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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 19/10/2020

Last modified: 19/10/2020


Although the word 'texts' might imply a written document, the term has a wider scope in the field of religious studies.




Although the word ‘texts’ might imply a written document, the term has a wider scope in the field of religious studies. We can consider four categories of texts:

  1. Written documents. The most easily recognised form of text, for example the Bible or the Qur’an. Though often considered ‘fixed’ and unchanging, written texts are frequently altered and edited over long periods, and alternate versions of the same text are sometimes purged to create the image of uniformity.
  2. Oral traditions. These can be stories and songs that are preserved through verbal repetition and memory, and are performed for others to listen to or witness. Oral traditions, particularly those which can be written down, often migrate into written documents, for instance the Oral Torah is a Jewish religious text that was originally shared verbally before being codified.
  3. Artistic creations. It is also possible to view art, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, as a kind of religious text. Artistic representations such as the paintings of Krishna commissioned by the Gaudiya Vaishnavite group ISKCON are a good example (http://www.krishnapath.org/art-gallery-home/art-gallery-of-krishna-and-his-devotees-transcendental-pastimes/), as are the icons in Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Leshan Giant Buddha in China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leshan_Giant_Buddha).
  4. Architecture. We can also look at architecture as a text that can be ‘read’ or interpreted. Choices made in the composition of a building, such as the adornment of walls with religious iconography, can have clear implications for how that building is understood and what it means for those who use it. An example of this is the Hindu BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, UK (http://londonmandir.baps.org/), which was built according to an ancient religious tradition – you can read more about how and why the temple was built here: http://londonmandir.baps.org/the-mandir/how-it-was-made-in-detail/

Texts as functional entities

Now that we have a better idea of what a religious text is, we can consider the various functions that they perform; the most obvious of which is to hold information, providing a way for details, instructions, and narratives to be recorded and then accessed later.

For instance, the Bible contains many books that are treated, or can be read, as history – the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a repository of the sayings and activities of the Christian messiah. In the same vein, the Qur’an is believed to contain messages that God communicated to Muhammad and his people during the seventh century, including instructions on how to live in accordance with God’s will.

Generally speaking, information storage is a function that all religious texts perform - there are no ‘nonsense’ religious texts (even the Principia Discordia was trying to communicate something – read at your peril fnord), however, there is certainly a difference between the meaning ‘put into’ a text by its creator(s) and the meaning retrieved by the text’s users.

For example, it’s unclear what meaning was intended by the builders of megalithic sites like the Giza pyramids (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giza_pyramid_complex) or Stonehenge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge), yet these religious ‘texts’ are nonetheless experienced as meaningful for many modern people (http://www.stonehenge-druids.org/stonehenge.html).

Sometimes, however, the thing to be communicated by a text cannot be recorded in words, paint, or stone; instead the text aims to point beyond itself to a feeling, an aesthetic response, or a spiritual experience. The romantic style of painting commonly used by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was chosen specifically by the organisation’s founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami, to appeal to a Western audience, and to make the stories depicted in his translations of Vaishnava texts seem more realistic. The ISKCON artist Dhriti Dasi explained that for some people ‘…a book or harinam might not have elicited a favorable response to Krishna consciousness, but through these paintings they were attracted to Krishna…’ (https://iskconnews.org/iskcon-painters-feature-krishna-in-california-art-exhibit,2442/).

Another example is the Zen Buddhist koan, a short narrative style that often employs non-sequiturs and impossible questions (what is the sound of one hand clapping?); although koans often feature historical characters, they aren’t necessarily intended to preserve historical events exactly as they happened, but instead are intended to elicit a change in the perception and understanding of the reader.

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.’ No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces. That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out. Nansen said: If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.’

Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two

Koans suggest that the literal information stored in texts can be incidental to the actual purpose of the record and the text then becomes a vector for communicating emotional responses, spiritual experiences, and novel states of mind. These new religious experiences emerge from interactions between the text, the individual, and the cultural context within which they meet – your experience today reading a koan might be very different from that of a novice Zen monk in 12th century Japan.

Ownership and meaning

Part of the cultural context surrounding any encounter with a text is the established tradition of interpretation and ‘authentic’ understanding; many religious texts are guarded by individuals and organisations that claim to know its ‘real’ meaning. This additional information, preserved outside of the text itself, is often found by interpreting material allegorically, or using a special frame of reference to contextualise the events and individuals recorded.

In the text of the Council of Trent, the Catholic church presented itself as the custodian of the authentic message of the Bible, and therefore only its translations and commentaries should be considered valid – no one should ‘…presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church … hath held and doth hold…’ (http://bible-researcher.com/trent1.html).

All of which assumes that the encoding of additional meaning is intentional in some sense, a hidden message left there by the original creator of the text, but in some cases the interpretation may be required simply due to ambiguities in the text. For instance, the Qur’an itself points out that some of its passages are more vague and open to misinterpretation, stating:

It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise - they are the foundation of the Book - and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah.

Qur’an 3:7 – emphasis added

Even though it has been codified in classical Arabic for centuries, there are still ambiguities when it comes to translating Qur’anic passages that have dense, complex, or even contradictory meanings, and therefore Muslims generally consider any translation to be, by necessity, an interpretation, and instead are encouraged to read, listen to, and memorise the text in its original Arabic.


So far, we’ve discussed the storage of information within a text, the feelings that religious texts can elicit, and the meanings that can be extracted via interpretation; however, for texts that have a three-dimensional reality, people can interact in ways that don’t require ‘reading’ in a literal sense. The material aspect of a text can be just as important as its informational content, and can be read in a similar way.

As a way to bridge written and artistic texts, we can look at the way that passages from the Qur’an are used to both sanctify and protect buildings, clothing, and other artefacts. This has led to the production of talismans and amulets (tilasm and ta’wiz), which contain sacred verses, names, or letters, and are used to protect the people who wear or use them. An excellent resource for viewing these is provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Arts (https://metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tali/hd_tali.htm).

A similar practice can be observed in many Jewish households, who store a portion of the Torah in a small container called a mezuzah (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/256915/jewish/What-Is-a-Mezuzah.htm), which is affixed to their doorframes and often touched in remembrance as people pass through.

It’s not only written documents that can find expression and use via material culture: religious buildings, such as the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/en/), or the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall (https://www.sgsss.org/), are texts that can be entered into and interacted with. Religious architectural texts communicate their values and history through physical forms such as stained glass windows, iconography, reproductions of images and words, and statues of significant figures, while also providing a space for worship and contemplation.

In contrast to the fixed form of the examples above, some religious texts may have a performative aspect, and can only be engaged with meaningfully through actions, or observation of the actions of others. Many oral texts behave in this way, and this allows for collaborative development over time. For instance the Oxlajuj B’aqtun performance (which you can watch below) by the Guatemalan group Grupo Sotz’il (http://www.gruposotzil.org.gt/) demonstrates how older religious texts (in this case the Popul Vuh) can inspire the creation of new oral traditions that engage with modern issues.

In summary, we can see that religious texts record information in a basic sense – images depict objects, writings depict characters, buildings express styles – however, literal meaning is not the sole function of religious texts; they can also:

  • encode (or be perceived to encode) additional information, which requires knowledge or insight to interpret;
  • act as vectors for non-represented meaning, meaning that cannot be found in the text itself, but emerges as a result of interactions between the text, the observer, and the cultural context;
  • provide an expression for material culture, taking a variety of forms;
  • serve multiple purposes simultaneously, with different ‘readings’ or purposes layered one over the other, even if they’re contradictory.

In reviewing the functions of religious texts, we cannot ignore the underlying mechanism of information storage, however it’s clear that they aren’t just repositories of data; they carry and inspire meaning in those who encounter, maintain, and use them, and mediate emotion, memory, and power within social groups. Texts can outlast the people and even the cultures that created them, and have the capacity to connect individuals across time and place, and point to ideas without stating them outright.

Image Credits

Photo by Tim van Kempen on Unsplash

See also