Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel (Book Review)

Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, by Robert D. Miller II, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011. 154 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of oral tradition has long captivated scholars and lay readers of the Hebrew Bible. Many find comfort in the notion that behind the written text is a sturdy and unfailing oral tradition, able to preserve accurate memories across generations. This hypothesis gained support when Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), the founder of form criticism (which attempts to trace scriptural units to oral transmission), encountered the writings of Wilhelm Wundt. Wundt posited that human societies advance in predictable stages parallel to the development of the complexity of language—that is, from oral/illiterate to written/literate. Gunkel applied Wundt’s theory to the Bible, concluding that oral folklore was at the root of Israel’s stories. His position picked up steam with the oral-formulaic theory of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, whose study of epic poems led them to conclude that illiterate poets employed groups of repeated words (formulas) to retain and transmit their poetry. A certain percentage of formulas present in a written text was considered evidence of oral composition.

The oral-formulaic theory remains entrenched in biblical scholarship, with Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960) occupying a particularly hallowed space. However, numerous holes have been poked in the theory since the late 1980s. Folklorists, classicists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists have exposed its limited applicability, and the absence of any one touchstone of oral tradition. For example, some oral folklore contains no formulas (e.g., Old Norse-Icelandic Skaldic poetry), some cultures value word-for-word memorization (e.g., Maori and Somali), and many societies produce oral and written literature simultaneously.

Robert D. Miller explores the latter observation in his slim but informative book, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel. Miller, an associate professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University of America, advocates abandoning the outdated and simplistic linear model, in which oral stories circulate among bards and storytellers, are eventually written down, and are then recited or chanted to illiterate audiences. In its place, Miller proposes a fluid oral-written model for biblical literature, wherein “written texts circulated in spoken form by recitation long after they were committed to writing. And those recited forms begat oral forms that were not in writing, or were not put in writing for some time afterwards. Oral texts that circulated from bard to audience or bard to bard could be recorded in writing, could be consulted by writers, could be consulted by bards of other stories” (p. 54).

Miller appropriates Anthony Campbell’s “User Theory,” which sees the biblical narrative neither as a record of oral lore nor as a literary composition, but as “written outlines for oral elaboration (or for omission in performance)” (p. 55). This could explain why the ancient editors allowed alternative accounts and conflicting details into the text. Such kernels were, perhaps, optional rubrics to be chosen from for oral performance. This could also account for anachronistic accretions and other anomalies sprinkled throughout the stories. As the outlines were used and re-used in various contexts, they picked up ingredients from the local geography, social conditions, prevailing attitudes, regional folktales, and the like—some of which were recorded in writing.

These possibilities lie at the heart of Miller’s performance-centered analysis. In his reading, the Hebrew Bible is partially made up of “gobbets”: intentionally crafted memory aids that function as generic markers for narrative construction. They include story patterns, structural pathways, character sketches, images of situations, and traditional phraseology. These basic elements, swimming together in “tradition pools,” were selected and activated in performance or for a written text (pp. 37-38). The storyteller would assemble selected gobbets in a semi-rigid order, varying the details and style of delivery according to the needs of the moment, and modifying them to suit the setting. This improvisatory picture is enhanced by the likelihood that the performers told their stories with some sort of chant: a flexible spectrum of vocal utterance that includes plain speech, sung speech, spoken song, syllabic song, melismatic song, and adventurous vocalizations (p. 104).

The most tentative portion of Miller’s book deals with identifying orally derived bits in the Hebrew Bible. Although he confidently argues for the Bible as an accumulation of oral and written material, he hesitates to make definite statements regarding specific scriptural sections. That being said, his oral performance approach does shed light on the perplexing “bare gobbets,” such as empty references to Nimrod (Gen. 10:9) and the “giants” Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (Num. 13:22), which were likely allusions to other stories and possibly served as starting points for individual storytellers. Miller also points out evidently oral elements in Genesis 49:9-12, 22-25 (Jacob’s final blessing), Numbers 24:17-19 (Balaam’s fourth oracle), and elsewhere, such as parallelism, ambiguous syntax, repetitions, obvious gaps, and broken connections.

With Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, Miller offers a rich analysis of the interplay between literacy and orality in the Hebrew Bible. He paints a convincing portrait of bards and storytellers in antiquity composing from both oral and written sources, inserting their own contributions, and performing their tales. This lively picture stands in contrast to the fixed text as we have it today, and highlights the functional aspect of scripture.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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