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“The Great Divide”: Orality and Texts

November 23, 2018

Trying to catch up on recent journal articles after my prolonged confinement in hospital, I came across the article by Paul S. Evans, “Creating a New ‘Great Divide’: The Exoticization of Ancient Culture in Some Recent Applications of Orality Studies to the Bible,” Journal of Biblical Literature 136.4 (2017): 749-64.  Evans alleges and challenges a tendency among some scholars of the ancient near east and OT to “exoticize” the ancient culture, meaning to impute to the ancients a romanticized character overly different from our own time.

To be sure, as in the famous line from The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”  But, granting differences, Evans argues (effectively, I think) that these can be exaggerated unhelpfully, in this case when it comes to assessing how texts functioned.  So, for example, the notion that written texts were not read out but were memorized for oral “performance” (as in a play) has scant basis, either in references to reading practices or in the physical evidence.  Granted, the majority of the population was likely illiterate, and so experienced texts as they were read out in their hearing.  But the point is that the texts were read out, not “performed” from memory like in a play.

Moreover, as Evans notes, field studies show that the introduction of texts into a culture affects illiterates as well as literates.  So, thereafter, we don’t have an “oral culture” in some pure sense.  The failure to recognize this is what Evans means by his complaint of “exoticizing” the ancient world.

I made a somewhat similar complaint about my own field a few years ago (and I’m pleased to see my article cited by Evans):  Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014): 321-40.  And in earlier postings on this blog site (here, and here) I referred to the matter.  After my article was published, Kelly Iverson wrote a critique of it published in the same journal, to which I responded, and posted about the exchange here.

The advocates of “performance criticism” (as the approach has been termed by some, even describing the approach as a new discipline!), however, seem to me to show little signs of taking heed of the sort of data that Evans and I (with some others) have cited.  I know from personal experience that they show scant acquaintance with the features of ancient manuscripts, surely our most direct indication of how texts functioned and were read.  We shouldn’t play off “orality” and texts.  Literary texts were written to be read, both in group settings (and so read aloud) or privately (and so, typically, silently).

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10 Comments
  1. Tom Hennell permalink

    I am intrigued by the implicit presupposition that considerations of ‘performance’ should be considered more characteristic of ‘oral’ communication, rather than ‘written’ communication. Surely public writing can be as much a ‘performance’ as public speaking? The clearest evidence for writing as performance would be the surviving graffiti (both those found in Pompeii and those in Dura; in their differing ways).

    But maybe much of the surviving mass of papyrus texts can also best be understood as written public performance. Especially the flood of petitions and denunciations addressed by long-term litigants to every new arriving governor; sometimes repeated in identical terms to his successors in turn. Maybe some New Testament texts (the letter to Philemon for instance) might be interpreted partly as ‘written public performance’?

  2. john permalink

    If there was nothing for Jesus’ followers to read before an early hypothetical Q, or Proto-Q, or Proto-Mark, or proto-Thomas, or proto signs gospel, or proto-passion narratives, etc., what were Jesus’ followers doing? I don’t disagree with you. I believe the writing and reading of Jesus sayings and Jesus stories started in the 30’s C.E. immediately after Jesus’ pre-Easter life, Though most scholars would disagree and speculate that there was at least a thirty year period of mostly oral performance only.

  3. Bob MacDonald permalink

    This reminds me of the story of the wolf who lost its tail. Who needs a tail? it said. This really is a great divide among wolves.

    95% of the Biblical preachers and scholars of today are not musicians. These people, especially the scholars, learn by their visual analysis, or preach by their moral logic, and not by the engagement of hearing. The music of the Old Testament tells me we are missing our tails. We cannot hear (or if Isaiah would have his way) see, either.

    Here is just one of many astonishingly beautiful performances of Tanakh heard in a way not to be abstracted by the eyeball. [https://1drv.ms/u/s!AorcvDTEzQUzqholRQRapUAaA55N.] in case embed below does not work.

    This music engages the text without speed reading. It engages the person listening in ways that cannot be written down. There is no doubt in my reading that ‘recite’ in the performance sense is a legitimate reading of קרא. I don’t think we can understand TNK without the oral component.

    I also think we have impoverished ourselves by, for the most part, failing to learn music.

    • Uh, Bob. You’re missing the point. Which isn’t about music, or even whether one can recite a biblical text from memory. It’s whether people actually read (aloud) texts, written texts, or memorized them and “performed” them like an actor reciting his part. Read the evidence assembled in the articles I cited.

      • Bob MacDonald permalink

        Thanks for the criticism. I do regret that I seem to have missed your point. I read Evans this evening from my shelf full of SBL journals. And I find his conclusion inadequate. He claims from the fieldwork that “literacy has a profound effect on non-literates” (page 764). He has proved nothing from the examples he gave of white snow and polar bears. His example of defining a ‘word’ was quite useful though, but his illustration of multiple uses of ‘word’ in English did not prove anything about the multiple glosses used in English for דבר. The sentences he wrote were like ships passing in the night without their lights on. (p 758)

        The point I took from your brief blog post is the contrast between the visual and aural modes of learning and communication. We have them both and the ancient cultures also had them both. I think we have ignored the aural at great expense to our humanity.

        It is ironic that you would ask me to read ‘the articles’ you have collected, and I as a musician would ask you to take the time to hear a written text performed.

        Evans also deals with several non-sequiturs (points 1 to 4 on page 753). He puts some of them down but relies on others. I like his point about our practice of sight reading as instant recognition beyond the slow process of sounding out and hearing. It agrees with the different mode of learning implied by the visual process. The ear seems indeed more primitive. Until one takes time to listen.

        Point 3 about the ancient texts completely ignores the accents. I suggest that ancient recitation would be musical. The music was lost to us so the power given to the (logical) memory by tonal memory is lost. How did Jeremiah and Baruch recreate the text that their hearers destroyed? They may have been aided through processes of dictation and recitation using tonal memory.

        There is no visual record of the accents in our manuscripts. This makes a thesis such as I have suggested ‘unscientific’. Science measures what it sees more than what it hears. The history of the oral culture is lost. But where did the accents come from? Fully formed from the head of Zeus sometime in the age of the Masoretes? Why and how would this fully formed consistent well-designed musical notation suddenly spring out of nowhere in the 8th century?

        Our visually biased literate culture also makes us very impatient and hurried. We just don’t have time to listen. The vowels are derivable from the word forms. They are not as important as the accents.

        Evans has exposed a conversation among many scholars that seem to me to be asking questions solely from the point of ‘view’ of the visually biased reader. We need some new questions. I think they can arise out of the music to which the text has so beautifully been set. I don’t think a visual bias can ever put the aural under its control, as if the whole body were an eye and we had no ear.

        I am not sure I have ‘a point’ yet. Literate people require a point. In the aural world, there is a cloud, and a subtending of time through tonality. And beauty. Have you taken the time to hear some of this music that has been inferred from the accents through the work of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura? There are lots of good examples of performance from the link at the bottom of this page https://meafar.blogspot.com/p/music.html.

        Thanks again though for making me think a little more carefully about this problem area. I am glad you are in recovery mode. long may it continue. I have a few years of that behind me.

      • Bob, You’re still not getting the point! And you’re mis-reading Evans. He didn’t downplay oral vs. written, but instead insisted that the two form an interplay. It is the “performance criticism” advocates that downplay writing and reading to emphasize “orality”. And, yet again, the question isn’t whether someone could if they wished musically perform a poetic text (such as Psalms or the prophetic texts), but whether the ancients read out from written texts or used them as scripts to memorize for oral “performance”. I think we’re now at the end of this discussion.

  4. Thanks. On read “privately (and so, typically, silently).”
    If I remember correctly, Augustine was surprised when he encountered Ambrose reading silently.
    Didn’t some other ancients sound out reading even when alone?

    • Actually, Stephen, that view of Augustine’s comment has now widely been revised. And it’s now commonly accepted among Classicists that Roman-era folk could and did read silently when reading privately. Here’s some bibliography:
      R. W. McCutcheon, “Silent Reading in Antiquity and the Future History of the Book,” Book History 18 (2015): 1-32
      A. K. Gavrilov, “Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” Classical Quarterly 47 (1997): 56-73
      M. F. Burnyeat, “Postscript on Silent Reading,” Classical Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1997): 74-76
      Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, eds., A History of Reading in the West (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999)

  5. Griffin permalink

    Your comments seem mostly correct, intuitively. Though of course, often short standard prayers, credos, repeated songs, would have been memorized?

    In any case, a mostly educated, literary origin or early history, suggests many interesting things. Looking into the mental habits of a literary elite, might be important here.

    • Uh, Griffin, we’re talking about written texts, not the sort of items you list. And I don’t get the point of your final sentence.

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