What is scripture?

This question is just as challenging as the other question: what is sacred music?

The dictionary is of little help, telling us only that scripture means sacred writing. It comes from the Latin past participle scriptus, meaning written. Much further back, we find the Indo-European root skribh, meaning to cut or separate (probably because the first writings were etchings in wood or stone).

However, new light has been shed on the nature of scriptures over the last couple of centuries, and especially during the last few decades, by scholars in comparative religion. They have not been able to give us a definition of scripture (as impossible as defining sacred music), but they have made important discoveries about the nature of existing scriptures, and about the historical and psychosocial processes which are involved in producing holy scripture. Because these discoveries are so little-known to the general public, we offer a small bibliography on this subject below. We have (temporarily) limited our scope to Mediterranean religions, mainly the Abrahamic traditions.

Two very important points emerge from this work. The first is obvious, but difficult to accept for many religious believers. The second is not at all obvious, and is perhaps even more difficult to accept for non-believers than for believers.

1) All scriptures that have come down to us from ancient times are the product of countless generations of rewriting and re-editing. Scholars often refer to this process as redaction.

2) Ancient attitudes toward sacred writing were radically different from those which prevail today. For example, the typical modern reader is somewhat scandalized, or perhaps just cynical, upon learning that the Gospel of John was neither written nor dictated by John, nor by any other disciple of Jesus, and that John almost certainly never even knew of its existence. The modern mind jumps to the conclusion: therefore the person who wrote that gospel (for simplicity, let us assume it was one man who wrote it after John's death, though the real situation is much more complex) was a charlatan, and the gospel is a fraud. But the ancient mind would not have been so quick to judge. For a religious person of two millenia ago, the question as to whether John actually wrote it was of secondary importance. What was important was the question: is the scribe who wrote it a member of an authentic, unbroken lineage of disciples going back to John? And above all the question: is this gospel truly inspired by John? Was the writer a true vehicle for the spirit of John?

This suggests a way of approaching all "inspired" writings and indeed, many other writings which are not labeled in this way. This attitude of openness, which is both ancient and new, frees us from habits of facile judgement. The question of who actually wrote the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, or whether Gurdieff's autobiography is really "factual" becomes of secondary importance. The question of authenticity becomes much more open, and the value of what is being communicated through the vehicle of "scripture" regains its rightful place of importance.

In this spirit, we invite interested readers to offer submissions to this web page of writings scripts, scriptures, scribblings, essays, and poems, which turn around this subject. 
[for submissions, write us here: joseph at]

As the beginning essay demonstrates, this spirit of openness sees no contradiction between scholarship and creativity, between seriousness and playfulness.

We open the page with a document which was at the origins of our musical project, Credo. And we provide the full notes to the CD, which unfortunately were deleted from the album itself by the producer.


Scripture page 1     Scripture page 2      Credo CD Notes      Bibliography



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