Religious text

Last updated
The Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript in Devanagari, a scripture of Hinduism, is dated 1500-1000 BCE. It is the oldest religious texts in any Indo-European language. Rigveda MS2097.jpg
The Rigveda (padapatha) manuscript in Devanagari, a scripture of Hinduism, is dated 1500–1000 BCE. It is the oldest religious texts in any Indo-European language.

The Greek Old Testament: A page from Codex Vaticanus Codex Vaticanus B, 2Thess. 3,11-18, Hebr. 1,1-2,2.jpg
The Greek Old Testament: A page from Codex Vaticanus

Religious texts, including scripture, are texts which various religions consider to be of central importance to their religious tradition. They differ from literature by being a compilation or discussion of beliefs, mythologies, ritual practices, commandments or laws, ethical conduct, spiritual aspirations, and for creating or fostering a religious community. [1] [2] [3] The relative authority of religious texts develops over time and is derived from the ratification, enforcement, and its use across generations. Some religious texts are accepted or categorized as canonical, some non-canonical, and others extracanonical, semi-canonical, deutero-canonical, pre-canonical or post-canonical. [4]


"Scripture" (or "scriptures") is a subset of religious texts considered to be "especially authoritative", [5] [6] revered and "holy writ", [7] "sacred, canonical", or of "supreme authority, special status" to a religious community. [8] [9] The terms sacred text and religious text are not necessarily interchangeable in that some religious texts are believed to be sacred because of the belief in some theistic religions such as the Abrahamic religions that the text is divinely or supernaturally revealed or divinely inspired, or in non-theistic religions such as some Indian religions they are considered to be the central tenets of their eternal Dharma . Many religious texts, in contrast, are simply narratives or discussions pertaining to the general themes, interpretations, practices, or important figures of the specific religion. In others (Christianity), the canonical texts include a particular text (Bible) but is "an unsettled question", according to Eugene Nida. In yet others (Hinduism, Buddhism), there "has never been a definitive canon". [10] [11] While the term scripture is derived from the Latin scriptura, meaning "writing", most sacred scriptures of the world's major religions were originally a part of their oral tradition, and were "passed down through memorization from generation to generation until they were finally committed to writing", according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. [7] [12] [13]

Religious texts also serve a ceremonial and liturgical role, particularly in relation to sacred time, the liturgical year, the divine efficacy and subsequent holy service; in a more general sense, its performance.[ citation needed ]

Etymology and nomenclature

According to Peter Beal, the term scripture – derived from "scriptura" (Latin) – meant "writings [manuscripts] in general" prior to the medieval era, then became "reserved to denote the texts of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible". [14] Beyond Christianity, according to the Oxford World Encyclopedia, the term "scripture" has referred to a text accepted to contain the "sacred writings of a religion", [15] while The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions states it refers to a text "having [religious] authority and often collected into an accepted canon". [16] In modern times, this equation of the written word with religious texts is particular to the English language, and is not retained in most other languages, which usually add an adjective like "sacred" to denote religious texts.

Some religious texts are categorized as canonical, some non-canonical, and others extracanonical, semi-canonical, deutero-canonical, pre-canonical or post-canonical. [4] The term "canon" is derived from the Greek word "κανών", "a cane used as a measuring instrument". It connotes the sense of "measure, standard, norm, rule". In the modern usage, a religious canon refers to a "catalogue of sacred scriptures" that is broadly accepted to "contain and agree with the rule or canon of a particular faith", states Juan Widow. [17] The related terms such as "non-canonical", "extracanonical", "deuterocanonical" and others presume and are derived from "canon". These derived terms differentiate a corpus of religious texts from the "canonical" literature. At its root, this differentiation reflects the sects and conflicts that developed and branched off over time, the competitive "acceptance" of a common minimum over time and the "rejection" of interpretations, beliefs, rules or practices by one group of another related socio-religious group. [18] The earliest reference to the term "canon" in the context of "a collection of sacred Scripture" is traceable to the 4th-century CE. The early references, such as the Synod of Laodicea, mention both the terms "canonical" and "non-canonical" in the context of religious texts. [19]

History of religious texts

One of the oldest known religious texts is the Kesh Temple Hymn of ancient Sumer, [20] [21] a set of inscribed clay tablets which scholars typically date around 2600 BCE. [22] The Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumer, although only considered by some scholars as a religious text, has origins as early as 2150 BCE, [23] and stands as one of the earliest literary works that includes various mythological figures and themes of interaction with the divine. [24] The Rigveda, a scripture of Hinduism, is dated 1500 BCE. It is one of the oldest known complete religious texts that has survived into the modern age. [25] [26]

There are many possible dates given to the first writings which can be connected to Talmudic and Biblical traditions, the earliest of which is found in scribal documentation of the 8th century BCE, [27] followed by administrative documentation from temples of the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, [28] with another common date being the 2nd century BCE. [28] Although a significant text in the history of religious text because of its widespread use among religious denominations and its continued use throughout history, the texts of the Abrahamic traditions are a good example of the lack of certainty surrounding dates and definitions of religious texts.

High rates of mass production and distribution of religious texts did not begin until the invention of the printing press in 1440, [29] before which all religious texts were hand written copies, of which there were relatively limited quantities in circulation.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bible</span> Collection of religious texts

The Bible is a collection of religious texts or scriptures that are held to be sacred in Christianity, Judaism, Samaritanism, and many other religions. The Bible is an anthology – a compilation of texts of a variety of forms – originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. These texts include instructions, stories, poetry, and prophecies, among other genres. The collection of materials that are accepted as part of the Bible by a particular religious tradition or community is called a biblical canon. Believers in the Bible generally consider it to be a product of divine inspiration, but the way they understand what that means and interpret the text can vary.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indian religions</span> Religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent

Indian religions, sometimes also termed Dharmic religions or Indic religions, are the religions that originated in the Indian subcontinent. These religions, which include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, are also classified as Eastern religions. Although Indian religions are connected through the history of India, they constitute a wide range of religious communities, and are not confined to the Indian subcontinent.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Noah</span> Revered figure in the Abrahamic faiths

Noah is the tenth and last of the pre-Flood patriarchs in the traditions of Abrahamic religions. His story appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Quran and Baha'i writings. Noah is referenced in various other books of the Bible, including the New Testament, and in associated deuterocanonical books.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Old Testament</span> First division of Christian Bibles

The Old Testament is the first division of the Christian biblical canon, which is based primarily upon the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, a collection of ancient religious Hebrew writings by the Israelites. The second division of Christian Bibles is the New Testament, written in the Koine Greek language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Historical Vedic religion</span> 1500–500 BC Indo-Aryan religious practices of northwest India

The historical Vedic religion, constituted the religious ideas and practices among some Indo-Aryan peoples of northwest Indian Subcontinent during the Vedic period. These ideas and practices are found in the Vedic texts, and some Vedic rituals are still practiced today. It is one of the major traditions which shaped Hinduism, though present-day Hinduism is markedly different from the historical Vedic religion.

Shruti in Sanskrit means "that which is heard" and refers to the body of most authoritative, ancient religious texts comprising the central canon of Hinduism. Manusmriti states: Śrutistu vedo vijñeyaḥ meaning, "Know that Vedas are Śruti". Thus, it includes the four Vedas including its four types of embedded texts—the Samhitas, the Upanishads, the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enheduanna</span> Sumerian high priestess of Inanna

Enheduanna was the priestess of the moon god Nanna (Sīn) in the Sumerian city-state of Ur in the reign of her father, Sargon of Akkad. She was likely appointed by her father as the leader of the religious cult at Ur to cement ties between the Akkadian religion of her father and the native Sumerian religion.

Hindu texts are manuscripts and voluminous historical literature which are related to any of the diverse traditions within Hinduism. A few of these texts are shared across these traditions and they are broadly considered Hindu scriptures. These include the Itihasa and Vedas. Scholars hesitate in defining the term "Hindu scriptures" given the diverse nature of Hinduism, but many list the Agamas as Hindu scriptures, and Dominic Goodall includes Bhagavata Purana and Yajnavalkya Smriti in the list of Hindu scriptures as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vedas</span> Ancient scriptures of Hinduism

The Vedas are a large body of religious texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.

The Apostolic Constitutions or Constitutions of the Holy Apostles is a Christian collection divided into eight books which is classified among the Church Orders, a genre of early Christian literature, that offered authoritative pseudo-apostolic prescriptions on moral conduct, liturgy and Church organization. The work can be dated from 375 to 380 AD. The provenance is usually regarded as Syria, probably Antioch. The author is unknown, although since James Ussher it has often considered to be the author of the letters of Pseudo-Ignatius, perhaps the 4th-century Eunomian bishop Julian of Cilicia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of writing</span> Creation and development of permanent, physical records of language

The history of writing traces the development of expressing language by systems of markings and how these markings were used for various purposes in different societies, thereby transforming social organization. Writing systems are the foundation of literacy and literacy learning, with all the social and psychological consequences associated with literacy activities.

Bibliolatry is the worship of a book, idolatrous homage to a book, or the deifying of a book. It is a form of idolatry. The sacred texts of some religions disallow icon worship, but over time the texts themselves are treated as sacred the way idols are, and believers may end up effectively worshipping the book. Bibliolatry extends claims of inerrancy—hence perfection—to the texts, precluding theological innovation, evolving development, or progress. Bibliolatry can lead to revivalism, disallows re-probation, and can lead to persecution of unpopular doctrines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Development of the Hebrew Bible canon</span> Process of canonization in Judaism

There is no scholarly consensus as to when the Hebrew Bible canon was fixed. Some scholars argue that it was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty, while others argue it was not fixed until the second century CE or even later.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Biblical authority</span>

In Christianity, the term biblical authority refers to two complementary ideas:

The earliest record of a Sumerian creation myth, called The Eridu Genesis by historian Thorkild Jacobsen, is found on a single fragmentary tablet excavated in Nippur by the Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania in 1893, and first recognized by Arno Poebel in 1912. It is written in the Sumerian language and dated to around 1600 BCE. Other Sumerian creation myths from around this date are called the Barton Cylinder, the Debate between sheep and grain and the Debate between Winter and Summer, also found at Nippur.

Jain literature refers to the literature of the Jain religion. It is a vast and ancient literary tradition, which was initially transmitted orally. The oldest surviving material is contained in the canonical Jain Agamas, which are written in Ardhamagadhi, a Prakrit language. Various commentaries were written on these canonical texts by later Jain monks. Later works were also written in other languages, like Sanskrit and Maharashtri Prakrit.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Biblical canon</span> Texts regarded as part of the Bible

A biblical canon is a set of texts which a particular Jewish or Christian religious community regards as part of the Bible.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pali Canon</span> Buddhist scriptures of the Theravada tradition

The Pāli Canon is the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pāli language. It is the most complete extant early Buddhist canon. It derives mainly from the Tamrashatiya school.

The earliest known precursor to Hebrew, an inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, is the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription, if it can be considered Hebrew at that early a stage.


  1. Charles Elster (2003). "Authority, Performance, and Interpretation in Religious Reading: Critical Issues of Intercultural Communication and Multiple Literacies". Journal of Literacy Research. 35 (1): 667–670., Quote: "religious texts serve two important regulatory functions: on the group level, they regulate liturgical ritual and systems of law; at the individual level, they (seek to) regulate ethical conduct and direct spiritual aspirations."
  2. Eugene Nida (1994). "The Sociolinguistics of Translating Canonical Religious Texts". TTR: Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction. Érudit: Université de Montréal. 7 (1): 195–197., Quote: "The phrase "religious texts" may be understood in two quite different senses: (1) texts that discuss historical or present-day religious beliefs and practices of a believing community and (2) texts that are crucial in giving rise to a believing community."
  3. Ricoeur, Paul (1974). "Philosophy and Religious Language". The Journal of Religion. University of Chicago Press. 54 (1): 71–85. doi:10.1086/486374. S2CID   144691132.
  4. 1 2 Lee Martin McDonald; James H. Charlesworth (5 April 2012). 'Noncanonical' Religious Texts in Early Judaism and Early Christianity. A&C Black. pp. 1–5, 18–19, 24–25, 32–34. ISBN   978-0-567-12419-7.
  5. Charles Elster (2003). "Authority, Performance, and Interpretation in Religious Reading: Critical Issues of Intercultural Communication and Multiple Literacies". Journal of Literacy Research. 35 (1): 669–670.
  6. John Goldingay (2004). Models for Scripture. Clements Publishing Group. pp. 183–190. ISBN   978-1-894667-41-8.
  7. 1 2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2009). Scripture. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  8. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1994). What is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach. Fortress Press. pp. 12–14. ISBN   978-1-4514-2015-9.
  9. William A. Graham (1993). Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge University Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN   978-0-521-44820-8.
  10. Eugene Nida (1994). "The Sociolinguistics of Translating Canonical Religious Texts". 7 (1): 194–195.{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. Thomas B. Coburn (1984). ""Scripture" in India: Towards a Typology of the Word in Hindu Life". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford University Press. 52 (3): 435–459. doi:10.1093/jaarel/52.3.435. JSTOR   1464202.
  12. William A. Graham (1993). Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge University Press. pp. ix, 5–9. ISBN   978-0-521-44820-8.
  13. Carroll Stuhlmueller (1958). "The Influence of Oral Tradition Upon Exegesis and the Senses of Scripture". The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 20 (3): 299–302. JSTOR   43710550.
  14. Peter Beal (2008). A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology: 1450 to 2000. Oxford University Press. p. 367. ISBN   978-0-19-926544-2.
  15. "Scriptures". The World Encyclopedia . Oxford University Press. 2004. ISBN   978-0-19-954609-1.
  16. John Bowker (2000). "Scripture". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions . Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-280094-7.
  17. Juan Carlos Ossandón Widow (2018). The Origins of the Canon of the Hebrew Bible. Brill Academic. pp. 22–27. ISBN   978-90-04-38161-2.
  18. Gerbern Oegema (2012). Lee Martin McDonald and James H. Charlesworth (ed.). 'Noncanonical' Religious Texts in Early Judaism and Early Christianity. A&C Black. pp. 18–23 with footnotes. ISBN   978-0-567-12419-7.
  19. Gallagher, Edmon L.; Meade, John D. (2017). The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis. Oxford University Press. pp. xii–xiii. ISBN   978-0-19-879249-9.
  20. Kramer, Samuel (1942). "The Oldest Literary Catalogue: A Sumerian List of Literary Compositions Compiled about 2000 B.C.". Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 88 (88): 10–19. doi:10.2307/1355474. JSTOR   1355474. S2CID   163898367.
  21. Sanders, Seth (2002). "Old Light on Moses' Shining Face". Vetus Testamentum. 52 (3): 400–406. doi:10.1163/156853302760197520.
  22. Enheduanna; Meador, Betty De Shong (1 August 2009). Princess, priestess, poet: the Sumerian temple hymns of Enheduanna. University of Texas Press. ISBN   9780292719323.
  23. Stephanie Dalley (2000). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–45. ISBN   978-0-19-953836-2.
  24. George, Andrew (31 December 2002). The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian . Penguin. ISBN   9780140449198.
  25. Sagarika Dutt (2006). India in a Globalized World. Manchester University Press. p. 36. ISBN   978-1-84779-607-3
  26. Kumar, Shailendra; Choudhury, Sanghamitra (1 January 2021). Meissner, Richard (ed.). "Ancient Vedic Literature and Human Rights: Resonances and Dissonances". Cogent Social Sciences. 7 (1): 1858562. doi:10.1080/23311886.2020.1858562. ISSN   2331-1886.
  27. "The Yahwist". Contradictions in the Bible. 23 December 2012. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  28. 1 2 Jaffee, Martin S. (19 April 2001). Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism 200 BCE-400 CE. Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780198032236.
  29. "The History Guide". Retrieved 6 December 2016.

Further reading