The work of popularizers is honorable and necessary. But it isn’t always successful.

Sometimes popularizers fail because they’re poor exponents of good ideas. This does not describe biblical scholar D. Brent Sandy, author of Hear Ye the Word of the Lord: What We Miss If We Only Read the Bible.

No, Sandy has failed because he is a good exponent of poor ideas. I’ve rarely read such a graciously written but ultimately unpersuasive book.

Sandy’s thesis is announced early, and it is based on a contrast between the ancient biblical world of hearing and our modern world of reading. As he argues, “The farther apart … the worlds of hearing and reading are, the less those in one world will understand the other.”

Sandy is careful, at least at the beginning, not to draw too sharp a distinction between these means of receiving Scripture. “The challenge we face in this book,” he writes, is not “orality versus literacy, as if one is better than the other. … [It’s] not hearing versus reading; there is room for both. [It’s] not that oral and written communication are opposites.”

By the time Sandy ends his thesis statement, he is sounding far more tentative than his bold book title might suggest. He offers a gentle question rather than a stirring declaration: “Being twenty-first century readers born and groomed in modern textual culture, can we sufficiently understand the meaning of documents originating in ancient oral culture simply by reading them?”

Sandy never hectors the reader, but he gets progressively less tentative as his book moves through 17 propositions about what he sees as the oral nature of God’s original revelation. He believes orality is essential—“vital”—to understanding the Bible.

Let me summarize Sandy’s propositions. “God,” he writes, “reached across great distances—so must we.” And a hallmark of that distance is the gap between text-based cultures (ours) and oral ones (like those the biblical writers inhabited). God’s revelation was originally for the latter; it was “intended for hearers.” Thankfully, “research provides important insights into ancient oral culture.” If we simply “include their hearing in our reading,” remembering that “stories were performed and heard in ancient oral culture,” then “we can become better hearers and speakers” of God’s Word.

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In advancing these arguments, Sandy is popularizing the work of scholars like Walter Ong, who shows up often in his footnotes. As Sandy notes, “Over the past several decades scholars have produced a cascade of studies, articles and books [on the orality of Scripture] encompassing thousands of pages, too vast to synthesize and include in this brief book.”

I confess I have yet to wade into this particular cascade, even though my own work (for a Bible software company) revolves around Scripture and those who study it. I was hoping Sandy would help reveal what I have been missing in my Bible throughout my highly textual modern life.

By my Kindle’s count, I had finished 40 percent of the book before reaching Sandy’s first real, concrete attempt to provide insight into Scripture through the concept of orality. Commenting on the prologue to the Gospel of Luke, he writes, “Most people today read the prologue from a textual perspective. But hearing it from an oral framework clarifies what Luke intended to communicate.”

I don’t see, however, how anything Sandy observes in the prologue is discernible only through an oral framework. I’ve known for some time, through reading Luke 1:1–4 in print, that, to quote Sandy, “various accounts of Jesus’ deeds preceded the text [Luke] was writing,” that “eyewitnesses and others were involved in the transmission process,” and that “what had been passed along [to Luke] was reliable information.” I had never assumed that Luke collected only written accounts or that he never talked to anyone.

I was, frankly, disappointed at this point in the book. I was open to finding more of a place for Scripture’s original orality. I wanted Sandy to persuade me that I had an empty slot in my hermeneutical tool belt. It’s exciting to gain a new perspective on God’s Word.

The book certainly has moments of acute perception, like Sandy’s discussion of orality in Hebrews 1, for example. And it offers some helpful suggestions, several of which—like reading the Bible out loud with feeling, reading it in group settings, or putting portions of it into verse—I’ve practiced for years. (I did appreciate Sandy’s suggestion that seminaries should “offer courses in the oral performance of Scripture.”)

On the whole, however, the book failed to deliver on its promise. There are few insights into actual Bible passages that are clearly traceable to Sandy’s thesis.

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In fact, I would argue that careful analysis of the Scriptures suggests that they weren’t all originally—or somehow fundamentally or primarily—oral in nature.

Take the Psalms, for instance. Were they originally oral? Many include superscriptions suggesting strongly that they weren’t. When David addressed various psalms “to the choirmaster,” how did the choirmaster receive them? Almost certainly on the ancient equivalent of a steno pad.

Think of the superscription above Psalm 18, the second-longest superscription in all the Psalms:

For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:

But what David goes on to “say” takes the form of highly structured and lengthy Hebrew poetry. The most plausible explanation is that it was originally composed in writing.

Moreover, in Scripture (as in daily speech), “saying” is used as a natural metaphor for writing. Think of Paul’s words in Romans 9:17: “Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose.’” Scripture, by definition, means writing—but writings speak. Or consider James, who in his famous hearing-and-doing passage (1:19–27) freely mixes ear metaphors (“do not merely listen”) and eye metaphors (“whoever looks intently into the perfect law”).

Sandy’s attempt to highlight the oral dimension of Scripture works best in the prophetic books and in the life of Jesus. It is indeed interesting that Jesus never wrote anything down, and Sandy was thought-provoking on this topic. I can see the likelihood of oral traditions lying at the foundation of the Gospels, and I think the orality of ancient culture is useful to New Testament interpreters studying the reliability of the Gospels.

But I do not see the Bible as fundamentally oral rather than written. Unfortunately, as the book progresses, Sandy seems to rely on a dichotomy his thesis had earlier rejected. “Our focus,” he writes, “should be listening for the voice of God, rather than only analyzing the printed words on a page.”

This seems to pit hearing and reading against each other. But shouldn’t they work in concert? What about listening for the voice of God precisely by means of studying printed words—with all the analytical tools furnished by one’s tradition, one’s training, and one’s gifts?

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And some of Sandy’s comments about orality almost sound like a critique of what some biblical writers in fact did—and did under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. As he writes, “Reducing spoken words to written or printed form is actually an act of decontextualization, resulting in a written account not containing a full sense of the original content, and therefore has inherent limitations.” Yes, written words can come with less context than spoken ones, or at least different context. But this is true for every act of communication that lasts beyond the immediate circumstances of its origin.

Sandy insists that his goal “is not to devalue the written Word but to reorient our thinking to the original and proper place of oral revelation.” But I came away from his book more unsettled than helped. Personally, at least, I have most often encountered appeals to the originally oral character of the Bible’s words as a means of evading what the written words say.

I do not believe that Sandy does this in his book. Even so, it’s worth remembering an observation from the theologian Albert Schweitzer in his 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus: Often enough, when we look back into the well of the past, we find our own reflection staring back. It stands to reason, then, that when we overturn traditional readings of the Bible by appeals to its historical and cultural backgrounds, we risk arriving at readings more amenable to our contemporary cultural foregrounds.

According to Sandy, “research demonstrates [that] ‘we were never born to read.’” But the authorities he cites are non-Christians, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. How, without reference to a Creator God, do they know what we were “born” to do?

I side instead with former CT editor Andy Crouch, whose excellent book Culture Making reminds us that we were originally born to uncoil the potentialities of God’s creation. God blessed us with a cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). For a Christian to say that “we were never born to read” is to ascribe an intentionality to God beyond anything he has spoken or written.

A mild irony here is that much of my current Bible “reading” happens through audio Bibles. I tend to listen to the Bible in daily doses but then do deep dives with my digital tools. Over the last 15 years, I’ve made attempts to discern a difference between my encounters with the Bible through different media. But if a difference is there, I have yet to perceive it.

Mark Ward is senior editor for digital content at Logos Bible Study and host of a YouTube channel dedicated to Bible translation (@markwardonwords). He is the author of several books and textbooks, including Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Hear Ye the Word of the Lord: What We Miss If We Only Read the Bible
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Book Title
Hear Ye the Word of the Lord: What We Miss If We Only Read the Bible
IVP Academic
Release Date
March 12, 2024
Buy Hear Ye the Word of the Lord: What We Miss If We Only Read the Bible from Amazon