The Bible: What oral cultures knew and why it matters


An interesting, but little known, journal article titled “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong” argues that a fundamental problem for 21st century Christians is the literacy divide between the Bible’s modern-day readers and its ancient writers. Because we’re a highly literate culture with deeply embedded expectations of written materials, we often misunderstand the purposes of the texts recorded by the Bible’s newly-literate oral cultures.

For example, you probably learned to read when you were very young, from people who also learned to read when they were very young. You were raised at a time in history when a high percentage of people knew how to read and write. You are deeply embedded in a literate culture. This means that you unknowingly have some fairly consistent expectations of written texts. These experiences and expectations likely include two things:

  1. You have used a textbook in your lifetime, or have read a book in a book club, or you’ve bought a book from a bookstore where there were five or more copies on the bookshelf. You know the experience of reading a “viral” article on a website, and take for granted that the content of that article will be the same for everyone accessing the website. Therefore, you expect certain written works to be uniform in content because you understand and automatically appropriate the outcome of mass production or mass distribution.
  2. You have written a report which required you to quote a source, often with very detailed citations. Therefore, you expect that where there’s a “copy” of a document, there must also be an “original” or source to confirm the accuracy of what you’ve copied. And by the way, because you wrote book reports as a child (and for a growing percentage of people in American society, research papers in college) you place a high value on details and accuracy.

But when it comes to the Bible, have you considered the following?

“In an oral culture, typically no two performances of a story are ever identical. It is taken for granted that the oral storyteller will vary his or language in response to the needs of the moment, responding to the particular time, place and audience.” (Fowler, 6-7)

In other words, as a cookie-cutter textbook generation, we expect the Bible’s stories to remain static in overall content. However, the original hearers had no such expectation. In fact, they expected their stories to change with each storytelling event.

“The idea that oral communication was fluid and changeable bewilders and frightens many printed-book-literate people. (‘If it changes, how can we trust it?’) Even when we discover multiple versions of certain stories, we may still insist that there surely must have been an ‘original’ version of these stories. However, that is an attitude that comes from print culture, not an oral culture.” (Fowler, 8)

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. 

The Bible is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. 

We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories. We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

Christianity has largely become a religion with followers who treat the Bible’s stories as if they were written in stone. Yet, tradition seems to warrant that we revisit the stories with new expectations, new life and a desire to tell the stories from new perspectives all the time. How would Christianity change if we approached scripture in the way that the ancient storytellers did? 

Crystal St. Marie Lewis is a writer and speaker whose interests include religion, liberal and liberation theology, secularization and the world in which we live. An advocate for inter-religious dialogue, Crystal earned her Master of Theological Studies degree (focus: World Religions) at Wesley Theological Seminary and a graduate certificate in Muslim/Christian Dialogue via the Washington Theological Consortium. Her book, By the Waters of Babylon: A Collection of Doubter’s Devotions, can be purchased on Amazon. Please be sure to follow Crystal on Twitter and Facebook.

Note: A version of this article has appeared on Crystal’s blog. Click here to visit her website.

Reference: Fowler, Robert. “Why Everything We Know About The Bible Is Wrong.” The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media: Story and Performance (2009). Print. Editors: Holly E. Hearon and Philip Ruge-Jones

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