Oral Hermeneutics: A Conversation with Bill Bjoraker
For most of their journey through history, the texts of Scripture have been passed on from mouth to mouth, or mouth to ear, rather than from scroll to scroll or page to page. This mode of transmission shaped the way Scripture was told, proclaimed, and interpreted through the ages. Only in the modern era, with the advent of the printing press, has the written text gained preeminence, along with text-based ways of interpreting and communicating the word. In their recent book, The Return of Oral Hermeneutics, authors Tom Steffen and Bill Bjoraker argue that the oral modality is a key to deeper engagement with Scripture. It doesn’t replace focus on the written text, but comes alongside it, or perhaps even underlies it, and can be neglected only at great cost.
The Return of Oral Hermeneutics engages with an extensive bibliography of works in theology, missiology, and biblical studies. It frames its discussion between transcripts of two storytelling events led by Bill Bjoraker, based on two passages from the Elisha cycle in 2 Kings. In these events, the storyteller prepares his audience, tells the story, and draws the audience into discussion through well-crafted questions. By structuring the book in this way, the authors illustrate the use of storytelling as a way of teaching Scripture, which is a primary application of oral hermeneutics. Following two chapters on the first of the two storytelling events, six chapters explore the theological and biblical underpinning of oral hermeneutics:
3. Orality’s Influence on Text and Teaching
4. Oral Hermeneutics
5. Hebrew Hermeneutics
6. Character Theology
7. Questioning Our Questions
Chapter 9 covers the second storytelling event from the Elisha cycle. The final chapter, “Concluding Reflections,” is something of a manifesto for a return to oral hermeneutics, not just as a technique for proclaiming and teaching Scripture, and certainly not just for non-literate or pre-literate audiences. Rather, the book advocates oral hermeneutics as essential to discovering and communicating the truths of Scripture. Accordingly, it ends on a rousing note: “it is time to awake a sleeping partner to enrich TH [textual hermeneutics]. It is time to recover, reinstate, and revitalize a long-lost friend. It is time to add the heart hermeneutic to the head hermeneutic. It is time for the return of oral hermeneutics!”
Co-author Bill Bjoraker is a long-time friend of the Messianic Jewish community, based in Southern California. His 2018 article in Kesher Issue 32, “The Place of Story in Messianic Jewish Ministry,” presented themes developed in more depth in The Return of Oral Hermeneutics, and explored how they apply within a Messianic Jewish context. Bill recently met online with Kesher editor Russ Resnik to discuss the new book.
Russ: Bill, since we’re talking about stories, and your whole approach is story-based, tell us the story of how you got into the field of oral hermeneutics.
Bill: Sure. I had been a scholar, I went the whole route of theological education, and did an MA and PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ve had a ministry to Jewish people for thirty or thirty-five years, and I had always taken a highly academic approach. I thought, if I’m going to be able to convince Jewish people that Yeshua is the Messiah, I’ve got to have a high level of intellectual education and preparation, so I studied philosophy and systematic theology and I did the best I could to be prepared to debate, kind of like Dr. Michael Brown debating with rabbis.
I thought that was my track, my approach, but in 2007–2008 I had an office here at the Center of World Missions at William Carey University, and we were doing evangelism at Venice Beach on weekends with a Hebrew literature table. We had spent eight years in Israel and I learned Hebrew, so we were reaching out to Israelis on weekends and had a Jewish-seekers Bible study going on. I was also teaching a course at William Carey. An Overseas Missions staff member named Larry Dinkins, who’d been a veteran missionary in Thailand for about 30 years, was here in Pasadena at the time, because his wife was suffering from cancer and they were going to City of Hope for treatment. He got an office next to mine and was telling me about this storytelling workshop he had taken and how it revolutionized the way he was teaching. He’d also been through the route of higher education at Talbot Theological Seminary and earned a PhD there. But his teaching in Thailand, using the western approach of systemic theology, and often highly abstract lecturing, just did not go over with the Thai people. Most of the Thai people are oral learners; they learn best by story and by group discussion and so on, so his teaching that way wasn’t very successful and people just didn’t get it.
Then he heard about a movement on the mission field among Southern Baptist missionaries of doing chronological Bible storying. Story through the Bible; just tell the stories of the Bible orally, by memory, and with body language and gestures, telling the stories like a story-teller. This movement was seeing so much success because missionaries could get the stories into even non-literate people, get the Bible into people who didn’t even know how to read. Larry was impressed by all this, so he took a storytelling workshop at Simply the Story, which is kind of a mom and pop organization up in Hemet, California, led by a lady named Dorothy Miller. She is an excellent storyteller and she’s been around the world reaching people with Bible storying. He took a workshop and he came back and was telling me about this. I said, “That’s great Larry,” because he had taken the storytelling workshop and went back to Thailand and used the storying approach with the Thai people and they loved it. They followed him around, “Tell us another story! Tell us another story!”
Russ: So these stories are all stories right out of the Bible.
Bill: Yeah. That was the approach; just accurately . . .
Russ: Tell the stories of the Bible as stories.
Bill: Yeah. Not by memorizing and rote, but wording the story accurately, not embellishing it and not leaving anything out, content-accurate, but telling it in your own words. Not memorizing any one translation. Usually the storyteller learns stories by reading three or four translations. Telling it content-accurate but in your own words—that was the approach. So, Larry was telling me about this and I said, “Well that’s great for you, Larry, that it’s been so successful. You work with Thai people but I work with Jewish people,” I said. “And Jewish people are very literate, highly educated people, most of them anyway. It’s not going to work with them. They want high-level intellectual fare.” But it didn’t take me long to realize, “Hey, the stories of the Hebrew Bible are the stories of Israel, and Jewish people know that, even if they’re biblically illiterate. They know that the stories of the Hebrew Bible are the stories of their people.” And I thought, “This is going to work for that reason.” So I took the storytelling workshop, went back to my Jewish-seekers Bible study, and began to use the story approach. I would tell a story, and then I would have someone repeat the story as best they could to get them engaged. And we’d go through the story about three times until they got the story in mind, and then through asking good questions we would discuss the story. First observational questions then application questions.
It just went over wonderfully, swimmingly. We would sometimes spend two hours in one story, and we did that every week for over two years, and Jewish men came to faith. For some Jewish Yeshua-believers, it got them deeper into the Bible. They’d never seen things like this in the Bible before.
Russ: Talking about Jewish people, the phrase “The people of the book” appears a few times in Return of Oral Hermeneutics, and in a couple of appearances it’s . . . I wouldn’t say negative, but it’s looked at a bit askance. At one point you resolve this tension when you say, “The ‘people of the book’ are the people of the story.” But I’m thinking there is a real emphasis in the Jewish world on the written Torah. You know at the end of the Torah service we hold up the scroll and say, “Vezot ha Torah asher sam Moshe, This is the Torah that Moses set before the people of Israel,” and that’s from Deuteronomy (4:44). And also in Deuteronomy there’s the commandment for the king to write a copy of the Torah (Deut 17:18). So how do you reconcile this? Because it seems like you’re saying in your book that orality is primary and literacy or the written form is secondary, but in Jewish thinking it often seems the other way around.
Bill: Very good question. It’s one of the questions I grappled with, so let me just say a few things about that. I think that, early on, Israel was an oral, hearing-oriented society. Of course, nobody had written texts in the Sinai desert under Moses. The Shema says, “Hear O Israel,” not “Read O Israel.” “Hear O Israel,” and the oral communication by Moses and later leaders of Israel was primary, at least until later Jewish history. As I’m sure you know, “Shema, Hear” doesn’t just mean sound waves going through your eardrums, but Shema in that sense means to listen, and to listen holistically, to hear such that it impacts your heart and your actions. To hear, to listen, to respond, and to love God. To hear God and to love him. It’s a holistic response, so I think of it as oral in that sense.
Also the Hebrew language, being very concrete and very relational and very experiential, because it came out of experience, I think I’m safe to say that Israel was a hearing-dominant society. Later, of course, texts were very important. By the time of Ezra and later Judaism texts became very important. And then in post-biblical Judaism texts were very important, but there was always still this aggadic tradition, oral telling. And there were times when Jewish people weren’t very literate, when the literacy rate was low. It’s debatable what the literacy rate was in Yeshua’s time. A lot of people weren’t literate, so learning was oral. Of course the rabbis and scribes had the texts, and both the written texts and the oralizing are important. One story that actually affirms that is the story in Exodus 17, when the Amalekites attacked Israel. They are the first tribe that attacks Israel coming out of the desert, and so Joshua is sent out by Moses to fight the Amalekites, and Moses lifts up his arms—you know the story. At the end of the story, after the battle, the Lord says to Moses, “Write this down in a book and tell it in the hearing of Joshua. Read it out loud in the hearing of Joshua that I will be at war with Amalek. From generation to generation, I will blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven” (17:14). He was to write it down, but he was to read it out loud in the hearing of Joshua. So both of those are important.
What I say in the book is that there are three forms of the word of God. One form is the living word, the logos, the memra, Yeshua himself, of course. But then there’s the written word, and there’s the oralized word. The written word is important because it’s always our standard to come back to, to test the accuracy of our oralizing of it. It’s the standard of faith and life. But that written text never reaches its purpose unless it’s oralized. It remains ink on paper, and if it’s never oralized so that people can hear it and respond, it never fulfils its purpose. As Yeshua said, “You read Moses and you think that by coming to read Moses you have life, but you don’t listen to me” (John 5:39–46, paraphrased). Of course in later Judaism, very textual Judaism, they were losing some of that oralizing and losing some of the Holy Spirit anointing behind it, but there was still always this aggadic tradition. You’ve probably seen this book here, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.
Russ: We had that when I was a kid! An oldie but goody. So the very word Torah, as you know, can be translated as “instruction,” which has an oral implication to it right there.
Bill: And if Torah is just left in the text, or even just a bare reading of the text, it’s not very instructive; it has to be oralized, the stories told, the questions asked, discussion, pilpul, discussion. Aggadah and midrash, this is oralized stuff; it was also written down, but it’s primarily oral.
A controversial part of the book is in chapter 5, “Hebrew Hermeneutics,” where I mention the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe as Noah. The producers were Jewish, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, so they drew on this midrashic stuff and even this Zohar-type stuff about these creatures that come down, these watchers, the rock-creatures. It wasn’t straight from the Hebrew Bible, there was a lot in there that was embellished. But I liked the movie and I offended some folks in that chapter because I said that evangelicals, who are very literalist, reacted and hated the movie: “This is so unbiblical; this is a travesty.” But I said, “Look, when that movie came out, it attracted the secular people, the liberal people, because it was done by Hollywood.” And the rate of hits on the internet for Bible sites after that movie came out really shot up. And so this got people into the Bible that never would have gotten into the Bible without a movie like that. And I said, “OK a lot of these things weren’t biblical, and you need to discern what’s biblical and so on,” but I said, “Yeah, this is kind of what midrash is.”
We only have three chapters in the whole Bible on the Noah story, which covers like what? Like a hundred years? God commissioned Noah to oversee the destruction of the world. And he had him build this ark and communicate with his community, his clan, his family, that this was going to go on. He had to oversee this. Think of the stress of this. The years, what he went through as a human being. That after he gets off the ark it’s realistic to think of him getting naked and drunk in the tent. I mean he just lets his hair down. He finally comes to collapse after the stress of the flood. That’s the realism, and so to look at that movie you look at some of the realism. It makes you think what it must have been like. And midrash explores, reads between the lines in discussion, and if you don’t like how I read between the lines, then you can produce your own reading between the lines, but at least we’re engaging the text; we’re getting into the story.
Russ: Midrash really engages imagination, and you bring that engagement out in the book. It’s striking where you quote CS Lewis, saying, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Bill: Yes, I love that.
Russ: But I wonder how that’s working for you in your ministry, I assume, to younger people as well as people our age. The younger culture tends to be nihilistic and kind of despairing of any ultimate meaning, and imagination seeks to discover meaning. How does that work out on the ground for you?
Bill: Wonderfully. Young people respond to story, they love it, and they talk about it, because of imagination, because of images. They don’t want to be preached to or preached at. They’re too pessimistic; they’re too jaded, a lot of them; but they love stories.
There’s one saying about story that describes why young people like it. Story invites you into the room, but doesn’t tell you where to sit. Young people don’t want to be told, “Come in, sit down in this room, and I’ll tell you where to sit.” No, they might want to come into the room, but they don’t want you to tell them where to sit. And a story allows that freedom. I think there’s a surplus of meaning in a Bible story such that when the story is told to diverse audiences . . . Say you tell the story to a group of three difference audiences, Asians, African-Americans, Jewish people. When you tell it to those three different culture groups and discuss it, their life experiences are going to bring insight. They draw insights from that story that the other group wouldn’t. Therefore there’s this surplus of meaning in the Bible story and I think that’s biblical. I mean some of the scholars in western seminaries in the last 100 years—probably in reaction to the early church fathers’ wild allegorizations, which were way off—so I think the modern western scholars reacted and said no, there’s only one true meaning in a parable and we’ve got to find that one true meaning through exegetical tools, grammatical analysis, and word studies.
Well, I reject that; I don’t think there’s one true meaning that only the exegete who knows Greek and Hebrew can find. I think there’s a surplus of meaning in the scriptural story, and that as it’s told to different cultural groups, the meaning they draw is through the Holy Spirit leading them. The Holy Spirit attends to a Bible story because it’s the word of God. And as the Spirit attends to that story as it’s discussed, there’s a surplus of meaning that comes to people, and that is biblical, that’s right, and that’s the way it should be.
Russ: In a way you’re verbalizing what it means to embrace the ambiguity that’s in the text. But the very notion that the biblical text contains ambiguities is controversial for some students of Scripture.
Bill: Yes, it is. And modern, precise exegetes who think in terms of an exact science, and think that everything has to be precise and mathematical—that is just not the Hebraic mindset, not the biblical mindset. It’s not that precise, there’s ambiguity. Have you discovered Sternberg? Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Now he’s not a believer in Yeshua. He’s an Israeli, I think at Hebrew University or Haifa, and he discusses the gaps that are in the story. The story is terse, there’s a lot happening in the gaps in real life, and the story leaves gaps, and so there’s ambiguity there. And it requires discussion, it requires imagination to bring that story to life. What really happened there? He discusses the David and Bathsheba story brilliantly with the ambiguity there, with David’s relationship with Uriah. Brilliant stuff. But it all has to do with the symbolism and the nuances in a story that you can only really grasp by imagination, by telling it, oralizing it.
Russ: How would you distinguish that from eisegesis?
Bill: Good question. It’s an important question and in my chapter 5 on Hebrew Hermeneutics I discuss this. You have to have tethers and controls and I’ve got four levels of certainty, four Ps and four Ds. The four Ps are the Provable level, the provable, clear meaning of the text, not very debatable. Then Probable, Possible, and Phiction with a P. You might spin out some probabilities when you’re discussing a story, and some possibilities when you’re discussing a story, but in the movie Noah they moved into the phictional, and of course you have to discern that out, and you have to say, this is an interesting story, but it’s too far out from the biblical text.
Russ: If you’re doing biblical storytelling you would identify when you’re moving into lesser degrees of probability?
Bill: And here’s the skill of the storyteller. Bible storytelling is actually teaching. It’s a kind of teaching and what the teacher-storyteller needs to do is that when the group discussion gets into the fictional and gets too far out the storyteller has to bring it back and say, “Where do you see that in the story? How could you get that out of the story?” Help them to see, “Well I guess you can’t really get that from this story, it’s really going too far.”
There’s four Ds as well: Dogma, Debatable, Doubtful, and Deniable.
Russ: Dogma in a positive sense.
Bill: Yes, in a positive sense. It’s clear, it’s true, it’s not debatable.
Russ: I want to get into a couple of practical questions. As a teacher in interactive, inductive study, I often ask, “Where do you see that in the text?” People want to bring their systemized theology into anywhere you’re going. But I think your response is an improvement because “Where is that in the text?” sounds a bit pedantic, but when you ask where it is in the story, it strikes me as a kinder way to correct or redirect the discussion.
Bill: It’s kinder and it leaves the decision up to them. “Can you show me that in the story? Where is that in the story?” and if they can show you, great. But if they can’t show you that that’s in the story, then . . . And they may propose something probable, or a possibility in the story that you hadn’t seen before and it may possibly be true, and you say, “That may well be; I haven’t looked at it that way before.”
Russ: Do you give the list of the four Ps and the four Ds? Do you tell your audience about that?
Bill: Not very often. I mostly just practice it, just do it. I ask “Where do you see that in the story?” I keep them in the story and guide the discussion so that they stay in the story and they don’t freak out. So often they bring all these other ideas that they’ve grown up with in their religious traditions.
Russ: They might be true, but they’re not what the story is about.
Bill: True, that’s reading into the story. Even stuff from another Bible story often doesn’t fit. I tell people, we want to create a level playing field here so that everybody in the group, whether they know the Bible or not. . . . There may be a person in your group who’s not a believer, doesn’t know the Bible at all, and you’ve invited them in. You want that person who doesn’t know the Bible, who may not even be a believer, to fill comfortable and to feel on an equal playing field. They’re part of this discussion just like the guy who’s got a PhD in Theology. So how we create a level playing field is, we tell that story and we discuss the different elements of that story. We don’t go to other stories in the Bible and we don’t go to other traditions. We focus on the story that’s just been heard. So that everybody has just one story that we’re discussing and we try to stay in that story. That levels the playing field.
Russ: That’s a really important idea. I hadn’t thought of it that way, leveling the playing field, giving everyone equal access to the story rather than privileging people who’ve heard it already.
Bill: Right, that’s it, because the people who are privileged, they’re going to dominate the discussion. The people who don’t know, they’re going to clam up. “I don’t have knowledge like that; I can’t talk like that.”
Russ: The other disadvantage to letting people bring in stuff from outside the story is that they’re coming in and just telling you what they already knew before they heard this story today. I want to interact today with what you’re hearing from the story today.
So here’s another practical consideration. I tried your approach in our chavurah this week, not totally, but I made some adjustments in our discussion and it went well. It was only some of what you’re talking about but there was a definite freshness and higher level of participation. But I must confess I was tempted to do a brief word study in the midst of it, because we’re in Genesis 24, where the servant, after he takes the oath with Abraham, goes to Aram-Naharaim to find a bride for Isaac. We zeroed in on the part where he ends up falling down and worshiping the Lord, and Rebekah sees it and runs back to her family. I think a key to that story is the word hesed, which appears three times. At the beginning of the servant’s prayer [for a bride for Isaac] and at the end of his prayer he talks about hesed, and then when the prayer gets answered he says to the Lord, “You have shown hesed v’emet to my master.”
Bill: Really? I didn’t know that was in there.
Russ: Yes, it’s very striking and I wanted to do something with hesed there, but how would you do that without becoming didactic? “Oh, by the way, I know something you guys don’t know about in this story.”
Bill: It has that effect, but the richness is there. For me, Russ, a lot of it has to do with the audience that I have. If I feel there are people in my group that are going to feel left out by that, or not really going to resonate with that, I might not do it. But if all the people in the group are going to be receptive to that, and they know you, they know you’re not just trying to snow them, then yeah, bring it in, it enriches the story.
Russ: Would you do it as the storyteller? Would you say it as part of the story? “Of course, he was speaking Hebrew and the word he said was hesed.” Or would you do a little scholarly aside?
Bill: One way to do this is to put it in the introduction, before the story begins. There’s a word hesed here, and I want to tell you in the introduction what that word means in Hebrew. And then when you tell the story, you use the word hesed instead of the English translation. And when they hear that word, they say, “Oh yeah. He told us what it means.” Hesed is such a rich word, you can’t translate it with one English word. It’s so rich. If there’s something in the story that needs some cultural background, or a word that needs explanation so people can understand the story, we put that in the introduction.
Russ: That makes sense, and I guess the extent or the detail that you go into in the introduction would depend upon the audience. “Hesed v’emet” would be striking to someone who knew Scripture well and knew about that phrase already. But a typical audience, there’s no point in getting into it, because you’d have to do a whole. . .
Bill: But if you’re with a group of seminary students or Bible college students who are scholars, they would love that and they’d eat that up and they would be with you.
Russ: So you have to know your audience.
Bill: I think so. Have you heard that thing, “Know your stuff, know who you’re stuffing, and stuff them well.”
Russ: It’s a funny saying, but in a way it’s different from your approach. You’re not stuffing them, you’re letting them stuff themselves.
Bill: Yeah, that’s why I didn’t put it in the book. But it challenges the teacher. You need to know the story well before you tell it. And you need to know your audience. But also, “stuff them well,” that’s the one that’s not . . . I use the illustration in the book of a mother bird who flies out and gets food and brings it back to the babies in the nest. She predigests it and feeds this predigested food to the babies who are passive and just open their mouths. That’s not what we want to do in storytelling (laughter). That’s making passive babies out of the students rather than teaching them how to eat and discover food themselves. Discovery learning.
Russ: Your storytelling teaching approach sounds similar to what you might call interactive inductive Bible study, a phrase I used earlier. How would you distinguish what you do from an interactive inductive Bible study?
Bill: One term we call it is oral inductive Bible study. It is inductive, but it’s an oral process. It’s not a written process, and it’s not a guided, exegetical process; it’s an oral process through discussion.
Russ: So you would actually discourage people from having their Bibles open while you’re telling the story?
Bill: Right, we don’t even give the reference for the story. Just tell the story. Because if you give the reference, you’re going to have people looking in their Bibles and trying to look it up and they get distracted. I say, “This is an oral zone. You’re entering the oral zone here. Not the Twilight Zone. And so I want you just to listen to the story and give me your eye contact and respond when we discuss the story. I can give you the reference in the Bible later, but we’re going to just discuss the story now without depending on print.” It’s a discipline, but it really helps people to not feel like, “I can just look at the book here; I can just look at the print here.” They tend to be distracted and their attention is divided. After the whole thing is over, I’ll say, “This story was from Exodus 17, one through seven.” And they can go back to it.
But here’s the thing too—if you’re learning the story, if you’re with a group and you’re learning the story, not telling the story as ministry, but if you’re learning the story, if you’re teaching a group how to tell the story you want to have the Bible there so you can make sure you’re checking your accuracy. But if you’re going to present it as ministry then I don’t have it
Russ: Have you been able to do your storytelling ministry online, via Zoom or whatever during the pandemic shutdown? And how does that work?
Bill: Yeah, in fact I’m doing it right now and it’s working well. I’m teaching a course at a Korean seminary in Fullerton [California] and I’ve got eight students and I do a story from the Torah every week. We’re on Zoom like this and I tell the story and they’re all interacting and it works really well.
Russ: So you’re able to read your audience enough via virtual media to be able to do it well?
Bill: I think enough. It’s much better in person, but it’s good enough to be worth it on Zoom. A big part of this is the oral language that comes through. When you tell a story there’s oral language that comes through, the kinds of gestures you use and body language, and that can come through in Zoom pretty well, but it’s much better in person.
Russ: Going back to your book, I think for a lot of readers it’s going to be an introduction to the whole idea of Oral Hermeneutics, but that idea has been around for a long time. You came into something that is a well-developed and well-documented concept. How do you feel about your book being seen and used as an introduction to this whole concept?
Bill: Pretty good, but it is at pretty high academic level. It’s written and targeted toward scholars and to get a buy-in by seminary professors. So often this approach has been seen as for semi-literate people or uneducated people or even for children, you know, storytelling for children, and we’re trying to say that this is not just for children. This is for adults, this is the deepest way to get into Scripture; the deepest way to plumb the riches of Scripture is through oral hermeneutics, that’s what we’re trying to communicate.
For educated people it’s a good introduction. In fact, one reviewer, a guy who works with Wycliffe Bible Translators, called it a “one-stop shop” for all the associated fields of orality in terms of hermeneutics, in terms of questions, Hebrew hermeneutics, character theology, even in orality’s influence on text and teaching. The books of Scripture were oral before they were written down, and the book discusses how that affected the final product of the text. In fact, even in the New Testament epistles, Paul would send an emissary to these congregations and they would read Paul’s letter. Not everyone had a written text of the letter at first. It was read and oralized, so the person that knew Paul, that Paul sent to read the letter, when he read that letter he could communicate Paul’s emotion with that letter. And so even in the epistles the oral dimension was important. And of course the gospels were oralized for, what, 30 years after Yeshua before they were written down.
Russ: But you would still say that the written text that we have is the authoritative scripture.
Russ: So, there may be some variants within the oral tradition but the one that is written . . .
Bill: Is the authoritative text, yeah. You have to trust the canonizing process, although I mention in the book there’s this debate among scholars between the ipsissima vox and the ipsissima verba. Ipsissima verba is the claim that every word of the text is the exact words of Jesus. If you’d been there with a tape recorder, when Jesus taught . . . that we have the exact words transcribed from what he taught. So ipsissima verba is the very words; ipsissima vox is the very voice. And we argue that we have the very voice. Because how many times did Yeshua tell these parables? Did he tell them exactly word-for-word every time he told them? No, he wasn’t a robot; he wasn’t a tape recorder. He told these stories many times over three years, maybe ten thousand hours of teaching, so there were variations every time he told the story. We have one version in the text of the gospels, but every time he oralized it, it was Yeshua telling.
Russ: But someone could say, “OK, but what we have written down could have been one of those actual teachings that got ‘tape-recorded.’ ”
Bill: It could have been, and that’s all we have, so we have to take that as authoritative, but I think it gives us a little flexibility when we tell the story, when we oralize it, that it doesn’t have to be verbatim, word-for-word. The voice of Yeshua comes through anyway, and the Holy Spirit helps the voice of Yeshua to be heard even if there’s a little variation. And it gets us away from this mathematical precision that only the guild of Bible scholars that know Greek and Hebrew and exegesis can give us the true, absolute one meaning. It gets us away from that and gives us more of a laity, democracy feeling. Hey, we can all do this! We can all tell these stories. And the Holy Spirit is going to be with us as we tell these stories, even if we have a bit of variation there. Look at all the translations of the Bible that there are, but the voice of Yeshua comes through.
Russ: That leads me to a final question, which we could probably spend another hour talking about. The title at first struck me as a little odd. Oral Hermeneutics, rather than Oral Homiletics perhaps. At first I thought you were saying, “Here’s the best way to present … or perhaps not the best way, but a really important way, an essential way to present the story. But it seems like, more than that, you’re saying that through the oral presentation we discover deeper levels of meaning, we discover more of the meaning of the text. So it’s hermeneutics rather than homiletics.
Bill: Your saying that helps me understand even better what we meant [by the title]. That’s exactly what we meant. It’s not just a method of preaching or presentation, it’s deeper than that. It’s a method of interpreting the meaning at the deepest level. As Lewis said, “Imagination is the organ of meaning.” And to really get the full meaning of Scripture we need to imagine it. Oralize it and apply our imagination in imagery, and discuss it. That’s helpful, that really helped me to be able to explain my title better. So thanks.
Let me share one thing as we end, it’s in the book, a saying attributed to Scottish politician: “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes their laws.” People don’t remember laws; they don’t want to hear laws, but they love songs, and songs are stories put to music. Ballads are stories put to song. You know the saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” It says there in Samuel that the women in the streets, in Jerusalem, sang these songs: “Saul has slain his thousands; David his ten thousands.” And those songs swayed the nation toward David, when the women sang those songs.
Russ: And Saul knew he was in trouble
Bill: It’s the same with stories. I mean stories are going to impact people’s hearts and lives as laws are not.
Russ: Amen! I really appreciate your time, Bill, and I love the book. Thank you for being with us.
1 Tom Steffen and William Bjoraker. The Return of Oral Hermeneutics: As Good Today as It Was for the Hebrew Bible and First-Century Christianity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2020).
2 Steffen and Bjoraker, 313, emphasis original.
3 Steffen and Bjoraker, 153.
4 Nathan Ausubel, ed. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (New York: Crown, 1948).
5 Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).