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Distinctive Features of Sacred Scripture


Even though the sacred scriptures exhibit an enormous variety, they are all held by their faith traditions to have certain distinctive characteristics. Sacred scripture is believed to:

  • Possess the quality of sacred power and is thus an object of reverence and veneration  
  • Be Transformative: by hearing or reciting scripture, individuals are transformed.
  • Be Eternal and unchanging: This is especially emphasized in Judaism and Islam. In Christianity, the eternal nature of the scriptures is often emphasized in the notion of the scriptures divine (eternal) origin  
  • Be Normative and authoritative for the community.


Authority and Canonicity

The last point raises the question of how these writings came to be viewed as authoritative for the community of believers.  In some cases, this process occurred gradually over centuries, while in other cases it occurred rather rapidly within a few decades.  In almost all cases, some perceived crisis in the community created the need to (1) commit the scriptures to writing and (2) decide which writings were authoritative for the community of faith. The second process is known as establishing a canon.  A canon is the list of books that the community of faith establishes as authoritative, inspired or normative.

In Islam, the death of Muhammad led to the need to write down and collect all of his revelations as well as his own sayings and deeds.  Although evidence indicates some variety in earliest Islam, within a few short decades, however, the Qur'an assumed its present form. The presence of a centralized political and religious authority helped expedited this process.  Over a longer period of time, the hadith of Muhammad were collected, verified and published.

In Judaism,  the establishment of a canon occurred over centuries. The first canon was probably established as a response to the crisis of the Exile: the relocation of the leadership of Israel to the land of Babylon in 586 BC.   Evidence suggests that the Exile was a time when many scriptures were collected and edited. At the end of the Exilic period (late Fifth Century BC), Ezra the scribe returns to Jerusalem with the Torah - probably the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures as we have them today.  By the time of Jesus, some groups within Judaism (in particular, the Pharisees) had expanded the canon to include the writings of the prophets.  After the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, the final part of the Hebrew scriptures known as the "writings" were established as part of the canon.

In Christianity, the canon of the New Testament took shape gradually.  Evidence suggests that in early Christianity different groups had different canons. One group known as the gnostics, had numerous Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, that ultimately were not included in the New Testament.  Other groups had books of the current New Testament that were edited for their own purposes. Two crises forced the canonization issue:

(1) the delay in the return of Jesus.  Many early Christians through Jesus would return quickly. When this did not happen and the first generation of Christians began to die out, it became important to commit the traditions to writing and to establish which ones were authoritative.

(2) the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire.  This event led to the suppression of  writings that varied from the ones established by the church.