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World Scriptures

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The word scripture is a major phenomenon in the history of religion. Therefore, scripture becomes an important concept in the study of religion. Essentially, the concept of scripture is ambiguous and complex; it does not denote a self-evident and simple phenomenon. Thus, the definition is problematic and has been defined differently by different scholars of religion. However, this essay will analyse the assertion that “In both popular and scholarly use today, the concept of scripture is wrongly thought to denote a self-evident and simple phenomenon (e.g a sacred book). Using examples, the essay will show why scripture is a very ambiguous and complex concept which involves much more than the simplistic perception.
Different scholars have come up with different definitions of scripture. The word scripture is derived from a Latin word “Scriptura” which means writing. It is also connected to a Hebrew word “Ketav” which means any piece of writing or holy writing. According to Krishna in Henze (2007:67), “… scriptures are the sacred writings of a religion or the writings that reveal the knowledge of God.” In this sense, scriptures come from the creator who through the sacred writings guides his people. In short, scripture is a book of wisdom and knowledge. People who read the scripture become knowledgeable and this becomes the essence of spirituality. Scriptures are the final authority in secular and sacred affairs for a believing community. Through Holy Scriptures, God communicates to His people.
To a Hindu, “these books are the source of the Hindu understanding of the universe, and all lateral materials refer back to them and are seen as a mere commentally upon them (Hopfe, 1987:87). These books were divinely heard by the sages from God at the beginning of a cycle, and also, they were transmitted orally from master to disciple thus justifying the words of Brahman. The Vedas are believed to be authorless and eternal which have been divinely inspired by Lord Brahman who revealed himself to the sages who came face to face with reality.
Western culture conceives of scripture as something sent down, maybe verbatim from another world, and imagines that if a given text is not divinely revealed then it is not scripture (Smith, 1962). This assertion can be viewed from two obvious limitations. The first limitation is that it does not cover writings which claim inspiration of a non-divine nature. For instance, Buddhist, Sutras or the Taoist stories. The second limitation is that it does not adequately describe what have been called “non-literary scriptures,” sacred words and stories which are memorised and transmitted orally from generation to generation (Kramer, 1986). Scriptures in this case are extensively sacred writings such as the Bible for Christians, Quran for Muslims. Important to note in this Western Culture perception is that there seems to be a contradiction because the Bible and the Quran, for instance, were recited and sung before they were written down. With this view, scripture is anything that is regarded as sacred by a religious group and also, is a collection of stories, poems, prophecies and wise sayings which are regarded as sacred and are necessary for salvation.
Kramer (1986) views scripture from three dimensions. He writes: Scriptura is an act of writing, to one who writes (scriber) and product (canonised script). This entails that scriptures are sacred traditions with authoritative writings whether that authority has been established by a holy person (Quran) or by its use in ritual (Vedas), by its revealed covenant (Torah), by the scriptural potency of the words (Upanishads) or by a combination of factors. Most people tend to think of scriptures as the inspired word of God communicated through holy prophets (ibid).
Eliade (1987:133) defines scripture as “generic concept used in the modern west to designate texts that are revered as especially sacred and authoritative.” In this context, scripture is associated to the idea of the holy or sacred, written-word or printed word.
Eastman (1975) gives an operational and inclusive definition of scripture. He defines scripture as a generic concept to designate texts that are revealed as sacred. In this definition, the term scripture is extended to include oral religious sources. In short, it includes both oral and written texts. In the same vein, Mbiti (1991:17) argues that “African Religion has no scriptures or holy books. It is written in the history, hearts and experiences of people.”
An analysis of the various definitions of scripture above, indicate that the concept scripture is a very ambiguous and complex concept in that within a single collection of writing (scripture), there are a lot of variations. For instance, there are ritual books, legal codes, myths, historical accounts, divine revelations, apocalyptic visions, ecstatic poetry, and words of teachers and so on. All these are regarded as scripture. What is scripture for one group may be meaningless or false to someone of a different religious tradition. For instance, the Koran does not make sense to Christians. A Florida pastor, Terry Jones, oversaw the torching of a copy of the Muslim holy book after staging a mock “trial” in which it was found guilty of what he described as crimes against humanity (The Independent, 2012). There is absolutely nothing common as scripture and thereby the definition of scripture is actually impossible. In each of the above mentioned cases, scripture is set apart as sacred and holy, and is approached with reverence and awe.
The Vedas is divided into four types of texts namely; the Mantra or Samhita, Brahman, Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Mantra largely consists of hymns addressed to the various deities. The Brahman texts gather the authoritative utterances of Brahman and describe the rituals, chiefly sacrificial offerings in which the hymns are employed. The Aranyakas also known as forest text are believed to have been composed by sages who sought seclusion in the forest. The Upanishads are philosophical texts that have an air of mystery and secrecy about them (Carmody and Brink, 2002).
The term scripture is usually reserved for religious texts that have been written or on printed page. This is confusing because there are some sacred texts that were originally orally transmitted before they were written down such as the Bible and the Quran. It has also been noted that non-literate communities have oral texts which function in similar ways to written sacred texts. This disparity of oral expression or oral medium of expression makes it difficult for scripture to be identified. It is from this background that African Traditional Religion (ATR) has been disqualified by some Western scholar as a world religion.
There is a wide variety of texts that might be classified as scripture. The problem is that classic texts in literate cultures have cultural, social or even religious function. For instance, Ch’ing-Chinese culture. Such texts have scriptural qualities, they are venerated, and they inspire and command authority. These could be treated as scripture in certain contexts.
In addition, it is difficult to distinguish between primary sacred texts of religious traditions from those that are also sacred but secondary. For instance, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there are a number of texts that are treated as sacred that it is not possible to single out those which deserve the title scripture. So, it is very difficult to tell which texts are important and which ones are not. Also, the distinction is not clear between these texts.

In conclusion, it is clear that in both popular and scholarly use today, the concept scripture is wrongly thought to denote a self-evident and simple phenomenon. Thus, scripture is a complex and ambiguous phenomenon. Different scholars have perceived scripture from different perspectives. Whichever direction taken, it is important to note that scripture can be oral or written. Scripture is important if we are to understand a particular religious tradition.

Carmody, D.L. and Brink, T.L. (2002). Ways to the Center, Religions of the World. New York: West Publishing Company.

Eastman, R. (1975). The ways of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliade, M. (1987). The Encyclopaedia of Religion: Volume 3. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
Henze, J. (2007). Some Basics of Religious Education in Zambia. Ndola: Mission Press.

Hopfe, L.M. (1987). Religions of the World. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Kramer, K. (1986). World Scriptures: An Introduction to Comparative Religion. New York: Mahwah Paulist Press.
Mbiti, J.S. (1991). Introduction to African Religion: Second Revised Edition. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Smith, W.C. (1962). In the meaning and End of Religion. New York: Mentor Books.

The Independent. “Florida Pastor burns Koran in ‘Execution’.” news/world /America/ burns koran. (Sunday, 2nd September, 2012)…...

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