Sacred Texts in World Religions
Some sacred texts form the cornerstone of a religion, instilling law, character and spirituality in its people; some are narratives of historical figures in the faith. A text might be viewed as the unchanging “Word of God;” other texts are revised and expanded by later generations. Texts can be literal, or metaphorical, or both. This guide shows you how to find online versions, commentary and historical context of scriptures for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
The Buddhist canon consists of the Sutras: the words and teachings of the Buddha. There are also a number of noncanonical Buddhist texts that provide supplementary teachings, rules of conduct and commentary on transitional states after death. The Tripitaka (Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are three major noncanonical Buddhist texts. The Pali Canon, which means “the word of Buddha,” includes some of the Buddha’s discourse, but it also incorporates the teachings of his pupils. Different sects of Buddhism follow canonical and noncanonical scriptures to varying degrees.
- Unlike other Buddhists, Zen Buddhists don’t emphasize the sacred texts. The very nature of Zen Buddhism is transcending intellect, logic and language, drawing nearer to the meaning of life through meditation.
To learn about the texts …
The Buddhist Society
outlines the different scripture sets, including the Pali Canon, Sanskrit Canon, Mahayana texts, Tantric texts and the Tibetan and Mongolian Canon. Find them by clicking the "Scriptures" link on the left sidebar.
’s "Sutras" page summarizes the significance of ancient Buddhist texts, provides actual scriptures and writings, as well as links to contemporary expert analyses of the sutras. Go to "The Buddhist Scriptures
" for an introductory essay on the topic. The "Buddhist File Library
" provides links to many texts from different Buddhist sects, including Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan and Zen/Chan writings.
To access texts and commentary …
The Internet Sacred Text Archive
has a large holding of Buddhist scripture and scholarly books and essays from the public domain. This is probably the best selection available on the Web, as it includes such renowned pieces as the Zen classic by Ekai, “The Gateless Gate
,” and Dwight Goddard's “A Buddhist Bible
.” It has texts from nearly all Buddhist sects, most of which can be found in their entirety, and in English. Take advantage of this great resource.
For the Pali Canon ...
Access to Insight
claims to have the largest collection of English-language texts from the Tipitaka, or Pali Canon. Acccording to the site, several of the lesser-known books have not been translated into English; it’s therefore impossible to read the entire canon without learning Pali.
Pali Text Society
publishes English translations and ancillary works related to the study of the Pali Canon; all are available for purchase on this UK-based site. Choose a publication from the left sidebar. Note: as shipping and monetary conversions must be calculated, buyers receive an invoice.
For the Sanskrit Canon ...
The Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon
Web site, a joint project of the University of the West in Los Angeles and the Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods in Nepal, offers free online access to the Sanskrit version of the Canon.
Christianity combines the Jewish Old Testament with the New Testament to form the Christian Bible, which followers refer to as the Holy Scriptures. There are many noncanonical texts in the Christian religion as well. Protestants believe in the preeminence of the Holy Scriptures, as the Reformation was a return to the early days of Christianity prior to the policies and creeds developed by the Catholic Church hierarchy.
- The New Testaments for Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox are the same. However, the Old Testaments differ: Catholics and Orthodox use more books from the Old Testament than the Protestants do; the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, unlike Protestant Bibles, are based on the “Septuagint” (explained in the links below).
To learn about the Bible …
The University of Notre Dame
Web site offers an outline of the history of the written Jewish and Christian Bibles, and explains the reasons behind the differing versions of the Bible used by Catholics and Protestants.
The Christian Bible Reference Site
is a nonsectarian site with a section that provides a “Summary of the Bible,” covering the New and Old Testaments and their respective books in simple terms. It also features Bible quizzes, and an alphabetical index
of questions, Bible stories and the Bible’s stance on controversial issues such as abortion and war.
For Christian holy texts …
is a powerful reference tool that gives you access to many versions of the holy texts in several languages. The quick search tool can help you find a specific passage or search for verses on a certain theme. Use the more advanced options, such as “Passage Lookup
,” to restrict your search to specific Bible versions or books.
is an educational site for Bible study. Browse and search an online version of the Bible, then explore the articles available on the site, covering all aspects of the text. This site also hosts forums
, separated into groups for men, women and pastors, that offer ideas for Christian ministry, guidance through personal crises and discussion boards.
The Holy See
is the first stop for the official versions of fundamental Catholic texts such as the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Documents of the II Vatican Council.
For Christian writings …
Christian Classics Ethereal Library
has a substantial online archive of Christian writings. Go to the “Browse Library” section on the right side of the page to search by author, title, language and more.
For Mormon texts …
allows you to read or listen to audio of Mormon Scriptures on its site. Read or listen to the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
The Vedas, or “Books of Knowledge,” are the foremost sacred texts in Hinduism. These books, written from around 1200 BCE to 100 CE, began with four vedas, or mantras: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. These expanded over time to include Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.
- There are two kinds of Hindu texts: sruti ("heard") or smruti ("remembered"). According to ReligionFacts, sruti are “considered divinely inspired and fully authoritative for belief and practice, while smruti are recognized as the products of the minds of the great sages.”
To learn about Hindu texts …
has a concise overview of the Hindu sacred texts, describing the Vedas, Upanishads, Samhitas, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana.
To access Hindu texts and commentary …
The Internet Sacred Texts Archive
does a great job digitizing the sacred Hindu texts. Not every available interpretation and transcription is provided here, but you’ll find a variety of options. Look for English and Sanskrit versions of the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas, in addition to the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, some further texts and the Bhagavad Gita.
Celextel’s Online Spiritual Library
has English versions of the sacred Hindu texts. The graphic design isn’t the best, but the site is fairly user friendly: to access the material, just click on the text of your choice on the left sidebar.
As the third of the Abrahamic religions, Muslims respect the Old and New Testaments, and consider Jews and Christians to be “People of the Book.” But the basis of Islam is the Quran, divinely revealed to Muhammad over a period of 22 years, beginning in 610 CE.
- The Quran is considered the word of God, and as a result, many people feel that the only way to experience the text in its full form is to read it in the original Arabic. Of course, if this isn’t a viable option, there are plenty of interpretations available in other languages.
- The Quran and the Hadith are the two major texts of Islam. The Hadith, of lesser importance than the Quran, means “narrative” or “report,” and collects the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his followers.
To learn about Muslim texts …
offers one of the simplest introductions to the Islamic holy texts that you’ll find, with an overview of the faith’s two central texts, the Quran and the Hadith. Use the links provided for more detailed explanations.
, a respected Egyptian newspaper, contains this insightful article about the Quran. The selection is long and it covers a number of issues, such as reading the Quran in a language other than Arabic when it is supposed to be read in Arabic, and what a reader should keep in mind when going through the Quran.
To read Islamic holy texts …
's online Quran tool is a truly remarkable resource for anyone interested in the Quran. Click on the “Launch Quran Explorer button” to activate this helpful applet, which lets you jump to any point in the Quran and display the passage of your choice. Choose from a number of different translations to show alongside the original Arabic, and listen to one of five beautiful recitations. The applet allows you to repeat a passage recitation multiple times, which makes this a valuable Quran memorization tool.
The Islamic Texts Society
publishes books about all aspects of Islam, available for purchase on the site. Here you’ll find holy texts translated into English and works from theologians and historians past and present. The Society is a British educational charity that seeks to “promote a greater understanding of Islam among both Muslims and non-Muslims, catering for laypersons as well as academics in the field of Islamic studies.”
Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, and its primary sacred text is the Tanach, or the Jewish Bible, which is composed of the Pentateuch (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). Tanach is an acronym for these three books. Learn all about the Tenach and Jewish commentaries in the links below.
To learn about Jewish texts …
The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
provides a comprehensive explanation of Judaism’s sacred texts, as well as historical synopses about the commentaries or interpretive books written by scholars to explain the sacred texts.
The Jewish Virtual Library
has an article discussing ancient Jewish writings not included in the Tanach. It explores the history and significance of the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and describes how they relate to the Tanach.
To access Jewish texts and commentary …
Navigating the Bible II
's excellent Torah
tool displays the original Hebrew with n'kudot (vowel marks) section by section alongside the English translation and transliteration. Click on the speaker symbol next to any Hebrew line to hear an audio recording of the line. This tool is also available with Russian and Spanish translations. Look for additional tools for Torah study, genealogy, the Jewish calendar and more.
’s online version of “Classic Jewish Texts” shares much of the same information as the site above but with a cleaner layout and superior navigability. The site also includes the texts of Jewish prayers as well as books containing commentary, advice and wisdom.
The Jewish Theological Seminary
lets you follow along with the Torah portions that are read each week in synagogue, supplemented with commentary from selected Rabbis. If you’re not familiar with the Torah, then this Web page may be difficult to understand and follow.
The British Library
presents an eclectic mix of Jewish texts throughout the ages. View a Torah found in China
from 1643–63 or a 14th-century Barcelona Haggadah
. See vivid images of these historical writings and read short summaries explaining what they are. An interesting feature allows you to virtually turn the pages
of some of the books; follow the directions to download the appropriate plug-ins.
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