Abraham’s Progeny, and Their Texts at NY Public Library





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....


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