Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rhetorical Cultures and orality

Both Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson have posted today on rhetorical cultures. I wonder what they are studying this summer at Duke? I want to interact with a few of the points that they raise.

I really must emphasize again that secondary orality in our literate culture has nothing to do with orality in a rhetorical or transition culture. They are different beasts entirely. Dunn is not wrong to make the emphasis he does. Orality in our culture (=secondary orality) is completely dependent on literacy and the literate mind or consciousness. This is not the case in rhetorical cultures which are dependent on the oral mind.

Rhetorical cultures are not the same as literate cultures like ours. They are transitional cultures. They are cultures where almost everyone is illiterate, except for a minority. Even the minority who are literate, are not literate like we are literate. They have a different consciousness. They retain an oral consciousness. They handle written texts like they handle oral texts, and they handle writing like they do speaking. If you want a good example of what this means, I recommend reading Amin Sweeney, A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World. I posted a full BOOK NOTE HERE<<< on this last year, and discussed how this might help us to think through the Synoptic Problem.

The literate people in oral cultures do tend to end up the leaders, although this does not mean that all leaders were literate, or that all missionaries were literate. But it does mean that the people who were literate had more power, were seen as "magical," and they controlled the traditions for future generations.

"According to the scriptures" doesn't mean they were reading. Most of the time they were remembering what the scripture said - what they had heard read or recited to them, or what they may have read at some point.


Richard James said...

As a cognitive psychologist I tend to think about the cognitive operations that are involved in writing. Even though the distinction between rhetorical cultures and literate cultures should be kept in mind when studying early Christian writings I feel this should not be exaggerated. The idea that these authors treat oral 'texts' the same way as they treat written texts appears to ignore the fundamental differences between the way oral traditions and written texts affect the cognitive operations during the writing process. To start with an author composing a text on the basis of orality is retrieving information exclusively from memory (unless the oral tradents are standing beside the author retrieving traditions from their own memory). The ancient author working with a written text does this as well (given the constraints of not having a desk and having to work with scrolls he will not always look things up, but will often rely on his memory of the text), but has the obvious added advantage of being able to go through the text in front of him. I think this has quite an impact on the way the author will compose his text no matter how oral, rhetorical or literate his culture is. One obvious difference is the possibility of verbatim copying. A less obvious (but more interesting) difference is in the creative process. When an ancient author intends to be creative and is working within orality the creative proces will be extremely flexible, since it will depend on 'whatever pops into mind'(to put it simplistically). This memory retrieval will be quite associative (since memory is associative in the sense that memories tend to activate other related memories). The creative process will be different when the author has a text in front of him, because the text from which the author is working will interact with the author's own memories and this will have a different effect than memory of oral traditions.

I would also like to add that the emphasis on oral tradition makes me feel quite uneasy. The problem I often see when scholars talk about independent oral traditions (and I am thinking concretely about Thomas and the synoptics at this point, but it applies to relations between other texts as well) is that it appears to function as an untestable default mode that is taken by the scholar. It can never be proven that two texts reflect independent oral traditions (since we obviously have no access to oral traditions). Lets say we have two texts with the same saying and no redactional elements can be discovered in either version and the two versions are not similar enough (verbatim) that a literary relationship can be proven. Does this mean the two versions reflect independent oral tradition? No, of course not. It just means there is not enough evidence to positively conclude that there is a literary relationship. In other words, we just don't know. It could be the case that the two versions reflect independent oral tradition or it could be that one text affected the other, but was not directly copied. In the case of Thomas and the Synoptics I think it is quite clear that the synoptic gospels had become quite popular well before the time our earliest fragments of Thomas were written. And, to quote Klyne Snodgrass, "Edessa is not THAT far from Antioch." Naturally this does not mean that all parallels between Thomas and the synoptics should be explained by secondary influence from the synoptics on Thomas, but I think probably more than is typically done in (non-evangelical) North-American scholarship.

April DeConick said...


I agree, and in fact, have pointed to many of these same issues in my own writing about the Gospel of Thomas and other texts. The one exception is that this discussion is not a default mode! It is a corrective to a long history of scholarship that has been snared into literary dependence through form and redaction criticisms.

The other point is that scholars who work in the field of orality have demonstrated that there is a difference between the way that people from oral and rhetorical cultures operate in terms of their literacy. This is something that biblical scholars are largely unaware of, and, in my opinion, need to become aware of.

Thanks for a good post!

paulf said...

I made a similar agument in Goodacre's first post on the topic. It seems to me, and someone will correct me if I'm wrong, that people who want to believe the Bible is substantially true want to emphasize the written traditions so doubters can't say that the bible books are just a bunch of stories passed on by illiterate peasants. And others take an opposite view. All this complicated scholarship masks an agenda, but bottom line is that all we ever will be able to do today is guess.

That said, I don't think you can compare then and now. Then the literate few wrote books based on stories that were passed down by the many, not on any contemporaneous accounts like a newspaper. Now many tell stories based on what is written by many in books and magazines and newspapers. Sure, there are similarities -- all people talk and some write -- but the concepts are far, far apart.

April DeConick said...


Agreed. Where is your earlier post?

Talon said...

My earlier comment was in Goodacre's first post on the issue weeks ago. It was under my son's talon screen name, which comes up when I post from home for reasons I cannot control.


Unknown said...

Absolutely! One only needs to read the letters of Paul. You can see the use of oral rhetoric in the letters. They were clearly written to be read. Whether one believes Ephesians was written by Paul or not the rhythm of the chain of participial clauses in the 1st chapter shows the oral nature of the written text.

Also early church tradition says that the oral word was trusted more than the written word. The apostles were trusted because they were with Jesus. Their immediate followers were trusted because they were with the apostles.

Richard James said...


thanks for your response! I had not really thought of this orality discussion as a response to form and redaction criticism. I think it is somewhat amusing that when I read your comment I immediately thought of narrative criticism, since this too can be seen as a reaction to form and redaction criticism. Narrative criticism is of course quite a literary way of thinking about the Gospels. If, for example, Mark is truly composing a narrative the way people like Mary Tolbert have described we may wonder what this has to do with orality.