Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Distinguishes the Bible from other Collections of Holy Writ?

The term "Holy Writ" refers to Scriptures used by a religious community.  The term is figurative and claims a special religious authority for the Scriptures.  Any collection so designated would be considered authoritative for faith and practice by the community using the collection.  Any collection of literature purporting to give the reader clarity of insight into the divine will and/or that serves as a guide for life in this world or for a world to come is Holy Writ.  The only thing distinguishing the Bible from other collections of "Holy Writ" is its content, but not the claim that it is exclusive.  Each collection is touted as an exclusive authority from God, or at least its adherents think so.
            Authoritative religious texts are often supported by claims of special origin.  For example, the Bible is the Word of God because it is thought to be inspired (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  The Book of Mormon, the sacred Scripture of the Latter Day Saints, was written on golden tablets, and their hidden location was revealed to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni.  The Jewish Torah is written by God himself and given to Moses (Deuteronomy 9:9-10; 10:1-5), or it came from God to Moses through the agency of angels (Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:38; Hebrews 2:2; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.5.3)
            In the contemporary world a number of Holy Scriptures are imbued with the same authority as the Bible.  A few of those collections that currently compete with the Bible are the Rig-Veda (Hindu), the Avesta (Zoroastrianism), the Qu'ran (Islam), Tao Te Ching (Taoism), Tripitakas (Buddhism).
            The existence of multiple sets of Scripture claimed as exclusive religious authority does not necessarily disprove the claim that "my Scripture is true but others are not," since that claim only represents "my" opinion.  Multiple sets of authoritative Holy Scripture, however, do raise theoretical questions about one's own religion, in light of the fact that others claim the same exclusive authority for their Scripture.
  1. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture refute the claim of uniqueness for any one set.  Although each set may be unique in content, no test exists to demonstrate that its content is "revealed truth." True, some sets of Holy Scripture may be more ethical, or more historical, or more rational, or more ancient than is the case with others, which by comparison may seem more harsh or unreasonable in their religious instruction.  These features, however, are not measuring the mysterious, innate, but ultimately vaporous, quality "sacred revelation," claimed somehow to reside in all Holy Writings.  In other words content alone is not what transforms narrative into revealed truth.
  2. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture raise the question of the "there-ness" of all Gods.  Gods are not "mortal beings" like humans, and do not exist in space and time.  Gods are immortal/eternal we claim; they are not limited by time and do not exist in space.  Nevertheless we think of them as "there" somewhere, but do not define "there" as a place within the physical universe, but "there" as a "spiritual" dimension apart from the physical universe.  Competing sets of Holy Scripture challenge the "there-ness" of any God in the following way: If the innate essence of revelation or holiness claimed for any set of Holy Writings cannot be quantified or identified in its particulars, but is merely due to individual or group opinion, then God becomes an unnecessary postulate.  Gods may be "there," but our Scriptures are not due to them.
  3. Multiple sets of Holy Scripture argue against the idea that one God is responsible for the multiple sets of Holy Scripture with their contradictory revelations.  The exclusive claims made for each set renders that idea impossible, as is suggested by the difficulty later Gentile Jesus followers had with the Jewish Scriptures.  They inherited the Jewish Scriptures as divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:15-16), but the church held a different faith than that of the Israelites and the later Jews.  They resolved the disconnect between the old faiths and the new faith by prophetic interpretation of the Old Testament, which allowed them to disregard its literal understanding in favor of a figurative understanding.  Thus they were able to claim the revelation of one God behind what they saw as an outdated Old Testament and their new books of faith.  Not all embraced that solution, however, and Marcion, for example, rejected the Old Testament as Scripture.  Many critical scholars have long recognized that the adoption of the Jewish Scriptures as part of a Christian canon is an artifice.  Hence, multiple sets of Holy Scripture imply multiple Gods.
  4. One's affirmation of the religious truth of any set of Holy Scripture is generally due to geographical happenstance, and cultural conditioning.  Had I been reared in Greek culture rather than the Bible belt, I would probably have been baptized Greek Orthodox, and my Scriptures would have been a modern Greek translation of the ancient Greek Septuagint (which is different from the Hebrew).  Had I been reared in ancient Persia, I would no doubt have been Zoroastrian and the Avesta my Holy Scriptures.  Had I been born in Cairo, I would surely have been Muslim and the Koran my Holy Scriptures.  In the absence of any critical thinking skills I would have held to the truth of each of those Scriptures as avowedly as I affirmed the Bible in my youth.  In short, our belief in the inspiration and authority of any set of Scriptures is the result of cultural conditioning and what we are taught.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
(This ends the short series on the Bible as the Word of God)


  1. If creeds are read and recited in worship services across the nation every week, then some simpler form of this outstanding essay should be read and recited in the same manner.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  2. Excellent essays, Charlie. Thank you.

    Butch Rees

  3. Charlie, what do you think of contacting the leadership offices of denominations throughout the country with a one paragraph condensed version of this essay, an average lay-person;s version, if you will, encouraging official adoption for use in worship in the name of the love of humanity. Here's a suggested form:

    Believers throughout the world consult holy books to help them embrace and understand the wisdom and authority of God. To name a few there is the Book of Mormon of the Latter Day Saints, the Rig Veda of the Hindus, the Avesta of the Zoorastrians, the Tao Te Ching of the Taoists, the Tripitakas of the Buddhists, the Qu'ran of the Islamists, the Tanakh of the Jews, the New Testament of the Christians. These texts provide a pathway to the mysterium of God, found everywhere by humanity and yet only partially understood by each believer. It is due to life's gifts of geography and culture that I believe and choose my specific holy book. I celebrate life and I celebrate humanity.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. Hi Gene,
    I have been out of service the last few days due to a knee replacement, or I would have answered earlier.
    I am complimented by your idea but I am afraid that missionary religions have the idea that they must convert other religions to their way of thinking, and Christianity is one of those who want to convert the "heathen," rather than putting them on an equal level with Christian views of God. Doing what you suggest would require reducing Christian views of God to one imperfect view among the many.
    I really like your last sentence, which is an epigram that I could easily confess in any liturgy.

  5. Best wishes for a complete recovery, Charlie. I've heard that new knees can be better than old ones. You'll be running a marathon this Fall, for sure!
    One imperfect knee among the many! (smile)

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.