Written and Spoken Word

In a famous passage of the Phaedrus (274c-276b), Plato argues that the spoken word is superior to the written word. There, Plato asserts that writing is an “elixir not of memory, but of reminding” (275a), which, by is very nature, is inferior to the spoken word and a pale image thereof. There is, however, an obvious tension in Plato’s thought as this very condemnation of writing survives for us to consider today precisely because Plato wrote it down. As Alan Jacobs has pointed out, Plato “condemns what he does; he does what he condemns.” Through a Christian interpretation of Plato, there is a bridge over this apparent gap in the communal reading of Scripture, an ancient and central aspect of Christian worship.

Scripture seems on some points to agree with Plato’s assessment that the written word is not for memory, but for reminding. In Deuteronomy 11:18, for example, God orders the Hebrews to use the law he has revealed to them as a constant reminder to cling to righteousness, saying “lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes” (KJV). In the Psalms (119:97), Scripture rejects Plato’s overall negative assessment of the written word but agrees with his assertion concerning its use as a reminder rather than memory: “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.”

There are passages in Scripture, however, which point out clearly the insufficiency of the written word. Jeremiah 31:33, for example, looks forward to a time when the covenant of the written law which God made with the Hebrew people through Moses will be surpassed by another covenant in which God “will put [his] law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” In other words, the textual reminders will no longer be necessary as real memory will totally replace it. According Jacobs, Plato “has understood the problem of writing quite exactly: it is a copy, an imitation, one step away from the real. The spoken word, on the other hand, is fully present in the soul and for this reason is a guarantee of ‘legitimate’ and certain meaning.” The choice of the Apostle John to describe Christ as the Logos of God, a Greek word primarily associated with the word spoken by a living voice, indicates that Scripture has similarly recognized this problem. In the Incarnation, the Word of God became man, a living voice has supplanted the written word for God’s people.

The communal reading of Scripture in the Christian community is an ancient tradition that may present a bridge between the written and spoken word. In one of the earliest accounts of the Sunday morning Christian worship service, written in the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr writes that “all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” Matthew 18:20 records Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In this gathering together of Christians for the communal reading of Scripture, then, which was followed immediately, according to Justin, by the Eucharistic rite, an act of communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians, is the answer to Plato’s concerns. Both the written and the human spoken word are present, but both are transcended by a third voice, that of God, and a third mode of communication, the mystical communion of believers and God in love and faith.

1 Alan Jacobs, “Deconstruction,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, eds., Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 180.
2 Ibid.
3 St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.

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