Biblical Studies Scriptures
Vincent L. Wimbush
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0055


Used interchangeably with Sacred Book, “Scriptures” is the English-language term that is still popularly used to refer to a text or collection of texts deemed to be of special if not unique origins, authority, and power. Users of the term in the Western world tend to assume that “the Bible” of the Jewish and Christian traditions represents either the only instance of such or the example par excellence among some others. A popular linguistic and rhetorical placeholder among cultures of Indo-European origins, the English term originally simply meant (from the Greek hē graphē/hai graphai, ta biblia; Latin, scriptura/-ae; Hebrew, ketav/-uvim) and continues to mean “writing” or “writings” (German, Schrift; Italian, scrittura; French, écriture). But precisely because it is a baseline reference to a collection of writings, or a book, the term is reference to nothing basic or simple; rather, it is freighted shorthand for the most significant site around which turn questions and issues having to do with things that are understood or assumed to matter most and are society-ordering and culture-determining. Wider experiences and perspectives and more information about other scriptures have stimulated questions about, or outright rejection of, some of the narrow notions and assumptions. Segments of both popular and critical scholarly discourses have come to recognize the cross-cultural, if not near-universal, representation of scriptures. Scholarship is still largely focused on particular books and their content and their place within a particular tradition. Only very slowly have a few critics come to engage and wrestle with scriptures as a general social-cultural category and phenomenon and as part of comparative social-historical analysis. So the history of critical thinking about scriptures must be understood as a journey from the scandal of particularity, exclusion, and denial of the others, to the challenge of responding to the reality of multiplicity and difference, with special concerns about the ethic of comparison and the ever-present threat of falling back into different forms of co-optation, hierarchy, and dominance.

Reference Works

There is no complete accessible collection—not to mention critical edition—of the enormous number of all texts identified as scriptures, in English or in any other language. There are only more or less valuable and more or less limited collections based on denominational or cultural/civilizational categories and interests. Far too numerous to list here, they can be accessed through the traditional standing categories. They are of mixed and limited value to the needs of the student of comparative scriptures. Given the enormous complexities and socio-religious and political pressures involved in the comparative and critical investigation of scriptures, the very idea of a complete critical collection of texts may be unrealistic. The one project that has come closest to reflecting a near comprehensive collection is the fifty-volume collection Sacred Books of the East (Müller 1879–1910). Almost all of the collection can now be accessed online at Internet Sacred Text Archive. Directed by F. Max Müller, premier philologist and one of the primary founders of the modern comparative study of religion, the collection contains texts from traditions around the world—notably excepting the Jewish and Christian texts that constitute the Bible. The very idea of the collection is important—it reflects what may be called the “invention” of “world religions,” chiefly characterized by a collection of centering texts called scriptures. It also represents a major development in modern critical consciousness in its recognition of the existence and comparability of special-status books sacred to traditions beyond those of the West. Nevertheless, the exclusion of Jewish-Christian texts from the collection raises questions about the ultimate critical assumptions held by conservative contemporaries, if not by Müller himself.

  • Internet Sacred Text Archive.

    Makes accessible almost all texts of the Sacred Books of the East collection. Without the interpretive offices of scholars or religious leaders, it can either enlighten or confuse the curious and fervent readers of religious texts on a scale or to a degree so far unimaginable.

  • Müller, Friedrich Max, ed. Sacred Books of the East. 50 vols. including index. Oxford: Clarendon, 1879–1910.

    Represents translations of major texts of the major traditions around the world as they were identified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—with notable exclusion of texts of the Jewish-Christian Bible. Against Müller’s wishes, this exclusion reflected Western (especially Western Christian) bias: belated and grudging acknowledgment of the existence of the scriptures of other peoples and then their overdetermination and overclassification.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.