Major Texts of World Religions
The Jefferson Center also offers courses on world religions, which involve the close study of major religious texts. In the first place, that means reading, in an open-minded way, the major scriptures of different world religions, including the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Koran, and key texts from other traditions. It also involves the careful study of some of the greatest works of theology, which respond to the scriptures. The intent is to introduce students to the major questions about God and religion, to consider what faith is, and what its proper place is in a fully lived human life. Below is a sampling of some of the key texts that we study.
Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall
(Photo Source: Dror Feitelson via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project)
There are several very good translations of the Bible available. The King James Bible still distinguishes itself for its accuracy and its probably-unsurpassed beauty. The New Oxford Annotated Bible has excellent translations as well as very helpful notes for readers. The Catholic Study Bible contains the translation of the Bible that Catholics currently use, together with a number of helpful essays. One can profitably study any of these translations.
We also recommend Robert Alter’s excellent and quite literal translations of particular books of the Hebrew Bible where they are available, as we have noted below.
The Book of Genesis
Of course, there is no text as foundational in Western religion as the Book of Genesis. It begins with the story of Creation, describes the Fall of Man and the origin of sin, and then develops at length the character of the covenants that God lays down with His people. Virtually every character who appears in the book has a remarkable story and is worthy of extensive consideration. For those new to the study of the Bible, we recommend looking at the story of the Creation and the Fall in the first three chapters, and trying to understand what the character of Adam and Eve’s sin is. After that, the figure of Abraham, whose story is told in Chapters 11-25, merits particular consideration, since he represents a peak of righteousness in the Book of Genesis. The famous exchange with God about Sodom and Gomorrah at the end of Chapter 18, and the binding of Isaac in Chapter 22, are especially fruitful points of departure for discussion.
The Book of Exodus
The Book of Exodus begins with the famous story of Moses, and God freeing the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians. It then begins the account of the Hebrews’ wanderings in the desert, and crucially, tells the story of God giving them the Law, including what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments. The Mosaic Law is the most important expression of the Hebrew Bible’s answer to the question of how human beings should live and how they should comport themselves to the God who cares for them. It may be helpful to consider what the purposes of the law are, or whether it is even legitimate to inquire into its purposes.
The rest of the Torah, especially the Book of Deuteronomy, fleshes out that teaching more extensively, while also telling the story of the rest of Moses’ life, and his death just before they arrive in the Promised Land. The books as a whole provide a comprehensive account of the Bible’s promises and commands, and in so doing, of the meaning of human life.
Recommended Translation: Robert Alter,
Fives Books of Moses, W.W. Norton and Company
The Book of Psalms
The Psalms may well be the most perfect expression of Biblical piety. They are poetic celebration of God’s goodness and meditations on human fate which are infused throughout with a profound sense of love for God. Though the Psalms are all worthy of reading and re-reading, we recommend Psalms 1, 8, 9, 18, 51, 63, 73, 82, and 119 as being of particular interest.
Recommended Translation: Robert Alter,
The Book of Psalms, W.W. Norton and Company
The Book of Job and Qohelet (the Book of Ecclesiastes)
Drawn from the Wisdom literature, and thus likely composed at a much later date than the Torah, these books are profound meditations on the justice of God, and more to the point, how human beings deal with the manifest injustice of the world. In the Book of Job, a righteous man who has suffered terrible misfortune, and who cries out to understand how a just and good God could allow that to happen. Qohelet, on the other hand, which was traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, is a poetic meditation on the harsh realities of human life, especially the manifest injustice of the world of our experience, and on whether any good life is possible for human beings, in light of those facts.
Recommended Translation: Robert Alter, in The Wisdom Books, W.W. Norton and Company
The Four Gospels
The Gospels hardly need an introduction: They present the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and they are the proper starting point for any attempt to understand Christianity. It makes sense to begin with the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, paying special attention to the Sermon on the Mount, which conveys the core of Jesus’ moral teaching, and the story of his death and resurrection. The Gospel of John introduces an additional layer of theological complexity, beginning with its famous opening pronouncement according to which Christ is “the Word [logos] made flesh.”
The Letter to the Romans
The Letter to the Romans is perhaps the most celebrated letter of Paul, in which he addresses questions which cut to the core of the meaning of Christianity, placing particular emphasis on the relationship between Jesus’ teaching on the Mosaic Law which preceded it.
St. Augustine’s Confessions is one of the crucial, early documents of the Christian faith. In it, Augustine presents his own confrontation with Greek philosophy and his ultimate acceptance of Christianity and the birth of his faith. For those who are interested in how philosophic inquiry and exploration can ultimately lead one to faith, there are few texts that serve as better touchstones than the Confessions.
Recommended Translation: F.J. Sheed, Hackett Publishing
Confessions of Augustine
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed
The Guide of the Perplexed is the most philosophic work of the great Jewish medieval thinker, Maimonides. It presents Maimonides’ recasting of key tenets of Judaism in light of what he had learned from Greek philosophy, especially his reading of Aristotle. As such, it is a crucial text for those interested in the relationship between faith and reason. Of particular interest are the introduction to the text; the discussion of God’s corporeality, which serves as a model for discussion in the book as a whole (Book I, Chapters 1-7); the exploration of the “true perplexity” which surrounds the question of the eternity of the world (II.13-24); and the remarkable study of the nature and purposes of the Mosaic law (especially II.39-40 and III.25-50).
Recommended Translation: Shlomo Pines, University of Chicago Press
The Guide of the Perplexed
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 1-7
In the first seven chapters of the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas provides his most accessible statement on the relationship between faith and reason, and the beginning of his case for the ultimate reconcilability of the two. It may be useful to read this in conjunction with the first question from the first part of the Summa Theologiae, which also argues for the compatibility of faith and reason, and sets out an important role for reason as a supplement to faith.
Recommended Translation: Anton Pegis, University of Notre Dame Press
Summa Contra Gentiles
The Koran is of course the core text of Islamic Scripture. Reading it and attempting to understand its complex, subtle teaching is essential for anyone who seeks to understand that faith in its full complexity. Written by Mohammed in the early part of the 7th Century, it conveys the core of the Muslim teaching on how human beings ought to live, as well as providing detailed accounts of the promises of the faith.
Recommended Translation: A very user-friendly edition is available at http://tanzil.net
Ibn Rushd (Averroes), The Decisive Treatise
Averroes was an important but highly controversial figure in the encounter between Islam and Greek philosophy. Written in 12th Century, his Decisive Treatise is a key document in that encounter. It argues for a new method of reading the Koran in light of the knowledge gained from human reason. Though many of the works of the medieval Muslims thinkers are quite difficult, the Decisive Treatise is relatively accessible, and it addresses an issue of obvious and permanent importance for Islam and for other traditions: How to understand the relationship between faith and reason, and how to read Holy Scripture when its literal meaning seems to conflict with natural reason.
Recommended Translation: Charles Butterworth, in
Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook,
eds. Parens and MacFarland, Cornell University Press
The Analects are not so obviously a religious text as the others considered on this list. They do not speak at length about a relationship with any god, but instead, focus on moral and ethical principles that are meant to guide our lives now. Nevertheless, because of the enormous influence they have over the Chinese moral tradition, they have taken on a status similar to that of religious texts. They are certainly worthy of consideration for anyone interested in the diverse ways that the most thoughtful people have believed human beings ought to live.
The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation.
Trans. Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., Ballantine Books.
Additional books of the Bible, including but not limited to The Book of Jonah, The Book of Isaiah, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, The Letter to the Hebrews, and Revelations
Dante, Divine Comedy