History of religious texts
The oldest known religious text is the Kesh Temple Hymn of Ancient Sumer, the oldest version of which dates to around 2600 BCE. The earliest form of the Phoenician alphabet found to date is the inscription on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos (The Sumerian Temple Hymns) circa 1000 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumer, with origins as early as 2150-2000 BCE, is also one of the earliest literary works that includes various mythological figures. The Rigveda of Hinduism is proposed to have been composed between 1700–1100 BCE making it possibly the world’s oldest religious text still in use. The oldest portions of the Zoroastrian Avesta are believed to have been transmitted orally for centuries before they found written form, and although widely differing dates for Gathic Avestan have been proposed, scholarly consensus floats at around 1000 – 600 BCE.
The majority of scholars agree that the Torah’s composition took place over centuries. From the late 19th century there was a general consensus around the documentary hypothesis, which suggests that the five books were created c.450 BCE by combining four originally independent sources, known as the Jahwist, or J (about 900 BCE), the Elohist, or E (about 800 BCE), the Deuteronomist, or D, (about 600 BCE), and the Priestly source, or P (about 500 BC).
The first scripture printed for wide distribution to the masses was the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, and is the earliest recorded example of a dated printed text, bearing the Chinese calendar date for 11 May 868 CE.
Attitudes to sacred texts differ. Some religions make written texts widely and freely available, while others hold that sacred secrets must remain hidden from all but the loyal and the initiate. Most religions promulgate policies defining the limits of the sacred texts and controlling or forbidding changes and additions. Some religions view their sacred texts as the “Word of GOD”, often contending that the texts are inspired by GOD and as such not open to alteration. Translations of texts may receive official blessing, but an original sacred language often has de facto, absolute or exclusive paramountcy. Some religions make texts available free or in subsidized form; others require payment and the strict observance of copyright.
References to Scriptures profit from standardisation: the Guru Granth Sahib (of Sikhism) always appears with standardised page numbering while many other religions (including the Abrahamic religions and their offshoots) favour chapter and verse pointers.
Terms like “Holy Writ”, “Holy Scripture” or “Sacred Scripture” are often used by adherents to describe the canonical works of their religion to denote the text’s importance, its status as divine revelation, or, as in the case of many Christian groups, its complete inerrancy. Christianity is not alone in using this terminology to revere its Sacred Book; Islam holds the Qur’an in similar esteem, as does Hinduism the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita and Buddhism the sutras.