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Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 February 2016

Kelly R. Iverson*
Baylor University, Department of Religion, One Bear Place #97284, Waco, TX 76798, USA. Email:


Over the last several decades, performance criticism has made significant headway as an interpretive method. However, in a recent issue of this journal, Larry Hurtado argues that the key assumptions of the movement ignore various historical realities regarding the use of texts in the ancient world. The following discussion offers a brief response to what Hurtado suggests are several ‘oversimplifications’. The essay argues that rather than being a ‘fixation’ as Hurtado maintains, the renewed focus on orality and performance is a corrective that helps to provide a broader understanding of how biblical texts were typically experienced in the ancient world.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 D. G. Horrell, ‘Social Sciences Studying Formative Christian Phenomena: A Creative Moment’, Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches (ed. A. J. Blasi, J. Duhaime, P. Turcotte; Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2002) 22.

2 The terms ‘performance criticism’ and ‘ancient media studies’ are used interchangeably throughout the essay.

3 The notion of a literary mindset functioning as a ‘default setting’ for the purposes of biblical interpretation comes from Dunn, J. D. G., ‘Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition’, NTS 49 (2003) 139–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an introduction to performance criticism, see D. Rhoads and J. Dewey, ‘Performance Criticism: A Paradigm Shift in New Testament Studies’, From Text to Performance: Narrative and Performance Criticisms in Dialogue and Debate (ed. K. R. Iverson; Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014) 1–26.

4 Hurtado, L. W., ‘Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? “Orality”, “Performance” and Reading Texts in Early Christianity’, NTS 60 (2014) 321–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 321.

6 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 324.

7 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 327.

8 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 331.

9 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 321–2.

10 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 323–4. Hurtado provides a focused discussion of the subject on pp. 323–6.

11 H. E. Hearon, ‘The Implications of Orality for Studies of the Biblical Text’, Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark (ed. R. A. Horsley, J. A. Draper, J. M. Foley; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006) 8–9 (emphasis original). See also id., The Interplay between Written and Spoken Word in the Second Testament as Background to the Emergence of Written Gospels’, Oral Tradition 25 (2010) 5774 Google Scholar.

12 J. A. Loubser, Oral and Manuscript Culture in the Bible: Studies on the Media Texture of the New Testament – Explorative Hermeneutics (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013) 73–99.

13 R. D. Miller II, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011) 40–59.

14 J. A. Maxey, From Orality to Orality: A New Paradigm for Contextual Translation of the Bible (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009) 104–31. Maxey argues that ‘an accurate description of communication in antiquity must reflect the interplay of literacy with orality. A dichotomous view is either anachronistic (print-bias) or insupportable due to the considerable evidence of writing’ (p. 110).

15 P. J. J. Botha, Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012) 21–38. Botha suggests that ‘the oral tradition of memory and performance interacted with the written tradition … so that each reinforced the strengths of the other’ (p. 23). He concludes that this symbiosis was ‘integral to the remarkable accomplishments of all aspects of Greek culture, from education to law, and from philosophy to literature’ (p. 23). A similar perspective that rejects the binary opposition between literacy and orality is argued by Rodriguez, R., ‘Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts’, JSNT 32 (2009) 151–78Google Scholar.

16 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 323.

17 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 321.

18 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 321.

19 Hurtado returns to the discussion of memorised delivery at several places in the article (see ‘Oral Fixation’, 327–30, 334, 337, 339).

20 W. Doan and T. Giles, Prophets, Performance, and Power: Performance Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (London: T&T Clark, 2005) 21; Botha, Orality and Literacy, 193–207; J. Mathews, Performing Habakkuk: Faithful Re-enactment in the Midst of Crisis (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012) 2; Holland, G., ‘Playing to the Groundlings: Shakespeare Performance Criticism and Performance Criticism of the Biblical Texts’, Neot 41 (2007) 317–40Google Scholar.

21 W. Shiner, Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2003) 104.

22 A. C. Wire, The Case for Mark Composed in Performance (Biblical Performance Criticism; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).

23 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 321.

24 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 323.

25 For example, in reference to the minimisation of written texts, Hurtado (‘Oral Fixation’) notes on p. 327 that ‘some advocates’ of performance criticism have pointed to the difficulty of handling manuscripts as a rationale for memorised delivery. For similar statements (i.e. the insertion of ‘some’ or ‘a few’), see pp. 322, 334, 339. Unfortunately, these qualifications are too minor to be helpful. More problematic, Hurtado assumes that these perspectives represent the key assumptions of the movement.

26 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 333.

27 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 324–5. The statement of this view comes as a quotation from H. N. Parker (‘Books and Reading Latin Poetry’, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (ed. W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)) 188.

28 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 332.

29 For a helpful survey on concept of ‘literacy’, see Roberts, P., ‘Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?’, British Journal of Educational Studies 43 (1995) 412–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although the article explores the question from a modern perspective, the issues plaguing current definitions (qualitative and/or quantitative measures) are likewise important for assessing ancient discussions as well.

30 R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 8 (emphasis original).

31 The change in terminology is due, in part, to how ‘literacy’ is defined in other fields of study. See, for example, D. Barton, M. Hamilton and R. Ivanič, eds., Situated Literacies: Theorising Reading and Writing in Context (London: Routledge, 2000); J. Collins and R. K. Blot, Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

32 Johnson and Parker, eds., Ancient Literacies.

33 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 331–2.

34 J. Berry (The Complete Pompeii (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013) 103–4) argues that ‘[f]rom the sheer extent of this material, it is easy to assume that the majority of the inhabitants could read and write … [but] [n]one of these types of information tell us whether the majority of Pompeii's inhabitants could read and write fluently without difficulty, or whether they had learned to recognize and read particularly common types of writing’.

35 See, for example, K. Milnor, Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 24–5; M. Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (London: Profile, 2008) 184.

36 M. C. A. Macdonald, ‘Literacy in an Oral Environment’, Writing and Ancient Near Eastern Society: Papers in Honor of Alan R. Millard (ed. P. Bienkowski, C. Mee, E. Slater; London: T&T Clark, 2005) 50.

37 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 333 (emphasis added).

38 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 330.

39 W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). Harris is not overly precise in his definition of ‘literacy’. On the one hand he acknowledges a spectrum of literary abilities in the ancient world, noting that ‘although no study of a large population can busy itself with all the gradations of literacy to be found there, we should at least try to avoid an excessively sharp polarity of literacy and illiteracy. At least we must concern ourselves with a category of semi-literates, persons who can write slowly or not at all, and who can read without being able to read complex or very lengthy texts' (p. 5, emphasis original). However, even if we assume a maximalist position, that is, that the estimates represent not semi-literates but individuals capable of reading gospel-like texts, the proportion of individuals who would have been dependent upon oral modes of communication in order to engage biblical materials is still extremely high.

40 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 331.

41 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 330.

42 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 333. Hurtado draws on this expression from R. S. Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

43 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 334.

44 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 334.

45 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 334.

46 Quoted in Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 334.

47 Quoted in Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 334.

48 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 335.

49 In the painting, the lector is positioned with his back to the viewer, leaving the face only partially viewable. It is unclear if the lector has a facial expression, but there is little doubt that he is actively engaged with the audience.

50 On the social differentiation between actors and orators, see S. M. Goldberg, ‘Performing Theory: Variations on a Theme by Quintilian’, Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric (ed. T. Beghin and S. M. Goldberg; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 47.

51 Goldberg, ‘Performing Theory’, 46–9.

52 Plutarch (Dem. 7) notes that at one point Demosthenes was discouraged by the poor reception he received from his speeches and was convinced that ‘debauchees, sailors, and illiterate fellows’ held greater influence than he did. In response, Satyrus – an actor – provided his friend Demosthenes with an example of how to perform a text in order to capture the attention of an audience. Persuaded by Satyrus, Demosthenes built a subterranean study in order to refine his delivery style. For additional discussion regarding how acting and oratory influenced one another in the Greek world, see V. Bers, ‘Tragedy and Rhetoric’, Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric in Action (ed. I. Worthington; London: Routledge, 1994) 176–95. On the influence of Greek drama among Roman orators, see E. Fantham, ‘Orator and/et Actor’, Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession (ed. P. Easterling and E. Hall; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 362–76.

53 G. S. Aldrete, Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) 69. See also D. Dutsch, ‘Towards a Roman Theory of Theatrical Gesture’, Performance in Greek and Roman Theatre (ed. G. W. M. Harrison and V. Liapis; Mnemosyne Supplements 353; Leiden: Brill, 2013) 419–20. A. J. Boyle (Roman Tragedy (New York: Routledge, 2006) 147) comes to a similar conclusion, noting that theatre and oratory ‘were clearly seen by their most accomplished practitioners as allied arts of communication performed before the same audiences, often in the same venue (Roman Forum), with the same ends (to stir the emotions)’.

54 E. Valette-Cagnac (La lecture à Rome: rites et pratiques (Paris: Belin, 1997) 119) observes that some ‘recitationes were in effect “doubled-up” by an actor (pantomime) whose purpose was to facilitate comprehension … [which] produced the “doubling” that characterized the theatre of that time’. Quoted and translated in R. Winsbury, The Roman Book: Books, Publishing, and Performance in Classical Rome (Classical Literature and Society; London: Duckworth, 2009) 204 n. 72. For a similar perspective, see W. D. Shiell (Reading Acts: The Lector and Early Christian Audience (BibInt; Boston: Brill, 2004) 109–11), who points to a Second Style wall painting from Rome depicting a similar ‘doubling-up’. The only difference is that in this painting there are two individuals assisting with the recitation.

55 Starr, R. J., ‘Reading Aloud: Lectores and Roman Reading’, CJ 86 (1991) 340Google Scholar.

56 K. Quinn, ‘The Poet and his Audience in the Augustan Age’, ANRW ii.30.1.156.

57 Utilising performative actions while reading from a text seems arduous, but the practice is depicted in two adlocutio reliefs of Hadrian (from the Anaglypha of Hadrian and from the Arco di Portogallo). In the reliefs, the emperor engages a crowd via a written script, while he is standing, gesturing with his right hand, and holding an unrolled scroll in his left hand. Suetonius notes that the emperor Augustus also followed a similar practice (Aug. 84). On this point, as well as the images of Hadrian, see Aldrete, Gestures and Acclamations, 46–7.

58 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 338.

59 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 338.

60 Kee, H. C., ‘The Transformation of the Synagogue after 70 ce: Its Import for Early Christianity’, NTS 36 (1990) 124 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Oster, R. E. Jr, ‘Supposed Anachronism in Luke Acts’ Use of ΣΥΝΑΓΩΓΗ’, NTS 39 (1993) 178208 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 If the practice was adopted in the early church, it would not be the only technique borrowed from Jewish worship. H. Y. Gamble (Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 224–5) has argued that by the mid-third century it was an established practice to make use of a bema or ambo from which to read scripture in the Christian community. This small, raised platform provided the reader with a slightly elevated position from which to stand and was, as Cyprian observes, tantamount to a lamp on a lampstand (Ep. 39.5). The model for this practice, Gamble suggests, probably comes from the bema or ambo that was used for the public reading of scripture in the synagogue.

63 On the development of the lector within the church, see D. Nässelqvist, ‘Public Reading and Aural Intensity: An Analysis of the Soundscape in John 1–4’ (PhD diss., Lund University, 2014) 98–100.

64 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 340. Hurtado (‘Oral Fixation’, 339) seems to affirm that it is ‘right to pose questions about how texts functioned in earliest Christianity, and to emphasise the place of the spoken word’, but there is no indication that appreciating this dynamic is any different from interpreting literary documents.

65 Hurtado, ‘Oral Fixation’, 339.

66 J. M. Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002) 84.

67 Starr, ‘Reading Aloud’, 340; Johnson, W. A., ‘Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity’, AJP 121 (2000) 593627 Google Scholar.

68 Johnson, ‘Towards a Sociology of Reading’, 614–15.