Thursday, January 29, 2015

Biblical Paradigm Shifts 2

A few days ago I jotted down some obvious paradigm shifts in reading the Bible once someone points them out. Here are some more, some of which may be more debatable.

11. The biblical world was an oral rather than a literary world. The vast majority of people could not read (which had nothing to do with intelligence). The paradigm with which we should read the biblical texts is thus an oral paradigm rather than a literary one.

12. There is probably more flexibility at the edges of oral tradition than we as literary thinkers might prefer but perhaps not as much variability as we might think either. We shouldn't think of the words of biblical stories as the exact words that were spoken. With each retelling, certain features of the story could change to fit the new context. But we also should not think of oral tradition as a free for all (e.g., the telephone game is a completely irrelevant analogy).

13. Even written texts had a tendency to develop as they were copied in a community. We see this dynamic in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where we can discern the evolution of documents like the Community Rule. It is possible that some biblical documents may similarly have undergone stages of development (e.g., John, Isaiah).

There is no reason at all to think that these suggestions conflict with the idea of inspiration, although they may undermine some of our unexamined cultural assumptions.

14. Paul's letters were written to be read aloud to a congregation. They were a less preferred substitute for his personal presence. Similarly, the "reader" of Mark 13:14 is probably the person reading the text aloud to an audience. We should not think that this verse is referring to some individual reading his or her own scroll

15. Oral peoples tend to have well-developed memories. But we probably shouldn't think that the written documents of the Old Testament (especially) played a significant role in the life of ancient Israel (especially before the exile). For example, the Book of the Law is found in the temple by chance, as if no one had been using it for a long time. The practices of Israelites for centuries in Judges and Samuel--even by someone like Elijah--show no real awareness of Deuteronomy (e.g., Elijah sacrifices everywhere, not just in "the place I will put my name"). Documents in such cultures tended to be the stuff of the priestly class of society, not the common person or even most prophets.

16. Most of the prophecies of the OT were uttered orally, repeated orally, and only later collected and in some cases written down. We can wonder if most of the minor prophets were illiterate. Even prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who were probably literate, had scribes to write their prophecies down.

17. New Testament writers may similarly have used secretaries to help with the composition of letters and such (e.g., Tertius in Romans 16). It is at least possible that this dynamic explains some differences in style from the same author.

18. Writings were usually planned out before written. For letters, a copy was often kept with the author as well as sent, since there was some danger that a letter could be destroyed in transit. This raises the possibility that there could have been minor variations even in the "first edition" of a letter.

19. In the case of Luke-Acts and the Gospels, we can wonder if they were read aloud to the church where they were created as they were written. This dynamic again would suggest that there may have been variations in the exact wording in the very "first edition" of the Gospel.

20. The nature of most of these documents in an oral culture was thus much more that of paraphrase than of a word-for-word mentality. This in no way contradicts the idea of inspiration, although it may require us to adjust our cultural assumptions.

21. Each biblical writing should be read first on its own terms. If you understand this statement, you will have made a major paradigm shift: "1 Corinthians is part of the historical context of Romans, not its literary context." That is to say, 1 Corinthians is not part of the same book as Romans. These books were written at different points in history. They did not address the same situation as Romans.

22. When Revelation 22 warned anyone who would add or take away from it, it referred to the scroll of Revelation--no other part of Scripture was originally connected to that document. (That doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't apply to the rest, only that Revelation wasn't talking about the rest originally.)

23. When 2 Timothy said that all Scripture is God-breathed, it was originally referring to the Old Testament. (This of course doesn't mean that the NT isn't Scripture, only that 2 Timothy wasn't referring to the NT originally)

24. There is nothing to suggest that 2 Timothy 3:16 only had in mind the literal meaning of OT texts. Indeed, Paul's own practices suggest otherwise.

25. When Psalm 119 says that God's word is a lamp to the psalmist's feet or Psalm 19:7 talked about the Law, it was probably referring to the Pentateuch. (Again, we can broaden the referent)

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