The Scroll and the Book

And the LORD said to Moses, “Write this down as a remembrance in a record, and put it in Joshua’s hearing, that I will surely wipe out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.”  Exodus 17:14  Robert Alter

Record – Compare the translation of the same verse in the NASB:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

You will immediately recognize that Robert Alter does not use the familiar English word “book.”  Now you know why (remember what sefer really means?).  God did not instruct Moses to write it down in a “book.”  Books didn’t exist.  What Moses did was write on papyri.  And over the course of time, Hebrew papyri became scrolls, not books.  Now you might ask, “Why does this detail about writing technology matter?”  The answer is surprising.

“Whereas less than 3% of the 690 pagan literary papyri [from Egypt] deriving from the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rdcenturies CE are in codex form, all known Christian papyri of the New Testament and the Jewish Scriptures from this period are so.”[1]

“This state of affairs bears elements of irony for though it was initially imitation of Jewish practice that led the Christians to utilize the codex for their own sacred works, it soon became the distinguishing mark of the independence of the Church from the Jewish community and its severance from Jewish traditions and practice.  This is emphasized by the fact that already in the 2nd century the Jewish Bible had been transcribed by Christians from scroll to codex form, a process that could only have been the result of deliberate and tendentious choice.”[2]

In other words, Judaism is a religion of the scroll; Christianity is a religion of the book.  When you carry your translation of the Hebrew Bible to your worshipping assembly, or when you bring your copy of the printed Hebrew Bible, you are transporting a Christian symbol of its separation from Judaism.  Authentic Judaism arises from the scroll, not the book.  Yes, of course, today there are many “books” of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, but they are compromises with convenience.  They are not authoritative.  It takes only a moment’s reflection to realize the impact this had for the early believing community.  By the time the Church became a Greek-thinking Gentile organization, even the physical semblance of connection to Judaism was altered.

We have often remarked on the absence of important nuances when Hebrew ends up in the hands of a printer of books.  Vital spacing disappears.  Enlarged and diminished letters vanish.  Formatting on the page changes.  And most importantly, the presence of stitched additions is invisible.  Furthermore, there is a physical continuity necessary in reading a scroll that is no longer required to turn a page.  To put it in its starkest form, a book is not a Jewish sacred document.  Ah, but what can we do?  Scrolls are unwieldly and expensive.  Few people have one.  And to make a scroll of the entire Tanakh is an overwhelmingly difficult task.  No, in the modern era we are stuck with books.  We just need to remember that Moses didn’t write one.

Topical Index: book, sefer, record, codex, Sarna, Exodus 17:14

[1] Nahum Sarna, “Introduction to the Hilleli Manuscript,” in Studies in Biblical Interpretation (JPS, 2000), p. 241.

[2] Ibid.

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Richard Bridgan

The record of Israel’s testimony, living in relation to YHVH (whether “within’ or “without) provides humanity with express lifelines to this God of creation… a God who is fully self-existent (and self-regarded, yet rightly so). Judaism is a privileged religion, granted such privilege by this same God, whose intentions include obligations, responsibilities, and accountability in covenantal partnering with his people, the nations and the created world. From the beginning this God has tethered all of creation’s life to his own through his word. It is this same sacred living word that was in the beginning and was with God and was God. And apart from either scroll or book, this word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and the glory of God’s life was manifest in the fullness of human dignity and weakness. Those that beheld him in the concrete revelation of his sustained and sustaining life marveled at the reality they had experienced, saying to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was speaking with us on the road, while he was explaining the scriptures to us?”

Whether scroll or book, does this God’s word, who became flesh and dwelt among humanity, leave our hearts burning within us? If so, know it is life!