TG: Scriptures, People of the Book

Turns out the Topical Guide has eight rather lengthy entries directly dealing with “scripture,” and that doesn’t include off-shoot references to topics like “God, knowledge of.” Sifting through those, I broke our treatment of scripture into three major sections which will each have their own post over the coming weeks:

  • People of the Book: Jews’, Muslims’, and Christians’ views, uses, and venerations of Abrahamic records
  • People Not of the Book: a sampling of Asian or Ancient European religions and their varying theories on what scripture is, where it comes from, and how is it used today
  • Harry Potter & The Sacred Text: a consideration of the “Nones” and the theories of Zhu Xi on close reading or the process of Lectio Divina on making any text sacred

I definitely wrote the last post first, and could host an entire blog on just this idea, but that’s for another day! Now, on with Part One:


الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ يَتْلُونَهُ حَقَّ تِلَاوَتِهِ أُولَٰئِكَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ ۗ وَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْخَاسِرُونَ

- 2:121

The phrase “People of the Book” is first laid out in The Quran as أهل الكتاب  in reference to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians as a group with a common touchstone. This title and definition stuck and is still used today to refer to the faiths who claim parts (if not all) of the Bible as the word of God. This includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the History of the Jews, The Apocrypha, Qur’an, Tawrat, Zabur, Injil, Scrolls of Abraham, Scrolls of Moses. Each of the three dominant traditions continued writing, interpreting, and adding books to their individual cannons, but at the origin of each religion stands the same “book.”

This means, from the onset, we People of the Book believe that God is the creator of the universe, that Adam and Eve were the first people on the earth, that Noah built an ark and survived the flood, that God made a promise with Abraham to count his seed as a great nation, that Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, that God speaks to and through prophets, that God makes promises with his people, that He commands us to follow a set of rules and regulations in order to achieve immortality, that these prophetic communications were and should be written down, that we as God’s chosen people have a duty of care toward the scriptures, that we should study them and incorporate them into our daily lives. More than any other three religions in the world, the Abrahamic traditions are nearly identical when it comes to their definition and origin of scripture.

So, where do we diverge?

I remember in high school, my group of classmates and friends included two Muslim girls. At the end of Ramadan one year, they invited us to fast with them through the day and go to Mina’s house to break the fast after sundown. At one point, we discussed the scriptures and Mina reached up to a high bookshelf and brought down a beautiful book. I had no idea what it was, but she handled it so gently and so reverently. She asked that no one touch it as it was The Qur’an. She placed it on a pillow on her lap to read from it and pointed out a few famous passages. Then she placed it back on its shelf. I noticed then that no other books were on that shelf and it was the tallest shelf in the house. The next morning, when I got to Seminary I saw copies of the Bible and The Book of Mormon slung in our class’s cabinet like they were being tossed on a burn pile. It was such a stark contrast!

It’s been over 12 years since that Ramadan but I think of it every time I go to open my scriptures: If I believe this is the actual word of God, why don’t I treat it as such?  

Judaism & Torah and Talmud

For Judaism, the Torah is the word of YWHW as delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was given in Hebrew and must remain in Hebrew. The scroll is wound on two dowels called the Atzei Chayim, representing the Trees of Life, the Gartel or belt is fastened around the scroll when closed, this is then wrapped in The Mantel or cloak which is velvet and usually embroidered with these same symbols. The Keter or crown is placed on the top parts of the dowels and is a symbol of endearment and veneration. The Yad, or hand is a pointer kept with the Torah to allow an onlookers to keep pace with whomever is reading the Torah aloud. Often times, a breastplate will also hang over the outside of the wrapped Torah, representing the breastplate the High Priest wore in the tabernacle with the names of the 12 tribes etched on each stone. When not being read, it is kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

 There are even strict instructions on what one must wear when reading the Torah and how to present it before the Synagogue, as shown in this video:

The Talmud is the oral or instructional scripture. It consists of layers of Mishnah, Gemara, Rashi, and other commentary by famous Rabbis over time. Mishnah comes from "Around the year 200AD -when Roman persecution threatened to break the spoken tradition - the leader of the Jews, Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, took the step of ordering the law to be distilled into a text to be memorised. 'Mishnah' means repetition. It is written tersely in the form of short rulings in a language known as Mishnaic Hebrew." The Gemara "which in Aramaic means 'to study and to know' is a collection of scholarly discussions on Jewish law dating from around 200 to 500AD. The discussions pick up on statements in the Mishnah (1) but refer to other works including the Torah. The Mishnah and Gemara combined constitute the Talmud as it is strictly understood."

The format is brilliantly laid out so you don’t have to cross reference a million books, however, if you study one page a day it will take about seven years to read the entire Talmud. This is a task taken on happily by many Orthodox and even Reform Jews.

1 = Mishnah, 2 = The Gemara, 3 = Rashi, 4 = other commentary & glosses, 5 = page and chapter

1 = Mishnah, 2 = The Gemara, 3 = Rashi, 4 = other commentary & glosses, 5 = page and chapter

Christianity & The Bible

Christianity seems more focused more on evangelism – getting the message of Jesus into as many hands as possible – than on preserving the purity of the word of God as delivered from His mouth. The Wycliffe Alliance (named after John Wycliffe who was the first to translate the Vulgate into English by 1384 AD) was founded by Cameron Townsend and L.L. Legters in the 1930s, and they cite inspiration from God as their mission to organize teams of translator/missionaries. Their work continues today and they are the largest Bible translating organization in the world.

Scripture & Language Stats 2016

Now, Catholic and Protestant traditions make an interesting split on their interaction with scripture. Catholic worship services use the Bible in a strictly recitational way. There’s a ritual surrounding bringing the Bible into the cathedral, the Priest keeping the book in front of his face as he proceeds around the altar, he shakes the incense over the book before reading from it. The readings are delivered throughout the service, but not expounded upon nor explicated.

Protestants can and will read scriptures from the pulpit but they are usually couched in a sermon, bringing out application and instruction and the preacher uses his or her own copy, complete with marginalia. In the South, especially, you choose a “community church” basedthe strength of the preacher, on his or her ability to bring the word of God to life and make it relatable to your situation

If we zoom in on Protestantism, we can see a much more personal relationship with the physical scriptures. In the not-so-modern era, each family owned one bound Bible that was read together. Genealogy and dates of important life events were written inside the front cover. Currently, even little kids are given their own copy around baptism or first communion. There are children’s picture-book versions, coloring book versions, semi-transparent stickers to go over the top of text, a whole host of pencils and highlighters, sticky tabs to help you divide the books yourself… and on and on and on. Scripture accessories is a booming industry.

This may be true in other Protestant traditions, but it’s certainly the truth in Mormon culture: the more systematically you’ve marked up your scriptures, the more righteous you are! Mission Presidents encourage various highlighting schemes based on the Doctrine of Christ, Sunday School teachers have their favorite Quad to teach from with years of notes, even the LDS Scriptures App lets you highlight passages in all the colors of the rainbow. No other faith tradition is as hard on scriptures as we are.

Islam & The Qur’an

In daily practice, The Qur’an is primarily recitational. In fact, I learned from the Imam in Salt Lake City, the Qur’an is only officially the word of Allah when it is in Arabic. Even then, it’s a particularly old and high-brow form of Arabic and is not easily confused with every-day speech.  This is so much the case that when the Imam quotes part of the Qur’an, he will sing the quote in Arabic first and then translate for those of us who do not understand.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Qur’an is not so much read as much as it is sung. I’ve seen a couple reasons for this and perhaps any Muslim friends of mine can clarify which is more correct or more accepted. The first reason being this is how Allah first delivered the Qur’an to Mohammed, and it was not written down. The second reason being Muslims are commanded to make their voice beautiful when reciting the Qur’an, and there is no more pleasing sound to Allah than Mohammed reciting the Qur’an perfectly. If you’d like to hear this, has the Arabic and English for the entire text, with an audio clip for each surah and every individual ayat. It’s designed like a sing-along, as it will highlight the word or phrase being sung at the time.      

Qur' Example

As Americans learned in 2005, there are more than a few rules of etiquette surrounding the physical handling the Qur’an. The fundamental reason for this being-- unlike the view of scriptures in Judaism and Christianity-- the Qur’an is analogous to Christ more than it is analogous to the Bible. It is by the Qur’an you are saved in Islam. We’ll dig more into this when we look at Savior figures across faith traditions. I’m not sure if this list of rules is conclusive, but it certainly gives us an idea of the utmost reverence afforded by Muslims to the Qur’an:

It is the inviolability of the Qur'an

1. not to touch the Qur'an except in the state of ritual purity in wudu, and to recite it when in a state of ritual purity;

2. to brush one's teeth with a toothstick (siwak), remove food particles from between the them, and to freshen one's mouth before reciting, since it is the way through which the Qur'an passes;

3. to sit up straight if not in prayer, and not lean back;

4. to dress for reciting as if intending to visit a prince, for the reciter is engaged in an intimate discourse; …

7. to stop reciting when one yawns, for when reciting, one is addressing one's Lord in intimate conversation, while yawning is from the Devil; .

11. to recite it leisurely and without haste, distinctly pronouncing each letter;

12. to use one's mind and understanding in order to comprehend what is being said to one;

13. to pause at verses that promise Allah's favour, to long for Allah Most High and ask of His bounty; and at verses that warn of His punishment to ask Him to save one from it; ...

24. not to let a day go by without looking at least once at the pages of the Qur'an;

25. to give one's eyes their share of looking at it, for the eyes lead to the soul (nafs), whereas there is a veil between the breast and the soul, and the Qur'an is in the breast.

26. not to trivially quote the Qur'an at the occurrence of everyday events, as by saying, for example, when someone comes, "You have come hither according to a decree, O Moses" [Qur'an 69:24], ...

31. not to use the Qur'an as pillow, or lean upon it;

32. not to toss it when one wants to hand it to another; ...

37. and if one finishes reciting the entire Qur'an, to begin it anew, that it may not resemble something that has been abandoned.

Reliance of the Traveller, a translation of the classical manual of Islamic Sacred Law (Shari'ah) `Umdat as-Salik by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 769/1386), edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller.  First published 1991, second printing 1993 (ISBN 0-9638342-0-7). Obtained online here



Perhaps the main thrust of Mormons’ divergence from other Abrahamic traditions regarding veneration of scripture comes from this issue of translation. We can’t claim God handed down the Bible as is in English. Catholics don’t even claim that about the Latin Vulgate (assembled under the direction of the Council of Rome in 382 AD and declared as the only authentic and official Bible as late as 1546 at the Council of Trent). Most, if not all, Christian traditions when questioned closely will admit to the inspiration of God being in the original Hebrew or Greek text and some possibility of human error in translations over time. We depart further from mainstream Christianity in the 8th Article of Faith, where we believe the Bible is the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. That singular caveat seems to give us license to treat the physical book in a less-than-sacred way… and I don’t think I like that.

What do you think?

Vanessa Oler1 Comment