Chapter 1:What is Sacred Literature?

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 1:What is Sacred Literature?

It is interesting to note that the one subject which, more than any other one, is held to be necessary for graduation from college in the United States, is English. English A is required work for freshmen in almost every college in America, unless the freshman is able to pass a proficiency examination in the subject. Even then, usually, he is only accorded the privilege of electing a more advanced course in English, and preferably in the field of literature. Why is this?

To be sure, composition usually forms a substantial part of English A, and it is conceivable that the colleges are mainly interested in making certain that one who bears its diploma is capable of writing good English. But it is always more than composition; it always requires a substantial amount of reading in English and American literature. And most advanced English courses concern themselves with literature. In a typical university, 58 per cent of the students enrolled in English were in advanced courses. Here literature was the principal subject of study. Why is this? In this same university no other single subject is required of all students of whatever school.

Evidently it is felt that even in an age of science and technology there is something in the study of literature which is imperative. Is this simply a hold-over from an earlier day which the general conservatism of the educational world perpetuates because it has become a sacred tradition, or is there something in the study of literature which, regardless of the field of specialization into which one goes, makes it of vital importance? If so, why?

One may venture to suppose that perhaps the major reason is that in literature, as nowhere else, man is revealed to himself; that what one gets out of literature -- great literature -- is an understanding of man himself. In poetry, the drama, the story, the novel, the essay, man mirrors his own soul. Here are expressed the desires, the urges, the hopes, the dreams, the successes, the failures of man in his struggle to make himself at home in his world. Here are exhibited the heights and the depths to which man can rise or fall. Here one lives vicariously the life of every man, and out of it all comes a large measure of understanding of mankind in general, and of oneself, perhaps, in particular. Surely great literature well taught, that is made really to come alive for the student, can be one of the great formative experiences of his college years. Alas, that so often it does not live! And the student emerges from his literature courses with a permanent prejudice against literature as something dull, uninteresting, and certainly to be avoided henceforth. The author recalls the long years it took to recover from a Shakespeare course to a love of Shakespeare, awakened, it may be said, by a masterly stage presentation.

Of course, much could be said for a study of literature as a basis for the understanding of any particular period of history. The literature of a given age reflects it perfectly. Who cannot recognize the writings of the Victorian Age? And if one would get the feel of the hectic twenties, just before the great depression, he need only read the novels of the times. There is much to be said for the current resurgence of interest in the great epochal books as reflected in the widespread Great Books courses as an educational venture. Much of the history of the world can be understood through this approach to history; and this is to say also that man, in this our own day, can better understand himself and his own day as he sees how his own problems were met by men of an earlier day.

Great literature, then, forms a most important part of the cultural heritage of any age. But what shall be meant by such a term? What constitutes great literature? It is instructive to ask a group of people, a class for example, to list what they consider the ten greatest books in the world. Sometimes the writer has made this a class assignment. Usually he has asked each member of the class to state specifically his criteria of greatness, and then to pick out those that rank highest on this basis. What a variety of criteria! and what a varied list of books! Of course, there is no one single authoritative criterion, or a definitive ten greatest. Shall greatness be judged by literary style, size of circulation, influence, depth, emotional power, what? Lists of the greatest have varied all the way from Gone with the Wind to Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, to Plato’s Republic, to In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon. Almost always Shakespeare appears in the lists. And unless instructions have been given deliberately to omit all sacred writings, one or more of the great Bibles of the world are likely to appear.

Without here attempting to define fully what is meant by "great literature," at least these qualities usually are found to appear in the discussion of what is agreed upon as great if not the greatest literature: It must have unusual power to stimulate readers to thought, feeling or action; it must be in some sense universal in its appeal. By this is not meant that every person can read it; for obviously Plato’s Republic is not for popular reading, nor is Das Capital, nor Bacon’s Nocum Organum. But it is meant that to people of requisite mental capacity to read and appreciate it, a work of this character makes its appeal across boundaries of race, nation, and language, and likewise across the barriers of time. That is to say, there is a timeless, spaceless quality about really great literature that makes its appeal to men of every age and of every race who are capable of understanding it. It is no accident that Shakespeare is translated into most of the major languages of the world, because the characters that stalk through his plays, though they wear the costumes of Englishman, Italian, Dane, or Jew, are timeless human figures whose loves, hates, ambitions, fears, weaknesses, courage, and heroism are those of every man. In the end it is the ability of a work to "find" men, wherever or whenever they live, that makes it truly great.

It is the presence, in large measure, of this quality, in the Bibles of the world, which places them securely among the great literatures of the world. It is for this reason that they deserve to be read much more widely than they are today. To be sure, the Christian Bible is the most widely circulated book in the world. If circulation were to be made the test of greatness, it would unquestionably top all the rest and stand as the greatest of all time. It has been translated in whole or in part into more languages than any other book. A few years ago when the number of languages into which it had been rendered was approaching the one thousand mark, it was decided to publish a volume in celebration of that event, to be called The Book of a Thousand Tongues, based doubtless upon the old hymn, "O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise." But before the book reached the publication stage in 1938, the number of languages was one thousand and eighteen. Today it is eleven or twelve hundred. A list of these languages runs all the way from Latin, through German, Ancient Armenian, Bengali, Inpougme Dmyene, Koi Gondi, Mopudungu, to Luolaba Ngwana. At the same time it was estimated that there yet remained five hundred to a thousand other language groups spoken by substantial numbers of people into which translations should be made, and many of them will be. The story of these translations is one of the most romantic ever told. Fascinating beyond words, for example, is the story of John Paton’s translation into the Tonga tongue. Starting with no grammar or dictionary, indeed not one written word to aid them, missionaries have learned the oral language, often without benefit of any interpreter -- definitely the hard way -- worked out an alphabet, reduced it to writing, prepared a grammar and dictionary, translated some portions into the newly written tongue, then had to teach the natives to read their own language in order to read the Bible.

The number of Bibles or portions thereof -- sometimes the Old Testament, sometimes the New, sometimes the New Testament and Psalms, or just the Psalms, or perhaps the four gospels, or more often only some one of the gospels -- that circulate every year is almost incredible. Last year it reached the total of twenty-eight millions. Now this, of course, is done to a considerable extent by great Bible societies who act for the churches -- one of the early interdenominational activities of the various divisions of the church. That the Bible would circulate in such vast numbers without this world-wide activity in its behalf may be open to question. Bibles are produced cheaply, are sold at very low prices, often below cost, and are frequently given away. This is an advantage which most other books of large circulation do not enjoy. It may therefore be asked whether it is the merit of the Bible which secures for it so overwhelming a circulation over that of other books. However, a prior question is, Why do people feel it incumbent upon them to give of their money, time, and effort to secure its distribution? Evidently, they have found in it values which they prize beyond words, and are glad to share it with those who do not know it.

But the true test of its greatness is that, into whatever language it is translated, it has a message for the people which they can understand and which, in constantly increasing numbers, they accept. The timeless, spaceless qualities of this book have a universal appeal to peoples at every stage of culture when it is made available to them. It speaks, of course, the language of the universal human heart, so it speaks to every man.

But if this may be said about the Hebrew-Christian Bible, something of the same kind can be said about the other great Bibles of the world. Not everything that is found in them is of the same high order, of course, but this could likewise be said of the Christian Bible. There is much in it that is dated, or that is applicable to a particular people; for example, some of the legal lore in Leviticus, or a detailed description of the tabernacle or the temple. But each of the great scriptures contains some -- some more, some less -- timeless passages which speak to peoples of widely different ages and cultural backgrounds. They, too, deserve to be better known. And, certainly a knowledge of them is a vast help in understanding the people who have been nourished upon them and hold them sacred; for example, the sacred writings of Japan. Had Western nations been better acquainted with them, they might have understood the Japanese people better, and there might then have been no Pearl Harbor tragedy!

What constitutes sacred literature? How does it differ from ordinary literature? Well, first of all, not in its being religious. For there is much religious literature that is not regarded as sacred; and a great deal of the content of so-called sacred literature is not necessarily directly religious at all, though indirectly it is usually in some way linked up with religion. In sacred literatures are found history, legislation, poetry, letters, fables, myths, drama, genealogies, prophecy, visions, laments, martial songs, indeed almost the whole gamut of literary variety is to be found. Often specific passages taken out of their setting would bear no marks of religion or of sacredness, yet the whole has somehow come to be regarded as sacred. In what way this has come about we shall attempt to see in later chapters. There are several marks of sacred, as against general, literature.

First, sacred literatures are, as a usual rule, regarded as in some sense the word of God or the gods, revealed to man. In other words, to use the technical term employed commonly by scholars, they are regarded as "inspired" books. The degree of inspiration, or the nature of it, varies among the religions and within any given faith. Sometimes the words of the sacred text are thought to be the very words of God himself, ipsissima verba, the human element in the situation being merely instrumental. Verbal inspiration is believed to be infallible, letter for letter, word for word, perfect. This is a belief found among Fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, Moslems, Hindus of some schools, and others, with reference to their scriptures or at least certain parts of them. This will appear in greater detail in connection with each separate scripture. Sometimes the inspiration is of less absolute character, human men or women who are filled with the divine spirit interpret the will of God, but not infallibly; and sometimes there is no definite theory of inspiration, but the belief exists that in some way the writings do express the will of God. Men were inspired, just as poets write under some kind of inspiration, and in the intrinsic values communicated through the writings lies the evidence of divine inspiration. All alike, however, of the sacred scriptures purport to be in some degree divine in origin.

As a natural corollary of this view, sacred literatures stand in a class apart from other literature. Since they are of divine origin, they are not treated in the same way that other literatures are treated. They are inviolable. Other literature may be studied critically, every method of literary analysis and criticism may be employed, but not so in the case of the sacred. What a furor was created when first, under the influence of the scientific spirit of the times, men began to study the Bible critically just like any other book. It seemed to many to be sacrilege to apply the ordinary canons of historical and literary criticism to the Bible, and to many even yet this is the case. Especially the so-called "higher criticism," which was nothing but the application of the historico-literary critical method to Biblical study, drew the fire of defenders of the faith who believed it an attempt to destroy the Bible. In Japan when certain modern scholars undertook to study their sacred books upon which was founded the belief in the divine descent of the royal house, they were summarily dismissed from their university teaching positions, and so elsewhere.

Second, being the word of God, the sacred scriptures became the foundations upon which the several religions were erected. They are the authoritative sources from which the truths held by the various faiths are drawn. They became the basis of the organization and teachings of the respective religions. To know what is true or required by God, one must go to the scriptures. If support for a given idea can be found in the Bible, it suffices. Proving something by the Bible is a familiar technique in most religions. A good example in Christianity is the Westminster Confession, the declaration of faith of Presbyterians, where one or more scripture texts are cited in support of every detailed affirmation of belief. Conservative Christians make much use of the proof-text method, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses. Taking five pages at random in one of their widely circulated books, I found that the author had averaged five scriptural citations per page. This is not unusual. Taking a Moslem book from one of my shelves, I discovered about the same frequency of use of Moslem scripture.

Of course, every religion has within it a variety of attitudes toward scripture. Some hold that there is but one proper interpreter of the Bible, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church. Others, like Protestantism, allow the individual freedom in its interpretation; but in some sense, among all it is the sacred scripture to which appeal must be made if one desires to know the truth. This differentiates sacred literatures from most other types of literature.

Third, the scriptures are almost always strictly limited. Only certain books are regarded as sacred and authoritative. To these nothing can be added, nor may anything be taken away. The word used to describe this limited set of writings is "canon." Most religions have a sacred canon. Non-canonical books may be of great value, but they have not the same authority or value as the canonical. For example, the Bible as held by Protestant Christians contains sixty-six books, no more, no less. Catholic Christianity adds a few books, called "Apocrypha" by Protestants; but for each division of Christianity its sacred list is irrevocably fixed. Sometimes Protestants have wanted to exclude some books. Martin Luther thought that Esther had no proper place in Holy Writ, but not even so powerful a figure as Luther could dislodge a book from the canon. How canons are determined will be described in the case of each religion, but once fixed they are not subject to change. The existence of a sacred canon, then, is peculiar to sacred literature.

Fourth, although there is a fixed canon in most religions, it is also true that there is often a body of supplementary literature which, while theoretically less sacred, does nevertheless constitute a highly important source of direction for faith and practice. Usually these are regarded as simply extensions of the really sacred books, although in actual fact they may add to or modify in no small degree the content of the canonical books. An example here is the Jewish Talmud, which among Orthodox Jewish Rabbis requires far more study than does the Old Testament itself. Among Moslems, the Traditions are of enormous importance. Other examples will appear in connection with the study of the separate scriptures.

To sum up, sacred literature is distinguished from the non-sacred, not by any criteria of style, literary form, or even content, but by the fact that in some way or other it has come to be thought of as divine in origin, and therefore set apart from other literatures and given an authority for faith and life quite surpassing that accorded to any other writings. Supplemented it may be by other literature, but it stands apart, sacred, relatively inviolable, abiding, unchanged across the centuries as the basis of religious faith and practice, as do no other writings.

Not all the literatures studied in this book fulfill all these conditions, notably the Chinese who do not attribute their authoritative writings to divine origin, but in most other respects they are like the rest. We turn now to see how scriptures arise. We can best do this by looking at what we like to call the pre-literate sacred scriptures.