The Bible is a Text. So???
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. -John 1:1 NSRV
To consider what I mean when I say that the Bible is a text, let us start with a time before the illustration above, which is a fairly late example of hieroglyphic writing in the Near East. Pre-literate cultures, that is, societies without the availability or awareness of any writing or textual system, are rather hard for contemporary people to imagine. To introduce us to the pre-literate person, let me tell a story (again? Yup, I'm afraid I'm more storyteller guy than non-fiction guy).
My story begins with my transfer to the staff of the admiral commanding U.S. naval forces in Japan. Normally, anyone—military, dependent, or civilian--arriving at the Fleet Activities base in Yokosuka, Japan, attended a week-long class in the basics of living, traveling, shopping and generally gaining a degree of comfort in this strange, new, exciting country. For some reason, however, the admiral's new staffers' orientation consisted of checking into the barracks and being issued a map of the base. So, with the assistance of a shipmate, the first thing I learned was how to navigate the bright red cars of the Kehein Kyūkō railway, which served the Miura Peninsula, our local area, and which, unlike the cars of the Japan National Railway, had no Latin alphabet signage (known as the 'Rōmaji' writing system)1. I also found the Stars and Stripes bookstore on base and bought a little Berlitz phrasebook with which, aided by my best friendly, American, aw-shucks grin and frequent (bad) imitations of Japanese bows, I braved the shops and cafes of Yokosuka, Yokohama and even Tokyo. Then I passed the written test (prepared in rather clumsy and often impenetrable English) for a Japanese driving license, bought a used Toyota Hiace minivan, and, armed with a hand-drawn map (“turn left at big blue building, go past KFC restaurant...”), set about locating the prefectural vehicle registration office in Yokohama.
I've had easier days navigating my way in pitch dark, moonless mountain forest with a Silva compass and a Geodetic Survey map. The Kanto plain (the general Tokyo-Yokohama area) is solid metropolitan city, and its roads were laid out in the days of carts and human-carried palanquins. Highway 16, the main route from Yokosuka to Yokohama, is portrayed on Google Maps by a wide, yellow line, apparently indicating status as a major road. In the real world, it is a twisty, colorful, narrow street clogged with cars, small trucks, delivery mopeds and bicycles. And, as I found out a few blocks beyond the safe confines of the Fleet Activities area, the unsuspecting gaijin (literally “outside person;” not always meant in a neutral way) behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time on Highway 16 is a good candidate for what the medicos now call a 'cardiac event.'
The problem, I soon realized, was that I was confronted with a surfeit of sensory input. Even though the speed limit was a bit over 25 mph, and traffic seldom moved that fast, I was anxiously watching every car, motor scooter, bike and pedestrian in sight, figuring out what they were doing or planning to do, and reacting, or trying to. And then there were traffic signs. International signage for things like stop, turn/do not turn, and so on were no problem, but the rest of the stuff, well, the Japanese use several different alphabets and writing systems, and I only understood the numbers, the tiny handful of Romaji letters used on signs, and three Kanji, or Japanese ideographs: the ones for Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kanagawa.
Within a week, of course, I was rollicking along (or crawling, at times) Highway 16, singing along with the American Forces Radio (Far East Network, Tokyo; 810 on your AM dial) morning and evening drive shows without a care in the world. It was only later, in grad school, that I learned to describe what had happened.
Psycholinguists and cognitive researchers describe something they call 'schema' theory.2 The easiest way to describe schema is to recall the old saying that “If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” In other words, when we encounter new things, we tend to interpret them by comparing them to things we already know. So, if we see a feathered thing walking on webbed feet and quacking, we search our memory for similar items, and bingo(!), it must be a duck. This allows us to identify and react to things around us without having to use a lot of what computer folks would call 'processing' and 'memory'. On the other hand, if we encounter things that don't easily match other, similar things, we have to focus more attention—more time and 'processing power'--to try and figure out what's going on. So, when I encountered Japan from a whole new viewpoint that required me, as a vehicle operator, to respond appropriately and (more importantly) quickly, I was in a continuous state of near-panic, unable to rely on the fast, seemingly instinctive interpretations ingrained by years of safe driving.
Reading is much the same. We depend on a long history of learned responses to master 'new' texts. Imagine a world with no texts, no history of writing, with communication and language only available through speech, gesture, and the occasional primitive technological aids, such as leaving a pile of rocks to mark a trail. But even in such a 'primitive' society, it does not take much for its members to develop and assign a meaning. For example, in 1994, the Navy returned the small Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe to the state of Hawaii after decades of use a naval gunnery range. I spent a couple of days on the island leading a combat camera team documenting Navy specialists removing and destroying unexploded ordnance on the island, and filming a few of the more than 500 traditional religious and shrine sites. An expert on island sites showed us these sites by stopping and pointing to various locations, which seemed to us to be normal-looking parts of local vegetation. Obviously, what the early Polynesians saw there was not what we saw, even when it was pointed out to us.
Many pre-literate societies believe in the power of spoken (or chanted) words—mostly nouns, or names of things—to deliver power over the thing named to the person who uses, or 'owns,' the name.3 Thus a hunter might sing or chant a 'power' song to attract his prey before setting out on a hunt. Presumably, something like this may have been involved when early artists began drawing pictures on cave walls or rock prominences.4 Such paintings were arguably the inspiration for the invention of writing. In hieroglyphics, for example, we clearly recognize many 'signs' as representations of real animals, people or things.
What is obvious about my experiences in Kanagawa, as well as the gradual procession of pre-literate societies from painting and drawings to a technology that could transfer denotation from oral speech to a visual representation of it, is the constant concern with something that we call 'meaning.' Meanings in an oral society are significantly different than meanings in a literate one. In the former, once grasped, meanings are temporary, fleeting, and easily changeable. To maintain a meaning means relying on memory (which can itself change quickly and radically) and constant repetition in conversation, discussion and talk. One can see, then, how creating a picture or drawing of something could serve as what Plato called “a tool for remembering.”5 Or, as we might put it today—and which non-literate people cannot do--'look it up.' When non-literate people finally encounter literacy, there is a bumpy and lengthy road between the pre-literate society and the literate one.
From orality to literacy.6
Oral literature, with no technology available for remembering, uses various strategies for preserving knowledge, many of which are present in the Hebrew scriptures. One of them is a reliance on condensed, easy-to-remember bits of wisdom, particularly proverbs. Another is the use of stock characters and stylized individuals. Some of the narrative strategies present in textual writings, such as suspense, simply do not appear in oral narratives, which tend to be straightforward, and which keep details to a minimum; or, more properly, unless details themselves constitute a separate but equally important bit of cultural knowledge or narrative.7 There are almost no details, for example, in the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac's near-sacrifice except those absolutely necessary to the plot.8 Poetic devices, such as rhyme, meter, parallelism or alliteration, often appear in oral literature in order to facilitate composition and memorization.
Above all, oral literature remains dependent upon frequent repetition, discussion and supplementation within the community; it, in a sense, survives by continuing to be alive in oral discourse. For century after century, oral literature remains, for most people, the primary method of developing and passing on individual and communal understanding. Text, while it is later often known to and available to select members of the community, is a technology, and like all technologies, its use depends on demand. For a relatively simple community, particularly an agrarian one, there is little or no demand for writing. Knowledge is passed on person-to-person, entertainment or ritual is likewise a social activity that requires no script; indeed, serious rites may be protected and kept private through transmissions only between trusted insiders.
The spread of literacy depends, like the spread of any technology, depends on demand. In the ancient world, the primary source of demand was empire and trade. In the book of Esther, for example, we see that the written promulgation of imperial decrees has become so critical to the empire that once written, a decree cannot be altered, even by the emperor himself. a fact that is critical to the story's plot 9 The feast of Purim becomes a festival established not by tribal custom, but by a text. (9:32, “and it was fixed in writing.” Similarly, the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah takes place not by their membership in a priestly caste or a tribal leadership position, but by virtue of their position as imperial scribes, graduates of the imperial scribal school. It is their reading of the texts of the Torah (texts that the scribes themselves edited and recorded) that returns the post-exilic remnant to their historic worship of God and observance of the Levitical and Deuteronomic regulations.
It behooves us, then, to be aware of the role of orality and the often tenuous nature of the transitional status of older biblical texts as they pass from their original form into their modern one. It is also important to note dual roles of text and orality in the post-resurrection texts, as their authors work in a society reliant on the heavily textual Greco-Roman tradition. For example, Peter, a Galilean fisherman/businessman who grew up learning sufficient marketplace Greek to sell his fish on the King's Highway (probably as a third or fourth language) and polished it ministering to new Christians, took advantage of a scribe to put his words into a literate form in 1 Peter.10 This is a typical role for a scribe in societies with multiple languages and textual forms in use,11 but later, without the faithful Sylvanus, he is forced to use his own best—but not as polished—efforts in 2 Peter, with the result that modern scholars of Koine Greek remain divided about the authorship of the book.
1To encourage rapid rebuilding after WW2, the Japanese government promoted the development of private railways connecting to the government-built JNR system.
2Piaget, Jean. Construction of Reality in the Child (London, Routledge; 1957); Vygotsky, Lev S. Thought and Language, Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA; Harvard UP, 1986).
3A common 'leftover' of such beliefs can be seen in societies, such as the Vietnamese, where people use personal nicknames in dealing with non-family members.
4Giamattista Vico and Ferdinand de Saussure both commented on the symbolic and/or mystical possibilities of neolithic and paleolithic art; more recently, South African scientist D.J. Lewis-Williams' work, including The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Port Melbourne, Aus., Thames and Hudson; 2004) treats the shamanistic nature of cave art.
5Plato. Phaedrus. (Https://classics/mit.edu.Plato/phaedrus.html)
6For this section, I draw heavily on Ong, Walter J, SJ. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, Methuen; 1982); Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA, Belknap P of Harvard UP; 1963); and Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales (Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature #24; Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP, 1960).
7Odysseus' Scar, in Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, Princeton UP, 1968), pp. 1-23/
8Genesis 22:1-19. See also ch. 3, Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know), in Derrida, Jacques .The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2008), pp. 54-81.
9e.g. “...for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked.' Esther8:8 (NSRV).
10He credits Sylvanus (5:12).
11For a fictional, but accurate look at this activity, see Kim's use of the scribe in India after he is sent off to school in Kipling's famous novel of the same name.