You Gotta Know These Religious Texts
This list of religious works from around the world specifically excludes the Old Testament and the New Testament, which are the subject of their own articles.
- Analects: One of the “Four Books” used by the ancient Chinese for civil service study, it contains the sayings (aphorisms) of Confucius. The philosopher Confucius did not write or edit the words that make up the Analects; his disciples compiled them in the 5th or 4th century BC. Confucianism is more of a philosophical system than a religion, and Confucius thought of himself more as a teacher than as a spiritual leader. The Analects also contain some of the basic ideas found in Confucianism, such as ren (benevolence) and li (proper conduct).
- Apocrypha: Protestants and Jews assign lower authority to the Apocrypha because it was written between 300 and 100 BC, but Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider the books that make up the Apocrypha to be “deuterocanonical,” meaning that they are just as important and divinely-inspired as other parts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. “Apocryphal” in general means “something outside an accepted canon,” and, in particular, in ancient Greek it meant “hidden things.” Denominations differ as to which books make up the Apocrypha, but Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch are almost always included.
- Avesta (or Zend-Avesta): Sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism. It consists of five parts: Gathas (poems written by Zoroaster), Visparat (homages to spiritual leaders), Vendidad (legal and medical doctrine), Yashts (hymns to angels and heroes), and Khurda (lesser rituals and hymns). The Gathas may be as old as the 7th century BC, when Zoroaster is thought to have lived, but most of the Avesta was put together by the Sassanid Persian dynasty, between AD 200 and 640. Zoroastrianism centers on the eternal struggle between a good entity (Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd) and its evil counterpart (Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman); the religion is still practiced by about 120,000 Parsees in Bombay and a few thousand adherents in Iran and Iraq.
- Bhagavad-Gita: Sanskrit for “The Song of God,” it is a poem found in Book Six of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Likely formalized in the 1st or 2nd century, the Bhagavad-Gita begins on the eve of a battle, when the prince Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) about responsibility in dealing with the suffering that the impending battle will cause. Krishna tells Arjuna that humans possess a divine self within a material form, and that Arjuna’s duty is to love God and do what is right without thinking of personal gain — some of the main tenets of Hinduism.
- Tao Te Ching (or The Way and Its Power): Philosophical text behind Daoism, a religion-philosophy founded by the semi-legendary Lao Tzu in the sixth century BC, though scholars now believe it was written about 200 years later, during the Warring States period of the late Zhou dynasty. The Tao Te Ching instructs adherents in restraint and passiveness, allowing the natural order of the universe to take precedent.
- Hadith: A hadith is a report of the words or actions of a Muslim religious figure, most frequently the prophet Muhammad. Each consists of a matn, or text of the original oral law itself, as well as an isnad, or chain of authorities through which it has been passed by word of mouth through the generations. Collectively, the hadith point Muslims toward the Sunna, or practice of the Prophet, which together with the Qur’an forms the basis for shari’a, usually translated as Islamic law.
- Book of Mormon: Published in 1830 by the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. Mormons believe that the prophet Moroni revealed the location of the Book of Mormon to Smith, and then Smith translated it from a “reformed Egyptian” language. The Book of Mormon is inscribed on thin gold plates, and documents the history of a group of Hebrews who migrated to America around 600 BC. This group divided into two tribes: the Lamanites (ancestors of American Indians), and the highly civilized Nephites, a chosen people instructed by Jesus but killed by the Lamanites around AD 421.
- Qur’an (or Koran): Arabic for “recitation,” it is the most sacred scripture of Islam. The Qur’an is subdivided into 114 chapters, called suras, which — except the first one — are arranged in descending order of length. According to Muslim belief, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) visited the prophet Muhammad in AD 610 and revealed the work to him. Various suras discuss absolute submission to Allah (God), happiness in Heaven versus torture in Hell, and the mercy, compassion, and justice of Allah. The third caliph, Uthman (644–656), formalized the text after many of his oral reciters were killed in battle.
- Talmud: Hebrew for “instruction,” the Talmud is a codification of Jewish oral law, based on the Torah. It consists of the Mishnah (the laws themselves), and the Gemara (scholarly commentary on the Mishnah). The Gemara developed in two Judaic centers, Palestine and Babylonia, so there are two Talmuds (Palestinian and Babylonian), the latter considered more authoritative. Rabbis and lay scholars finished the Babylonian Talmud around 600.
- Upanishads: Also called Vedanta, or “last part of the Vedas,” the Upanishads were written in Sanskrit between 900 and 500 p;BC. Part poetry but mainly prose, the earlier Upanishads laid the foundation for the development of several key Hindu ideas, such as connecting the individual soul (atman) with the universal soul (Brahman). Spiritual release, or moksha, could be achieved through meditation and asceticism. The name “Upanishads” means “to sit down close,” as pupils did when a teacher recited them.
- Vedas: Consist strictly of four hymnbooks: the Rig (prayers in verse), Sama (musical melodies), Yajur (prose prayers), and Atharva (spells and incantations). Each Veda, though, also contains a Brahmana (interpretation), and the Vedas also incorporate treatises on meditation (Aranyakas) as well as the Upanishads. Written in an archaic form of Sanskrit by early Aryan invaders, possibly between 1500 and 1200 BC, the Vedas concentrate on sacrifices to deities, such as Indra (god of thunder), Varuna (cosmic order), and Agni (fire). The major gods Vishnu and Shiva appear as minor deities in the Vedas; their elevation, as well as the concept of karma, does not develop until the Upanishads.
- Yijing (or I Ching or Book of Changes): The basis for ancient Chinese philosophy and religion, the Yijing was created between 1500 and 1000 BC, though legend has it that the dragon-emperor Fuxi derived its eight trigrams from a turtle shell. The trigrams consist of three either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang) lines, and by reading pairs of these trigrams randomly, one could learn about humans, the universe, and the meaning of life. The Qin emperor Shi Huangdi burned most scholarly books, but the Yijing escaped because it was not seen as threatening.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.