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Chapter 5: Sacred Scripture

The Role of Scripture  
We have already seen how symbols, metaphors, parables, myths and rituals create a bridge between the sacred and the ordinary. In this chapter we explore another form of religious communication and expression: sacred scripture.   

Scripture literally means "writing."  It has come to refer to a writings that are considered to be divinely inspired and therefore that are authoritative. A canon (literally a "rule" or "measure") is a collection of sacred texts that a religious community has established as the authoritative guide for the community. 

The Pervasive Role of Sacred Scripture

While all of the major world religions have sacred scriptures, Livingston notes that there are significant differences in the nature of these texts as well as how they are understood and used.

  1.  While some faith traditions have translated their scriptures into every language, others such as the Hindu Vedas, the Qur'an and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) believe it inappropriate or even impossible to translate from the original language of the scriptures into other languages. In other words, the language itself conveys something of the sacred that is lost in translation.
  2.  Some sacred texts such as the Qur'an  have one literary form, while others, including the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Buddhist and Hindu Sacred books present the reader with an astonishing variety of literary genres.
  3. Some religious traditions have drawn a strict line between sacred scripture and other texts.  In other cases, a number of books are considered sacred, but some are more authoritative than others. In other words, there is a primary collection of writings that is definitive and authoritative, but there is also a secondary collection of writings that are also considered authoritative.  Usually, this secondary group serves to illuminate or illustrate the primary scriptures

"Secondary Scriptures"

Three examples of "secondary" scripture are found in Islam, Judaism and Hinduism.

In Islam, the Qur'an is the authoritative scripture of Islam.  However, another collection known as the Hadith is also a guide for believers.  The Hadith contain sayings of and stories about Muhammad.  These sayings and stories exemplify how one should apply the revelations of the Qur'an. The Night Journey of Muhammad is contained in the hadith.

 Judaism has both a written Torah as well as one that was transmitted orally (the Mishnah).  The written Torah (law/instruction) was given to Moses on Mount Sinai in written form.  It contains the commandments and guides that the faithful Jew must follow. Yet, as situations change, how does one apply these laws?  Moreover, how does one interpret even a simple law such as the prohibition of work on the Sabbath (what do we mean by work?). These questions are addressed in the mishnah.  The Mishnah was a second law that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.  It was not written down, but transmitted orally from one generation to the next.  It was finally compiled and committed to writing in the 2nd Century AD.  It became the basis for the Talmud, a huge compendium of learning and commentary. It includes such information as how the Passover should be observed.

Hinduism has both scripture (sruti - that which is heard) and sacred texts (smirti  - that which is remembered). The oldest collections known as the vedas constitute the most authoritative scriptures.  The term sruti suggests that these scriptures were "heard" by the sages in ancient times; that is, they were given by the gods themselves.  The smirti are texts (usually narratives) that are passed down from one generation to the next (i.e., "remembered"). Interestingly, the texts that are classified as sruti are considered more authoritative than smirti, even though the smirti are probably far more popular. For example, the Bhagavad-Gita is among the most popular sacred texts in Hinduism, although it is classified as smirti. The Gita is considered to be a summary and illustration of the teachings of the Vedas.