Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Is the Bible Written?

An ancient scribe writing an ancient book
I had a comic book Bible when I was a kid and got a lot out of it, so I thought it was a worthwhile Quora question. 

Q: Why is the Bible written rather than drawn?

A: I kind of wish the biblical authors had added a few illustrations. Instead of his intricate description of his vision of God's throne with its wheels within wheels, it would be easier for me to grasp it with my impressionistic picture-book mind if Ezekiel just said, “And it looked like this,” and drew a picture. We know he could have done it too since a little later in his book he draws a picture of Jerusalem on a clay brick. 

 But the Bible for the most part is didactic literature, which doesn't lend itself well to artistic representation. Euclid may add diagrams to his works on geometry but one doesn't find Seneca or Marcus Aurelius drawing pictures to teach principles of Stoicism. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine the art St. Paul would need to create to accurately convey to the Ephesians that, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” One would need a comic strip or graphic novel, I would think — a large one to convey even one of Paul's shorter epistles.

 It's also worth noting that most of the tales of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures got their start as oral traditions. Think of an old man or woman at the campfire at night surrounded by a dozen villagers as they recite the rhythmic creation story or Ruth’s gripping tale. Or an apostle telling well-rehearsed stories of Jesus of Nazareth to a new crop of disciples in a Greek lecture hall. These would have been most naturally preserved later on in written form.

 That's not to say there couldn’t have been artistic representations among the Israelites. They were certainly capable of it. The historical books of the Bible preserve descriptions of large statues of cherubim (composite human-animal creatures depicted throughout the middle east) in the Jerusalem temple along with richly embroidered tapestries of plants and more cherubim. Seal impressions showing animals and decorations have been found by archaeologists. But as in other cultures, such as Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and Greece most devotional and mythological art, as well as some legal texts (e.g., Hammurabi’s code), were done as large public statues, reliefs, paintings, and mosaics where whatever messages they were intended to convey could reach a large audience. Books back then had a more limited reach.

 That’s as far as we know right now, of course. As with all of history, a discovery could be made tomorrow that upends everything.

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