In Who’s Bible is It Jaroslav Pelikan makes much of the concept of orality.
Prior to the printing press few wrote works intended to be read like modern books. Communication was by speaking. People received story telling, drama, and oratory by listening to speakers. If you wrote down a story or speech, your purpose was to preserve it so that you could bring it back to life by speaking it again. Memorization was better, but writing things down sometimes helped them to get spoken again.
Take Shakespeare’s plays. Actors performed them. The written plays contained stage directions to facilitate the performance. No one expected the written plays to be studied or even read for their own sake. The written plays just helped the goal, a performance on stage.
The psalms in the Bible were like that. They contain musical and liturgical instructions. In other words, the purpose of writing them down was as a help to the singing, or chanting, or speaking that took place in worship. The written word was not an end in itself. Pelikan thinks the Bible’s other writings also come from this setting of orality. Their being written down was secondary to their purpose of being spoken.
The prophets certainly understood this. Prophecy was a spoken or proclaimed word. In Isaiah 6, where Isaiah sees God high and lifted up and receives his commission as a prophet, an angel brings a burning coal to cleans his lips. Pelikan notes that the angel isn’t interested in cleansing his writing hand. The vision takes for granted the oral nature of prophecy.
Now Protestantism arose along side the printing press, so you could predict that for Protestants the Bible would look like a printed book. But is that what the Bible really is? Pelikan challenges the notion that the Bible is a printed book. For him it is part of an oral tradition. From the Catholic and Orthodox point of view that tradition goes on without loss of authority in the Church Fathers. Through apostolic succession the authority of the Bible carries on into Church tradition
I have questions about this, because there are traditions, even in the Church Fathers, that seem pretty outlandish. How do you sort them out? Also the honoring of the scrolls, the written word, existed in Judaism long before Protestantism.
But Pelikan surely has it right that the idea of the Bible as a printed book is artificial and tends to miss a lot of what the Bible is saying.
This has particularly been a disaster for scholarly critics. The literary study of the Bible may be a messed up concept from the beginning, because the Bible is not literature in the modern sense. How can you have a documentary hypothesis, if you are dealing with living traditions more than literary documents? Are we talking about cutting and pasting from documents or merging oral traditions? The minute analysis of written documents seems wrong if we are really dealing with an oral word.
Pelikan points out that there has developed a disconnect between the scholars who study Shakespeare’s plays as an academic discipline and the people who actually produce and stage and act out his plays. There often seems to be a similar disconnect between biblical scholarship and the use of the Bible in synagogue and church.