A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Listening to Stories, in the Past and in the Present

I’m a big fan of audiobooks.  I download titles from our county library to my .mp3 player and listen in the car.  Mostly, I listen to the works of Lee Smith, who sets moving stories in the American South, often tracing the contours of a family through numerous generations.

Listening to the tales aloud is a very different experience than reading the print versions. When I read, I often go too fast, pushing ahead to the gist of the material and unconsciously skipping a lot of it.  With an audiobook, I can’t control the pace of the story.  Unless I choose to fast-forward, I have to listen at the speed the narrator (director?) has chosen.  And I have to listen carefully, since I can’t flip back to re-read about characters. I hear more in the story than when I read silently, especially Smith’s gift at capturing the nuances of different classes and regions within southern culture.

When I listen to these stories, I’m often reminded that most people “know” that the stories of the Bible were passed down by word of mouth before they were committed to writing. Not just scholars but lots of churched and non-churched people talk about the oral stage of biblical literature as if it were an established fact-that “of course” the accounts of Jacob and Elijah first circulated orally.

Actually, we don’t really “know” that at all.  In fact, it’s possible to trace when this idea became popular.  In the first half of the 20th century, influential biblical scholars employed a method called “form criticism” which they claimed could help reconstruct the oral stage of biblical literature.   Some even spent time with bedouins in the Middle East, observed their storytelling techniques, and drew parallels to ancient Israel.

Perhaps it’s the swing of the academic pendulum, but more and more scholars today question how much (if any) of the Bible originally circulated orally.  They see, instead, evidence in the Bible of trained writers at work (such as literary patterns like acrostics that are more evident to the eye than the ear).  Many suggest that the reason that biblical stories sound so much like folklore is that they were written to sound ancient, to give them an air of antiquity.  Lee Smith’s stories are filled with dialect, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of her stories were oral before they were written.

As a scholar, I care about history, but I’m skeptical of our ability to say a whole lot with confidence about the past.   Instead, I’m interested in exploring what effects literature has its readers-or if the Bible is on audiobook, its hearers.




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