Everyone loves a good story of discovery. Whether it is in the pages of a good book or watching Indiana Jones on the big screen, people love to be drawn into the discovery of lost artifacts, and even more so, lost worlds. Archeology has unearthed artifacts, buried tombs, treasures and entire villages that give us a glimpse into the lives and ways of the people and civilizations of the ancient past. In many ways, we are discovering things and worlds that have been lost and are very different than ours. Among these discoveries are the ancient writings of various cultures. These ancient writings provide us with a wealth of information on how people thought and lived in the past. They are a window into ancient cultures. And for Christians, they are a look into how the Hebrews and early Christians viewed and used Scripture.
There is no doubt that modern readers of the Bible have to fight reading their own world into the world of the Bible when it comes to the task of interpretation. Unfortunately, many readers of Scripture, Christians included, do this without knowing it. The world in which the Bible was born is lost to them and they don’t realize it.
In an effort to bring today’s reader of Scripture back into the world in which it was born, Wheaton professors John Walton (Old Testament) and D. Brent Sandy (New Testament) have teamed up to write The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. The purpose of the book is to present as clearly as possible, given what we know about the ancient world, a picture of the function and authority that oral traditions and written texts had in ancient societies. The authors want readers of Scripture to appreciate the fact that unlike today’s modern cultures, which are text dominant (and therefore have a high literacy rate), ancient cultures were oral and hearing dominant (and therefore had a low literacy rate). “Understanding the oral and manuscript galaxy of the biblical world – before the watershed of print culture – is essential for grasping how the Bible was written” (p. 11). It is this lost world of oral and hearing dominance in which Scripture was born.
The book is divided into four parts. For those familiar with Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, the same proposition pattern is used for the chapter structure. Through the proposition structure, the authors systematically bring the reader through the thought process ancients had about the role and authority of oral traditions and written texts. This will result in a more acurate understanding of Biblical authority is and, specifically, what the inerrancy of Scripture does and does not, or can and cannot mean.
Part One lays the ground work in understanding the composition of texts in the Old Testament and how information was communicated orally. “If we are to understand more fully the development of biblical literature and our view of its authority, we need to adjust or thinking about how information was disseminated and traditions transmitted in the ancient world” (p. 18). Here the authors address the nature of authority in an oral and hearing dominant culture. “Authority,” they say, “was not connected to a document but to the person of authority behind the document when that person was known, or to the tradition itself” (p. 27). The oral transmission of information was primary and was thus carried through people. Written texts were not unimportant but only carried authority in so far as the person behind the information had authority. One of the key concepts discussed here is speech-act theory which examines how communication is carried and meaning is intended through locutions (words and genres) which embody illocutions (the intention to do something with locutions such as a blessing) with a perlocution view to seeing a response from the audience (like obeying) (p. 41). Important to the authors’ argument is the distinct role each part plays in the communicative act of meaning and expressing authority. God’s authority and the inerrancy of the text, it is argued, are located in its illucutions (p. 42, 44, 45). On the other hand, inspiration takes place at the locution level (p. 44). This distinction is important because:
Even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth. Culture-specific aspects of an illocution do not have a universal perlocution (eating pork, circumcision, head covering). Culture-specific aspects of the perlocution need to be translated to an appropriate contemporary perlocution. (p. 45)
Walton and Sandy are trying to help us make a separation between those things which are culture-specific and authoritative truth that God is communicating by His Spirit through the human authors of Scripture. Admittedly, part one will be the most difficult section of the book for readers to grasp especially if they are not familiar with speech-act theory.
While I appreciate, and even agree with much of, what the authors are trying to prevent in Biblical interpretation, I do have some reservations and concerns with some of their conclusions. Two examples will suffice. First, while I do not dispute the value of speech-act theory and its distinguishing between words, affirmations and expectations upon the readers, it seems that the different parts have been so separated as to ignore the fluid and wedded relationship they share. Yes, words have meaning in a context and contexts are where authors intentions are, but this belief is not to be held at the expense of the value of words and phrases. Words are not just inspired but certain words are given through which meaning and affirmations are to be conveyed. Second, and in conjunction with the first concern, I am concerned with how the authors view the role of textual criticism. In analyzing the nature of textual criticism, that is, finding the accurate wording of the originally inspired manuscripts of Scripture, Walton and Sandy conclude that, since we do not have the originals with which to compare our best Hebrew and Greek texts, we cannot know what the originals were and “it does not matter” according to their model (p. 67). Therefore, it does no good to say the originals were inspired if we do not have them. In my estimation, and that of many, this conclusion will not do and is unnecessary. It may be that oral dominant cultures viewed texts differently than moderns do, but this is not a basis upon which to overly devalue determining the wording of the originals. Just because we have “little confidence” in the exact wording of a few places in Scripture does not give us warrant to say the whole task is irrelevant. Why let uncertainties over a very small part of the text drive our understanding of the rest of the text and not vice versa?
Part Two deals with the same issues of composition and communication but for the New Testament. The hearing and oral dominance of the ANE world continues into the NT world, though there is a shift to more use of texts around 700 B.C. (p. 79). With the Greeks and Romans paving the way for text it is clear the orality still dominated texts as they were written primarily for oral use and memorization (p. 85). Even philosophers bemoaned the use of text as they felt it would undermine oral lectures and create a lazy mind (p. 104).
Moving to the NT era, we see a noticeable shift to more dependence on texts, most notably within Christianity. Many myths are dispelled concerning a correspondence between illiteracy in reading with intelligence and even education. The ministry of Jesus is examined through the lens of His oral communication to people who were oral and hearing centered (Proposition 8). The authors deduce that Jesus was educated and could read despite his meager background as a carpenter in Galilee (p. 119). There is a good discussion of Jesus as the logos (word) of God and how this is to inform our understanding of most of the texts that speak of “the word of the Lord” in both testaments (Prop. 9). Some Christians will have minor disagreements with some of their conclusions here but generally they make good arguments for their case. This moves into Proposition 10 which deals with how Jesus would have thought of the transmission of His own words.
Propositions 11 and 13 address how variants within oral tradition were handled. Since they were common within secular oral tradition it is believed that they were accepted within the oral tradition of Jesus words and sayings. This is why many NT scholars, when referring to the words of Jesus in the Gospels, refer to them as containing the ipsissima vox (voice) of Jesus’ words and not the ipsissma verba (exact words) (p. 149). This may come as a shock to many readers of red letters Bibles which have the words of Jesus in red so they can be found and easily distinguished from the rest of the text. The result is that what we have in the Gospels are not the exact words of Jesus, word for word as He said them in the moment, but we do have the essential words He spoke and can be confident that the Gospels are reliable in that regard. Oral tradition had acceptable ranges of variation in the retelling of stories and the words of Jesus would have fared no better.
Part Three tackles the Biblical world of literary genres. Here the nature of modern historiography and ancient myth telling are compared as well as the implications this has for the authority of Scripture are discussed. One of the points the authors try to make is that when the writers of the OT recounted and wrote about events in the past, they did so with varying purposes in mind. This explains some of the differences between the same accounts in Kings and Chronicles as well as the Gospels in the NT. The varying accounts of the same events do not mean that the writers thought truthfulness about the events was unimportant, but they had different standards of retelling events and they had agendas in doing so. Here again the authors make use of the locution and illocution distinction which leads them to make a number of confusing and concerning statements regarding the written text of Scripture. For instance, in the discussion of the role law had within ANE cultures and Israel they make the following conclusion:
Nothing from ancient Near East suggests that any society had a normative written set of laws that contained a comprehensive legal code for that society. From the discussion of hearing-dominant cultures in the early chapters of this book, it is easy to see why that is the case. Written documents did not hold position of authority in a hearing-dominant context. There is no reason to think that there was a comprehensive, written, authoritative document containing the legislation for Israelite society. (p. 219)
This statement, and others like it, is confusing to say the least. It leads one to ask what one is to make of the Pentateuch if it is not viewed as a written document containing Israelite legal code. If readers are familiar with Walton’s previous work on ANE literature and culture then this statement is not surprising. For all of the valuable information Walton has uncovered, he has tunnel vision when he uses the comparisons between ANE cultures and Israel at the expense, and almost complete ignorance of, the differences. It is precisely that Israel had a written legal code as extensive as they did, regardless of how long after it was verbally given, that makes them unique among ANE peoples. This is the phenomenon of Scripture!
So what about inerrancy and authority? How does the oral and hearing-dominant culture of the OT and NT shape our understanding of the authority and inerrancy of the written text of Scripture – God’s word? For the authors, inerrancy is useful as long as it is properly defined. While it could die the death of a thousand qualifications, its basic meaning – without error – is true of Scripture. But Walton and Sandy are wary of the future of the term inerrancy. Not because they believe the Bible has errors but because “the term inerrancy may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough to carry the weight with which it has been traditionally been encumbered” (p. 275). Time will tell in this regard but I think inerrancy still has a future and books like Five Views on Inerrancy show not only its value but necessity.
As to the authority of Scripture, the authors do believe Scripture is authoritative for Christians over any other possible book. It is our standard of faith, rule and practice, they would say. It has authority because it is in written form what God said verbally. What I am not sure of is whether or not they see Scripture, since it is the words of God, as having a self-understanding of its own authority. What does God say to us about His word in His word? Further, Scripture is our only access to the oral tradition of the OT and NT. It is now the Christian’s only authority to God’s spoken word. This is not something the authors touch on and needs to be explored.
The Lost World of Scripture is a mixed bag for me. Readers will be captivated by the historical explanation of how oral tradition worked and the mindset of people in these cultures. The book is far from unengaging. They do a good job of contrasting the value and place of written texts within hearing and text-dominant cultures and how modern notions of accuracy do not line up with ancient notions. The authors recognize that they are making possible scenarios and conclusions based on their research but they seem to be more dogmatic in their theological conclusions about the inerrancy and authority of Scripture then is warranted. As mentioned previously, what is missing is a discussion on the phenomenon of Scripture as the written revelation of God to man. While much, if not most, of the OT was given orally first, most of the NT was not (see the letters of Paul). Why is it that we have so much writing from Christianity as opposed to other religions of their time? Why did Christians write their oral tradition down as much as they did?
The Lost World of Scripture is an intriguing book but needs to be read carefully and with discernment.
About the authors
John H. Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He is author of several books ans commentaries on the Old Testament and its background. His Lost World of Genesis One (IVP Academic) is widely regarded as offering a game-changing perspective.
D. Brent Sandy is professor of New Testament and Greek at Wheaton College. He is author of Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (IVP Academic).
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and his MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.