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Bible

The Nature of Scripture

The sacred writings of the religions of the world exhibit a variety of genres—prayers, visions, ritual, moral codes, myths, historical narratives, legends, and revelatory discourses. Such works have tended to be transmitted orally at first and committed to writing at a later date. This is true of much of the content of the Christian Bible as well as of the Hindu Vedas and the Jewish Mishnah.

The sacred character of such writings is accorded them by communities that have come to value the traditions they embody. Scripture is also perceived in some sense as heavenly in origin—the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon are good examples of this. Religious communities value highly those who interpret their scriptures at both the scholarly and popular levels. Translation of scripture into the vernacular, though resisted in some religious traditions, is a common phenomenon. However, the original Arabic of the Qur'an is regarded as the actual words of God, and therefore as sacrosanct, and is printed alongside its translation. Translations can assume the status of inspired text, as did the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures (the Septuagint) in Hellenistic Jewish and Christian communities. The process of canonizing scripture has been an extended one in many religious traditions, e.g., the Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist faiths. Other traditions authorized their respective bodies of scripture early, e.g., the Sikhs, Muslims, and Manichaeans. Inspiration is an adjunct of the idea of the divine authority of scripture.

The role of scripture in the life of the community involves its public recitation or reading at worship, its veneration as a cult object, and its citation in public prayer and in prescribing appropriate rituals. In the private devotional life of the faithful, scripture is the focus of meditation. The use of scripture to function as a charm to ward off evil or to induce healing is also common. Scripture is also the inspiration for cultural expression in art, music, and literature.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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