Friday, May 09, 2008

Orality and Literacy I: Exaggerated contrasts with our culture?

In a lot of recent New Testament scholarship, there has been a welcome corrective to our natural tendency to make the world of the evangelists into a very textual, a very literary world, to conceptualize it in anachronistic fashion as being similar to our own. There has been a renewed stress on orality and the importance of understanding oral communication and how processes of spreading oral tradition might have impacted on the formation of the Gospels. In a series of posts, I would like to offer some of my own reflections on this scholarly trend. This will be done as an experiment in "thinking out loud" as I think through the literature and reflect on certain elements that have been insufficiently discussed in the past. As always with blog posts, these are at best snapshots of my thinking at a given point, and not the result of detailed, mature reflection ready for print publication.

I would like to comment here on one of the elements in the way that the case is argued in the scholarship. When contemporary scholars are attempting to contrast our culture with that of the ancient world, they sometimes greatly exaggerate the literary nature of our culture. (By "our culture" here I mean early twenty-first century life in the west, particularly the English speaking west). James D. G. Dunn is a case in point. In his important article, “Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition,” New Testament Studies 49/2 (2003), 139-75, he writes:
We here are all children of Gutenberg and Caxton. We belong to cultures shaped by the book. Our everyday currency is the learned article and monograph. Libraries are our natural habitat. (142).
There is, of course, a lot of truth in this; no one would deny the importance of the book in our culture. But what Dunn is talking about here is not so much our culture, which is full of orality at every turn, but the academic sub-culture of research and writing. Even within that sub-culture, our literary research interacts with oral and aural elements. Our primary means of communicating our scholarship is the classroom, which is all about speaking and hearing and only minimally about text. For many of us, the oral interaction in the classroom is a major contributor to the development of our thoughts. In the preparation of our scholarship, the oral plays a key role. Dunn's own article began life as an SNTS Presidential address in 2002. A lot of my work has begun life as conference papers, presented orally (and yes, I know that a lot of scholars simply read papers out loud, but even there, the primary means by which their scholarship is being appropriated is aurally). The interaction between written draft, oral presentation, revised drafts in the light of live questioning -- these are the staples of the development of academic work. Thus where Dunn conceptualizes the scholar as living in the library, I prefer to think of the enterprise as one of interaction in which solitary library time is only one feature, and not necessarily the most important feature.

Outside of that academic sub-culture, the world we live in is a world still dominated by orality. Many more people receive their news through television and radio, oral media, than through newspapers. And many who do use newspapers are now no longer simply reading them but they are combining the reading experience with watching online videos, listening to podcasts and so on. I describe myself as an avid Guardian "reader" because of the familiarity of that expression, but my "reading" in fact incorporates Guardian podcasts and sometimes also video material.

Dunn is inclined to underestimate the extent of orality in our own culture. Later in the article, he writes:
In an overwhelmingly literary culture our experience of orality is usually restricted to casual gossip and the serendipitous reminiscences of college reunions. (149).
This is a surprising statement in the light of the pervasive orality of our culture. The spoken word is everywhere. For many, the written word is secondary. It is worth reminding ourselves that being literate does not necessarily mean that the written word is primary, or that we always think along literary lines. Consider the specific case of knowledge of the Bible. As any of us who have taught the New Testament know, our students' knowledge of the texts is often received through oral tradition and not through direct familiarity with the text. How many people who think they know the Christmas story get their knowledge directly from reading Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (or the Protevangelium of James)? Very few. Their knowledge is conveyed through our culture's oral tradition and its harmonized and legendary version of the story so frequently retold.

My point here is not to attempt to narrow the gap between the ancient world and our world. The key task of the ancient historian is to convey some sense of the utter difference of the worlds we study from our own, and to avoid anachronistic reading in of our own way of looking at things. My point rather is that in our attempts to conceptualize the ancient world, we should be careful not to lapse into caricature of the modern world. Imagine the person who in a millennium is reading Dunn's article, looking for information about how we communicate with one another in the early twenty-first century -- that researcher would have precious little idea of how we actually live our lives. We live in libraries ("our natural habitat"), we trade in monographs and learned articles ("our everyday currency"). Where Dunn is exploring the analogy of a computer's "default setting", he conceives of the computer solely in word-processing terms, not as a communications device that combines the functions of television, radio, telephone and more.

It may be that the attempt to reimagine the orality of antiquity proceeds in part from the contemporary academic's anxiety about the heavily literary nature of his or her experience of the contemporary world. Dunn is one of the most prolific New Testament scholars ever -- his latest book running, apparently, to 1300 pages. Is it a coincidence that the scholars who stress the attempt to regain access to an ancient oral culture are those who are the most prolific writers in the contemporary culture?


Scott Ferguson said...

Wow! If a scholar can't get the sense of his own culture right, how are we to approach his conclusions concerning his predecessors from previous millenia? Perhaps the Evangelists were bookish scholars who never quite understood their own millieu. At least then our scholars' understanding of them would be sympathetic.

** Above (mostly) tongue-in-cheek

Jim Deardorff said...

Although orality dominated in the world of the evangelists in general, their specific tasks of forming the Gospels was very literary. We know this from the excessive verbal agreements between the Synoptic Gospels. Orality may have been important in providing input primarily for the first Gospel, but even there unknown literary source(s) may have dominated, as in this example of what the earliest source may have looked like.

Judy Redman said...

I agree that Dunn overstates the literacy-dependence in our culture, especially younger GenX, GenY and younger. I think one of the significant things about our culture, though, Mark, is that when we want to remember something, we write it down or record it in some other text-based form (maybe our PDAs). We are not good at remembering large blocks of text in detail. We remember the gist of it, but the detail gets lost if we don't write it down.

steph said...

'Is it a coincidence that the scholars who stress the attempt to regain access to an ancient oral culture are those who are the most prolific writers in the contemporary culture' ... and those who relegate half their writing to the tiny print footnotes?:-)

Geoff Hudson said...

Most scholars are gasbags. They can be entertaining or extremely boring. Having experienced Eisenman's door-stopping James The Brother of Jesus, the thought of plodding through a 1300 page book is daunting. If scholars can't speak or write concisely and clearly, they should learn to do so out of consideration for those they wish to reach.

Some Jews at least didn't have too much of a problem with writing, considering Josephus' Antiquities (probably originally written as a schoolboy exercise), or the writings of Philo. So I bet those who could write profusely back then, like Dunn and Eisenman today, were probably gasbags too.

As for the NT, I see development of texts as being the result of oral and written interaction between the equivalent of modern academics or historians.

Talon said...

Sorry, Mark, you are wrong. Dunn is much closer to the truth than you.

Yeah, people talk, but that is completely besides the point. The vast majority of the information we know about history and theology and the like comes from written sources.

The example of the Christmas story is not valid because the stories are all based on the written word of the Bible. The stories we learn in Sunday School come from a book.

That is a far, far, far cry from the ancient world -- in fact the opposite -- where the written word was produced from oral history and nothing tangible. Our oral stories come from books.

Mike Duncan said...

The first century has plenty of examples of bookish writing that rely on older secondary literature. Quintilian, in particular, refused to cite anyone still alive. And the gospels all have various degrees of dependence on the LXX. To think of the evangelists as relying on oral tradition is as dangerous as it is convenient.

Geoff Hudson said...

If you are talking about the NT, the OT was pretty tangible to those who could read it for a good while before the NT was written. And clearly the OT gave ample scope for creativity by writers of the NT, never mind that some its sources could well have been written by the actual participants in the earliest form of 'christianity' - who were probably not simply "eyewitnesses" reporting orally, or the uneducated fishermen we were led to believe in by subsequent editors. The idea that these folk gossipped the gospel is romantic fairy-tale, imagined by preachers and probably some scholars.

Geoff Hudson said...

Here was quite a few literary folk for a start, in what is a garbled account of so-called 'Essenes': "They also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients", the 'ancients' of course being the prophets. And when it came to orallity: "he swears to communicate their doctrines to no one any otherwise than as he has received them himself;....and will equally preserve the books belonging to their sect." - bookish folk these. And surely the "books belonging to their sect" were not just copies of OT documents, but ones they had written themselves, presumably in an on-going tradition. And, by the way, they were interested in angels or messengers, which brings to mind Mark 1:2.