Religion 101

Religion 101

Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries (Part Three)

posted by Reed Hall

In the previous entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part Two“), I concluded by asking the seemingly straightforward question: How many books are there in the Bible?

The simple answer: it depends.

It depends not only upon whether we’re taking about the Hebrew Bible vs. the Christian Bible, but also upon which particular version of the Christian Bible we’re talking about.

And I don’t mean which translation; I mean which version, because there’s more than one.

The term “version” is often commonly employed to refer to what are actually just so many different translations of the Bible into English (or into other modern languages) from the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of its original texts.

Walk into a Christian bookstore, or to the religion section of any large and well-stocked bookstore, and you’ll find shelves and shelves packed with numerous different versions of the Bible — “versions” which are, in the main, actually just so many different alternative English translations of the Bible.

For example, you’re apt to find such popular translations (or “versions”) of the Bible as the King James Version (KJV),  the New King James Version (NKJV), the New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV),  the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), Today’s English Version (TEV), and the New Century Version (NCV), among others.

Of course, not all translations include the word “version” as part of their titles. For example, you are also apt to find, upon those same bookstore shelves, the Amplified Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Living Translation (NLT), the Revised English Bible (REB), and many more. Still, all of these “versions” remain just so many different ways of translating the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the same original biblical texts into English.

There are even “versions” of the Bible, to use the term loosely, which are not straightforward or direct literal translations of the Bible at all, but instead much looser and freer paraphrases (or quasi-paraphrases) of the Bible, written in contemporary language and frequently employing contemporary idioms and expressions. Some of these, such as The Living Bible and The Message, have become quite popular.

However, the term “version” can also be used in a completely different way. Instead of referring to differing translations of the same biblical texts (or “books”), it may also refer to differing collections of biblical texts. In other words, some Bibles contain more (or fewer) such “books” than other Bibles do.

For example, in the previous blog entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part Two“), I mentioned that the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (or, if it helps, the “Jewish” Bible) utterly lacks the entire New Testament, and that it also lacks the Old Testament’s practice of subdividing some of what in the Tanakh are single books into multiple separate books. This obviously has a significant impact upon how many total “books” comprise the Jewish Tanakh vs. the Christian Old Testament, if you turn to the tables of contents of each and count them all up.

The New Testament consists of some 27 books  (four Gospels, one “Acts,” 21 Epistles, one “Revelation”). But the New Testament is, of course, a specifically Christian scripture rather than a Jewish one, and so it is simply not a part of the Jewish version of the Bible. This being the case, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is, right from the outset of our comparison, bound to be at least 27 books shorter than the Christian version of the Bible.

With me so far? I hope so, because things get even more complex than that.

How so? Well, some biblical books which appear as single books in the Tanakh instead appear as two or more books in the Old Testament, further throwing off our count.

For instance, in the Tanakh, the book of Samuel is one single book; the book of Kings is one single book; and the book of Chronicles is one single book. In the Old Testament, however, each of these three single books is split into two separate books (e.g, 1 Samuel, and 2 Samuel; 1 Kings, and 2 Kings; 1 Chronicles, and 2 Chronicles). Similarly, in the Tanakh, Ezra-Nehemiah is a single book, whereas in the Old Testament it is also split into two separate books (the book of Ezra, and the book of Nehemiah, respectively).

So, what count as only four books in the Hebrew Bible actually count as eight books in the Christian Bible.

There is even one book in the Tanakh, known as The Twelve, which the Old Testament divides into twelve separate short books (the twelve so-called “minor prophets,” from Hosea to Malachi).

Factor that in as well, and what count as only five books in the Hebrew Bible (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, The Twelve) altogether count as twenty books in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible — a difference of some fifteen books.

Count up all the books listed in the table of contents of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and you get a total of 24 books. Count up all of the books listed in the table of contents of the Old Testament, and you get a total of 39 books. (Same material — just “chopped up” into a greater number of individual books.)

Now you know what happened to the “missing” fifteen books. They’re still in there; they’re just fused with other books, as it were.

So, how many books are there in the Jewish version of the Bible? Twenty-four.

And how many books are there in the Christian version of the Bible? Well, just add the 39 books of its Old Testament (all of which appear intact within the Jewish/Hebrew Bible, albeit in a different form) together with the 27 books of its New Testament, and you get a grand total — from Genesis to Revelation — of 66 books.

But wait — there’s more!

Thus far, I’ve been saying “the Christian version of the Bible” as if there was only one such version. (Again, here I am not using “version” as a mere synonym for “translation,” but in the sense of “specific selection of texts included or excluded.”) However, the fact is that some major branches of Christianity recognize some books as canonical which other branches of Christianity reject as non-canonical; consequently, the respective versions of the Bible favored by each major branch reflect this disagreement.

Most Christian groups are in agreement regarding the 27 books of the New Testament. Disagreements over what is and what is not properly regarded as canonical (or as legitimately “biblical”) tend to revolve mainly around books either retained or rejected by various Christian versions of the Old Testament.

Just over half of the U.S. population is Protestant (a major branch of Christianity that includes mainline denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, together with various other non-denominational, evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist groups). Protestants recognize the 39 books of the Old Testament (as discussed above), and no others, as genuinely and authentically canonical.

So, Protestant versions of the Bible present those same 39 books (and those 39 books alone) as constituting the totality of the Old Testament.

All of the various translations of the Bible that I listed near the beginning of this post (KJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, NASB, etc.) are Protestant versions of the Bible, each containing the same 39 books in their versions of the Old Testament, and — by adding to that the 27 books of New Testament — a grand total of 66 biblical books altogether.

However, about a quarter of the U.S. population is Catholic. And on a global scale, Catholics significantly outnumber Protestants (fully half of the total world Christian population is Catholic, whereas Protestants account for only about 37% of Christians worldwide). Catholics recognize some seven additional books as canonical that Protestants (and Jews) do not. Consequently, Catholic versions of the Bible also include these seven extra books within their own versions of the Old Testament, whereas Protestant (and Jewish) versions do not. These seven “non-Protestant” books (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach [or Ecclesiasticus], and Baruch), when added to the mutually non-controversial 39 books accepted by the Protestant version of the Old Testament, brings the Catholic version of the Old Testament up to 46 books.

(Note: not only does the Catholic version of the Old Testament include seven whole books more than the Protestant version contains, but it’s also made even longer still by the fact that the Catholic versions of the books of Esther and Daniel are both lengthier than the versions of those books that appear in the Protestant version; each of these two books contains a significant amount of additional material.)

Anyway, if we take the Catholic Old Testament’s 46 books (that’s seven more books than are in the Protestant Old Testament), and we add to that the 27 books of the New Testament, then we get a grand total of some 73 books in the Catholic version of the Bible — seven more than the 66 total books comprising the Protestant version of the Bible.

Specifically Catholic translations of the Bible (containing all 73 of its books) include the Douay-Rheims version, the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New American Bible (NAB). There are also Catholic “editions” of some of the standard Protestant translations mentioned above, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NSRV) – Catholic Edition, which add both the additional seven books as well as the additional chapters of Esther and Daniel.

(Note: many editions of the Protestant version of the Bible often include, as a kind of explicitly non-canonical “extra” or “bonus feature” and simply as a matter of interest or reference, the disputed additional books. These books are typically collected together as a single unit or grouping, and positioned in between the Old and New Testaments. They are thus set off in a kind of separate “appendix” section, and referred to as the Apocrypha, in order to emphasize their non-canonical [and, in the eyes of some Protestants, their questionable or even spurious] nature. By contrast, Catholics fully recognize these works as canonical, do not gather them into a single separate section of their own but instead simply leave them dispersed throughout the Old Testament, and refer to them collectively not as “the Apocrypha” but rather by the term Deuterocanonical, which simply means “second canon.”)

So: the Jewish version of the Bible (a.k.a. the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible) has 24books total.The Protestant version of the Bible, with its 39 Old Testament books (plus the 27 New Testament books) has 66 books total.The Catholic version of the Bible, with its 46 Old Testament books (plus the 27 New Testament books) has 73books total.Whew… is that it?Nope!About 12% of the world’s total Christian population is Eastern Orthodox (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.). And Orthodox versions of the Old Testament constitute yet additional variants, containing additional books not found in either Catholic or Protestant versions….

Okay, okay! Perhaps things are getting a little too fuzzy by now for non-specialists to easily keep up with, at least on first encounter.

Of course, as with so many other things, the deeper you dig, the muddier things quickly become. But hopefully, my main point has become clearer.

How many books are there in the Bible? There is no single correct answer (24? 66? 73?). It just depends upon which version (and not just which “translation”) of the Bible that one is asking about.

 

Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries (Part Two)

posted by Reed Hall

In my previous blog entry (“Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries, Part One”), I mentioned that the Bible was itself a kind of “mini-library,” an anthology of multiple individual sacred texts or scriptures, all assembled together between the covers of a single volume. This is reflected in the very term “Bible” itself, which derives from the Greek ta biblia, “the books” (it’s plural).

I also briefly alluded to the fact that this concise, one-volume scriptural canon actually exists in two distinct forms; in other words, there are two separate and distinct kinds of “Bibles” out there. Christianity has its Bible, of course; but Judaism also has a Bible of its own, which is different in important ways.

Both of these tidbits of information merit additional explanation and clarification, because (as surprising at it may seem to some readers) a sizable proportion of the U.S. population seems to be utterly unaware of any of this.

In my own college classes on world religions, I encounter at least a few students at the start of most semesters who simply have no familiarity with the Bible whatsoever. Oh, sure, they’ve heard of it, of course; but that’s really about it. Many of them also have no clear understanding of what Judaism actually is, or how it differs from Christianity, much less the fact that Christians and Jews each have distinctively different “Bibles” of their own.

So, each semester, I start from “square one,” assuming no previous religious knowledge whatsoever on the part of my students. And since I suspect that community college students, as a group, probably represent a pretty fair cross-section of the general public, it follows that a signficant percentage of the public at large is woefully uninformed about such matters.

That being the case, I must beg the indulgence and patience of those readers for whom the following material may seem too basic, or otherwise “old hat.” While what follows may be old news to some, I can assure you that to many others it will come as brand new (and perhaps even quite surprising) information, indeed.

With regard to our first major point or topic: what’s the difference between the Christian Bible, and the Jewish Bible? (The two are by no means identical.)

The simple answer? Well, basically, the Jewish Bible is essentially the same material as that of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible; it’s just arranged and structured a bit differently.

The Jewish Bible also completely lacks the New Testament (which is found exclusively in the Christian version of the Bible alone.)

Now, let me stop and back up a bit right here, because I’m afraid that even that seemingly simple assessment already presupposes a certain minimal amount of biblical knowledge, which I really cannot simply presume exists among readers. And in saying so, I in no way mean to sound condescending; it’s just that many people have simply never been exposed to this kind of information before. (I myself grew up in a non-religious household, and so I was as “religiously ignorant” and “biblically illiterate” as they come, until relatively late in life.)

Again, the Bible is an anthology, a collection of shorter individual texts. The specifically Christian version of the Bible is composed of two main sub-anthologies or sub-collections, known respectively as the Old Testament and the New Testament. As these titles imply, the texts comprising the New Testament are of more recent vintage than those comprising the Old Testament. Additionally, Christians believe that the texts of the New Testament not only build upon, but also in important ways complete and fulfill, the texts of the Old Testament.

Jews, however, profoundly disagree with this assessment, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

In a nutshell, the Old Testament is a collection of Hebrew scriptures, which are all about the history of the ancient Israelites and their interactions with God (the God of Israel). The “time frame” covered by its individual component Hebrew texts begins with the divine creation of the heavens and the earth, and runs through the return of the exiled Israelites (by then known as “Jews”) from Babylon to their homeland, where they rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. The final events recorded in the Old Testament’s sweeping narrative conclude approximately four centuries B.C. (before Christ).

By contrast (and fast-forwarding about four centuries), the New Testament is a collection of Greek scriptures which begin with the birth of Christ. In a nutshell, the New Testament is the definitively Christian scripture, because the New Testament (and the New Testament alone) is “all about Jesus.”

(Granted, Christians also believe that the Old Testament is, at least implicitly, also “all about Jesus” insofar as Christians believe that Jesus is God in some sense, and that the Old Testament is accordingly filled with messianic prophecies which Christians believe point ahead to Jesus. However, Jews for their part reject all such specifically Christian beliefs about the Old Testament; to Jews, Jesus is in no way divine and in no sense God, and none of the aforementioned messianic prophecies actually point forward to Jesus at all.)

In yet another nutshell: by definition, Christians (and only Christians) believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and as a resurrected divine Savior; Jews (and all other non-Christians) do not. Since the New Testament is all about Jesus Christ being the Son of God and a resurrected divine Savior, Jews likewise do not believe in the New Testament, or in its claims about Jesus, and so do not regard it as legitimate or genuinely authentic “holy scripture,” as Christians of course do.

(That “Jews do not believe in Jesus” sometimes comes as something of a shock to some of my religiously less well-informed students, early in the semester. The specific reasons why Jews reject Christianity’s claims about Jesus are also worth going into, especially for the uninitiated, but to do them justice they really need to be the subject of a separate future blog post.)

For Christians, then, the New Testament is regarded as absolutely essential holy scripture, and therefore it is an absolutely essential component of the Christian version of the Bible. For Jews, however, the New Testament is not holy scripture at all (since it’s all about salvation as made available through Jesus, and Jews simply don’t believe that Jesus was any sort of savior whatsoever). The New Testament is, therefore, simply not included in the Jewish version of the Bible.

And that’s the single biggest difference between the Jewish and Christian versions of the Bible.

That leaves Jews with just the Old Testament, as Christians call it. But note that it is “old” only in relation to a subsequent (and exclusively Christian) second such “testament,” which is contrastingly labeled “new.” To Jews, who do not recognize the validity of any such “new” testament, the so-called “old” testament is in fact the only “testament.” Consequently, Jews do not refer to it as the “Old Testament” (or as an “old” anything). Rather, to Jews, that particular collection of texts is simply “the Bible” — period.

Christians sometimes tend to regard the Old Testament (or Jewish Bible) as a sort of “prequel” to the New Testament — which, being all about Jesus Christ as savior, is something which many Christians naturally see as “the main event.” From such a perspective, the significance of Old Testament for Christians is largely as a kind of “ramp up,” culminating in the New Testament’s account of the life and meaning of Christ. However, what Christians consider to be this culminating “main event” is, for Jews, a complete “non-event.” So, from the Jewish perspective, the Jewish Bible (which Christians regard as their Old Testament) is not a “prequel” to anything; rather, it itself is the “main event.”

So far, I’ve been referring to this particular collection of Hebrew scriptures as “the Jewish Bible,” simply in order to emphasize its distinction from the Christian version of the Bible (which also contains them, but which then adds the New Testament). However, what I’ve been calling the “Jewish Bible” is actually more commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible (since it’s composed of scriptures originally written mostly in Hebrew), or alternatively as the Tanakh (an acronym derived from the Hebrew names of its three main subsections). But again, to Jews, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is, at its simplest, just “the Bible” — the only Bible (for them).

Also, as mentioned earlier, the specific arrangement and structure of the Jewish Tanakh (a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible) differs in some ways from the arrangement and structure of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. So, if you pick up a copy of the Hebrew Bible and turn to its table of contents, and if you also pick up a copy of the Christian version of the Bible and you open it to the table of contents for its Old Testament, you’ll see essentially the same texts (or “books”) listed, albeit in a somewhat different order. The total number of “books” in each will also differ somewhat, simply because in a number of instances what are treated as single books in the Jewish version are split into two or more separate books in the Christian version, thereby resulting in the Old Testament having a larger total number of books.

Which brings us to our second major point or topic: how many books are there in the Bible?

The simple answer: it depends. And it depends not only upon whether we’re taking about the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible vs. the Christian Bible, but also upon which particular version of the Christian Bible we’re talking about. (And I don’t mean which translation; I mean which version, because there’s more than one.)

(To be continued, in Part Three.)

 

 

Sacred Texts & Sacred Libraries (Part One)

posted by Reed Hall

Religions and scriptures. Can you have one without the other?

Well, yes, actually — you can. The classic example of non-scripture-based faith is the broad category of “indigenous religions” (the myriad native religious traditions of various local, often tribal ethnic cultures). Many indigenous cultures are “pre-literate” or “non-literate”; their cultures simply haven’t invented the art of writing.

No writing, no books; no books, no scriptures.

Instead, such cultures typically preserve and pass down their traditional religious lore through media other than that of the written word. Memorized oral traditions, verbal storytelling and chants are supplemented by painting, sculpture, music, dance, songs, masks, tattoos, and many other means of artful non-verbal expression, all of which contain and convey spiritual truths.

However, the majority of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions rely upon the written word as a primary means of expressing and preserving their own religious revelations and spiritual insights. Religions in literate cultures tend to produce substantial documents which contain, clarify, codify, and further elaborate upon their core foundational beliefs and practices. Insofar as such documents are held to contain divinely revealed or mystically intuited truths, they are regarded as being especially sacred in character.

Such uniquely sacred texts come to enjoy a special status within their respective religions; they are elevated to the status of “holy scripture.”

In order to better understand a religion (and the people who follow it), one must gain some understanding of that religion’s sacred texts — its own “holy scriptures.”

This is not necessarily a particularly easy thing to do. For one thing, many such “sacred texts” are not really just one single text or book, but actually an entire anthology of them — a “mini-library” of shorter individual texts or scriptures, all assembled together between the covers of a single volume (the Bible, for example, is such an anthology; its very name derives from the Greek ta biblia, “the books”). And some religions do not rely upon such concise one-volume “mini-libraries” as the whole of their sacred canon, but instead really do have entire actual, literal libraries of sacred texts comprising their own far more massive canons of scriptures, often composed of hundreds of separate volumes.

Christianity has its Bible; Judaism has its own Bible; Islam has its Quran. One religion, one “book.” (A traditional Islamic saying refers to both Jews and Christians as being “People of the Book.”) So far, so good?

Alas, things are not necessarily as simple as they may seem.

Sure, Judaism has its Bible (the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh), and Islam has its Quran (sometimes transliterated Koran). And both are regarded by their adherents (Jews and Muslims, respectively) as being divinely revealed scriptures — the very “words of God,” as it were.

But both of these two faiths additionally possess a number of secondary (but extremely important) religious writings, which also enjoy exalted status. Although such supplemental works may not quite enjoy the same uniquely supreme status as such divinely revealed works as the Bible or the Quran, nevertheless such secondary works do contain and convey additional essential religious truths, and in a sufficiently authoritative and reliable manner as to likewise share scriptural (or at least quasi-scriptural) status.

For example, Judaism supplements its Bible with the Talmud (“study”), a massive work containing extensive rabbinic analysis and commentary upon the Bible, and preserving supplemental oral traditions not found in the Bible (the so-called “oral Torah”). Likewise, in addition to the Quran, Islam has its extensive collections of hadiths (“traditions”), anecdotal accounts of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, who as the prophet par excellence serves as an ideal role model for Muslims to understand and emulate.

By drawing out the unstated implications and merely hinted-at ramifications of scriptural passages, by unpacking how to interpret and apply scriptural principles in uncertain contexts, and by further fleshing out and making explicit what might have been somewhat unclear or merely implicit in scripture, works such as the Talmud and the hadith collections serve as essential guides to life and belief for faithful Jews and Muslims. As such, they are regarded as secondary in importance only to divinely revealed scripture (Bible or Quran); and given their expansive and supplemental nature, such secondary sacred texts can run far longer than the works of divine revelation they serve to supplement. For example, a recent English-language printed edition of the complete and unabridged Talmud runs a whopping 73 encyclopedia-sized volumes!

If all of that makes things seem less simple than they might have first appeared, then beware: things get even more complicated in other religions.

Hindu scriptures really do constitute an entire multi-volume library of sacred texts. Hinduism has its four Vedas (the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda), all regarded as divinely revealed scriptures. Supplementing the Vedas are thirteen principal (but actually 123 total) Upanishads, two major epic poems (of appropriately epic length: the Ramayana is seven volumes, the Mahabharata eighteen volumes), the twelve-volume Laws of Manu, eighteen Puranas, numerous Tantras, and more.

To give readers some idea of the scope and scale of Hindu scriptures, the Mahabharata alone is four times longer than the Bible, running about 1.8 million words and over 200,000 verses. (The popular Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad-Gita is actually just one small 700-verse section of the Mahabharata.) The most important of the eighteen Puranas is the Bhagavata Purana (sometimes also known as the Srimad Bhagavatam), and it alone runs 18,000 verses over a total of twelve volumes.

Buddhism likewise has its own library of hundreds of sacred texts, made even more complicated by its texts being spread across three separate and distinct canons of scripture, each corresponding to Buddhism’s three major branches or divisions: Theravada (popular mainly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, e.g. Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand), Mahayana (popular mainly in East Asia, e.g. China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam), and Vajrayana (popular mainly in Tibet, but found elsewhere too).

The Theravada canon, commonly referred to as “the Pali Canon” (because it’s written in Pali, a language related to Sanskrit), is also known as the Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”) since it consists of three main large sections or categories of texts, each such category constituting a modest library of its own. One popular standard printed edition of the complete Pali Canon runs some 57 volumes.

The Mahayana canon is generally referred to as “the Chinese Canon,” and contains some of the Pali texts while adding numerous additional works of its own (stories, treatises, commentaries), for a total of over 1700 texts collected in over 60 volumes.

The “Tibetan Canon” (written in the Tibetan language and relating to the Vajrayana branch, which characterizes Tibetan Buddhism) added additional original Tibetan works to the older received Buddhist canon, and is divided into two main parts: the Kanjur or Kangyur (ordinances) and the Tanjur or Tengyur (doctrines). The Kanjur alone is comprised of 689 books, contained within 108 volumes; the Tanjur consists of another 3626 texts in 224 volumes, making for a complete Tibetan Canon of some 333 volumes.

Taoism likewise possesses a library-sized canon of Chinese scriptures of its own. In addition to the well-known Tao Te Ching (alternately transliterated Daodejing) and the Chuang Tzu (or the Zhuangzi), the Taoist tradition has an immense collection of additional sacred texts of various sorts also associated with it. The entire Taoist canon (the Tao Tsang or daozang, “Canon of the Way”) includes nearly 1500 separate texts; the latest printed edition runs for some 1120 individual volumes!

Compare the bookcase-filling Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu canons of scripture with the single-volume scriptural canons of Christianity (the Bible), Judaism (the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh), and Islam (the Quran). Then compare all of those literary scriptural canons, large and small, with the complete lack of any written scriptures whatsoever among many non-literate indigenous religions. The contrasts are stark and striking, and suggestive of the staggering degree of diversity that exists among the world’s living religious traditions and spiritual pathways.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)

 

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