The Advent of the Talking Bible

The advent of the “Talking Bible” revolutionizes how we can make the translated scriptures available in audio for non-readers. The “Talking Bible” dramatically increases the value of every Bible translation. It creates new possibilities we could not have dreamed of just a few short years ago.

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Using the Talking Bible is simple

After spending nearly fifteen intense, joyful and fruitful years in the Sudan translating the New Testament into the Anuak language, followed by a similar period in Ethiopia in the 1950s on into the 1970s, I began to realize that most of the people for whom I had translated the New Testament would never read it. It wasn’t that they were not interested. They simply could not read! Unless they could hear the translated Word in some way, the Bible would remain as foreign to them as if it had never been translated at all.

I was delighted and encouraged, therefore, to find that these non-reading people responded very positively when they heard the newly-translated Word on phonograph records and, later, on cassettes and compact discs. Soon hundreds and even thousands of non-readers became believers, were baptized and began to share their audio scriptures with others.

But it has been only recently that advances in technology have created previously undreamed-of possibilities for making the Bible available in audio for the two billion adults in our world who still are functionally illiterate.

Advent of the Talking Bible
Five years ago Talking Bibles International, http://www.talkingbibles.org/, developed and patented a new listening device which we called a Talking Bible. The Talking Bible looks just like a reader’s Bible but contains an entire New Testament sealed inside. Instead of opening this Bible to read it, a person simply pushes a button to hear it. With the advent of the Talking Bible, it was no longer necessary to provide a tape player and fifteen to twenty-five separate tapes which had to be duplicated, labeled on both sides and packaged. The Talking Bible, with its set of batteries inside, provided all that was necessary for the non-reader to conveniently and clearly hear a sequential reading of the entire New Testament in a single-voice recording. For those who had access to electricity, battery power was not required. For those who lived in sunny climates, a solar panel provided the needed power to “run” the Bible and recharge the batteries.

The Talking Bible has not only been a blessing to individuals but has also proved to be very useful in group settings. At normal playing levels, the message can be easily and clearly heard by fifteen or twenty listeners—or even more—without additional amplification. People who have a Talking Bible therefore frequently invite neighbors, family members and friends to join them for daily listening sessions. The word spreads quickly. Many believe and are baptized. Many new churches are formed.

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Giving the gift of the Talking Bible

Believers who cannot read are excited to learn that their Bible contains exactly the same message that readers have in theirs. For the first time, the Word of God is as available to them as it is to people who can read. They can listen to it at any time of day or night, wherever they are, and whatever they are doing. Some of them even feel that they have a special advantage which readers do not have—they can listen to their Bible while working around the house, riding on the bus or even working in the fields. Most readers cannot read while they are working!

Future of the Talking Bible
The analog Talking Bible has already proven to be extremely useful. However, as useful as it is and inexpensive to produce, it has some of the same limitations that all analog devices have. Having extensively tested the proto-type recently, we will be using a solid state digital Talking Bible that contains an entire New Testament on one small memory chip during an upcoming project in Africa. This digital version makes it possible to move quickly from book to book and from chapter to chapter and provides a crystal clear message with high fidelity sound. Since the digital Talking Bible has no moveable parts, power usage is very low and durability is very high. Though we will continue to use the analog version in various areas, the digital Talking Bible will provide a significant new way to reach the non-reading half of the world with a Bible in their own language and in a form they can understand.

Changed Lives
The primary intent in designing the Talking Bible was to give non-reading Christians access to the translated scriptures in audio in their own language. Listening to the Bible would enable them to grow stronger in their faith and become more effective disciples of Christ. What we had not fully anticipated was the impact the Talking Bible would have on non-readers who were not yet Christians.

Greg Kelley, CEO of World Mission, one of our ministry partners, recently shared his own experience in Africa:

“One of our partners, Congo International Ministries, has reported in their October 2005 newsletter that some four hundred churches have been planted in eastern (Democratic Republic of Congo) as a result of the Swahili Talking Bible. Evangelists and pastors are covering the country-side bringing the good news!”

Another report came to us from India where many non-readers have been introduced to the Talking Bible:

“A Hindu village priest insisted that he, being spiritual leader in that village, should be the one to be responsible for their Talking Bible. He promised to call the people together to listen every day. The amazing thing that happened was that the priest himself began listening and became a believer along with almost the entire village. Three months later, when the local evangelist called to check up on them, the converted village priest pointed to the small village temple. There was a chain and a padlock on the door. The temple was closed. Instead, because of the power of God’s spoken Word, many people in that village were baptized and were worshipping together, praising God and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

From another part of India comes this testimony:

“Now fifteen people are listening to the Word of God and said that they could understand the Bible clearly and that it is a blessing to their family. One day we were listening to the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. A woman came and asked us to pray for her. Her problem was similar to the woman who touched the garment of Jesus Christ. She listened to that portion of the Gospel and trusted Christ. After this incident she started to come to our church regularly. After a week’s time she told us that she was healed of her sickness. She fully accepted Jesus and took baptism. This is a great miracle that took place during our Bible-listening session.”

We who regularly read the Bible for ourselves may find it difficult to appreciate the incredible impact a Talking Bible has on non-readers. It’s hard for us to realize that some non-reading Christians are being “taught” by pastors or other believers who cannot read well themselves. For the believer who lives in that kind of environment, listening daily to a Talking Bible is a wonderfully exciting and nurturing experience.

Read, for example, the following testimony we received recently from Africa:

“I am a 45-year-old mother and am unable to read for myself. My home does not have electricity and I sell charcoal for a living. Before I received my Kikongo Talking Bible I would ‘rent’ someone to read the Bible to me twice a week. Now I gather ten people two or three times a day and listen with them for thirty minutes to my Talking Bible.”

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Christian leaders from around the world use the
Talking Bible

Effectiveness of the Talking Bible
One reason why the Talking Bible is so effective is that people in oral cultures learn everything through hearing. They know how to listen and they remember what they hear. Many of these people have phenomenal memories which far exceed those of most readers. They are able to memorize large sections of Scripture simply by listening to them on their Talking Bible. And after they have memorized the verses, they often spontaneously share them with others. They listen, they learn and they tell others what they have learned—and do so without urging, embarrassment or difficulty.

As a former Bible translator, I continue to be extremely grateful for the faithful and sacrificial efforts of Bible translators around the world who make God’s Word available in new languages. It’s almost impossible to imagine what “Christian missions” would be without them. At the same time, I am deeply concerned by the realization that hundreds of millions of people still have no direct access to these translations simply because they cannot read now—and never will. 

Literacy training is therefore very important and of great value. However, it has been estimated by responsible scholars that the number of non-readers in 2025 will be as great as it is today—in spite of the many literacy programs that are being developed. Besides, the distribution of the Talking Bible to non-readers is not in competition with literacy training. In some ways it may even enhance literacy efforts. For example, some who read poorly become better readers by listening to the spoken word while following the printed text in their hands. Or, as one person put it, “The Talking Bible may help good readers to become better readers, poor readers to become good readers, and motivate non-readers to become readers.”

But whether they become readers or not, all who hear God’s spoken Word become better informed and better equipped to share the message of Jesus with others. Something wonderful happens that would not happen if they did not have the Talking Bible in their own language. The most significant way for non-readers to come to faith in Christ and to grow in their Christian life is by listening to the Word of God faithfully and systematically in their own languages.

It’s also important to remember that many readers, especially in oral cultures, learn much better from hearing the scriptures than by reading them. For them, the spoken word still carries with it an authority and power which the written word does not have. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some readers who have both a written Bible and a Talking Bible much prefer the latter.

However, millions of people who need a Talking Bible will not receive one unless thousands of individuals, churches, Bible societies and mission-sending agencies become more aware of the unique needs of the non-reading world—and prayerfully seek to help meet those needs. Our earnest desire and passion, therefore, is to help readers catch the vision of the tremendous spiritual harvest that could result if we put as much emphasis on reaching non-readers with audio materials as we do on providing written materials for those who can read.

For decades the Christian community has faithfully demonstrated its loving concern for the lost by investing millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours in translating the Bible into new languages. But most Christians probably do not realize that we can now multiply the effectiveness and fruitfulness of all our past translation efforts by adding the relatively small amount of time and money required to “translate” written Bibles into talking Bibles. By adding only a few cents more to every dollar already spent to translate a New Testament into a new language, we can make that translation available to twice as many people.

Finally, a testimony from one person who wrote:

“I cannot even put into words how special and touching it was for me to be able to actually physically put these Talking Bibles in people’s hands. I have tears in my eyes even now just remembering some of the expressions on their faces and looks of such gratitude. It was a blessing in my life like none other.”


Dr. Harvey Hoekstra is chairman of the board for Talking Bibles International, www.talkingbibles.org. He and his wife served as missionaries in the Sudan and Ethiopia for several decades. Hoekstra has authored several books and holds a doctorate in missiology from FullerÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s School of Intercultural Studies.