Excerpt from the book Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics.
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But People Couldn’t Read the Bible for Centuries
We need to discuss what life was like before literacy and even before Christianity. Literacy only became widespread after the 1500s. Thus it is reasonable to ask the question: besides the doctors of the faith, what did our fathers do with the Holy Bible if they couldn’t read? The truth is, Catholics have always benefitted from the Scriptures, even when they couldn’t read. This is due to the fact that before literacy, oral culture existed.
What is oral culture? An oral culture is one that transmits information primarily through speaking, hearing, and remembering. Because of false modern biases, people think that illiterate people are less intelligent. This is false. Illiterate people have the same intelligence as people who can read, they simply express it in different ways. Mostly notably, illiterate people have a much stronger capacity to memorize and remember. As Rubin puts it,
Songs, stories, and poems are kept safe in stable form for centuries without the use of writing, whereas the literate observer has trouble remembering what happened yesterday without notes.
Consider the epic poems of Homer, which fill hundreds of pages. These were recited for memory by bards and much of them remembered by people. Epic poetry and such things was not uncommon in oral cultures.
In recent times, oral culture has begun to receive vindication after decades of historical skepticism (which we will cover in chapter 10). In 1999, John Foley wrote:
We are becoming ever more aware of how indebted many of our most cherished literary works…are to preliterate [i.e. oral tradition] media. The Judeo-Christian Bible reveals its oral traditional roots; medieval European manuscripts are penned by performing scribes; geometric vases from archaic Greece mirror Homer’s oral style…Indeed, if these final decades of the millennium have taught us anything, it must be that oral tradition never was the “other” we accused it of being; it never was the primitive, preliminary technology of communication we thought it to be. Rather, if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality.
Concerning oral culture Walter Ong writes: “In such a society, knowledge is a tribal possession, not a matter of individual speculation.” Oral culture meant that the community all knew the traditions and stories by heart creating a common understanding of history, morals, and religion. In this context, oral culture can accurately remember and pass down vast amounts of information across centuries. To those who were bards and story tellers of their culture, thousands and thousands of songs, histories and stories were memorized and passed down with accuracy. The elders and storytellers served as guardians of the oral tradition.
Given how ordinary was oral culture before 1500, the phenomenon of our modern world, where everyone reads and very few remember, is actually an odd thing indeed. It is critical for understanding the Holy Bible that we remove ourselves from our strange, modern frame of reference and consider the oral culture. Before they were written, the Scriptures existed only in oral form. Once they were written, they were delivered to an oral culture to be retained. We will return to this below.
 David C. Rubin, The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1997), 3
 John Miles Foley, “What’s in a sign,” Signs of Orality, MacKay ed. (Brill, 1999), 1
 Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), 231
 For a modern example, see Duane W. Hamacher, “Finding meteorite impacts in Aboriginal oral tradition,” The Conversation <https://theconversation.com/finding-meteorite-impacts-in-aboriginal-oral-tradition-38052>. Accessed November 23, 2019
Source: reprinted with permission by Timothy S. Flanders at meaningofcatholic.com
About Timothy S. Flanders
I have been various forms of Protestant, Messianic Jew, and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I came into communion with Rome in 2013. I have a degree in Classical Languages from Grand Valley State University and have done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. I live in the midwest with my wife and four children.
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