Graphe (Written characters)
Grathma (A Letter/Document Record)
Many years before the invention of pens and keyboards, writers in antiquity found a variety of ways of communicating with each other through different forms of pictorial and written text. Writing, in fact, goes back some 5,000 years to the ancient Middle East, where individuals sought to communicate with each other through trading activities and cultural exchanges. Invading armies often imposed their systems of communication upon conquered nations. People sometimes communicated through wall paintings or clay tablets such as cuneiform, which represents one of the earliest systems of writing invented by the Sumerians. Forms of communication developed through the centuries when alphabets were produced and written texts then became normalized. The Bible itself is a written or inscribed text and is the product of human writers, being at the same time, the inspired word of God.
Derivatives of the Greek noun graphe occur in the Septuagint (LXX) and many of the texts where these words are included underpin the authority of the word of God. For example, in Exodus chapter 24 verse 4, Moses formally inscribes the terms of the covenant with God in a written text. The Ten Commandments are referred to in Exodus chapter 31 verse 18 as ‘two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God’. Isaiah also inscribes the word of God on a large scroll as he is instructed, to ‘write in it with a man’s pen’, Isa. 8. 1. The word is again used to describe what is inscribed on Belshazzar’s wall relating to the imminent demise of the Babylonian kingdom, Dan. 5. 5. This can be compared to the finger of God in both Exodus chapter 8 verse 19 and as indicated above.
In the New Testament, graphe occurs at least fifty times and refers to written characters, or essentially the art of writing. It is almost exclusively used, though, by New Testament writers to define the Bible as the sacred writings or scripture, thus confirming the canonical text of both Testaments. In His dispute with the chief priests and the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 21 verse 42, our Lord uses Psalm 118 verses 22 and 23 in support of His argument. He describes this text as ‘the scriptures’, which denotes a certain part of the sacred text. Similarly, in Luke chapter 4 verse 21, when He hands back the scroll of Isaiah to the synagogue attendant, He makes it clear that this text is ‘graphe’, that is, part of scripture. This statement is important because it not only confirms the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry, but firmly roots it as an eschatological event in the fulfilment of scripture or, as Marshall comments, ‘It refers primarily to the actual day on which Jesus spoke as being the day when prophecy began to be fulfilled (cf. 2. 11), but this original “today” has become part of the era of fulfilment, the “year of the Lord’s favour” which has now come and remains present (2 Cor. 6. 2). Hence this “today” does not refer only to the past, so that salvation belongs to the past and not to the present’.1 According to the Lord, these scriptures (graphe) bear witness of Him, John 5. 39, and also confirm that those who exercise faith in Him will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, 7. 38, 39. Here, in this immediate context, it is the whole of scripture that is being emphasized as graphe.
The Apostle Paul also confirms the reliance that he places on the Old Testament as revealing through the prophetic word, the ‘gospel of God’. This source he identifies as being ‘the holy scriptures’, Rom. 1. 2. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3 and 4, he shows why the scriptures are to be regarded as uniquely authoritative. This sense is taken up by other New Testament writers, such as James, who applies an Old Testament text, Lev. 19. 18, to an everyday situation and describes the text as ‘the scripture’, Jas. 2. 8. Peter also makes reference to the word when he draws down on it in support of his argument in 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 6. The expression he uses, ‘For it stands in scripture’ ESV, is used intransitively to mean ‘it is contained’ or ‘it is written’, and this settles any argument as far as he is concerned.
In passing, we should note that the term scripture does not just apply to the Old Testament. Peter makes it quite clear that the writings of the Apostle Paul are also to be regarded as authoritative, as with ‘other scriptures’, 2 Pet. 3. 16.
In summary, then, the use of the word graphe highlights just how much importance God places on His written word, the scriptures. Whatever our circumstances in life, may our constant watchword be, ‘what saith the scripture?’, Rom. 4. 3.
I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Greek Testament Commentary), William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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