Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why Orality Matters

I have set aside my Valentinian study for a while, to turn to my research on memory and orality. As I am reading and inspired today by a version of an article by Werner Kelber (pre-publication, my thanks to him), I am struck by the beauty of the emerging paradigm in orality-scribality studies, and I will rejoice when/if it replaces the old post-Gutenberg mentality that has such a stranglehold on our field. Here are some questions that I'm facing as I read. These are questions that I do not face alone, but that I think are facing our field. Whether our field will face up to them is another question!
  • What does it mean to our field that the ancient written texts lived and were experienced as vocalized and memorial texts?
  • What does it mean that there was no authoritative written version of any scripture?
  • What does it mean that scribal activity was not the simple copying of texts, but was intertwined with memorization and recitation? That the scribal interiorization of the traditions allowed the scribe to rewrite the tradition without any need of a physical text?
  • What does it mean that the function of writing a text is unlike that of our own today?
  • What does it mean that a sacred text was read or recited and then orally explained in a communal setting? That it was a living text of ongoing revelation?
By fate or providence, Werner Kelber just dropped by my office. So as I return to finish this post, I am refreshed by our conversation. We talked about the questions I just raised in this post and we came to a couple of conclusions.
  • The literate model is engrained in us, so deeply that it is a struggle to break out of it. We are trained to think in terms of literary production, editing, redacting, manuscripts, recensions, variants in ways discordant with the actual living activities of the ancient oral-scribal realities.
  • The Synoptic Problem is not a literary problem (at least as we have imagined it). It is a more complex problem that needs to be reassessed from the living reality of oral-scribal culture.
  • This is too heavy. It's time for lunch.


Jared Calaway said...

Have you read David Carr's _Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature_? He deals with these questions primarily from an Ancient Near East/Hebrew Bible point of view, but does go forward into early Christian and Rabbinic matrixes of the interface between oral and written.

April DeConick said...

Hi Jared,

I was thinking of Carr whose book is excellent.

geoffhudson.blogspot.com said...


You write of "the beauty of the emerging paradigm in orality-scribality studies". This is pretty high-sounding stuff that might make one think that the process was entirely innocent. I take a much more jaundiced view of the process, particularly in relation to the NT which contains so much obvious change. Thus so-called 'living text' was deliberately altered text, or created text that was inserted to follow an agenda that you may call tradition, but which may well have been ecclesiastical or political. Thus if the scribes vocalised or memorised texts, they vocalised or memorised what suited them or more likely their employers, be it church or state. The process was far from pretty.