Uncertainty about the Book

(Opening meditation on theological publishing for a company meeting)

Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God. In the scroll of the book it is written of me.’”
τότε εἶπον· ἰδοὺ ἥκω, ἐν κεφαλίδι βιβλίου γέγραπται περὶ ἐμοῦ, τοῦ ποιῆσαι ὁ θεὸς τὸ θέλημά σου.
Hebrews 10:7

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a scroll of a book was in it.
καὶ εἶδον καὶ ἰδοὺ χεὶρ ἐκτεταμένη πρός με, καὶ ἐν αὐτῇ κεφαλὶς βιβλίου·
Ezekiel 2:9

Then I said, “Here I am: in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
τότε εἶπον ᾿Ιδοὺ ἥκω, ἐν κεφαλίδι βιβλίου γέγραπται περὶ ἐμοῦ· τοῦ ποιῆσαι τὸ θέλημά σου, ὁ θεός μου, ἐβουλήθην καὶ τὸν νόμον σου ἐν μέσῳ τῆς κοιλίας μου.
Psalm 40:7–8

Hebrews 10 opens with the phrase, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities.” A few verses later the writer continues, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. . . . Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” So runs the NRSV. At the phrase “in the scroll of the book” there is a translation note: “Meaning of Gk uncertain.”

The Greek phrase is en kephalidi bibliouBiblion isn’t a problem. It means “book.” Kephalis is a diminutive form of the noun kephalē, head. So does it mean a “little head”?  It might—something like the “little head” that I think Jim is picturing on my shoulders when he returns my phone call and asks, “What’s on your little mind?” The head of a pin, perhaps. Or maybe kephalis means kephalaion—some of the Greek fathers seem to have thought so—a paragraph or section. But no, this phrase is taken over from the Greek Old Testament. Many times in Greek Exodus kephalis translates the Hebrew word for the capital of a pillar. But once in Ezekiel, in chapter 2, we find the exact phrase kephalis bibliou. Ezekiel is being commissioned speak God’s word to rebellious Israel. He is told to open his mouth. A hand reaches toward him holding a kephalis bibliou. Here kephalis translates a different Hebrew word; the phrase is megillat sepher, “scroll of book.” Ezekiel sees the writing: words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he is commanded to eat this kephalis and go and speak to Israel. He eats it, and it is sweet as honey.

When the writer to the Hebrews associates Christ with the scroll of the book, is he referring to him as the one who has ingested the words of lamentation and mourning and woe, and found them to be sweet?

Actually Hebrews is quoting the only other place in the Greek OT where the phrase occurs, namely Ps 39:8, or in our English Bibles Ps 40:7. This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance that turns into a plea for fresh deliverance. “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit”—and so on. The Psalmist says that in return God wants not sacrifice but thanksgiving and a commitment to do God’s will. How would he know God’s will? It is in the megillat sepher, the scroll of the book, the book of the law, which he says is aimed at himself. But in the Greek Psalter katuv alai is translated not “written for me” but “about me” or “of me” (as all the English Bibles say). So for Hebrews, Christ, the true speaker of these words, says that the Torah writes about himself. How should the Hebrew really be understood? The NRSV has a translation note: “Meaning of Heb uncertain.”

The church fathers read scripture allegorically. I read NRSV footnotes allegorically. The notes indicate uncertainty about verses citing “the scroll of the book”; I want to ask about a more general uncertainty. We are uncertain about the book per se, are we not? One one level, we seem to be uncertain about the Bible. By “we” here I mean our readers, our authors, or at least some of them—growing numbers of people in the church milieus in which we live and work. We believe this book is a faithful and true witness to God and God’s salvation. But how does that work in detail? What kind of book is it? We wonder about genre. How are we to read? On another level, are we not uncertain about the book in general—the book as concept, or the book as concrete cultural artifact, ink on paper, bound as codex? What is its role in our cultural life in general and in the life of faith? Is something changing?

Several years ago an Israeli scholar named Doron Mendels wrote a study of Eusebius of Caesarea called The Media Revolution of Early Christianity. Eusebius lived from the third century into the fourth; from an era of persecution, when imperial authorities sometimes confiscated Christian books, into another era, when an emperor would write to a Christian scholar and bishop like Eusebius and place an order for dozens of copies of the Bible. He no doubt filled that order, but Eusebius is best known as the author of a book of his own, the Ecclesiastical History, that narrates the rise of Christianity from its apostolic beginnings to his own day. His narrative is history, Mendels says, but it is not history like Herodotus, or Polybius, or any other history previously written. It is certainly not objective historiography in a modern sense. It is the story of a media revolution, and meant to further that revolution.

Does the pagan empire control the coins, the public statuary, the monumental inscriptions? These are static media. They sit there. You can look at them, but they are not in motion, they make no sound. You can ignore them. But there are also the dynamic media—the media characterized by movement and noise: sacrifices of animals, gladiator shows, wandering philosophers getting in your face in public places. These all convey meaning—pagan, Christless meaning. The story of the rise of Christianity as narrated by Eusebius, Mendels suggests, is the story of a media revolution, the creative appropriation by Christians of every available form of communication and the invention of new ones. It is the story of a three-centuries-long publicity campaign. Near the beginning of the process, the execution of a Christian becomes a public spectacle—movement and sound and noise galore—that induces amazement in the pagan crowds. At the end of the process, the edict releasing Christians from the prisons and the mines is promulgated throughout the empire and publicized widely, the churches fill with celebrating crowds and overflow into the squares, the customary rites are performed, and again the pagan crowds are amazed.

The Christians use every medium for publicity to encroach upon and inhabit the pagan public square. Over the course of three centuries, accompanied by much suffering and many setbacks, the gospel spills out from the inner public sphere of the Christian churches and cemeteries and study groups to the outer public sphere of the amphitheaters and markets and baths and eventually overwhelms the institutional public sphere of the city assemblies, the Roman senate, even the armies. It’s a strange and wonderful story to read in an age when powerful forces are working in many Western and Northern nations, often with the willing cooperation of Christian churches and people, to purge Christian influence from the institutional public sphere of legislatures and courts, to restrict Christian movement and noise in the outer public sphere of city streets and airwaves and hospitals, to confine it strictly to the inner public realm of church meetings, and to private settings. It would be Eusebius’s turn to be amazed, and not in a good way.

What is the place of the book in this history? The book is a static medium, is it not? Ink on pages? No noise, no movement—you can ignore it. But the static media were not insignificant. Written treatises played a major role in the communication of the Christian message. Christian scholars in centers like Antioch and Alexandria assiduously studied texts both pagan and Christian and were ready by the mid-fourth century, having learned from the leading pagan grammarians and orators, to become such influential interpreters and reinterpreters not only of their own texts but of the pagan literary texts that when pagan Emperor Julian undertook to turn back the overwhelming tide of Christian discourse he thought it essential to bar Christians from the office of literature teacher in the public schools. Books mattered quite a bit.

And what about the book—the Christian Bible, consisting of Old Testament and New Testament? At the beginning of this three-century media campaign it did not exist. The parts were available—this little scroll, that little parchment, here some Jewish scriptures in Greek, there a gospel, there an apostolic letter—but assembling them into a commonly accepted and widely disseminated whole was a major accomplishment of the early Christian media revolution. Eusebius was aware that important religious and cultural movements in the world of early Christianity generally had their written charters, and he took care to narrate the history of the constitution and promulgation of the Christian charter.

But then what have you got? An influential book, perhaps, as books go, but surely a static medium? The megillat sepher replaced by the codex biblion? Maybe still parchment, or maybe something much less worthy and durable—a paper codex concocted out of weeds from the soggy Nile delta? Not such an attention-grabber, really. What percentage of the population could even read? But the custodians of that book in that era were not content to leave the words on the page. They were concerned with actualization. Unlike the lead character in The Neverending Story, the Christians who effected the media revolution of the early centuries—even their most bookish teachers—did not fall into the story-world of their book and become absorbed in it.

Rather, they deliberately offered themselves as portals through which the story-world of their book leaked, dripped, streamed, and eventually rushed in torrents into the everyday world around them. They led as new Davids and preached as new Pauls; contemporary Dagons fell down, contemporary lepers were healed, new Lazaruses were raised from the dead. Athanasius surveys the world around him at the end of these three centuries and sees the earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the seas. The Christ-followers who effected this revolution did so because they believed, as the writer to the Hebrews had said concerning their Lord, that what was written in the scroll or the codex was written concerning them, or at least, as the psalmist may have meant, written for them.

When has a world in which literacy was so restricted ever been so transformed by a book? Were those who carried out that revolution uncertain about the book? Did they wonder about its genre? Did they argue with each other about the sense in which it was historical, and what it would mean to be historical anyway? Maybe a little, sometimes. But I think for them the Bible was primarily sui generis, in a genre of its own. What kind of book was it? It was the kind of book that proclaims Christ. It was the kind of book that enters into the hearts of its readers and hearers and floods out into their world and fills it with the knowledge of the Lord. That was its genre. It was not a tomb but a womb, the bearer of a past designed to form a people into a future, a people that would say, “I delight to do your will, O God; your instruction is inscribed in my heart.” From its shadows Christ would bring forth the true shape of good things to come. The meaning of the Greek and of the Hebrew would not remain uncertain.

Finally, then, what of our role here? A Christian publisher in the twenty-first century might play a number of roles. Our role in Baker Academic is the modest one, I would say, of supporting, diligently and carefully, the work of the Antiochene and Alexandrian Christian scribes of our day, those who labor assiduously to construct Christian interpretations and reinterpretations of the Christian and secular texts of our world, refining and disseminating biblical and theological knowledge that can equip pastors and teachers to birth and grow believers until the written word comes to life in their hearts and issues in action in the world. The book is meant to be eaten, but the food scientists will advise how to cook it. Our publishing company helps maintain and augment the cultural and rhetorical basis on which a new Basil or Chrysostom or Ambrose might stand to project a message into the inner public realm of the Christian churches and academies, perhaps even into the outer public sphere of the Barnes & Noble bookstores and Huffington Post blogs.

Whether we support these endeavors by producing paper codices or ebooks or both doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we are providing useful books in whatever formats our readers can use. We may not provide the noise and the movement. But pinheads though we be, we can help our authors help readers preserve and deepen and sharpen, in conversation with the pluriform competing cultural and scientific and religious knowledges of our day, their knowledge of the Christian scriptures and the traditions of thought and life that flow from them. If we do our work well, it may bear fruit in dynamic noise and movement capable of once again projecting a transformative news flash across boundaries that seem to be closing in around us. †

James D. Ernest
September 14, 2012

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