Saturday, August 21, 2010

early Christian textuality

With the beginning of the semester barrelling down on us like a melodramatic steamtrain, I haven't had as much time to spend with Harry Gamble's book, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). So this morning I got up with my alarm and finished the first chapter, "Literacy and Literary Culture in Early Christianity" (1–41). As a reminder of my first impressions of Gamble's book, I especially like his discussion of early Christian literacy (2–10), and his phrase "participation in literacy" in particular. Gamble proceeds to survey the influence of Franz Overbeck, Adolf Deismann, and form-critical scholarship in scholars' understanding of early Christian literary culture—and to dismiss any strong polarization between Hochliteratur ("high literature") and Kleinliteratur ("common or vulgar literature").

From there Gamble traces "the scope and character of early Christian literature" (21–40). Here he finds a world of written texts, from those that remain from antiquity (e.g., the NT, the NT Apocrypha, etc.) to those we find referenced but that no longer survive (e.g., Paul's first [?] letter to Corinth; see 1 Cor. 5.9), and those we only infer (e.g., Q, various miracle or parable collections, etc.). He also points out, rightly, that even before these texts early Christianity was already involved with a rich textual tradition: the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and other Jewish writings.

But already there are problems. For example, Gamble takes a rather maximalist approach to detecting written sources behind the gospels. As part of that approach, he writes,

Futhermore, the extended genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke are not the sort of material to have been orally preserved; their documentary content suggests that they were in written form from the beginning, and they must have had an early and Jewish origin since they presuppose Jesus' human ancestry. (23)

Leaving aside the implication that later and non-Jewish Christians were uninterested in "Jesus' human ancestry," I'm not sure why the genealogies "are not the sort of material to have been orally preserved." Notice that Gamble isn't arguing on evidentiary grounds that these two related traditional accounts rely on one or more written sources; he's claiming that this type of tradition—records of one's ancestry—must've relied on written texts.

The problem is that this is patently and demonstrably false. Even just a quick search through JSTOR looking for the terms oral tradition, oral historiography, and genealogy turns up nearly twelve hundred hits, nearly half from 1994 and earlier. Anthropological work in Africa, Southeast Asia, among Native Americans, and elsewhere demonstrates the varied ways that diverse and sundry societies across vast temporal, geographical, and cultural expanses have taken up the past—including ancestral records—without relying upon (or without relying solely upon) written texts. In other words, there's no reason whatsoever that the genealogical accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, irrespective of their historical value, must have relied on written accounts. It remains to be seen whether or not any evidence suggests they did rely on textual sources, but this is not settled a priori.

The problems continue from there. For example, in his discussion of early Christianity's relationship to the products of Jewish literary culture, Gamble writes:

Although it need not be denied that there was a period, possibly a long one, during which some Christian traditions were orally transmitted, during that same period Christians were deeply and continuously engaged with texts. Christians were from the beginning assiduous students of Jewish scriptures. This not only presumes the literacy of at least some of them, but also implies what may be called a scholastic concern and activity. (23–24; my emphasis).

I'm not sure what Gamble means by his description of early Christians as "assiduous students," but it strikes me, at least, as a bit anachronistic. Despite the hesitation in his presumption of literacy for "at least some of them," I wonder what happened to his very helpful concept of "participation in literacy" (see pp. 8–9), a phrase that among other things reminds us that even illiterate, non-literate, and otherly-literate people can have access to and make rather robust use of written tradition. This is not a trivial point, either. Gamble's assumpiton of a "scholastic concern and activity" leads him to formulate the early Christians' work with Hebrew biblical texts in terms of constructing "the textual warrants of Christian convictions and [of] making those texts serviceable for Christian preaching, apologetics, and instruction" (25). But this is only part of the picture, as those texts also (and simultaneously) participated in the construction of Christian convictions themselves—and not merely their "warrants." Like chickens and eggs, these come from each other. As a result, I rather doubt that there was any felt need to "mak[e] those texts serviceable for Christian preaching, apologetics, and instruction" because those activities were already considered the proclamation, defense, and teaching of the texts themselves!

Despite these criticisms, Gamble goes on to provide a rather helpful discussion of "the character of early Christian literary culture" (32–40) that locates early Christian texts among the informative, instructional texts of Greek scientific writing (rather than the "vulgar texts" of the papyri [á la Deismann] or the rhetorically stylized texts of ancient Greek historiography). My doctoral supervisor, Loveday Alexander, argued for just this location of Luke-Acts on the basis of Luke's prefaces (Luke 1.1–4; Acts 1.1), and Gamble makes many and useful references to her work. Most significantly—especially in light of the highly textually biased discussion I critiqued immediately above—Gamble stresses that

the earliest Christian writers participated in the rhetorical culture of antiquity and that the earliest Christain literature cannot be set outside the larger literary culture. (35)

This, I think, is much better. Early Christian writers and texts (and readers, too) participated in their surrounding rhetorical and literary cultures. Of course, written texts played vital roles in these cultures, but we should not suppose that these cultures are reducible to written texts. Instead, these cultures envelope and contextualize those texts and expand the possibility that even groups and subgroups with comparatively limited access to the texts might take up and employ the traditions they embody.

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