Janie Cheaney: Who invented writing?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 28th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Janie B. Cheaney is here now with thoughts on the difference between knowing and doing.

JANIE CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: Who invented writing? And why does the Bible not care?

The answer to the first question is, nobody knows. It developed in early Mesopotamia, eventually picked up by all Middle Eastern cultures. The Phoenicians get credit for the first alphabet of 22 letters, a mashup of Egyptian and Sumerian. The Hebrews weren’t far behind, and the Greeks invented vowels.

Most of these cultures had some kind of origin story for writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates tells of the god Theuth, who presented his invention to Pharaoh as an aid to wisdom and memory. Pharaoh was not impressed—and I quote:

“You will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

That’s a good description of pretentious windbaggery. And it may be one reason why the Bible makes no mention of how writing was invented. It doesn’t appear until God himself writes the Ten Commandments. Written words are a medium for the Word, but not, strictly speaking, the Word Himself. Remember, Jesus never wrote anything except some mysterious words in the sand.

Instead, while the slow development of cuneiform and hieroglyphics and alphabets was going on, God spoke—to Noah, Abraham, and Jacob. And he finally spoke to Moses, who happened to be schooled in the arts of a sophisticated culture. The words Moses wrote were not for human erudition, but to let God’s people know what he was like.

Knowledge is a means, not an end. Writing is a tool, not a talisman. It sets us free from the limits of an individual mind. While setting the table for actual knowledge, it also makes us think we know more than we really do. God doesn’t need it; his words endure even when no one listens.

But our words are airy and fleeting. Like rain, they fall and evaporate on the heads of our hearers. Good words can bless, and evil words can hurt. But that depends on who hears them and what frame of mind they’re in.

Writing is our one shot at making our words endure past the hearing. But as Pharaoh reminded Theuth, reading words on a page makes us think we know the content. In God’s view, we don’t really know anything unless we live it out. That’s why the Bible puts such importance on doing: “He who hears my words and does them is like a man who built his house on a rock.”

Writing is a gift, no question. I make my living by it. Like all gifts, though, it’s not to be worshipped or exalted for its own sake, but for how it brings us closer to God.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

(Photo/Guudmorning!, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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