Paul, the Gospels and the Ancient World of Orality:  A Theology of Reading


Stories, Letters and Theology:  How We Read the Scripture


Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins




Across Cultures





The comments here arose in a discussion on my post on Facebook of an Epiphany Lectionary reading from Mark 1:21-28, "Jesus Drives Out an Impure Spirit" and were developed for this paper.


A contact posted this comment on the Bible reading:
“I struggle with whether he dealt with actual demons or mental illness.  If mental illness, he acceded to cultural assumptions about the cause of the disorder.  Either way, the healing was instantaneous.  Thoughts?”


The story event as conveyed is definitely in the worldview idiom of the people.  That is certainly how the story would be told and heard.  But in oral story cultures, the background of this later written form, its purpose is not to give us information to be analyzed for abstract speculation, as our modern linear-analytical cultural & school training had taught us to treat everything.


Story as a Unit

It is a story.  In its context in the Gospel the event is a unit, and its literary (oral story) function in an Oral-relational culture.  Those cultures think in terms of events and relationships, not abstract speculations.  The story was not told/written for our modern worldview.  The purpose of the story in its broader Gospel story context had a literary/story purpose of proclamation.


The story portrays Jesus as one of power, in this case power over fear or disease.  Whatever was causing this problem.  And only a rare few were healers.  This was one of the attractions of Jesus’ uniqueness.


This healing story is one of several components of the larger proclamation picture message of who Jesus is.  We tell our modern stories the same way, despite the formal Western linear attempt to treat everything as a source to be mined for abstract information.  See the academic discipline of Orality.  Also on my website.


Telling the Story

If we heard (or read) a similar story anywhere else, we would simply note, “Oh, people of that time believed in demons.”  We would let the story stand as it is, on its own, in its context.  We would recognize that demons were not what was being taught by this story.


Mark (nor Matthew nor Luke after him) does not tell us how he defines or understands a demon.  He does not give us information about demons.  He is not focusing on the demons.  They are part of the story frame.


The possessed man’s problem is being presented as a problem Jesus solves, a need Jesus meets, a disease Jesus heals.  The story does not discuss Jesus’ ideas about demons, nor for that matter, even Mark’s.  This story just positions Jesus as the deliverer, the healer in that context.  The story is one story in a whole story set that tells of Jesus as a Person of Power, over whatever is oppressing someone. 


This event is one component of the broader Gospel story as a whole within its cultural context.  A story within a story, with a story role of its own within the broader story.


In a missions setting, in an oral concrete-relational cultural context, where stories are a common mode of communication and wisdom, if we are telling the stories of the New Testament like this one, we just tell the story.  We don’t break it down and exegete it.


We just tell the story, like Mark did.  It would probably be discussed by the group, either immediately or at some time later appropriate in their cultural pattern.



We see this dynamic, interactive, communal concept in the Old Testament concept of Covenant.  This is the context of the Gospel.  The whole basis of Truth is relational, related to life and character.  The Fourth Gospel emphasizes that when Jesus proclaims, “I am the Truth.”  We hear that quoted all the time.  Do we not really hear what that means?


How can a person be Truth?  Modernity tells us truth is in bits of information verifiable by empirical means.  With that background, Jesus’ statement makes no sense.  In a concrete-relational culture, it captures a moral format for that relational, character-oriented view of truth that states a truth deeper than what may be formulated by human words.


That truth is not about intellectual knowledge of certain information.  It is about orientation of life, specifically in covenant relation to God, as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.



Our culture’s orientation may lead us to ask a second-level speculative question about some element in the story that is not the point of the story.  But a story works differently from a modern instructional analysis and linear description of a speculative topic.  We honor the story as a unit in the broader story.


The format of the texts themselves, being stories, should be read on those grounds, as stories, not as research-based reports or recreations of a modern worldview concept of "science" and "history" as objective reports of facts. Stories don’t work the same way encyclopedias do.  Truth is not thought of as individual bits of facts that are abstracted from their contexts.  The concept or Truth is concrete and practical, immediate.


The texts of concrete-relational (oral-relational) worldview don't work that way. The classical "literature" of the Greeks was reevaluated in recent decades in that regard, and lo and behold, it was discovered, they likewise followed the clear patterns and formats of what is now sometimes called "oral literature."


Written Orality

They were the written forms of oral presentations, and we know now from extensive historical data that much of the society in Mediterranean classical culture was performed orally in street or theatre rhetorical presentations.


The biblical texts follow the same format of all these ancient texts. They give their own format and speak to us in their own ways, -- if we let them, rather than imposing the expectations of a modern rationalism in an information-focused culture.  The last 30 years of academic studies have confirmed the discoveries of field work in various areas of culture and science, history.1


The whole movement of Orality developed out of the discoveries of how oral story-based concrete-relational cultures work. The technical ability to read or write is not so much the point, if even the point at all, though related. But a shift occurred in western Europe in the late Middle Ages that led to the later development of an abstract rationalist concept.


Approaches to the Text

Another reader posted this thoughtful query:


“How can we be sure it's not meant to be taken literally, just as it's written?  The Apostle Paul came from a similar era and his writings certainly seem to be analytical and intended to be taken literally, almost lawyerly in their logic, it seems to me. It seems to me that the Creator God would want his Word to be understood by as many as possible, without having to add suppositions about it.”


I agree, if I understand your intent here, in that the story stands as it is. The text must be honored in the form in which it comes to us.  But we realize it brings its own context with it.


I would point out that the original question that started this discussion is based on a hidden supposition.  And isn’t your statement that the text is written literally and thus should be read literally itself a supposition that instructs us how we have to read the text?  A subtle prejudice in the direction of linear and abstract analysis of components, rather than a dynamic unitary event.


Note that the focus of the original posting was a worship focus on the occasion of celebration of Epiphany, in itself a great symbol of historical revelation, centered in the birth of Jesus.


The discussion that ensued here arose from abstract speculation on elements of the story-telling apparatus from the cultural background of that time. The question arose from an abstract speculation stimulated by a foreign cultural worldview, not from the story itself, not from the text itself. The story is one component in a set of stories within the larger story which is itself the message, not a collection of references for investigation.


The focus and purpose is who Jesus was, the unusual character and identity of Jesus. The Gospel (Good News) is a faith story, not a science report presented for analysis. The question arises because of a difference in worldview concept and a different concept of reality in our different time. The story is composed in terms of the people to whom the story was told (probably orally) first. So the question that came under discussion was irrelevant to the meaning and intent of the original story.


What is the Story About?

This is not a story about demons and the spirit world -- they are only incidental, not what is being "taught."  What the story declares is not the format or details involved in the encounter, but the encounter itself -- and the focus is on who Jesus is: the One who came from God.


In standard story form in concrete-relational cultures, the event is in focus, not the cultural context of the audience. It is one of many stories that as a whole support the declaration that Jesus was one sent from God. There was no speculation about abstract questions, but person and character are in focus.


Another part of your question, in regard to Paul’s writings and the form and content of the Gospels.  This is a more complex matter than it might at first appear.  There is a significant difference in style and content in Paul's letters and the Gospels.


The Gospels are stories.  The components of the stories are mostly other stories, events, encounters, all within a structural story form serving as declarations or defenses of their understanding of who Jesus was.  The Gospels are not philosophical discussions about abstract questions.


The Gospels are not even Theology, as we use the term.  They are written forms of the standard, common concrete-relational oral story format common to the era and all ancient "literature."


The Oral Classics

The whole academic discipline of Classical Studies worldwide has undergone a revolution of insight from history, archeology and cultural profiles that now document the different way primarily oral, concrete-relational worldviews and cultures operate -- all the cultures of the world until the west in the last 3-4 centuries.


These new discoveries led to a reconfiguration on all fronts of views on the ancient world and the situation in ancient Greek and Roman periods.  Both Paul and Gospels fit clearly in this oral culture communication format.


Orality is not just about reading and writing but about the dynamic, immediate, relational way of thinking and understanding reality.  It was this kind of world to which Jesus came.  This is the very different conceptual and social world that missionaries in virtually every culture outside North America and Europe work.


We learn how to make sense in the thought world of the people, irrespective of whether that is our preferred world or not.  The communicator works to make the message understandable.  The communicator cannot determine the format of the receiving mindset, but must meet it to the degree that they can understand it, if indeed the goal is to make sense.


Common Theme

As for Paul's writings, first of all, Paul's writings are letters, not stories.  His letter to the Romans, which I have studied and taught many times, is the closest and is usually reconstructed in a linear-analytical topical format in our modern times.  Though its domination has diminished somewhat in the last few decades, the “classical” western exegesis has insisted on refocusing Paul in terms of modern analytical topical concerns.


But seen in light of his other letters and the basic themes common to all, Romans aligns with all the other letters around the declaration of one theme, God's work of unification of all ethnicities into One New Humanity (terminology from Ephesians 2) or The New Humanity (the new "adam," Hebrew word for humanity, from Romans).


This theme is common to all Paul's letters, the core unifying theme of his ministry, as presented also in the Acts stories by Luke.  Paul does not write about abstract metaphysical topics.  It is all very practical and life-oriented.  Most of his letter content is about how churches and church members conduct themselves in a way consistent with their new life in Christ.  Practical questions of life together abound in Paul's letters.


Paul’s Orality

Paul did not write stories, though he writes in a clearly oral style, as numerous studies in the past few decades confirm.  His letters fit the pattern of classical rhetorical and dramatic presentations.2  Letters in his time were commonly delivered by reading the letter aloud to the recipient.  Or if a patrician, a secretary might read it aloud to him in a more private setting.3


Definitely, the letters to the churches would have been read orally to the whole group, probably multiple times.  They would have read it straight through, as we read our letters.  They did not stop every few lines or phrases to analyze and interpret.


The whole letter was a unity.  It was written within a common context and reference point – Paul had a personal relationship with each church.  These are clearly stated I each letter.  Thus, like our letters, Paul’s letters are interactive.


Paul is dealing with questions that have come up, so he is presenting more clarifications and laying out practical instructions to implement the life of Christ in their new approaches to relationships to each other in light of their new faith relationships.


It is highly questionable, in light of that context and format, whether Paul's content, style and approach could be called analytical and it is certainly not linear.  Any text can be read that way if the reader insists on making a text conform to that preconceived approach.


But the world of the text itself is a different world.  Thus the kinds of questions that might arise from a story to the speculative mind were not the subject of the story, but only story elements.


The context of the story and the context of our speculations don’t match.  So we need to be sure what thoughts we can make the text responsible for, and what we must recognize arise to us for other reasons.


In concrete-relational story teaching, the story is a unit, complete in itself, without analysis.  Concrete-relational cultures look at life as an integrated whole.  Truth is understood in terms of personal moral integrity, character and trustworthiness, not individual facts that may be objectively verified empirically.  Truth is relational, entailing the integrity of communal and interpersonal relationships.


Integrity of the Text

My first correspondent on this topic followed up with another thought:


“A high view of scripture (as opposed to a low view) defends the integrity of the narrative as transmitted because it is inspired. That's a difficult concept for the modern skeptic to grasp. Hence "low view" critics like Bultmann concluded that the Jesus of history could not really be recovered.”


Yes, the integrity of the text is paramount – not the receiving culture frame of reference.  In the story itself, we observe that speculation on the metaphysical reality of the cultural understanding was not under discussion.  The role of Jesus was.


Initially, it may be helpful to point out that the idea of “the Jesus of history” is likewise a modernist abstraction, irrelevant to the Gospels and their concrete-relational worldview.  This perspective we find was in vogue in the early 1800s and later in a certain steam of European Christian thought.


The concept of an objective, unbiased and “correct” or “real” history is a rationalist ideal of the Modern Era since the Enlightenment.


That modern question speculative or abstract arises from outside the text and leads us to speculate on the abstract topic we have now constructed for our focus from some elements in the story, which originally was a unitary element in the broader Gospel (Good News) story.


First-Century Frame of Reference

The existing frame of reference of the first-century cultural context is used by the storyteller as one of the many events that weaves the picture of how Jesus’ followers He uses a situation as his audience, and possibly he himself, understood it.  Mark does not discuss the metaphysical external validity of the context.  His is a practical, immediate concern, proclamation of Good News about Jesus as the Anointed One.


The story works, however, if we honor the story as a unity, whatever context you put it in and tell it for.  The role of Jesus is the same.  We honor the meaning and intent of the story by what moderns and postmoderns alike call “application” of the story.


When we make application to different worldviews, we can say Jesus is the Person of Power who can heal mental illness, who can cast out demons, who can drive out fear, who can restore life balance.  Whatever the cultural scenario, Jesus is the deliverer, the answer to oppression.


That declaration is the same in whatever preferred terminology or conceptual framework you need.  We are facilitators of the story.  We may in faith further declare that the Holy Spirit applies the story meaning to the audience’s understanding.


Fact versus Truth

Stories tell us truth of a sort and in a way very different from fact and figures, information and analysis.  It seems very odd, then, that a recent facts-and-analysis approach to reading the ancient biblical texts is considered a “high” view of the text!  “Oral” (concrete-relational) stories are interactional, practical, about life values and purpose, not about information.


We don’t treat any other story-format book in a linear, analytical, literal manner.  We depend on the story form and internal signals of the story-form to clue us to what the story is saying, where it is going, what the focus is.  Very basic literary analysis we learned in high school shows us that. 


The story itself tells us how to judge its meaning.  Like a movie.  We are to be caught up in the story.  Often the story’s theme or meaning only gradually unfolds.


We don’t expect an ancient text from a different cultural setting to sound or read like a text written now.  We assume it was meant to make sense to the culture from which it came – otherwise it would never have been understood, valued and preserved.  The biblical texts are largely narrative, like those of most societies.


How We Read the Scriptures

Actually, the way these terms "high view" and "low view" have been used are prejudicial, since they assume the only proper way (the "high way") to consider that truth is analytical factual reporting in the modern linear-analytical scientific sense.  And most cultures of the world don't think that way.  Stories certainly don’t work that way.


From the point of view of Literary Analysis itself, a "high view" of any written work would be one that takes the text seriously as a unit on its own terms.


I would think a high view would be one that honors the integrity of the text, its format.  A story tells us how it should be read.


We don’t wrestle a story into submission to the format we prescribe or prefer.  We let the story tell us how it needs to be read, as the story develops.  That’s how we read books now -- every book except the Bible and technical textbooks, maybe, like math and science texts, or technical reference manuals.


Reference books and technical information don’t read the same way a story does.  And oral books are today more popular than ever.



The story-text reading situation is much more comparable, culturally, if we think of how we relate to a movie. Ancient cultures, up until the Age of Reason, basically, were not oriented to information and facts. They were oriented to character, integrity and relational values – as reflected in the concept of faithfulness and failure in covenant terms in the Scriptures.


The stories were the message themselves. Current missions all over the world take this approach. The stories are told, not analyzed and explained – just told. Relational cultures hear the story message in a form natural to the human psyche, and universal in human culture and history – except for the last three centuries or so in the western world – the modern Enlightenment heirs of Reason. Ironic, isn’t it?



1 See Joel B Green, ed, Hearing the New Testament:  Strategies for Interpretation (Grand Rapids:  William B Eerdmans and Carlisle:  Paternoster Press, 1995), 444 p.  See my review on GoodReads.  Also helpful in the topic of the cultural worldview and situation in the first century is Bruce J Malina, The New Testament World:  Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press), 256 p.

2 E Randolph Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing:  Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, Illinois:  Intervarsity, 2004), 252 p.  See my review on GoodReads.

3  See John D Harvey, Listening to the Text:  Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books and London: Apollos, 1998), 357 p.  See my review essay on this book.



How Words Develop Multiple Meanings – How Word Meanings are Negotiated

Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters – a book review essay

Meaning in Language

More Oral than We Knew:  The Oral Nature of the Gospels – a book review essay

Orality and Concrete-Relational Worldviews

The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings

Oral-Relational Dynamics in Biblical Interpretation

Orality, Literacy and the Bible

Orality in Christian Mission

Paul's Oral Letters – a book review essay

Stories and Storytelling:  Reclaiming our Oral Heritage

Storytelling for Learning and Teaching


Related by OBJ on the Internet:

Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection – a book review essay

Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation – a book review essay

Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters – a book review essay

Living Out the Authentic Story – a book review essay


Related Print Resource:

Borg, Marcus J.  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:  Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally.  NY:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.  321p.

Brueggeman, Walter.  Texts Under Negotiation:  the Bible and Postmodern Imagination.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993.  117p.

Crossan, John Dominic.  How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian:  Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation.  NY:  HarperOne, 1989.  263p.  (Crossan performs his expected thorough and clear, readable analysis of the streams of thought that seem to portray two different portraits of God in the collection of documents over several centuries that now constitute what we call the Bible.  This was originally published in 1989 and may be available only from used book vendors.  I bought it through Amazon.  Crossan provides a very enlightening description of the differences between the character of the Hittite and the later Assyrian empires as reflected in their Covenants with the rulers and peoples they conquered or related to as vassals.  He explores how later empires, including the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, may be helpful in understanding the portrait of God culminating in the book of Revelation.)

Koehler, Paul F.  Telling God's Stories:  Biblical Storytelling in Oral Cultures.  Pasadena, California:  William Carey Library, 2010.  308p.

Martoia, Ron.  The Bible as Improv:  Seeing and Living the Script in New Ways.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010.  218p.  (Thoughtful reflections on how we approach the Bible from our particular cultural and personal assumptions and social-historical background.  Martoia uses several helpful models to illustrate how we live out the story, extend the story into our own time and culture by understanding the variety of stories and circumstances presented to us in Scripture.  Martoia presents very practical guidelines on making sense of the Bible, helping people today make sense of the many aspects of the Bible that do not make sense if it is approached in the modern manner as a propositional rulebook or universal principles.)

Richards, E Randolph.  Paul and First-Century Letter Writing:  Secretaries, Composition and Collection.  Downers Grove, Illinois:  Intervarsity, 2004.  252p.  (This is an excellent scholarly study of the letters of Paul in light of first-century practices and technologies.  Richards reviews all the classical examples from the whole range of ancient Mediterranean writers in various languages, formal, scholarly and popular or informal.  He analyzes Paul's formats, syntax and content in light of other letters of the first century before Christ and after Christ.  His analysis and the perspectives from the other sources he cites on letters of the era confirm that Paul’s letters were written as oral documents, meant to read orally, not analytical treatises.  They were practical and written to represent Paul's presence with the recipients.  The oral-relational character of the society and of Paul's priorities are overwhelmingly clear.)



Original comments made in exchanges on a question that arose from a reading in the Gospel of Mark 24 January 2018

Developed February 2018

Finalized and posted on Thoughts and Resources 9 March 2018


Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2018 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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