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Sacred: the Abrahamic Religions and their Books (Part 1)

Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian

Sunday, 3rd June 2007

There is at the moment a remarkable exhibition at the British Library near King's Cross Station. It is called Sacred and has probably the most outstanding collection of the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions that has ever been assembled in one place (open 27 April 27-September 23; there's an excellent website: There are fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, papyri from Ancient Egypt, part of Codex Sinaiticus, which is perhaps the oldest complete New Testament, and a Qu'ran from the eighth century, which is very early indeed.

The point of the exhibition is to show how much the three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have in common. We are, to use an Islamic phrase, the people of the book (Ahl al-Kitab). Thus the centrepiece of the exhibition is a display of particularly fine copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Qu'ran side by side. It's very moving to see young people who clearly belong to one or other of these faith-traditions moving around the exhibition learning about traditions other than their own. One of the vital challenges in our world is for those who follow its great faith-traditions to understand each other better and to learn to live with each other better. In a quiet and scholarly way this exhibition makes the point very powerfully.

It also shows just how much the faith-traditions have contributed to our civilisations. These astonishingly beautiful manuscripts and books show what it has meant to people in the past to have a sacred text that has become interwoven with every aspect of their lives and which must be handed on faithfully to the next generation. They show what it is to regard the text as sacred - as set apart from other texts because through this text God communicates with God's people. It is a strikingly calm place, which reminds us how people have in the past - as they do today - calmly studied their holy texts, patiently seeking to learn from them all that God has to communicate through them.

Looking at what there is in common about the part these texts play in the three Abrahamic religions is an excellent starting point. It was only as I thought about what was being presented and what was implicit in the approach that I began to see how important it was to understand certain differences, and so to open up the dialogue between the faiths. This is what I shall be seeking to do over the next four weeks. My approach will, of course, be that of a Christian - so my question for each of the next three weeks will be: How does a Christian think about the Hebrew Scriptures? How does a Christian think about the New Testament? And how does a Christian think about the Qu'ran?

Today, though, I would like to make two preliminary points. On the day when I first visited the exhibition I first went to a meeting of a Scriptural Reasoning group at the British Library. This is a new movement which is growing in London. Members of the three Abrahamic faiths meet to study their sacred scriptures. Texts are chosen which have some common theme. Each is introduced in turn by someone for whom it represents sacred Scripture. They explain how the text is understood within their own faith; then others can ask questions and join in the discussion. For me it was the freshest and most stimulating Bible study I have been in in years. At the beginning the Rabbi, who was to speak about a text from the Torah, said how he liked to hear Scripture chanted. He asked that we might chant a portion of our Scriptures before we studied them. This, of course, was no problem for the Imam and no problem for the Rabbi, but for the Christians, all we could to do was to see whether any of us could manage the Greek. There was no question of chanting.

Why should that be? When we think about it, we do chant certain parts of our Scriptures. The psalms are chanted in the Abbey daily. In Holy Week, the story of the Passion is sung. Apart from that, the nearest thing is the proclamation of the Gospel at the eucharist. There are Christian traditions, like the Orthodox, where much more of the Scriptures is chanted, but for most Christians the key thing has been to communicate with the people in language which they understand. The gospel is shared more than it is chanted. The scriptures are read in easily understood language, as they have been this morning.

Behind this lies an important difference between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Christian message, based on the Christian scriptures, has always been regarded as translateable in a way that the Jewish and the Muslim message is not (the scriptures of both Jews and Muslims are of course translated into many languages but such translations are seen as in themselves interpretations - hence the special importance of the original text). In both of those faiths the message is there in a stable text of scripture, in one particular language. Christians have never prized the Greek of the New Testament in the way that Jews prize the Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures or Muslims the Arabic of the Qu'ran. We don't feel the need to teach our children the scriptural language as Jews and Muslims do.

And this creates a problem for us. We talk of learning Scripture by heart, and in Sunday schools in the past there was a great emphasis on learning the Bible by heart - because there was a stable text. The challenge now is to see what we can learn from Jews and Muslims about taking the scriptures into our hearts and lives without necessarily learning them by heart in the original languages. How do we learn the message by heart?

Let me give just one pointer. Some years ago I got to know a man who had sought asylum from northern Iraq. He had been brought up a Muslim but he asked me for a Bible in his own language. I was able to get one in Sorani, his mother tongue. When I gave it to him he was very excited that this holy book communicated with him in his mother-tongue. He took it into his hands with wonder. He looked at, kissed it and held it to his forehead in a kind of acted prayer that this holy text would enter into and transform his mind and his heart.

It is striking that this superb exhibition at the British Library - which is free, so you can visit it as often as you like - is called Sacred. From a Christian point of view that expresses an important truth about the Bible - but it leaves out the most important thing. I can quite see why the exhibition as not called 'inspired' but that, for a Christian, is the most important thing about the Bible. What it means to call the Scripture 'inspired' - especially in dialogue with Jewish and Islamic views of their holy books - is what in the next three weeks I look forward to exploring. In the meantime, though, do, if you can, visit Sacred (or its excellent website) and see this treasure-trove of holy books for yourself.

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