Three Faiths, Yes, But Out of How Many?

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.

A visually stunning exhibition entitled “Three Faiths” opened at the New York Public Library on Friday, October 22, 2010.  Both the timing of the show and the way in which it has been curated are suggestive, all the more so in a city still riven by debates over a controversial Islamic Center erected several blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center.  

The show, which has been assembled entirely out of gorgeous manuscripts from the Library’s own vast holdings, is intended to offset the more regrettable interreligious energies unleashed by this so-called (and somewhat poorly named) Mosque Controversy. The exhibit is designed to remind its visitors that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a great deal, and it manages to do so while avoiding seeming preachy, or by cheating to making things seem rosier and more peaceable than in fact they are. Instead, the show offers the visitor a remarkable walking tour through sacred geography, religious history, and even the history of the technologies of the written word. We are, after all, in a library.  

If I will offer some cautious words of criticism regarding the show, then I want to be sure to say first what a remarkable achievement it is, and just how powerfully it makes the case it wishes to make. Museum shows are notoriously difficult to organize and museum spaces are notoriously difficult to choreograph. Both the organization and the choreography of this show are exemplary.  

What I wish to pose as a question, which is also an expression of concern, is this: who is unwittingly excluded, when we work so hard to include certain target groups?  In this case, my question has a very pointed focus and a somewhat surprising concern: Where, I want to know, are the Greeks in this show? And what has happened to the Greek language?  

The Greek language is the sacred language of the New Testament, after all. One would have expected that a library exhibition of rare books aimed at displaying the textual and manuscript history of the three great scriptural monotheisms would put a premium on Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, as well as the respective language-holdings of these three languages in its collection.  

What we get is two out of three. Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts are everywhere, but Greek seems to have been replaced by Latin, since the Latin translation of the Bible (the so-called Vulgate) seems to have trumped the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, as well as the Greek New Testament itself. Even the Slavonic, Muscovy and Ge’ez (Ethiopian) language holdings from the special collections of the New York Public Library appear in impressive numbers, but to say it again, Greek texts scarcely make an appearance.  

This came to my attention when I happened upon the first Greek codex in the collection. I had already looked at ten cases before coming upon the first Greek manuscript in the collection. It is a rather primitive Gospel lectionary, probably created somewhere in southern Italy–the so-called Magna Graecia, or “greater Greece”–and is dated to 1150-1210 CE. Not far from it in a neighboring case, is a modern critical typeset edition of the “Codex Sinaiticus,” one of the oldest and most important collections of Greek scriptural texts dating from the late fourth century. But as I say, that was a modern book, the only modern book on display in this entire exhibition in fact.  

And there was just one more Greek book among the hundreds on display here: a gorgeous Byzantine Greek Psalter, similarly dated to 1250-1300 CE, opened to a page decorated with a lush visual depiction of King David prostrating himself before the prophet, Nathan, after being confronted with his sins against Bathsheba, Urriah the Hittite, and God.  

If there are no further Greek texts in this large display, what are there instead? And why is there so little attention to Greek, one of the three original scriptural languages? I will address those two questions in order.  

So, what else is here?  

As I have already noted, the lion’s share of what this exhibition puts on display are the truly remarkable manuscript holdings of the New York Public Library in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic. The show is divided topically into seven sections: Revelation, Scripture, Commentaries, Spreading the Word, Private Prayer, Public Worship, and Sacred Places, which is in its own way quite brilliant.  

In its very organization, room-by-room, this show instructs. It reminds us that Abraham, the commonly acknowledged founding figure for all three scriptural monotheisms, belongs equally if uneasily to all three. The central revelation-event, the crucial experience that placed him in covenantal relationship with his One God, was a story of cultural and religious eruption whose seismic echoes reverberate to this day. That is the central image that the show puts on display for us: it is almost as if Jews, Christians and Muslims are molecules vibrating to the same divine cadence, however different they may be in substance.  

In any case, that originary revelation inspired a whole series of scriptural revelations to serve as later supplements; be sure to recall that Abraham neither read nor wrote, and thus he had no scriptures himself.  Moses at Sinai… the Hebrew historical chronicles… the Prophets… the wide variety of writings in the New Testament… the 114 revelation-events recorded in the Qur’an… each of these is imagined here as an echo, a reverberation if you will, prompted by the white heat and clanging impact of Abraham’s founding vision.  

Vulgate 1480

 Before long, each scriptural monotheism, precisely to the degree that it saw itself as scriptural, recognized that these foundational texts do not interpret themselves. And so a vast apparatus of commentary and discussion was assembled to supplement the scriptural texts themselves, and to assist in making theological and ethical sense of those scriptures’ most difficult or perplexing moments. The languages on display in this section are mostly in Hebrew and Arabic, with some texts in Ladino, Latin, Slavic, and Ge’ez.  

In addition, all of these texts needed to be translated as each of these faiths became a global faith: through the post-Babylonian-and-Roman Jewish dispersions; through Christian evangelism in the first three centuries, and the wedding of Christianity to empire later on; through the astonishingly rapid expansion of the early Arab empire under the aegis of its new-old faith, Islam.  

There are several polyglot bibles and commentaries in this section of the exhibit (the one called “Spreading the Word”), in which Greek is one of the many languages represented in parallel columns. But even here, the books are opened to pages where the Greek is muted or non-existent.  

Gutenburg Bible

Of greater interest in this section are the early New World publications: Psalms for the Puritans printed early in the colonial period… the first Algonquin translation of the Bible… even the first English language Qur’an, entitled “Alcoran” and published in the United States in 1806. Luther’s German translation of the Bible is displayed here; so too are some fascinating editions in African languages like  Mpongwe and Dikele, or Asian languages like Nepala and Japanese. There is even a copy of the Gutenberg Bible here in–what else?–Latin.  

As these communities of text-and-commentary developed liturgical calendars and lifestyles to supplement the liightning-flash of revelation-and-conversion, rich manuscript traditions emerged to assist the faithful in their private devotions and in public worship. Here once again, excepting a single ornate Byzantine Psalter, most of these texts are also in Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic (with a few more in Church Slavonic).  

Algonquin Bible

The show ends with an inspired and inspirational gesture toward the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem, a city sacred to all three scriptural monotheisms. We are reminded that three of the most important religious pilgrimage sites, one for each faith, are within walking distance of each other in that city: the Wailing Wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; and the Dome of the Rock. The point is elegant and clearly stated: if they are already neighbors, then the must learn to be friends as well. Not only may they find a way to coexist more peaceably; they must. It is taken for granted that this is now a matter of life and death.  

Fair enough, and that is the narrowly ecumenical message lying at the inspired heart of this show. But the very inclusivity of Hebrews, Latins and Arabs here brings me back to my second question: What has happened to the Greeks in all of this? Why is there so little Greek in this show? Who has been excluded by this attempt at monotheistic inclusion?  

The conclusion this show invites us to draw is clearly stated on the last wall. “More than half the human race,” we are reminded, belongs to one of these three faith communities. They are not communities of the past, nor textual communities alone, but rather living communities of faith and practice that will enjoy “innumerable tomorrows.”  

Here I had to stop, because the phrasing reminded me of something, something from the very beginning of the show. It was something about Abraham, the self-proclaimed father of it all. “In what many see as fulfillment of the biblical pledge,” we read on the opening wall of the exhibition hall, “adherents of the Abrahamic faith traditions today number nearly four billion people, more than half the population of the entire world.”   So there is strength in numbers, apparently.  More than half of the human race is identified with Abraham and his scriptural progeny.  

Now I’m not sure who is doing the counting here, but even if we grant the point, this means that half, or nearly half, of the world’s population does not identify itself as Abrahamic. Where are the Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists and others in this account?  

That may seem an unfair question to pose of a show entitled “Three Faiths,” but there is still a tale to be told here.  No matter how broad and inclusive the Abrahamic tent, it is still designed to keep a lot of people out: namely the pagans, by which we mean any and all religious persons who are polytheistically inclined. That constitutes the flip-side of what this show calls “the leap of faith unknown in [Abraham’s] time,” the leap of faith toward monotheism. It is this exclusive faith for which Abraham was later rewarded by the numbers. But the inclusion seems to come necessarily by way of exclusion. Rene Girard famously worried that the best human societies can achieve is “the unanimity minus one of the sacrificial victim.” And to be sure, the solidarity of these three monotheistic neighbors has often come at the expense of identifying a common enemy.  

So who is the monotheist scapegoat? The pagans, who were paradigmatically and for long centuries Greeks. If the ancient Greeks were systematically excluded from this Abrahamic vision, then this may have something subtly to do with the Greeks’ relative invisibility in this show. Ancient Greece is just too hot to handle.  

What makes this all the more striking is the fact that the frescoes on the walls and the ceiling of the third floor of the New York Public Library attempt a very different kind of inclusion. The four wall panels walk us through four critical events in the technology of the word: Moses writing the Decalogue; Christian monastics in a scriptorium; Gutenberg presenting a test page of his Bible for inspection; modern journalists reading their typeset newspapers. On the ceiling, overlooking all this feverish “technologizing of the word” is a Greek god: Prometheus, holding fire in his hands, the fire he brought to earth as a blessing to humankind. He was punished by the new Olympians for giving humanity such power, of course, but he endured the torture, and was eventually released and reconciled.  

Promethean fire, then, symbolizes a sort of past that will not pass, a past that is a source of both creativity and inspiration, a Greek mythic world that will not be erased or forgotten… not even when it fails to make an explicit appearance, as it fails to do in this fascinating, and extraordinarily revealing, new exhibition about the complicated moral legacy of Abraham’s big idea.

Filed Under: ChristianityCulture & ArtFeaturedIslamJudaismLouis A. Ruprecht

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