The Lost Art of Scripture | Karen Armstrong

Summary of: The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts
By: Karen Armstrong


Embark on an enlightening journey that unravels the intricate history and evolution of sacred texts across a wide spectrum of ancient civilizations. Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts’ illuminates the profound significance of these texts in not only imparting spiritual wisdom but also founding societal norms and shaping political ideologies. Delve into the enthralling world of the Hebrew Bible, the Rig Veda, Chinese scriptures, and many more as Armstrong takes you on a rollercoaster ride through changing social, political, and economic landscapes. Discover how these sacred texts have transformed to accommodate the exigencies of their times, their impacts on different societies, and their relevance to present-day human experiences.

The Genesis of Israel’s Society

The story of Adam and Eve is more than a religious tale. It’s an economic and cultural narrative that shaped Israel’s society. The Israelites used their experience of oppression and exile to create social justice and egalitarianism. However, over time, the political structure shifted away from their founding principles. But in exile, they leveraged their cultural memory and internalized religious texts to transform their traditions into a new scripture – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

The Rig Veda: How Rituals and Beliefs Defined the Aryans

The Aryans settled in modern-day Pakistan and ravaged the locals using their skills as tough nomads. However, their rishis also created the Rig Veda, which outlined their violent lifestyle, but also provided a way out of the cycle of death and rebirth through ritual actions. The concept of rta united the universe and became the Brahman, the energy that pervades all things. Rituals imbued the hymns of the Veda with sensory significance, leading to reverence for the planet and a nonviolent attitude.

Ethics and Politics in Ancient China

The emergence of the first Chinese scripture gave birth to the connection between politics and religion in ancient China, establishing a state education system to train bureaucrats to govern ethically. The Five Classics served as principles of government and code of conduct, enshrining cultural traditions for respect of ancestors and artistic performance. Regular people also played a vital role in upholding cosmic balance through physical rituals. The painful era called the Warring States period led to the development of a new code of conduct, the li, which provided ritual practices to govern public and private life. Although some scholars believe that the li could change Chinese nobility’s behavior into a more humane ruler, some of its compulsory gestures of deference became quite ridiculous.

Ancient Scriptural Identity

The Analects, Hebrew Bible, and Upanishads were developed during chaotic times in China, Israel, and India respectively. These ancient scriptures aimed to inspire kindness and compassion, transcendence of the ego, and devotion to rituals. They offered hope for those faced with violence and destruction, helping people forge a communal identity from chaos. Confucius’s teachings centered on the Mandate of Heaven, and Mencius’s followers believed in cultivating divine virtues. The Hebrew Bible taught future generations the rituals from their destroyed temples, while the Upanishads spread the message that the human self is divine and inseparable from universal reality. These scriptures, born out of uncertainty, continue to inspire and shape identities today.

The Evolution of Scripture

Scriptures adapted to fill existential needs as civilization changes.

The evolution of civilization has led to the evolution of scripture. Across different cultures and time periods, scripture served as a tool to cope with human suffering. Siddatta Gotama, also known as Buddha, developed a new style of yoga practice that enabled him to achieve enlightenment or nirvana, which allowed him to become the Buddha we know today. Those who followed his teachings found that the potential for enlightenment gave them a sense of inner calm. This inner peace allowed them to live with the pain and discomfort brought on by life’s changes.

Buddhist scripture was not the only option for those who wanted to cope with human suffering. Other new scriptures, like the Mahabharata, emerged to ease people’s existential angst. The Mahabharata takes a practical approach to suffering and forces readers to reconcile themselves with uncertainty and focus on present problems. In China, the Han Dynasty established an academy to train bureaucrats in Confucianism, which would remain relevant for two thousand years.

As Chinese philosophers adapted Confucian thought to be relevant to modern times, scholars of Buddhism also adapted their teachings. Two Buddhist traditions developed- Theravada, a solitary, monastic faith and Mahayana, which praises those who compassionately stay in the karmic cycle as bodhisattvas and help others achieve nirvana.

In the Holy Land, a colonial invasion in the form of Greco-Roman influence led to the standardization of the Israelite canon, which became the Torah. The Torah became a tool of faith for the Israelites and proved to be crucial when the Roman emperor Titus burned Jerusalem to the ground. The standardized scripture was all that the Jews had left.

In summary, the evolution of civilization has led to the evolution of scripture. Philosophers, scholars, and practitioners adapted their teachings to fill the existential needs of their changing society.

The Development of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity

The destruction of the temples in Jerusalem had significant consequences that changed the course of Judaism and led to the emergence of Christianity. Following the destruction, Rabbinic Judaism was established, and the Torah was revised to suit the changing world. The Israelite elite developed new interpretations of old stories in the scripture. At the same time, the popularity of Jesus, a barefoot peasant from Nazareth, began to grow among the people. Jesus challenged the violent Roman rule prevalent in his time and pushed for radical egalitarianism as the new political doctrine. Although none of his followers witnessed Jesus’s death by crucifixion, they believed that he would soon establish the Kingdom of God, governed by compassion instead of violence.

As the influence of Christianity grew, debates emerged around the question of whether Jesus was human or divine. Western Christians believed that he miraculously came from God, while Eastern Christians thought he was just a man who accessed divinity. By the fourth century, European Christians started visiting Jerusalem to understand Christianity better and escape barbarians who burned down their towns. Augustine, one of the most influential Western theologians, believed that scripture should change to suit its context. However, his ideas about original sin were darker; he believed that humanity was condemned to eternal damnation because of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, and being born was already a sin. Augustine’s ideas have inspired guilt in Western Christians, a burden that lingers to this day. The development of Rabbinical Judaism and the emergence of Christianity brought hope and significant change to the ancient Near East.

Islam: A Radical New Scripture

In the year 610, the Islamic prophet Mohammed received a message from Allah during a trance in a mountain cave outside of Mecca. Frustrated with the then-predominant, market economy-driven city-states, Mohammed preached for an inclusive outlook on harmonious communal existence. Allah was not a distant god, but one who wanted his followers to “come near” so he could guide them. This message was conveyed through poetry, and eventually compiled into the Quran. Mohammed and his followers faced significant resistance from Mecca, leading to their migration to Medina. Their time in Medina would be marked by both acquisition raids and peaceful conversion, with this harmonious message catching on across a wider and wider region. Soon, the Muslim armies were wildly successful in their conquests, spreading their message across Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Ultimately, Islam’s inclusive vision proved to offer a cheerier alternative to the stern orthodoxy of the other Middle Eastern religions.

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