It is easily recognized that throughout the history of religious traditions texts have served an important role in the continued conceptualization and endurance of the individual faith traditions.[1] In the history of studies on religion, monographs, essays, articles, and books have mostly focused on attempting to interpret these texts in their given religious tradition in order to more fully understand the religion under examination.[2] Written texts have served important functions in the religious cultus since around the time of the earliest writings in ancient Mesopotamian history of the third millennium BCE.

Basing my approach on Durkheim, Frazer, and Freud, I will argue that in the case of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions sacred scripture is analogous to the totem. I will also analyze the role of texts in religious traditions by exploring the world’s first religious writings found in ancient Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamian worldview forms the backdrop for the three world traditions mentioned above.

I will first define the concept of totem as explained by Durkheim, and then I will attempt to answer crucial questions, such as: When do texts enter the religious sphere? Why did the text enter the religious realm? Once the text became an important part of the religious experience, what lasting effects did this have on religion? What functions and roles do texts in religion play today? And, would religions survive without the text? It will be my goal in the end to show what function and role scriptural texts have played in religious traditions, and how, similar to the concept of totemism, the books of scripture a religious community shares today often serve to define that community.


The Concept of “Totem”


The fact that the three different religious groups listed above all have their varying scriptural traditions is important in the context of studies on totem. Durkheim defined totemism as “The species that designates the clan collectively is called its totem. The totem of the clan is also that of each of its members.”[3] He also discusses how the totem rests on the beliefs of the “clan” or religious group, and the rituals involved with the totem do no limit themselves to expressing the kinship between the group and its totem, “For the kinship exists only in so far as it is believed in, and the effect of all these collective demonstrations is to support the beliefs on which it rests.”[4] As Sue Stedman Jones has pointed out, Durkheim moved from defining beliefs about the sacred through sacred objects to defining sacred objects through beliefs about the sacred.[5] In a very similar way, scriptural texts are only found to be of worth if they can successfully symbolize the beliefs of the “clan” or group that holds to a specific religious tradition. In this light, the totem symbolizes the collective unity of the group behind the text, and the text symbolizes the unity of the group by portraying the group’s most sacred beliefs in written form. Thus, scripture can be seen in the same light as the totem for each of the three world religious traditions above.

It is necessary now to ask the questions of history to detail when and where religious beliefs began to be written down, causing later religious groups to organize themselves around and define their clan or group by these specific sacred texts.


When Do Texts Enter the Religious Sphere?


One of the earliest religious texts on record is the archaic Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn.[6] This text is preserved in three copies spanning a number of centuries in the mid-third millennium BCE and is therefore largely comprehensible.[7] We know of a vast collection of texts that were used within a religious context form ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Mesopotamia in general. Their myths are legendary and highly influenced the composition and thought of the authors of many of the texts now in the Hebrew Bible.

Totemism of course goes much further back in history than ancient Sumerian literature, but the exact location in time and place of the origin of the totem is shrouded in more darkness than if we were to speculate if the Kesh Temple Hymn was really the first religious written text in existence. Durkheim posited, basing his ideas on the Darwinian horde, that somewhere in pre-history a group of hunter-gatherers were huddled up around a fire, and experienced what Durkheim labeled effervescence, a collective unity. On the cold night, the group gathered around the fire, they collectively see an animal and from then on designate themselves the “people of [insert animal name].”[8] Although this is highly speculative, it provides a framework that views the group or clan within a collectivist whole, something that has been true of religious traditions throughout the centuries.

Although the Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn was probably not the first religious text, it is the first we have documented in history. The large collection of texts discovered at that time period lends credibility to this period as the era when religious literature began to be highly productive.[9] We can therefore conclude that by at least the mid-third millennium BCE texts entered the religious sphere, and served a similar purpose of unifying the religious group as did the earlier totem. These Mesopotamian texts were especially important for the growth of the later traditions found in the Hebrew Bible.


Why Did the Text Enter the Religious Realm?


The question of why religious texts entered the religious realm is more difficult to assess given the state of history. Asking why groups did specific things will always entail a certain amount of guesswork on the side of the historian, unless the group actually recorded the reasoning behind their decisions.[10] Although we may not know exactly why the ancient Sumerians decided to write down texts like the Kesh Temple Hymn, we can make arguments that plausibly answer why the text came to be within the religious sphere.

In discussing ancient Sumerian wisdom compositions Bendt Alster notes that many of these texts discuss disputations between birds and fish, trees and reeds, and also mention different Sumerian kings. He concludes from this evidence that these compositions most likely came into being through performances made in the courts of the kings.[11] His method is then rooted in the supposed genre or form that the texts seem to have been originally set in.[12]

A more direct answer is that writing was first invented to help communities who had a shared memorized literature provide material that aided that collective memory.[13] The communities had many ancient tales and sagas of origins, battles, gods, heroes, incantations, prayers, wisdom stories, etc. In order to better remember these compositions ancient Sumerians began to develop writings systems, which then transferred from the purely oral realm of handing down traditions by word of mouth, and began to mix into an oral/textual tradition. Many of the Sumerian texts were probably written down long after the language was used in the popular realm. A phenomenon such as this is also found in Indian literature, where Sanskrit continued to be the language of formal education long after the people themselves ceased using the language.[14]

Memory continued to play an important role in the production of texts even in the Hellenistic period. Greek texts were probably only read by those who were (1) familiar already with the stories, and (2) experienced in reading the ancient Greek language. As David Carr has recently pointed out, ancient written texts served as a guide in the oral performance of the text much like a musical score does today.[15]

In ancient cultures an extremely important aspect of religion was the performance of sacred rituals.[16] Many of these ancient texts would have been performed similar to modern plays, but prior to the text being written down the ritual had to be memorized. It appears that the Sumerians were the first people to write down these rituals and myths in order to (1) aid the memorization of these rituals and myths, and (2) keep a record of them for future generations. This tradition would continue on throughout the millennia, where modern western culture has now focused on the textuality, rather than the orality, of ancient sacred traditions.[17]


What Lasting Effects Did Text Have on Religion?


A primary effect that the introduction of text had on religion would not appear until millennia after the first Sumerian religious texts were composed, and literacy rates among the popular culture began to rise. This is obviously very late in the history of religious traditions, but is due to the fact of the religious adherents turning more to the book than to the tradition.[18] This is especially apparent within the Protestant Christian tradition of sola scriptura, which required each individual to become familiar with the text themselves, and base their religious views on what they perceived as solely emanating from the biblical text.

The ancient traditions of writing down sacred texts created a culture that has now become known as “people of the book.” Although this is not a label that would apply to many ancient Mesopotamian cultures, it fully applies to the major religions that have their roots in ancient Judaism. Ancient Israelite myth and religion was steeped in the traditions of the ancient Near East, and ancient Israelite scribes were trained in large part in the scribal schools of Assyria after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel around 721 BCE,[19] when Assyria established Samaria.

The transition from oral tradition to written text established that, to a certain extent, the traditions could not change in large part with every new context or retelling. With this in mind, although the traditions were set in record form, this did not mean that the story could not be altered, or another version written up and the old one discarded. This is true of many ancient Near Eastern texts.[20] With the ability of the length of traditions to grow due to the fact that they could now be written down, the myths began to extend over space and time, rather than simply being isolated short stories.

Without the invention of written text the connection between creation and the beginnings of national history would have been impossible. These concepts have been a longstanding tradition in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions that have been essential to the understanding of self of these separate communities. Without the length and intellectual sophistication of these written texts the influence on later religious traditions would not have been as extensive. The text allowed the individual tradents to mull over their sources, within their respective communities, and interpret the texts for their new situations.


What Functions and Roles Do Texts in Religion Play Today?


To ask what roles texts play in religion today it is necessary to ask what kind of text is being discussed. Not only scripture is used in the liturgy of world religions, especially in Christianity where prayer, worship, and hymn books are all dependent upon, but different from, the religion’s holy scripture.

Taking Christianity as a test case, the text most used in religious worship today is that of the former category, rather than the latter. Even in the Mormon tradition what is called the “Standard Works” (the LDS canon) is very lightly used during the worship services. In Sunday school scriptural texts are only briefly touched upon, and usually, but not always, out of context. Religious adherents are often ignorant of what the actual sacred text says due to the fact that the focus is placed on the principles one may learn from a certain passage, principles that often have more to do with today’s world than the ancient world of the text, rather than having an intimate knowledge of the full text of scripture. This is important for the totemic aspects of scripture of the community today.

In Christianity at large the Bible is used often in defense of the religion. This approach is called apologetics. Apologetics can be done within the religious or secular realms, where a specific traditional position on an issue can be forcibly argued with certain proof-texts of scripture. This is especially common in our day during presidential campaigns. Jacques Berlinerblau has written and debated on the use and misuse of the bible by the American society when it comes to secular organizations, such as Presidential campaigns.[21] Verses will be lifted from the bible and placed into a new context that has little to do with the original writing. This is often a political tactic to pull on the religious strings of the American public, making it seem as if the politicians’ views come with the weight of biblical authority.

The bible is often used in political campaigning to gain adherents to a certain political persuasion. The view that this use (and abuse; i.e. the use of the text in politics) of the biblical text brings is nothing new because many of the ancient texts found in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament arose out of political discontent. As noted earlier, much of the Hebrew Bible began to be written either just before or right after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, and it was especially after that destruction, and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, that the texts began to grow into traditions that would be more recognizable to us today.[22]

With this background in mind, religious texts are used in multiple ways in our contemporary society. The traditional corpora of biblical scripture is used heavily outside of worship services, and the secondary texts created for the liturgy are used in their place, depending on the religious tradition. These texts are all essential for the modern life of the religious community, as it helps to keep the idea of a continuous and unbroken chain of history alive in the hearts and minds of the religious adherents.




As the study above shows, texts have been a very important part of the religious enterprise now for almost five thousand years. The text has transformed many religions into communities reliant on the written word for their religious experience, which in turn is very similar to the concept of totem. In fact, the text is so sacred and is supposed to reflect the identity of the community so much, that misinterpreting the text for many of these religious groups would be just as detrimental as killing the totem in many totemic religions.[23] For many of these religions even the community’s political mindset is dependent upon their understanding of what the divine requires of them as expressed in the scriptural text itself.

It is impossible to say what exactly would happen if the text was to vanish from the religious world today, but it is most likely that many of the traditions would not be able to continue on, as they would lose the binding glue of their communal identity. The biblical texts are far too long for the general populace to remember all of the details, and over time the loss of old texts would only invite creating new ones, orally or textually. For many religions, specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the text has become so much at the center of the religious mind that what would be left over of the religion without the textual tradition would be so unrecognizable scholars would out of necessity classify it as another religion unless some of the basic core stories and traditions were kept intact.

This study has highlighted the similarities between religious text and religious totem, arguing that the two share many commonalities in their function within the religious realm. This is not to say that text and totem fit together nicely in every way, but it does suggest that this area of research could be fruitful for future studies.


[1] Religious texts can include drawings, writings, etc. (anything written down to record the thoughts and beliefs of the religious adherents. In this paper I will focus specifically on texts that are in written form, which go no further back than about the third millennium BCE.

[2] This is true of religious traditions with studies on Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism to a certain extent. It becomes more difficult for religions that are based in societies that do not have strong formal training in writing, but at least since the end of the 19th century scholars have interviewed many rural religions in Africa and India and have written down their traditions. Although not always accurate, these texts are then used to discuss the traditions of the given religious group.

[3] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (trans. Carol Cosman; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 88.

[4] Emile Durkheim, quote in Sue Stedman Jones, “The Concept of Belief in the Elementary Forms,” in N. J. Allen, et al, On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 55.

[5] Sue Stedman Jones, “The Concept of Belief in the Elementary Forms,” 55.

[6] Translated by R. Biggs in “An Archaic Sumerian Version of the Kesh Temple Hymn from Tell Abu Salabikh,” in Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie, Vol. 61 (1971), 193-207; cf. also Bendt Alster, “On the Earliest Sumerian Literary Tradition,” in Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), 109-126.

[7] See the comments along these lines in A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.

[8] See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms, xxi.

[9] For translations of these texts see the Yale Oriental Series, Babylonian Texts series: (last accessed 4/20/2014).

[10] See the similar remarks of Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle in Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 94.

[11] Alster, “On the Earliest Sumerian Literary Tradition,” 110.

[12] For a recent critique of this method in general, and how it is used in biblical studies specifically, see Benjamin D. Sommer, “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism,” in Thomas B. Dozeman, et al, eds., The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 78; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 85-108.

[13] See Alan Millard, “Literature,” in Piotr Bionekowski and Alan Millard, eds., Dictionary of the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 183.

[14] See Alster, “On the Earliest Sumerian Literary Tradition,” 109, nt. 2.

[15] David M. Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 4.

[16] This is not to say that this is exclusive to ancient cultures, but rather it is intended to stress that it was extremely important and central for ancient cultures, while contrasting the approach of religions today to (sometimes in a very boring way) read the text, rather than perform the text.

[17] Carr opines the existence of a false dichotomy between the orality and textuality in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, 6, nt. 11. He also goes on in chapter four in an attempt to explain intellectual mores of this tradition as coming out of Plato’s philosophy of memory and literacy. Other scholars, such Barbar A. Holdredge (Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture [Albany: State University of New York, 1996]), compare and contrast Vedic and Jewish uses of text as focused on orality (Vedic) and textuality (Jewish) of sacred scripture.

[18] Albert Lord creates a false dichotomy when he states that “It is conceivable that a man might be an oral poet in his younger years and a written poet later in life, but it is not possible that he be both an oral and a written poet at any given time in his career. The two by their very nature are mutually exlcusive” (Lord, The Singer of Tales [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960], 129). Not only is it possible for a poet to be both an oral and a written poet at the same time, it would be required in many cases. The text is manufactured, as noted above, to assist in the memory of the text. Carr goes on to point out that cognitive psychologists have found “that the human mind generally cannot remember more than fifty lines without written aids for accurate recall” (Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, 7).

[19] See William M. Schniedewind, A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origin Through the Rabbinic Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 77.

[20] For an ancient Mesopotamian example see Jeffrey H. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Wauconda: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); for ancient Israelite examples of rewritten bible, see Sidnie White Crawford, Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008).

[21] Jacque Berlinerblau, Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).

[22] A good example of this is the text of Isaiah, which is seen as having been written by at least three authors (First Isaiah, roughly chapters 1-39; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55; Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66), and then redacted into one text by a later trident. First Isaiah is seen as being written by the actual individual Isaiah of Jerusalem in the late eight century BCE; Deutero-Isaiah was most likely written after the return from exile late in the sixth century BCE; and, although it is clear that Trito-Isaiah was written after both of the earlier texts, it is difficult to assess the exact dating of this text. See Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 19; New York: Doubleday, 2000).

[23] See James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1958), 799.

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