The Religiosity of Sacred Writings

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In this post I want to take a look at the concept of sacred writings – writings designated by people as special in a way that other writings are not. For example, the Old and New Testaments in Christianity and the Quran in Islam would be considered sacred writings.

Sacred writings are usually believed to be texts that reveal truth. As such, they are also often considered to be a special way by which deities communicate with humans. This is particularly the case in the Jewish tradition and the subsequent Christian tradition.

Here are the propositions concerning the Torah (scriptures) from the Jewish “13 Principles of Faith,” which those belonging to Orthodox Judaism were obliged to believe in.

  • I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.

(Note: there was and is significant variation in Jews’ understanding of what constituted revelation as it relates to the scriptures, but I think the above was and is pretty universally held among them.)

Notice that the claims above are all assumptions. They are not even statements that God made to the Jews.

The concept of sacred writings originated in the Old Covenant. It began with the giving of the Law, which, supposedly, was a word for word download from God to Moses.

Later, however, the Jews decided to add to the scriptures, not God. They created a canon (a collection of writings considered as sacred) and included in it whatever they wanted to. In other words, even if it is true that God spoke through prophets, inspired the authors of the Psalms, etc., God himself never commanded that those writings be considered inspired or be added to the canon. Rather, they were human decisions.

The closing of the canon was also a decision that the Jews made. God never said, “there will no longer be any written revelation.” Rather, some people decided to place God in their box labeled “God doesn’t speak anymore.”

M. James Sawyer nicely summarizes the Jewish view of their scriptures:

The Jews viewed Revelation as complete in Moses. The Torah was seen as having emanated in its entirety from God, every verse and letter. This revelation was complete and final; the Rabbis had no conception of progressive revelation. The Prophets and the Hagiographa were seen to add nothing to the Torah given to Moses. Rather these later writings served to reinforce, repeat, amplify, and explain the Torah.

But the Jews were wrong.

Jesus was the greatest revelation of God.

He was the fulfillment of the Torah. But their doctrine regarding sacred writings hindered them from seeing that reality.

The same is still true today. Jesus is still the greatest revelation of God, and he has made his home in us. It is the person who is the revelation, not the book about him. Yet bibles are often treated as the ultimate source of truth or the number one way God speaks to people.

Back to the Jews, let’s look at the broader perspective of God speaking in general.

God has always wanted to communicate regularly and directly with humanity. This is what he did with Abraham; he just straight up talked with him. The same way of relating continued with Abraham’s descendants until Moses came along.

After God gave the ten commandments to the Israelites, they “trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). Notice that the people were wrong because God had just spoken to them and yet they had not died. They chose to become afraid of direct communication with God.

jesus never saidThus, the idea that only special people could communicate with God was born.

After this incident, direct communication with God generally ceased. The people preferred to have Moses as a mediator.

Yet later in history, a few caught a glimpse of the heart of God and began communicating with God directly again. Many of these people were known as prophets (although there were others such as David as well). It is a common occurrence in the scriptures for God to speak through prophets.

But have you ever noticed how there were no prophets until Israel began to become an institutional religion instead of simply being a community of God’s people? This is because prophets are only among people who believe they cannot communicate with God themselves and need someone else to communicate for them.

Yet another shift took place after the Jews were sent into exile. This time the mediator became writings instead of people. The general idea was, “God had already said all he wanted to, so we just need to look at what he has said in the past.”

[The post-exile Jews] hung the whole weight of their identity on the text itself…The time of the Exile and afterward is most likely the period of the final editing of the interpretation of the text as the task that lay closest to the bone of their identity. Most notably of all, it was during [the post-exile] period that the Synagogue was first invented – and it was now that the Synagogue replaced the Temple as the center, for all practical purposes, of Jewish life. Tradition replaced institution as the binding force; and the rabbis, who became the expounders of that tradition, replaced the priests and prophets as the authenticating voices of Judaism. – Robert Capon

Thus, the writings became sacred, the very words of God himself (and doctrines such as the inerrancy and inspiration of the scriptures also emerged with it).

This narrative demonstrates the religiosity of sacred writings.

religious books

What I mean when I say that sacred writings are religious is that they bypass relationship. Written documents replace (or at least take precedence over) God speaking to us through his Spirit in us. Ritual replaces relationship.

Some people claim that God doesn’t speak to us through the Spirit anymore and instead only speaks through the scriptures. Others say that God still speaks through his Spirit but that what he says will always line up with what is written in the scriptures. Ironically, neither of these claims can be found in the scriptures themselves (in fact, they seem to say the opposite!).

We must stop using the Bible as though it were a potpourri of inerrant proof-texts by which we can bring people into bondage to our religious traditions…We must no longer use the Bible as the Pharisees used the Torah when they gave it absolute and final status. Christian biblicism is no different from Jewish legalism. It is the old way of the letter, not the new way of the Spirit. – Robert D. Brinsmead

The Law is now written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Making the scriptures sacred is creating a replica of the system of Law in the Old Covenant (like has been wrongly done with the sacrificial system and the theory of penal substitution, the limited priesthood and the modern clergy, temples and church buildings, tithes and pastor salaries, etc.).

Claiming that the canonization process was valid is one thing (although even that is questionable). Saying that there should be an established collection of sacred texts in the first place (which is necessary for there to even be a canonization process) is quite another.

The whole idea of having sacred texts was born out of the human desire for a feeling of certainty. People want something absolute to believe in, something tangible as their foundation. This is also why the Israelites built the golden calf, for example, even right after God had performed the crazy miracle of splitting the red sea for them.

We have to keep in mind that the idea of having sacred writings are a Hebrew invention. God never commanded it. It is a man-made tradition. Further, the Jews were only following the pattern they observed in the a nations around them (just like they wanted a king). Indeed, this is born out in pretty much every religion (at least where its adherents are literate). Sacred writings are a mark of religion. But Jesus came not to start a new religion but to bring an end to all religion.

Elevating the status of the scriptures to “sacred” is a rejection of the mystery and uncertainty inherent in relationship. It is a return to religiosity.

Us Christians are unreservedly scared to become “free thinking” and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where it wants. We crave a written guideline (just like Israel craved a king to rule over them) in order to prevent us from straying. We want to have a “standard” that draws a line in the sand between what we believe and what other religions or even other Christians believe. We seek a physical, tangible object we can hold in our hands and look at so that we won’t need to be utterly reliant on the Spirit. It makes us cringe to think that we can only have Christ as our Head. Christ without the Bible is a dangerous, perilous road that is doomed to lead to deception and bound to end up in a cult. I wonder what Jesus (who had no Bible Himself) would have to say about this? – André van der Merwe

Let’s not repeat the history of how Israel related with (or, more accurately, failed to relate with) God.

Don’t base you relationship with God on a book.

Let it be based on the only trustworthy foundation, the cornerstone.

Jesus.

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