The Scriptures Made Strange

The history of the Reformation couldn’t adequately be recounted without discussing the remarkable role played by the relatively recent innovations and developments in book production and printing. The printing press facilitated the rapid production and dissemination of multiple copies of pamphlets and books, which enabled the Reformers to circulate their message with a velocity that would have been unthinkable only a century earlier. Much as the infrastructure and peace of the Roman Empire may have supported the spread of the gospel in the earliest years of the gospel, advances in paper production, Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, and the establishment of the technology of the printing press throughout Europe were integral to the rise and the spread of Protestantism.

Books and texts of various kinds are such a familiar feature of our world that we are seldom mindful of the extensive and numerous institutions, professions, practices, inventions and innovations, technologies, and aspects of infrastructure that are required to sustain a textual culture. Libraries, scriptoria, schools, paper mills, paper merchants, binders, printers, book distributors, authors, translators, typesetters, editors: all of these and many further organizations, institutions, and professions have played their part in making possible various cultures’ encounters with the written text. Although our texts usually have an unobtrusive presence in our world, they represent what is perhaps the most far-reaching, remarkable, and significant achievement of human civilization.

On account of the familiarity of our textual forms and practices, we can regard them almost as if they were natural features of the world. For instance, the book or e-book as material or digital technologies and artefacts can become like translucent mediators of our engagement with the texts they ‘contain’. Like a window, we can spend a great deal of time looking through them, while seldom looking attentively at them.

This is especially important to consider when we are talking about the Scriptures. The Scriptures are texts, but they are texts that have always been embedded in material—and, more recently, digital—artefacts and in a constellation of cultural processes, practices, habits of production and circulation of, and engagement with such artefacts. Changes in the character of these textual artefacts and in the processes, practices, and habits associated with them can have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects for our relationship with and conceptualization of the texts themselves.

The Bible is not the same thing as the Scriptures. The modern Bible is a technologically advanced material artefact, with which we engage with—and conceive of—the Scriptures in particular ways that are largely encouraged by the artefact itself. As we have too easily and uncritically equated the artefact of the Bible with the Scriptures, it is important for us to go to the effort of making it strange to us again, of acquainting ourselves with its particular artificial character. Perhaps a good place to start here is in thinking about some of historical innovations and developments that have led to the modern Bible.

While Jesus and the apostles would typically have encountered scriptural texts in the form of scrolls, from very early on in the history of the Church, the codex seems to have become the preferred form for the Scriptures. It is important to bear in mind that most scriptural texts would only have contained one or a few books. Even well into the medieval period, complete Bibles (pandects) were quite uncommon and the few very early examples, such as the Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus stand out as rare and remarkable exceptions. The unity of the ‘Bible’ was less the unity of a single volume or artefact, than a unity situated in the life and liturgies of the Church and its communities, the site where the coherence of the Scriptures became apparent.

The work of scholars such as Paul Saenger underlines the fact that reading itself has a history. Reading was, for most of Church history, an oral process: texts were read aloud, either communally or quietly in individual reading. Modern texts are written and typeset in order to facilitate ease and speed in silent private reading, and to render texts more accessible to a wider readership. However, until the practice of seventh and eighth century Irish scribes spread to the continent and slowly became the norm from the late tenth century onwards, Western manuscripts typically lacked spaces between words. Prior to the rise of print, the practice of reading was the preserve of an elite few; most people weren’t literate and books were costly and rare.

At Jarrow at the beginning of the eighth century, the Venerable Bede had access to 200 volumes, more than were in the library of either Cambridge or Oxford university 700 years later. What books there were were disproportionately authoritative sources of the tradition, with which communities engaged in conversation over many generations. In such a context, it didn’t make so much sense to produce books for rapid and easy reading, as opposed to intense and deeply attentive reading. Writing books for a more democratized readership didn’t make sense either: the few texts there were were prohibitively costly and not accessible to the general population.

Although books designed for reference reading were not a novel phenomenon, the High Middle Ages saw a growing dominance of texts designed for discontinuous scholarly reading, equipping readers to move around in texts in a less sequential fashion (although page numbers are sequential, for instance, they may be most serviceable when we are reading texts non-sequentially, as they enable us to find our bearings quickly). Rather than engaging with texts by following the itinerary of oral—and generally communal—narration, the terrain of the text was carefully mapped out, making it possible for readers to dip in and out at whatever points they chose, encountering texts in a more global fashion.

The medieval Scriptures were far more firmly located within the Church’s life and liturgy. Most scriptural texts were designed for liturgical performance and would have had a more diffuse presence. The texts themselves were produced in monastic scriptoria. In Europe, commercial scriptoria and the secular practice of manuscript culture only started to come to the fore from the twelfth century, with the rise of universities and a richer urban class.

The developing uses of texts can be seen in various elements of their mises en page. Page numbers, chapters and verses, marginalia, paragraph markers, headings, tables of contents and indices, summaries, etc. all play a role in orienting the discontinuous reader of the text. A number of ancient scriptural texts had divisions or passage markers, sometimes designed in order for reading in the liturgy over the course of the year, or in order to indicate the beginning of a particular topical portion of the text.

However, the modern system of chapter divisions only came into existence through the work of Archbishop Stephen Langton in the early 13th century. Our modern system of verses originated with Robert Estienne in the 1550s. In facilitating non-sequential engagement, chapters and verses have often led to the atomization of the Scriptures into detached ‘texts’.

The medieval book would have been produced by skilled scribes on parchment or vellum: it was a manuscript. The cost of the materials and the labour-intensive processes in their preparation is important to note. A book would have required the skins of many animals, which would require at least a month of preparation. The scribal task of producing a single manuscript Bible would have demanded years of skilled labour from networks of craftsmen.

A single copy of Gutenberg’s Bible on vellum required the skin of about 170 calves (the equivalent of 300 sheepskins). Although it remained very expensive, the spread of paper, generally produced from used textiles, in Europe from the 14th century reduced the cost of book production. The industrialization of paper manufacture at the turn of the 19th century further reduced its cost. Paper made from wood pulp didn’t take off until the mid-19th century. The thin India paper that we are familiar with in our Bibles dates from 1875. Although Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type made possible the production of books in far greater quantities, true mass production of books awaited the development of the steam printing press.

While the Bible can now be digitally replicated, Scriptures were once laboriously copied by hand. A text produced in such a manner has a ‘genealogical’ character, a unique identity and provenance, descending from parent texts. Its production is an act of tradition, the handing down of the Scriptures from one generation to its successors. It is a profoundly human act, one that generally would have occurred in the context of the life of a Christian community. With the machine printing of texts, the logic of production changes.

The inhuman mechanical efficiency of the machine starts to displace the humanity of book production. The genealogical character of the book is muted, and the particular text ceases to be a unique creation, but merely one of a particular clone species. This shift is greatly intensified by the rise of mass production after the invention of the steam printing press. With the digital text, both the materiality of the book and the ‘form’ of the text largely vanish.

As a result of our cultural movement in the direction of mass production and digital replication, we may give little thought to our Bibles as material artefacts. Through our labour of reading and study and through acts of giving and inheritance, a particular physical Bible can assume a great personal significance (I still do almost all my Bible reading using the Bible I was given as an eight year old). Digital technology, by its very character, seems to float free of the particularity and uniqueness of the world of objects, with which even the mass produced object retains a connection, albeit attenuated.

With the movement from the hand written (and often illuminated) text to the mass produced and digital texts, we shift from a relationship with the book as a unique and particular human artefact, deeply embedded in and expressive of human life, work, and community, to the book as purely functional and interchangeable in form, a mere vehicle for immaterial content, to be consumed and disposed of in relatively short succession. The medieval Bible would have partaken of the uniqueness of an artwork, but would have been deeply embedded in a world, unlike the object in the art gallery or museum.

Sarah Perry has written about the character of technological ‘de-condensing’, by which a new technology abstracts ‘a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to.’ The contemporary encounter with the Bible is the product of multiple events of technological de-condensation, whereby the Scriptures were steadily abstracted from the particularity of Christian communities, their life and their practices, from the world of specific objects, from the processes of tradition, from the act of hearing and the unity of scriptural narration. The medieval scriptural book would have, in its artefactual uniqueness, represented the Church’s scriptural task of handing on the text, the particular community’s self-investment in this labour, its intergenerational relationship with God’s Word, the presence of God’s Word in its midst, the embeddedness of the Scriptures in the life of the Church and the immense value accorded to them. The modern Bible cannot really do any of these things effectively.

No longer is the material Bible an object—where it is still an object at all—of condense meaning, a charged symbol of a rich textual world. As our technology privileges functionality over iconicity, the modern Bible as a technological artefact has tended to involve a displacement and effacement of the materiality of the text and of its proper world.

While we may take for granted the clarity of the object of our study when we discuss the doctrine of ‘Scripture’, I believe that it is important to recover a sense of the material world of the text, a sense of how it is embodied and where it is embedded. Thinking about the history of the materiality of the Scripture can challenge popular notions of the Scripture as object of our theology, notions that may owe rather a lot more to modern textual technology than to the scriptures that God actually gave to us.

In particular, I believe that such attention would yield doctrines of Scripture that are far more tightly connected with our doctrine of the Church: the ‘materiality’ of the Scriptures is an ecclesial reality, a fact about Christ and his body. A Church that steadily outsources its scriptural practices to individuals, machines, and other agencies is in danger of forgetting its true character. Likewise, living in a society of dematerialized texts, we can lose sight of the way that the mission of the Church is to become a material site and agent of inscription, performing the Word of God in its worship, transmitting it in the production and dissemination of material texts, and having lives that bear its impress.

As we look back at the Reformation from the distance of almost half a millennium, in the middle of accelerating developments in our own textual technologies, there has never been a better time to bring Reformation doctrines of Scripture into conversation with analysis of the forms of our media. Scripture is not an abstract and immaterial text, but a textual reality that takes specific forms in the world. The contemporary Bible, with its greatly diminished materiality, can weaken our sense of Scripture as a locatable presence and powerful agency in our world. We can come to think of it more as a detached text, a source of truths to be derived and applied by the individual, its place in our world uncertain. A high doctrine of Scripture must attend not only to the reality of inspiration, but also to inscripturation, not only to the word, but to the forms in which it is embodied and embedded in our world. Devoting time to looking at our scriptural artefacts, rather than just looking through them is a necessary place to start.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

The header image for this post is the cover for Arcarde Fire’s 2007 album, Neon Bible.

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