My dad used to always tell me to try reading my papers out loud in high school in order to proof-read them. Sometimes hearing yourself say it helps you figure out what’s wrong with an awkward sentence, or figure out where a comma belongs. It’s advice I still try to follow today. Sometimes.
I was reminded of that little nugget of wisdom as I was reading R.T. France’s commentary on The Gospel of Mark. Scholars have remarked over the years on the inelegant and choppy style of Mark’s prose in comparison with the other Gospels. Mark has a lot of abrupt transitions and repetitive phrases, and the Greek is really, in many ways, elementary. For instance, if you’re familiar with the KJV translation, there’s a frequent use of the word “and”, that gets smoothed out in more recent, less literal renditions because of its seeming pointlessness. In the past this has served to sideline Mark as less sophisticated theologically or literarily.
France explains that recently it’s been noticed that Mark’s writing style probably served a different purpose, causing scholars to re-evaluate their earlier judgments:
It may seem obvious that a book is intended to be read. But modern scholars are apt to forget that in the ancient world not very many people could read. It has been recently estimated that literacy in the ancient Mediterranean world was ‘probably no more than 10 percent, although the figure may have risen to 15 or 20 percent in certain cities’. Unless Mark’s work was designed only for the benefit of the small minority who could read, he must have reckoned on its being experienced by most of his target group as an oral text, read aloud probably in meetings of the local church; E. Best describes it as ‘preaching’. Recent scholarship has increasingly recognized this factor, and it is relatively common these days to hear Mark discussed as an oral text, or at least as a text intended in part for oral presentation.
–The Gospel of Mark, pg. 9
France then goes on to point out how these for various features of the text mentioned above, as well as others, can be accounted for when taking into mind the aim of helping a hearer. Instead of Mark, the sub-literate writer, we are given Mark the master storyteller, Mark’s approach creates dramatic tension, is accessible to the largely uneducated 1st-Century congregation, and enables his hearers to keep the narrative in mind when there wasn’t a readily available text to flip back and forth to consult.
There are a lot of things that could be said about this little tidbit. I’ll limit myself to a two quick points:
- If you get bored reading the Bible, try reading some of it out loud. Most of it was written in an oral culture and was intended to be heard. Paul’s letters were supposed to be read to the congregations. The Psalms were read in worship. The Prophets consist largely of sermonic oratory. The point is, some of this stuff really sticks and shines when you hear it.
- Preachers, read the Bible our loud to your people in your sermons. They’re meant to hear it–large chunks of it. That’s where the liturgical churches get things right. It’s okay for your people to hear the Scriptures without you breaking down every detail of the grammar for them. Also, read them with passion. I heard Albert Tate speak up at Forest Home camp this last year with my college students and, aside from being a stud preacher, that man read the Scriptures like they meant something, not just as a set-up for his sermon. Often-times the it’s more important for your people to catch your attitude of reverence and passion about the Word, than your specific insights about it.
So, for what it’s worth: try reading it out loud.
Soli Deo Gloria