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  • The History of the Closure of Biblical Texts
  • Werner H. Kelber (bio)


In an essay entitled “Technology Outside Us and Inside Us” (1992), Walter Ong developed the basic principles of a media-sensitive hermeneutics that have informed my work over the years and that provide a theoretical underpinning for this paper. Writing and print, as well as electronic devices, according to Ong’s thesis, are technologies that produce something in the sensible world outside us but also affect the way our minds work. Handwriting slowly undermined and partially replaced the predominantly oral lifeworld, print drastically altered major aspects of Western civilization, and the electronic medium is about to usher in a transformation of global dimensions. External changes have always been plainly in evidence, especially at epochal threshold events such as the alphabetic revolution in ancient Greece around 700 BCE (Havelock 1982), or the fifteenth-century shift from script to print (Eisenstein 1979)—events that scarcely left a single sphere of human activities untouched. But, and this is Ong’s point, we have not been sufficiently aware of the depths to which media technologies have penetrated the human psyche (1992:194):

Writing, print, and electronic devices of various sorts are all devised to deal, directly or indirectly, with the word and with thought itself. Of all technologies, they affect man’s interior most. Indeed, in a curious way they enter into man’s interior itself, directly affecting the way in which his consciousness and unconsciousness manage knowledge, the management of his thought processes, and even his personal self awareness.

Chirography, typography, and electronics are, for Ong, an “interiorized phenomenon, something registering inside humans” (191), affecting cognitive faculties, patterning thought processes, altering modes of discourse and research, reinforcing, complexifying, and even deconstructing reasoning processes.

For some time now my own work in biblical studies has examined ways in which our ritualized print habits of reading and writing, editing and authoring have—until recently— stylized our perceptions of ancient and medieval modes of communications. All along, a concern of mine has been to highlight the magnitude of what I have termed the typographical captivity that has shaped our methodological tools, sharpened our critical methods, and swayed our assumptions about ancient texts. In terms of media sensibilities it is no exaggeration to claim that print was the medium in which modern biblical scholarship was born and raised, and from which it has acquired its formative methodological habits, its intellectual tools, and, last not least, its historical theories. For all practical purposes, it was not handwritten manuscripts but the print Bible—the first mechanically constructed major book of print technology—that has served, and continues to serve, as the centerpiece of modern biblical scholarship.

Mindful of the power of media in the ancient and medieval past, in modernity and in current biblical scholarship, this paper attempts an overview of the history of the biblical texts from their oral and papyrological beginnings all the way to their triumphant apotheosis in print culture. In macrohistorical perspectives, a trajectory is observable that runs from scribal multiformity, verbal polyvalency, and oral, memorial sensibilities toward an increasing chirographic control over the material surface of biblical texts, culminating in the autosemantic print authority of the Bible.

The Mouvance of Tradition

A few years ago David Carr published an exceedingly ambitious book that discusses ways in which people in ancient Near Eastern civilizations produced, worked, and lived with texts, or, more specifically, ways in which writing and literature functioned orally, scribally, and memorially in predominantly educational contexts. In Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (2005), Carr has constructed a paradigm of the ancient verbal arts that will serve as a useful starting point for my deliberations.

Writing, texts, and literacy, Carr suggested, have to be understood as core constituents of educational processes. From Mesopotamia to Egypt, and from Israel to Greece and into the Hellenistic period, literacy and education were closely interconnected phenomena. Indeed, literacy and education were virtually synonymous as long as it is understood that neither concept conveys what it has come to mean in the print culture of European and North American modernity. Concepts derived from the contemporary experience of literacy in the West are too narrowly...

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