Henk Medema

Why God was an Author, but Jesus was not: thoughts on orality and literacy

As a publisher and author, I continue to marvel about the phenomenon of writing. What is the advantage of literacy above orality? Or the other way around? Why is Christianity (with Judaism and Islam) a religion of the Book, the written Word? Or is it at all, if we realise that for so many centuries until Gutenberg most Christians did not have any Bible at their disposal? Starting from the other side is René Munnik, who in a recent paper (Radix 36, p.91ff) connect writing with the power of self-revelation. The enormous advantage of JHWH, he says, in comparison to other gods in the Middle East or even in Greek or Roman culture, was that they were analphabetic. JHWH was using writing skills from the moment on that His people began to be able to read. This was a turning point of the history of revelation: a God who could write, and indeed wrote the Ten Words on tablets of stone, while Moses was looking. We are living through a new turning point in times, with new media coming up – and let’s not just think of the computer age, or indeed Web 2.0., but new media started already to appear in the 19th century: photography, the phonogram. Munnik suggests that literal Text, after the first new media came up, lost its role as a vessel of sheer information, which other media could fulfil as well, and better. Written, literal text became fixed expression of lingual meanings (Munnik, 97). This has been worked out by Walter J. Ong, in his 1988 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. But there is a lot more reason to take a fresh look into the topic, now that the social media are emerging in an unprecedented way. Where does that bring us? What are the opportunities and challenges of this new development? I suggests it is in conversations which affect people, as contrasted with the letter of the law which condems people. And that these conversations, if used in a creative way, have the potential to recover the lost art of story-tellling, lost for such a long time since the age of orality. This needs a lot of elaborating, but let’s just take a look at Jesus. We have no written words from His pen, not even one. But Jesus does not refrain from writing for being analphabetic. He is fully aware of what literacy means. He speaks about tittle or iota of the Law. He commences His bar-mitzwa by cross-questioning the scribes in the temple about written Torah. He starts His ministry by publicly reading the Word in the synagogue of Nazareth. Yet there is only once situation in which we find Him writing: John 8, in the presence of an adulterous woman and the champions of the written Law who wanted to stone her. Jesus wants a sinner to be alive. So He purposely and expressly refrains from writing anything in stone, but He writes in the dust, with the deep desire to write His own person into her heart and into her life. External words are not His ways: it is from deep within that He wants to reval Himself to a convicted sinner. Speaking into her heart and situation, He wants to develop His story within her story. How do I know that this was what Jesus had in mind? Of course, I am well aware of the exegetical perplexity of this paragraph, as well as of the problems of textual criticism surrounding it. But I think that the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 are helping us here. Under the old covenant, JHWH wrote His commandments by His own finger on tablets of stones. Under the new covenant, it is the Spirit who writes the person of Christ in our hearts. Of Shakespeare or Plato we know next to nothing but of the corpus of their writings. But the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not content unless He is able to write His Son into our lives, by His Spirit, in order to make us a message from Him that everybody can read.

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