What Is Scripture?

10/10/2010 09:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Peter Ochs, Ph.D. Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies, University of Virginia

This is the first in a series of blogs I would like to offer on the question, "What is Scripture?" In each blog, I plan to summarize and briefly comment on how this question is answered by one of a number different authors from various traditions. The blog is inspired by students in my current graduate course on the same topic. Hopefully they will also enrich the blog with their comments.

The name of this series is taken from the title of a wonderful book by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), What Is Scripture? Smith was one of the great scholars of the new academic field of Religious Studies -- gentle in judgment and voice, eager to learn about all the world's religious traditions, and not afraid to learn from his own Protestant Christianity as well. In this 1993 book Smith asked a broad audience of readers what we mean when we use the English word "scripture." If one of us is, say, a Buddhist, another a Baptist, and another an atheist, what are we referring to when we apply the general word "scripture" to refer to very different books held dear or not so dear by very different people? Smith observes that most of us, in fact, do not know what we mean, and those of us who think we know tend to disagree sharply with each other's definitions. As I hear it, here is his remedy:

We should abandon two unhelpful approaches to scripture. The first is to define the word "scripture" in a way that fits only the one scripture that our own faith tradition considers sacred. The second is to define the word in one crystal-clear way that is supposed to apply to every possible example. The first way is unhelpful because we live in a pluralist world where each of us who cherishes one tradition of scripture lives next door to someone else who cherishes another tradition. Nothing should keep us from speaking publicly about the scripture we love, and no good is served if we scoff at what our neighbors cherish. The second approach is unhelpful because none of us knows enough to predict the features that all scriptures may share. More than that, efforts to achieve one clear definition tend to stop up our ears from hearing approaches to scripture that we may not have heard before or expected. In fact, most traditions treat scripture as something that is always surprising, ever renewed. At the same time, we should not treat "scripture" as an entirely undefinable term, since most of us use the word to locate a vital place in our religious traditions.

The best way to begin a study of scripture is to step out of our own houses a bit and travel to (or at least read about) the ways a number of traditions name this vital place. Smith notes, for example, that the Chinese word "ching" designates books that hold a special status in the lives of Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians alike. These books are highly valued as primary sources of instruction in how to live one's life. In this instance, what we call "scripture" is best defined by what it does, rather than by what we outside observers think it explicitly says. What these scriptures do is introduce into everyday life the beliefs, practices, judgment and ideas that members of a tradition value more than any others. To call a book "scripture" reflects how deeply the book is cherished, respected, and distinguished from other books by the degree of devotion it commands. Moreover, this is the devotion not of some single class of individuals but of a broad spectrum of a tradition's major teachers and disciples. Devotion is not the whole story, however. To distinguish "ching" from other cherished books, we need to note at least one feature of its content: it refers to "the transcendent." My students and I found it hard to pin down what Smith means by this term. But we agreed to at least this: "the transcendent" refers to that which comes from beyond the human condition.

Examining books closer to his home in the Abrahamic traditions, Smith notes how the poetry called the "Song of Songs" was included in the biblical canon despite its surface appearance as explicitly erotic love poetry. The ancient Jewish sages reread this poetry as words of love spoken between God and his people Israel. Medieval Christian theologians, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, reread it as an account of humanity's mystic and joyous union with God. These examples suggest that the Bible shares several characteristics with "ching." The Bible is called "scripture" by those who are devoted to its words as the words of the one they hold most dear; the desire for this one is as strong as erotic desire, except that the object of love is "transcendent," or not merely of this world of our senses. Smith therefore observes that for both Chinese and Abrahamic traditions, "scripture" refers to the distinct sets of words (typically a "book," but this may include words that are oral and not written) that elicit unparalleled devotion and that introduce into human society knowledge of or encounter with that which is "transcendent."

As he guides his reader through several other scriptural traditions, Smith articulates one additional trait that may prove to be the most important of all: that one cannot hold "scripture" in one's hand. "Scripture" refers not to any text by itself, but to an intimate and ongoing relationship between a text and the community who reads it. Or this can be put another way: "scripture" is the name a tradition applies to a set of words when and only when these words trace an intimate and ongoing relationship between a community and "the transcendent" (or one who is transcendent).

Readers of this blog will, I trust, use the word "scripture" many different ways. As we speak, reason, and even argue about these ways, I can think of no better place to begin than with Smith's way.