Visualizing Literacy: Images, Media, and Method

In: Biblical Interpretation
Ryan P. Bonfiglio Columbia Theological Seminary, USA

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While biblical scholars have long been interested in questions about textual literacy in the ancient world, relatively little attention has been given to the concept of visual literacy – that is, the extent to which images were produced and read as a type of language. The following article introduces this concept as it has been developed in recent work in visual culture studies and then offers a series of probes that attempt to assess the prominence of visual literacy in the ancient Near Eastern world. Though it is not possible to arrive at a precise rate of visual literacy, there is ample evidence to suggest that those who produced/commissioned art were highly concerned about questions regarding the readability of their materials and often privileged artistic motifs over epigraphic content in the design and implementation of certain mixed-media artifacts. These lines of evidence suggest that images functioned as a prominent vehicle of communication in the ancient world alongside, and sometimes in place of, text-based media. Research on visual literacy not only sheds new light on the ancient media contexts of the biblical world but also offers a more explicit rationale for how and why ancient images should be used in biblical interpretation today.

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