Can you name the Jewish Scriptures?

Hebrew_Scriptures_TanakAsk the average goy if they can name the Jewish Scriptures, and he or she would probably answer: “The Old Testament” — a pejorative term, whose implications are naively obscure to most goy living in Christian privileged nations. However, if you ask a more informed goy, or even the average Jew the same question, their answer would probably be something like, “The Torah” or “The Tanakh”. But both answers are still incomplete, but better.

The “Torah (“The Teachings”) is the word also used by Jews themselves to refer to their scriptures. Originally “Torah” referred to the collection of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and later was broadened to include the other 3 books of the mythical “Moses”.  Sometimes Jews use it to refer to the Tanakh also.  But my diagram to the right actually shows only a small part of Jewish Scriptures.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

A Hebrew-phile Jew may actually use the phrase “kitvei hakodesh”(holy writings) to refer to their scriptures. This phrase was first seen in the Mishnah: Shabbat 16:1. In fact, in the Christian Bible, uses the phrase in II Timothy 3:15-16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.”  Just as Christian canons vary, there was huge difference in what was considered sacred canons (collections) back at the time of the writing of II Timothy.  Note thought, that even a religion-savvy goy may not understand this reference to Shabbat 16:1 above. The Shabbat is part of the Talmud — about 4 times the size of the Tanakh — another part of the Jewish scriptures and is central to rabbinic Judaism, having developed starting in the 200-500s C.E.

The Jewish scriptures are even bigger than the Tanakh and the Talmud. Some Jews include the Kabbalah writings among their sacred writings and even Moses Maimonides’ (1135-1204) “The Thirteen Principles of Faith” are considered sacred among orthodox Jews.

The story of the evolution of Jewish scriptures is complex. When I started this post, I was simply composing as a lead-in post to discuss the complexity of Hindu Scriptures. But while writing, I realized that the Christian ideas about their own scriptures have probably highly prejudiced their way of looking at the writings or other religious traditions have been typified. Some of my initial suspicions are:

  • Christians, like Muslims, are people of a book.  This bibliolatry has tinted the eyes of Christians scholars looking at other traditions.
  • Protestant “Sola Scriptura” theology has even further put unhealthy freeze on the role of scripture in Christian’s eyes.
  • What people consider sacred sources for any faiths is usually much broader than is realized.
  • We underestimate the power of oral traditions.  They are source of written traditions and are still evolving.

Conclusion: “Sacred Scriptures” or “Scriptures” may be a very limiting concept when trying to truly understand the breadth of what comprises that which is precious to a religious community.


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