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Orality, Literacy and the Bible
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

These are some reflections on some recent reading and thinking I have been doing.

In 2003 our Sunday morning Bible study group at church studied The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel.  Strobel investigates the process by which the New Testament was written, preserved and collected, and how it was decided what scrolls should be considered authoritative.  I read several books from my library in parallel, on the same and related subjects.

About that same time in 2003 my son Gareth told me he had begun getting the individual volumes of The Message, the Bible translation by John Peterson. We have the New Testament in this, and are familiar with Peterson's thoughtful and reflective writings.  Gareth reads segments of the Bible systematically, making notes and writing insights in the margins, a pattern I also use as I study.

The Message is published in sections as separate books.  I thought it an interesting hobby to collect volumes in a Bible translation series.  That might give you the feel of the original writings before they were collected together under one cover.

The Problem of Literacy
I think one of the problems with many modern Westerners, underlying many of the rancorous viewpoints on translations and specific wording in various Bible translations, is literacy — thinking of the Bible only as a book.  It seems many think of the Bible only in terms of modern literary fidelity and documentation, as a single unitary publication.

They seem to lose the dynamism of the Bible as a testimony to real events and people, and the cultural and historical situation in which these people lived.  They lose sight of the central unity of the Message, and the power of the Spirit that works when the Message is heard.  It appears that the meaning of the Message is lost in a distracted focus on the word forms in which it is expressed in English.

It appears that many times the divine Word gets lost in the human words.

This literate focus is complicated by an ignorance of human language, its character and dynamism, the cultural variety that creates such differences in how people think and thus how each language makes sense within its own cultural context.

They lose the real life of it as a living testimony in a real time, arising out of the life of a people, the ministry of a prophet, the yearly record of a king's rule.  This is where the biblical perspective of a living God, interacting in human history, comes alive!

Truth in the Event
The truth is in the event, the relationships, the unity of the movement of God's work through history.  In an Oral Worldview, the story itself is the meaning. The story form carries as much or more meaning than the content.

Symbols in the story-form, the story-telling conventions themselves, the structural components – these often tell us more than the details.  Oral-Relational worldviews and their stories fo not intend to convey information, they convey Truth, Life Truth, Relational Truth.  This is the world out of which the Bible arises.

Analysis will miss these structural components, which provide the worldview context foer the meaning being conveyed!  The linear, scientific and analytical mind wants to construct its reality out of the details of the story. In the Story-Oral Worldview, the "details" are only components of the greater reality and truth conveyed by the Story.  Americans seem so arrogantly ignorant in their literacy.

Orality — A Way of Life and Learning
Most of the peoples of the world are oral thinkers and oral learners.  A whole academic discipline is arising around Orality.

Orality has become a seminal concept developing in recent years in mission circles. This approach addresses the peoples of the world in their natural cultural milieu, learning style and informational format.  A whole seminary education is now available, again developed by one of my colleagues, in cooperation with a seminary professor.

This training program is totally oral in format, content and implementation.  Oral church leaders are trained in leadership and pastoral skills, Bible knowledge and everything necessary to be a spiritual leader among their people.

They are taught and evaluated totally through oral methods, within their cultural context (not pulled out into an artificial academic or urban culture that requires adaptation that often leads to extraction form their home culture).

They are prepared to minister to their home cultures in totally oral formats, blending the format and message of the Good News and the life of Faith in Christ into the everyday fabric of their life.  They do fine without literacy.  God's Word is alive in their hearts and their minds.

They have memorized the stories of revelation history made available to them, yes, because God preserved the stories in writing to be handed down, preserved in their cultural package, protected as the record of his activities in history.  But they learn them in their oral form, just as the events and proclamations were originally oral. This is referred to as an Oral Bible.

Authoritative Oral Word
OK, all that to set the stage for this question:  Is the "Word of God" not alive in the Oral Proclamation of the Good News?  Does it have to be captured in writing in some human language on perishable paper, parchment or leaf, in order to be the authoritative Word of God?  Is God limited to the literate human languages?  I don't think so!

God's proclamations were originally oral.  The prophets proclaimed, before they wrote.  The histories happened before they were recorded.  God worked with the oral before there were literates.  "God's Word" is not the captured representation in human language, but that Living Spirit of Creative Redemption which moves freely and actively through the streams of human culture and history.

I prefer to retain the concept of God's Word that the biblical text itself uses.  It is that eternal heart of God that moves in history, that came into a human life, becoming Jesus the Savior, that Living, sharp spiritual sword that cuts through the very spirit of humans to express and implement the desires and judgements of God.  The Bible never uses the word "word" for a piece of writing in human language, does it?

"The word of the Lord came to" the prophets.  A book?  No, a message in the Spirit, that became proclamation when the prophet obeyed and his voice declared the inner spiritual words given to him by the Lord.  At some point he, or some followers or students (you remember Elijah's School of the Prophets?) wrote the message down, but always in a story about the event, including the message.

Techniques of Orality
The techniques of "Orality" as a strategy focus on this spiritual power in the spoken word and the active memory, lost to the modern literate Westerner, who places confidence in the page, the words, not in the Spirit, the Word behind and within the words.

See Related Articles on the Site
Capturing Hebrew Orality
Different Literacy – Different World
     (Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
God and Literacy
Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
The Oral Kingdom
[TXT] Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
Orality and Christian Mission
Orality and the Post-literate West
Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
Suswa Approaches: A Practical Cross-Cultural Ministry Approach among the Maasai People of Kenya
Worldview in the Disciplines

For More
Communicating Effectively to Non-Readers, Dr Rick Brown
Oral Bible
Orality, Literacy and the Net (Characteristics of Internet Orality)


First written 20 March 2003
Posted 21 November 2004
Revised 7 October 2011
Last edited 16 August 2020

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 2004, 2010, 2020 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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