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“Performance” and Reading in Early Christianity

March 1, 2016

In previous postings here and here I addressed some claims of some proponents of “performance criticism,” indicating their fallaciousness.  In an article published a couple of years ago, I tried to correct and advance the discussion:  Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60, no. 3 (2014): 321-40.

The latest issue of that journal includes an article by Kelly Iverson in which he challenges my views:  “Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado,New Testament Studies 62 (2016): 183-200.  In the same issue, I respond to Iverson’s attempt at critique:  “Correcting Iverson’s ‘Correction’,” 201-206.  Unfortunately, Iverson’s “correction” of my article is directed at a serious misconstrual of it, and so my response is essentially to show how he has misconstrued it, and to urge that we make some progress in discussions of how texts were used in early Christianity.

Both in my 2014 article and my current response to Iverson, my main points are (1) that some claims of some advocates of “performance criticism” are invalid, especially in downplaying the place and usage of written texts in early Christianity (and in the larger Roman-era environment), and (2) that the efforts given in early Christianity to composing, copying, distributing, and reading texts comprise a remarkable feature of the young movement.

It is specious to play off the oral “performance” (reading aloud) of texts and the written texts themselves.  Certainly, written texts were typically composed with a view to how they would sound when read.  But the typical “oral performances” in such settings as dinners, other social occasions, and in early Christian circles involved the reading-out of written texts.

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2 Comments
  1. Bee D. permalink

    I think you are correct, if we think about Christianity after the widespread distribution of written gospels. But of course, if Christianity originated in earlier oral traditions? Then of course we would expect to see many elements typical of oral presentation in Christian culture.

    And if such elements were not found to some degree, even in the early written texts? Then that would suggest a rather purely scribal or literate origin to the stories.

    Which to be sure, is an intriguing suggestion.

    • No, you miss the point I make in my essay. From our earliest evidence (letters of Paul), it’s evident that texts were central in early Christianity. Of course there were also oral traditions. That’s my point: oral and textual went hand-in-hand, and it’s fallacious to play up one at the expense of the other. There wasn’t some oral stage followed by a textual stage. It was a mixture from the outset.

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