In one of the first episodes of the U.S. version of The Office (about a paper company), one of the employees is asked why, though he hates his job, he doesn’t quit. He says something like, “Because what would I do with all these useless facts about paper?”
I feel like, as seminarians, we can sometimes feel the same way. We learn so many niche pieces of information and have so many discussions about the most idiosyncratic things possible. Remember those times in Math class when you say there wondering how on earth you were ever going to use the ideas in the “real world”? I actually think seminary might be worse.
Any yet, some of these more unusual topics can be really fun. Take, for instance the study of Textual Criticism.
If you don’t know what textual criticism is, it’s the process of learning about the way the words of Scripture were copied and passed down through the centuries. By learning this, and the errors that got into that process, we can put in place criteria and best practices that help us get as close as possible to the “original text”.
No, this isn’t the kind of conversation you’re ever going to have with your everyday congregant. And yet, it can be enjoyable to learn. In a lot of ways, the ancient scribal process was like seminary—a communal process of learning about, stewarding, and passing on the Word of God.
As ancient scribes copied manuscripts of Scripture, they sometimes wrote little notes to the reader in the margins or at the end of the document. Just read some of these “colophons”, as they’re called. And as you do, I bet you’ll be able to remember yourself having thought, journaled, said, or tweeted similar sentiments in seminary.
Some point out the difficulties of being a scribe:
“As travellers rejoice to see their home country, so also is the end of a book to those who toil [in writing].”
“The end of the book; thanks be to God!”‘
There wasn’t any talking allowed in the “Scriptorium” where the Scribes sat in groups to copy Scripture, so at times they would jot some notes to their neighbor in their own native tongue. At Princeton Theological Seminary there is a 9th century manuscript of a commentary on Psalms (from a Latin Scriptorium which apparently hired people from many regions) where we see written in the margins, in Irish, the following exchange:
“It is cold today.”
“That is natural, it is winter”
“The lamp gives bad light”
“I feel quite dull today; I don’t know what’s wrong with me”
“It is time for us to begin to do some work”
Some things don’t change, I guess. But nevertheless, many scribes saw themselves doing God’s work and making it possible to have the Bible we have today. Thus, their work became worship.
“What happy application, what praiseworthy industry, to preach unto people by means of the hand, to untie the tongue by means of the fingers, to bring quiet salvation to mortals, and to fight the Devil’s insidious wiles with pen and ink! For every word of the Lord written by the Scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan. . . . Man multiplies the heavenly words, and in a certain metaphorical sense, if I may dare so to speak, three fingers are made to express the utterances of the Holy Trinity. O sight glorious to those who contemplate it carefully! The fast-travelling reed-pen writes down the holy words and thus avenges the malice of the Wicked One, who caused a reed to be used to smite the head of the Lord during his Passion.” (Cassiodorus, 6th century)
“O reader, in spiritual love forgive me, and pardon the daring of him who wrote, and turn his errors into some mystic good. . . . There is no scribe who will not pass away, but what his hands have written will remain for ever. Write nothing with your hand but that which you will be pleased to see at the resurrection. . . . May the Lord God Jesus Christ cause this holy copy to avail for the saving of the soul of the wretched man who wrote it.” (anonymous, possible 2nd century)
May your own seminary work, as idiosyncratic as it is, also be unto the work and glory of God.