Bible and Translation
Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
The thoughts expressed in this article arose originally from an email discussion with Raphael Lataster. Lataster was formerly an advocate of the ethno-centric view of the old Eastern Oriental Aramaic-speaking church that that all the New Testament was first composed in Aramaic (yes, even the letters to the mostly Gentile, Greek-speaking churches in the Roman province of Asia and the mixed Greco-Roman and Jewish church in Rome, where the general language of commerce and education was Greek).
In October 2010, Lataster informed me he has discarded literalist Christianity, after learning much more about religion and philosophy over the intervening years. We had another congenial exchange in August 2012, in which he reiterated that he was pursuing studies and credentials in legitimate biblical history studies. He has now updated his views in his new book.
The ethno-centric view of Aramaic Primacy is one version of a common human tendency, which organizes reality from the current ethnic experience out. Raphael Lataster was a member of the Aramaic-speaking community of old Greek Syria that had been Christian since the early era of the Christian Gospel. There are several isolated communities whose languages are mutually unintelligible forms of Aramaic.
There were already various forms of Aramaic in the Greek era and in the first century when Jesus lived. A form of Aramaic had become the common speech of the Jews who returned from Babylon. Under the Greeks, even as Greek came into common use in commerce and government, before the Roman era, Aramaic maintained its strong broad position in common life, especially as an interethnic language.
One thing about the Jewish religion and their Hebrew foundations was the written scripture. In a world of very low literacy (maybe 10% in the Roman Empire of the 1st century), writing was honored, scrolls were sacred. Written texts were very expensive to develop and fragile to store. Oral societies depend on their natural prodigious memories and keep them sharp, whereas literate cultures fall into a dependency on the written word.
Literacy Distorts Cultures
This reorientation (in extensive in modern tiems) leads to a very different way of relating to reality. It distorts the highly literate cultures into an analytical, linear-thinking worldview with a more abstract way of thinking, while oral-relational, or concrete-relational, societies are very relational in thinking. The abstract reflective thought may have the advantage of leading to ideas of possibilities and development of new realities, like modern technology in the west. (See Orality).
Technology may change culture, based on the new linear way of thinking. It also leads to a depersonalization or commoditizing view of nature and the world, and even other people. Oral cultures tend to remain more fluid and relational or cyclical in orientation. "Progress" in the western sense may be alien. Literacy changes the way we think.
Each type of society may think it is the best. And pride leads to exaggeration of this superiority. This appears to be what happened with Aramaic Primacy concerning the Peshitta Bible. This defensiveness, heightened by devotion to their scriptures, was likely heightened as they became a beleaguered, occupied people under later invasions of foreign forces of first the Persians, then the Arabs, then Mongolian and Turkish raiders, who restricted the practice of their Christian faith and forced conversions on much of the populace (in Syrian and Babylonian, now Iraq).
As the Roman era approached, early notes on the Jewish scriptures had been made and the reading from the Hebrew scriptures in the synagogues were commented upon in Aramaic. These came to be called Targum. Details of this are found in specialists who focus on the details of life in the first century CE-BCE. We have discussed these factors in various places on this resources site [Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews].
As the Christian era ensued, Syrians came into the fold of believers in Christ, beginning very early, first in Antioch of Roman Syria, as described in the book of Acts. The developing collection of Christian writings along with those of the Jews were gradually translated into a common Aramaic, apparently beginning with the Jewish explanations of the Hebrew scripture.
This collection is called Peshitta or Peshitto, meaning "simple" or "easy." Others translate its connotation as "straight."
This Aramaic translation is first attested in about the 200s to 300s of the Christian era. Some say as early as the 2nd century (100s). Scholars also think this age is supported by language forms and other factors about the text and culture of that time.
In their attempt to honor the collection of Christian writings that English speakers call "The Bible," these Aramaens claim theirs is the original, not the Greek so common in Palestine and the areas of the Roman Empire where the Christian faith quickly grew up among the mixed ethnic residents of the Mediterranean.
The Aramaic-speaking communities whose original scriptures are the in Aramaic developed the tradition that their Aramaic version of the Christian scriptures was the original set of texts written by the Apostles, not just a translation. They claim the Greek copies were a later translation. This is in spite of the well-established fact that the Peshitta is written in a different Aramaic language than that spoken in Roman Palestine and Syria, according to scholars. (Reference Aramaic specialists on this.)
This view of an original Aramaic New Testament is not held to nor confirmed by worldwide biblical scholarship, nor is it consistently with the great body of knowledge on language, society and culture of the first century. Extensive new discoveries of the last half of the 20th century have placed Aramaic Primacy claims even farther outside the pale of possibility.
The theory, unfortunately for those who hold it so dearly with such strong emotional commitment, falls in the category of many of the other cultural and ethnic traditions or legends about Christian origins in a certain era or region of the world.
I commended Lataster for moving on from the trap that literalism becomes. I myself saw the circular reasoning of scientific rationalism decades ago, and saw the logical rat-race it entails in much popular so-called theology. I tried to recall and evaluate where I had actually learned or received any certain viewpoint, concept, idea or terminology.
The Real Source
I tried to think back and evaluate: What were my actual sources? What did the Bible really say on its own, and what had I been told by others that it said? Where did I hear concepts and ideas and versions of biblical stories first? We hear these stories and hear common references to then long before and more often that we actually read the original story from the Bible text.
Where did I actually learn common biblical stories, biblical personalities? Not reading it on my own, independent of any prior input by Sunday School teachers, preachers, parents and others. Did you not know anything at all about the Bible before you got to school and were taught to read for yourself?
No, we being told versions of these stories before we even knew it. As children we heard the stories told to us orally, in the simplified versions for children. All second-hand. The Bible may have been the original reference somewhere back there, but the source of the story for me was not the Bible.
The actual source - where I actually got the story - was parents, Sunday School teachers, maybe a pastor, if I was listening to the sermon. (And, actually, I did listen a lot, attentively and interested. That is why I was able to later note the inconsistencies between the common stylized and streamlined story and the real story as it appears in the biblical text.)
I was surprised when I went back and actually read the stories. Wow, is this the same story they were telling me? I don't remember this. Wait, this couldn't be, considering the story I know.
I found a lot of the stories had much more detail than the simplified Popular Standard Version. I found most of the stories of the Bible really had a lot more detail and complications that the easy folk version we commonly hear in children's Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and even sermons.
I have noted that what we hear in adult Bible Study classes is often simply a somewhat refined version of those over-simplified childhood stories. The real stories in the biblical text are much more realistic, messy, life-like, confusing. The stylized fairy-tale-style hero stories we get in traditional popular culture don't match the real-life struggles we have to deal with in daily life.
I like the more authentic Bible versions, even with their seeming multiple versions, contradictions in detail and confusing comments that come from an alien cultural setting I can't make sense of in my neat, modern analytical modern linear mind. Some of the popular ideas of the Bible stories are so modified by popular memory and current thought that they make the real Bible story almost unrecognizable when you actually relax to read it like you read any other story.
What was the difference between the source (where I actually heard or learned something first) and authority (the actual biblical text, which had a real-life complicated story? When I found discrepancies with the common version, what was I going to reference to resolve the discrepancy or decide how to proceed. Or decide a question or determine an action)?
Stories or Literature
I gradually realized one of the main problems is that in the modern age, the Bible has been treated as what modern academics calls "literature." As though some author sat down and composed a story whole and complete, then published it.
But "Bible" originally meant "The Books," a collection of various writings that had become honored and preserved. And those writings were not textbooks, like moderns tended to treat the Bible. But you could see it was a collection of stories, written down to preserve.
But it was Oral, written down for transmission and preservation. Written down but still the authentic oral forms. Literacy was rare in ancient cultures. Paul's letters, for instance. We read in them that he intended the letter to be read before the whole church. They did not pass it around for private reading and analysis and spinoffs and applications. It was a letter.
Only about 10% of the whole population of the Roman Empire could read or write at the time. And who were those? Many were the teachers, philosophers, government administrators. The upper class (some of them) and the slaves that taught them. People learned things by memory. I’ve lived in oral cultures today, and see how the process works. Amazing prodigious memories, which are not developed in most literate individuals or cultures.
Paul’s letters – as just one instance of a text type in the Bible – were not meant to be “literature.” They were a way to transmit ORAL information to Oral audiences. A literate person in each community could read the letter, or the teaching text, to the gathered group.
If we heard one of Paul's letters read to us - ALL THE WAY THROUGH ALL AT ONCE - like any real letter we would get today. It would make sense as a unit. But as it is, we read one sentence or paragraph, the mull it over, analyze it for possible arcane and esoteric insights, the loo for mundane "applications' of it to our lives today. We overlook the real people that Paul actually wrote this too, and the life they were living in their historical culture.
Honor the Text
Lets let the text live and breathe. Let's honor the format and take it seriously for the powerful historical document it really is. Let's let it remain authentic and let the Holy Spirit make its application to us as though we were that congregation hearing the letter read through to us all in one session.
What was the dynamic impact of that unitary message. Not one little piece picked out of context and separated from the text that gives it life and meaning.
The imposed package of literalism and dogmatism is not a problem limited to religion. This is the psychological and ideological perspective sometimes referred to as "fundamentalist" [Footnote*]
Not Just Religion
There are scientific and political fundamentalists, just as there are religious fundamentalists. I am aware of a fundamentalist wing in almost every world religion, and have had close contact with this (other than in American Christianity, where the term developed as a self-ascription by that group) in Hinduism and Islam.
A core focus of my writings and research is the variety of human culture and worldviews. You will find a lot in my writings about differences in worldviews and how that affects the view of reality, and about Orality and the difference between literate and oral processing and perspectives. LiterALISM is a perversion of literACY.
I have seen it over and over again: The goal of literalism becomes simply defeating the opponent, not determining truth or discovering more about reality. And surely all books of wisdom remind us that reality is so great that each of us can experience such a small part. This is a cultural problem; not a matter of truth or reality, but one of perception.
Denying the Text
The literalism that some perspectives impose upon the ancient texts becomes a trap for themselves. It sadly also denies the texts the right and ability to speak in their own way from their own time and culture. It assumes everything had to be written in terms of the current cultural worldview or thought-milieu the reader and his community are now experiencing.
But the ancient texts are under no obligation to meet our modern scientific or rationalist requirements, or meet our expectations which were not part of its original audience. The ancient texts arise with their own integrity out of their own time. And each text has its own identity and cultural context which gives it meaning.
It is a negative result of literacy which turns our mind to see reality only from within the bounds of reading and literacy and the linear and analytical approach that seems to go with it. Neuropsychologists and other scientists have mapped how the literate brain actually operates differently from the "oral-relational" brain.
How we learn and how we think is related to whether we are primarily oral (as a huge majority of the world is) or linear and analytical, related to the scientific rationalism of modern literate culture. Knowing how to write ability is not the same as organizing your thinking around writing.
Thus Sayeth Yahweh
As the Old Testament prophets clearly testify, the Word of Yahweh comes verbally. The stories were testimonies to what was experienced, and in some cases to what was proclaimed.
Today even among "literate" cultures, most people process information, understand reality and relate to others relationally, not analytically. This has become radically the case in the contemporary age of visual and audio media and the merging of information and entertainment channels in the Internet and related technologies.
If someone gets trapped in thinking only from a Modern Rationalist linear analytical point of view, they often actually do not realize that there are other ways of viewing and approaching reality. Our way of thinking arises initially out of our early experiences and each new experience is judged in terms of previous experiences.
The Metaphor Mind
Literalists make up the literate rule and impose it upon a text, as an arbitrary and abstract rational requirement. But the fact is, the mind always works in metaphors. Metaphors are basic to meaning and even thinking, not just pretty decoration. Literalness is very rare.
Even in our "literal" intention and focus on practical, immediate and objective details, we use metaphors for clarity and strength. Almost nothing we say is literal. Just think about it a minute. Just listen to the next conversation or simple exchange you hear. Just listen to the evening newscast.
People who reject this natural metaphorical and figurative way of thinking about God and the universe would impose their artificial literate requirements upon the spheres of life to which they attach importance and the greatest emotional value. They deny God the opportunity and ability to speak in terms we can understand! This high-handed rough handling of the Scriptures dishonors the Bible and violates its integrity.
In this common hijacking of the Scriptures, the ancient texts are treated as though they were modern analytical scientific or rationalist treatises, and are thus drained of their life and vibrance. Their inherent character and obvious format are partly or totally ignored. Parts of it are picked out and parts are ignored.
I suggest that instead of imposing arbitrary modern rationalist requirements of empirical literalism upon the ancient Scriptures, we honor the integrity of the biblical texts and let them speak on their own in their own terms!
Theology or Sociology
In Christian sociological circles (often confusedly called "Theological") "Modernists" (Liberals, Progressives) and "Fundamentalists (Conservatives, Evangelicals) all take the same approach and build on the same Enlightenment Rationalist assumptions. They just value different basic "facts" or starting points and and different perspectives as the primary reference points.
Modernist rationalism, whether Fundamentalist or Liberal, violates the integrity of the Scriptures. These Rationalist approaches treat the Bible as an Encyclopedia where you can take any question you have and go look it up. But this approach stifles the character and message of the Bible, and denies the context of any statement or declaration found in its passages.
Just read the Bible. It is not an Encyclopedia! It is a collection of Stories.
The Bible is under no obligation to answer the questions we may come up with from our cultural and social background or worldview. It is not an encyclopedia, it a cohesive set of stories and texts of Revelation. The Bible maintains its own integrity. The Bible brings its own context. It is not obligated to affirm ours.
Free the Text!
The Bible is a collection of testimony texts of real people in a real life, historical and cultural setting, dealing with life and truth just like we have to. It is a story [link to Orality section of site] of revelation not a reference sources for facts and abstract answers to any question that might occur to us.
Let the texts speak in their own way out of their own time. Do not abuse the Bible by trying to make it meet your modern worldview demands and expectations! Rather, launch into the adventure of trying to perceive the worldview behind the particular biblical story or text you are reading.
The term "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism" originally arose from a self-designation of a conservative ideological stream of American Christian churches, also influencing UK churches, in the 1920s. They attempted to reduce Christianity down to a small number of defendable Fundamentals and produced propositional formulations for mental assent that would comprise the True Faith.
Jesus never encourages us to reduce Christian faith to the bare minimum, much less did he indicate it is a mental exercise that is expressed in factual propositions (a concept of modern Western culture and philosophy). Jesus encourages us to probe the depths and heights and go past the letter into the deeper intention and meaning of the spirit. Check out the "Sermon on the Mount" and his other teachings in the gospels.
The "truths" in focus in the Gospels and the New Testament letters are not information and facts, like the modernist thinking of analytical science has taught us, but on matters of character and moral identity. As Jesus says "I am truth." That is definitely not information.
It appears to me that the key themes and concerns common to all the biblical texts over the centuries are relational in nature, dealing with character and integrity in covenant commitments, matters of justice and integrity in interpersonal and social relations. These are based on the relationship of Yahweh to his people, who are to reflect his character of faithfulness in their own social relations. In biblical languages the concepts overlap in word usage and meaning: faith, faithfulness, justice, trustworthiness, righteousness.
In a dogmatic rationalist context like "fundamentalism," "faith" is defined as acceptance of an objective set of statements or claims of religious belief. Relationships are defined by like-mindedness. This view holds that we can have fellowship if our abstract belief ABOUT Jesus and the faith are similar enough. This is a characteristic of modern Rationalism.
It is based in a focus on correct knowledge. This is a form of Gnosticism, focused on mental concepts, ideas, or "facts" the basis of truth in this perspective. This was the first heresy the early Christian movement had to deal with, even before those more metaphysical questions that led to the Great Councils beginning in 325.
This reductive idea of "truth" and faith are heightened by a mechanical concept of morality as legal and the limited view of sin as the breaking of a law. Thus salvation is viewed as a legal matter, an affair of court charges. This shifts us far away from the relational covenant concept of the Torah and the Gospels.
A common characteristic of so-called "fundamentalism" is a combativeness, expressed in syllogistic logical argumentation, parody and ridicule, a belief that a human mind can access Absolute Truth. This is the Core of the Enlightenment philosophy, and the Modernist commitment to human Reason as the source or path to Truth.
This leads to an extreme need to be right and to prove others of different opinion wrong. This entails usually a combative spirit, often accompanied by a bitter and vindictive, derogatory and defamatory attitude toward others.
Thus Fundamentalism's reputation for being unloving, judgemental, arrogant and Unchristian. Truth is conceived of in modern analytical terms as facts, formulated in abstract, rational propositions. Truth is mental, though they will assure you that you have to have personal faith in Jesus. But normally when asked what this means, a list of abstract propositions comes out -- Things you have to believe, not practical relational life values in focus in the biblical texts and culture, like we find Jesus talking about.
Due to the negative characteristics described above, Fundamentalists began to avoid the term, and began to refer to themselves as "Evangelicals," borrowing a venerable term from the time of the Reformation into our contemporary era. One famous fundamentalist leader told me this was the strategy. “We prefer to use the term Evangelical.” But in the process this diminished the integrity of the term “evangelical” in the world at large.
This has caused some confusion or frustration among evangelicals and the general public. Many, or most, Evangelicals, conservative and biblically-oriented Christians, are not Fundamentalist in attitude.)
Christians Started with a Greek Old Testament
Different Literacy – Different World
(Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
Greek and Aramaic Among 1st Century Jews
Hebrew Usage in the First Century
Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
Jesus and the Hebrew Language
Josephus and Aramaic Primacy: The Language and Literacy Culture of First Century AD
Koine Greek as a Mother Tongue
The Language Jesus Used
New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings
Primacy and Possibility: Problems Facing Aramaic Primacy Claims
(Cultural Settings for Greek and Aramaic as Literary Languages in the First Century)
Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets
Thoughts on Aramaic Primacy - Was the New Testament first Written in Aramaic?
Orality, Literacy and the Bible
Related on the Internet:
Aramaic Varieties, ancient and modern
Dates of Early Versions (Translations) of the New Testament in various languages
Orality, Literacy and the Net (Characteristics of Internet Orality)
Pantheism Unites - the new perspective from Raphael Lataster
Targum - Jewish Encyclopedia
Targum - Wikipedia
Basic comments first written in an email exchange 16 October 2010
Developed in 2012, 2013, 2014
Final article posted 29 January 2014
Last edited 19 February 2015
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2014 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.