World Scripture


The bulk of the material found in the World Scripture comes from the scriptures of the five major living world religious traditions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese religion (Confucianism and Taoism). There are also a considerable number of texts from the smaller living religions: Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Zoroastrianism. Whenever these religions have a word to say about any topic in the anthology, the contributors have provided suitable passages. There are also a limited number of selections from the recorded prayers and proverbs of the traditional religions of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the South Pacific, and from some of the new religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Texts from these smaller religions, both traditional and contemporary, are included to acknowledge the diversity of religious expression in the world today. These are all voices which should be heard. However, one group of voices that is sometimes found in anthologies of religion has been omitted: since World Scripture aims to promote harmony among living faiths, it does not include texts from the dead religions of the past such as those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

The texts in World Scripture have been deliberately restricted, wherever possible, to passages from scripture. This distinguishes it from topical anthologies of religious wisdom which draw on the writings of mystics, saints, and sages. Scripture may be regarded variously as direct revelation from God or as the distilled insights received by the founder and his disciples. In either case, it possesses a certain authority and priority as the fount of the religion. In scripture we grasp the freshness of the original revelation. Through constant liturgical use, scriptural texts are engraved in the hearts of believers. The laws in scripture provide the standard around which a religion elaborates its cultural norms. It is to scripture that believers turn for inspiration and revival in every age.

The definition of scripture and canon varies from one religion to another; in general each religion's own definition of its canonical scriptures has been accepted as the criterion for this anthology. The selection of a canon reflects both the usage of these texts by the religious community and historical decisions by councils and groups as the religion grappled with its identity and established norms of doctrine and practice. Through history and usage, the community of believers settled on sacred texts which speak with enduring authority.

There are inevitable dissimilarities between the scriptures of religions with a tightly circumscribed canon limited to texts used by the founder and his immediate disciples, e.g., Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and the scriptures of religions with an open canon that includes texts of many periods in the religion's history, e.g., Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The scriptures of religions with a narrow canon are limited to one or a few books--the Bible, the Qur'an, the Adi Granth--while the scriptures of religions with an open canon may include hundreds of books: sutras, upanishads, agamas, shastras, puranas, tantras, and commentaries. We have tried to preserve a balance among the number of passages cited for each of the major religions. Fortunately, the various scriptures of religions with an open canon contain considerable repetition, and hence a few representative passages can be culled for each topic.

The term "scripture" is used somewhat loosely for the inspired writings of the new religions which may still live in the presence of the founder or his immediate disciples. Many of them have distinctive texts, but some are too young to have settled on which of them are scripture; the process of establishing a canon takes place only after a religion has had time to define its boundaries and solidify its traditions.

We must further stretch the limits of what is considered scripture in order to include the traditional religions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, which have no written texts. What makes scripture important is not the fact that it is written but that it is inspired and authoritative. In these traditional religions, an authoritative body of tradition has been passed down from generation to generation through words, symbols, and rituals. This body of tradition fulfills the function of scripture by giving an account of, among other things, the nature of God, the origin of the world, the duty of human beings, and human destiny. All the written scriptures of the major religions began as oral traditions. We consider the enduring oral traditions of the traditional religions as scripture in a broad sense, for they are written in the hearts of the practitioners of these faiths.

Another problem in dealing with scripture is that many of them cannot be adequately translated into English. The manifold nuances of a scripture's original language can never be fully rendered in translation. Furthermore, for those religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, which revere the language of their scriptures as sacred, the holiness of their scriptures can be conveyed only in the sacred tongue. We must acknowledge, therefore, that the English translations of scriptures in World Scripture are only interpretations which convey a pale reflection of the original. We have sought translations which, whenever possible, satisfy two criteria: the translator should himself or herself be a practitioner of the religion with a spiritual sensitivity to the depth of the tradition, and the translator should have a good command of the English language. In several cases where no English translation was available or where existing translations were judged inadequate, new translations were commissioned.

In making their selections, the contributors have exercised discretion in seeking higher expressions of the spirit and avoiding passages that are mean-spirited and offensive to other religions. The scriptures of most religions contain passages attacking, and often misrepresenting, the doctrines and practices of other religions. This is understandable in light of the conflicts which most religions experienced in their youth against the older dominant religion. Sometimes the older religion was in a corrupt form that was far removed from its own higher expressions. Polemics attacking a priest, brahmin, mullah, or rabbi for hypocrisy could best be understood not as a partisan attack on another religion, but rather as illuminating a universal problem of religious people. But too often they have fostered prejudice and inhibited interreligious understanding. Examples include: New Testament polemics against the Jews and the Mosaic Law, the Qur'an's polemics against the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Lotus Sutra's polemics against Theravada Buddhism as an inferior vehicle.

The topics around which the scripture passages are gathered have been selected as broadly comprehensive of the concerns shared by many of the major religions. Certain topics that belong to only one or two religions are omitted in favor of topics that can be construed to include several distinct but related religious ideas. Thus, for example, there is no topic "resurrection," but Christian and Muslim passages on resurrection are included under the broader topics The Immortal Soul, Heaven, and Hell where they stand alongside passages from other religions on the afterlife. While each religion has something to say about more than seventy percent of the topics, certain themes are ignored or even rejected by some religions: for example, Jainism and Buddhism say nothing about a God who is Creator. In those cases, the religion will not show any passages on that topic. Sometimes counterexamples will be given, for example under the topic Asceticism and Monasticism are several critiques of the practice. Furthermore, since many passages are relevant to more than one topic, extensive cross-references are given in footnotes, and a few key passages may be duplicated under several headings.

The organization of the topics follows generally the pattern of Christian systematic theology: God and creation, evil and sin, salvation, ethics, and eschatology. But this outline has been broadened by the inclusion of many non-Christian themes in order to include every topic regarded as central by any of the world's religions. Some may object at this point that the World Scripture has such a recognizably theistic perspective. Certainly the topics could have been organized differently: for example, according to a Buddhist schema of the Four Noble Truths or a Hindu schema of the several yogas or paths to Ultimate Reality.[1] There is at present no recognized systematic theology of world religious knowledge. Some particular organizational scheme had to be selected, and, whatever the organization, it would necessarily be more congenial to one religion or another. To those whose religious understanding leads them to take exception to the organizational scheme selected, we can only invite them to write their own world scriptures from their own religious understandings and faith perspectives. By publicizing the enduring worth and common testimonies of the scriptures of other faiths, all such anthologies, whatever their perspectives, will contribute to the broad dialogue among religions that will promote interreligious harmony.

Selecting the topics and assembling the passages for the World Scripture has required the efforts of editors and advisors representing all of the major world religions. Some of them labored long and hard to gather the texts which would best express the unique perspective of their religions. Others gave invaluable reviews of the unfinished manuscript. Through this collaboration, we have sought to ensure that the selection of topics and of scriptural passages will not reflect the viewpoint of any one religion, but will indeed embrace the breadth and variety of religious viewpoints in a balanced manner.