Beliefnet
The Bible and Culture

St Paul the Apostle Mosaic .jpg

‘IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM’: SACRED TEXTS IN AN ORAL CULTURE

 

                                    BenWitherington, III

                                    AmosProfessor of NT for Doctoral Studies

                                    AsburyTheological Seminary

 

            Ithas become by now a commonplace to point out that Paul and the other earliestChristians lived in what was largely an oral culture, by which is meant notmerely that most ancients weren’t literate (the vast majority seem not to havebeen) but that a solid preference for the oral word, the living voice overdocuments characterized that culture. The problem is, that the implications of these facts for how ancientsviewed sacred texts, including how ancient Jews and Christians viewed sacredtexts has seldom been recognized, much less discussed.  For example, modern discussions ofinter-textuality (e.g. the use of the OT in the NT) assume all too often thatwe can simply look at this data as texts in the modern sense, which in fact isnot how they should be viewed.  They werenot meant for reading in the modern way we do reading today, nor were they asfixed as some studies of inter-textuality would have us believe.

In this paper Iintended to discuss several inter-related topics:  1) the preference in the NT world for theliving voice, and when it comes to God’s Word the oral proclamation over thewritten; 2) the function of the nomena sacra in such a text;  3) the beliefs about how God’s Word hadinherent power and ability to accomplish what it states; 4) the rhetoricalfunction of a sacred text in a culture that has such a text, in contrast withmost Greco-Roman religion which had no such sacred book;  5) the importance of oracular prophecy insacred texts as the closest thing to the verbatim of the living voice.   It is hoped by exploring these topics thatsome progress can be made towards assessing how sacred texts, particularly theOT and NT, were viewed in antiquity, and indeed how the NT writers viewed theOT itself.

 

I.                  General Considerations[1]

The literacy ratein those Biblical cultures seems to have ranged from about 5% to 20% dependingon the culture and which sub group within the culture we are discussing.   Not surprisingly then, all ancient peoples,whether literate or not, preferred the living word, which is to say the spokenword.  Texts were enormously expensive toproduce–papyrus was expensive, ink was expensive, and scribes were ultraexpensive.  Being a secretary in Jesus’and Paul’s age could be a lucrative job indeed. No wonder Jesus said to his audiences–‘let those who have ears, listen’.You notice he did not ever say–‘let those who have eyes, read’.  Most eyes could not read in the Biblicalperiod.

            Sofar as we can tell, few documents in antiquity were intended for ‘silent’reading, and only a few were intended for private individuals to read.[2]  They were always meant to be read out loudand usually read out loud to a group of people. For the most part they were simply necessary surrogates for oralcommunication.   This was particularlytrue of ancient letters.  

In fact, mostancient documents including letters were not really texts in the modern senseat all.  They were composed with theiraural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally deliveredwhen they arrive at their destination.  Thus for example, when one reads the opening verses of Ephesians, loadedas it is with aural devices (assonance, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, variousrhetorical devices) it becomes perfectly clear that no one was ever meant tohear this in any language but Greek and furthermore, no one was ever meant toread this silently.   It needed to be heard. 

And indeed therewas a further reason it needed to be orally delivered–because of the cost ofmaking documents, a standard letter in Greek would have no separation of words,sentences, paragraphs or the like, little or no punctuation, and all capitalletters.   Thus for example imaginehaving to sort out a document that began as follows:PAULASERVANTOFCHRISTJESUSCALLEDTOBEANAPOSTLEANDSETAPART

FORTHEGOSPELOFGOD.  The only way to decipher such a collection ofletters was to sound them out– out loud.  There is of course the famous anecdote about St. Augustine and St. Ambrose.  Augustine said that Ambrose was the mostremarkable man he had ever met, because he could read without moving his lipsor making a sound.  Clearly, an oral cultureis a different world than a largely literate text based culture, and textsfunction differently in such a world.  All sorts of texts were simply surrogates for oral speech, and thisstatement applies to many of the Biblical texts themselves.

            Itis hard for us to wrap our minds around it, but texts were scarce in theBiblical world, and often were treated with great respect.  Since literacy was largely a skill only theeducated had, and the educated tended to be almost exclusively from the socialelite, texts in such a world served the purpose of the elite–conveying theirauthority, passing down their judgments, establishing their property claims,indicating their heredity and the like. But since all ancient people were profoundly religious, the mostimportant documents even among the elite were religious texts.

What do texts inan oral culture tell us about their authors?  It is too seldom taken into account that the 27 books of the NT reflecta remarkable level of literacy, and indeed of rhetorical skill amongst theinner circle of leaders of the early Christian movement.   Early Christianity was not, by and large, amovement led by illiterate peasants or the socially deprived.  The leaders of the movement mostly producedthe texts of the movement, and the texts of the NT reflect a considerableknowledge of Greek, of rhetoric, and indeed of general Greco-Roman culture.This skill and erudition can only seldom be attributed to scribes, except incases where scribes such as Tertius or Sosthenes (cf. Rom. 16 and 1 Cor. 1) had beenconverted and donated their skills to the movement.   Even then, it appears they were largely justtaking dictation from Paul.

The letters we find in the NT aremostly far longer than secular letters of their era. 

Actually they are not in the main letters, though theyhave epistolary openings and closings sometimes.  They are in fact discourses, homilies,rhetorical speeches of various sorts which the creators could not be present todeliver to a particular audience, and so instead they sent a surrogate toproclaim them. These documents would not be handed to just anyone.  From what we can tell, Paul expected one ofhis co-workers such as Timothy or Titus, or Phoebe to go and orally deliver thecontents of the document in a rhetorically effective manner.  This would have been almost a necessity sincethe document would come without division of words or punctuation and so onlysomeone skilled in reading such seamless prose, and indeed one who already knew the contents of the documentcould place the emphases in the right places so as to effectively communicatethe message.

This brings us toa related crucial matter. Some scholars, on the basis of the occasionalreference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled thatChristians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to producebooks, or even literature meant for reading.  For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has beencalled the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk.13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, onthe assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let usexamine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 theoperative Greek word is ho anaginōskōn aclear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text isdistinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’srhetoric.  As Mark Wilson recentlysuggested in a public lecture at Ephesus,this surely is likely to mean that the singular reader is in fact a lector ofsorts, someone who will be reading John’s apocalypse out loud to varioushearers.[3] 

We know for a factthat John is addressing various churches in Asia Minor(see Rev. 2-3), so it is quite impossible to argue that the reference to ‘thereader’ singular in Rev. 1.3 refers to the audience. It must refer to therhetor or lector who will orally deliver this discourse to the audience ofhearers.  I would suggest that we mustdraw the same conclusion about the parenthetical remark in Mk. 13.14, which inturn means that not even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant forprivate reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’  Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who willbe orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time whenthis ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help theaudience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple inJerusalem was being destroyed.  Oraltexts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse inquestion.   

How then did asacred text function in an oral culture? For one thing it was believed that words, especially religious words,were not mere ciphers or symbols.  Theywere believed to have power and effect on people if they were properlycommunicated and pronounced.  It was notjust the sacred names of God, the so-called ‘nomena sacra’, which wereconsidered to have inherent power, but sacred words in general.  Consider for example what Isaiah 55.11 says:”so shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to mevoid, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in thething I sent it to do.”   The Word orwords of a living and powerful God, were viewed as living and powerful inthemselves.[4] You canthen imagine how a precious and expensive document, which contained God’s ownwords would be viewed.   It would besomething that needed to be kept in a sacred place, like a temple or asynagogue, and only certain persons, with clean hands and a pure heart would beallowed to unroll the sacred scroll and read it, much less interpret it. 

From what we cantell, the texts of the NT books were treasured during the first century, andwere lovingly and carefully copied for centuries thereafter.  There is even evidence beginning in thesecond century of the use of female Christian scribes who had a ‘fairer’ hand,to copy, and even begin to decorate these sacred texts.  But make no mistake–even such texts were seento serve the largely oral culture. Before the rise of modern education and widespread literacy, it hadalways been true that “In the beginning was the (spoken) Word.”[5]  All of this has implications for how weshould approach the NT, especially the more ad hoc documents in the Paulinecorpus, and the other documents traditionally called letters in the NT, whichoften, in fact are not letters. 1 John is a sermon with neither epistolaryopening nor closing.   Hebrews is an evenlonger sermon, with only an epistolary closing, but of course no listener wouldever have considered a letter on first hearing, because there were no signalsat the outset of the document to suggest such a thing.  And in an oral culture, opening signals areeverything if the issue is–What sort of discourse or document am I listeningto?   This is why Lk. 1.1-4 is so crucialto judging the genre of that Gospel.

Given that thedivision between a speech and an orally performed text was more like a thin veilthan a thick wall between literary categories it will not come as a surprisewhen I say that actually oral conventions more shape the so-called epistolaryliterature of the NT, than epistolary ones, and with good reason.   This was not only because of the dominantoral character of the culture, but also more importantly because theGreco-Roman world of the NT period was a rhetorically saturated environment,whereas the influence of literacy and letters was far less widespread so far aswe can tell.

Here we need tocome to grips with and understand an important fact–the rise to prominence of the personal letter used as something of avehicle for instruction or as a treatise of sorts was a phenomena which onlyreally took root in the Greco-Roman milieu as a widespread phenomena with theletters of Cicero shortly before the NT era. Contrast this with the long history of the use of rhetoric going back toAristotle, and use of it in numerous different venues.  Rhetoric was a tool useable with the educatedand uneducated, with the elite, and also with the ordinary, and most publicspeakers of any ilk or skill in antiquity knew they had to use the art ofpersuasion to accomplish their aims. There were not only schools of rhetoric throughout the Mediterranean crescent,rhetoric itself was part of both elementary, and secondary and tertiary basiceducation as well.  There were no comparable schools of letter writing not leastbecause it was a rather recent art just coming to prominence in the firstcentury A.D.  And here we come to acrucial point.

Analyzing themajority of NT on the basis of epistolary conventions, many of which did notbecome de rigeur, nor put into an handbook until after NT times, while a helpful exercise to some degree,  has no business being the dominant literaryparadigm by which we examine the Pauline, Petrine, Johannine, and otherdiscourses in the NT.  The dominantparadigm when it came to words and the conveying of ideas, meaning, persuasionin the NT era was rhetoric, not epistolary conventions.  This is why I will say now that most of theNT owes far more to rhetoric and its very long standing and widespreadconventions than it ever owed to the nascent practice of writing letter-essays,or letter treatises.  Most of the lettersof the NT, with the exception of the very shortest ones (2-3 John, perhapsPhilemon) look very little like the very mundane pragmatic epistolaryliterature of that era.   In terms ofboth structure and content, most NT documents look far more like rhetoricalspeeches.  Some are in factstraightforward sermons, ‘words of exhortation’ as the author of Hebrews callshis homily, some are more rhetorical speeches suitable for assemblies wherediscussion would then ensue (e.g. after dinner discussions at a symposium), butall are profitably analyzed in detail by means of rhetorical examination. 

Not only so,  but micro-rhetoric clearly enough shapes: 1)the chreia in the Gospel; 2) the speech summaries in Acts; 3) the way portionsof a book like Revelation is linked together by catchword and A,B,A structureas well.  In other words, rhetoric is notjust something that illuminates Paul and other portions of the ‘so-calledepistolary corpus’ in the NT.  It is anecessary tool for analyzing it all.  This is enough said for now by way of general considerations. I want toturn more specifically to the phrase Word of God, and how it is used in the NT,as well as elsewhere.

 

II.               What does the phrase ‘the Word of God’ connote in theNT?

I cannot emphasizeenough how the living voice was preferred to its literary residue if the speechwas taken down, or written out before hand. Rhetoric, thank goodness, attended not just to logic and issues ofcontent but to such things as gestures, tone of voice, speed of delivery, andthe like, for we are talking about the ancient art of homiletics.  Function dictated form, rather than formfollowing function.  This was all themore the case when it came to the proclamation of a profoundly religiousmessage, especially one based on one or more sacred texts.  Sacred texts had an aura, a presence, apalpable character, as the embodiment of the voice of a living god.  Ancient peoples would write out their curseson lead foil, roll them up, and place them near or under the altar in a templebelieving that the breath of the deity would animate and act out those words,because the word of a god was a speech-act indeed, an action word, that changedthings, affected persons, could serve as either blessing or curse, boon orbane.  Nomen sacra, or abbreviated formsof sacred names were believed to have inherent power in themselves, and indeedthe very act of abbreviating such names could connote that the speaker wasworried about mispronouncing the name, and hence losing contact with the name’spower.

In this light, letus hear a brief passage of one of Paul’s letters, which most scholars think isour very earliest NT document–1 Thessalonians. 1 Thess. 2.13 reads as follows: “And we also thank God continuallybecause when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, youaccepted it, not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, whichis at work in you who believe.”

Here is a textthat cries out for adequate exposition. Firstly, we note that Paul refers tohis own proclamation of the Gospel to the Thessalonians as ‘the word of God’,Paul has no doubt at all that he is speaking God’s very word to them, and youwill notice he is not referring to pre-existing sacred texts from the OT.  No, he is talking about the message conveyedabout Jesus.  Secondly, notice that hesays that this preaching was by no means only, or even mainly his own words, orthe words of human beings or human wisdom. What it really was, was God’s livingword.  Notice however he uses thesingular.  The phrase is ‘the word ofGod’ on par with previous things that could be called ‘the word of God’ rangingfrom the utterances of the OT prophets, to the sacred texts of the OTthemselves.  But primacy here is given tothe spoken word of God, not to something written–a Good News word of God.  Thirdly, Paul says that this word of God(singular) had lodged in the lives of the Thessalonians and it was still ‘atwork in you who believe’.   This word ofGod had taken up residence in the Thessalonian converts and was doing soul workin and on them.  It was a living andactive two edged sword penetrating their very being, just as the author ofHebrews was to suggestion Heb. 4.12-13, and he also was not talking about atext, he was talking about an oral proclamation which penetrates the heart.  If we ask the question, did any of the NTwriters believe they were writing Scripture, it seems to me that the answermust surely be yes if by Scripture one means the Word of God, because in thecase of someone like Paul, he believed in the first place that he was speakingthe very word of God to his converts, not merely his own words or opinions, andfurthermore he saw his letters as just the surrogate for a speech he would havegiven in person had he been there.  Lettersare just the literary residue of discourses, with epistolary framework addedsince they must be sent from a distance. 

In fact, if onedoes a detailed study of the phrase ‘Word of God’ in terms of the usage in theBible (and its synonyms such as ‘my Word’ when the speaker is clearly God) itbecomes clear that the phrase refers to the oral proclamation in the firstinstance, to a person in John 1, and not usually to a sacred text in the NTera.   This is not because the ancientsdidn’t believe in inspired texts. Indeed, they did.  Even the pagans did.  Consider for example the following quotation:

” For since you came when calledfor my salvation, how would you not come for your own honor? So taking heart Iproceed to what remains, knowing that this encomium is on the one hand by themind of a god but on the other hand written by a human being” (nous men Theou, cheipes de graphousin anthrōpou).–‘Aretologyof Isis’ lines 11-12[6]

Rather we mayexplain all this phenomena by the preference that existed for the living Wordin antiquity, not a prejudice against the notion of an inspired writerword.  More needs to be said about thelatter now.[7]  Another early Pauline text of relevance tothis discussion is 1 Cor.14.36-37 where Paul asks his audience if the Word ofGod originated with them or if they were the only ones that it hadreached.  Of course again he is nottalking about the Corinthians having received a shipment of Bibles from theGideons.  He is talking about theirhaving heard and received the oral proclamation of God’s Word from Paul andothers.  But what Paul goes on to say invs. 37 is more than a little important. He adds “If any think they are prophets or are spiritually gifted, letthem acknowledge that what I am writingis the Lord’s command.  Here finallywe have a reference to a text being ‘the Lord’s command’ and not just any text.In this case the reference is to Paul’s own letter written to theCorinthians.  Here we do indeed have thenodal idea of an inspired text being God’s Word, in this case involving someimperatives.

But of course itis not only Paul who has this concept that the Word of God is an oralproclamation which includes telling the story about Jesus and that it is aliving and active thing. We see this in various places in the book of  Acts.  Several texts deserve brief mention.  First we notice the reference in Acts 4.31 which speaks of the factthat  the Holy Spirit of God filled allwho were present (men and women) and they all ‘spoke the Word of Godboldly’.   In this text we begin to seethe connection, which is already obvious in various OT prophetic texts (cf. e.g.  Is.61.1–the Spirit of God prompts thepreaching of the Good News) that it is the Holy Spirit, not merely the humanspirit which inspires the speaking of God’s Word.  Here already the concept of propheticinspiration and revelation is transferred to the followers of Jesus, apparentlyto all of them, and all on this occasion and in this place are prompted tospeak God’s Word boldly.   Again, we arenot talking about preaching from a text or preaching a text.  We are talking about an oral proclamation ofa late word from God.

So much is theWord of God (in this case the proclamation about Jesus) seen as a living thingin Acts that remarkably we have texts like Acts 6.7 where we here how the Wordof God itself grew and spread.  This isnot merely a personification of an abstract idea.  The author believes that God’s Word is alive,and when it is heard and received it changes human lives,  takes up residence in them and so the verynext sentence in this verse says ‘the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased’.  Note also Acts 12.24 where it is said thatGod’s Word grew and spread.

We see this samesort of concept of the Word of God in the book of Hebrews. Heb. 4.12-13 isworth quoting in full: “for the Word of God is living and active. Sharper thanany two edged sword it penetrates even to the dividing of the soul and spirit,joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothingin all of creation is hidden from God’s sight.” Here again the subject of the phrase ‘Word of God’ is an oralproclamation.  The focus is not on theafter the fact literary residue of that proclamation, as is perfectly clearbecause the author speaks of it sinking into the inner being of the listener.But even more remarkable is the fact that here the ‘Word of God’ inside thebeliever is said to be analogous to God’s eyes–it penetrates the innermostbeing of a person and judges the thoughts of their heart or mind, layingeverything bear.   Out author however isnot the originator of these ideas.  Wecan fruitfully compare what is said here with Psalm 139 where the focus is onthe work of God’s presence or Spirit. What is said in Ps. 139 about the Spiritis said here about the living and active Word. These two things are seen as going and working together.  We have already seen the connection of Wordand Spirit in Acts 4 as discussed above. 

Another text ofrelevance to this discussion is 1 Pet. 1.23 which speaks of believers beingborn anew by “the living and abiding Word of God” . This can certainly refer tothe oral proclamation, but the term ‘living’ may also convey the sense oflife-giving as it does for example in the phrase ‘living bread’ in John 6.51and we may compare this as well to 1 Pet. 1.3 which speaks of a living hopewhich surely means more than merely an extant hope, or we may consider 1 Pet.2.4-5 which speaks of believers as living stones of the new spiritual house ofGod.  Stephen Lllewelyn is right to pointout that the phrase ‘living image’ was applied to a king who was said to be theliving image of some deity.[8]  When we hear the phrase the living Word ofGod then, we are meant to think of something that is actually God’s Word and assuch has life giving potential. Normally the phrase also connotes an oralproclamation of God’s Word in some form.

Notice, that thusfar we have said little about the other use of the phrase ‘Word of God’ in theNT to refer to Jesus himself (John 1), nor about the concept that the writtenOT is the Word of God as well.   But wecan now make some remarks about these other uses of the phrase.  The Logos theology of the prologue to John’sGospel is often thought to be distinctive of this book but we may well see it also in 1 John 1.1-2 where we hearof the Word of Life, which seems to be synonymous with both Jesus (who could betouched), and with the message about Jesus as God’s incarnate Word.   Similarly in Rev. 19.13 the name of God’sSon is said to be ‘the Word of God’.  Wehave seen some hints already of the notion that texts could be the Word of Godas well, and now we must turn to more evidence of this by looking in detail at2 Timothy 3.16 and some texts in Hebrews.      

    

III.            The Word made Scripture

Because of theenormous significance of  2 Timothy3.16-17, we must necessarily go into considerably more detailed explanation ofthese verses,  since whole theories aboutthe nature of God’s Word and of inspiration have been derived from theseverses.  Here, clearly enough the subjectmatter is a written text, in this case what Christians now call the Old Testament.  The Old Testament was in fact the Bible ofthe earliest Christians, because of course the New Testament had not yet beenwritten, collected or canonized.  Indeed,even the OT canon, or list of included books, was not completely settled beforethe waning decades of the first century A.D.  Here we must make an important distinctionbetween ‘the Bible’ as one form that God’s Word took, the written form,and  the ‘Word of God’ which is, as wehave already seen in this study, a much broader category, which in the firstinstance refers to inspired and powerful spoken words. The earliest Christianswere neither without a Scripture (the OT) nor without the living voice, theoral Word of God, which, in their view now included Christian proclamation,especially the Good News about Jesus.

It is an interestingfact that the NT writers tend to say more about the inspiration of the OT thanthe OT writers themselves. For example in Mk. 12.36 Jesus tells his audiencethat David ‘in the Holy Spirit said…’ and then a portion of a Psalm is quoted.  Or in Acts 1.16 we hear that the Holy Spirit,through the mouth of David predicted about Judas what would happen. 2 Pet. 1.21can be compared at this point.  We arethus not surprised to hear about the inspiration of OT figures in the NT, but 2Tim. 3.16-17 goes a step beyond that in talking about an inspired text itself.

2 Timothy 3.16 is surely the most famous of theverses of 2 Timothy, cited over one hundred times in the patristic literature.There are however various ways it could be translated and each causes avariable in its meaning.  It could read,for instance, ‘Every graphÄ“ (i.e.Scripture) is God-breathed and profitable/useful….’ so that/with the resultthat the person of God is ready, equipped for good works.’  Usually when pas (all/every) is used with a noun without the definite article itmeans ‘every’ rather than ‘all’.  Thusthe meaning seems likely to be ‘every Scripture’ or perhaps ‘every passage ofScripture’. Paul does use graphÄ“ inthe singular to refer to the whole of Scripture in Rom. 11.2 but there we havethe definite article (cf. also Gal. 3.22). Of course this means that ‘all Scripture’ is included but the emphasiswould be on each one being God-breathed. Paul does not envision any Scripture that is not God-breathed.[9]   It would also be possible to read the verseto mean ‘Every inspired Scripture is useful….’ but against this view is that itis more natural to take the two qualifying adjectives as relating to the nounin the same way as in 1 Tim. 4.4. 

A further issue iswhat to make of the adjective theopneustos.  Its literal meaning is ‘God-breathed’ and itis indeed a term used in pagan literature, for example in reference to theSibylline oracles (cf. Sib. Oracles  5.308, 406; Plutarch, Or. at Delphi 7;Pseudo-Phocylides, 121), and in the papyri (SIG 95; CMRDM 2.A8).  We may again compare the example an aretologyto Isis written in Macedoniawhich reads at one point “this encomium is written not only by the hand of aman, but also by the mind of a god” (line 14).[10]Greek words with the -tos endingtend to be passive rather than active, so we should not take this to mean’every Scripture is inspiring’ but rather ‘every Scripture is inspired’.  What is meant is that God speaks throughthese words.  God breathed life andmeaning and truth into them all (see similarly Num. 24.2; Hos. 9.7 cf.Josephus, Apion 1.37-39; Philo, Moses 2.292; Spec. Leg.1.65; 4.49; 2 Pet. 1.21).  

Note that we arenot given an explanation of how that works. This text by itself does not explicate a theory of inspiration or itsnature.  Does the Spirit lift the mind ofthe writer to see, understand, and write, or is it a matter of mechanicaldictation?  These questions are notanswered here. What is suggested is that whatever the process, the product isGod’s Word, telling God’s truth. 

The emphasis hereis actually on what it is good or profitable for–as a source of teaching aboutGod and human beings and their ways, as a means of refuting false arguments orerrors and offering positive ‘proofs’ and rebuking sin, and as a means ofoffering constructive wisdom and teaching on how to live a life pleasing toGod.  It will be seen then that the OT islargely viewed here as a source for ethical instruction and exhortation, whichis not surprising given the emphasis in this letter.  There is no emphasis here on it being asourcebook for Christian theology, which would come more from the Christiankerygma and Christian tradition.   We mayalso want to consult other places where Paul speaks about the nature of the OTScriptures such as Rom.15.3-4 or 1 Cor. 10.11 which confirms that Paul thinks that what we call the OTis very suitable for Christian instruction, especially for training inrighteousness and other ethical matters.

            Thereis debate about vs. 17 as to whetherwe should see it as a purpose or result clause. Is it the purpose of Scripture to fit a person of God for ready service,or is it the result and effect of Scripture that that happens?  Probably this is a result clause.  The result of learning Scripture is that oneis equipped.   It seems likely as wellthat since this is directed specifically to Timothy here that ‘person/man ofGod’ here refers to a minister of some sort. Paul then would be talking about equipping the minister by means ofstudying the Scriptures.   

Using therhetorical device of ‘gradatio’, Paul brings the list of what Scriptureis useful for to a climax and conclusion with the phrase ‘training inrighteousness’.  Here righteousnesssurely has an ethical rather than a forensic sense, in keeping with the ethicalfocus of the rest of what Scripture is said to be useful for. Chrysostom putsit this way: “This is why the exhortation of the Scripture is given: that theman of God may be rendered complete by it. Without this he cannot grow to maturity” (Hom. 9 on 2 Tim.).   Clearly, with this text, we are well on theway to a full blown theology of  inspiredwritten texts being God’s Word, being God’ breathed.   What is interesting is that neither Paul northe author of Hebrews views the OT as an example of  what God oncesaid, relegating the revelation and speaking to the past.  No, it still has the life and power and truthof God in it, and it still speaks in and to the present.

            Especiallystriking are the formula quotations in Hebrews, by which I mean the ways thatthe author of Hebrews introduces OT quotations in his quotation filledsermon.  What is most striking about whatwe find in that sermon is that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the HolySpirit are all said to be the speakers of various OT texts!   A few examples must suffice:  As our author introduces a quotation fromDeut. 32.43 at Heb. 1.6 we find the phrase “when God brings his first born intothe world  he says“– noting the present tense verb of saying here. But in Heb. 2.11-12 in introducing a quotation from  Ps. 22.22 we hear “So Jesus is not ashamed tocall them brothers and sisters.  He says…” (cf. Heb. 10.5).  Now Christ is depicted as speaking an OTtext.  And on multiple occasions we hearin Hebrews “as the Holy Spirit says” used to introduce various OT quotes (seeHeb. 3.7; 10.16). 

Two things standout about this.   It seems clear enoughthat our author already has the beginnings of a Trinitarian theology here.  What Scripture says, God says, and the God whois said to be speaking these OT texts is Father, Son or Spirit.  We do not yet have a text where all three ofthem are said to speak one particular passage of Scripture.     Equally telling is the fact that thepresent tense verb keeps cropping up.  The OT is not just for God’s original chosen people.  It is viewed as a text which speaks directlyand pertinently to Christians in the present. Furthermore, it is seen as speaking about a whole host of subjectsincluding about God’s Son, not just about ethics.  The author of Hebrews takes up stories fromthe OT, laws, covenants, as well as ethical material in order to convey theliving Word of God about Jesus and Christian life to the audience.  

Then too, theauthor enunciates a hermeneutic of progressive revelation from the verybeginning of the book. He says that God revealed himself in various times andways, or partially and piecemeal in the past, but now God has revealed himselffully and finally in the person of his Son (Heb.1.1-2).  Clearly the incarnate Word is seen as themost crucial revelation of God, to which all early revelations prepare,foreshadow, or foretell. But this by no means causes him to suggest that the OTceases to be God’s Word when the Incarnate Word shows up.   To the contrary,  Jesus and the Christ event are seen as thehermeneutical keys to understanding the OT, but also the OT is understood ascrucial to understanding the Christ event. There is some sort of symbiotic relationship between Word written, Wordproclaimed and Word Incarnate envisioned.

One more text isof direct relevance to this sort of discussion, particularly in regard to theissue of inspiration and revelation. 2 Pet. 1.20-21 says “Above all you mustunderstand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, thoughhuman, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  It is indeed normally about prophets andprophecy that we hear about the notion of inspiration, and this text seems toadd a bit more to the discussion than 2 Tim. 3.16. 

First of all thereis here a contrast between prophecy that made it into Scripture and otherprophecies.  The author says thatwhatever may be the case about other prophecies, in regard to OT prophecy itcannot be a matter of purely private or individual interpretation orexplanation.  That is, the author thinksthere is a meaning in the prophecy itself which makes a claim on the listener,and it is not for the listener to ‘determine the meaning’ of the text butrather to discover it.   Indeed he evenmeans it wasn’t up to the prophet to interpret it or add his own interpretationto it.   He was constrained by the sourceof the information to speak another’s words and meaning–namely God’s. This ismade clearer in what follows in vs. 21. This latter verse speaks about the origins of  true prophecy and insists that it does notoriginate as a matter of human will or ingenuity.  To the contrary, it is the Holy Spirit thatinspires the prophet.  In fact the textliterally says the prophet is carried along or forcefully moved by the Spirit to say what he or she does.  The prophet is so led by the Spirit that hiswords can be said to be God’s Words, originating from a divine source.  

Much more could besaid along these lines, but this will need to suffice as we draw this essay toa close.  The living Word of God is seenas an oral message, an Incarnate person, and finally as a text, in particularthe text of the OT.   Its life, power,truth is a derived life, power, truth if we are talking about the oral orwritten Word. The source is God who inspires, speaks, empowers the words withqualities that reflect the divine character. It is right to say that Paul thinks that what he says, God is saying.  It is right to say that both Paul and theauthor of Hebrews thinks that what the OT says, God says.   It is right to say that these same writersthink that what Jesus says, God says. Indeed, the author of Hebrews isaudacious enough to suggest that the pre-existent Christ actually spoke some ofthe OT texts into existence!   It is alsoright to say that the emphatic center and focus of the proclamation of ‘theWord of God’ by early Christians was Jesus and the Christ event ingeneral.  It is also right to say thatsome NT writers even reached the point of being able to talk about Jesus beingthe Word of God incarnate,  come in theflesh, such that when Jesus spoke on earth, he not merely spoke for God, hespoke as God and indeed spoke about himself. The message and the messenger are one in this case.

 

IV.            And So?

We can now brieflystate what some of the implications of this study are for discussions of theuse of the OT in the NT and the issues of inter-texuality.  The first thing to be said of course is thatwhile the OT canon was coming to a relatively fixed and closed form in the NTera,  there was still debate about theinclusion of books like Esther.[11]  What we should not assume is that thepreference for the living voice somehow meant that a sacred text was seen as asecond rate sort of Word of God.  2 Tim.3.16 makes clear that would be a false assumption. What we can say is that Wordof God as text was indeed secondary in the sense that it was an after the factattempt in various cases to capture lightning in a bottle, and the more it wasjust a transcript of what was previously said by the living voice of God, thebetter.  This attitude tended to foster avery conservative (in both senses of the word) approach to how to deal withoral tradition and oral history.[12]  Theories of inspiration only furthered thetendency to take a conservative approach to the writing down of the living Wordof God.

The second thingto be said about these matters is that the NT writers believed clearly enoughthat God continued to speak in and through the OT Scriptures. Indeed, theauthor of Hebrews believed the Trinity spoke in that Scripture, Father, Son andSpirit.  What Scripture said, God said,and this, and not some magical view of inherent qualities of sacred texts, iswhat gave the text power in the view of NT writers.  The issue of inter-textuality comes into playprecisely at this point.  Because God’sWord was always a living Word, it was in no sense thought to be encumbered bymuch less trapped in a particular historical context or locus.  It was to be sure a Word on targetoriginally, but it could be endlessly reapplied because it was part of theongoing and living discourse and relationship between God and God’s people, andthose were givens in the equation.  Intertextualitywas not an exercise in making the text relevant for a later audience, butrather in seeing its relevance in light of later revelation, in this case therevelation in Christ.  The OT was readnot just with Christological spectacles by the earliest Christians, though thatis true, it was read with the assumption that it was not merely a record of theformerly spoken Word of God, or a residue of that Word, but indeed rather itremained the living Word of God.  Theattempts to pit orality off against textuality in these sorts of discussions donot take into account the dialectic and dialogue between the two in a largelyoral culture. Orality does not stand over against textuality, rather the latteris one form of expression of the former, especially perhaps when we are talkingabout the Word of God. 

Much more couldand should be said along these lines, but this must suffice for now.   I am reminded of the Latin phrase thathovers over the entrance way to St. Mary’s college at St. Andrews where I sometimes lecture—– “In principio eratverbum”.  As it turns out, even when weare talking about texts,  ‘in the end wasthe Word, as well.

 

 

 

 




[1] A muchfuller discussion of these matters can be found in my little book NewTestament Rhetoric,  (Cascade: 2008).

[2] Receiptsfor example, might well be an exception, and other mundane items like shoppinglists, or accounting ledgers.

[3] In alecture delivered by him at a conference at Ephesus in May 2008 where we both spoke onthe oral character of these NT texts.

[4] See mylittle book  The Living Word of God,  (Baylor Press, 2007).

[5] It isinteresting that an important literate figure like Papias of Hierapolis wholived at the end of the NT era repeatedly said that he preferred the livingvoice of the apostle or one who had heard the eyewitnesses to a writtendocument. In this he simply reflected the normal attitude of ancient peoples, literateor not.

[6] 2ndB.C. inscription from Macedonia.See New Documents which Illustrate Early Christianity Vol. One ed. G.H.R. Horsley  (Sydney: MacquarrieUniversity, 1981), pp. 10-11.

[7] Papiasof course famously stated his own personal preference for the living voice ofthe apostles over documents, but this was not because he devalued documents. Itis because he was a man of his age.

[8] NewDocuments which Illustrate Early Christianity Vol. Nine,  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 37-38.

[9] Nor isit likely that the word ‘writings’ in the previous verse refers to both the OTand the Gospel message, which at this stage was not yet a written Gospel in alllikelihood. ‘Sacred Writings’ is simply a collective noun for the works we callthe OT.

[10] Thefull text is cited in New Docs Vol. 1 pp. 10-11.

[11] See mydiscussion in What’s in a Word? (Baylor, 2009).

[12] See nowR.B. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, (Eerdmans, 2005).

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus