All Scripture is Sibylline

The obscure nature of sacred writing, or any ancient text for that matter, can be surprisingly discouraging for the student of religion. So much of religious scripture is ambiguous and often unintelligible.



From the oldest literature – the earliest Vedas, the very ancient IChing, or the early hymns of the Zoroastrian Avestas – to the very late Sikh scripture of the Guru Granth Sahib, all of our sacred texts seem to make comprehension as difficult as possible for the reader.

This process is, of course, compounded in international education by the difficulties of translating ancient literature. It is often said that ‘translation is treason’ and this is nowhere more true than in the translation of ancient poetry and poetic prose. In many cases, the ancient religious terminology has fallen out of use and their meanings cannot be retrieved.

I have found that some religious terms are used and repeated among the adherents (and even the experts) of a religion without any knowledge of their meaning or origin.

Even the authorities on religious scriptures readily confess their doubts that certain meanings will ever be recovered when studying the Zoroastrian Avestas, the Vedas, the Tanakh, the IChing or the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian texts.

It may come as a surprise at first to the student of religion that the majority of our living traditions once held, or still hold, that a single language and a single script are essential to the revealed nature of their faith.

Qur’anic Arabic is considered by the good Muslim to be of divine origin and the only script – the only alphabet – suitable for the propagation of the Qur’an. As a rule, the Qur’an is not translated into modern Arabic and all foreign language versions of the Qur’an are considered a sort of facsimile.

Long before Arabic, the Hebrew script was believed to be of divine origin and, even before the completion of the Talmud (the large collection of Rabbinical writings and commentary on the Hebrew scriptures) and before the Kabbalah of the Middle Ages, there were already traditions in Judaism concerning the exclusivity and mystical nature of the Hebrew alphabet.

In Sikhism, the Gurmukhi script was developed by the first and second Guru to record the spoken Punjabi language and all Sikh scriptures are written entirely in this script. As a rule, the good Sikh is encouraged to search for God and Guru in the original Gurmukhi of the scriptures and not in translation.

The Latin of the Roman Catholic tradition was essential to the mystical practices of the Church up until the twentieth century. Before Luther in the early sixteenth century, the Old and New Testaments (the Christian Bible) existed only in very few languages including Greek, Latin, Classical Syriac, Ge’ez (Ethiopian) and Armenian.

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Filed under Origins, Religious Literacy

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