The Gospel in Oral Tradition

Most of the world’s people live in oral cultures. They learn about their history and transmit their values through song, chant, story, and drama.

But when they listen to the Bible, oral people don’t separate themselves from the stories. As they listen, they are drawn in and find themselves walking alongside Jesus.

When the Kabiyé people of Togo heard the word of God in their language for the first time, their reaction was, “God speaks our language. We don’t need a translator to talk to God. God can address us directly.” And for so many around the world, they’ve been told and taught that God doesn’t understand their prayers.

Experiencing the Bible for the First Time
I wish people could go into a village and watch people as they hear—for the first time—the Bible in their own mother tongue. In my mind, I can still see them—people gathering from all directions. Most are walking in groups of three or four. Others ride bicycles, creating clouds of dust as they come. All are dressed in bright, traditional clothing. When they get closer, I can see the obvious excitement on their faces.

These people, like hundreds of thousands of others around the world, will be participating in a Bible listening group. For many, it will be the first time they have ever heard the word of God in their heart language. Most of them cannot read and must depend upon someone else to read and interpret scripture for them—at least until now.

For the past twenty-six years I’ve had the amazing privilege of being part of Faith Comes By Hearing, a ministry which makes Audio Bible recordings available to people just like these—people who otherwise would have no personal access to God’s word. It’s awesome to watch these people engage the stories from the Bible. Oral learners have a way of putting themselves into the stories that make them feel like they are actually there. When Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, they are right there sitting in the field, listening. When he lays his hands on people and heals them, they can see and feel the emotion of the moment. They cry or laugh or shout. When they hear the crucifixion, they weep and sob. Some actually fall on their faces and throw dust on their heads!

I’m also amazed at which passages speak to them on a deep level—often things we wouldn’t even mention if we were teaching. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on a biblical genealogy? Yet look at how the New Testament starts: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob…”

And so forth for sixteen verses. We may well be inclined to just skip to verse 17, but oftentimes I’ve heard listeners from oral cultures say, “Wait! Stop it right there. Play that part over. I’ve heard of some of those guys.” They play it three of four times, fascinated that Jesus had a real genealogy that could be traced all the way back to Abraham. That sort of thing is important to them—where someone came from, and who their ancestors were. Many have told me they accepted Christ just because they heard his genealogy.

The Woman with the Issue of Blood Relating to the Quechua
Some years back I was visiting Bible listening groups among Quechua people in Bolivia. In the first village I visited, I asked the pastor if there was any particular story that really touched the people in his church. He immediately said, “The story of the woman with the issue of blood. Where the woman reached out and touched Jesus, and he stopped and asked who did it.” Although I thought this was strange, I didn’t think too much about it. In the next village the same thing was the case—the pastor said, “It’s definitely the woman with the issue of blood.” This went on day after day until about the seventh village.

Then I remembered a story a friend of mine, Romulo Sauñe, told me years back. Romulo was an indigenous Indian pastor (later martyred by the communist guerillas in Peru). He told me that during the communist uprising, his people had to flee their rural homes to the cities. When they did so, they would approach the Spanish-speaking churches and ask to use their buildings for services when no one else was in them. They were frequently told that they couldn’t because they were too dirty, or had bugs and diseases. A few were allowed in, but were soon kicked out by the city people who said things like, “We don’t want these animals using our church.”

So, here I am with indigenous people in Bolivia who are crying when they hear the story of the woman with the issue of blood. Why was she afraid to let Jesus know she had touched him? Because she was unclean. She wasn’t supposed to be touching people. But she was so desperate and so certain that she could be healed that she did what was culturally unacceptable. She touched Jesus.

All of sudden I made the connection. These Quechua listeners had entered the story; it was they themselves who reached out to touch Jesus. When he turned and asked “Who touched me?” it was like he spoke to them. They were afraid he was going to say, “You dirty Indians, don’t you dare touch me.” But instead he said “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Not only did he not turn her away, he called her “daughter”—his own child.

That’s why the Quechua love this story and why it makes them weep. Their own culture told them they were unclean, but they heard Jesus speaking to them in their own language and calling them his own children.

That’s why I love what we do at Faith Comes By Hearing. We take the whole New Testament, and make a dramatized recording with multiple voices, music, and sound effects. In this way, we get the pure word of God to poor and illiterate people in their heart languages. When they listen to the Bible in their own language, Jesus speaks right to their hearts.

Morgan Jackson is the international director of Faith Comes By Hearing. He began ministering to oral peoples at age nine. He now travels extensively, speaking to audiences all across the world, and sharing the need for God’s word in audio.