Updated: Mar 11, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek verb grapho, which means “write”. A form of this verb appears 4 times in the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, year A (Mt 4:1-11) in the phrase “it has been written”, or in the less literal Jerusalem Bible translation used in the Lectionary, “Scripture says”.
The verb grapho is one of a group of 15 related Greek words, all with meanings related to writing. Many of these words (such as the noun graphe, which means “writing”) share the same root “graph-”, and this root is the source for our English words “graph”, “graphic” and “graphite”. But other words in this grapho group use the slightly different root “gramm-”, such as the noun gramma, which means “written words or letters”. This latter word is the source of our English word “grammar”.
As with previous episodes of Bible Words, I will consider these grapho (and gramma) words as a single group, since their meanings are closely related – except where it is necessary to focus on one specific word.
In the secular Greek literature of the ancient world, grapho words have a range of meanings. One of the oldest senses is a scrape or graze, as seen in the Iliad book 17, when the spear of Poulydamas scraped the shoulderbone of Peneleos. It is used for writing or making marks in the Iliad book 6, where Proetus sends Bellerophon to Lycia with a folded wax tablet in which he wrote [graphas] tokens or letters which would betray him to his wife’s father. The words have other senses of drawing, painting and engraving, and even of mathematical figures. Grapho words are also applied to legal documents, and ta gegrammena (literally: "the writings") is a stock phrase for written laws.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, grapho words continue some of the meanings established in the secular literature, but also extend those meanings, particularly to direct revelation by God, who commands His servants to write down His words.
So grapho can refer to Solomon commissioning engravings on the walls of the Temple in 1 Kings 6:29, and also to letters (grammata) which were stamped like a seal on the headplate of the high priest in Exodus 39:30. The words of the law were to be carved on large stones in Deuteronomy 27:3, 8.
This latter episode is just one of a large number of places in the Torah, where God’s servants (or God himself) write down the words and commandments of the Lord, using grapho verbs. Examples of such writing include Moses in Exodus 24:4 and 24:12, God Himself (on the tablets of stone) in Exodus 31:18 and again in Exodus 34:1 (after Moses broke the first pair).
Other servants of God write down a record of laws (for example, Samuel in 1 Samuel 10:25), or write down history as a memorial (as when Moses is ordered to record an account of the rout of Amalek in Exodus 17:14). Job expresses the wish that his words might be written [graphenai] and thus preserved (Job 19:23).
In the LXX, the phrase ta gegrammena, which in the secular literature had referred to written laws, is used to refer to the law of Moses, in Joshua 23:6 and Nehemiah 8:14. There are other grapho words used to refer to the Torah: graphe (which means “writings”) and gegraptai (literally: it has been written). We’ll see these words again in the New Testament, used there frequently to refer to the Scriptures.
The prophets are given the explicit order to write down the revelation they receive, including Habbakuk (Hab 2:2), Jeremiah (Jer 30:2) and Isaiah (Isa 8:1 and Isa 30:8). We’ll see later that John is given the same command in the book of Revelation.
Jeremiah also talks about writing God’s law, but in this new covenant, it will be written on the hearts of the people of Israel (Jer 31:33). This metaphor is an important development in the relationship between Israel and the Lord, moving from written law to a covenant based on the heart. And as we’ll see later, this metaphor is both quoted and extended in the New Testament.
A dramatic episode of revelation in writing, involving “the writing on the wall”, occurs in Daniel chapter 5, when the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote [egraphon] on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace of Belshazzar, king of Babylon. Only the prophet Daniel is able to interpret the writing. (Daniel 5:5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 24, 25).
In the New Testament, writing plays a dramatic role in a number of vivid episodes, including the mute Zechariah’s writing to confirm the name of his son, John (the Baptist) in Luke 1:63, and Jesus tracing on the ground with his finger (the only instance of Jesus writing in the Bible) while others challenge him about the fate of the woman caught in adultery (in John 8:6).
In the gospels, the Roman state uses writing and written records as an instrument of power: whether it's demanding a census or registration (the Greek word is apographe) in Luke 2:1, 2:2, 2:3 and 2:5; having an inscription (this Greek word is epigraphe) on its coins (Mt 22:20); and, at Jesus’s crucifixion, displaying a notice, referring to Jesus as “king of the Jews” (Mt 27:37) in Greek, Latin and Hebrew letters (this latter detail is only in Luke – Lk 23:38, only in some manuscripts - and John: Jn 19:19). The high priests’ objection to this caption is dismissed by Pilate with the phrase: “what I have written, I have written” [gegrapha] (John 19:22).
Grapho words are frequently used by New Testament authors to describe what they are writing:
In the apostolic letters, grapho words naturally occur many times, when the author (whether Paul, Peter, John or Jude) uses the phrase “I am writing (or have written) to you” (too many examples to list the references). The authors can also refer to previous correspondence, as when Paul uses the phrase “now concerning the matters about which you wrote” in 1 Corinthians 7:1. We see fascinating evidence of Paul’s using a scribe, when the scribe Tertius, “having written down [grapsas] this letter”, amusingly interjects to add his own greetings alongside Paul’s (Rom 16:22)! A further reference to the scribal process is seen in 5 instances in Paul’s letters (2 Thess 3:17; 1 Cor 16:21, Col 4:12, Philemon v19), where Paul calls attention to statements he has added in his own handwriting, presumably as a form of confirmation that he stands behinds the words that have been written. The most poignant instance is in Galatians 6:11, where he says “see in what large letters I have written [egrapsa] to you in my own hand”.
Grapho words are also used by the evangelists Luke and John, to state their purpose in writing their gospels. Luke wants to write down [grapsai] events for Theophilus in an ordered fashion (Lk 1:3); John states that the events that he has recorded “have been written [gegraptai] so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn 20:30); John also makes clear that the disciple who has witnessed these events is the same as the one who has written them down (Jn 21:24) – thus establishing continuity between the apostolic eyewitness and the written Gospel.
The Gospels and the letters are not the only writing which communicates God’s message. The Book of Revelation recalls the prophetic tradition (and phrasing) of the Hebrew Scriptures, when the Lord commands John to “write what you see in a book” (Rev 1:11, 19; also Rev 21:5). And on other occasions, the Lord decides to write Himself, for example within the messages to the churches of Pergamum and Philadelphia (Rev 2:17, Rev 3:12), or signs appear where no human hand has written them, as when the 144,000 appear with the Lord’s name “written [gegrammenon] on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1). Names are enrolled in the book of life in Revelation 13:8 and 17:8; and Jesus similarly refers to the disciples’ names being written [engegraptai] in heaven (Lk 10:20).
The New Testament frequently quotes the Hebrew Scriptures – so often, that scholars have identified a series of standard “citation formulas”, using grapho words, that precede such quotations. Many of these phrases are the same as those used in the LXX.
The most common of these citation formulas is gegraptai (literally: it has been written), which occurs on 54 occasions in the New Testament, including 4 times in the exchange between Jesus and Satan in Matthew’s account of the Temptation (Mt 4:1-11) which occurs in the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, year A. Jesus successfully rebuffs Satan’s fraudulent quoting of Psalm 91:11-12, by supplying His own series of references to the broader context of God’s authority, quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6 and chapter 8, each time prefaced by gegraptai.
John (and also to a lesser extent Luke/Acts) prefers the citation formula gegrammenon (literally “having been written”) to refer to the Scriptures. The meaning is essentially the same, the difference is one of style.
Graphe can be used in the plural to refer to the Scriptures in general (for example Jesus’s reference to the Scriptures being fulfilled in Lk 24:27 and 32, and usually in the singular for specific quotations or implicit references (such as the 3 occurrences in the latter part of John’s passion narrative: Jn 19:28 and Jn 19:36-37).
Those who show expertise in the Scriptures through their teaching (specifically Jesus in Jn 7:15 and Paul in Acts 26:24) can be described as having learning (the Greek word is grammata), although it is ironic that in both cases where such a reference is made, it is said by those who show scepticism about the true interpretation of Scripture that is being offered to them – so that sadly, the learning is not respected nor is attention paid to its message. The situation is reversed in Acts 4:13, where the fact that Peter and John speak eloquently despite being unlearned [agrammatos] is understood as a sign that they had been with Jesus.
The principal experts in knowledge of the Scriptures were the Scribes (the Greek word for them is grammateus, which is one of our grapho words) – but they are also, in nearly all cases, regarded negatively in the New Testament, because of their hypocrisy, and failure to grasp the underlying intention of the Torah. A summary of the criticisms can be found in Jesus’s “8 woes” against them in Mt 23:1-36.
The superior teacher is Jesus, Who, according to the author of the first letter of Peter, provides an example for us to follow (1 Pet 2:21). But the word used for “example” is interesting: hupogrammon (literally “writing under” or “pattern”) is used in the secular literature to describe the lines drawn for a child to learn to write. The writer’s metaphor is therefore that we should “follow along the lines of Christ”, in the path of suffering that He has already set.
In a similar vein to the Gospels’ criticism of the Scribes’ failure to practice what they preach, the Apostle Paul makes a distinction between on the one hand the written law, which we could never follow adequately through our own efforts, and on the other hand, acting “by the Spirit”, which enables us to fulfil the demands of the law more completely (Rom 2:27, 29; Rom 7:6 and 2 Cor 3:6, 7). Indeed, while Paul tends to use the word gramma when he refers to the written law, identifying its limitations, he tends to use graphe when making more positive references to Scripture. Paul’s emphasis (in 2 Cor 3:7) on the Spirit versus the letter (gramma) is an exhortation to a more comprehensive, interior, approach to fulfilling the law, which recalls the Lord’s intention in Jeremiah to write the law on people’s hearts. Furthermore, this very verse (Jer 31:33) is quoted twice by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 8:10 and 10:6), to herald the new Covenant in Christ’s sacrifice, which the letter to the Hebrews sees as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, freeing us from dependence on the written law to instead follow God’s will through faith and His grace.
So, what does all of this mean for us?
1. First, do we take care about what we read and write ourselves? Do we choose our own reading carefully, and avoid sources that, however diverting, foster and reinforce disunity and conflict? When we use email or social media, are we careful to use only words that build up others?
2. Second, do we read the Scriptures regularly, and use them to know Jesus better? To know Jesus, we must read the Scriptures – for they point to Him. As St Jerome said “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. We need to match the attitude of Jesus’s disciples in John 2:22: “they believed the Scripture and the word He had spoken”.
3. Finally, however well we know the words of Scripture, the Spirit is more than what is written Is Christ’s word kept only in our minds and intellect? Are we still prone to legalism and “the letter”, blocking the Spirit? Or, as the Apostle Paul hoped, are we indeed “a letter of Christ, written [engegrammene] on the tablets of [our] human hearts, and “known and read by all people” (2 Cor 3:3)?