Book Aniconism: The Codex, Translation and Beliefs about Immaterial Texts
James W Watts [+]
This chapter explores the old and powerful resistance in both academic and popular culture to seriously considering the significance of the material forms and uses of books. The view that what matters about a text is only what it says may seem like a rationalistic and modern perspective, but it actually dates back to ancient times. Believers in the immateriality of sacred texts criticize people who value the material form and appearance of scripture as superstitious, even idolatrous. They claim that ritualizing the iconic dimension of scriptures interferes with true religious piety which should focus on spiritual rather than material realities. This attitude is book aniconism. Book aniconism develops within a religious tradition as an attempt to purify and protect it. For believers in the immateriality of texts, the dichotomy between semantic meaning and material text represents the mystical dichotomy between the human spirit and body. Book aniconism was reinforced in Western culture by two tendencies in Christian tradition: the adoption of the codex as the primary form of the book, and translations of Christian scripture into every language possible. Thus both the material and linguistic forms of the Bible reinforced the belief that its importance lay only in its immaterial and infinitely translatable message.