The sweep of the new exhibition at the New York Public Library — “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” — is stunning. It stretches from a Bible found in a monastery in coastal Brittany that was sacked by the Vikings in the year 917 to a 1904 lithograph showing the original Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. It encompasses both an elaborately decorated book of 20th-century Coptic Christian readings and a modest 19th-century printing of the Gospels in the African language Grebo.
There are Korans, with pages that shimmer with gold leaf and elegant calligraphy, and a 13th-century Pentateuch from Jerusalem, written in script used by Samaritans who traced their origins to the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The library’s Gutenberg Bible is here, as well as its 1611 King James translation. The first Koran published in English is shown, from 1649, along with fantastical images from 16th-century Turkish and Persian manuscripts in which Muhammad is pictured with other prophets, his face a blank white space in obeisance to the prohibition against his portrait.
Out of many, one. That could well be the motto of this ambitious exhibition. It focuses on “the three Abrahamic religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — each of which takes as a forebear an “itinerant herdsman” of the Middle East, Abraham, who affirmed belief in a single God. As the show puts it, Abraham rejected “the religions of antiquity with their plethora of gods, each imbued with a particular attribute, purpose and power,” replacing the many with the one.
The Abrahamic religions share other characteristics as well. Each believes that God has made himself known to his prophets through acts of revelation. And such revelations shape groups of believers by being incorporated in canonical written texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, the Islamic Koran.
Though the exhibition does not point this out, the connection between monotheism and such texts is no accident. Once multiple divinities are discarded, along with their rivalries and conflicting powers, religion is concerned with just two poles: the human and the divine. Religious events take place not on Mount Olympus or in some imagined godly castle, but in the earthly realm. Religious history becomes fully part of human history. And the telling of that history, along with commentary and reinterpretation, becomes an aspect of the religion itself. These faiths are historical faiths.
This exhibition grew out of a show mounted in 2007 at the British Library called “Sacred.” The original plan was for a joint exhibition, but according to a New York Public Library spokesman, the British Library backed out, worried that post-9/11 inspections by the Transportation Security Administration could put its rare manuscripts at risk. So, while the British catalog is for sale here, the show is different, reconstructed using the New York library’s own collection by H. George Fletcher, the library’s retired director of special collections, and a team of five scholars and advisers.
The intent, though, is unchanged. These exhibitions have a distinctive post-9/11 cast. One reaction to Islamist terror attacks has been a self-conscious ecumenism; one of the main sponsors of “Three Faiths,” for example, is the Coexist Foundation, whose aim is “to promote better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
The focus on similarities among the three religions is partly meant to disconnect terrorism from the mainstream Islamic tradition. In the British catalog, Karen Armstrong, who has written widely about the Abrahamic religions, minimizes the scale of Islamist violence by suggesting that each religion has its dangerous extremists, but more important, she argues, is that the faiths share a devotion to the ideal of transcendence through holy texts.
The British exhibition even had the subtitle “Discover What We Share.” And in New York, too, the emphasis throughout is on commonality. At this historical moment, this is meant to defend Islam against anticipated accusations. Thus: out of three distinct monotheisms, one humanist perspective.
This argument deserves more analysis, but in any case, the resemblances are considerable. Because canonical texts are so crucial in each, interpretation and commentary become dominant modes of religious attentiveness, expanding the scriptural traditions. So here we see a 15th-century book of Islamic Tafsir — commentary on the Koran — from Syria or Egypt, in which the portions of the Koran being discussed appear in red in the volume’s margins.
There is also a late-12th-century French version of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that presents the sacred words in large script, surrounded by columns of annotations. And the Jewish Talmud, represented with a volume from Daniel Bomberg’s 16th-century printing, features a web of notes and analysis about law and Scripture incorporating material going back to the second century.
One section of the show also surveys the spread of these religions after their birth in the Middle East through “the growth of the Jewish Diaspora, the evangelical mission of Paul to the Gentiles, and the military conquests of the early Islamic armies.” As the faiths spread, translations of sacred texts were needed; complex “polyglot” editions developed in which translations might appear in columns beside the original text or interwoven between its lines.
One lovely volume of the Psalms here from 1516, printed in Genoa, Italy, includes, along with the original Hebrew, columns of Septuagint Greek, Arabic, Aramaic and Latin, along with commentary. The exhibition’s Christian texts from Czech, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian lands are extraordinary, growing out of a collection the library purchased from the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
The similarity in religious traditions is also emphasized in an accompanying miniature exhibition in an adjacent gallery, called “Scriptorium” — the “place where scribes write and illuminate books or scrolls.” Here are samples of parchment (skins of goats, sheep and deer); several kinds of traditional paper (including ahar — paper coated with alum and egg whites); display cases with the sources of pigments like pomegranate peel or dried insects; and videos on the creation of pens and inks and manuscripts. An activity table is also planned.
So much is shared in these three faiths. But the distinctions are also important and tend to be too aggressively minimized. For example: the biblical story of Abraham welcoming the three messengers who announce that his aged wife will give birth is pictured here in an elegant image from a 15th-century New Testament “Gospel According to Luke,” from Muscovy. The haloed visitors actually anticipate the Magi bringing gifts, and, as the label points out, give a presentiment of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Or again, in the Koran, Moses and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are both treated as prophets (Remark about Mary as a Prophet is not true) but they are reinterpreted as heralds of what is yet to come.
In fact, because Christianity developed out of Judaism, and Islam grew out of both, similarities and allusions are also the markers of great differences. Each religion aggressively reinterpreted its predecessors, accepting its sacred texts but radically altering their implications and meanings. And each predecessor religion, in turn, opposed attempts to treat it as a prelude to something greater.
These are not subtle disputes, and the consequences were far from ecumenical, particularly when successor religions sought to spread their beliefs through conquest and conversion. And while the three share many traits — these are not primarily meditative or contemplative religions, after all, and they are indeed historical faiths, concerned with action, even with mission — their commonalities also lead to profound contrasts. For two millenniums, Judaism, tied to a particular people, was the least outwardly directed, but all three religions saw themselves as shaping world history. Each one also imagined a distinctive role for believers within it. And here the three are quite diverse indeed.
This is, of course, beyond the scope of this show. But understanding this would mean examining the three faiths more closely for their differences. And it might lead to other conclusions as well, even about recent inspirations for contemporary ecumenicism. The practitioners of terror who proudly declare their Islamic allegiance, like the spiritual leaders who praise them, are presenting one Islamic view of what direction history should take and what part believers should play in it.
That interpretation is not as much an anomaly as it might seem — though it doesn’t necessarily lead to violent acts. But it also may help explain why we do not hear much about exhibitions like this one, emphasizing “what we share,” originating in lands where that vision flourishes.
“Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” is on view through Feb. 27 at the New York Public Library; nypl.org.