The Magazine

People of the Book

The British Library makes nice at the expense of scholarship.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By JOE LOCONTE
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Earlier this year the British Library hosted a lavish exhibition of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was an effort designed to ease simmering religious tensions in the United Kingdom. The planners deliberately chose not to cluster the works on display in separate "faith zones," explained Graham Shaw, the library's lead curator, but instead "to show these wonderful manuscripts side by side and demonstrate how much we share." Despite these good intentions, the exhibition repeatedly managed to distort the history and beliefs of the three religions in ways that make interfaith dialogue not easier but more difficult.

Entitled "Sacred: Books of the Three Faiths," the show was billed as "the world's greatest collection of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books." With its more than 150 manuscripts and printed works from several continents and spanning more than 1,500 years, it wasn't too large a boast.

There was a stunningly beautiful illuminated Koran from Mosul, in what is now Iraq, dated 1310, a reminder of the artistic heights of Islamic culture. From Faro, Portugal, came the only surviving copy of the first book ever printed in that country--the Pentateuch. And there was a Tyndale Bible (1526), one of only three copies of this English translation known to have escaped its public burning. (William Tyndale himself was executed for heresy, though his translation would become the basis for the King James Version.)

The most popular exhibition in the history of the British Library, "Sacred" drew over 200,000 visitors during its April to September run. It received rave reviews from the British and international press, and its success no doubt will magnify its influence. Already, a spinoff educational program, "Sacred on Location," is touring museums and libraries in Britain. Exhibitions elsewhere--the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati has a program on "spirituality and art" due to open early next year--may take some inspiration from the London show. Planners of future exhibitions, however, will do well to avoid the confusions and distortions of the original.

The problem began with the exhibition panels, meant to guide the uninitiated. One of them read, "Each succeeding religion acknowledges the texts of those preceding and draws a great deal from them. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and Qur'an therefore form one linked textual tradition."

These are puzzling claims. In what sense, for example, would a rabbi say the Torah was "linked" to the Koran? Certainly not in the sense of being a prologue for subsequent divine revelation. And Christians do not merely "acknowledge" the Hebrew Bible, they deem it holy scripture. By contrast, neither Jews nor Christians "acknowledge" the Koran as inspired or authoritative. Likewise, it is unhelpful to say that Muslims "draw a great deal" from the Bible without adding that they regard its text as tragically corrupted.

In some instances, the arrangement of diverse texts in a shared space was evocative--and misleading. In one display case sat a 14th-century manuscript of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, discovered in Palestine and written in Arabic with an Islamic-style carpet page. Alongside it was a Koran, similarly designed and dated, from Egypt. The intent was apparently to suggest Christian cultural borrowing from Islam. "The exquisite adornment of this Christian manuscript," writes critic Yasmin Khan, was "heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture in its decoration, script, and layout."

The claim is unexceptionable as far as it goes--unless influence over decoration, script, and layout is meant to imply influence over doctrine. But it misses the point. Christians had a strategic reason for packaging their scripture in culturally familiar forms: Because they regarded Jesus' message as intended for all people, Christians from the beginning sought ways to overcome cultural barriers in order to spread the faith.

The exhibition did acknowledge one consequence of this belief. "In Judaism and Islam there is only one language invested with sacred authority, Hebrew and Arabic respectively," a panel read. "In Christianity, the Scriptures have spiritual authority regardless of the language into which they are translated."

Sure enough, the Jewish texts on display were almost exclusively in Hebrew and Aramaic and the Islamic texts in Arabic, while the Christian texts were in Arabic, Armenian, Catalan, Coptic, English, Greek, Latin, Syriac, and more. Like Christianity, Islam is a universal religion; it calls for the conversion of every person. Unlike Christianity, it deems only Arabic to be the language of God. That is why Muslims the world over recite their prayers in Arabic--while Christians are busily translating the Bible into the most obscure tribal languages under the sun.