Graphic featuring the covers of the four books in the Four Books essay

Four Books on Material and Iconic Sacred Texts

By Bradford A. Anderson

For many people, the idea of scriptures is coterminous with textuality: this is seen in the very names we give these collections, from scriptura to sacred texts. Indeed, scholarship on scriptures across religious traditions has tended to focus on what James Watts has called the “semantic dimension” of these works—that is, their words and the messages that they convey. And yet, scriptures are much more than just written texts. They are also, for example, embodied in material forms and used as icons for reasons ranging from the religious to the political.

Inspired by developments such as the material turn and studies in book history, recent decades have seen a growing body of creative and fruitful research exploring exactly these issues, namely, how paying closer attention to materiality and iconicity can shape our understanding of the origins, use, and impact of sacred texts. I highlight here two edited volumes and two monographs that I have found particularly helpful in my own reflection on these matters. In different ways—and across different traditions—these works demonstrate how attention given to matters of materiality and iconicity can help illuminate our understanding of the way in which sacred texts are produced, used, and received in religious traditions and beyond.

The books noted below are just a snapshot of a growing field, as scholars continue to discover the utility of moving beyond the ‘textuality’ of sacred texts to explore issues such as materiality and iconicity. James Watts has collated a helpful bibliography of this area, which readers might also find useful.

Iconic Books and Texts, Edited by James W. Watts (Equinox, 2013)

Iconic Books and Texts is a collection edited by James W. Watts that brings together a number of important essays that were published in two earlier issues of the journal Postscripts (from 2008 and 2010). The twenty-two essays in this volume focus on the iconic dimensions of books and texts broadly understood, though many deal specifically with scriptures, ranging widely across traditions and approaches. Here the focus is on the symbolic, social, cultural, and ritual use of books. The chapters are brought together in sections that explore issues such as categorizing iconic books, the relationship of text and image, book rituals, and the dynamics of power and scholarship. A number of the essays in this volume have gone on to become important touchpoints for reflection on these issues—including Watts’ essay on “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures”; Dorina Parmenter’s “The Iconic Book: The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals”; S. Brent Plate’s “Looking at Words: The Iconicity of the Page”; and Timothy Beal’s “The End of the World as We Know It: The Cultural Iconicity of the Bible in the Twilight of Print Culture.”

The Death of Sacred Texts:Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions,  Edited by Kristina Myrvold (Ashgate, 2010)

Kristina Myrvold’s edited collection, entitled The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions, explores a fascinating—if underappreciated—aspect relating to the materiality of sacred texts. What happens when a sacred text needs to be disposed of? How do religious traditions envision the life cycle of these texts in their physical forms? The essays in this volume offer illuminating reflections on these matters in relation to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and more. Not only do the contributions in this collection remind us that all texts are embodied, but they also point to the “social lives” of scriptures as physical artifacts, and what this means for the traditions that place such value on them.

The Jewish Bible: A Material History, by David Stern (University of Washington Press, 2017)

David Stern’s volume, The Jewish Bible: A Material History, is an insightful and illuminating foray into the materiality of one tradition’s sacred texts. Stern takes the reader on a journey from the Jewish scroll to manuscript culture, to the rise of the printing press, and beyond. Along the way he highlights how issues of materiality have been intimately tied not only to the production of these texts, but also to their use and impact. This is an engaging and accessible study of the material history of the Jewish scriptures, and a helpful example of why paying attention to materiality is important for a more robust picture of how these texts have shaped both Judaism and the wider world, beyond just the words and texts found within them.

Qur’anic Matters: Material Meditations and Religious Practice in Egypt, by Natalia K. Suit (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Qur’anic Matters: Material Meditations and Religious Practice in Egypt is a monograph from Natalia K. Suit. She outlines how issues of materiality are central in the story of the Qur’an’s origins, its use, and its reception in Islam. Suit demonstrates how technological and material developments have played a crucial role in the reception of the Qur’an in Egypt, notably the rise of printed Qur’ans and the more recent shift to digital formats. In doing so, she helpfully explores how materiality has played a significant role in a number of diverse issues, from theological authority and orthodoxy to how notions of gender and purity affect access to the text in its various material forms. The end result is a fascinating and important study on the interrelationship of the message and materiality of the Qur’an.

Bradford A. Anderson is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Dublin City University, Ireland. He is the general editor of the journal Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, and has recently published a commentary on Hosea, Joel, and Obadiah Through the Centuries (Wiley, 2024).