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“Orality”, “Textuality” and the Material Evidence

January 31, 2012

I’ve recently read a small book sent to me advocating the idea that the Gospel of Mark was the result of “oral composition”, not the product of an author, and that what we know as “Mark” was typically recited, not read out from a manuscript, in early Christian assemblies:  Antoinette Clark Wire, The Case for Mark Composed in Performance (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2011).  My review will appear in Review of Biblical Literature, so here I want to reflect on a couple of larger issues.

First, the book is by no means idiosyncratic in emphasis.  Indeed, it appears in a series, “Biblical Performance Criticism Series,” which seems to have as its broad aim to urge “oral performance” as the crucial activity for which our extant NT texts are written reflections.  Now it’s fully obvious, to my mind, that early Christians (along with most other people in the Roman world) were much given to oral communication, oral “performance” (e.g., plays, recitations, poetry, etc.).  So, e.g., letters of Paul were read out to the assembled Christians to whom they were addressed.   Also, of course, although estimates vary, and any estimate is educated guesswork, it seems fairly clear that a large majority of the Roman-era population was either illiterate or only marginally literate. 

But I’m puzzled that advocates of “oral performance” sometimes seem to treat texts and “orality” as if they were stark alternatives, whereas it seems to me that texts and oral communication/speech functioned typically in a more readily mixed manner.  As for the extent and place of literacy, there are some informative discussions in Literacy in the Roman World, ed. Mary Beard et al. (Ann Arbor, MI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991) that serve as valuable correctives to some of the over-simplifications that have derived from the famous study by William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1989).  As the studies in the volume edited by Beard repeatedly show, the impact and functions of texts and literacy extended far beyond the circle of those who could read and write.  Here’s a sample judgement, this one in the contribution by Keith Hopkins:  “The whole experience of living in the Roman empire, of being ruled by Romans, was overdetermined by the existence of texts” (“Conquest by Book,” 144).

I’m also puzzled that scholars seem to have taken up a position on how early Christians did or did not use texts without familiarizing themselves sufficiently with the material evidence of texts and the uses of them in early Christianity and its environment.   From the physical features of earliest NT papyri, it is clear that a number of them were formatted to facilitate the reading of them.  So, contrary to some claims, it was not at all impossible to read out ancient manuscripts, and it was not necessary for texts to be delivered from memory. We can’t all become papyrologists, to be sure.  But if we’re going to make claims about reading, writing, use of texts, etc., in the early Christian period, it is most unwise to ignore or merely dabble in the crucial evidence available in manuscripts and in the detailed studies of them.

I certainly agree that the Gospels appear to show the earmarks of the oral transmission of Jesus-tradition upon which the authors draw, and that this oral transmission of Jesus-tradition likely continued even after the Gospels were written.  But it is also clear that early Christians placed an extraordinary value in texts, and a remarkable amount of effort and resources into writing, copying, disseminating and reading them, both privately and in groups.  I cite again a work I’ve frequently commended:  Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).


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  1. Dwight Peterson permalink

    I’m not “Erlend,” but here’s the bib information: Bagnall, Roger S. Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011

  2. Yes. Its actually a book, and it was based upon his Sather Classical Lectures. Chicago University Press released it last April:

    What made it particularly interesting for me was his argument that we have typically under-estiminated the extent of “daily” or low literacy level. So its unlikely your typical Graeco-Roman citizen was able to comprehend Cicero, but a text, for example, such as Mark’s gospel, or a gnomonic collection, is another question.

    I looked at the issue when I was writing a project on the accusation that Epicureans in the first century A.D. had redacted their texts’ complexities to appeal to a broader audience, and concluded that it was plausible that they were indeed doing this. Which, by the way your “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell us About Their Readers?”proved to quite helpful. Even Origen at Cont. Cels. 6.2 seems to make this distinction between for philosophically themed writings when he argues that Plato’s language can only be understood by learned people, but that Epictetus can be understood by commoners (so probably referring to his Handbook-which is indeed relatively simple- rather than his Discourses).

  3. Thanks for the post. It is very useful.

    I’m aware you’ve probably read them, but I think G. Woolf’s recent article “Literacy or Literacies in Rome?” (In “Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome”) and MacDonald’s “Literacy in an Oral Enviroment.” (in “Writing and Ancient Near Eastern Society: Papers in Honour of Alan R. Millard”) would also be good studies to reference to help substantiate your point. Bagnall’s recently published “Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East” is also a very good antidote to the marginal figures of literacy that Harrris provides.

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