Written Text/Oral Tradition

As History

The Professor601

The all-loving God, who desires that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, revealed this great and blessed secret to me of His great loving kindness in a marvelous way, without any human intervention. For five years I was a professor and I led a gloomy dissipated sort of life, captivated by the vain philosophy of the world, and not according to Christ. Perhaps I should have perished altogether had I not been upheld to some extent by the fact that I lived with my very devout mother and my sister, who was a serious-minded young woman. One day, when I was taking a walk along the public boulevard, I met and made the acquaintance of an excellent young man who told me he was a Frenchman, a history student who had not long ago arrived from Paris and was looking for a post as tutor. His high degree of culture delighted me very much, and he being a stranger in this country I asked him to my home and we became friends. In the course of two months he frequently came to see me. Sometimes we went for walks together and amused ourselves, and went together into company which I leave you to suppose was very immoral. At length he came to me one day with an invitation to a place of that sort; and in order to persuade me more quickly he began to praise the particular liveliness and pleasantness of the company to which he was inviting me. After he had been speaking about it for a short while, suddenly he began to ask me to come with him out of my study where we were sitting and to sit in the drawing-room. This seemed to be very odd. So I said that I had never before noticed any reluctance on his part to be in my study, and what, I asked, was the cause of it now? And I added that the drawing-room was next door to the room where my mother and sister were, and for us to carry on this sort of conversation there would be unseemly. He pressed his point on various pretexts, and finally came out quite openly with this: "Among those books on your shelves there you have a copy of the Gospels. I have such a reverence for that book that in its presence I find a difficulty in talking about our disreputable affairs. Please take it away from here; then we an talk freely." In my frivolous way I smiled at his words. Taking the Gospels from the shelf I said, "You ought to have told me that long ago," and handed it to him, saying, "Well, take it yourself and put it down somewhere in the room." No sooner had I touched him with the Gospels than at that instant he trembled and disappeared.

I am a believer in the adage, "This Book will keep you from sin; sin will keep you from this Book" almost to the point of "worshipping the Book," so that for me the most troubling, the most difficult verse in the whole Bible is (Jeremiah 8:8) "How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain." I mean, I go by, (Psalm 31:6) "I have hated them that regard lying vanities: but I trust in the LORD," where God and lying vanity are on opposite sides, but what happens when the Bible itself is vain? I don't know. Perhaps scholarship will help.

The Critique of the Book602

written text Writing is not necessarily considered a universal good. For example, in an interesting vignette involving Pharaoh and the god Thoth, Plato criticized the Egyptian god and inventor of writing: “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise” (Phaedrus, § 275a). The text allows one to read "without instruction" and can also displace the traditional teacher. Yet, one can argue, as Plato does, that it is instruction from the living teacher rather than the text itself that makes one wise. The text undermines the community and does not bring wisdom.
    Writing locates authority in a text and its reader instead of in a tradition and its community. Writing does not require the living voice. Thus, writing has the power to supplant traditional modes of teaching and social structures of education. Historically in a pre-literate society authority was entirely dependent upon traditions held by parents and elders and passed down orally from generation to generation. The community held the keys to wisdom and authority. Written texts had the possibility of replacing traditional community-centered wisdom. One no longer had to depend on the community for knowledge and wisdom because the written word itself could confer knowledge. Viewed from this perspective the emphasis on a written text in the Josianic Reforms and in the Book of Deuteronomy was not only a novel development but is also a dangerous one. Although it couched itself in the antiquity of the Mosaic revelation and was originally employed by the Deuteronomic reformers to reassert traditional orthodoxy, the written text also had the power to supplant orthodoxy.
603 The tension between text and tradition, between the written and the oral, is already evident in the Book of Jeremiah. One of the more problematic passages in biblical literature has been Jeremiah 8:8, which recalls Socrates' critique of text-based wisdom: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, And we possess the Torah of YHWH?’ In fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie!” Some commentators have concluded -- reluctantly -- that this Torah of YHWH is the Book of Deuteronomy or some version thereof. It is natural to look to the Josianic Reforms and the discovery of the scroll of the covenant, which is usually thought to be some pre-canonical version of Deuteronomy. This is hardly an obvious conclusion however. One commentator writes, “This short passage is one of the most difficult to understand in the entire book.”604 He muses that it is not possible that the prophet is referring to some bogus law code or condemning the Book of Deuteronomy itself.
    In his popular historical work Who Wrote the Bible? Richard Elliot Friedman argues that the prophet Jeremiah himself was the Deuteronomist. Therefore, Jeremiah 8:8 could not be referring to the Book of Deuteronomy. As a result, Friedman seizes on Jeremiah 8:8 as a Deuteronomic critique of the Priestly document. (The Priestly document, or "P" as it is referred to in the scholarly lingo, is to be found primarily in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers, but scholars also assign passages from Genesis and Exodus to this supposed document.
605) However, this assumes that the Josianic reforms are primarily priestly reforms. This also misses a critical aspect of Jeremian critique; namely, it is a critique of a written text or writing itself. One interesting aspect of the priestly school is that the very written-ness of the tradition is not at stake . At no point in P is there an injunction to write it down. Nor is writing even mentioned as an important component of the so-called P document. While P is obviously a text in its present form (and in most scholarly descriptions), this is not something about which P itself seems to be self-conscious. Deuteronomy, in contrast, is quite conscious of itself as a written revelation. Thus, Jeremiah's critique of writing and a written text seemingly could not apply to priestly literature.
    The reference to a "lie" (sheqer) in Jeremiah 8:8 recalls one of Jeremiah's more trenchant comments concerning the days of Josiah: “Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only by a lie (sheqer)” (Jer. 3:10; see vv. 6-10). Clearly, there was some dissatisfaction with Josiah's Reforms. The inter-textual allusion between Jeremiah 3:10 and 8:8 to the pretense of Judah's return during the Josianic Reforms utilizes the same Hebrew vocabulary, it was a sheqer -- a lie.
    The wider context of the Jeremiah passage, however, puts it into perspective. In Jeremiah 8:7-9, this written Torah of YHWH is juxtaposed with different types of oral tradition:
  1. Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the tradition (mishpat) of YHWH.
  2. How can you say, “We are wise, and the Law (Torah) of YHWH is with us.” In fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie?
  3. The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word (davar) of YHWH, what wisdom is in them?
Critical to the proper interpretation of this passage from Jeremiah are the Hebrew terms (italicized in parentheses in the translation) mishpat, Torah, and davar. Clearly, the Torah of YHWH refers to a written text, though scholars usually debate which text. Some think that it refers to Deuteronomy; others suggest that it refers to already written (and false) interpretations of Deuteronomic law. I think the issue is not which text, but the authority of any written text as opposed to oral tradition. The context clears up the issue. Verse 9 refers to the “word (davar) of YHWH”; this is a technical term in Biblical Hebrew literature that refers to the oral word of God given to the prophets.606 Wisdom is associated with the oral tradition of the community and proclamations of God's messengers, so how could one reject them and still be wise?
    The term mishpat in verse 7 is a bit more fluid in meaning; however, it may be translated as “the tradition of YHWH” or “the custom of YHWH.”
607 Mishpat is often found in biblical literature in places where it appeals to no known written tradition, yet there is obviously a well-established custom or tradition at work. So, for example, a new king is installed in a traditional procedure and place, "according to the custom (i.e. mishpat) of the king" (2 Kgs 11:14). The prophet Samuel warns Israel about "the ways (i.e. mishpat) of a king" (I Sam. 8:9, 11). The use of mishpat as a legal term does not reflect written texts, but rather legal judgments. In most cases, there is no written text as such that could even form the basis of the judgment (e.g., Gen 18:25; Lev 19:15). Both the social context of Jeremiah's day and the immediate literary context suggest that Jeremiah 8:8 is a protest against the authority of the written texts that were understood as subverting oral tradition and the authority of the prophets.
    There is both continuity and contrast between oral tradition and literacy. Most scholars have stressed a continuum between orality and literacy. On one level, there indeed is a continuum, but on another level, oral and written stand in sharp contrast. Traditional societies relied on oral tradition and the community as the bases for authority. Written texts would eventually challenge and even supplant these sources of traditional wisdom. Jeremiah 8:7-9 illustrates the clear distinction between oral and written authority. In the end, the written text replaced the prophets and oral tradition. In the Second Temple period, the "word of God" would become the written text rather than the oral proclamation of prophets. Yet, the conflict between oral and written tradition would be played out in Second Temple Judaism between the Pharisees and Sadducees (among others). Although the oral tradition continually reasserted itself (as it did in Jeremiah's complaint), eventually it was subverted and supplanted.

I can begin to understand Jeremiah 8:8 better if I look at how our study of the Bible is affected by ignoring its traditional King James Version presentation. ‘Plato criticized the Egyptian god and inventor of writing: “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise.”’ The King James Version is remarkably easy to memorize, while we need reminders of what the other versions say.

Written texts had the possibility of replacing traditional community-centered wisdom. One no longer had to depend on the community for knowledge and wisdom because the written word itself could confer knowledge. Viewed from this perspective the emphasis on a written text in the Josianic Reforms and in the Book of Deuteronomy was not only a novel development but is also a dangerous one. Although it couched itself in the antiquity of the Mosaic revelation and was originally employed by the Deuteronomic reformers to reassert traditional orthodoxy, the written text also had the power to supplant orthodoxy.” I find that while modern versions “couch themselves in the antiquity of the [Hebrew and Greek] which were originally employed by the [Protestant] reformers to reassert traditional orthodoxy, the [modern language] text also had the power to supplant orthodoxy.”

I'm getting closer to understanding Jeremiah 8:8, but let's take a look at a contemporary situation.

    It was worse than the Barras. He estimated there were close to three thousand people thronging the place, an area about the size of the pitch at Fir Park. There was no doubt room for more, but the sense of constant motion as the crowd moved around the stalls and platforms gave the impression of a greater host.
--Christopher Brookmyre, Not the End of the World608

Okay, here I get the sense of our crowded lobby at church, packed together, with room for more, but the shuffling back and forth gives us the sense of a larger crowd.

    The omnipresent Barras paranoia of having your pocket picked was unlikely to set in either: Steff felt pretty confident of being the poorest person present. All around him were shiny adults dragging along shiny kids, miraculously born of these shiny parents who simply looked far too wholesome ... There were shiny teens and shiny adolescents in attendance of their own free will.609

Okay, I can leave what little I possess and bring with me at the coat rack in church without any fear of it being taken. Everybody looks so clean-cut, with the young ones willingly there too.

oral tradition     Once he started moving around the place, he was able to glean some idea of the format. The crowd, seemingly amorphous upon first impression, was in fact divided up into groups around each stall or platform, with a rectangular hub of food and drink stands in the centre of the concourse. On closer inspection, he saw that some of the canopied stalls were actually entrances to tents, inside which a selection of meetings and activities was taking place, from biblical puppet shows to your basic, bog-standard sermonizing. At the far end there was a wide stage, raised about seven feet, upon which stood a small choir singing excruciatingly hoaky countrified hymns to the accompaniment of a woman strumming a steel guitar, which Steff thought should be confiscated with the instruction that she'd get it back when she had learned what such a fine instrument should really be used for.610

Okay, we've got our coffehouse with the food on the counter, various little groups split up into, various Sunday School classes, a sermon, and choir, and we are instrumental.

    Steff felt a blow to the ribs and looked down to see a face-painted reel away dazed, now moving with less rabid enthusiasm towards the candy floss stall, or ‘Manna on a Stick’, as it was advertised.
    ‘Sorreee,’ said Mrs Stepford, giving Steff a big empty smile and hugging another child, whose face had been painted red with a white cross in the middle. Steff looked down at his grey T-shirt. Stepford Junior had imprinted half the stars and stripes on it.
    ‘We'll get Tommy back to do the other half -- save you buyin' a flag,’ said Dad.
    Steff felt deeply privileged to have been present in history when this, the world's funniest remark, was made. One day he would be able to tell his grandchildren, and they theirs. It was surely only the distractions of such dreamy thoughts that prevented him from collapsing in uncontrolled laughter just like Mr and Mrs S.

Okay, we are patriotic, acknowledge the cross, and have a healthy sense of dunk tank humor. Now comes the crucial part.

    ‘Let me tell you about the information superhighway,’ said a voice. He turned around to see that it had come from one of the stalls, where an adolescent male in a 'True Love Waits' T-shirt was standing on a platform beside a cardboard fake computer. Steff moved a little nearer, to the back of the small gathering, around which the skinny blonde True Love the speaker was presumably Waiting for was handing out accompanying leaflets.
    ‘Imagine it. All the information in the world, at your fingertips,’ he said. ‘Everything you need to know, everything you could ever need to know for living on this planet, at your immediate disposal. Sounds like the privilege of an advanced age, doesn't it? Wrong! We've had it for nearly two thousand years. All the wisdom, all the knowledge, all the understanding you could possibly want, all readily accessible, right here.’ He held up, with cringeworthy inevitability, a copy of a well-known religious publication. Five letters. Starts with a B.
    ‘Forget the Net,’ he shouted triumphantly. ‘Surf the Bible!’

A real head-scratcher, that.

Recent technology, such as print-on-demand, e-books, e-mail, and the ubiquitous Internet, disseminate the written word more quickly than was possible in any previous era. ...
    We tend to read the Bible through the lens of moderninity. This is to say, we read the Bible as a book. Not only do we tend to think of the Bible as a single book, but we read the Bible as if it came from a world of texts, books, and authors. We read the Bible from our own perspective of a highly literate world. Yet, the Bible was written before there were books.

Before we criticize them for their own closed minded perceptions, we should consider ourselves who think that the plain and straightforward language of the Bible can be translated well into modern complex and wordy English. We do better with the sacred dialect of the King James Version, in fact.

Now on to particulars.

    Since its beginnings it had been said in America that rock 'n' roll was the music of Satan. Steff always thought that was fair enough, given that for centuries longer it had been said back home in Scotland that ‘the de'il has aw the best tunes’. The Believers obviously could not be playing the music of Satan, and although the beat, chord structures and arrangements matched the standard criteria, it would be folly to describe what they were doing as rock 'n' roll.
    From what Steff could make out, their opening number was supposed to be a bitterly sarcastic protest song about the teaching of evolution theory in American high schools. It was only when Shaggies two through four joined in for the chorus that the lyrics became intelligible.
          'Me I ain't no MONKEY MAN!
          'Cause God made me just AS I AM!
          Diiiiivine, deeeesign,
          Me I ain't no MONKEY MAN! 
    Listening closely to the machine-gun vocals, he was able to interpret from the ensuing verses that Charles Darwin was currently being made to pay a heavy price for his heresy in a location a lot hotter than the Galapagos Islands; and that he would inevitably be joined by those foolish enough to ‘fail the dinosaur test’. This last, he guessed, must be in reference to the fundamentalists' explanation for hundred-million-year-old bones being found on a planet they claimed to have existed for no more than twelve thousand years; viz, that God had placed them there as a test of faith.614

Now, I know which side of the bread to put the butter on. I believe in creation not evolution. Evolution is hoaky while creation is miraculous. I don't know all the answers to what scientists say, but I know some of the answers. But I'm pretty sure it begs the question to say that apparently ancient bones are there as a test of our faith. It's one thing not to know the answer; its another thing to make up a hoaky answer of our own.

Old bones being a 'dinosaur test' is on the order of "importunity" meaning we should badger God with prayer. Something is left out and the ridiculous put in its place. That's what the NIV does.

    Then they launched into an attemptedly thrashy affair called 'Exit Only', an instruction to homosexual males as to the exclusive function of the anus. Steff felt he ought to defer to superior knowledge on this one: if anybody was an expert on arseholes, it had to be the singer up on that stage.
    Gordy and Sally clearly had the album. They were singing along to each track, saving special enthusiasm for air-punching bridges or favourite lyrics, such as ‘Forty jalapeños and an X-lax bar/Soon teach 'em what their ass is for: EXIT ONLY! EXIT ONLY! EXIT ONLY! Na-na-na-na-na, EXIT ONLY ...’ and so on.

As the preacher pointed out there is truth and lies, true or false. You are in Eugene or in Springfield depending on which side of the interstate you are on. There is singular or plural. Some doors are exit only and some allow entrance also. The door in question also allows entrance for an enema, or for a convict to hide contraband, and were I to allow my writing to degenerate further, I could discuss what a married couple could experiment with. But before we criticize the song for this, we might want to consider that the end of a seemingly right way being plural ways of death comes out singular in the NIV.

    Next up was the inevitable power ballad, in which the Believers betrayed their formative listening years to have been coloured less by speed metal than by Speedwagon. It was, Steff gleaned from Sally, the title track of their new double-CD, 'True Love Waits', a plodding power-chord symphony about two dreamy teens resisting the temptations of pre-marital sex and reaping the rewards on their wedding night with the shag of the century.616

Probably going a little overboard there. Maybe on some levels the honeymoon will be the shag of their life, but I doubt two inexperienced lovers would engage in the shag of the century. Sex might be a lot of fun, or just so so, or it could be a disappointment or just plain bad that has to be worked through. It is "for better or worse," after all. The real surprise of joy is probably the children, ... or a conversion.

A similar exaggeration is made in the opposite direction concerning mixed marriage with an unbeliever, where untold misery is said to await. Trouble in the flesh, marital conflict, sure, but not necessarily overwhelming troubles. Then again, if the partners understand something of what marriage requires, they can have great joy in it, lack of Christian faith notwithstanding. Some people bloom when married, the 'for better' part.

The NIV takes it to the extreme of paraphrasing Paul to forbid mixed marriage of the widow, when he said no such thing.

    In a gleeful morbid way, Steff was now starting to enjoy it. There was an element of suspense about seeing just how bad it could get. He would have to get a tape of these guys to take home: stick this stuff on the stereo after a few spliffs and everyone in the room would be pissing themselves for hours.
    Unfortunately, his pleasure was cut short when he realized that a bleeping noise nearby was actually the mobile phone Jo had loaned him.
    ‘Steff. Where the hell are you? What's that noise? Are you in a bar?’
    ‘Eh, no. In fact I may be in the spot furthest from a bar on this planet, morally speaking.’
    ‘I'm across the road. I'm attending the Festival of Light. We're all rockin' out to the Believers.’
    ‘Are you serious? What the hell are you doing there?’
    ‘I'm having fun.’ Steff caught Sally's eye as he spoke to Jo. ‘No, honestly. You should check this place out.’ More smiles and a cross sign. ‘I've not seen so many stupid people in one place since I covered a Celtic-Rangers match last year.’

At first that might sound a harsh judgment about people who are sincerely trying, but please remember they were representing ‘All the information in the world, at your fingertips, everything you need to know, everything you could ever need to know for living on this planet." And since we have been making the same kinds of mistakes by using a NIV Bible that forsakes the traditional wisdom of the community in the KJV, we who espouse the NIV could also be called ‘so many stupid people in one place.’

I'm not sure if I completely understand Jeremiah 8:8, but I know that it is included in the canon, and that (II Tim. 3:16-17) "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works."


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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

Contact: feedbackatbibles.n7nz.org

Copyright © 2005, Earl S. Gosnell III

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