Living in Haiti has helped me better understand the disparity that exists between literate cultures and oral cultures. “Oral cultures” signifies (1) cultures in which most individuals cannot read or write, (2) cultures in which most individuals can read, but have difficulty understanding what they read, or (3) cultures where most individuals simply prefer oral means of communication. Haiti is most definitely an oral culture.

Pairing this realization with my study of the Hebrew Bible, I have realized (along with many others who will be mentioned and consulted later) that Hebrew Bible scholarship has committed some serious methodological errors needing to be addressed. For far too long, scholars have approached interpreting the Hebrew Bible with presupposed notions of textuality, authorship and literary publication which are entirely foreign to the oral culture out of which the sacred text originates. Such an approach has yielded an unnecessary dismantling and manipulating of the text, doing arguably incalculable damage.

The making of the Hebrew Bible took place in a time, place and culture where orality, not textuality, was the dominant means of communication. Scholars agree that writing was a secondary method of communication that developed as an extension of oral communication.  Writing served the communicative master of orality. This means that ancient textuality was deeply integrated with orality. More specifically, this reality implies that oral dynamics must have deeply impacted the content and formation of the Hebrew Bible. It also implies that understanding both the development and the content of the Hebrew Bible depends upon understanding oral culture and the ways in which it influenced textuality.  In her book titled Oral World and Written World: Ancient Israelite Literature, Susan Niditch titles this connection between orality and textuality the “oral-literacy continuum”. Understanding this continuum, Niditch contends, provides explanatory power in interpreting the Hebrew Bible and in understanding its development as a text.

This means that for greater precision in interpretation, it is imperative that Hebrew Bible be engaged through the lens of orality. In order for the Hebrew Bible to be heard with greater clarity, its audience must listen to its voice in its own communicative form of orality. Interpreters must be guided through an exploration of the oral culture of the Ancient Near East and the influence of that culture on the development and content of the Hebrew Bible.

Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary


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