Scratched Letters

29 03 2012

Often one thinks that dry academic journals do not present any material for inspiration.  However, one just needs to realize that a story is behind every archaeological artifact uncovered.  Below is a devotion I gave to the Central Seminary faculty (7 February 2012) based on the article by Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, “The Lower City of Jerusalem on the Eve of Its Destruction, 70 C.E.:  A View from Hanyon Givati,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 364 (November 2011), 61-85. 

I don’t know the day and can only approximate the month, somewhere between May and August, but I know the year and the place.  The year was 70 C. E. and the place was the city of Jerusalem.   

In a row of stone buildings in the Lower City of Jerusalem, a group of hungry, confused, and scared Judeans huddled in a stone-vaulted storage cellar.  They had made desperate and last ditch preparations.  The main entry of their building of refuge was blocked off from the nearby street.  They had breached the walls between buildings creating escape routes so they could scurry mouse-like between buildings.  However, like mice, if they thought about it, and I am sure they did, they must have known they were trapped by a very powerful and predatory cat.  The Romans had them pinned in, that is, the soldiers of the 5th legion, the 10th, the 12th, and the 15th.  Each day the noise, confusion and rumors grew.  Because the siege had begun during Passover, thousands of additional hungry people were in the city.  Those who risked foraging for food often ended up nailed in hideous poses on crosses.  What was one to do? Sticks and stones against brass, iron, and spears?  Unlike the 1965 lyrics by Barry McGuire, this group of Judeans knew with certainty they were on “the eve of destruction.” 

As they hid in their underground bunker, however, someone within that group attempted one more act to keep at bay the forces of evil.  It is found in the form of a broken piece of pottery.  Roughly scratched upon it are a few Greek letters.  In the first row are double ΑΑ and ΒΒ and in the second row are the first six letters of the Greek alphabet, ΑΒΓΔΕΖ.  This type of inscription is called an abecedary inscription, and it served as an amulet.  It reflected the sacred and mystical power of the alphabet and the belief that letters could protect those who needed to escape from enemies.

Of course as archaeologists have illustrated from recent excavations, the abecedary inscription did not help.  Whatever may have happened to the occupants, the buildings were intentionally destroyed by the Roman legions as they poured their anger and fury into this particular section of Jerusalem.

This shard of hope, however, is a reminder of the power of the alphabet, words, and books.  For the ancients, especially the illiterate, these markings on paper, stone, or pottery, had a power that made them sacred and filled them with awe.  These markings could cause change. 

Paul the Apostle was well aware of the power of words; for this reason, he wrote letters.  His opponents, who suggested that he had a face only a mother could love and that he couldn’t talk his way out of a paper bag, even they grudgingly acknowledged his written words; his letters, were “weighty and strong” (2 Cor. 10:10).  And even though Paul’s rival in Corinth, Apollos, might have had great rhetorical skills and the chiseled face of a Hollywood star, we have none of his words to read and from which to draw inspiration.  The word written, preserved and transmitted is the word empowered. 

In class this semester, we are translating 1 John with its simple Greek and basic vocabulary. In the process of translating 1:4, I was reminded by the writer of the powerful emotions that simple words evoke:  “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”  The written and the read mix together into a mutuality to produce the elixir of joy.

Always at this time of year, the beginning of the semester, I am struck by how sacred are the words we give to students.  We select books to read; we compose assignments; we ask them to compose papers; and we ask to articulate their reflections and thoughts.  In our teaching, where in world would we be without words?  I clipped a small epigram a long time ago and have either taped it to my door or tacked it to a bulletin board since I started teaching in 1987:  “A drop of ink may make a million think.” This thought is an optimistic one about the importance of our words. 

In Hebrew Scriptures is the brief summary description about young Samuel, who served as servant of the Lord and assistant to the old priest Eli in Shiloh.  As Samuel grew up it was said: “the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam 3:19 NRSV).  It would be wonderful if like Samuel none of our words, written or spoken, fell to the ground.  But of course, as I am often reminded, volumes in our library are on the for sale shelve for $1;  my articles often lie within unopened and unread journals; and words spoken fly up like sparks out of a fire only to fizz out.  Often our words fall to the ground, crumbs to compost, or are left to mold. Sigh.

And yet, we still believe in words.  We are people of words, oral and written, and they have an indescribable and mystical power. Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman poet, the second woman poet published in American, wrote these words in her first poem:

“While an intrinsic ardor bids me write
the muse doth promise to assist my pen.”   (“To the University of Cambridge”)

In the midst of slavery, and isolation from all that she had known of her home in Africa, Phillis had inspiration to write.  And in that inspiration, she found liberation, if not of the body, at least of the mind and spirit.

 Our unknown author who feverously scratched those awkward Greek letters onto the pottery shard believed that the letters of the alphabet, the simple combination of strange markings, could change and transform life–save his life and the lives of others.  And maybe on our best days, so do we.

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2 responses

29 03 2012
Linda B. Sutton

This was absolutely fascinating! I wonder if the Judeans had raised prayers to God, who must have appeared to abandon them to the unrelenting Roman soldiers, and then turned in desperation to the power they believed was found within written symbols. Or, perhaps, this belief occurred in tandem with belief in the power of God?

I have always been in awe of how I can purchase a bound volume containing years of thought and toil of a scholar for twenty dollars or less. That is a bargain, indeed!

It would have been nice if the first century followers of Jesus had written down even more than they did. A verbatim account of his entire ministry would be a real treasure.

30 03 2012
Lisa Eckman Setty

You have taught me so much about the written word. My love/hate relationship with Greek has opened up new avenues of discovery for me and I find myself in awe of the minds who wrote their thoughts and inspirations down so we may learn from them.

I plan on pinning “A drop of ink may make a million think.” on my bulletin board above my desk. Perhaps it will help me get through this paper today!

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