One commonly held but mistaken conception of ancient Israel is the assumption of the priority of oral tradition over written record. I’ve gathered that many ancient cultures are thought to have been primarily oral and therefore the practice of writing things down developed later in the course of history as an afterthought or curiosity. For example, I know that some written languages are still being developed by modern Bible translators. Not being an expert in cultural anthropology or ancient history, I cannot speak to whether that was in fact generally pervasive (wouldn’t be surprised if it was) or whether that is Darwinism creeping into the archaeological casserole. However, there is significant evidence available to those interested in the ancient Hebrew culture, and what we find is that written records far from being a late stage development actually formed a significant cultural, political, and religious center for the people.
Beginning at least as early as the Exodus and the covenant at Mt. Sinai, Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews writes down the most important words that He wants His people to remember. In fact, as the story goes, God ends up writing it down twice when the first copy gets broken due to an impromptu Israelite idol worshipping party. This written record is called The Testimony, and it is placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:21). Hence, the Ark of the Covenant comes to be called the Ark of the Testimony (Ex. 25:22, et passim). It should be noted carefully that at the center of the Israelite culture and worship was a written testimony of the covenant between them and their God. There had been a Voice that spoke from heaven, and Moses mediated speaking on behalf of God. But the ten most important words were inscribed in stone, “written with the finger of God,” and kept in the most guarded center of the Israelite camp. Furthermore, the application and explanation of those Ten Words were expanded to form the Book of the Covenant, which was kept by the side of the Ark as a Testimony/witness for the people (Dt. 31:26).
We can add to this several other political and cultural details that demonstrate that this was not merely a cultic curiosity but rather a culture-wide phenomenon. First, in that great summary of the entire law, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel…,” the command to love the Lord their God and to remember and teach these words to their children is immediately followed by the commands to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt. 6:8-9). God writes down the things He doesn’t want His people to forget, and He insists that they imitate Him by writing down the things they must not forget. The same command is repeated again in a similar context of commanding the words of the law to be remembered and carefully passed down to their children: write them (Dt. 11:20).
We should also note that in addition to the central legal charter of Israel’s covenant, they were required to keep written records of other significant legal transactions. For example, a man could not divorce his wife on the force of a mere spoken word, but he was required to write her a certificate of divorce (Dt. 24:1). There had to be a written record of the dissolution of the marriage, and this was important for record keeping because God prohibited a man from taking a woman back who had been divorced and remarried to another man (Dt. 24:2-4). Whatever the reasoning behind the law (likely prohibiting exploitive gold-digging marriages), the simple fact is that significant legal/contractual changes had to be written down. We see yet another example of this in the assigning of Canaan to the tribes of Israel (Josh. 18:4-8). Three men from every tribe were sent out into the land to write descriptions of the portions to be divided among the tribes. These descriptions were written down, and they were written down in the presence of multiple witnesses from the tribes who had an interest in the proceedings. These descriptions would become the “ancient landmarks,” which became the inheritances of the tribes, which future generations were prohibited from removing (Dt. 19:14, Prov. 22:28, 23:10). Marriage, divorce, inheritance, property rights, and the covenant with God were all written down. Written records were not afterthoughts or mere cultural curiosities. Written records form the central core of the religious, cultural, and political identity of the Hebrew people.
And this explains why the Old Covenant Scriptures were not a casual tradition, that form merely “part” of the revelation of God and the covenant charter of the people. Rather, the Old Covenant Scriptures are the core, the center, the written Witness, the Testimony of God’s unfailing love and kindness and the standing summons to His people (and through them, the world) to walk with the God who made them and promised to save them.
When the apostles were set apart to be the witnesses of Jesus from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Act 1:8), being thoroughly enculturated in the Hebrew scriptures and understanding the Christian gospel to be the fulfillment of the law and the prophets — there would have to have been explicit instructions not to write all the most important stuff down in order to believe that anything of significance was left to unwritten tradition. For Jesus to claim to be the revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and for the apostles to be His witnesses leaves no doubt that this New Covenant, this New Testimony would be written down, to be remembered through all generations.
Since the beginning, God has written His word down so that it may be accessible, known, and clear to all His people. Yes, He calls teachers to instruct His people, but they are not free to add their own thoughts or opinions to what God has said. This is why it is improper to consider Scripture as one (though significant) part of the tradition of the Church.
“When they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word it is because they have no dawn” (Is. 8:19-20).
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