Comparing Scriptures

Steve Smith Office: Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
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Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 601-354-2290

Religious Studies 2750-03
Fall 2013

Grant me, then, space for my meditations upon the hidden things of Thy law, nor close Thy law against me as I knock. Not for nothing hast Thou willed that the deep secrets of all those pages should be written, not for nothing have those woods their stags, which retire to them and are restored, walk in them and are fed, lie down in them and ruminate. Complete Thy work in me, O Lord, and open those pages to me. Thy voice is my joy, abounding above all joys. Grant me what I love, for I do love it. And this too is of Thy gift. Do not abandon what Thou hast given, nor scorn Thy grass that is athirst for Thee. Let me confess to Thee whatsoever I shall find in Thy books, and let me hear the voice of Thy praise, and drink of Thee and consider the wondrous things of Thy law from the first beginning, when Thou didst make heaven and earth, until our everlasting reign with Thee in Thy holy city.
—Augustine, Confessions XI.2, trans. Frank Sheed

Every man that writes is writing a new Bible, or a new Apocrypha.
—Thomas Carlyle

The only possible opening for a statement of this kind is that I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking: what is written has importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.
So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book.
—Russell Means, “Fighting Words on the Future of the Earth”


When I hear any speaking, I am astounded:
someone (who is somehow like me)
is opening up (exposing to the world their own way of apprehending the world)
and summoning me (interrupting whatever else was going on),
presenting me with a sense of something (what they want to say)
that will affect my sense of everything (as I try to understand fully).

What is it, though, to have heard a speaking that decides something affecting me, a decree?

Now it doesn’t matter who spoke except that it was the decider (an authority).

Now rather than opening up a subjectivity, the main import of the experience is to determine my subjectivity.

Now I have a concrete duty.

My interpretation of the speaking must serve my fulfillment of this duty.

And that goes for my interpretation of everything.

One way to arrange for an important speaking is to read from a script. What if that script is instituted as “the text”—not simply a dictated, momentary message from a living speaker, like a text message on a phone, but a composed, enduring virtual speaking? How does that situation come about? What new situations does that create?

Who shall we say speaks from a text when its authorship is multiple, conjectural, forgotten?

Who, if anyone, is opening up or being opened up by such a text?

What does it mean to be summoned by such a text? (Are we drawn to it just by the knowledge that we can read it? Are we drawn to it by the living speakers who are activating it? Were we previously drawn to it by divine action? Does the text have a special public standing as a sort of monument? For whom does the text have authority?)

How can we determine what such a text wants to say? (With varying interpretations it seems to want to say many things, perhaps not harmoniously.)

What special powers does such a text have to guide our understanding of everything?

— My meditation tries to bring out a few of the questions that arise in connection with scripture as a phenomenon of meaning—something that could be in your life, affecting how you live. Of course, scripture is also an important historical and literary phenomenon. At a certain stage in the development of all the Old World civilizations (now referred to by many scholars as the Axial Age, mid-first millennium BCE), collections of sacred texts began to be formed together with a new kind of religion that we now identify as “world religion.” This is a type of religion in which kings, temples, and priests are no longer practically essential, but sacred texts are.

Historically, we must ask: how did scriptural materials first come to be written and used and transmitted? Which people were doing this work, how were they equipped for it, and what were their purposes? How did sacred texts get formed into canons? How did different canons share common sources? How were canons shaped by being differentiated from each other? How was power distributed in the community of scripture—that is, on the basis of going by scripture, who got to do what? How is the scripturalizing process observable in our world today?

As regards the content of the texts, we must ask: What kinds of writing get included in scriptures, and why? What kinds of content tend to be emphasized? How are the scriptural collections significantly similar to and different from each other? What is the significance of analogies between scripture and other kinds of literature—literary canons and political charters and constitutions, for example?

As regards the place of these texts in religious life, we must ask: What kinds of thought and practice arise in the use of scripture? What do devout people actually want or need scriptures for? What makes for authoritative or popular interpretation of scripture in the different scriptural communities? Are there typical difficulties in interpreting scriptures? Are there important social effects of invoking scriptures—for example, in national politics?

Obviously scriptures must be an important concern in religious studies, but what is the place of scriptures in our general education? Is it legitimate to draw extracts from them to make a “world Bible” or a “treasury of the world’s wisdom”? Should everyone learn about all the scriptures as part of learning about “the classics”?

The purpose of this class is to improve our acquaintance with a variety of scriptural texts while studying the phenomenon of scripture historically, comparatively, and philosophically.

Our readings will be drawn from various sources including these required texts:

Harold Coward, Sacred Word and Sacred Text (SWST)
Frederick Denny, ed., The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective (HBCP)
Miriam Levering, ed., Rethinking Scripture (RT)

The ingredients of the course grade are daily participation, including taking turns preparing discussion questions (20%), weekly journal writing (20%), a take-home final exam (20%), and two scripture studies (20%, 20%) for which guidelines will be given. Assignments and grading are explained below.

subject to revision by announcement in class and/or e-mail

T 8/27 Introduction to course.
Th 8/29 Toward a comparative conception of scripture. Show and tell.
READ: Miriam Levering, “Introduction: Rethinking Scripture,” RT
T 9/3 What is the historical phenomenon of scripture?
READ: W. C. Smith, “Scripture as Form and Concept,” RT
Th 9/5 Orality, literacy, and scripture.
READ: W. A. Graham, “Scripture as Spoken Word,” RT
T 9/10 Uses of a tradition: the flood story.
READ: the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh; Genesis 6-9; Sanhedrin 108a (Talmud); Qur’an 11.25-49, 23.23-30
Th 9/12 Deliberate crafting of scripture. Polemic as a shaping force.
READ: 2 Kings 22-23:25; Deuteronomy 5, 9-13, 26-32; Harold Coward, “Scripture in Judaism,” SWST
T 9/17 Counter-cultural transmission.
READ: Isaiah 40-55; Robert Eno, The Confucian Creation of Heaven
Th 9/19 Allegorical interpretation.
READ: Philo of Alexandria and Origen
T 9/24 Multiple versions: the Christian Gospels.
READ: selections from Mark, Matthew, Luke, John; Coward, “Scripture in Christianity,” SWST pp. 34-46
Th 9/26 “Noncanonical” material: the Gospel of Thomas.
READ: Gospel of Thomas; Irenaeus against the Gnostics
T 10/1 Qur’an.
READ: Qur’an, chronologically, portion I; Frederick Denny, “Islam: Qur’an and Hadith,” HBCP
Th 10/3 Qur’an, cont.
READ: Qur’an II; Abdullah Saeed on types of texts in the Qur’an
T 10/8 Qur’an, cont.
READ: Qur’an III; Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an
Th 10/10 Qur’an and Sufism.
READ: Qur’an IV; Martin Lings on Sufism; ibn ‘Arabi on Noah in The Bezels of Wisdom
DUE FRIDAY: first Scripture Study
Th 10/17 Interpretation and application of Qur’an: Al Qaeda and Islamism
READ: Qur’an V; Ayman al-Zawahiri on jihad; Seyyid Qutb, Milestones
T 10/22 Interpretation and application of Qur’an: feminism
READ: Qur’an VI; Amina Wadud, Quran and Woman
Th 10/24 Layers: The Vedas
READ: Selections from Rig-Veda; Coward, “Hindu Scriptures,” SWST
T 10/29 Layers, part 2
READ: Selections from Brahmanas and Upanishads
Th 10/31 Synthesis
READ: Selections from the Bhagavad-Gita and Laws of Manu
T 11/5 The Goddess
READ: Devi Mahatmya
Th 11/7 Sikhism
READ: Adi Granth selections; Coward, “Scripture in Sikhism,” SWST
T 11/12 The classics of Confucianism.
READ: Rodney Taylor, “Confucianism: Scripture and Sage,” HBCP; excerpts from Confucian classics
Th 11/14 Polemic: the classics of Daoism.
READ: Laurence Thompson, “Taoism: Classic and Canon,” HBCP; excerpts from the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi , and later Daoist scriptures
T 11/19 Newer religions: the Mormons.
READ: Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon chaps. 1-2
Th 11/21 The Mormons, cont.
READ: Givens, By the Hand of Mormon chap. 3
T 11/26 Issues outstanding.
READ: Coward, “Scripture and the Future of Religions,” SWST; Sam Gill, “Nonliterate Traditions and Holy Books,” HBCP
DUE: second Scripture Study
T 12/4 Comparative project reports.
Th 12/6 Comparative project reports.
DUE: Second Scripture study

Final exam due Dec. 11.


All class members will take turns introducing material from their readings in scriptures (sometimes assigned reading) for examination by the class—material that is awesome for whatever reason, or puzzling for whatever reason, or intriguingly similar to or different from something else we’re studying. The class will discuss the historical, social, literary, and intellectual and spiritual questions that the material provokes.


Each Tuesday you should turn in a written reflection of at least 250 words (that would be one page typed) on any subject relating to the course. You may use any strategy you like to get at something. Try not to toss out a question without working toward an answer; working toward answers is what your journal is for.

You may skip one week’s journal writing without penalty.


Homework will receive a – (unsatisfactory), \/ (satisfactory), or + (very good), depending on the thoughtfulness it shows and its clarity of communication. Your record as of midterm will be interpreted by a midterm letter grade for which you will receive a rationale. In general, “A” means doing all assigned work carefully, thoughtfully, and successfully; “B” means a good overall record; “C” reflects a mixture of good work, unsuccessful work fairly attempted, and unsatisfactory work; “D” reflects a significant portion of work undone or a dominant portion done unsatisfactorily; and “F” is worse.


LENGTH. Each Scripture Study should be about 1,500 words (5-6 pp. typed).

SOURCES. Each study should use
(a) one of the best available editions of the primary scriptural source(s),
(b) at least one relevant secondary source dealing with the nature of scripture in general (this can be an article we’ve read in class from Rethinking Scripture or anything like that from our course bibliography—the point is to get some question or idea about what scripture is into the mix), and
(c) at least one relevant secondary source that helps specifically with understanding the scripture, or each scripture, you’re studying. (This must be an academic source. You might also find some helps-for-believers sources interesting.)

OBJECTIVE. At least one of your two Studies must be explicitly comparative, examining a theme or historical or textual feature of scriptures in two or three different religious traditions. One of your Studies may be a “getting acquainted” study of just one scripture—that is, of some important aspect or element of just one scripture that sheds some light on the whole. I encourage you to start with a “getting acquainted” study for the first one and move to the comparative one next.

Comparing Scriptures, Fall 2013


Anthologies of scriptures
Fieser, James, and John Powers, eds. Scriptures of the World’s Religions. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Kramer, Kenneth, ed. World Scriptures: An Introduction to Comparative Religions. New York: Paulist, 1986.
Van Voorst, Robert, ed. An Anthology of World Scriptures. The chapter for each tradition selects scriptural content relating to Doctrine, Organization, Ethics, and Ritual.
Wilson, Andrew, ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. Paragon, 1998. Selected to show “common wisdom.” Online at

Discussions of scriptures in comparative perspective
Coward, Harold. Sacred Word and Sacred Text. Scripture in World Religions. Delhi: Satguru, 1988. Excellent chapters on major traditions including Sikhism, but Chinese and more historically recent traditions are left out.
_______, ed. Experiencing Scripture in World Religions. Maryknoll, Orbis, 2000.
Denny, Frederick M., and Rodney Taylor, eds. The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective. Columbia: U. of South Carolina, 1985. Scholars report on scripture in traditions they study.
Levering, Miriam, ed., Rethinking Scripture. Essays from a Comparative Perspective. Albany: State U. of New York Press, 1989. Excellent, thoughtful articles, including two important ones by founder of the field W. C. Smith (see below).
Peters, F. E. The Voice, the Word, the Books: The Sacred Scripture of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Princeton: Princeton U., 2007.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. Smith offers the most important historical program for comparative scripture study.

Specific topics
Akenson, Donald H. Surpassing Wonder. The Invention of the Bible and Talmuds. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 2001.
Alter, Robert. Canon and Creativity. Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture. New Haven: Yale U., 2000.
Bible and Culture Collective. The Postmodern Bible. New Haven: Yale U., 1995.
Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart. Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford U., 2005.
Childs, Brevard. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
Derrida, Jacques. “Force and Signification.” In Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1978.
_______. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U., 1976.
Frei, Hans. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. New Haven: Yale U., 1974.
Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
_______. Words With Power. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
Givens, Terryl L. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. Oxford: Oxford U., 2002.
Graham, William A. Beyond the Written Word. Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge U., 1987.
Henderson, John B. Scripture, Canon, and Commentary. A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis. Princeton: Princeton U., 1991.
Holdredge, Barbara A. Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture. Albany: State U. of New York, 1996.
Kelsey, David. Proving Doctrine. The Uses of Scripture in Modern Theology. San Antonio: Trinity, 1999.
Kugel, James L. Traditions of the Bible: The Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1999.
McDonald, Lee Martin and James A. Sanders, eds. The Canon Debate: On the Origins and Formation of the Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture. Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Niditch, Susan. Oral Word and Written Word. Ancient Israelite Literature. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Oaks, Dallin H. “The Divinely Inspired Constitution.” By a Mormon elder.
Patrick, Dale. The Rhetoric of Revelation in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.
Ricoeur, Paul. Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Ed. Lewis Mudge. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.
_______. Figuring the Sacred. Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. Trans. David Pellauer. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
Sanders, James A. From Sacred Story to Sacred Text. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.
Schniedewind, William K. How the Bible Became a Book. Cambridge: Cambridge U., 2004.
Smith, Jonathan Z. “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon,” in Imagining Religion. From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1988.
Smith, Steven G. “What Is Scripture? Pursuing Smith’s Question.” Anglican Theological Review, 90 (Fall 2008), pp. 753-775.
van der Toorn, Karel. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 2007.
Tracy, David. The Analogical Imagination. New York: Crossroad, 1981. Important discussion of the concept of a “religious classic.”
Wadsworth, Michael, ed. Ways of Reading the Bible. Brighton: Harvester, 1981.
Wimbush, Vincent, ed., Theorizing Scriptures. New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon (Signifying on Scriptures). New Brunswick: Rutgers U., 2008.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Divine Discourse. Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks. Cambridge: Cambridge U., 1995.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.
From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.