By Msgr. Michael K. Magee
The Challenge of Jesus Today

It seems that electronic publishing has made tremendous strides in the past year or so, profoundly affecting the speed and ease with which words can be copied and communicated over a wide area and to vast numbers of people. On one site recently offering electronic books, the entire Bible could be downloaded for as little as 80 cents, while the New Testament or inspanidual books of the Old Testament could be downloaded for free.

In ancient times the invention of writing rendered the spoken word something durable, a newfound quality that induced Job to cry out, “Oh, would that my words were written down! Would that they were inscribed in a record: that with an iron chisel and with lead they were cut in the rock forever!” (19:23).{{more}}

At that time who could have imagined that the same words might be accessed in a matter of seconds from any corner of the planet and conceivably even beyond? Or that the durability of those words would be ensured not by being chiseled into rock but by electronic backups and almost universal distribution?

Certainly this advance in technology, unleashed by the God-given ingenuity of the human mind, creates unprecedented possibilities for the communication of the spanine word as well as of every human word. At the same time, it ushers in the need to reflect consciously upon the value of the written word when it communicates truth – especially spanine truth – and to appreciate the great sacrifices made in the past in order to preserve the Bible for us long before such preservation became so simple.

The labor that has gone into the preservation of the Bible is still vividly exemplified today in the preparation of a Torah scroll by hand for Jewish worship. In his “Introduction to the Reading of the Pentateuch” (Eisenbrauns, 2006), Jean-Louis Ska notes that a single Torah scroll today takes a year to copy by hand, requires 62 animal skins sewn together and costs between $18,000 and $40,000; and he observes that the price, in comparable terms, would have been even higher in antiquity.

Although Christians developed the technique of binding pages within a codex to gather together the various sacred books within one cover, the expenditure of energy and materials required to copy the Bible did not change much until the invention of printing. Yet they continued to pass on the same books found in the Hebrew scrolls in addition to the seven deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. Christians during the persecutions gave their lives by refusing to hand over to the Church’s enemies even a single copy of the sacred books. Later, monasteries committed vast resources to the copying of the Bible in scriptoria, copy-rooms where devoted monks spent their lives preserving the sacred word for future Christians.

Rather than allowing the sacred word to be devalued in our minds by the ease of its preservation and diffusion today, we do well to remember the gratitude that we owe to God for giving us such a precious gift, and also to so many generations before us for their work that has now borne such incomparably plentiful fruit.

Msgr. Michael K. Magee is a faculty member at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.