Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb γραφω (grapho) literally means to scratch or graze (that is: to draw figures) but when these activities began to form the foundation of the technique with which letters were submitted to stone, clay and finally vellum and paper, it began to mean to write (hence English words like graph and graphic). It is used 195 times in the New Testament, see full concordance.
The hardest drive
Writing is information technology, and the invention of script was in the Bronze Age as much a miracle as the invention of electronic data storage was in ours. Writing is part of language at large, and mankind's ability to speak comes from his genes in the same way that bee hives come from bee DNA and ant hills from ant DNA. But man's actual language (the words he speaks) is a function or expression of that genetic ability, and had to be developed just like man's other art and technology. And that function, that actual language, depended on convention. Said simpler: in order for a word like "brother" to actually mean "brother," people across vast territories had to somehow agree that it did.
There is a mysterious world-wide correlation between sounds and shapes — slender spiky things are usually known by words that have sharp and hard letters in them (e's, and i's, t's and r's ), while fat and smooth things are usually known by words with a lot of soft letters (a's and o's, w's and b's) — and that correlation appears to be embedded in our genome because it happens in all mankind's languages. And all mankind's languages, no matter how far apart they developed, run atop a deeply rooted structure called "syntax," as if all languages are islands in an ocean from whence they all sprang.
The basics of language come naturally and similarly to all humans anywhere on earth (Genesis 11:1), but the finer details of words as we know them had to be artificially manufactured like stone tooltips and tried out for functionality. There are several compelling hints that beg that early humans didn't sit still, shivering around their lonely fires, but roamed widely about and maintained friendly relations with neighboring tribal groups. From the get go, everybody learned from everybody else and technology evolved pretty much simultaneously all over the world. The Internet wasn't invented in the late 20th century; it only got a whole lot quicker. The Internet has always existed, integrated in man's genes as an essential and signature quality. Only by continued interaction and dedication to convention could languages grow as broad and complex as we know them.
The Internet in his image
The invention of the noun (or name; see our article on ονομα, onoma) marked a tremendous milestone in mankind's technological evolution. Because man had nouns and animals had not, mankind's essential difference could become clear (Genesis 2:19). Prior to the coming of the noun, man didn't know how smart he was (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10), and with the acceptance and celebration of the noun, the verb must have quickly followed. Missionary trips informed less advanced tribes of this majestic discovery, and in their wake a global conversation arose from the earth in which all knowledge was always continually shared by everybody. Information was carried across the world by excited talkers, and the Word ("in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge", Colossians 2:3) that united and guided and wrapped the earth in blanket of convention and scientific and technological advance, was soon recognized as being as divine as the Creator himself (Psalm 12:6, 119:97).
Because of the information explosion due to the development of language, humans began to diversify (Genesis 11:8). And some humans appeared to have a knack for scientific research. These became society's wizards (= wise-ards), and in their delicate brains came to be stored the whole of their tribes' knowledge. That proved to be a rather unfortunate arrangement when the wizard dropped dead or didn't return from one of his many powwows with colleague wizards. We might also surmise that the delicate wizard's brain was found subject to data loss and data degradation, but the idea that speech could be stored outside a human mind was then as far-fetched as the idea that someone's soul could be stored on a flash drive is now.
But somehow they began to develop it. Perhaps a mnemonic knot in one's handkerchief became a dot painted on a wall. And the one dot could have become two separate symbols for two separate things to remember. And just like the spoken noun once, so the written word must have developed, by general respect for convention and the missionary efforts of a visionary few.
Somehow the ever expanding library of word-symbols became (absolutely brilliantly) atomized in the consonantal alphabet of the Phoenicians. And Hebrew scholars around the time of David invented the vowel notation that would make the written word mimic nearly perfectly the spoken word — the story of the building of the temple of YHWH (1 Kings 5 and onward) may actually tell of this phenomenal Phoenician-Hebrew contribution to the world's wisdom tradition. Prior to the expansion of the Phoenician consonantal alphabet with the Hebrew vowel notation, only a nation's priestly elite, and only after many years of dedicated training, could read, write, study and develop mankind's wisdom and understanding of creation. Now reading and writing could be learned in a month by anyone with half a brain. For the first time in human history, the blessing of a comprehensive understanding of the world at large became available to everybody, which in effect turned the whole nation into a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).
The PageRanks of the prophets
For the first time in history, information could be stored on a piece of paper, could be retained indefinitely, and could be retrieved and scrutinized by anyone who had enjoyed a relatively simple education. Great-grandchildren could still hear the words of their long dead great-grandfathers, precisely as these had been uttered so long ago. And since preservation of texts meant having to painstakingly copy them, while the facilities to copy, store and study texts were limited, the age of a thus surviving text stood witness to its popularity and quality, entirely similar to the amount of "likes" and backlinks a modern webpage may accumulate into its PageRank.
The lavishly deployed passive-perfect forms of our verb γραφω (grapho), meaning to write, literally mean "it has been written" or "that having been written," but since the perfect tense implies a continuously repeated action from the past until now (copy upon copy upon copy), it really means "this has been repeatedly deemed valuable information for many generations now" or "over the eons this has garnered a ton of backlinks and consistently maintained a huge PageRank" (Matthew 2:5, John 8:17, Acts 24:14, Revelation 21:27).
The invention of script and the sieving effect of manual copying allowed the collective library of human knowledge to soar in quality. In effect, mankind's preserved texts began to form a mirror of mankind's collective mind in which the image of God began to shine through clearer and clearer (1 Corinthians 13:12, Genesis 1:26). Wisdom prevailed against human frailty, and man's collective knowledge was no longer linked to man's mortality. It made king David cry out that the "Holy One" [i.e. the Word] would not "see decay" (Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:7), and Paul asserted that indeed all writing was as God-breathed as once Adam himself (2 Timothy 3:16, see Genesis 2:7 and John 20:22).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a certain doctrine but rather a certain freedom (Galatians 5:1). Understanding the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10) has nothing to do with some specific knowledge of some miraculous event long ago, but with the entire process and perpetual continuation of the intensification of human contact, beginning with man's most primitive interactions, followed by the baffling rise of speech and the brilliant invention of writing and ultimately the veneration of the Creator through scientific rigor (Romans 1:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, John 4:23). The gospel of Jesus Christ makes it possible to peer deeply into someone else's mind. It creates greater freedom than any of our ancestors have ever known. It allows a vast degree of diversity in human expression, and thus vast specialization and thus a much broader convention. If speech opened the door to the human world, and writing opened the door to the royal priesthood of science, then the gospel of Jesus Christ opens the doors to heaven itself (Matthew 16:19, see Revelation 3:7).
Scriptures and writings
The longevity of viral texts also marks the difference between the nouns γραμμα (gramma) and γραφη (graphe). Both nouns mean "a writing" but the former denotes any text that might have just been scribbled down, whereas the latter denotes established tomes (or quotes thereof) that have collectively been dubbed superior in the court of popular opinion.
The noun γραμμα (gramma) refers to the physical result of the parent verb — a tangible text or drawing; a piece of paper with words or pictures on it — whereas γραφη (graphe) refers to the act of the verb — a writing, the very thoughts of which the words or pictures are mere vehicles. Said otherwise: a fire might destroy a gramma but it cannot destroy a graphe. A gramma sits on a shelf, a graphe sits in one's memory.
The noun γραμμα (gramma; hence our English word "grammar") means "a writing" and may refer to a letter (a, b, c), font or language (Luke 23:38), an epistolary letter (Acts 28:21) or a word as an object, an inscription (Luke 23:38) or ledger (Luke 16:6) or even a whole library and thus the act of physically going through physical documents, "bookwormery" (Acts 26:24), or any activity that requires a lot of document-handling (John 7:15). It may even be used to contrast the absolute legalism of deadly order ("to the letter") with a lively and always original look at things (Romans 2:27-29, 2 Corinthians 3:6).
In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul uses this word, and not graphe, to refer to "Holy Documents" or "Sacred Letters." It's often thought that Paul specifically referred to the canon of the Septuagint, but then he would probably have preferred to use γραφη graphe. He more probably either referred to Hebrew characters as "holy letters" (Timothy, after all, had a Greek father and was raised in Lystra) or else perhaps some kind of otherwise unknown correspondence that brought people together — have a look at our article on oft misunderstood adjective αγιος (hagios), meaning holy, or rather "causing to converge".
In John 5:47, Jesus uses gramma to emphasize the physical act of writing as opposed to the physical act of speaking: "You scrutinize Moses' Scriptures (graphe; 5:39), but if you don't believe his writing (gramma), how would you believe my speaking (ρημα, rhema)?"
A closely related noun, which isn't used in the New Testament, is γραμμη (gramme), meaning a stroke or line, which brings to mind Isaiah 53:5.
Our noun γραμμα (gramma) is used 15 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
- Together with the familiar particle of negation α (a): the adjective αγραμματος (agrammatos), meaning un-lettered, that is not learned, not scholarly or perhaps even unremarkable (in the Jewish world pretty much everybody could read). This word occurs only in Acts 4:13, where it describes Peter and John.
The noun γραφη (graphe) describes that which is represented by means of lines, marks or letters: the thoughts behind the letters, rather than the letters or physical documents themselves — which would be described by the noun γραμμα (gramma; see above).
Although the Jewish literary tradition certainly valued certain writings over others, the covers of the Bible hadn't been invented yet in the first century and it's ludicrous to maintain that our word solely refers to canonized Holy Writ in clear contrast to secular writings. That the Bible was never intended to be a sealed off box of sacred chocolates is even demonstrated by the many quotes from and references to extra-Biblical works it contains (rather like external links on a modern website): The Books of Enoch (Hebrews 11:5, Jude 1:14), the lost Very First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:9), the Book of Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41) and the Complete Works of Solomon (1 Kings 4:32), the Book of the Wars of YHWH (Numbers 21:14-15), the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18), the Book of the Matters of the Days of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19), the Book of the Matters of the Days of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29), the book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29), the Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29), the Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite (1 Chronicles 9:29), the Visions of Iddo the Seer (1 Chronicles 9:29), the Records of Shemaiah the Prophet (2 Chronicles 12:15), the Records of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15).
In the often misquoted 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul asserts that all writing is God-breathed, and that includes the legend of Jannes and Jambres he mentions eight versus prior, in 2 Timothy 3:8. This legend may have been based on Exodus 7:10-12 but the story of Jannes and Jambres certainly is no part of the modern Bible and never was of the Hebrew Tanak.
The 3rd century scholar Origen explained that Paul quoted from the now largely lost Book of Jannes and Jambres, which conveniently demonstrates the core quality of the graphe: it describes a text that has been copied over and over in order to preserve it against all odds.
In the Judaic-Greco-Roman world, literacy was pervasive, and incredibly sophisticated texts that covered the latest intel and were sensitive to the latest fads were produced all the time, all over the place. Vast armies of scribes endeavored to keep up, but inevitably only the very utterly best lived beyond their first edition. Texts older than a few decades were regular best sellers. Texts that had been reproduced for centuries were nothing short of national treasures (Acts 8:30).
Our word graphe denotes mankind's most appreciated classics; texts that had faced down younger and hipper texts and beat them consistently to the number-one spot on the copier's desk. These texts were mankind's surviving fittest in all the evolutionary sense of the term. Many fans of the Bible maintain that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible word for word, and maybe that's true, but if this process has a measurable earthly component, it's possibly something to do with what James Surowiecki writes in his eye-opening Classic The Wisdom of Crowds:
"The best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. You could say it's as if we've been programmed to be collectively smart" (pages xxii and 13).
Our word γραφη (graphe) denotes texts that had floated to the top of the pile because the world's countless readers kept asking for them, discussing them and referring to them in their own productions. These texts collectively represented the finest mirror of the mental essence of a very broad sweep of mankind through the ages, and slowly settled into a recognizable "image of God" (1 Corinthians 13:12, Genesis 1:26); the desire of all nations (Haggai 2:7) and the very Word of God wrapped in cloth and put in a manger (read our article on the name Mary).
Religion the way we know it didn't exist back then. Speculative philosophy (about shadowy caves and such) had only recently been invented and most ancient texts dealt with practical life and falsifiable science. In agricultural societies, assertions and predictions that claimed people's precious attentions but in the end didn't pan out caused deadly calamity (Proverbs 12:11, 28:19) and peddlers of such idle vanity were swiftly put to death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, 1 Kings 18:40). Linear narrative the way we know it also didn't exist back then. Human mnemonic capacity was naturally limited and the ancients developed ways to compress vast amounts of data into a few kilobytes worth of words by making their texts cyclic, epic and fractalic. In fact, most extant texts older than Plato use literary techniques that relate to modern English the way the Space Shuttle relates to a pencil.
Every scholar would study everything, and any scholar was more than free to cite whatever other author they wanted. Paul quotes Epimenides (Titus 1:12), Aratus (Acts 17:28), Titus Maccius Plautus (Acts 26:14, read our article on the name Caesar). Paul furthermore was obvious at great ease with the positions of the Stoics and Epicureans, as well as with the works of Homer and Hesiod (Acts 28:4, see our article on the name Dike). In our article on the name Nazarene we show that the intellectual component of the gospel of Jesus Christ may actually be rooted in deep respect for any writing from any culture anywhere.
Roman Imperial Christianity did a fine job in turning the story of Jesus of Nazareth into a personality cult. But Jesus Christ is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14), and since that same Word underlies the whole of creation (Colossians 1:16-17), any culture that seriously inquires about creation — and particularly those cultures that have concluded that the universe works on a unified set of rules — are in essence studying Christ. Folks can call themselves "believers" or "Christians" all they want but people who don't understand this don't know Christ (Matthew 7:23).
Our word is used 51 times; see full concordance.
Other derivation of this awesome verb γραφω (grapho), meaning to write
- Together with the preposition απο (apo), mostly meaning from: the verb απογραφω (apographo), meaning to write down from. It essentially means the same as the parent verb but emphasizes that the written word reflects a sampling of a greater something. This verb is used solely in the context of censuses: the famous one decreed by Caesar Augustus around the year zero, and the less famous one, the census of saved souls in the registry of heaven (Hebrews 12:23). In the classics this verb also became used to describe copying texts; to make a duplicate text from an original text rather than the spoken name of a living person. This verb is used 4 times, see full concordance, and from it comes:
- The noun απογραφη (apograph), meaning a copy, either of another text or the names of people. In the New Testament this noun occurs only in reference to the census made during the reign of Augustus (Luke 2:2 and Acts 5:37).
Not all censuses and rigid social order are necessarily wrong (Exodus 30:12), but note that life is designed to grow and evolve freely and unpredictably. This is why tyranny (one guy deciding what's desirable and what's not) inevitably limits natural diversity and stunts and even reverses natural evolution. A census is of course a perfect tool to get everybody to line up in a perfectly ordered Legion and to turn society into a mechanical beast where nothing grows naturally. That makes a census a potential sign of true evil and death.
Christ's nature is that of freedom, which guarantees personal autonomy and which comes with full personal responsibility. The opposite of that, namely enslavement with no personal autonomy and no personal responsibility, is antichrist. These things are painfully explained in the story of David's wrongful census (2 Samuel 24).
- The noun απογραφη (apograph), meaning a copy, either of another text or the names of people. In the New Testament this noun occurs only in reference to the census made during the reign of Augustus (Luke 2:2 and Acts 5:37).
- The noun γραμματευς (grammateus) which in the Greek world denoted an official or clerk of whatever rank: someone who made his living from lists and registries — a notary, secretary or registrar — and it appears that in the classics this word also carried some mild implied contempt, rather like our English term "book worm." Particularly in the Roman world, everything was recorded and stored, which explains why so many of these recorders or notaries show up in the New Testament. The Jewish world was of course one of texts (vastly more than we now know of; see the discussion of the library of Alexandria in our article on Zenas) and the word γραμματευς (grammateus) also doubled to describe the scholarly book worm or simply a copier of texts. This word occurs 67 times; see full concordance.
- The adjective γραπτος (graptos), meaning written, marked with letters (Romans 2:15 only).
- Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, on, at, by: the verb εγγραφω (eggrapho), meaning to "inscribe within" or to include — this verb was often used for the act of inscribing someone's name into a ledger or register. Our verb occurs only twice in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 3:2 and 3:3, and note that both times the author uses the passive-perfect form (as noted above, the passive-perfect implies a long process of repeated copying).
- Together with the preposition επι (epi) meaning on or upon: the verb επιγραφω (epigrapho), meaning to write on or upon, or simply to inscribe (on the outer surface of, say, a stone or piece of wood). It's used 5 times, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
- The noun επιγραφη (epigraphe), meaning an inscription or something written upon an object other than paper or vellum. This word also occurs 5 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the preposition προ (pro), meaning before: the verb προγραφω (prographo; hence our English word "program"), meaning to write before: to publish plans and outlines of some future event. This word occurs 5 times; see full concordance.
- Together with the noun χειρ (cheir), meaning hand: the noun χειρογραφος (cheirographos), meaning handwriting (Colossians 2:14 only). This word is rather curious because prior to the invention of the printing press, all text were handwritten. In the classics also occurs the corresponding verb and it seems that the curiously redundant addition of the word χειρ (cheir) emphasizes the fact that a testimony or report was written rather than orally transferred. It gives the term a ring of verifiable gravitas, something like the "eye-" part of the term "eye-witness" or "with my own eyes" in the statement "I saw it with my own eyes" (because how else?). In Galatians 6:11 Paul appears to play with a similar sentiment (albeit without using our word). This word may also imply that the message was written by one's own hand rather than dictated to a scribe (Romans 16:22).