What is “Scripture”?
John over at Locusts & Honey has begun talking about “The Gospel of Judas” and, based on the quoted content of his post and the comment discussion, there seems to be a sense that this document should just be dismissed. Another link from his post even calls it a “document of heresy” but encourages a read.
I first must admit that I haven’t seen much about the “Judas Gospel” other than a short segment on the national news the other night, so I have to claim my ignorance on the content. That said, I thought I would pose a question that often runs around in my head:
What makes a text scripture? Who decides? And how do you know they’re right?
When I was in college, one of my first religion classes was called Religion in America with professor Stephen Prothero, which took us from the Protestant Reformation through the Enlightenment and the influence of religion on American thought and culture during its formative years. One of the books we read was American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier. The book basically chronicles the thought process and the lives of the founders as they wrote the Declaration and how it has become a sacred text in the canon of America’s civic religion. It was an interesting discussion of what makes something scripture and why it has the authority it does in the minds of those who follow it. We talked about age, historical significance, a certain amount of myth (using the definition “A popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal“) surrounding its origins, and its continuing influence in the present-day. It’s been so long I should pull it out and read it again.
I then have a follow-up question:
Even if this document isn’t considered scripture, can it tell us anything meaningful? Or should it just be dismissed altogether?
Perhaps it’s a bit rhetorical because, in some ways, I think the designation of a text as scripture is somewhat irrelevant to the message contained in that text. Ultimately it is up to the discerning mind and heart of the reader to determine whether or not there is anything meaningful. I mean, certainly a screenplay isn’t “scripture” but it can definitely speak universal truths. So can a novel or a piece of art or stillness while sitting in the forest. Not all screenplays contain “truth” – the definition of “truth” could be another discussion altogether! Not all novels, art or quiet moments carry ultimate meaning either. But I think there’s something to be said for the subtle signs that point to greater understanding that can be found almost anywhere, even in conflicting accounts.
I don’t believe every word of the Bible should be taken literally or given equal weight, yet I still see it as scripture. The same goes for the Qur’an, the Gita, and other sacred texts of the world. But I do believe there is something to be gained from each. I see the common threads of living rightly in our personal lives and in community and treating all others with dignity and respect even, and especially, if they are strangers or enemies. These common themes, and others, point towards the ultimate truths.
I’ll end on this question:
Could your definition of scripture include text held to be sacred by faiths other than your own? And, if so, what makes you believe one set of scripture over another?