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I’d like to begin this with an acknowledgment of the role of women religious leaders, who have influenced much of the world’s population. They were powerful in many early cultures, in which the deity was female. If they wrote any holy books though, these have not survived. All the more reason not to forget them.
The religions we are familiar with all have holy books, and many of the faithful refer to these as “the word of god”. Can this claim be true? Many of the world’s holy books inculcate widely different beliefs and practices and refer to many different gods.
Religion has been around for some time. It seems to have originated with Neanderthal man about 40,000 BC. Writing, on the other hand, dates from about 4,000 BC and was developed for narrative reading only about 700 BC. Reliable texts and translations date from 1400 AD after the invention of the printing press. Most of the early beliefs of our species are unknown, but god must have communicated to humans without the need of a book for most of our history.
That last thought leads to another. Do holy books serve a religious, or merely a social, purpose? Do they really guide; or do they serve to bind the community together?
1 Holy books
Here are a few of the books. Many of them in the public domain are available for download at http://www.sacred-texts.com/world.htm.
The Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, (part of the epic Mahabharata). These books are considered the divinely inspired work of ancient sages and the foundation of Hinduism. The Vedas consist of prayers, rituals, commentary and Upanishads, revelation on spiritual causes. They are a guide to priests and yogis, and the Upanishads are both a device for meditation and of philosophical enquiry. Some texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the words of Krishna, are recited as an act of devotion by followers of that god. The great diversity of documents, of rituals and deities, inhibit orthodoxy: Hindus may choose their own particular form of faith within the religion. The texts date reliably from the first century BC but contain books that go back to 2000 BC and an oral tradition.
Tripitaka or Pali canon. Revered by the major sects of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, the holy books consist of discourses by the Buddha, commentaries on these, and rules for the orders of monks. The discourses have been added to and amplified, suggesting little of the Buddha’s actual words had been preserved. Much of the Pali canon is elaboration on the Buddha’s Way of freedom from unease and illusion, beginning with a deification of Gautama, and the attribution of supernatural powers to him. An oral tradition goes back to the time of Gautama, 500 BC but texts date from the first century BC.
The Agamas of Jainism are the record of the discourses of Mahavira, a fifth century BC tirthankara, the 24th and last of these teachers, whose words were recorded by his disciple Gautama Swami. Mahavira taught that happiness could be found by practising non-attachment, non-violence and chastity. As the word of one who attained nirvana, these books are the ultimate truth, literally the word of god.These teachings were lost, and only in the first century AD was the process of recovering them and writing them down completed.
The Tanakh. The bible of Judaism (Old Testament). The 24 books of the Tanakh are the revealed word of god, the first five books given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The books are a collection of history, god’s role for the Jewish people, moral exhortation (prophets), poetry, and instructions of religious purity and the Law. Immensely influential and especially on the emerging religion of Christianity. Compiled in 450 BC, with texts dating from the second century AD.
The Gathas of Zarathustra. These are part of the scripture of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta, and describe Zarathustra’s work in bringing the worship of the one god Ahura Mazda to Iranians. It is possible, as the language used is ancient and comes from before the tenth century BC, though Zarathustra himself was said to be a contemporary of Cyrus the Great (fifth century BC), that he was a reformer of the older religion. The faith spread over the Middle East after his time and influenced other religions such as Judaism. Texts date from the third century AD.
The New Testament. A collection of letters and narratives from the second century AD, detailing the words of Jesus, an account of his death and resurrection, and the formation of the early Christian church and it’s salvationist message. It contains both doctrine and story, but in no systematic way. It is often quoted out of context to support divergent groups within Christianity. The anthology is accepted, with variations, among the three major divisions: the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. The canon in its final form dates from after 400 AD.
The Quran. The revelations received by Muhammad from god through the angel Gabriel, written down and compiled after Muhammad’s death by his companions, chiefly the first Caliph and great military leader Abu Bakr. In common with Gnostic writings (and the Book of Revelations) the Quran places great emphasis on the imminent last day of judgment; and on the bodily resurrection of the faithful. Muhammad’s revelation was a mystical one, yet the Quran created the Arabic people as much as the Tanakh did the Jewish people. The major divisions of Islam, Sunni and Shia, accept the book. Verses of the Quran were collected about 650 AD.
The Guru Granth Sahib. This is the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, and care is taken to not alter a word of it. It serves as a guide and inspiration for the Sikh way of life and is considered revealed divine wisdom. The scriptures were the composition of six Sikh Gurus, from Nanak in the 15th century AD to Tegh Bahadur in the 17th century AD, compiled by the last Guru Gobind Singh in the 18th century AD.
Book of Mormon. Scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), the work of Jewish prophets who lived in New York in 2000 BC. The work was written in ancient Egyptian on golden plates and revealed to the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, by an angel. There are similarities in this respect between the LDS and Islam, as also in the teaching of the Book of Mormon on political identity and militarism. Mormons consider the book more correct than the Bible, although there are some who dispute its historical accuracy. The book was published in 1830.
Science and Health. Christian Scientists follow the beliefs of Mary Baker Eddy, who published her book after suffering ill health for years. She believed that all matter is illusion, that all is spirit, and that ill health is a mistaken belief which can be eradicated. Eddy went on to found the Church of Christ, Scientist. Members meet to meditate on the truth of her teachings. The book was published in 1875.
2 Four stages
Of course there are many more holy books than the ones I have mentioned. Others, from faiths such as that of Astarte, Cybele, Isis or the Eleusinian Mysteries, have been lost. Perhaps, if Karen Armstrong (A History of God, Ballantyne, 1993) is right in her belief that faith is a basic psychological need of the human brain, we should expect that holy books would be common. Perhaps faith is a part of the instinct for self preservation, and close to the emotion of hope.
My survey indicates the four stages we go through in forming a religion. First the teacher, revered as inspired, and sometimes as divine. Then comes the community of apostles and followers, who often form religious communities of monks and nuns. These recall and start to write down the teacher’s sayings, and elaborate on their meanings. The next stage is the one of conversion, when the now established communities go out and proselyte, using the book as evidence of the ‘good news’. When the faith has sufficient numbers, then politicians come and manipulate them, using the book, and we have persecutions and holy wars. But by this stage the teacher’s words have been forgotten, and we have to wait for another.
3 Purposes and functions
Looking at the ancient holy books, what strikes me at first is their haphazard nature. They consist of documents of different types, written for different purposes to different audiences. But they do all include descriptions of ritual and of divine incarnations or inspired messengers. And they have all been collected and preserved by some kind of organisation that strove to preserve an original message. They are the equivalent of the company Articles of Association, or Constitution, and set out, in addition to the divinely inspired word, the line of authority, form of organisation, hierarchy of organisation and duties of office holders. There are also stories validating all of this in the form of hero narratives of the founders. And the whole is legitimised, to quell opposition, as the word of god.
4 The word of god
How read are the holy books? At some times, during the Reformation in Germany, or the flight of Dissenters to America seeking religious toleration for example, the New and Old Testaments were widely read. For many it was the only book they read. But now, the Christian Bible, along with the Complete Plays of Shakespeare, are the most widely distributed books on the planet, but could be the least read.
There are several reasons for this change. Firstly is the gradual loss of literacy among the reading public. Most people can read, but they don’t like to. Others are still illiterate. Secondly, knowledge of the period during which holy books were written has grown, along with considerable amounts of scholarly information about the times, and the process of writing a holy book and transmitting it.
To read the holy books today requires a lifetime of study. Sixty years of learning ancient languages, studying ancient social and political situations, following the evolution and changes in ancient texts, is still not enough. No one can pull out a random passage in a translation and have credibility either as a preacher or a proselyter.
Holy books have become icons. We refer to them, preachers wave them about, but they are little more than magical objects of reverence. They are still the word of god. It’s just that no one reads that word anymore.
5 The word of god misused
Why do Christian fundamentalists oppose ‘Darwinism’ with ‘creationism’? Because the only book of the Old Testament they have read is the book of Genesis.
They should logically read the whole of the Testament, and apply the Law as expounded in the book of Leviticus, for example. That’s also the word of god. Or read the New Testament and consider what Jesus meant by the Sermon on the Mount; or what he meant when he said: “Love your enemies”. Or pay attention to the rebuke: “Let he without sin throw the first stone”. All these are the word of god. But we never hear them, because we don’t read the book through any longer. We study it, quote it, but don’t read it. We justify prejudices by it. And so don’t learn from it.
Even less can people justify political acts of violence or oppression through random quotes from a holy book.
Extremist Islamic sects give every indication that they don’t read the Quran, carefully selecting what few texts they can to justify terror and anarchy.
But also from the Quran 2: “8. Among the people are those who say, “We believe in God and in the Last Day,” but they are not believers. 9. They seek to deceive God and those who believe, but they deceive none but themselves, though they are not aware. 10. In their hearts is sickness, and God has increased their sickness. They will have a painful punishment because of their denial. ” (Talal Itani trans).
Is not this a description of ISIS, a group of terrorists masking their activities by pretending to be followers of Islam, affronting all true followers and shaming the Quran?
6 Other problems
There’s another problem posed by holy books. Mostly written for a particular time and place, the written word solidifies the vital faith it expresses, becoming, just because it is the word of god, fixed for all time. The faithful twist the insights contained in the book, and the rules and regulations as well, in order to fit them to inappropriate times and places very different than the authors envisaged. This strains the faith of the faithful, and from this strain comes intolerance and violence on some occasions, as 21st century middle class people of the first world try to interpret guidance offered to Middle Eastern villagers of the Iron Age.
7 Faith objectified
Faith is a product of the human mind, and so are the holy books, no matter how inspired. But the mind is infinitely more flexible than the printed word.
When we look at a painting we sometimes forget that the most important thing about it is the way the painter can affect our way of seeing. Instead we objectify the painting, see it in terms of money, oils, perspective; when all along its value is one of vision.
In the same way we see holy books as objects, inspired and even divine objects. But behind each book is the vision, sometimes profound, and that’s what is more valuable, and what we should be responding to. We will never emulate Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Gautama, but we can see their vision if we try hard enough.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.