Yesterday I got a 'phone call from bluepork saying "We've just gone to this exhibition at the British Library on sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You'd love it, you should go, but it closes today." When I said perhaps I'd go once I finished what I planned to do, bluepork's wife said, "Ditch what you're doing and go." bluepork added, "I look forward to reading your reaction on your blog afterwards," so, especially for him, here it is. :o)
Turns out I wasn't the only person leaving it until the last minute to visit the exhibition; whilst queueing outside I bumped into Gerrard B., Abbi W. and livredor's parents. Inside the exhibition, I got into some interesting conversations with people too; such as the person who, pointing at an ivory yad, said, "That's from our synagogue; we normally use it for Yom Kippur, but we couldn't this year, as it was here!" (It was on loan from the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Maida Vale.) Quite a few people commented on my T-shirt, which reads "אני ♥ תלמוד תורה"; it was most amusing when, after one evidently Orthodox person asked me where I got it, watching his eyes glaze over when I showed him the back: "The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem." (If others disapproved, they were better at hiding it.)
Parts of the exhibition I had seen before, such as their thousand-year-old Bible drawn up by the Massoretes (the family in Tiberias who determined the definitive version of the Hebrew Bible we have today, including finalising the vowels and notes); others I hadn't. Highlights for me included:
- A seven-hundred year old Samaritan Sefer Torah. I hadn't realised beforehand that the Samaritans still use a descendant of the original כתב עיברית (Palaeo-Hebrew) the Jews used during the First Temple period. During the Babylonian Exile, the Jews dropped that in favour of the Assyrian script the descendant of which they still use today—but of course the Samaritans never went into exile. (Or rather, the Samaritans were (at least partially) the descendants of those the Assyrians hadn't sent into exile a century beforehand.) I hadn't put that two and two together beforehand.
- A thousand-year-old Karaite chumash, in Hebrew written in Arabic letters—a reverse of the more normal Jewish custom of writing the vernacular of the country they live in in Hebrew letters. Despite being written in Arabic letters, the text bore Hebrew vowels—somewhat bogglesome, though it makes sense considering that Hebrew has considerably more vowels than Arabic. Nevertheless, the vowels were written in red whilst the sacred text was in black, a custom straight out of the Qur'anic tradition!
- Some really dinky micrography. I'm really rather astonished to discover there was this flourishing artistic tradition in Germany I'd never come across beforehand.
- A Christian psalter featuring a really most unexpected portrayal of King David.
There was lots of other cool stuff there too, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, but I'm just blogging here about the stuff I found the most interesting.
One thing I'm surprised the legends didn't point out (though the audio guide might have), in terms of similarity between the religions, is the way that in the first few centuries of Islam, the Qur'ān was largely (though not wholly) transmitted orally, through people called Qurra, "readers", whose job it was to memorise the whole of the Qur'ān and recite it out on request. This exactly parallels the way a few centuries earlier, there was a taboo in Judaism against writing down the Oral Law, and instead it was transmitted by people called תנאים Tannaim, "repeaters", whose job it was to memorise the Oral Law and recite it on request—and in both traditions, corruption of oral transmission resulted in the commission of a single, canonised version to paper.