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“Performance Criticism”: A Critique

June 9, 2014

I’m pleased to announce that my critique of “performance criticism” as advocated by a small but enthusiastic number of NT scholars has just been published in the online advance format of the journal New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 321-40 (DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058).  By permission of Cambridge University Press, I’m also allowed to post the published version on this site.  See “Oral Fixation in NT Studies” under the “Selected Published Essays” tab, or click here.  Here is the abstract of the article:

In recent decades, emphasizing the ‘orality/aurality’ of the Roman world, some 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. Some have even proposed 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 over-simplifications (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 over-simplifications, 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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  1. Sean permalink

    Larry, what do you make of the suggestion that Phoebe would have read aloud the letter of Paul to the Romans?

    And what does your critique of performance criticism make of rhetorical criticism of Paul’s letters (e.g., Betz and Witherington)?

    • The suggestion that Phoebe may have read out, and even commented on, Romans is plausible. Someone did that. Likewise, it is clear that Paul employed some literary devices that originated in rhetoric (i.e., effective public speaking). But my point is that, whatever the devices included in the letters and whoever may have couriered and/or read them out, they were read out. . . from the written text. Not memorized and delivered as some kind of actor would deliver a speech in a play.

  2. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    As always, quite a stimulating article. The references to locations in the scriptures themselves that indicate they were intended to be read and not performed was particularly telling. I wonder, if that even in a gentile context, the forming of Christian public reading was influenced by synagogue practice of the reading of the Torah thereby resulting in an even higher appreciation and subsequently higher percentage of readers. Thanks for the informative read.


  3. Thanks for the analysis Larry. In my past ministry as a producer/director/actor, I have performed a lot of biblical material and been interested to hear more about “performance criticism.”

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