Monday, March 27, 2006


Partial and piecemeal, here and there
Vowels omitted, consonants square
No jots or tittles, not one iota
As if there was, a letter quota.

Line upon line, word for word
Scriptum continuum without an end
Space is so precious, conventions must bend

Fair hand copy, stylus in hand
Awaiting dictation, write on demand
Line length is even, no letters odd
So it must be--- the Word of God.

Written revelation, unveiled truth
Put on papyrus, sold from a booth
Unroll the scroll, unseal the seal
Meant to inform, not to conceal.

Nomina sacra, the Holy Name
In abbreviation, meaning the same
IX, XC, IHS too
Jehovah combines, God’s name times two.

Inspired authors, inspiring text
God breathed words, soul resurrects
Let it be written, let it be done
Fulfilling fulfillment, victory won.

In the beginning, God chose to speak
Creation created, in under a week
Even the last Word, God will have too
Alpha-Omega, indwelling you.



One of the more fascinating subjects to reflect on Biblically speaking is the theology of the Word. We are apt to see words as just combinations of letters or ciphers or symbols, but this is not how the ancients, living in an overwhelming oral culture, saw words. Words spoke things into existence if they came from God. Genesis 1 is quite explicit about this. But the Word could not only create reality, it could become a human being as John 1 says---‘and the Word took on flesh’. Clearly the ancients saw words in a different light than moderns tend to do. Even in Rev. 19.13 when John of Patmos wants to unveil the final mystery he tells us that the Word of God will leap forth from heaven once more to bring closure to the drama of history. Its not just the Author stepping out on the stage at the end of the play, though that is true, it is that the author becomes the last Word, the last act of the play, bringing it to its proper conclusion.
In this poem I have tried to share some of the things about how the Word came to us through the hands of the ancient scribes, who had as their tools, a stylus, some water made black with soot, a papyrus roll, and a very steady hand and ability to take dictation on the fly. It is hard to even imagine how laborious it was where every single copy of every single page had to be hand-copied—word for word. If it was possible the scribe would use a wax tablet to copy the words first there, and then make a fair hand copy on a scroll since papyrus was quite expensive (as was hiring a scribe). Words took on almost a magical quality, especially religious or sacred ones, and especially the name of a Deity in such an oral culture.
It is all the more interesting then that Christian scribes chose to use abbreviations for the divine names--- XC—Christos kurios; IX Iesous Christos; IHS the first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, though later it was used in Latin to stand for ‘in hoc signo’--- in this Name. Experienced scribes knew that God’s names would be mentioned more than all others, and so they developed these sacred abbreviations, called nomina sacra. But it was the Christian theology that the sacred Word not only could create reality or come in person, it could also indwell and thus inspire ordinary mortals like me and you. In the end, there is no last word on the Word. There is far too much to unveil and to ponder.


Sandalstraps said...

While this speaks (and rightly so) of the theological power of the written word, I am similarly impressed with the theological power of the spoken word.

As you well know, there is an intimate connection in many languages between variations of breath and spirit. There is also a physical connection between breath and speech. To speak is literally to use breath (and its connection with spirit) to call order out of chaos.

My son is 14 months old, and is slowly but surely learning the mystical distinction between speech and gibberish. He is starting to bring more order into the ways in which his breath produces sound. This impacts him profoundly, and the power of speech (with its connections to breath and spirit) is not lost in him, or us.

As he learns to shape breath into sound, and sound into speech, he learns to better share his experience of life with the intimate community around him. He then learns the distinction between random sounds and sounds which both describe and communicate experience. He begins to have some authority by authoring phrases which have some small power. Power to describe, and power to convey - even power to command.

Everyone knows that a baby can command a great deal of attention, but my son could not issue specific commands without having some command of speech.

This reminds me of some scriptural images:

God breathing life into that which was dead.

God speaking (with the connections between spirit and breath, breath and speech), and that which is spoken becomes real.

Thank you for your meditation on the power of the written word, and for tolerating my mediation on the spoken word. Words do have theological significance and power.

Curt Dalaba said...

Love those poems. Keep 'em coming.

Michael Martin said...

A question: did the ancients abbreviate the name of Jesus as they did with God to keep his name from being used in an inappropriate manner?
If this is the case, how early does this practice go back?

long-time Methodist said...

Thank you for your poem, "Wordshaped" and your commentary following it. I especially loved "written revelation, unveiled truth". Recently I read "God's Secretaries", the story of the King James translation. Your poem reminded me of the painstaking work that was done there, the careful choosing of each word and phrase and the discussions that took place. I was also reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem: "A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."
Also, I'd like to mention that I've just finished reading your "The Gospel Code" which was very helpful in discussing "The Da Vinci Code", especially after having attended the seminar you led in Owego, NY. It was all good stuff that you shared with us, lots to think about and ponder. So glad that my husband and I had the opportunity to be there.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Sandalstraps--- yes you are quite rightabout the spoken word, which is part of whatI was talking about.... texts were surrogates fororal communication.

Michael--- I do think early Christians had the same taboo as Jews about saying God's name if we are referring to the 2nd or 3rd persons of the Trinity. Jewish Christians may have had reservation about saying Yahweh, but in fact Jesus taught them to call him abba--- not really a divine personal name.

Nice to hear from the Long-Time Methodists.....



Ramonsito said...

First, thank you for your blog, Ben. It has been a real blessing.

Second, one of the things that I've always loved about the interplay of Genesis 1 and 2 is the transition from God speaking things into existence, to God breathing his breath into man, to man in turn speaking and naming the animals in Eden.

What an incredible picture of the agency that comes with God creating mankind in his image. And to bring it full circle, what a beautiful thing that the first words put in the mouth of man are poetry. Thank you for sharing yours in turn and exercising this gift of speech and word that we've been given.

Mathew Sims said...

I loved that poem--that was great. The short lines and the words you choose really complemented each other. Each word moved the line a long but the poem still held together well.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I am looking forward to reading more. Thanks!

Mathew S.