Book Throwing and the Mission of God: Part 4

Tom Richards, Vanuatu, Tanna, 2014, Man with MegaVoice

Tanna man using a MegaVoice, a solar-powered audio device loaded with a vernacular New Testament – one way in which someone might ‘receive’ or take in the Bible.

Interaction with Don’t Throw the Book at Them by Harry Box, Chapter 3

If you want to get the main idea and avoid the detail, jump to ‘The Written Elephant in the Oral Room’ (Click ‘read more’ and then scroll down ).

I should say right from the outset that if there is one chapter in this book that I am inclined to disagree with, it is this one.  It’s a great book and no doubt beneficial for learning to better communicate with oral people, but perhaps the case gets overstated here.  The chapter is worth reading, and in fact, I think when we think through the way in which Jesus’ disciples interacted with both written and oral texts, we notice some very important (and encouraging) things about engaging oral people with the scriptures.

I will first summarise the chapter as best I can, and then add my own thoughts, comments, conclusions and applications.


In this chapter, Box sets out to reinforce his fundamental argument that oral techniques (as opposed to written) will best reach oral, non-book people, in both communicating the Christian message and training Christian leaders.  He does this by using Jesus’ oral communication as a model for contemporary ministry amongst non-book people.

The Galilean Context

Box argues that Jesus chose Galilee as a place of ministry because the Galilean people were less conservative and more tolerant of their gentile neighbours compared to their Judean counterparts, and so, were more likely to be receptive to his ‘new and innovative’ message and then pass it on to Gentiles.  Box reinforces this with references to the people receiving Jesus positively in Mark’s gospel and Peter’s preaching in the new church and evangelism of Cornelius in Acts.

Box then goes on to outline the oral communication in Galilee at the time of Jesus.  Drawing from Barclay 1975 and Klem 1982, he argues that few people were literate (5% functionally literate in Hebrew for example) and that ‘from the evidence we have, oral communication was by far the dominant form of communication in the Galilean community’ (p 48), and further, that ‘the oral message was authoritative, important, and much preferred to the written message’ (p 49).

Jesus as a Communicator

For Box, Jesus was not just an oral communicator, but self-identified as one.  He was a teacher, but was a different sort of teacher, having not been formally trained, using the people’s heart language and having an itinerate ministry amongst peasants.  While he concedes that Matthew and John were literate, for Box, the others probably weren’t, so Jesus conducted his leadership program orally, and, at the end of three intensive years, the 12 were equipped to teach his message to others.

Jesus employed an Aramaic poetic style to deliver carefully prepared messages that were designed to ‘lodge in the memory.’  In this Jesus excelled, and Box provides many excellent examples of Jesus’ use of poetic, culturally appropriate oral language.  This allowed for ‘rapid communication of his message across the land, and to all strata of society’ (p 55).

Jesus’ Oral Communication as Mission Strategy

According to Box, Jesus ‘chose the oral communication system of the day so that his teaching was not restricted to the scholarly elite, but his methods ensured that everyone could learn.  Not only that, his methods ensured that everyone could teach’ (p 55).  Jesus’ only prerequisite for his training program was total commitment to himself.  Box illustrates his point with Acts 4:5-13 where it is noted by the elite that Peter and John were not trained in a recognized rabbinical school, they were from among the common people and they imitated the teaching method of Jesus (p56).

What’s helpful?

  • Box does an excellent job in a short amount of space of demonstrating Jesus’ brilliance as an oral communicator (the chapter is worth reading for that alone!)
  • Box reminds us that Jesus’ oral setting was not like our own literate western setting.

Questions and Criticisms

Why was Jesus’ Ministry Based in Galilee?

Box argues that the specific reason that Jesus ministered in Galilee had to do with preparing his disciples for ministry to the Gentiles.  It is a little difficult to see why this might be important to Box’s chapter, but it seems that Box makes this point to support his characterisation of Jesus as an oral ministry trainer.

However, we should ask whether both the biblical data and other sources of knowledge about first century Galilee really fit with Box’s thesis that the Galileans were more likely to take the gospels to Gentiles. Firstly, it should be said that while, at one time, many scholars believed that Galilean Judaism had a distinctively gentile flavour in contrast to the Judean strain, this in no longer the clear consensus.  In his book, ‘The Myth of a Gentile Galilee’ (2002), Mark A. Chancey concludes, ‘The belief that pagans made up a large part, perhaps even the majority, of Galilee’s population in the first century CE – a view that has influenced generations of New Testament scholars – exists despite the evidence, not because of it (167).’   Others, who maintain the possibility of a somewhat mixed population point out that, ‘the relationship between Jews and Gentiles was never without tension,’ and in fact, if we pay attention to Jesus’ encounters with Gentiles, we will notice that there was always a distance that needed to be bridged (Schnabel, 2004: 185).  Contrary to Box’s assertion that Jesus chose Galilee because it prepared the disciples to take the gospel to the Gentiles, in Acts Peter did not appear to be ready for this mission, and it was in fact Paul, who was not a part of Jesus’ oral boot-camp, but rather Gamaliel’s oral and written approach to the Law, who was the apostle to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  Paul was of course learned and literate and quite the opposite of the way that Box describes most of Jesus’ Galilean disciples.

So, if Jesus didn’t choose Galilee particularly because of its mission and training potential, why did he?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Galilee was the most densely populated region of Palestine (Schnabel 2004, 182) – not a particularly significant reason.
  • Because it fulfilled OT prophecy. In Matt 4:14-16, Matthew explains Jesus’ Galilean ministry in light of the fulfilment of Isa. 9:1-2, alluding to the paradoxical dawning of God’s restoration from the north.
  • Perhaps the most obvious answer is that ministering in Galilee allowed Jesus to avoid the political pressure of both the leaders in Jerusalem (John 4:1-3; 7:1), and Herod Antipas, following the arrest of John (Mark 1:14; Matt 4:12). Herod might have been concentrating on Paraea in the southeast at the time (Seccombe 2002: 492).

Did the Galilean People Respond as Positively to Jesus Ministry as Box Suggests?

While it is certainly true that Jesus’ teaching attracted great crowds in Galilee, we must also remember that he faced opposition from his family (Mark 3:20), was rejection at Bethsaida (Matt 11:13), and was deserted by many (John 6:66).  He was perhaps best received in Bethany, which is in the Judean countryside rather than Galilee.

To What Degree does the Response to Jesus’ Teaching Relate to the Fact that it is Oral?

When the Galilean people did follow Jesus, it was sometimes not because of his teaching, or for whom his signs revealed him to be, but for the benefits of his signs (John 6:26).  But even when people did respond positively to the teaching itself, we might ask whether the testimony of the gospels indicates that that was because of his oral technique particularly.  Box references John 7:46 as an example of an ‘eloquent testimony of the effectiveness of Jesus’ communication techniques.’  However, in the context of the passage, the guard’s words would have related to the content of Jesus’ message revealing him as ‘the Prophet’ or the Messiah.  In Matt 7:29, Mark 1:22 and Luke 4:32 it is that Jesus’ teaching has authority, rather than his style or ability, that is that cause of people’s amazement.

What Was the Level of Literacy of Jesus and his followers?

Box’s belief, based heavily on Klem (1982) and Barclay (1975), that most Galileans were functionally illiterate, may be erroneous.  While there is still considerable debate, more recent scholarship suggests that although there may have been a partial return to orality after the destruction of the temple in 70CE, literacy at the time of Jesus was in fact rather higher than previously thought.  Risener (1988) for example, states that ‘a pious Jew at the time of Jesus had a solid education based on a knowledge of the Torah, had mastered reading and writing, and could memorise large amounts of data due to the use of simple mnemonic aids’ (in Schnabel 2004, 202).  This education was not restricted to the ‘pious’ with ‘many boys’ being educated in primary and secondary schools in the first century C.E., where they studied primarily the written law in primary school and the oral law in secondary school, according to the Dictionary of New Testament Background.  People requiring Greek for trade learnt it at Greek schools or from private tutors (DNTB 2004:311-12). There is no reason, as Box suggests, to think that this knowledge would have been confined to Jerusalem rather than Galilee which ‘must be regarded as having remained faithful to the Torah’ (Schnabel 2004:185).

Alan Millard, in Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, shows that both reading and writing, while not practiced by all, were never-the-less commonplace amongst Jesus’ Galilean audience and envisages people writing down his teaching as both a way to preserve and share his teaching, and as evidence against him (2000:225-26).   Eckhard Schnabel puts this perhaps more strongly when he says:

‘The calling of the twelve disciples in Galilee must not be burdened with the view that Jesus called uneducated Galileans to the task of preaching and teaching … It is rather probable that Jesus’ disciples, including the fisherman Simon and Andrew, were educated.

… a tax collector [Matthew] belonged to the highest levels of society.  His position presupposed not only that he was wealthy but also that he could read and write.  The calling of Matthew [means] that it is not impossible that there were those among Jesus’ followers who were able to take (written) notes during his teaching and preaching ministry.’ (Schnabel 2004:278).

Is there Evidence that Jesus Chose Oral Communication so that his Disciples could Continue to Minister in this way? 

As we have seen, at least some, if not all, of Jesus’ disciples would have been able to read, but Box also argues that Jesus taught them orally so that they in turn could use these techniques as they took that message out to others.  However, contrary to the impression that Box gives, the emphasis of the New Testament is that Jesus passed on the content of his teaching rather than the form of his teaching.

Box argues that in Acts 4:13, the rulers and elders saw Jesus’ oral techniques in the disciples’ teaching.  However, the fact that they ‘took note’ that Peter and John had been with Jesus, need mean nothing more than that they remembered that these were followers of Jesus.  If they recognised something of Jesus in the disciples’ teaching, it would more likely have been in relation to the context and content of the speech, including: 1) the fact that they taught with authority (‘with courage/boldness’), 2) that the teaching was accompanied by a great work, and 3) Peter’s Christo-centric interpretation of Psalm 118:22 (compare Mark 12:10-12 – delivered to much the same audience).

Why Didn’t Jesus Write a Book?

So, if there was nothing in Jesus’ ministry setting that meant that his ministry had to be entirely oral, why didn’t he write a book?  This is Box’s chapter heading and is worth considering.  I would like to suggest two alternatives to Box’s argument, the second being the most significant:

  • Jesus’ ministry was short and he and his followers were materially poor (at least, they were not particularly wealthy and/or left that wealth behind when they followed Jesus). There was some significant cost (though not necessarily insurmountable) in the production of written material.  While it is not known how all these materials were paid for in the early church, we know that Luke wrote under a patron.
  • The most obvious reason why the gospels were not written during Jesus’ ministry was that the key interpretive event had not yet occurred. That is, Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Think for example of John’s asides during both Jesus’ clearing of the temple and his entrance into Jerusalem (John 2:22 and 12:16 – stop and read them again, it’s worth it).  In other words, the full account of who Jesus is could only really be written once he was unable to write it – it is only through the Easter event that the story comes into focus (and of course the sending of the Spirit after Jesus’ glorification that allowed the disciples to interpret these events correctly, as I will outline below).

Did Jesus Write a Book?

I think there is good reason to challenge the assumption behind Box’s question.  There are a few ways we could conceive of and demonstrate Jesus having input into early Christian writings, and in fact, in the scriptures themselves.

  • As I have outlined above, it is not impossible that some people took notes during Jesus’ ministry. To say anything of Jesus’ involvement in this would be highly speculative to say the least, and certainly if one was to argue that written sources of the gospels definitely originated during Jesus ministry, the burden of proof would be on identifying that source.  However, at the same time, it would be foolish to assume the absence of such sources, given the rates of literacy and the impact of Jesus’ teaching.
  • Furthermore, it’s not impossible that he was preparing his disciples to write. In John 14:25-26, Jesus says: ‘25 All this I have spoken while still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’ Obviously, there is nothing there that mentions writing as such.  However, as we trace the thread of ‘believing’ through the following chapters we can note that in 17:20, Jesus prays for ‘those who will believe in me through their message,’ and then in 20:31, in direct relation to those who were prayed for (those who ‘have not seen and yet have believed’ (20:29)), John says that he has written so that his audience might ‘believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.’  It appears possible – if not likely – that for John, writing this gospel (rather than just preaching it) is part of the outworking of Jesus’ preparations.
  • Even if you do not accept that Jesus had his disciples’ future role in producing scriptures in mind when he spoke to his disciples in the ‘upper room,’ we can see in John 14:25-26 that ultimately, Jesus has a direct role in the production of the New Testament. That is, that beyond saying that Jesus, as a member of the Trinity, is the author of God-breathed scripture, the person of God the Son had a specific role.  Just as the Son is sent by the Father in his name (10:24) and does the work of the Father (10:37-38), so too the Spirit is sent by the Son (15:26) in his name (14:26) and does his work, which includes a continuation of his teaching (14:25), and in fact, involves ‘greater things’ (14:12) as Jesus, working through the Spirit, ensures both the truth in the accuracy of scripture (remembering) and the truth in the correct interpretation of the OT and events (teaching) (14:25-26).  This work of God the Son in ‘writing’ did not begin in the New Testament, since Peter, talking about the Holy Spirit’s work in the prophets, calls him the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (1 Peter 1:11).

And this is the crux of the problem of the chapter: the inescapable fact that God did choose to speak to his people through a book.

The Written Elephant in the Oral Room

When a Galilean virgin gave birth to the Son of God in the City of David, she bore him into a society that was shaped by a book – The Book.  All the initial clues as to his identity had been kept safe over centuries in a book (e.g. Matt 1:23).  Jesus’ early life was marked by his understanding of what was written in a book (e.g.  Luke 2:46-47).  He countered Satan’s schemes with what was written in a book (Luke 4:1-13).  The keys to Jesus’ self-understanding were written in a book (e.g. 4:16-21).  He was able to make arguments based on the tense of a verb because it was written in a book (e.g.  Matt 22:32).  His opponents were ultimately accountable because they too should have rightly interpreted what was written in that book (e.g.  John 5:29). And when that masterful itinerate teacher was, in the end, glorified by his Heavenly Father, God’s revelation that was centred on him and authored by him, was continued and completed in a book.

The Exciting Bit

While I have argued that the literacy rate at the time of Jesus was higher that what Box suggests, the fact remains that people were less literate and more oral than people living in ‘western’ nations today.  God knew his people’s literacy level and yet he spoke to his people in a written form.  That is exciting for we who are struggling through orality and literacy in non-book societies.  God knew that scriptures could be read out (Deut. 31:11; Neh. 8:8; Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27; Rev. 1:3) and furthermore chooses to use his Spirit-empowered people using the scriptures to build his church (Eph. 4:11-13).

The problem comes, as Box rightly points out, when we too closely associate individual literacy with Christianity and particularly Christian leadership.  The picture, generated by wealthy, individualistic, post printing press, electronic-device-wielding Christians, that the normal Christian life involves sitting by yourself in a room reading, has not been the reality for Christians historically, nor is it the reality for the majority of Christians today.  Surely more often, across the universal church, scriptures are communally shared and corporately used and applied as God gives good gifts to his church, of people who are able to provide the varied roles involved in that process.  At yet we must never forget that in essence they are a people whose faith was once for all delivered in a written form.

So, what’s the way forward?  In a word: Balance.  A system incorporating literacy, sensitive to orality and, as much as possible, without post-colonial hang-ups.

A Christian leader should ‘hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it,’ according to Titus 1:9, but Paul does not specify how it is that they are to receive the ‘trustworthy’ message.  They should also be ‘able to teach,’ – again without further clarification.  The overwhelming majority of criteria for Christian leaders relate to character rather than ability.  When literate outsiders are charged with the task of planting churches or training Christian leaders in oral societies, once we see people emerging with Christian character and the ability to lead, we should simply handle the situation pragmatically.  For this person to be a true shepherd of God’s flock they need to be able to lead them with God’s words – because that is how God’s sheep are led.  This leader will need to receive, interpret and apply the Bible.  But how will they first receive it?

I have tentatively come to the conclusion that the best method of deep study is to be able to read and re-read a written word.  It is also my observation, based on my very limited experience, that this is the preferred option for many oral people.  However, I also know that to do it effectively requires many years learning and practice (at reading generally, that is), and for various other reasons, such as individual factors and the connotations of literacy within some cultures, that reading will not be the best option in many situations.  But perhaps this person has a family of church member who can read (and re-read) the Bible to them, perhaps they can use a recorded version.  The point is, it doesn’t really matter how someone receives (takes in) God’s word, what matters is that they are doing it and founding their faith and leadership of others on it.  I suggest that the greater problem is not how to read/listen to the Bible, it is how to interpret it, and this is where we should spend our energy.

As the church grows, people may choose for themselves to learn to read and maybe even to write if they perceive that it would be helpful, and it may be good to provide that opportunity.  But that can be left to the initiative of the people rather than a top-down directive of the literate outsider.  The focus then, is not on literacy, or particularly on orality, it is on bringing people into contact with God’s word in whatever pragmatic way that might best be done.

In doing this, we need to engender a doctrine of scripture that is distinctively Christian.  A living word that has been breathed by the creator, centring on his saving work and giving life.  This distinctiveness transcends form (oral or written); it is not about how it is conveyed or even primarily about who conveys it today, but from where it originates and how we are to respond to it.  We need to be focused on how to interpret scripture in a Christ-centred way.  We can do this orally or in a written form – both were features of Jesus’ ministry and the New Testament context.

That leaves many questions still unanswered, but it’s a start.

1 thought on “Book Throwing and the Mission of God: Part 4

  1. Thanks for your comments on this issue of orality, since it is such a strong focus in recent missiological issues. Being a Bible Translator, I have seen the extensive impact of recorded translated Scriptures once the translation is done. It just makes the Word more available for so many people who cannot read and who think it is too much effort to try to read in a culture where knowledge of the wider languages of communication is economically profitable. Of course this is slightly different that a fully oral presentation, but it does show the value of orality. At the same time I appreciate the warnings you give about total reliance on oral presentation and the call for balance. Yes, God did give His written Word to people thousands of years ago! We need to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in this case, ignoring the written Word in order to be more appropriate in our presentation to oral societies.
    I still want to read this book.

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