10 Most Influential Sacred Texts in History
The Bible is one the most famous and one of the most beautifully written books of all times. Its message has provoked many believers and scholars alike. It consists of 66 books which are divided into two sections – the Old Testament consisting of 39 books and the New Testament which consists of 27 books. Classically a Hebrew text, however, the Bible also reveals middle-eastern influences, while the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 20th century shed a new light on early Christianity and Christ himself.
According to tradition, the Torah was written by Moses at Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle. But historians agree that the Torah probably doesn’t have just one author and that it was written down during the so-called Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BC and finalized in the 2th century BC. Consisting of 39 books, the Torah comprises the first five books of the Bible (Bereishit - Genesis, Shemot - Exodus, Vayikra - Leviticus, Bamidbar - Numbers and Devarim - Deuteronomy) which include both written and oral law of Rabbinic Judaism as well as religious teachings from the furthest reaches of history.
The Quran, the religious text of Islam, has the same historical roots as Judaism and Christianity and consists of 114 chapters, each known as sura. It initially didn’t exist in a written form (the word Quran is derived from Arab for “to recite”) and was composed about 20 years after Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. He, according to the Muslim believe, received the word of God through angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years.
The Vedas (meaning “knowledge”) are comprised of four ancient Indian texts, with the oldest dating from about 1500 BC to 1200 BC. They are not only the oldest form of Sanskrit literature but they are also the oldest writings of Hinduism. The four texts of the Vedas include Rigveda, Yajurveda, Sama-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. The individual verses, known as mantras are comprised of hymns and prose which are explained by the Brahmanas, serving as a complementary prose. Like most other ancient sacred texts, the Vedas are traditionally believed to be divinely revealed.
Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead refers to ancient Egyptian funerary texts that were used from about 1550 BC to 50 BC. The 192 known magic spells were meant to guard a deceased person on their journey to the underworld (afterlife) and help them avoid the pitfalls and deceptions during the journey. The most famous of these spells, the “Weighing of the Heart” spell, was used to help the deceased regain the power of movement and speech in the afterlife. Originally written in hieroglyphic sacred writing, they were painted onto objects. The wealthy Egyptians, however, had them written in a book.
Tao Te Ching
Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text that was according to tradition composed around the 6th century BC by the sage Laozi. It has 81 brief chapters and was first composed in a flowing style of calligraphy. Tao Te Ching is the fundamental text of both philosophical and religious Taoism which also greatly influenced the schools of Legalism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism. Topics explored range from sage advice for the rulers to practical lessons for ordinary people.
The Upanishads were probably composed in India between 800 BC and 100 BC and literally translate to “Sittings near, laying siege to a Teacher”. They are comprised of philosophical texts which form the theoretical basis for Hinduism. The scripture is composed of more than 200 texts though a mere 13 of them are considered primary teachings. Considered by Hindus to contain truths revealed to illustrate the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman), they also describe the very character and form of human salvation (moksha). Though unique from the Vedas, Hindus regard the Upanishads as an extension of the Vedas.
The 700-verse Bhagavad Gita was written in the 5th to 2nd century BC and is a part of the famous epic of Mahabharata. It is basically a call for selfless action which had a profound influence on several leaders of the Indian independence movement including Mohandas Gandhi. The great Indian leader called the Bhagavad Gita his “spiritual dictionary”. The text is a variation of the Upanishads in many aspects including its format and philosophy. However, Bhagavad Gita integrates dualism and theism, whereas the Upanishads are monotheistic.
These canonical scriptures, first transmitted by Gautama Budda are also known as the “Great Treasury of Sutras”. They were written between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. The most vital Sutra is the Lotus Sutra which contains a sermon by Buddha to his followers, teaching them the basis of Buddhism. The word sutra itself means a thread or line that holds ends together (from which are also the English words “sew” and “suture” derived), for the books were initially written on palm leaves and sewn together with thread.
Non-Religious Ancient Books
Some of the most influential ancient books were written without any formal religious prompting. One of such books is the Epic of Gilgamesh which tells the story of the quest for immortality amidst a great flood that bears similarity to the Genesis’ flood. The Iliad, written in the 8th century BC gave many an ideal to strive for. One such aspirer was a Macedonian general named Alexander the Great who is said to sleep with a copy of Iliad beneath his pillow during his campaigns. The works of Plato, written in the 4th century BC are connected with Alexander the Great as well for Plato was the teacher of Aristotle who in turn was Alexander’s teacher.