Popping up for air – Orality and Literacy again

What with the end of semester busyness, our university Council (of which I am a member) being in a “crisis of governance” and my need to work on my paper for SBL Auckland, my blog has been neglected of late. 😦 I have, however, been following the discussion on Orality and Literacy going on on Mark Goodacre, April DeConick and Stephen Carlson‘s blogs. I’d like to offer a few observations:

1. When I was studying theology, one of our lecturers described the way in which written texts were used in the first century thus, based on the training of Greek rhetoricians: The letter was received by a literate member of the community, who read it through a number of times and prepared to “orate” it to the community. Once the designated reader was sufficiently familiar with the text, the community was called together and given what amounted to a dramatic reading of the text. Thus, the fact that only 10% (or whatever the figure was) of the community were literate did not stop them from having access to the content of the letter. I assume that it is to this process that Dunn is referring in Mark’s quote.

In this situation, the people charged with communicating the message were literate, possibly extremely so, but the way in which the material in the text was communicated to the vast majority of its intended audience was orally, and it was written so that it could be read aloud. Thus, although the initial communication was written, it would then have been passed around the community orally, by those who had been present at the reading. In contrast, in the twentieth century when information was provided in written form, it was usually shared with others by handing on paper copies of the text. In today’s society, electronic copies of the text are forwarded to others, so text is transmitted to its intended audience (and often to many others) in written form. While we are also able to transmit information in oral/aural and visual form, normally the oral/aural continues to be transmitted aurally and the visual stays visual. There is very little crossover.

Of course, modern technology makes it very easy for people to record and send information to others in oral form. Mobile phones and MP3 players can be used as recorders and the rules of oral expression are much less strict than those for written expression, so it’s faster to produce oral communications.  As I alluded to in my previous post on this issue, however, it is much faster for most people to acquire information in written rather  than oral form because most of us can read much faster than the average person can talk.  (As an aside, visually impaired people who use “talking text” software are able to speed up the rate at which their text is read back to them and one of my colleagues listens to his emails at significantly faster than talking speed, although he tells me that he needs to slow the machine down when the content is complex.)  The way in which we communicate information is changing, but I still don’t think we’re moving back to being an oral society.

2. After having spent months reading the psychological research literature on eyewitness testimony, it is my considered opinion that we need to make a distinction between the transmission of community tradition by skilled oral tradents (very accurate) and the passing on of experiences and teachings by ordinary members of the community who happened to hear and see Jesus (much less accurate, even in an oral society).


2 thoughts on “Popping up for air – Orality and Literacy again

  1. Soon after each Gospel was written, transmission must have been primarily in written form, not oral. That’s because not much time elapsed between the writing of the four Gospels, which were each written in different places. Also, being new, it would take some time (a decades or more?) for each Gospel to be appreciated enough to be read from before the congregants. So far as the Synoptic Problem is concerned, then, I believe that literal transmission was what was involved, with oral transmission of course accounting for the first writing(s) of the source(s) that went into the making of the Gospels.

  2. Yes and no, Jim. DeConick, in Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (London, New York, T&T Clark, 2005) suggests that in the early days, the transmission moved fairly fluidly between written and oral. I think that it is highly likely that copies of the gospel texts moved from community to community in written form, but less likely that the form that was current in any given community was transmitted in written form and that the way that things were copied provided room for variations to be introduced.

    Copyists were definitely not above deliberately altering texts to correct what they saw as errors and if the manuscript they were copying from varied from the version in circulation in the community they could either deliberately alter the text or do so by accident. Metzger in The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (3rd and 4th editions – 4th ed is Metzger and Ehrman) talks about the way in which texts were copied during this period and the ways in which variations could come into being. Copyists did not sit down at a desk with a copy of the MS on it within easy view of their new copy, as we would do, so there seems to be more reliance on short term memory in copying than we are used to.

    In addition, it’s difficult to know at what point these texts were considered to be “Scripture”. I think that Scripture was subject to more care in transmission than stories and letters.

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