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The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions

The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions

by John Bowker, Atlantic Books, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

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Grand in its sweep, this survey of the sacred writings of the major religions of the world offers a thoughtful introduction to the ideas and beliefs upon which great faiths are built. Under the expert guidance of John Bowker, a religious scholar and author of international stature, readers explore the key texts of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh,


Grand in its sweep, this survey of the sacred writings of the major religions of the world offers a thoughtful introduction to the ideas and beliefs upon which great faiths are built. Under the expert guidance of John Bowker, a religious scholar and author of international stature, readers explore the key texts of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, Confucian, Daoist, and Shinto traditions. The author discusses some 400 books, among them such well-known sacred texts as the Bible and the Quran, but also spiritual writings by theologians, philosophers, poets, and others.

Bowker provides clear and illuminating commentary on each text, describing the content and core tenets of the work and quoting pertinent passages. He also sets the writings in religious and historical contexts, showing how they have influenced—and in many cases continue to influence—artistic, musical, literary, and political traditions. The Message and the Book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the meaning and the deep significance of primary religious texts of civilizations around the globe.

Editorial Reviews


“Writings by a wide range of scholars and poets such as Dante and Bonhoeffer, al-Ghazali and ibn Ishaq, Maimonides, Nichiren, Kabir, and many others. . . . Recommended.”—Choice

Gavin Flood

"A masterly survey of the major writings of the religions of the world, presenting their canonical texts along with texts regarded as secondary revelation and other writings from theologians, philosophers and poets. Grand in its historical sweep and extensive in geographical extent, this richly textured book is detailed, engaging, clear and original. Anyone wishing to understand the world's religions should read this book."—Gavin Flood, Oxford University

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Sacred Texts of the World's Religions
By John Bowker


Copyright © 2011 John Bowker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18317-7

Chapter One



The Origins of the Jewish People

The Jews are a people who believe that they have been called into a covenant with God in order to show how life with God should be lived. They believe that they have been called to do this, not selfishly for their own benefit, but on behalf of the whole world, so that all can learn to recognise who and what God is: 'The day is coming when ten men from nations of every language will take hold of the cloak of a Jew, saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you"' (Zechariah 8.23).

This means that the fundamental conviction in Jewish life is the belief that God is uniquely God. That may seem a strange way to put it, but nothing like as strange as it would have seemed during the Biblical period (very roughly 1500–150 bce) when the Jewish people and faith were being formed. It was a world in which there were many gods, from Baalim (the owners of the land and its fruits) to gods associated with particular places, to gods living in a heavenly court under the supervision of a high God who would send them to perform particular tasks on earth: the world was alive with the sound of deities and of the prayers and sacrifices being offered to them.

In contrast (and often in fierce competition) with all that, the Jews came to realise that in the case of God, there can only be who or what God is. The most profound statement of Jewish faith is found in Deuteronomy 6.4, known from its opening word in Hebrew as the Shema': 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God the Lord is One.'

How did that happen? How did it come about that some semi-nomadic tribes – who remembered that their ancestors had been 'wandering Aramaeans' who had been taken into slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 26.5ff.) – became the people of God? How did a loose alliance of related families, a kinship group known from the name of one of the ancestors as Bene Jacob (the sons of Jacob), become the Jewish people who worship 'no other god but God'?


The many books and writings gathered in Jewish Scripture answer those questions in many different ways. The sacred texts in Jewish Scripture were written and collected over a period of more than a thousand years. They were called HaSefarim, 'The Books', translated into Greek as ta biblia, hence the English word 'Bible'. Other names are Sifre haKodesh, 'The Holy Books', or Kitve haKodesh, 'The Holy Writings'.

Another more common name, Tanakh, is made up from the initial letters of the three major divisions in the Jewish Bible:

* Torah: These are the first five books associated with Moses and often called Chumash ('five'), hence from the Greek pente, 'five', the Pentateuch. The word torah is often translated as 'law', not least because the first five books contain many laws. But the word also has a much wider meaning and can indeed refer to the whole of the Jewish Bible. In particular it also means 'guidance' or 'instruction'. Thus the first five books – with names taken from the first word of each, Bereshith (Genesis), Shemoth (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidhbar (Numbers) and Debarim (Deuteronomy) – contain very much more than Law, not least because they carry the story of God's nature and purpose back to creation itself.

* Nevi'im: Prophets. These are works that give voice to the meaning of God's work in history: the Former Prophets are the historical Books, the Latter Prophets are the books gathering oracles of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and also of The Twelve (Minor Prophets), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

* Ketuvim: Writings. These are mainly later books of a diverse kind: they include historical Books (Ruth, Chronicles, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah), Daniel (combining historical reference with apocalyptic interpretation of the present and future), liturgical poetry (Psalms and Lamentations), Love Poetry (Song of Songs) and Books of Wisdom (Proverbs, Job and Qoheleth/ Ecclesiastes).

Tanakh tells the story of how members of the kinship group Bene Jacob settled in an area on the east Mediterranean coast known as Canaan. It came eventually to be known as Judaea from which they were called Judaeans, hence Jews. At a time of famine in about the thirteenth century bce, some members of the kinship group migrated to Egypt where they became slave labourers.

Eventually one of their number, Moses, led them out of Egypt in a miraculous escape known as the Exodus, commemorated now in the Passover feast. Moses believed that he in turn was led by God whose name and nature had not previously been known to them. The name is revealed as YHWH, a name too sacred and holy to be pronounced: to this day Orthodox Jews do not attempt to pronounce it but simply say HaShem, 'the Name'. Others conventionally write Yahweh, translating it as 'the Lord'.

Under Yahweh, Moses led the people through the wilderness for forty years of testing, during which time Moses received commandments directly from God on Mount Sinai. These commandments become the terms and conditions which the people must keep as they enter into a Covenant of agreement with God: God offers peace and prosperity on condition that people keep to the terms laid down, a point strongly made in Deuteronomy (11.26–8):

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

God also promises that they will have a land in which to live, the Promised Land of Canaan. The historical Books tell the story of how the Land was conquered. One of them, Joshua, also tells in chapter 24 how the members of the kinship group returning from Egypt took an oath with those who had remained in or on the edges of Canaan that together they will now serve Yahweh. As a consequence of this reunion, the tribes began to share with each other their memories, traditions, myths and customs until eventually they were woven together in Torah and the historical Books.

For a long time, however, the Bene Jacob continued as a loose coalition with each part of the kinship group having its own leaders (known as Judges, some of whose stories are gathered in the book of that name), and with an expectation that if one member of the group was threatened, some at least of the others would help. With the arrival of the Philistines on the Mediterranean coast, the threat became common and continuous, and David, having captured Jerusalem as a new and neutral capital, introduced kingship as a way of uniting the whole group. The story of how he achieved this is told in the Books of Samuel and I Kings.

The following period under kings was ended by the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Most of the Jews were taken into captivity in the Exile. The Persian ruler Cyrus restored the exiles to Jerusalem in 536 BCE after which there followed 400 years of reconstruction until a family known as the Hasmoneans or Maccabeans led a successful revolt from 167 to 164 BCE against the rulers of the day (the Seleucids). That led to the setting up of an independent kingdom, and this brings to an end the Biblical period.

Throughout most of the period from David onward, the Prophets spoke for God on the ways in which kings and people behaved. It was they who kept the conditions of the Covenant alive: if Yahweh is to keep his side of the bargain, humans cannot be evil, tyrannical and unjust. If they are, then Biblical history shows how God reacts in anger, and the Prophets remind people of this in no uncertain terms. In general, therefore, people know what God has done for them, and how in consequence they should live, as one of the Prophets, Micah, reminds them (Micah 6.3–8):

O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery ... that you may know the saving acts of the Lord. With what, then, shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


There are so many translations of the Bible and of its individual Books that it is not possible to list them in a bibliography. There is a helpful survey of translations in Metzger, and there is an extensive bibliography to the Books and content of the Bible in Bowker, The Complete Bible Handbook. Note also The Cambridge History of the Bible: see Ackroyd, Lampe, Greenslade.


History and Revelation

The Bible has traditionally been called 'the Word of God'. It is the foundation of Jewish life and belief. That 'Word', however, is expressed in many different ways – as can be seen, for example, in Psalm 119 where each of its twenty-two sections (one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet) is made up of eight verses: in each section there is a celebration of God's Word using different but related terms (119.161–8):

Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words. I rejoice at your utterance like one who finds great spoil. I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances. Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble. I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I fulfil your commandments. My soul keeps your decrees; I love them exceedingly. I keep your precepts and decrees, for all my ways are before you.


As 'the Word of God', the Bible has been described as 'inspired' by God and as 'the revelation' of his nature and purpose. It is, however, far from clear what exactly 'inspiration' meant in practice to those who brought the Bible into being, either when they began to collect the material together, or when they decided what to include. Even earlier than that, the many people who wrote or spoke the words now collected in the books of Tanakh have left few traces of what this meant to them in their own experience. They have not recorded how they felt themselves to be related to God when they spoke or wrote as they did. They did, however, recognise that there were distinct ways in which God becomes known through human agents – as, for example, in Numbers 12.6–8:

Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face-to-face – clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord.

Although, therefore, they did not write or say much about their experience, there is no doubt at all about the urgency of their involvement with God. It is often expressed in the Psalms, and the oracles of the prophets frequently begin with the words, koh amar Adonai, 'Thus says the Lord.' One among them, Jeremiah (mid-seventh–mid-sixth century bce), felt that God had betrayed and abandoned him (15.18): 'Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.' At times he would have given anything for a quiet life by ceasing to be a prophet, but he could not do so (20.9):

If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name', then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

In general, however, people, whether prophets or not, were rarely so explicit. On the other hand, what is certainly clear is that the people were transformed through successive generations from a kinship group of loosely related families to the people known as the Jews. They had no doubt that this transformation had been brought about by God – often against their own stubborn resistance. The dramatic events of their history and their fundamental acceptance of the Covenant meant that the words contained in Tanakh came into being in the context of God whose character, authority and purpose were being established for them beyond doubt.


As a result, the people began to write and pray and tell stories in entirely new ways. For example, where other nations around them were content to write Annals (i.e., an annual record of what has happened in any one particular year), they discerned a connected story unfolding the authority and purpose of God. Moreover, they did not hesitate to record in graphic detail occasions when individuals or the whole people had broken the conditions of the Covenant and had gone wrong.

That was true even of David, the great king who was anointed by God: in the underlying Hebrew (mashiach, 'anointed one') he was the messiah, the forerunner of the final Messiah who will establish God's Kingdom on earth. But the account in 2 Samuel 11 does not gloss over the way in which David sent Uriah to his death because he lusted after Uriah's wife, Bathsheba; and it records with searching power the way in which the Prophet Nathan denounced him (12.1–15).

Tanakh, therefore, is unique in the honesty with which it records the way in which the people went through a long process of learning, not least through their mistakes. Again and again, later parts of Tanakh correct what has come to be recognised as inadequate or wrong in an earlier part. What is remarkable is the fact that they did not discard or erase what they came later to recognise as wrong. Attention was drawn to this in my The Complete Bible Handbook (p. 7), making the point that parents understand this process very well. They too seek to evoke from their children a curiosity and delight in the world, and to teach them an ethic not to do wrong and not to hurt others. In that process of learning and of growing up, they treasure every effort of their children, at every stage of the process, and they do not discard even the earliest attempts to write a poem or to sing a song. So although home videos and tape recordings may not be great art, they are precious as a record, and parents wish to keep them.

In the same way the children of Israel treasured their early attempts to write of their process of understanding God. And so they preserved these, even though later parts of the Bible often contradict earlier parts. The Bible is thus the result of a maturing process, as the descendants of Jacob gained understanding of how to live in accordance with God's will.

To give only one example of this process of correction and change: Tanakh as a whole grapples with the problem of explaining why God allows some people – even just and God-fearing people – to suffer, while others prosper, even if they are wicked and God-defying. At first it was said that suffering is a punishment for sin, and that if the apparently good are suffering it must be because they have sinned but they have concealed their sins. That early answer, which is common in the Psalms, is summarised in the saying, 'Where you see suffering, there you see sin.' But that explanation is open to the objection that it is obviously not true. Even the most casual observation of life makes it apparent that the wicked do not get cut off, and that the ruthless frequently prosper. The question was unavoidable (and it is asked and answered in different ways in the later parts of Tanakh): why is this so?


Excerpted from THE MESSAGE AND THE BOOK by John Bowker Copyright © 2011 by John Bowker. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Bowker is a former fellow of Corpus Christi College and Trinity College, Cambridge, and of Gresham College, London. He lives in the UK.

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