Media codes and conversations refer to written and symbolic tools used to construct or suggest meaning in media forms and products. Media codes include typography, visual composition, and contextual symbolism.
Understanding conventions in cultural and historical contexts assists in analysing themes and meanings. In this regard, the Bible, as a text, is no different than any other book. Moreover, it is prudent to note that contemporary versions of the Bible are a far cry from the first “editions”. It has passed through numerous eras of media codes and conventions. What follows is a brief overview which highlights some interesting issues.
The Christian Bible begins with the Hebrew Bible, which began as an oral tradition in the second millennium before the common era.
The earliest written versions of the Hebrew Bible were created on papyrus or parchment, or even leather scrolls that are dated to be from c.900-c600BCE. Old Hebrew was written right to left in a continuous script that had no vowels, capital letters, or chapter numbers. A complete set of writings consisted of 12-20 scrolls.
The Torah, the Jewish Holy Book. Source: Wikipedia Commons
In the third century BCE, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The work was conducted by scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. The name given to the translation was the Septuagint and it is reported as being the work of seventy-two scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Hebrew, the Greek conventions of writing was a continuous script that did not have any punctuation, this writing was called Kione.
The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was a significant development that enabled people of other faiths and Jews who no longer knew the Hebrew language to become familiar with the stories. Some reports praise the translation while others are critical of details being changed such as variations in timeframes and ages of characters. Additionally, there are instances of names of birds being altered. For example, in Leviticus 11:18 the Hebrew Bible says a type of bird but Septuagint specifies a pelican; other Christianised versions say owl, swan, vulture, or other type of bird. (See Bible Hub for variations.)
In the first few decades of the common era, Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – c.50 CE) rewrote the chapters of Genesis and Exodus with an emphasis on allegories and harmonising Jewish and Greek thought. He wrote in the scholarly language of his era, Greek Koine. Philo’s versions of Jewish stories were favoured by Early Christians, many of whom could not speak or read Hebrew. Alternatively, if they did not have access to Philo’s writings, they used the Septuagint. Having said all that, it also needs to be remembered that most Early Christians could not read or write at all, stories were mostly told and retold through word of mouth.
Early Christians referred to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament, that described stories about Jesus. Thus, the Christian Bible is an extension of the Hebrew Bible.
The first Christian writings were letters between Christian leaders and their followers. Most of these are attributed to the apostle Paul, however, whether or not he is the genuine author or a pseudonym is unclear. Once again, Greek Koine was the language used.
Timeline of New Testament events and writings. Created by Renee from various references.
The Christian Gospels differ to other writings in the New Testament because they are not a direct form of communication between people, rather, they are a narrative of the saviour, Jesus Christ.
In Ancient Greek He was known as Iēsūs Christós [Ἰησοῦς Χριστός]. Iēsūs means Son of God and Christós means the Anointed One. There was confusion amongst Romans when they first heard of Iēsūs Christós because they thought Christós was a name, however, in Ancient Greek it was a title that inferred a person was a high priest or initiate. Through the linguistic representation of Christós being applied to all followers in “Christians” it may be inferred that the cult of Christianity did not initially have any formal hierarchical structure; rather, all followers were deemed to be “anointed ones”, a community bound by the premise that they were all “Sons” of God, like Jesus. (The hierarchical structure of Christianity emerged after Constantine Romanised the religion. See Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity.)
The first Christian Gospel, Saint Mark’s, was written in the first century, in Greek Koine script. Some scholars believe Mark’s Gospel was written by his disciples in Rome, however, it is more probable that it was written in Alexandria, Egypt. Legend has it that Mark travelled to Alexandria where he set up a Church and the Gospel that bears his name was written by his followers several years after his death.
Matthew’s Gospel is credited as being the second narrative about Jesus. Like Mark’s, it was not written by its namesake or by any first hand witnesses. It is generally understood that Matthew’s Gospel was written by a male Jewish scholar, hence, it is in Hebrew. Matthew’s Gospel contains many details about Jesus’ life that are not presented in Marks, for instance, the Star of Bethlehem and wise men who brought gifts to the infant saviour. Such details have strong links to Old Testament symbology.
In Hebrew, the name Jesus Christ is Yeshua Hamashiach. Yeshua means deliverer or saviour and Hamashiach means Anointed One.
The final two Christian Gospels, Luke and John, were written in Greek Koine.
Scholars generally agree that when alive, Jesus spoke Aramaic, the common language of Judea at the time. However, given the descriptions of Jesus’ knowledge Jewish scriptures, it can be presumed he also knew Hebrew. Likewise, stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles (anyone who is not Jewish) suggest he was familiar with the Greek language.
During the first few centuries of Christianity, writings were copied and collections were gathered at a several locations, most significantly, Alexandria, Egypt.
The convention of writing Christian documents in the codex, parchment that was bound like modern books, began in the second century and completely replaced scrolls in the fourth century.
In recent history, a person hand wrote the bible using a felt-tipped marker and it took them four years, sometimes writing fourteen hours a day to complete. Hence, given the effort involved in producing a bible, it is understandable how precious and special the manuscripts were considered to be.
St Jerome (c.347 – 419/20), a Christian priest, theologian, and historian translated the Bible into Latin, which became known as the Vulgate. Jerome added six additional chapters to the bible which included prayers and stories. The convention of writing in Latin was similar to Old Hebrew and Old Greek, however, some indications of punctuation like spaces between sentences were beginning to be introduced. (For background information about other founders see Who Were the Early Church Fathers?.)
8th-century Vulgate, source: Wikipedia Commons
The accuracy in which the Bible was copied and translated is a contentious issue. For instance, did the evolution of grammar impact meaning and symbolism? (See Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, or bow? for an example.) Did Jerome accurately translate the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into Latin? Or were there anomalies like what occurred with the name of birds when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek? For instance, Early Christian art suggests the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was a fig, however, following the Romanisation of Christianity, the fruit began being presented as an apple. An explanation for this change is that the Latin word for evil, malum, is similar to their word for apple, malus.
Another interesting homophone issue (my personal favourite), is Moses being depicted with horns on his head because the Hebrew word for “radiance” was the same as “horns” (see Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists).
Between c.600-995 the Vulgate, was the only version that Christians were allowed to use.
In the thirteenth century, Stephen Langton (c.1150 – 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, England, divided the Vulgate into chapters, numbered them, rearranged the order in accordance with Jerome’s recommendations several centuries earlier. This development represents a significant shift in technical codes of written language. Spaces between words, capital letters, and the presentation of information in columns were the new norm.
Benedictine monks and nuns were significant producers of hand written copies of the bible and other ancient texts. Elaborate pictures and decorations graced the pages giving rise to the tradition of Illuminated manuscripts (see below).
11th century – Gospel Book with Commentaries, Byzantium, Constantinople. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Book of Hours, Bourges, c.1480. Source: State Library NSW
When Johannes Gutenberg (c1400-1468), a German blacksmith, invented the printing press in the 1440s, the bible was the first book that he published. It was written in Latin, in 42-line columns; it had no title page or page numbers, thus resembling Gothic-style hand written copies.
Gutenberg Bible. Source: Wikipedia Commons
In 1491 the first pocket-sized bible was produced, which was dubbed the poor man’s bible. It was printed in small font, had a subject index, a summary of the books and their contents, and it was illustrated with woodcuts inspired by Durer’s work. (Durer is the first artist who ever had to contend with copyright issues in printed media.)
“Poor Man’s Bible”, 1491. Source: Southern Methodist University
In the early 1500s, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) played a significant role in instigating the beginning of the Reformation – a movement of reform arising from accusations that the Roman Church was corrupt. Part of this process was Luther’s translation of the bible into German in 1522. This era also saw a flooding of new iconography that was produced by artists and dispersed via the printing press (for more details see here and here.)
Title woodcut for the 1541 of Martin Luther’s German Bible. Source: Wikipedia Commons
A few years later, an English version of the bible was mass-produced. The main translator was William Tyndale (c.1494–1536) who used Hebrew and Greek references. Tyndale’s translation did not meet a warm reception in England where they were banned and burned. He was accused of deliberately mistranslating scripture and supporting heretical views. For example, he changed the word “priest” to “senior”, “do penance” to “repent”, and “charity” to “love”. Potentially, the most controversial of his word changing was “church” to “congregation”. The Catholic Church had maintained for centuries that there was only one true church, themselves. Therefore, to imply that the church was an invisible structure of people was considered unacceptable.
Tyndale was charged with heresy and sentenced to death. He was strangled and burned on a stake, a common fate of anyone who challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Empire.
Despite the initial rejection of Tyndale’s translation, a few decades later, it was referenced, along with Hebrew and Greek, to create the Great Bible that was printed in 1539.
Under King Henry VIII, England split off from Popal rule and was establishing the Church of England. The Great Bible is considered to mark the beginning of Early modern English. Codes and conventions of printed material that we know today are evident in the page layout, numbering of verses, headings, and chapter titles.
The evolution of codes and conventions in the technical production of printing very much coincides with language development and issues of symbolic expression. A Bible printed in 1609 expresses the concerns of people with its title page (which by this stage had become a feature of printed material) that reads:
“THE HOLIE BIBLE / FAITHFVLLY TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH OVT OF THE AVTHENTICAL LATIN / Diligently conferred with the Hebrew, Greece, and other Editions in diuers (different) languages. / With ARGVMENTS of the Bookes, and Chapters / ANNOTATIONS: TABLES: and other helpes, for better underſtanding of text: for diſcouerie (discovery) of CORRVPTIONS in ſome late transſlations: and for clearing CONTROVERIES in Religion”.
Source: Theological Commons
Note: During the 1300s to the 1600s “u” was only used in the middle of words, e.g. save was saue; “v” was used for “u” sound, e.g, upon was vpon; and “w” was two “v” joined together so “w” makes a long “u” sound, e.g. new. Printing eventually standardised all of these issues.
(English is a challenging language to learn because it was developed as a conglomerate of influences from many languages and therefore has a lot of variation in rules which means a lot has to be learned by rote and remembered.)
In 1611, the Bible was once again produced with an impetus on authenticity by King James who commissioned its production. Its production involved the removal of the chapters which Jerome added in 384 that were considered to be heretical and became known as the Apocrypha (meaning not genuine).
Source: Wikipedia Commons
The King James Version of the Bible has become the standard of all modern bibles. While there have been many translations since then, the issues of codes and conventions in its presentation as a media product have become second to the relevance of symbolic codes used in the language.
Alongside changes in presentation formats, the use of figurative speech has also changed dramatically. The retranslation of terms such as “house” into “home” or “household” can have significance repercussions on interpretations. For example, King James Version of Proverbs 14:1 reads:
Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands.
The Brenton Septuagint Translation written English in 1844 reads:
Wise women build houses: but a foolish one digs hers down with her hands.
The New Living Translation written 1989 – 1996, reads:
A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.
The International Standard Version written in 2011 reads:
Every wise woman builds up her household, but the foolish one tears it down with her own hands
In traditional Jewish figurative speech, the phrase “house” often inferred the “House of God”. The structure of this metaphorical house included a father, wife/mother, daughter, and son. Hierarchically, the “Father” represents God, the “Wife/Mother” represents the Church, the “Daughter/s” (also referred to as Virgin/s; see Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother) represent congregations or groups of people, and “Son/s” represents individuals.
By examining different versions of the Bible (like on Bible Hub) it can be noted that the King James Version and Brenton Septuagint Translation both contain impressions of the tradition figurative speech as it would have been told 2000 odd years ago. On the other hand, versions like the New Living Translation and International Standard Version have been altered in such a way that it appears verses (like above) have been interpreted literally, that is the “wife” or “woman” is not representative of a theological construct, rather, as a real biological female. (Biblical figurative speech is discussed in more detail here and here.)
Given that the Jewish framework of God’s House places “daughters” above “sons” it is not strictly a patriarchal model. Thus, it can be argued that some contemporary interpretations of the Christian Bible are more misogynistic than Early Christianity intended.
Issues could also be raised in the how a “woman” (or “women”) metaphorically pull down their house/home/household via the differing adjectives of plucketh, digs, or tears.
Are contemporary Christian Bibles an accurate replication of the original? Personally, I am amazed at how much has been preserved, nonetheless, it is vital to recognise the impact that the evolution of language, customs, and media production processes have had on the Christian’s Holy Scriptures. The application of media codes and conventions sits somewhere between wanting to maintain a sense of stability so as audiences can connect with what is familiar, and gradual change in accordance with sociocultural values, interests, and technology.
In summary, over the past two thousand years, the Bible has evolved from a document handwritten on papyrus scrolls to a mass-produced book that is organised with features that include, a cover, title page, index, chapters, verse numbers, page numbers, and columed writing. The first editions were created in a combination of Hebrew and Greek Koine script, which were succeeded by Latin. Every translation into another language, including latter versions in German, English, and so forth, have presented many challenges and raise questions about the original authors’ intentions. Contemporary Bibles are now easily accessible in digital forms, which is a far cry from its humble beginnings.
As I’ve said before, the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, but the interpretation of its symbolism is a very human activity, moreover, Bible interpretation is nuanced by cultural and historical contexts of its production.
Dr Roy Murphy provides an insightful discussion about additional Christian writings and Gospels that did not make the final cut of the Holy Roman version of the Bible that can be found here: The Lost Gospels.
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