Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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People of the Book
I'm sure this must be a much-written about subject, but I'd be interested to know if anyone can recommend a particular treatment.

I've been wondering about the relationship between religion and the development of writing and early literacy. At least in the Middle East and the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, the idea of sacred writings seems to have been prominent from early times, and has at least two aspects. First, the notion that God dictates commandments, laws, scriptures - whether to Hammurabi, Moses or Mohammed - and that they assume thereafter a divine, perhaps infallible character in their written form. Second, the control of writing becomes associated with a priestly caste, using hieratic scripts, symbols and magic - something I associate particularly with Egypt, though no doubt it appears elsewhere too (in Babylon, for example?).

With both these developments, but especially the first (because magic can be performed without script) religion isn't just facilitated by writing - it's virtually identified with it: the Good Book, Holy Writ, the Law. To this day the invention of writing is the prerequisite for a vast amount of what we recognize as religious practice - from Golden Dawn ceremonials to scripture-quoting Southern Baptist preachers. I suppose it's uncontroversial to say that it must have been impressive for illiterate societies, from ancient Britain to the Aztec Empire, to find that a piece of paper could talk and carry messages - but even after the novelty has worn off (as it must have done by now) the written word appears to be valorized to what seems a slightly weird degree. I can't think of any other technology that has embedded itself so firmly into the DNA of religious experience.

Anyway - as I say, I'm just wondering whether there's a standard/classic/interesting treatment of this subject out there that my sapient friends list might be able to recommend?

It's not the general treatment which it sounds like you are really looking for, but you might get some value out of Mary Beard (1991), 'Writing And Religion: Ancient Literacy and the Function of the Written Word in Roman Religion' in J. Humphrey, ed. Literacy in the Roman World (Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series No. 3), pp. 35-58. She does draw comparisons between the using of writing in Roman religion (which never had sacred texts but did use writing to record and commemorate rituals) and Christianity, but I don't think she casts her net any wider.

Thanks - that's certainly a start!

I have no references to share, I'm afraid, but I would add a key point - that the shift from scrolls to codices (ie to what we wold now call "books") was driven by the need to distribute copies of the Bible where you could easily flip between pages in the very early Christian Era; τὰ βιβλία means "the books" (plural). In other words, the very format of the books we read was driven by cult considerations.

Thanks - I hadn't realised that Christianity was a particular driver for the codex. It makes sense, though you'd think there'd be other purposes for which having script in a random access medium would be just as advantageous.

Any desire to consult the written word would generate the codex. I spent far too much of my academic youth working with reels of microfilm, and took to muttering vehemently, "It's a reversion to the papyrus scroll."

I was thinking how useful it would be for any scholar - e.g. a Roman historian - needing to check multiple sources.

Edited at 2013-04-17 10:08 pm (UTC)

There's also a theory that the library of Alexandria, which used papyrus scrolls, ran a bit short of papyrus and started banning the export of such a key material to other libraries such as Pergamon. So the Pergamonians / Pergomonese / Pergomen started using parchment, which, being available in small pieces, was better suited to codices, and in fact, parchment is a corruption of the name Pergamon.

I'm also interested in the way talismans are used - such as the "Ephesian Letters" that St Paul had burned. These tiny scrolls had writing on them, but the purchasers never saw what it said because they bought them in sealed vials or packets. Like the Jewish mezuzah. So the writing had a religious power in its own right.

Fascinating! It's easy to imagine that writing might be regarded as magical by people to whom it was new, but I wonder whether that feeling of writing having power in its own right can be just the afterglow of that, or whether it's something else again?

I was got to thinking about all this by noticing how unthinkable all the Abrahamic religions would be without writing. It's not just a useful extra - it's absolutely integral to them. And how strange it was that God should depend on a human invention, his wonders to perform. And why haven't I come across people discussing this?

Edited at 2013-04-18 09:26 am (UTC)

Writing as such having power also ties in to mediaeval Islamic healing magic- writing verses of the Quran on paper, washing it off and drinking the ink. (I think Christian scriptures may have been used the same way but I read a book about Muslim medical history fairly recently!)

Robin Lane Fox is good on aspects of this in Pagans and Christians, though he's more interested in the intersection of faiths.
The 'classic' study on literacy and society is Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, but it's outdated and much criticised (rightly).

Thanks - I shall check these out!


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