Sacred writings provide the basis of most religious beliefs but, one way or another, they can prove to be extremely troublesome to the faiths that they inspire. Inconsistencies within an original text can, of course, lead to major problems, but over the course of time many others can arise. A problem may occur when the language in which the scripture was originally recorded has ceased to be the ordinary speech of the people (this is common in many religious traditions). Whenever this has happened, the ancient tongue (Hebrew, Sanscrit, Latin etc.) has tended to become the prerogative of a learned, exclusive class of officials (priests, or priests by any other name) who then enjoy a privileged access to the Holy Writ. Historically, this sort of monopoly on the sacred has always been prone to abuse, and easily leads to a situation where these 'protectors' of the Holy Writ become aloof or remote from ordinary believers. The Word may even come to be regarded as too sacred for the ears of such common folk, even when read in a language that they do not understand, leading to such peculiarities as the 'silent' recitation of the scriptures that was practised in a certain period of early Christianity.
Then there is the question of authenticity. Any religion whose claim to legitimacy rests on its possession of an inspired text will be convinced that their scripture (or their particular version of it) is, beyond doubt, the genuine article. As a result the very letter of the Word, and in extreme cases its pronunciation, the order that it is presented in, and even its punctuation, can become sacrosanct. But the complete identification of a religious establishment with a particular version of a text can, in the end, make it vulnerable. In the event of religious dissent the scriptures themselves may easily become the focus of controversy. Would-be reformers frequently focus their attention on a perceived textual corruption of the Holy Writ (which, of course, they wish to rectify), in the face of opposition from more conservative elements (who are equally adamant that the text should not be violated by changes of any kind). As with all matters religious, views are likely be intense on both sides of any such argument and fanaticism easily intrudes onto the scene. For True Believers, be they reformers or conservatives, their own version of the sacred literature is always bona fide, others are either corrupt or impostors. Practically all of the world's holy texts have been subject to this sort of disputation at one time or another and much strife has ensued and much blood spilled by the partisans of conflicting versions of the sacred word, whatever form it has taken.
Russia can always be relied upon to furnish an extreme example... In the middle of the 17th century the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church attempted a long-overdue reform of the Slavonic Bible, which by this time had become riddled with all manner of errors and interpolations. Accordingly, he acquired the most reliable of the Greek and Slavonic texts that were then available and appointed a panel of leading theologians to sort out the mess. Some years later, when they had completed their labours, the Patriarch presented the reformed text to an Orthodox Russian Church Council where it received official approval. But when the reformed version was introduced to the population at large it was first greeted with disbelief, then by a sense of outrage that grew to a general and outright opposition. All over Russia the masses, incited by their priests, rose in revolt. There was particular revulsion against the revisers new (and correct) spelling of the name of Jesus. Believers were desolated by the changes:'Woe, woe! What have you done with the Son of God?'. Monks refused to accept the reformed Bible and closed their monastery gates against those sent to deliver it. Troops were brought in, and sieges and battles with the Tsars soldiers ensued, lasting in some cases for years. Many of the leading figures in the resistance to the new Bible were permanently exiled.
The struggles between those who continued to defy the revised version and the Tsarist authorities, who insisted on its acceptance, dragged on into the following century, by which time the resistors had formed a sect that became known as the 'Old Believers'. This group, who came to be numbered in millions, were to remain fanatically devoted to the old, corrupt text. They continued to be persecuted by the Tsarist government for the following two centuries, during which time huge numbers of them were driven to exile in the remoter areas of Siberia. The Old Believers survived well into the 20th century, still clinging to their archaic, error-ridden version of the Bible. Many prominent figures were sympathetic to their cause, including the writer Tolstoy.
The Pope Who Improved the Bible
The problems of a corrupted biblical text were not confined to the Eastern Church. At the end of the 16th century the Latin Church Council had experienced similar difficulties with its Bible, different, of course, but which was also full of errors and interpolations (faulty copying during the medieval period was largely to blame in both cases). To rectify the situation a new edition of the Catholic Bible was commissioned. As with the Slavonic Bible, a panel of distinguished scholars was appointed to carefully sift through the text and edit out the many false readings. After years of patient work, their version was presented to the Pope of the time. He was, however, less than impressed.
Sixtus V was one of the most energetic of Popes in the long history of that institution. He achieved more in the way of buildings and reforms in his five years in office than had been seen in the previous fifty, and was known as 'the consecrated whirlwind'. But he was autocratic, to say the least - and impetuous. His response to the painstaking revision of the medieval Latin Bible was characteristically dismissive; he threw it out and declared that he would do the job himself. To the amazement of all he issued a Papal Bull stating that only he, the Pope, was qualified to establish an authentic Bible for the Catholic Church, and that he would produce a full, complete and final version.
Sixtus threw himself into the task, working night and day, with the aid of just one secretary (who he drove to the point of insanity). His methods of retranslation were as idiosyncratic as the man himself; nevertheless, in just eighteen months the Vatican’s printers were able to produce the first folio copies of the reformed text. It was an unmitigated disaster. The printers had been forced along at the same frenetic pace as Sixtus, and as a result the new, official Bible for the Catholic Church was absolutely crammed with misprints and other errors - it was, moreover, well overdue. The Pope spent a further six months attempting to patch up the text by writing corrections on small pieces of paper and pasting them over the worst printers errors. Even these corrections were incomplete on the day set for official publication, but the Pope insisted that copies be delivered to all the Cardinals of the Sacred College, and to the Vatican’s many Ambassadors.
The new version created a scandal. Quite apart from the printers errors Sixtus had introduced a mass of defects all his own. He had arbitrarily retranslated many passages and omitted others at whim. He also changed the established system of chapter and verse in line with a scheme of his own devising, an innovation that rendered all previous Bibles obsolete. But this sloppy, ill-considered, unscholarly version of the Holy Bible was, under the terms of the Papal Bull, intended to become the 'true, lawful, authentic and unquestionable edition'. No one, on pain of excommunication (or worse), would be allowed to deviate from this final and authentic text, ever!
The Pope was well pleased with his work, but the rest of Church was almost prostrate with embarrassment. The Protestants, having heard the rumours of this fiasco, were having a field day at their rival’s expense - and then, just four months after the new Bible had been shown to his incredulous Cardinals, Sixtus V died.
The relief within the Church on the passing of this headstrong Pope was palpable, but they were still burdened by the legacy of his deeply flawed 'Sixtine' Bible. They had either to admit that a Pope could be seriously fallible on a matter of supreme importance to the Church, or to find some other solution to the problem of his deeply flawed, but sacred text. It was a serious predicament ...
Since the dignity and authority of the institution of the Pontiff itself was so obviously at stake it was decided at the highest levels that there really was little choice but to engage in a cover-up - and since Sixtus had so enthusiastically proclaimed the imminent publication of his new Bible they were left with little time in which to accomplish it. With a distinct sense of urgency a group of scholars was formed to re-revise the Sixtine Bible under conditions of strict secrecy. Remarkably, their work was completed and ready for printing within a year. It wasn't perfect, but it was a huge improvement on Sixtus's version.
It was agreed that the new work should be published as a 'second edition' of the Sixtine Bible, with a preface explaining that the first edition contained many errors owing to the printers unseemly haste in producing it, entirely shifting the blame from Sixtus himself. But there remained the problem of those copies of the first edition that had already been distributed. This too was a tricky matter. It was obvious to all that the copies of the original Sixtine Bible would have an enormous rarity value, but it was equally clear that as long as they remained in existence they could fall into the hands of irresponsible heretics, Protestants and the like, who could then point to their distorted text as evidence of Papal corruption. The Sixtine Bibles had to be recovered.
Fortunately, the Church had the appropriate agencies. Discrete instructions went out both to the Holy Office (the Inquisition) and to the head of the Jesuit Order to retrieve as many copies as they could. It was made clear that the very honour of the Papacy was at stake. A sum of money was made available to purchase the volumes where possible; more drastic means were to be employed when this failed. As a result many private homes were entered and printing houses raided - but these attempts at procurement met with only partial success. Many of the Sixtine Bibles had already travelled to lands beyond the Vaticans jurisdiction, and many owners were extremely reluctant to part with this unique edition, which was, after all, a distorted version of the Holy Bible, made by Christ’s representative on earth. The surviving copies remain to this day as one of the greatest of bibliophile treasures - and an embarrassing reminder of one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.
The Sacred Text: Accretion and Multiplication
The problems created by the Sixtine Bible, and the furore accompanying the revised Slavonic Bible were, in fact, both consequent on the invention of printing, or more specifically, on the need for a reliable printed Authorised Version (and the necessity of dealing with past errors and accretions). In the previous centuries, when every copy had to be made by an individual scribe, errors were bound to occur and regional variations were ever likely to creep in. The advent of the printing process offered the Church a solution to this age-old problem, but brought an even greater need for accuracy in the official text since it could now be produced in unprecedented quantities. (The possibility that mass-printing techniques offered for the close control of orthodox texts had been apparent since their introduction in 10th century China, where, as much later in Europe, unauthorised editions of scriptures were banned).
The printing press was not, however, the only change affecting the Church at this time. The Renaissance had already seriously dented the clerical monopoly of learning, and the Protestants, with their Reformation, were intent on a complete severance from the Rome. They were also dedicated to translating the Bible into vernacular languages, a process that was to lead them to make their own interpretations of the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures (a move that was, of course, bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church). Thus, as in so many religious conflicts, the era of rivalry between Catholic and Protestant, and their contending claims to legitimacy, focused on their respective versions of the holy texts.
There was a long history to this. In common with all established religious bodies the Christian Church had always reserved to itself the right of interpretation of its scriptures. The sacred writings were its property, so to speak, but there is a very real sense in which they were also its creation (although this fact was not later acknowledged).
Most religious texts tend to become sacred (ie. to be assembled into canonical form) at a much later period than their origin. The Christian canon, for example, was not put together until the 2nd century AD, at which time material that did not fit with new Church's emerging dogma was rigorously excluded. Only writings that confirmed this conventional view were allowed, many other documents were ignored and some did not survive at all. In the first Christian century various oral teachings of Christ’s message vied with written traditions, and there were many other Gospels than those finally settled on as 'canonical'; all this material was discarded by the new class of priests, sometimes with little justification (curiously, the choice of just four Gospels appears to have been made on the basis of numerological principles).
The historical development of the Christian Church was thus bound up with the business of the selection, translation and 'explanation' of the various sources of their founder’s words. As most of the first Christians were Jews the very earliest of such interpretations were made within the messianic Jewish tradition, but as Christianity spread to the larger, Greek-speaking. gentile world the message had to be adapted accordingly. Thus began the process by which the Church assumed the right of selecting (though not without considerable controversy), and later of interpreting, the scriptures. There was a certain circularity in all of this: the Holy Writ, every word of which was later deemed to be a sacred and complete record of the Saviours life and message, and on which the entire authority of the Church rested, was in reality shaped by the contingencies facing those trying to organise the new religion. It was natural, as the authority of the Church grew (and as it fought off rival claimants to the Christian message) that its chosen canon should become more authoritative, at least in its own eyes. There were others who thought differently, but they were increasingly regarded as heretical nuisances.
This process of textual evolution was not exclusive to Christianity; a similar progression can be found in most of the religious traditions that rely on sacred writings (including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism etc.). There is a remarkable consistency in the overall sequence of events ...
Sometime after the passing of the Founder (and his Companions) a definitive version of religious doctrine is enunciated, This is usually supported by a religious canon, which has usually been selectively assembled from available textual material (and by the suppression of contrary interpretations). After a time this sacred canon becomes sacrosanct. Any challenge to its verity is then interpreted as a challenge to the religion as a whole. But even the holiest of texts are not immune to the forces of change, as we have seen. There are, of course, many variations of this broad pattern within the different religious tradition ...
Once Christian doctrine was in place, and its canon established, the Church came to treat the whole collection of its sacred book as equally inspired, and the alteration of any part of it as an act of sacrilege. The intense controversies that had been generated in the 2nd century, over which books should be included and which left out of the New Testament, were themselves written out of Church history. In religious, as in most other matters, the winners write the texts - and usually compel their acceptance. It is worth recalling that Willian Tyndale, who first translated the Bible into English, was burned at the stake for his 'heresy'. A sacred text easily becomes the symbol and instrument of religious authority.
A similar process of sacralisation had, in fact, already taken place with the older part of the holy book, the Hebrew Bible, from which the Old Testament was derived. By the 1st century the Hebrew Bible had a history of revision all of its own. Although the Jewish scriptures were collected between 600 and 100 BC, they were later edited to conform to contemporary beliefs and political necessities. So as a guide to Israelite history (which in part they purport to be) they are entirely unreliable, since it is virtually impossible to disentangle the earlier writing from later accretions and 'interpretations'.
Which leads onto the other great difficulty with sacred texts, in a sense the opposite problem to that of maintaining a single, definitive text, namely the tendency towards multiplication ...
The Jewish Holy Books are a case in point. The Torah (Law) was originally an authoritative set of rules of conduct, handed down by the priests in the name of God. It was a collection that bore on all moral, ceremonial and religious duties for believing Jews. This, when it was written down, became the Pentateuch, the first five books of Old Testament. But over time the moral code was refined and extended to include the Halakcha (Rules), which also began as oral law, but were also written down, and which eventually came to be regarded as coeval with the Torah. The Halakha is actually part of the Mishna, an encyclopaedic collection of legendary and historical material of every kind. The Mishna forms part of the text of the Talmud, which also contains a commentary, the Gemara. In addition, this canon was amplified and explained in the Midrash, which consists of a vast number of comments on the Old Testament. But the interpretations of scripture did not stop there. Dispossessed of their land, the sacred books become the principle focus of Jewish religious life. So, over the centuries Jewish scholars produced commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries, and nothing was discarded of this enormous fabric of exposition.
In the Jewish Holy Books, then, we see an extraordinary mix of religious laws, moral precepts, history, myth and legend, followed by layer upon layer of commentaries and interpretations, each, in its turn, adding to the stock of devotional literature (and each tending to add to the essential prescription for a devout life). Naturally, the exhaustive process of re-examination and reinterpretation of religious texts became ever more inward looking and restrictive. In this tradition, in which mystical speculation was frowned on, those who sought a deeper spiritual knowledge were driven to analysing the very letters of the Hebrew alphabet: these were the Kabbalists. Amongst other activities the Kabbalists ascribed numerical values to individual letters in an attempt to uncover their inherent, divine power. Using occult procedures, letters that had been converted into numbers were used in various permutations as keys to 'unlock' obscure biblical passages, supposedly revealing their hidden meaning. In reality this all too often led to exotic speculative fantasies; see Sabbatei Z’vi (q.v.)
The multiplication of texts in the Jewish tradition is as nothing, however, by comparison with the Buddhist canon of authoritative works. As in other religious traditions the Buddhist scriptures were originally transmitted orally, and only at a later stage were they written down. Predictably, different schools wrote different things. Buddhists, however, were more relaxed about their masters inspired sayings, and never felt the need to define their doctrinal position too closely - an approach that resulted in an extraordinary proliferation of sects, and of sacred writings. The Pali Canon alone, which is restricted to a single sect, amounts to 45 huge volumes in the Thai edition, quite apart from its voluminous commentaries; the Chinese scriptures comprise 100 volumes of 1,000 closely printed pages each, and the Tibetans have 325 volumes of their own: each are accompanied by their own extensive commentaries. Needless to say, the proliferation of Buddhist scriptures provided endless scope for doctrinal disputes between the various sects, which, even in this peace-loving religion, has led to extended, violent clashes.
It is interesting too, that the original Chinese translators of the Buddhist texts slanted their interpretation by representing Buddhist concepts using terms of their native Taoism, in a deliberate attempt to make the new religion more palatable to Chinese scholars. They were successful in this, but as a result Buddhist doctrines were subtly changed. For their part the Chinese Taoists were to claim that Buddhism in fact derived from a diluted version of the doctrines of their founder, Lao-Tzu, which had been transmitted to the foreign barbarians (they later produced accounts of his travels to the West elaborating on this theme).
By comparison with the holy books of most other religions the Islamic Qur'an is relatively short and, so far as can be judged, is a reasonably authentic version of its founders utterances. The authorised version of the Qur'an was compiled just eighteen years after Mohammad's death by the Caliph Othman (in 650 AD). It would seem that having established a canonical version of available fragments he destroyed all others (though not without upsetting many pious believers). Nevertheless this version, despite its curiously muddled construction, managed to gain general acceptance (for the most part the Qur'an is assembled according to the length of its chapters or surahs, with the longest at the beginning; since the earlier surahs tend to be the shortest, this effectively means that it is laid out in reverse chronological order). Over the centuries minor variations in detail managed to creep in (fourteen readings are recognised), but Othman's compilation remains the Holy Scripture for all Muslims: it is regarded as inviolable, and cannot be translated from its original Arabic.
As Islamic culture expanded and developed, however, there arose a need for authoritative guidance on the many aspects of ordinary life that were simply not addressed by the Qur'an. In response to this demand scholars began to collect the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and contemporary accounts of his (exemplary) life. These collections of Holy Traditions (Hadith), originally transmitted orally, were written down and in the course of time became sacred texts whose importance was only just below the Qur'an itself. These collections of sayings then became the principle source of reference in matters concerning Islamic law, religious dogma and ritual. In time a great body of law was built up that was largely derived from these sayings. The pious gathering of hadith, and the writing of commentaries on their every aspect, went on for centuries until eventually there was a prodigious mass of sayings and stories attributed to Mohammad, well over 600,000 - far more, in fact, than one man, even a prophet, could have uttered in a single lifetime.
It became increasingly clear, and a matter of concern to some jurists, that a great deal of extraneous material had been introduced into these collections. Much of it was indeed outright forgery, reflecting the passing interests of a particular group. It seemed that every emerging Islamic dynasty and every Muslim sect had tended to justify its beliefs and actions by reference to some hadith or other. By the second Islamic century these collections held so many inconsistencies and contradictions that their authenticity was increasingly questioned. Serious attempts were then made to identify and eliminate false traditions - but the effort to achieve veracity and consistency vied with a pious respect for the existing hadith. The attempt to differentiate 'reliable' from 'unreliable' sayings was not undertaken in any rational way, but rather by examining the 'chain of transmission', and however suspect a particular saying might appear there was always someone ready to defend it. In reality, the whole problem of ensuring whether a given passage was, or was not, uttered by the Prophet some two centuries after his death was quite hopeless.
In the end the aura of the sacred tended to overcome doubts and scruples. The inconsistencies between hadith were ignored, and even those that contained the most obvious anachronisms came to be considered reliable. They remained decisive in all matters to do with the law (although Sunni and Shia Muslims made different interpretations according to their different legal systems). As the language of the hadith became less intelligible to later generations of believers many volumes of commentaries and 'explanations' were produced. In time these commentaries themselves came to attain an almost canonical standing - by which time the authenticity and relevance of the hadith in general was no longer questioned.
Most religions are founded on sacred writings, and most, at some time or other, have been riven by controversy over conflicting interpretations of their respective scriptures. Texts may be altered to fit with doctrinal 'adjustments', and even forged. Sects that are centred around a particular text invariably pour scorn on those of others. Many scriptures have been lost to history; the texts of these losers, however sacred to their adherents, whatever insights they may have provided for humanity at large, are forgotten.
The reason for all this is clear - a religious text may be timeless and transcendent (or regarded as such), but humans, their societies and institutions are not. However inspired a particular set of revelations might be, and however profound the insights they might provide into the great questions of Man's place in the order of things, situations are bound to arise that were inconceivable at the time of their inception. The 'eternal' quality of the Sacred Word has always been subject to the forces of change - and to Man's restless, interfering, territorial nature.