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Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity*

  • Larry W. Hurtado (a1)

In recent decades, emphasising the ‘orality/aurality’ of the Roman world, some scholars have asserted that in early Christian circles texts were ‘performed’, not ‘read’ (and could not have been read), likening this action to descriptions of oratorical delivery of speeches (from memory) or theatrical performance. It has even been suggested that some texts, particularly the Gospel of Mark, were composed in ‘performance’, and not through an author working up a text in written form. These claims seem to be based on numerous oversimplifications (and so distortions) of relevant historical matters, however, and also involve a failure to take account of the full range of relevant data about the use of texts in early Christianity and the wider Roman-era setting. So, at least some of the crucial claims and inferences made are highly dubious. In this essay, I offer corrections to some crucial oversimplifications, and I point to the sorts of data that must be taken into account in drawing a more reliable picture of the place of texts and how they functioned in early Christianity.

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I thank Scott Charlesworth, Dan Nässelqvist and Chris Keith for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

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1 See particularly Shiner W., Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark (Harrisburg/London/New York: Trinity Press International, 2003). Shiner proposes ‘applause of different types, including waving hands, loud exclamations, and rhythmic clapping’, people leaping from their seats and thumping the floor with their feet, and being ‘just as boisterous in condemning what they did not like’ (5). Also, Shiell W. D., Reading Acts: The Lector and the Early Christian Audience (Leiden: Brill, 2004). Such views are now taken as established in some reference works, e.g. P. R. Eddy, ‘Orality and Oral Transmission’, DJG 2 641–50, at 646–7. It is this more precise sense of the term ‘performance’ that I engage here. By contrast, the term as used by Rafael Rodriguez seems so broad as to encompass practically any conveyance of Jesus tradition in any form: Rodriguez R., Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (London: T&T Clark, 2010) e.g. 81–113.

2 E.g. Dewey J., ‘The Survival of Mark's Gospel: A Good Story’, JBL 123 (2004) 495507, esp. 500. Most recently, Wire A. C., The Case for Mark Composed in Performance (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011). For my review of the book, see: The basic proposal was made earlier by Botha P. J. J., ‘Mark's Story as Oral Traditional Literature: Rethinking the Transmission of Some Traditions about Jesus’, HvTSt 47 (1991) 304–31, republished in Botha P. J. J., Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012) 163–90 (cited here), esp. 166; and from still earlier, see T. P. Haverly, ‘Oral Traditional Literature and the Composition of Mark's Gospel’ (PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 1983).

3 Rhoads D. M., ‘Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology in Second Testament Studies – Part 1’, BTB 36 (2006) 118–33; id., Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology in Second Testament Studies – Part 2’, BTB 36 (2006) 164–84. The monograph series, ‘Biblical Performance Criticism’, is published by Cascade Books. Rhoads defines ‘performance’ as ‘any oral telling/retelling of a brief or lengthy tradition – from saying to gospel – in a formal or informal context of a gathered community by trained or untrained performers – on the assumption that every telling was a lively recounting of that tradition’ (‘Performance Criticism 1’, 119). There is now also a programme-unit in the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, ‘Performance Criticism of Biblical and Other Ancient Texts’, and a web site devoted to the subject: Other New Testament scholars linked with ‘performance criticism’ include J. Dewey, R. Horsley, P. J. J. Botha, W. Shiner and A. C. Wire Clark. Some participants (e.g. David Rhoads) also seem to include an interest in memorising biblical texts for oral performance today, a matter I do not engage here. Among the recent studies taking up this performance approach are those by Shiner and Shiell mentioned in n. 1 above.

4 Kelber W. H., The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983; 2nd edn Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997). Among the numerous critiques of the book, see Halverson J., ‘Oral and Written Gospel: A Critique of Werner Kelber’, NTS 40 (1994) 180–95. Cf. the volume in tribute to Kelber: Horsley R. A., Draper J. A., Foley J. M., eds., Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory and Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006). Kelber depended heavily on the theorising about oral and literate cultures by Walter Ong. Also influential was the work of A. B. Lord and M. Perry on oral poetry. For an enthusiastic (even uncritical) review of works emphasising ‘orality’ in recent New Testament scholarship, see Iverson K. R., ‘Orality and the Gospels: A Survey of Recent Research’, CBR 8 (2009) 71106.

5 Among other influential studies is Achtemeier P. J., ‘Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity’, JBL 109 (1990) 327. But cf. Gilliard F. D., ‘More Silent Reading in Antiquity: Non omne verbum sonat’, JBL 112 (1993) 689–96.

6 This may arise from their construction of Roman ‘orality’ from anthropological studies and theories based on pre-literate societies, with insufficient attention given to relevant cultural specifics of the Roman era as illustrated in this essay.

7 Cf. Achtemeier, ‘Omne verbum sonat’, 9.

8 See e.g. the discussion in Hurtado L. W. and Keith C., ‘Writing and Book Production in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods’, The New Cambridge History of the Bible: The Bible, From the Beginnings to 600 (ed. Paget J. C. and Schaper J.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 6380.

9 By ‘exoticizing’, Parker meant exaggerating the difference(s) between the ancient and the modern cultures.

10 Parker H. N., ‘Books and Reading Latin Poetry’, in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (ed. Johnson W. A. and Parker H. N.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 186229, at 187. Parker cited as examples of oversimplifications in influential works Kenney E. J., ‘Books and Readers in the Roman World’, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (ed. Kenney E. J.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)ii.3–50, at 3, 12, and K. Quinn, ‘The Poet and His Audience in the Augustan Age’, ANRW, ii.30/1.75–180, at 82–83, and other examples as well (e.g. 189 n. 6).

11 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, 188.

12 Valette-Cagnac E., La lecture à Rome: rites et pratiques (Paris: Belin, 1997). She sets out her aim as ‘la description et l'analyse de pratiques et de situations de lecture’ (10). See also Salles C., Lire à Rome (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2008 2). I cannot find reference to either work in the publications of advocates of ‘performance criticism’.

13 Valette-Cagnac, La lecture, 306. This distinction between the Roman period and ancient Greece is insufficiently observed by some, who invoke studies of the latter (e.g. Havelock E. A., Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963)) in characterising the extent of literacy and the nature of reading in the Roman era.

14 Valette-Cagnac, La lecture, 308.

15 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, 215. Note Parker's forthright statement (‘Books and Reading’, 217) about the importance of books (citing as illustrative Pliny, Ep. 5.10.3): ‘This is true even of that most oral of all Latin literary arts, that of oratory. When someone who had not been present at a trial wished to know what was said, he did not ask Cicero or any member of the original audience to rerecite the speech for him. He read the written text … Much that was written was not recited; nothing was recited that was not written.’

16 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, 192.

17 E.g. Shiner's bold claim: ‘First-century literary works were almost always heard in a communal setting rather than read silently by individuals. This is generally accepted today …’ (Proclaiming, 1). Though he grants that ‘more careful studies’ have shown that silent reading of texts, ‘even literary texts’, was common, he still asserts that writing and texts were seen as ‘a poor substitute for oral speech’ (14), and that ‘most “reading” took the form of hearing someone else read the text aloud’ (15). The key publication typically cited is Balogh J., ‘Voces paginarum: Beiträge zur Geschichte des lauten Lesens und Schreibens’, Philologus 82 (1927) 84109, 202–40, but cf. more recent works cited below.

18 Johnson W. A., ‘Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity’, AJP 121 (2000) 593627, and see now his book, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

19 See e.g. Schiffman L., ‘The Early History of Public Reading of the Torah’, Jews, Christians, and Polytheists in the Ancient Synagogue: Cultural Interaction During the Greco-Roman Period (ed. Fine S.; London: Routledge, 1999) 4456; Goodman M. D., ‘Texts, Scribes and Power in Roman Judaea’, Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (ed. Bowman A. K. and Woolf G.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 99108.

20 Note Philo's comments about the advantages of copying texts that one wishes to absorb fully and make an enduring part of one's mind: Spec. 4.160–4; and discussion in Snyder H. Gregory, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2000) 132–5.

21 Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture, 3, and note his concise history of scholarly discussion of the question, 4–9.

22 As shown initially by Knox B. M. W., ‘Silent Reading in Antiquity’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968) 421–35, and then more amply still by Gavrilov A. K., ‘Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity’, CQ 47 (1997) 5673; supported also by Burnyeat M. F., ‘Postscript on Silent Reading’, CQ 47 (1997) 74–6. Indeed, this was also noted by a biblical scholar: Gilliard, ‘More Silent Reading’.

23 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, esp. 191–2 on silent reading, and 195–8 on ‘reading without an audience’.

24 Valette-Cagnac, La lecture, esp. 26–7 (citation at 27), 29, and her extended discussion of lectio tacita, 29–71.

25 See examples listed e.g. in Marrou H.-I., ΜΟϒCΙΚΟC ΑΝΗΡ: étude sur les scenes de la vie intellectuelle figrant sur les monuments funéraires romans (Grenoble: Didier & Richard, 1938; repr.: L'Erma di Bretschneider: Rome, 1964), 6175; and in Birt T., Die Buchrolle in der Kunst (Leipzig: Teubner, 1907), e.g. 157, 160–5.

26 Gavrilov, ‘Techniques’. Botha's effort to sidestep the force of Gavrilov's evidence is ineffective and seems so much ‘hand-waving’ of generalities: Orality, 92–4.

27 So e.g. Shiner, Peforming, 12; Botha, Orality, 91, and esp. 95–104.

28 Word-separation continued to be used often in Greek and Latin inscriptions. Though in earlier centuries Latin literary texts had word-separation, by the first century ce this had been abandoned in favour of scriptio continua, in emulation of Greek scribal practice. By contrast, Hebrew texts of the time continued to be written with word-separation (as reflected in the Qumran manuscripts).

29 Cribiore R., Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); citing at 189, and see 189–92 on ‘Reading with Understanding’.

30 Examples in Cribiore, Gymnastics, 137–43.

31 E.g. Turner E. G., Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1987 2), Plate 84 (Phaedrus); and P.Oxy. xcii.3010.

32 ‘Documentary’ texts (e.g. letters, contracts etc.), however, which were not intended for public reading, typically had longer lines, often much longer.

33 Turner, Greek Manuscripts, Plate 31 (a portion of Euripides).

34 Contrary to repeated assertions of some advocates of ‘performance criticism’, this preparation to read literary texts out to a group did not typically involve memorisation, but instead a familiarisation with the text so that it could be read out competently. Cf. e.g. Botha, Orality, 15: ‘A manuscript culture presupposes extensive memorization of written texts’, citing as his basis for this claim Ong W. J., Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982) 119. But neither Botha nor Ong demonstrated any real familiarity with the actual manuscripts of the Roman period. Cf. e.g. 4Q266 (5.ii.1–4; = 4Q267 5. iii), which prescribes the attributes necessary for public reading of Torah. (I thank Chris Keith for this reference.)

35 Gallo I., Greek and Latin Papyrology (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1986), esp. 90–3; Turner, Greek Manuscripts, 9–14; Johnson W. A., ‘The Function of the Paragraphus in Greek Literary Prose Texts’, ZPE 100 (1994) 65–8.

36 Johnson W. A., Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 143–52 on the length of literary rolls, citation at 150.

37 Johnson, Bookrolls, 150–1.

38 Skeat T. C., ‘Two Notes on Papyrus’, The Collected Biblical Writings of T .C. Skeat (ed. Elliott J. K.; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004) 6064, at 62–3 (originally published in Scritti in onore Orsolina Montevecchi (ed. Bresciani E. et al. : Bologna: Cooperativa Libraria Universitaria Editrice, 1981) 373–8).

39 In a frequently cited passage Martial commends editions of his works in small parchment codex-form for those who wish to read them on a journey (Epigrams 1.2; and other references to small leather codices in 14.184, 188, 190, 192). But, to judge from the comparative numbers of surviving manuscripts from the first two centuries ce, as far as pagan literary texts are concerned, the codex was never more than an experiment of very limited success.

40 Harris W. V., Ancient Literacy (London: Harvard University Press, 1989). For a similarly low estimate of literacy in the ancient Jewish homeland, see Hezser C., Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (TSAJ 81; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001).

41 Particularly noteworthy are contributions to Beard M. et al. , eds., Literacy in the Roman World (Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991). Also important are studies in another multi-author volume: Johnson W. A. and Parker H. N., eds., Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

42 Morgan T., Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 63.

43 Cribiore, Gymnastics, 159, and similarly her warning about differences in approaches to reading and writing in the medieval versus the Roman periods, 176–8.

44 Franklin J. L. Jr, ‘Literacy and the Parietal Inscriptions of Pompeii’, Literacy in the Roman World, ed. Beard M. et al. (Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991) 7798, at 77, 81.

45 Franklin Jr, ‘Literacy’, 97.

46 Milnor K., ‘Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii: The Case of Vergil's Aeneid’, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (ed. Johnson W. A. and Parker H. N.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 288319, at 294.

47 Bowman A. K. and Thomas J. D., ‘Vindolanda 1985: The New Writing-Tablets’, JRS 76 (1986) 120–3; iidem, New Texts from Vindolanda’, Britannia 18 (1987) 125–42.

48 Bowman A. K., ‘The Roman Imperial Army: Letters and Literacy on the Northern Frontier’, Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (ed. Bowman A. K. and Woolf G.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 109–25, at 109–110.

49 Bowman, ‘The Roman Imperial Army’, 112.

50 Bowman, ‘The Roman Imperial Army’, 122. On the impressive circulation of letters, see also Epp E. J., ‘New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times’, The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. Pearson B. A.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) 3556.

51 Bagnall R. S., Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Bagnall describes his book modestly as a set of case studies, and his call for more to be done before a systematic study can be written is appropriate, but until that systematic work is done his study must be taken as essential reading.

52 Bagnall, Everyday Writing, 141–2. To cite still another location for which we have an abundance of data, there is Oxyrhynchus. See esp. Bowman A. K., Coles R. A., Gonis N., Obbink D. and Parsons P. J., eds., Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007); and, for a very readable overview, Parsons P., City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007) esp. 137–74.

53 Cavallo G., ‘Between Volumen and Codex: Reading in the Roman World’, A History of Reading in the West (ed. Cavallo G. and Chartier R.; Oxford: Polity, 1999) 6489, at 69.

54 Ibid., 77.

55 Ibid., 78–9.

56 The couple was often thought to be Paquius Proculus and his wife, but more recently they are identified as the baker Terentius Neo and his wife.

57 The fresco is housed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. For a reproduction, see Turner, Greek Manuscripts, Plate 10. Turner (34) assumed that the tablets and papyrus roll ‘are more likely documents than books’, but the roll in the painting looks more like an ordinary literary roll to me.

58 Meeks W. A., The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) 73 (and 51–73 for his analysis of the evidence).

59 This is precisely the tactic taken by Shiner (Proclaiming), and Shiell (Reading Acts).

60 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, 188.

61 Parker, ‘Books and Reading’, 203.

62 The painting is reproduced in Birt, Die Buchrolle, 133.

63 E.g. the example in Birt, Die Buchrolle, 59.

64 The use of the teleprompter by political leaders, which enables them to appear to be speaking without resort to text, illustrates the continuing appeal of this oratorical conceit.

65 Cavallo (‘Between Volumen and Codex’, 73) noted that reading books of poetry, history and philosophy well in social gatherings ‘required an expressive reading style, in which the reader's tone of voice and cadences were adjusted to the specific nature of the text and its typical stylistic effects’.

66 Starr R. J., ‘Reading Aloud: Lectores and Roman Reading’, CJ 86 (1991) 337–43, at 338.

67 But Myles McDonnell has shown that even upper-class Romans also often chose to write sua manu, particularly when writing and correcting texts: McDonnell M., ‘Writing, Copying, and the Autograph Manuscripts in Ancient Rome’, CQ 46 (1996) 469–91.

68 Note the extended and persuasive critique of claims that Herodotus composed his works in oral performance: Johnson W. A., ‘Oral Performance and the Composition of Herodotus’ Histories’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 35 (1994) 229–54; and also the strong critique the claim of ‘oral composition’ in medieval studies by Bäuml F. H., ‘Medieval Texts and the Two Theories of Oral-Formulaic Composition: A Proposal for a Third Theory’, New Literary History 16 (1984) 3149.

69 For the most comprehensive discussion, see Gamble H. Y., Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

70 For fuller discussion of the evidence, see Hurtado L. W., The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). There I provide a list of manuscripts dated to the pre-Constantinian period in Appendix 1 (209–29). See now also the judgements about the date of early NT manuscripts in Orsini P. and Clarysse W., ‘Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography’, ETL 88 (2012) 443–74.

71 See Hurtado, Artifacts, 155–92.

72 Palaeographers distinguish the ‘organic’ use of the ‘diairesis’ or ‘trema’ (to indicate that a vowel is not part of a diphthong) and the ‘inorganic’ use (to mark an initial vowel in a word, or sometimes a final vowel). See the discussion and examples in Turner, Greek Manuscripts, 12.

73 For a discussion of the occasional use of punctuation and other devices in pagan literary texts, see Turner, Greek Manuscripts, 9–14. See also Charlesworth S. D., ‘Public and Private Second- and Third-Century Gospel Manuscripts’, Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon (ed. Evans C. A. and Zacharias H. D.; London: T&T Clark, 2009) 148–75, who contends cogently that these readers' aids distinguish copies of the gospels intended for public/liturgical usage from copies intended for personal/private reading. Note also his forthcoming book: Early Christian Gospels: Their Production and Transmission (Florence: Edizioni Gonnelli, 2014).

74 Johnson, ‘Towards a Sociology of Reading’; Hurtado L. W., ‘Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading’, The Early Text of the New Testament (ed. Hill and C. E.Kruger M. J.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 4962; id., What do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts tell us about their Readers?’, The World of Jesus and the Early Church (ed. Evans C. A.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011) 179–92.

75 For fuller discussion and references to other scholarly publications, see Hurtado, Artifacts, 95–134.

76 The earliest and most consistently attested words are Κύριος, Θεός, Ἰησοῦς, Χριστός.

77 I have suggested that the practice may have originated in an early Jewish-Christian setting, perhaps as early as the late first-century ce: Hurtado L. W., ‘The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal’, JBL 117 (1998) 655–73.

78 Hurtado L. W., ‘The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram’, Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson (ed. Wilson S. G. and Desjardins M.; Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000) 271–88.

79 See also the discussion in Gamble, Books and Readers, 205–8. The historicity of any of the events is beside the point, which is simply that these passages reflect the use of texts familiar to intended readers of the time.

80 And, of course, in 1 Cor. 7.1 Paul refers to a letter sent to him by the Corinthian church.

81 Cf. the claims about performances of Paul's letters in Botha, Orality, 193–211.

82 Cf. e.g. Rodriguez R., Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (London: T&T Clark, 2010) 6 n. 8. Of course, those familiar with texts can often cite particular passages from memory, but that is not the point under discussion here.

83 So e.g. Dewey, ‘The Survival of Mark's Gospel’. But cf. C. Keith, ‘Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark's Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of Written Gospels’, Keys and Frames: Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (ed. T. Thatcher; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, forthcoming).

* I thank Scott Charlesworth, Dan Nässelqvist and Chris Keith for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

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