Changing the Wor(l)d

All Christians know that the birth of Christ changed the world by ushering in God’s Kingdom on earth.  But few are aware that Christianity also had a major impact on the way we encounter the written word – not just the Word of God, but all writing.

Punctuation:  When writing was first invented, it was a way of recording important information for the purposes of the elite (like rulers and priests) rather than a vehicle for communication.  Consequently, there was no incentive to make it easy to read.  Ancient languages were written ALLINCAPITALLETTERSWITHNOSPACESORPUNCTUATIONMARKS. The idea of personal reading didn’t really exist: most people encountered literature only when it was read to them, and since the reader was a trained specialist who familiarized himself with the text in advance, there was no real incentive to make the deciphering easy.  The Greeks did experiment with a rudimentary system of one, two, and three dots which approximated our system of comma, semicolon, and period so that readers would phrase the text the way the author intended, but the system never really caught on and the Romans abandoned it entirely – it seemed to them to detract from the elegant look of a written page!  But when the early Christians began to commit the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to writing, the priority was the clear communication with people of all social classes, and the old Greek system was revived and refined.  Our modern conventions of punctuation, spacing, and capitalization eventually evolved in the medieval monasteries where monks laboriously copied the sacred manuscripts by hand.

Books:  The rolled-up scroll was the format used for all longer writings in the ancient world.  Around the time of Christ, the Romans began experimenting with the codex, which is the system of bound pages that we call a ‘book.’  The codex was more economical, more durable, more compact, and easier to manipulate (especially if you wanted to randomly access information), but despite the many advantages, it was regarded as an inferior substitute for the more ‘elegant’ scroll.  The early Christians had no such compunctions: what mattered to them was spreading the Gospel, so they became “early adopters” of the codex as an efficient way of distributing their scriptures and other writings.   This push by pragmatic Christians is largely credited for the world’s adoption of the modern book form.

Printing:  When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, his first major project was a printing of the Bible (in Latin) and its commercial success quickly spawned a vibrant printing industry.  When Luther authored his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, printers quickly reproduced this and his subsequent tracts for distribution to an eager public, and the age of mass communication was born — a phenomenon that fueled an explosion in literacy and permanently changed our world.  By contrast, it was not until the late 1800’s that an authorized version of the Qur’an was machine printed (due in large measure to the significance attached to preserving the handwritten format of the Muslim holy scripture).

Language and literacy:   When Luther translated the Bible into German, he did so with the conviction that the Bible should be read by ordinary people.  This implies that the Bible should be available in the common language that people speak (not some exotic ‘religious language’) and that ordinary people should know how to read.  In the process, Luther is also credited with establishing the grammar of modern German and fostering the ideal of universal literacy.  These traditions continue into the present where groups of dedicated Christians, such as Wycliffe Bible Translators, are engaged in translating the Bible into the spoken language of indigenous people around the globe, an endeavor that typically involves defining and teaching the first-ever written language for these people.

Digital Technology:  Though we Christians certainly cannot take credit for the modern revolutions in communication, we have once again been enthusiastic adopters.  As always, our urgent goal is to make the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ available to all the people of the world.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  (Matthew 28:19-20).

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