Monday, August 18, 2014

Oral Cultures of the Bible

There are any number of paradigm shifts that go along with reading the Bible in context...

[Insert my normal disclaimers that the Spirit can and does regularly speak to people through the words of Scripture out of context. Indeed, since we have no default knowledge of the Bible's context, to the extent that God speaks to most people through Scripture, he must do so to varying degrees out of context.]

... One of them is realizing that, prior to the invention of the printing press in the late 1400s, most people belonged to an oral rather than a literary paradigm. The books of the Bible were written to be read aloud to groups of people, not to read in book form. Throughout history--and especially when the books of the Bible were written--most people 1) did not own books or scrolls, and 2) couldn't have read them if they did.

When Mark 13 says, "Let the reader understand," it is probably not addressing the literary person reading Mark in a book but to the oral person reading Mark aloud to a congregation.

Recognizing this difference will quickly point out some cultural aspects to some modern church rhetoric. For example, the idea of having daily devotions presumes you have access to the text. They certainly could have meditated on Scriptures they memorized, but I have a feeling that this whole line of thinking points to yet another paradigm shift--we are individualistic rather than a group-oriented culture. In other words, they read the Bible together far more than alone. Similarly, they interpreted the Bible together far more than alone.

And the word of God for them was much bigger than a written word. The Word of God in John does not refer to the Bible at any point but, in the end, to Christ. The word of God in Hebrews 4:12 or James 1:18, 21 or 1 Peter 1:23 does not refer to the Bible but to the logos of God, a word with a history in Judaism (and Stoicism) that refers to God's will and plan in action for the world. It is a word from God's mouth, an oral word rather than a written word.

To be sure, the word "Scriptures" is the word for "writings," but even writings have an oral character in an oral world. Paul's letters were substitutes for his presence and they were read aloud probably by the individuals in whose hands Paul had them delivered. Writings can be paraphrased as the Spirit leads. They can be spliced together with Scriptures from other contexts. There is a fluidity to oral readings, a fluidity we find in the way the NT authors quote the OT.

A little paradigm work this morning...

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