, is described by all faiths as the first recipient of God’s laws. But Christians and Muslims emphasize Moses not for his legal significance, but as a prototype for either Jesus or Muhammad: he was a man unafraid to rail against his own community’s transgressions.
The plot thickens with Jesus. To Christians, the exhibit says, he is a Jewish preacher who fulfilled the messianic prophecies laid down in the Hebrew Bible, thus revealing himself as the son of God. The extent of those prophecies is told in the Four Gospels, the backbone of the New Testament. But Jews reject Jesus’ divinity and, as the wall texts explain, “most often [saw him] as a first-century CE Galilean teacher-preacher” and “dissident interpreter of Jewish law.”
Muslims had no problem with Jesus, though, even giving him the name “Isa” in their own religious texts. But Jesus was only the penultimate prophet in a long line that ends with Muhammad. His God was also the one of Moses and Jesus, and was revealed to him in Mecca through the archangel Gabriel. What God said to Muhammad, for the most part, makes up the Koran.
One of the show’s most visually impressive portions is its middle section, devoted to religious texts from all over the world. Titled “Spreading the Word,” it shows how a religion that began in the Middle East — with Abraham’s suspected birth in the city of Ur, in modern Iraq — spread across the globe.
The dominant aesthetic of this section is sepia-toned parchment and desiccated ink, which has its own charms. But that is why the Ethiopian gospels will grab your attention — they’re like nothing else around them. Completed in 1722, the Ethiopian Christian bible features a darker-skinned Jesus and his disciples, clad in ruby red robes, as Jesus preaches to onlookers. A mustard sky melting into orange surrounds them, while a verdant green tree sits behind them, just off a cliff.
It seems to capture what everything in this section, and this show, is about: all three faiths are dependent on divine revelation, expressed through their prophets. And yet it is through the spreading of these godly words that diversity begins.
Many of the texts on display are also revered ones. But it’s worth noting that “revered,” in this exhibit, has no clear meaning. For believers, a book’s reverence stems from its connection to the divine, while for secularists, it’s based in the rarity of the text itself. Still, whatever point of view you take, many of these texts are downright magnificent.
There is a copy of a Bomberg Talmud from 16th-century Venice, historic for standardizing the commentaries that are still in use today. Then there is the entire eight-foot-long Scroll of Esther from Amsterdam, completed in 1686; its display at the New York Public Library is one of the only times that all the fragments have been united in recent history. And last, there is the Gutenberg Bible, from 1455. If there is an item that stands as the symbol of the information revolution, it is this. Hard drives be damned.
I have some personal favorites, too, like the biblical etchings by Rembrandt, and Durer’s riveting woodcut, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” from 1511. In the latter, four men wielding swords and menacing stares storm across a landscape of rotting corpses. The scene comes from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, and looking at it, you can’t help but wonder how any of these faiths could ever consider themselves irenic.
The scene does not, of course, promote violence, and is meant instead to deter believers from it. But any religion that conjures such ghastly images — which the Hebrew and Muslim bibles certainly do too — subverts the claim that each faith has ever, or ever will, come entirely in peace.
Here is where the curators, mostly scholars, missed a real opportunity. The four themes that they chose to highlight as points of convergence are crucial ones. But many more are left out, and had only a few more challenging ones been included, the hoped-for effect of mutual understanding might have been more likely to have been achieved.
It is not about stirring the pot, either. It is about being honest. Each religion’s canonical books contain passages, for instance, that are doctrinaire and draconian. Many riff on the theme of religious supremacy: Jews with their “choseness”; Christians with their saved-and-damned; Muslims with their jihads against all non-believing infidels.
Though this point is not mentioned in the exhibit, there should have been room made for it. Or, for that matter, there should have been space for the larger argument that monotheisms of any kind are a perfect ballast for extremism. If there is only one God — Elohim, Jesus, Allah or what have you — and yours is not mine, that is a recipe for disaster. We have much to thank Abraham for, but also much not to.
“Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” is on view at The New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. (212) 930-0825. Exhibit runs through Feb. 27.