So, here’s a question for you… How did the ancients in an oral society preserve in memory biblical passages? You likely have heard that much of ancient Israel was an oral society, and this claim seems to have been true. This did not mean, of course, that no one could read or write, since human writing had been invented about 3200 BC (the demarcation between the prehistoric and historic periods). Still, in the first number of centuries after the development of cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics in Egypt, reading and writing was largely under the provenance of specialists, such as, scribes in the service of the local king (who himself may not have been able to read or write). Royal monuments, such as stela, were not so much for public consumption as they were for marking out status, the mysterious marks on the stone an evidence of the power and mystery of the king and his attendants. Widespread literacy in Israel seems to have occurred in about the 8th century BC, when the writing prophets began recording their sermons and collections of previous writings were made (Pro. 25:1). The oracles of prior prophets, such as Elijah, Elisha and Micaiah, are either significantly abbreviated or unavailable altogether. It was not until the time of Hezekiah (again, in the 8th century) that a document was actually copied multiple times and sent to outlying towns with a royal communication (2 Chr. 30:1). To be sure, there are a handful of earlier examples (e.g., Jg. 8:14), but these are more the exception than the norm. Indeed, when a Torah scroll was discovered in the temple during Josiah’s reign, it was read first by the royal secretary (2 Kg. 22:8, 10), presumably because reading and writing was part of his skill base.
So, back to the basic question—how did the ancients preserve in memory biblical passages? Hardly anyone had private copies of the Hebrew scrolls, so the modern practice of having “quiet time” with the Scriptures has no exact parallel in the ancient world. Further, even for those who could read, the ancient texts did not yet have many of the things to which we are accustomed. In the first place, Hebrew was a consonantal text without vowels, so it was up to the reader to decipher what individual words meant. Most Hebrew words have a trilateral root (i.e., three consonants), but consider for a moment how you might define a similar root in English, the trilateral consonants BRD. Does this mean “bride”, “broad”, “bird”, “bread”, “breed” or “bored”, to name only a few possibilities. Context, of course, loomed large, but occasionally a trilateral root might make sense in more than one way. Here is where the oral tradition of pronunciation begins to develop. Well before the time of Jesus, the synagogue readings of these ancient consonantal texts had achieved a standardized tradition for vocalization, and it was this standardized tradition that eventually gave way to what we now know as vowel-pointing developed by Jews in the Middle Ages, those little dots and dashes beneath, above and within the Hebrew consonants. To make matters more difficult, there were no verse or chapter numbers in the ancient text, no paragraphing, and in many texts, there was not even spaces between the words, which introduces yet another complexity. How would you read in English the sentence, “GODISNOWHERE”? God is nowhere? God is now here? Further, there were no commas, periods, questions marks, and so forth. (To be sure, Hebrew has an interrogative marker that indicates a sentence should be read as a question, but it wasn’t always used.) Such conveniences would only come many centuries later. The average Israelite who owned a farm in, say, one of the northern clans was dependent for his knowledge of the law upon his three-annual visits to the central shrine during the festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Succoth, when the Torah texts would be read publicly, not to mention any other parts of Scripture. His knowledge of these readings was entirely memory dependent!
There were, however, at least some literary devices that lent themselves to memory aid, and they are resident in many Old Testament texts. The most important and familiar is poetry. Poetry is easier to remember than prose, if for no other reason, than it has rhythm, rhyme, meter, and so forth. Hebrew poetry had all these features plus a feature that scholars call parallelism, the rhyming of ideas, not merely sounds. The most widely-used form of parallelism is the bi-colon in which the idea in the first line is mirrored in the second line. Take, for example, these poetic lines from Isaiah 1:4a (NIV):
Ah, sinful nation,
A people loaded with guilt
A brood of evil-doers,
Children given to corruption.
One can easily see how the idea in the second line mirrors the idea in the first line, while the idea in the fourth line mirrors the idea in the third line. The words “nation” and “people” match each other, while “sinful” and “guilt” also match. The words “brood” and “children” match as do the words “evil-doers” and “corruption”. These sorts of things were incredibly helpful as a memory aid, and it is to the point that around a fifth of the Old Testament is written in poetry.
A whole variety of such devices were used, far beyond the scope of this short essay, but allow me to remark upon two, one used in Hebrew poetry (acrostic) and the other used in both Hebrew poetry and prose (chiasmus). Acrostics, which not only are known in ancient Hebrew but also in Babylonian poetry, is a poem in which successive lines begin with the letters of the alphabet in order. One of these is actually so-marked in English Versions of the Bible, Psalm 119 (here, the poem is divided into 8 verse stanzas, and in each stanza the initial letter of each verse begins with the Hebrew alphabetic letters in order). However, Psalm 119 by no means stands alone. Several other psalms are also acrostics, such as, Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, and 145. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic as are the poems in Lamentations 1, 2, 3 and 4. Nahum 1:2-8 is an acrostic, and there is even one in the Apocrypha (Sirach 51:13-20), not to mention one in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QPsa and 4QPsf). Remembering an acrostic is much easier when one knows that the first line begins with “A” (aleph). The second line, therefore, must begin with “B” (beth), and so forth.
Chiasmus, another device, is a way of structuring a piece of writing so that the first line matches the last line, the second line matches the penultimate line, and so forth, eventually arriving at the middle of the composition. Chiasms can be short or long, depending upon the skill and intent of the author. There are literally dozens of them in Hebrew poetry, such as, Psalm 7:16 (for which I will give my own translation in the order of the Hebrew words so as to preserve the chiasmus):
Returns his trouble upon his [own] head,
and upon his [own] pate violence descends.
Here, you can see that the symmetry is A1, A2 // A2, A1. The phrase “returns his trouble” at the beginning matches “violence descends” at the end. The line “upon his [own] head” matches “upon his [own] pate”. Often, this sort of structure is ignored by Bible translators, since it often makes for awkward English, as you can see in my translation above. However, for the ancient person dependent upon memory, such a device was helpful. In prose, there are some rather elaborate chiasms, sometimes involving whole books (e.g., Ruth, the Song). Here is one generally recognized chiasmus in the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 17:1-25:
A Abram’s age (17:1a)
B The LORD appears to Abram (17:1b)
C God’s first speech (17:1c–2)
D Abram falls on his face (17:3)
E God’s second speech (emphasizing “names/ kings/nations”) (17:4–8)
X God’s third/most important speech (emphasizing “the covenant”)
E’ God’s fourth speech (emphasizing “names/kings/ nations”) (17:15–16)
D’ Abraham falls on his face (17:17–18)
C’ God’s fifth speech (17:19–21)
B’ The LORD goes up from Abram (17:22–23)
A’ Abraham’s age (17:24–25)
Here, you can easily see how the various elements match each other in the larger structure. Also important is to note that the middle of a chiastic structure is most emphasized. In English, we tend to emphasize the end of things, but a Hebrew chiasmus emphasizes the middle. If one can get through the first half of a chiastic structure, the second half will fall naturally into place because of the parallel ideas, and this, in turn, is an incredible memory aid.In our contemporary world, we have a plethora of artificial memory aids, ranging from print to digital records, but these were simply absent in the ancient world. On the other hand, their memories were likely better than ours, since they depended upon them so heavily. Such conditions certainly give one pause when reading that Jesus “found the place where it was written” in the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2). In a large scroll with consonants only, no spacing between the words, no chapter or verse markers and no paragraphing—could you or I find such a passage in a text the size of Isaiah under such conditions?