Oral Fixation in New Testament Studies

June 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

Chris Keith just pointed out that Larry Hurtado has an article in the new issue of New Testament Studies: “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity.”

Keith writes:

Hurtado’s main targets are advocates of so-called “performance criticism” in New Testament studies, who argue that, basically, when early Christians “read” texts they, in reality, performed them from memory.  That is, they did not actually read manuscripts.  David Rhoads is probably the most vocal leader of this group of scholars, whom I know well as the current co-Chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media session, where many of them are active.  These are good scholars, but I’ve for some time not been convinced of this claim that all or most reading of texts in early Christianity was actually oral performance.  (My presentation at the 2014 Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity conference, and essay in the forthcoming published proceedings, was/is a critical engagement with Richard Horsley’s work on this point.)  Hurtado’s arguments are, to my mind, convincing.  I’ll add further that I recently served as the “faculty opponent” for Dan Nässelqvist’s PhD defense at at the University of Lund, where he was supervised by Samuel Byrskog.  Dan’s (successful) PhD includes probably the most thorough study on the role of the lector in the first two centuries of early Christianity to date.  Like Hurtado, he argues thoroughly that when early Christians “read” texts, they actually did read manuscripts, not perform them orally.

The abstract to Hurtado’s article is the following:

In recent decades, emphasising the ‘orality/aurality’ of the Roman world, some scholars 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. It has even been suggested 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 oversimplifications (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 oversimplifications, 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.

People in NT studies should note this article and read it due to the popularity of performance studies.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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