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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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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

L. W. Hurtado and C. Keith , ‘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. J. C. Paget and J. Schaper ; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 6380

E. J. Kenney , ‘Books and Readers in the Roman World’, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature (ed. E. J. Kenney ; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

W. J. Ong , Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982)

New Texts from Vindolanda’, Britannia 18 (1987) 125–42

R. S. Bagnall , Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)

F. H. Bäuml , ‘Medieval Texts and the Two Theories of Oral-Formulaic Composition: A Proposal for a Third Theory’, New Literary History 16 (1984) 3149

L. W. Hurtado , ‘Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading’, The Early Text of the New Testament (ed. C. E. Hill and M. J. Kruger ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 4962

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New Testament Studies
  • ISSN: 0028-6885
  • EISSN: 1469-8145
  • URL: /core/journals/new-testament-studies
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