About our sacred texts
The British Library is one of the world's great treasure-houses for the study of all religions.
Our holdings include important collections of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. They range from some of the best-known and most beautiful handwritten copies (manuscripts) of the scriptures of various religions to a very extensive collection of printed editions, both early and modern.
Items include one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible from the 10th century; and some beautifully illustrated examples, especially from Spain and Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries; scrolls of the Book of Esther read during the Jewish Spring Festival of Purim; Haggadot manuscripts, such as the sumptuously decorated Golden Haggadah and the Barcelona Haggadah, read in Jewish homes on Passover Eve; and many early printed editions such as the copy of the Babylonian Talmud printed at Venice 1520-23 that once belonged to King Henry VIII.
Among the texts are the earliest known manuscript of the complete Greek New
Sinaiticus, fourth century); one of the three earliest manuscripts
of the complete Greek Bible (Codex
Alexandrinus, fifth century); and the seventh-century masterpiece
of Anglo-Saxon art, the Lindisfarne
Gospels. The printed books include the Gutenberg
Bible (Mainz, 1454-55), one of only two copies of the earliest English
translation of the Bible by William
Tyndale (Worms, 1526) as well as the King
James Bible of 1611, otherwise known as the Authorised Version.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity
The various national churches comprising Eastern Orthodox Christianity are also well covered, including Russian, Bulgarian (with the beautifully illustrated Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander from the 14th century), Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Syrian, Nubian, and from the Ethiopian Church, beside Gospels and Psalm Books, favourite texts such as the Miracles of Mary. The Ethiopian scriptures also hold significance for the Rastafarian community.
Items include over 300 manuscripts of the Holy Qur'an from all parts of the Muslim world from Spain to China, including one of the oldest surviving copies in the world (from Mecca or Medina, eighth century); as well as commentaries, works on recitation and other Qur'anic sciences, a very large collection of Hadith manuscripts containing the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and a comprehensive collection of Islamic law texts.
The earliest manuscript of the Rgveda to reach Europe in 1789, copies of the Bhagavadgita, and beautifully illustrated examples of more popular texts such as the Bhagavatapurana containing the life of Krishna and the Ramayana telling the story of Rama and Sita, and many other famous sacred texts such as the Gitagovinda ('The Song of the Cowherd') in praise of Krishna and the Devimahatmya. There are translations of works from Sanskrit into all the modern Indian languages, such as Tulsi Das' Hindi Ramayana, the Ramcaritmanas ('The Lake of the Acts of Rama'), and the works of other devotional poets such as the Tamil Alvars, and Sur Das and Mira Bai.
A unique collection for tracing the spread of Buddhism beyond its Indian homeland along both the Northern (Mahayana) route to Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, and the Southern (Hinayana) route to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, etc. Among the great Buddhist treasures are the earliest surviving Buddhist manuscripts in the world, the first-century Kharosthi scrolls from ancient Gandhara (modern Afghanistan), the Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra dated 868 (the earliest dated printed document in the world), the Hyakumanto-dharani ('One Million Pagoda Prayers)' of the eighth-century Empress Shotoku from Japan. From Tibet important copies of the Kanjur and Tanjur canons, and from India itself 12th-century beautifully-illustrated manuscripts from Bengal and Bihar of the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita ('The Perfection of Wisdom').
The oldest, though incomplete, copy of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Adi Granth or 'First Book') to be found outside India and one of the 20 earliest manuscripts known, as well as copies of the Dasam Granth ('Tenth Book') of Guru Gobind Singh and the Janam Sakhis telling the life-stories of Baba Nanak. Early and modern printed editions of the Sikh scriptures are also held.
Many copies of the scriptural works known as Angas, the Kalpasutra ('Book of the Ritual') on the lives of Mahavira and the other founders of Jainism, including many illustrated copies from the 15th century onwards, and stories of Jain heroes. Works of both the Shvetambara and the Digambara sects are represented, but the Digambara literature is far smaller in extent.
For Zoroastrianism (also known as Parsism after those who fled from Iran to India) the oldest surviving copy of the most sacred prayer, the Ashem vohu, in the now dead language Sogdian from the ninth century; a copy of the law book Videvdad completed in 1323 and one of the four earliest known manuscripts in Avestan (the language of the founder Zoroaster); and many other Avestan scriptures dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, together with other texts in Pahlavi (the languages of Sassanian Iran), Gujarati, and Persian. The Library also has the only known copy of the first Parsee work printed in India, the Khordeh Avesta (Bombay, 1798).
The British Library is also a wonderful source of information for less well-known religions and spiritual belief systems - some that have died out, some that are less formalised, or more localised, than the major world religions, and some that have fewer adherents today or which have completely died out. These include Bahaism, founded by Baha' Allah in 19th-century Iran, of which the Library holds over 100 documents in Persian and Arabic, some recently donated; the pre-Buddhist religions of Tibet and Japan, known as Bon-Po and Shinto; Taoism (Daoism) from China with its texts the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu; Confucianism, now best known for the I-Ching ('The Book of Changes'); Manichaeism which originated in early Iran; Nestorianism, including a 15th-century manuscript from Iraq and copies of inscriptions from Central Asia; and the wide variety of forms of African traditional spirituality.