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“Performance” and Reading of Texts in Early Christianity

September 16, 2013

At a recent conference there was a paper presented in which there was repeated reference to the “performance” of passages from the Gospels in early Christian gatherings.  Indeed, the presenter posited that this likely involved acting out passages, such as the narrative parables of Jesus.  In recent years there have been a number of similar claims, and the word “performance” seems to have acquired a greater prominence in NT studies.  I guess it depends on what one means by “performance” of a text, but when some scholars assert “performance” of texts and not the reading of them, I’m a bit sceptical.

It’s not clear that proponents of this “performance” emphasis have taken the trouble to familiarize themselves with the evidence relevant to the question of how texts were read (and read in groups) in antiquity.  There has actually been a good deal of work among classicists, for example, on how texts were read in the Roman world of earliest Christianity, and yet these studies seem not to be noted.  To cite a few, there is Raymond J. Starr, “Reading Aloud:  Lectores and Roman Reading,” The Classical Journal 86 (1991), 337-43, on the use of trained readers (often/typically trained slaves) for reading literary texts out to their masters and/or to social gatherings.  As Starr notes, the emphasis was on skilful reading, including such things as proper reading-out of poetry.  So, in this sense a text was “performed”, meaning simply read with skill.  But this hardly amounts to what proponents of “performance” of biblical texts seem to mean.

There is also William A. Johnson, “Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” American Journal of Philology 121 (2000), 593-627, who focuses on the reading of literary texts in gatherings of Roman elites, typically as part of the “entertainment” at elite dining parties.  But, again, little more is suggested than simply skilful reading-aloud of texts.  And see now his fuller discussion:  William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire:  A Study of Elite Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Indeed, we have numerous depictions of social gatherings in which someone is reading aloud from a manuscript copy of a literary text.  See examples in Theodor Birt, Die Buchrolle in der Kunst:  archäologisch-antiquarische Untersuchungen zum antiken Buchwesen (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1907); and see also Henri I. Marrou, Μουσικος Ανηρ:  Ètude sur les scènes de la vie intellectuelle figurant sur les monuments funèraires romains (Rome: Erma di Bretschneider, 1964).

In my experience, those who urge a strong “performance” view of the delivery of texts in early Christianity (whom I shall refrain from naming out of courtesy) also seem woefully uninformed about the physical properties of earliest Christian manuscripts, which are , in fact, the most valuable physical artefacts of the writing, circulation and usage of texts in early Christian circles.  One sees statements by some scholars that manuscripts were not meant to be read from, but were used to memorize the text for “performance”, i.e., purely oral delivery from memory.  Well, maybe some Christians particularly trained in oratory may have done this, although in fact we have no indication of it.  But we do have physical evidence of manuscripts of Christian literary texts (notably, those treated as scripture, i.e., read out in churches) being prepared by the originating copyist with various “readers’ aids”, precisely to facilitate the reading of these manuscripts.  (I’ve discussed this matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins [Eerdmans, 2006, esp. pp. 155-89].)

So, if “performance” of texts means simply reading out texts to a group, OK.  But then why “performance” and not simply “reading aloud” of texts?  But if by “performance” something more, something like a dramatization, is intended, this amounts to an unsubstantiated speculation, for which there is scant basis either in what we know about the handling of literary texts in earliest Christianity or in the larger Roman setting.  Certain literary texts, e.g., plays, were certainly performed on the stage, but prose literary texts were simply read out, preferably skilfully, in social settings, and in earliest Christian circles.

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  1. Mikeal Parsons permalink

    Hi Larry,
    I am not a “performance” critic per se, but I am interested in the rhetorical dimensions of early Christian texts. I wonder if the following quotation from Theon’s Progymnasmata (Kennedy trans.) would qualify as an example of the kind of evidence you are seeking. In ch. 13, entitled “Reading Aloud and Its Object”, Theon turns his attention to “reading” which he defines as “the enunciation of a written text in a loud and strong voice.” He recommends students begin with works of oratory. Theon suggests that the teacher “shall accustom the student to fit voice and gestures to the subject of the speech. . . . We shall present and imagine with the greatest care all that concerns an orator: his actions, credibility, age, and status; the place where the speech was delivered, the subject it treats, and everything that contributes to the feeling that the speech actually concerns us as we read it aloud” (103P; Kennedy 67). Theon then suggests that student move on to reading aloud different genres of historical writing, beginning with Herodotus (104P). With regard to historical writings, he states: “Do not imitate only one model but all the most famous of the ancients. Thus we shall have copious, numerous, and varied resources on which to draw.” Presumably this reading aloud of historical texts would demand that the student conform the reading to fit the various styles encountered in various genres. Theonconcludes the chapter with this: “Thus it is most useful to collect what has some beauty in all works, to recite this, and to recall it frequently while joining the appropriate delivery to the subject” 105P). Kennedy in a note cites Patillon, editor of the critical edition of Theon with a French translation as suggesting that this sentence refers to “word-for-word memorization of some texts, which the student can then deliver with appropriate voice and gesture” (Kennedy 69; Patillon n. 535). The context (here and elsewhere) would suggest that these texts are not limited to oratorical texts and that “skillful reading aloud,” at least in some forms of rhetorical education might include attention to matters of speech and gesture. . For what it’s worth . . .
    Mikeal Parsons
    Baylor University

    • Mikael,
      Yes, your citation pretty much reflects the sort of advice to orators given by Quintilian (Institutes pf Oratory. (1) Reading lots of different kinds of writers/writings to develop a breadth of expression, and (2) Writing a lot to refine one’s expression and ability to construct persuasive and/or entertaining expression. And, yes, the orator was encouraged to memorize speeches if possible (or use notes if necessary).
      But I’m talking about the reading of texts in groups, literary texts, e.g., in dinner groups (such as Johnson describes so well), and so in groups such as early Christian worship-gatherings. For THESE settings we don’t have any indication that more than skilful reading was involved or expected. This could include intonation, emphasis, pacing, etc. But there is no indication that this involved dramatic acting or such, nor that texts were memorized for such settings.
      So, let’s keep the social settings clear: One is public oratory, and that’s distinguishable from reading literary texts (not speech-making) in social groups. Understanding the past is difficult enough, and it’s best to keep our evidence as clear and appropriate as we can.

      • Mikeal Parsons permalink

        Hi Larry,
        Hmmm. I guess I am less certain that the ‘social contexts’ are as clearly delineated, distinct, and insulated as you seem to suggest. (Johnson’s book is on loan from the library, so I haven’t had the opportunity to look at it. I have found Rafella Cribiore’s Gymnastics of the Mind an illuminating and instructive read about educational practices in antiquity.) What does ‘skilful reading’ mean in the ancient context? I imagine that the person engaged in public declamation and the one reading a text in a group, in most cases,had the same general kind of education. That is to say,as I understand it, most literacy training in the Greco-Roman world was generally in a rhetorical context. Declamation was the end result of a long and arduous process of literacy acquisition that began with learning letters and syllables, and precious few evidently reached the final (tertiary or whatever) stage of public oratory. That is why the evidence I cited from Theon seems more germane than Quintilian because it represents an earlier (and less complex, though complex enough) stage of rhetorical/literary education. The preliminary exercises, whether at the end of the grammar stage or beginning of proper rhetorical training, seem aimed at all forms of communication (writing, reading, speaking). And while the goal is ultimately public declamation (or the sort Quintilian describes) it would seem that most persons literate enough to read a text aloud in public would have acquired that skill in the context of rhetorical education. So it’s easy for me to imagine that a skilful reading of Paul’s Areopagus speech (for example) would include, as you assert, attention to diction, tone, etc. but it might also include attention to aspects of ethopoeia (or prosopopoeia) described by Theon in my earlier post. Surely some readers were more competent than others and reading clearly may have been the most a group could have expected. But others more ‘skilled’ might indeed have brought their rhetorical/literary training to bear in the delivery (we might even say performance?) of an early Christian text (I do still imagine most texts being read aloud rather than delivered from memory), though perhaps (probably?) in a way more ‘subdued’ than a oratorical performance might have involved, but not a wholly dissimilar phenomenon. It seems to me to be more a difference of degree rather than a confusion of categories.

    • Mikael,
      Yes, perhaps differences of degree(s). My concern is the (over)confident claims of some that no one could have read out from ancient Greek manuscripts, and so people memorized them (e.g., the Gospel of Mark) and “performed” them from, e.g., from memory, and acted out narratives, etc. This all seems to me unsupported by the evidence. When I once mentioned to one of the NT advocates of “performance” that we have early Christian manuscripts that show various “readers’ aids” put in by the originating copyist, apparently to assist the reading-out of the texts in question, he was startled, obviously never having examined any of the actual artefacts of ancient Christian books & readers.

      • Mikeal Parsons permalink

        We seem to be edging closer to each other on the issue(s). Cribiore describes in vivid detail the laborious and monotonous effort demanded by pupils attempting first to learn their letters and syllables (she says not words yet) and later reading some texts aloud with a modicum of skill. Even if there were ‘early Christian orators’ who had achieved the level of public declamation, they would surely have been far and few between and even then i don’t imagine early Christian texts being performed in full ‘theatrical’ or ‘dramatic’ tone (even the orators disagreed on the appropriateness of such ‘performances’)–perhaps this is one of the things that separates me from full-throated performance critics? I can, on the other hand, imagine that readers enacted the text in ways I described earlier (and perhaps even including the appropriate gesture every now and then; cf. William Shiell’s book, Reading Acts), and that skilful reading involved some aspects of enacted rhetoric. Finally, to be clear, doesn’t ‘t the addition of reader’s aids to early christian texts represent yet a third (interrelated) social context, namely (as you point out) the reading of the texts as scripture within the context of christian liturgy and worship?

      • Mikael,
        On your last statement, yes. And it’s the reading of texts in Christian worship-gatherings that I’m really focusing on, in which texts such as the Gospels and letters of Paul and OT texts were read-out.

  2. Danny Yencich permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    First of all, thank you for this post. You bring some important critiques and questions to the table.

    Regarding oral performance of the gospels, I think Whitney Shiner’s _Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark_ (Trinity Press Int’l: 2003) does a good job of contextualizing oral performance of Mark within the wider Greco-Roman media culture. The book largely grows out of his work with classical texts and I think it is successful in showing that oral performance fits nicely within the media culture of the Greco-Roman world.

    But, even though I have interests in performance criticism (cards on the table), I think you are right to insist that the existence of manuscripts (and readers’ aids within them) ought to be reckoned with in any appraisal of the transmission of early Christian documents. Any “great divide” between the purely-oral and the purely-textual should certainly be done away with. But I think most responsible performance critics would say the same thing; as influential as Kelber’s _Oral & Written Gospel_ was, I don’t think many people are still working with all of his assumptions.

    Regarding your final paragraph, I think for most performance critics, “performance” does not simply mean “reading aloud.” Sometimes this is a problematic stance. For example, I think the case may be made that Mark is a performance narrative, while the same cannot be so easily said of Luke-Acts, which shows more internal signs of textuality. My inclination is that the media culture of earliest Christianity is a continuum, along which different compositions fit in at different points.

    But I am also open to being wrong, which is why I thank you for problematizing some of the assumptions of the emerging discipline. 🙂

    Best wishes,

    • Dear Danny,
      To respond briefly to your thoughtful comment, If “performance” means something other than skilful reading-aloud of a text to a group, it would be well to have what is meant more specific. If the implied sense is something beyond skilful-reading, I remain to be shown that there is any evidence of this as the mode of reading of texts to/in groups in the Roman period. When I asked one “performance” promoter about this, he responded by pointing to Quintilian’s length discourses on oratory, in which he commends the appropriate use of voice and gesture. But, of course, Quintilian was advising orators for courtroom “performance” and persuasion, and he has nothing to say about the reading out of texts in groups. (Moreover, there’s a lengthy section where Quintilian says that the best ways to prepare yourself for eloquence is to read and read and read, and write and write and write! Not much “orality” there that isn’t also equally textuality!)
      So, I reiterate that those who advocate “performance” of NT texts should do more than simply observe that GMark, for example, is a good read. I fear that this current niche-emphasis may be resting on very slender bases. Most disturbingly, I see little indication that advocates have taken the trouble actually first to learn what can be known about reading texts in groups in the Roman period.

    • JWDS permalink

      My issue with Shiner’s book is that I couldn’t find an argument for Mark actually being read aloud, or written for that purpose. I was hoping for a discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of texts that we know actually were performed, and then an argument that we find those kinds of characteristics in Mark. Mostly, however, it was a survey of the advice of Quintilian, et al., on how to read or speak, and discussion of Mark along the lines of “if it was performed, this is how this passage would have been performed.” So, I found it all sort of question-begging.

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