From Creation Magazine, vol. 37, No. 4, 2015, by author Lita Cosner. Lita has a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Oklahoma Wesleyan University and an M.A. in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is the full-time Information Officer for CMI-USA. For more, see creation.com/cosner
The Bible is the most influential and widely-read book in the world. It has shaped the world’s literature – especially that in English. It was the best-preserved book in the ancient world and is the most-printed and most-translated book today. Of course, Christians believe that the 66 books which make up Scripture are uniquely inspired by God and so are an inerrant and authoritative collection.
But out of all the media through which God might have given us His revelation, why did He choose a written medium? Why didn’t He inspire an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation? Or some other visual medium other than text? In fact, for several reasons, a collection of written documents was the ideal way for God to reveal Himself.
God is associated more with the spoken word in Scripture than with the written word. So why inspire written documents? One very good reason is that written documents are less susceptible to ‘mutation’ over time. Studies show that oral tradition, especially in societies with low literacy, is actually quite accurate, but as we can see with the Flood stories around the world, history passed down strictly orally has a tendency to change much faster than written documents.
Because Scripture was copied down, we can look at very ancient manuscripts to get an accurate view of what the Bible actually says. Each copyist would make mistakes in their copies, but because there were so many copies, it is possible to compare them and see who got it wrong and who got it right. This would not be possible with an oral tradition where the earlier versions would die with the people who transmitted them.
When a message is strictly oral, its transmission is restricted to the movement of the people who carry the message, and it is limited to people within earshot of the person speaking. By contrast, a written document can be copied 100 times and taken around the world. Messengers can faithfully communicate the message, because they have it written down. For the Gospel to spread rapidly, written documents were practically indispensable – as necessary as it was for Paul to travel on his missionary journeys to plant the churches in Asia, it was also necessary for him to write to them to give them teaching from far away.
Furthermore, the written revelation enabled authoritative quoting that others could check for authenticity. The New Testament authors frequently quote from the Old Testament. In turn, there are over a million quotations of the New Testament by the Church Fathers. This would enable reconstruction of almost the entire NT from the quotations alone.
Another reason that it is fitting that God revealed His Word in a written for is that it can be translated into any language. This started happening very early in Christian history. For example, while there are over 5,800 manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek, there are about 10,000 manuscripts of Latin translation, and 5,000-10,000 translated into other languages like Coptic and Aramaic. These other translations arose as more and more people groups became converted to Christianity. This is because Christians believe that Christ will save people “from all tribes, and peoples, and languages” (Revelation 7:9).
The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and those who believe it can be glad that God inspired it in such a way that we can read the same truth that people thousands of years ago penned, even when we read it in a different language. No other medium is as easy to transmit, preserve, and make available to wide groups of people. So it made sense, when God wanted to give a message to be preserved for all His people, for all time, that He gave a book.
Words communicate concrete meaning, i.e. propositions, or factual statements about things. A painting could mean various things to different people (especially if it is an abstract painting), but there are only so many ways to interpret “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
In Scripture, God’s revelation and action in the world is characterized by words. God created the universe by speaking (Genesis 1). God’s covenant with Israel was mediated with words (Exodus 20). Jesus is called “The Word” (John 1). Over and over God’s Word is equated with God Himself – to love God’s Word is to love God, to spurn God’s Word is to spurn God.
A brief background on the painting “Solitude” by Marc Chagall, which features at the top of this article. In 1933, the Nazi party came to power in Germany on a platform that, among other things, openly espoused hatred against Jews and called for their repression and removal from Germany. Germany, however, was far from being the only country to have such a change. In Eastern Europe, where there was a historically large population of Jewish people, anti-Semitism was a recurring problem that intensified every few decades before dying down again.
The 1930s saw another such cycle in that area of the world and Chagall, as an Eastern European Jew himself, with many friends and family in those countries, felt this rise of anti-Semitism strongly. In 1934, while in Warsaw, Poland, Chagall witnessed one of his friends assaulted in the street for his religious beliefs. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 59 of Chagall’s paintings then on the territory of Germany and showed them as part of an exhibition entitled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst).
The painter’s response was to attempt to reconcile the two conflicting religions, Judaism and Christianity, through art. In Chagall’s painting Solitude (1933), he depicts the profound sadness and pain felt by the Jewish people in the brewing storm.
I love that the protagonist is cradling a Torah scroll, keeping the Word of God close to him. And the cow in the background seems to be entering into his reverie on heavenly things.