Hebraic Thinking is that of Oral Culture

I recently heard a fascinating theory about why our modern Western culture thinks so differently than the way the Bible does. The Eastern thinking of the Old Testament in particular is very concrete and image-oriented, and it uses stories and parables to explain, rather than abstract logic. It is relational and group-oriented rather than individualistic, and it focuses on action rather than internalized belief. If you read many of the articles at www.egrc.net, you know that you miss a lot of the most important truths of the Bible if you don’t understand the way it thinks.

In Orality and Literacy, by Walter Ong, he theorizes that the reason for the difference in our thinking is the rise of literacy in Greece in ancient times. He points out that oral communication is universal among humans, but writing is a fairly recent invention. When a culture becomes deeply literate, people’s patterns of thought completely change. He describes studies done in cultures which have never had a written language that find that they tend to be of the mindset that we call “Eastern.”

This means that the biblical, Hebraic pattern of thought is actually the more universal pattern – it is us that have changed and moved away from it! Now that I think about it, this makes sense with the fact that I’ve heard Africans, Asians and Native Americans all say that the Eastern way of thinking is actually the way that they think. Of course they are literate cultures, but they have internalized its patterns of thought less than ours has.

It is difficult for us to even imagine living without writing. In oral cultures, learning was always by direct experience, or by relationship, or by stories told within the family. One learns cooking or hunting by being with another who knows the skill, never from a book. Knowledge is never a disembodied group of facts – it always is concrete and comes from ones senses, and other people.

In our culture we are taught that learning comes through reading. But think what happens in that process: you interact with a text – a set of abstract characters, and in your mind you reconstruct what they mean. You forget about the person who wrote the text and focus only in on the concepts in your mind. You also don’t interact with anyone else with your learning – you really can’t while reading. What happens is that you are aquiring the habits of individualism, abstract thinking and internalization – all characteristics of the Western mind.

One distinctive feature of many oral cultures is the emphasis on learning by memory. In Jesus’ time, it is likely that boys memorized the Torah and much of the Scriptures by heart. Still today there is a strong emphasis on memorization among Orthodox Jews. I think this is why Jesus’ teaching is peppered with brief allusions to the Scriptures – he assumed his audience knew it all by heart, so the smallest of reference was all he needed. Rabbis still do this today.

Also, much of rabbinic commentary is done by linking together passages, noticing that one rare word is found in two important places. For instance “ve’ahavta” (and you shall love) is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 – “And you shall love the Lord your God” and it is also found in Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jewish thinkers before Jesus had connected the two passages because as they recited the words, one passage reminded them of the other. When you have it all memorized, this is easy and obvious, but if you don’t, it’s not something you’d ever guess.

Of course there are enormous advantages in literacy – you can communicate at a distance, and learn from others than those directly around you. You can construct lengthy, complex chains of reasoning that you couldn’t without something to write it down as you go. Despite the advantages of literacy, I wonder if our loss of memory has disconnected us with Jesus too.

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Published in: on May 22, 2007 at 8:28 am  Comments Off on Hebraic Thinking is that of Oral Culture  
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