Sacred Texts – 5 Major Religions – Always political as well as theological in nature

Studies in Religion – Religious Literature: The choice of texts is nearly always political as well as theological in nature

Question: Outline the ways in which religious professionals are involved with the production, interpretation and use of sacred texts. Summarise both the positive aspects and the limitations of such involvement from the point of view of a community of believers. Give specific examples from any of the five major religious traditions whose texts we have studied.

In outlining the ways in which religious professionals of the five major religions are involved with the production, interpretation, and the use of sacred texts, I will argue that there is evidence that the professional’s agenda was political as well as theological. On the surface, the religious professionals involvement appears to have placed limitations on the text and hence the community of believers. However, the positive aspects of the sacred text by the community of believers, for which I will give specific examples, far outweigh the limitations. The examples come from the Christian New Testament.

The decisions made in what to keep and what to discard in the initial and in some instances, the ‘long process of selection and decision-making, culminating in the final production of written sacred texts, has been, in all five major religions of the world, largely made by male religious professionals. This is certainly the case of the Hebrew and the Christian sacred texts. ‘Over the years the vast majority (perhaps 99%) of commentaries, study guides and other helps to understanding the Bible have been written by men. [1]  The sacred texts were relevant, not only to the turbulent socio-cultural, economical, and political context that originally produced them, but also theologically, to the debates and struggles going on at a relatively early stage of the religion in question. The ‘canon’ or the closed documents as accepted ‘revelation’ therefore, were ‘chosen by the victors in the early struggles, and thus the choice of texts is nearly always political as well as theological in nature.’ [2]

The same socio-political context within which the production of sacred texts took place is discernable where the Hindu texts are concerned (1500-1200 BCE; Hindu dating: 2,500 BCE). The Hindu texts are largely a creation of the Brahmin priests who belonged to the Aryan invaders. Most scholars would agree that the Aryan invaders brought with them the Vedic (verses, psalms or hymns) literature written in Sanskrit. However, Merlin Stone argues that the Vedic literature that reflects the patriarchal lifestyle of the Aryans was influenced when they encountered the peaceful, matrilineal, goddess worshipping community. ‘The Aryans, however, by the time of their invasion, had ‘long since abandoned matriarchy and had a patriarchal family system as well as a patriarchal form of government.’ [3]  Finally, the Brahmin priests and members of the ruling class produced and added the Upanishads to the Vedas (800-400 BCE).

With the production of the Upanishads, a system was introduced, whereby an elitist social hierarchy with the Brahmins at the top into place to exercise social and political control over the rest of the Aryan and the indigenous populace. ‘There was an increasing development of the caste system, … one could carry out social functions (marry eat and so on) only within one’s particular caste’. [4] The Indo-Aryan discriminatory attitude toward gender and race shows up in the Aryan’s literature. ‘The mind of a woman brooks not discipline. Her intellect has little weight’. ‘In India there is the clearest evidence of the Indo-Aryan invasions (light coloured skinned people) and the conquest of the original goddess –worshipping people, (dark-skinned people) the worshippers of Diti, the Great Mother Goddess, who when intransigent were called by the Aryans, ‘demons’, and when willing converts were called ‘monkeys and bears.’ [5]  This was also a time when society was rapidly changing. New economical and political forces were rising with new leaders.  Amongst the flourishing cities, kingdoms, republicans, and a strong merchant class surfaced. Buddhism began to emerge around this time of social and political change. [6]

The socio-political context of the historical Buddha was not unlike the time when the Upanishads were added to the Vedas. Most historians believe that the discourses and dialogues attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, (600 BCE), the Tipitaka, the sacred text of the Theravada Buddhists, (Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand and Burma), and believed to be the words of Buddha, continued to be developed over several centuries. Taken from memory of the oral linage of monks, the Pali Canon, as the Tipitaka is known, was recorded finally around 100 CE. Included in the Canon are scholastic and later added philosophical treatises (Abhidhamma-pitaka). In Mahanyana (China, Korea and Japan) and Vajraayana (Tantric) Buddhism (developed over 200-1200 CE), canonical texts also include teachings believed to come from the transcendent (non-embodied) Buddha and revealed through mediational deities to great sages of the tradition.’ [7]

The Jewish sacred texts, the Tanak, or Old Testament, consist of three major sections of a very complex arrangement of material written at various times. Scholar’s conjectures and theories claim they were collected and written by four different sources, J, E, D, and P, ranging from the ninth to the fifth century BCE with the material composed in the fifth century much older material in part. If we take these four theories of dating, similar social and political patterns emerge as with the other sacred texts.

The J theory of dating relates to the reign of David or Solomon (900-1000 BCE). This was a time of centralisation of political power for the Hebrews and the centralisation of the cult of Yahweh. The E sources are dated about the eighth or ninth century BCE, fitting in with Solomon’s politically oppressive reign, with the division of Judah and Israel following his death, and the activities of the pre-exile prophets. The D sources date around the time of the fall of Jerusalem and after the exile (597 [587] – 539 BCE). At the time of the P sources, composed around fifth century BCE, with the Chronicler (1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah) around 400 BCE, there was a resurgence of Judaism with the prophets recalling people to Torah ‘way’ lifestyle. This was also around the time of the emergence of Pharisaic Judaism.

Some writings (Ecclesiastes) compiled about 250 BCE, were in the time after the Greek occupation. The Book of Daniel, (167-164 BCE), although written as if set in the neo-Babylonian period (626-539 BCE) was produced within the context of Hellenism’s language, culture and arts having infiltrated the Jewish way of life. It was not until the council of Jamnia, (90 CE), that the books belonging to the time of Greek occupation and after were confirmed. The final contents of the Hebrew Scriptures decided upon by the religious professionals, the rabbis, were in the first century CE, when professionals in the newly formed Christianity had already completed their major texts (51-60 – 100 excludes the Pastoral letters), which texts built upon the Hebrew Scriptures. The Pastoral letters of Paul (ca. 100-140) show a leaning towards institutionalising the church, with a hierarchy that includes bishops, deacons and elders. [8]  By the time of 300 CE, an institutional structure and expression saw an all male non-Jewish hierarchical leadership.

The Christian texts, produced during a time of upheaval and political unrest, were influenced by a number of crucial changes taking place: the radical shift in the development of Judaism, the surrounding Hellenistic culture and the turbulent political climate, when Rome conquered Greece, (63 BCE). This turbulence revived in the Jews a message of messianic hope. Israel’s social groups show a theocrasy with the clergy, the Levites, at its head. The socio-economic situation shows marked difference between those of the aristocracy, including the priests, belonging to Herod’s court and those who were at the bottom of the social ladder, such as slaves, day labourers, scribes and beggars to name a few. [9].

The Roman-Jewish war (66-70 CE), Paul and Peter’s martyrdom (60’s CE) and the radical break with Judaism at Jamnia, when Christian Jews were expelled from the Jewish synagogues, left their imprint on the writings and the selection process of accepted documents by the professionals who finally produced the sacred canon of Christian texts (100-250 CE). During this time (100-250 CE), the Apologists formulated such doctrines as, ‘Messiah had come, was the ‘son of God’ and the ‘Saviour of the world’; The Great Creeds were also formulated, addressing right belief and right practice, and certain breakaway groups, such as Gnosticism, and Marcion formulated diverse doctrines to mainstream Christian beliefs. The same dual pattern is evidenced in the production of the Muslim texts.

Mohammad, over twenty-two years, from 610 CE, on ‘The Night of Destiny’, began to receive revelations that continued over a period of twenty-two years. It was a relatively short time, during the Caliphate of ‘Uthman (644-56 CE), in comparison with other sacred texts, that the authorised version of the Qur’an was sealed with the mark of authorisation. The rise of Islam is similar to the turbulent socio-political context in which the Upinishads were appended to the Vedas. Muhammad’s tribal group was a part of a new commercial power group. Muhammad, like other religious prophets before and after him, championed justice issues. The Qu’aran is said to contain the direct revealed words of God to Muhammad. Unlike the other sacred texts, there is no systematic theology or doctrine.

In traditional Judaism and Christianity, unlike the Qu’aran, produced soon after the prophet, Muhammad’s death, the Bible is recognized as the unique record of God’s dealings with people over the ages. The Hebrew Scriptures, (Old Testament), consist of written records interpreted as God speaking directly through the prophets to his people. The four Gospels in the Christian sacred texts (New Testament) is said to record the direct words of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as his life and work. It claims that Jesus Christ was the one in whom ‘the Word became flesh.’ It also describes the rise and spread of the early Christian Church.

Introduction to one version of the New Testament [10] claims that the contents are for the discerning and understanding of what God is saying to the community of believers. The introduction of the New Revised Standard version of the King James Bible [11] lists five uses for the Christian Bible, ‘it is intended for use in public reading and congregational worship, as well as in private study, instruction, and meditation’. In all of the five major religions, an extraordinary amount of control and trust is placed into the hands of religious professionals to interpret the sacred text and the deity to the community of believers.

In the case of the five uses listed above, three of these uses, public reading, congregational worship and instruction come under the control of the religious professional.  Such control has limiting ramifications in terms of the community of believers exercising reasoning powers and autonomy. The other two uses, private study and meditation, however, does allow independent and private interpretation. Nevertheless, the professionals, in the main, expect the activities of private study and meditation to also be carried out in a confessional manner: the text believed to be divinely inspired and to be read in textbook fashion.

This control by the religious professionals over the interpretation of the sacred text however, cannot negate the individual believer’s interpretation. The final authority of the interpretation and the use of the sacred texts therefore, rest with the reader as to the illumination or inspiration they receive as they read. This is the reason why independent interpretation, be it in private study or in the critical approach of the scholars, where carried out apart from the religious professionals, is viewed as a threat and is brooked at every turn. Furthermore, for anyone interpreting the text, Elisabeth Clark [12] warns, ‘the leap from literature to “life” is always precarious.’ This precariousness makes the opportunity of exploring other avenues of thought regarding the sacred text extremely limiting for the lay person, where there is a lack of linguistic, sociological, feminist, historical and other scholastic tools, used today to uncover biased and possibly misinformed and archaic rendering of the text.

The precariousness Clark warns of becomes reality when one considers that interpretation has not remained constant and unchanging despite some who view it as such. ‘All sacred writings are interpreted writing.’ [13]  Where the confessional approach, in the sense that literal meaning is placed upon text, is concentrated, use is still made of commentators, thus passing through a third interpretation before use. Any use of the sacred text means ‘that it now becomes an interpretation of the interpreted text. [14] Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza [15] also reminds us of the radical difference between representation and reality that ‘renders the historical world’ in which the texts produced by their religious professionals ‘irredeemably past and inaccessible.’

Nevertheless, with all of its limitations, there are positive aspects for the community of believers who approach the text in a confessional manner or otherwise. A prime example is the instructions given in the Gideon Bible. The exhortation is to the general reading public to benefit from reading the Christian scriptures. Listed are such headings as ‘Help in Time of Need’ and ‘Guidance in Time of Decision’ (Jas 1:5).[16]  Such words as ‘do not worry about your life [17], said to be the spoken words of Jesus, might be used in such a way as to lessen the anxiety people experience in providing themselves and their loved ones in the basic necessities of life. Comfort is sought from the deity, and believers are exhorted to then pass it on to others. [18]

Another way the community of believers is aided is in the way different examples from the sacred text are used for bringing about sought for change in their own lives, such as the story of the Philippian jailer and his family. [19]  The answer for satisfaction in this life is learning how to be content. [20]Overall the Christian message is about finding peace with God, through faith in God and in Jesus Christ. [21] Believers are exhorted to live responsibly, in the community and the world at large, remembering their overall mission of evangelisation of the world. [22]

Other uses of the Christian scriptures include ritual, as with the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper, [23], liturgical, in singing ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’, [24] for inspirational use and educational purposes. [25]  Prayer is encouraged in communicating toward the deity and gaining something from the deity. [26]  Prohibitions are given for the community, [27] and lastly, the sacred text is used to inspire faith, which although only mentioned twice in the Hebrew sacred texts is referred to at least two hundred and forty-five times in the New Testament.

Given the seeming limitations placed upon the community of believers by the control of the professionals in the production, interpretation and the use of the sacred texts of the five major religions, resulting, in many instances, in limitations such as the isolation of different classes of people because of their race or gender. Nevertheless, the positive aspects the sacred texts offer to the community of believers, and the way, in which they use and apply them, albeit in the face of the religious professionals control and limitations, exceed such limitations.

[1] Study Bible for Women: The New Testament, commentary & notes: Catherine Clark Kroeger, Mary Evans & Elaine Storkey, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1995.

[2] RELS 301, Religious Literature, Studies in Religion, Topic 1: Religious Literature – Sacred Texts, 2003, Armidale, p 32.

[3] Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Verigo, 1976, USA, p. 69.

[4] RELS 301, Religious Literature, Studies in Religion, Topic 2: Hindu Texts, Date, Setting, Content, 2003, Armidale, p. 38.

[5] Stone, When God Was A Woman, pp. 70-2,

[6] RELS 301, Religious Literature, Topic 2: Hindu Texts – Date, Setting Content, 2003, Armidale, p. 37.

[7] RELS 301, Religious Literature, Topic 3: Buddhist Texts – Date, Setting Content, 2003, Armidale, p. 43.

[8] Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5The New International Version, Grand Rapids, 1984.

[9] RELS 301, Religious Literature, Topic 5: Christian Texts – Date Setting Content, 2003, Armidale, p. 62.

[10] Authorised King James Version of the Holy Bible, 1973, Oxford University, Oxford,

[11] The New Revised Standard Version, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers 1989.

[12] Elizabeth A. Clark, ‘Women in the Early Church’, Wilmington, 1983, p. 78.

[13] Jean Holm Sacred Writings, in RELS 301,Religious Literature, Topic 7: Uses & Interpretation of Sacred Texts, 2003, Armidale, p. 79.

[14] RELS 301, Re;igious Literature, Topic 7: Uses & Interpretation of Sacred Texts, 2003, Armidale, p. 79.

[15] Mary of Magdala: Remembering the Past  – Because of her Word: Feminist Historical Reconstruction, in But She said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, 1992, Boston, p. 82.

[16] The Gideons International in Australia, A.C.T.

[17] Matt 6:25-34. The New International Version, Grand Rapids, 1984.

[18] Ibid., 11 Cor 1:3-4, ‘who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God’.

[19] Ibid., Acts 16:30-1, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household’

[20] Ibid., Phil 4:11-16,  ‘I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances’.

[21] Ibid., Rom 5:1. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

[22] Ibid., 1 Cor 10:33,Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everybody in every way’. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved’.

[23] Ibid., 1 Cor 11:26, ‘For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’.

[24] Ibid., Eph 5: 19-20. ‘Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,  20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

[25] Ibid., 11 Tim 2:24. ‘And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful’.

[26] Ibid., Matt. 6:9-15. ‘This, then, is how you should pray’.

[27] Ibid., 1 Cor 10:23-33. 23 ‘Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial’. ‘Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive’.  24 ”Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others’.