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Sacred Books

Believers attributed scriptures to a divine authorship. They claim that God himself had dictated, word for word, both the Old and the New Testament. From such divine statements there was of course no appeal. God, who knows the past as well as the future, could not err; he stood above all human criticism: and it was a long time before the Bible was submitted to a close historical scrutiny. For centuries, it has been a heresy, almost a crime, to doubt one iota of this sacred literature; to doubt that Moses wrote all the books attributed to him; to doubt that the Psalms were all written by David, or the Ecclesiastes by Solomon; to ask in what way and by what means the first correct copy of the orations of the prophets was obtained, or to consider these speeches as pertaining to their time only, or to the immediate future; and so on ad infinitum. For the so-called believer there was and is no appeal from the letter of scripture.

A great and wonderful law, like that which the scientists call "natural selection," or "the survival of the fittest," exists and works powerfully and perpetually not only in the physically organic world, but also quite as really in the intellectual, moral, and religious worlds. Sacred books come into being naturally. They are a necessary and inevitable outgrowth of the religious nature of people. They may be divided into thre classes. The first class embraces those sacred books which spring out of the general life of a people, and which therefore are likely to be of a more or less uncertain authorship, and to rest upon a background of legend and myth. The second class, usually within historic time, is made up of those books which spring indirectly from some great religious leader or prophet, gradually growing up in the decades and centuries after his life. The third, all within historic time, spring directly from the hand of the founder himself.

In the early times of a people, before they have a literature, and even before they have writing, there always come into existence great numbers of legends and stories, about wars, calamities, striking and mysterious events (as floods, earthquakes, the supposed creation of the world), about ancestors, kings, heroes, persons supposed to enjoy great favor with the gods. The more notable of these stories will be told from family to family, from tribe to tribe, from generation to generation, and hence in the course of ages will become the heritage of a whole people. As rude instruments of music are invented, and as the people gain the ability to sing or chant, these legends and tales will tend more or less to assume material forms.

When at length the people arrive at that condition of civilization in which writing makes its appearance, it is, of course, those hymns, ballads, and legends that are usually embalmed in writing first these, and also simpie magical formulas, directions for incantations, forms of prayers to the gods, and regulations for religious rites, all of which spring into being equally naturally, equally gradually, and often equally early. All these, because they come down from revered ancestors, and have the halo of a shadowy past about them, are naturally looked upon as peculiarly sacred. These become the germ of the future sacred book.

As ages go on, other writings come into being, of one kind and another, some of which are of necessity religious or semi-religious, and some very likely ethical. By a sort of natural selection, the best of these, or such as meet with most popular favor, or are most in harmony with the religious feeling and sentiment of the people, are preserved, and grow in honor; while the rest sink into obscurity or disappear altogether. Those that have thus been preserved and lifted up into honor, as time passes away grow venerable, and by and by are added to the earlier sacred literature.

These additions may be few or many, according to circumstances. But at last there comes a time, as a result of national disaster, or the stagnation of intellectual and religious life, or for some other cause, when a line gets drawn, and the sacred book gets sealed up. Anything written at any point of time on this side the line is not true Sacred Book. Such is in brief the history of the origin of one class of Sacred Books. As prominent in this class are readily recognized the Vedas, indeed nearly all the sacred literature of the Hindus, and the Old Testament.

The second class of sacred books spring from the life of a person. A great religious teacher appears among a people, makes a profound impression, inaugurates a new religious movement, or a new religion. It is entirely natural that a new sacred book should come into being as a result. His followers, of course, desire to preserve an account of his life and a record of his teachings. Though he does not leave behind anything written by himself, naturally followers and admirers of him write out and preserve a record of his deeds and words as best they can, and these will constitute the Sacred Book, or the beginning of it. As Sacred Books that have thus had their origin in a man, there were those two of China, which sprung from Confucius and Lao-tse; the Buddhist, which sprung from Sakya-muni, or Buddha; and the New Testament, which is the outcome of the life of Jesus.

The third class of sacred books spring directly from the hand of a person. A great religious teacher writes a book or a series of books, and this or these will constitute the Sacred Book, or at least the leading and most important part of the Sacred Book. The Koran, which came from Mahomet, is one such work. The Book of Mormon is another. Of the authorship of thse books there is no doubt.

Many of the books of the first two classes are attributed to authors of great antiquity with varrying degrees of doubt or fantasy. Moses, Lao-Tsu, Lycurgus of Sparta, the medieval Swiss William Tell, as well as other obscure sectarian figures of the ancient world, are examples of founder figures who have come to be regarded as likely non-existent, while others, such as Confucius or Zoroaster are at a minimum so encrusted in mythmaking as to be un-knowable as actual human beings. Generally there is a mixing up of history and legend tradition and fact in a most euphonious compound, which as often as not has no farther pretension to be considered a biography than that its subject is a single individual.

Time brings Sacredness. Most great sacred books have acquired their peculiar sacredness mainly by age. The only exceptions are found in the third class among those originating in a great religious teacher. The books might have been much prized at first, or they might not, but all thought of putting them into a category by themselves, as Sacred Books, was, as a rule, absent at first, and only arose in after times and by slow degrees. As they grew old they grew sacred. As people passed on, away from the times and circumstances of their origin, they came by degrees to think of that origin as supernatural. The reverence that began to surround them was the halo of antiquity. With some of the books this advance was very slow, and took hundreds of years. In the case of the Vedas and Zend-Avesta it appears to have taken many hundreds of years as is also true with at least some parts of the Christian Bible.

These Sacred Books encompass vast expanses of literature, much of which is barren and dreary to an extent which those persons whose reading of sacred scriptures has been confined to the Christian Bible can little understand. The contents of the world's sacred books range in quality all the way from ethical and spiritual gems down to the basest superstitions, the dreariest platitudes, the most childish follies.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2011 19:39:01 ZULU