Tuesday, September 22, 2009

how we make our points (or not) in NT discourse

I've picked up again an article I began writing last July and will hopefully have its first draft finished this week or next. More on that later, perhaps. But in the process of gathering some research, I returned to Charles H. Talbert's 1978 essay, "Oral and Independent or Literary and Interdependent? A Response to Albert B. Lord" (in William O. Walker, Jr., ed. The Relationships among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue [San Antonio: Trinity University Press], 93–102), which responds to Lord's argument that the synoptic gospels are examples of oral traditional literature.

Lord was a world-class, first-rate scholar whose breadth of knowledge was vast and whose ability to raise and address unexpected questions was enviable. His landmark book, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) gave birth to an entire field of study (Oral-Formulaic research). And although some of his proposals now seem narrowly restricted in light of the variegated expressions and experiences of oral performances throughout history and around the world, we can ask the questions we ask in part because Albert Lord taught us how.

I emphasize Lord's stature because it provides the frame of reference from which I re-read Talbert's response this afternoon. Talbert—himself an impressive scholar and, perhaps more importantly, a gentle and kind person—picks up on Lord's conclusion:
The texts of the Gospels "vary from one another to such an extent as to rule out the possibility that, as a whole, one could have been copied from another" (p. 90). From my point of view, however, the divergent wording is no obstacle to our viewing the Synoptic Problem as a literary one. Given the practices of the Hellenistic Age, it is exactly what one should expect. (Talbert 1978: 95; my emphasis)

Does Talbert suppose that Lord is unaware of the relevant "practices of the Hellenistic Age"? If so, it would have been nice of him to state them briefly and explain why these mitigate the force of the comparative arguments Lord adduced for his conclusion. Instead, Talbert turns to to Josephus's use of sources for his Antiquities of the Jews, although the utility of Josephus and his Antiquities of the Jews for understanding either the evangelists or their writings is highly questionable. Should we assume that Josephus was a "normal" or unremarkable example of "practices of the Hellenistic Age"? Even if so, which practices, precisely, does Talbert have in mind?

Even five years ago, when I first encountered Walker's book, I was struck by the non-answer Talbert provides to Lord's arguments. Granted, Lord's Oral-Formulaic paradigm isn't as applicable to the gospels as we might have thought in 1978. But Talbert's response is, in essence, to suggest that Lord's explications of oral-traditional dynamics also apply to literary products. Talbert seems to assume this settles the question of whether or not the synoptic problem is properly addressed as a literary problem, but instead I think it raises the question of the oral (or better, traditional) dynamics of written texts in the ancient world.

But I come back to the dismissive gesture I italicized in the quote from Talbert's response, above. The appeal to the ill-defined, unspecified "practices of the Hellenistic Age" ducks and dodges Lord's argument rather than responds to it. And while I'm interested in the questions Lord's legacy has left behind for gospels scholars, I would also like to encourage myself, my students, and my colleagues to avoid the very sorts of appeals to "the way it would have been" that allow us to shy away from actually very interesting and challenging questions.

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