Category Archives: History

Original texts: Thinking about the Bible and beyond

I recently read the book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman, on my brother’s recommendation. The book traces the transformations—intentional and otherwise—that gave us the Bible that we have today. Ehrman discusses how copyists over the ages altered the text to, for instance, obfuscate the women and harmonize the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. The book problematizes the situation for those that favor a literal interpretation of the Bible: If we believe the Bible is God’s word, or at least divinely inspired, then it’s a major challenge that we don’t have any of the original texts.

(As an aside, Ehrman doesn’t seem to appreciate a narrative, pathic reading of the Bible as a tome of mythological force. He himself seems to fall prey to the literal reading of the Bible that he denounces. For a literate, rather than literal, view of the Bible, see Rob Bell’s recent book What is the Bible?)

“The original texts”—what does that mean? While this maybe ought to be a straightforward question, it is anything but. Ehrlman describes how, for example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians (part of the New Testament canon) was most likely originally dictated and immediately existed in multiple manuscript copies that were sent out (to the “Galatians,” which demonym is itself a bit ambiguous) and then copied further. Our earliest version of Galatians is from over a hundred years after these “originals.” Since then, the letter was copied and transformed by any number of hands and cultures, generating a family tree of differences.

The printing press, when it came along in the 15th century, lent some stability to textual reproduction. But even with print, it’s no easier to say what the “original” is. Shakespeare, for instance—there’s the perduring question of the original scripts (and also of pronunciation!). In any printed text, which is the original: is it the first edition, of which there may be many and multiple printings? The printer’s proof? How about the second edition which includes corrections of the printer’s errors? How about the author’s final manuscript (if such a thing exists)?

And today, when many documents are “digital native,” our situation is in many ways more like a scriptorium than a printing house. Getting to the “original” is as devilish a task as ever. Think about quotes we come across that appear with some variation and with attribution to any number of people that we can’t pin down where they actually came from.

All over, we’re reaching for originals. What we don’t seem to ask, is why. Why do we care about the original? It’s sure to be a case-by-case question. In some disputes, discerning what the original document actually said is of central importance. But in cases such as the Bible, I am tempted to conclude that it’s irrelevant.

Thinking the relationship between writing and speech

An example of quipu, a knot-based information system used by the Incas. This could be considered a form of proto-writing.

What is writing, exactly? That question began to fascinate me as I worked on my master’s degree (in Spanish linguistics). There are a few posts on this blog on the topic (for example), but it’s a question that I haven’t yet grown tired of.

On the surface, we think of writing as a simple representation of speech. But that may not be quite right. That view would imply that the whole history of writing, from pictographs and other early information systems (flags, knots, etc.) was teleological from the start, just searching for the “correct” way to represent a spoken language that was already totally understood.

A 1996 paper by David R. Olson, “Towards a Psychology of Literacy,” challenges the assumption of writing-as-representation and introduces instead a view of writing as a model for language.

Olson traces the evolution of writing in this light, discussing the movement from representing tokens to representing words (towards the abstract). This movement occurred as syntax (what you might loosely call “grammar”) was introduced and began to complexify. With syntax, writing came to shed light on the structures of speech. The next movement was from thinking of whole words to thinking of units of sound, and from there the development of writing continued to facilitate the analysis of language in many ways—on the level of sentence meaning, for instance.

The cognitive changes that go along with the development of writing and literacy (discussed, for instance, by Walter Ong), are due to this mode of analysis. Some of the changes Olson discusses are a reduction in the felt magic of symbols, and the transformation of words and sentences into objects of contemplation and philosophy.

In summation, Olson writes:

In this way, writing systems, rather than transcribing a known, provide concepts and categories for thinking about the structure of spoken language. The development of a functional way of communicating with visible marks was, simultaneously, a discovery of the representable structures of speech.

On this view, learning to read is not simply a matter of learning the symbols that correspond to already-understood units of language, as is often assumed in pedagogy. Rather, it is a metalinguistic activity—it involves the discovery of those very units. Learning to read is essentially learning to tune in to your language and analyze it.

Thus writing is, by its very nature, a reflective activity. And so we have further grounds for why the practice of writing is conducive to self-reflection (what can be called the hermeneutic capacity of writing). As historian Lynn Hunt says, writing leads to thinking.

Writing in hyperhistory

There’s a well-known distinction between prehistory and history. History, we say, is everything after the invention of writing. This first happened around 7,000 years ago.

But we shouldn’t think of history as referring to a period in the earth’s development, but rather as a descriptor of how people live. That is, even after writing was first invented, many societies still lived prehistorically—without writing. Indeed, writing was invented many times, independently, in different parts of the world (China, Sumer, Egypt, Mesoamerica…). Even today, there are some remote tribes that live prehistorically.

But is the prehistory/history distinction enough? The philosopher Luciano Floridi posits that many of us today have moved into a different way of life, which he calls hyperhistory. In hyperhistory, “societies or environments where ICTs [information and communication technologies] and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and any further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as intellectual flourishing.”

We can summarize the distinction in this way:

  • Prehistory – No ICTs
  • History – Society is enriched by ICTs that store and transmit information
  • Hyperhistory – ICTs have overtaken other technologies and now society depends on ICTs to function


Floridi very briefly discusses the concept of hyperhistory and what it means for warfare in the Computerphile video below.

Across Floridi’s many works on the topics, he discusses how hyperhistory plays out in economics, politics, warfare, information quality and other areas. The bottom line is that hyperhistory is new, and we are only beginning to grapple with its immense challenges. Floridi writes:

Processing power will increase, while becoming cheaper. The amount of data will reach unthinkable quantities. And the value of our network will grow almost vertically. However, our storage capacity (space) and the speed of our communications (time) are lagging behind. Hyperhistory is a new era in human development, but it does not transcend the spatio-temporal constraints that have always regulated our life on this planet.

And elsewhere:

It may take a long while before we shall come to understand in full such transformations, but it is time to start working on it.

When it comes to writing, what does hyperhistory mean? That’s a big question, but we can sketch some initial thoughts:

  • When there’s more information, there’s less time to devote to any given information. Not only is there more of it to read, but we have to spend more time organizing it and searching for it. Commensurately we’re seeing writing take different forms: shorter sentences, more lists, etc.
  • Non-text forms of information are proliferating. Big data visualizations, videos, etc.
  • Things change fast, and so writing on many topics quickly obsolesces.
  • Text is being processed more by other technologies than by humans. Machines cannot understand in the same way humans can—their “reasoning faculties” are quite different from ours. What does it mean to think of writing for the audience of both humans and machines?

Ah, things to think about…