Why We Must Return to Scripture as Oral Performance
Story-the-Bible Series 2-1
Can you imagine scholars of drama studying only the scripts and never having seen or experienced the play? Can you imagine scholars studying only the scores of the music in a library and having never heard a performance? In a performance or concert, the play and the music come alive. It is where the interpretation hits the road. Yet we Biblical scholars have pretty much done that. We have read the Scriptures as if they are print culture. We have never heard a performance of them or maybe we have, but probably rare.
Before Scripture (body of Biblical truth) was Scripture (printed text), it was experienced as parable, story, psalm, proclamation and oracle. The great majority of people in the world today (and certainly in the days when the printed text was taking shape) received Scripture through “oral performance” (Oral Storytelling). Scripture was something seen and heard. It was the hearing of the ear and the seeing of the eye, and not the reading of the page.
In this lecture, Professor David Rhoads delivers a compelling case for why we must reclaim the communal, experiential, oral telling of Scripture. How we experience Scripture (silent solitary Reading vs communal Seeing/Hearing) will make a world of a difference in the way we experience God speaking to us.
Scripture as Stories
The earliest Christians experienced Scripture as Stories and not “Scripture” as we read it today. The writings we have are what we call “Performance Literature” or “Oral Literature.” They are records that began completely orally or they have been dictated and written down by a scribe in order to assist people in their memory for the purpose of performing it either by memory or by reading it in a lively and meaningful way. Each performance would come out differently even if they used exactly the same words.
A Print Mentality
What we have in the NT are basically lengthy stories in the Gospel and Acts. We use rhetorical criticism to understand and interpret the letters. But we have been reading this out of a print mentality. We experience these stories silently as we read them alone on the page with all kinds of punctuations helping to interpret it for us. We’ve gone on the assumption that’s probably how Scripture was experienced in the first century. The public reading aloud we sometimes do on Sundays is bland, a far cry from what the early believers experienced. The early believers didn’t have the advantage of being able to study the printed text.
An Embodied Presentation
The first century believers experienced Scripture as an embodied presentation. They were an active audience engaged in what happened in a variety of public setting – in private houses or a public square.
The goal of the performance was not to convey some meaning or doctrine or messages. You cannot replace a story with a moral. Story has a power and an emotion to generate impact and transform a community. It’s not that reading the Bible in silence doesn’t do that but in a performance, you experience Scripture as a whole and orally.
This is a paradigm shift in medium from silence to sound, from thinking of authors to thinking of composers, from private imagination to public experience, from passive individual release to active communal audiences, from short passages to compositions as a whole.
 An Oral Culture
Even those who could read and write experienced these things primarily orally. You might say instead of literate, they were “oral-ate.” They have a culture of orality and it’s important to define them not by non-literate but by “oral-ate” because there are many values and traits we need to celebrate and understand and appreciate of what it means to come from a culture that focuses on oral communication, where everything is face-to-face interaction.
As such language itself in that context was shaped by orality. Proverbs, stories, maxims, folklore, the rhythms and assonance, all kinds of things that related to the sound of the words; the catchy parallelism and contrasts, the repetition of sound in a composition that identify shifts and closure. We can see traces of these things in virtually every passage in the NT.
 A Manuscript to be Performed
The early manuscripts weren’t conducive to reading silently, easily, even aloud easily. Today we have all the advantages when we read a Biblical text of spaces between words, between sentences, between paragraphs and divisions. We have chapter and verse markings. We have punctuation and questions marks, periods. We have bold and italics. All kinds of markers that convey to us the meaning of something by the way it was punctuated. But all that punctuation was added later. The form of Scripture text today is not anywhere near the original text. In fact the original text was quite the opposite… without any break, punctuation, emphasis whatsoever.
In the same way you read a musical score, you hum it to know what it is, what it sounds like, what the tune is. That’s how ancient manuscripts were read, syllable by syllable. And that would put words together and meaning together. It was up to the performer to provide the punctuation, the questions, the emphasis, the volume, the pace, whatever else was involved in doing the performance.
The point is, the manuscripts were designed to support and reflect oral performances and to facilitate them. Either they assisted somebody memorising or learning it by having someone read to them or reading it themselves. They practised it enough to read it aloud. You couldn’t read something aloud at first sight. You have to practise it almost by memory in order to read it well. So either way memory was an important part of performance.
 The Importance of Memory
We have lost this sense of memory because we don’t need it. We can look everything up. We have print in libraries, and in digital forms.
In the ancient world memory was involved. Everybody was engaged. It was how they learned and remembered anything. And because they learned it as a community, it was kind of a collective memory. You can think of collective memory as the ancient cloud, the ancient resource of where things were located or somebody would know it or everybody would know it. And that’s how you would access it.
In the ancient world, writing didn’t replace text, in some sense, they did. But for the most part, they assisted memory and served it rather than replace it. It’s not unusual therefore to imagine that the Gospels may have been performed as a whole. It takes about 2 1/2 hours to perform Mark. Longer for the other Gospels. But this was their entertainment. This is what they went to participate in to enjoy. And of course these writing were not only very enjoyable and engaging but of course they were very profound and powerful. And so the performer and the listener had an event. The Gospel was an event.
 Performance (not reading) was the Primary Means of Change
Performance was the primary means by which to pass on the traditions and the values or in some case to subvert and change the traditions and values that people were engaged in. It was the collective way people would gather and hear about their stories that made them who they were.
The stories were always somewhat fluid, shaped by the performer in the context. As such the fundamental purpose of performance was communal identity. We are not talking about a fundamental shift from written to oral as in talking heads (like a TV presenter). It’s a shift from print to performance, from reading to event and it makes an enormous difference. A performance involves the whole body and the embodiment involves a place and an audience.
 Cues in the written text for the performance
In a performance, you recognise that the performer in a story is recreating the story he is telling about on stage space. There’s an immediacy, a drawing in of the audience into direct and instant involvement and giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement.
There are clues in the text that tell the performer how it is to be performed. For example where it says Jesus lays hands on someone, the cue is for the performer to make a gesture. When the cue says “the demons screamed,” it’s a cue for the performer on how to deliver the next line.
Credit: the text in this post are key points juiced from part 1 of David Rhoad’s lecture in the video.
Watch the full video for Rhoad’s retelling a portion of Mark’s Gospel and part 2 of the lecture.
For more: Biblical Performance Criticism