Thursday, September 30, 2010

biblical studies and comparative thinking

Werner Kelber's essay, "The Work of Birger Gerhardsson in Perspective," concludes the book, Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009; 173–206). I'm not the biggest fan of Kelber's work, though I have to admit that I am a beneficiary of his groundbreaking work. My first introduction to Kelber was through his seminal monograph, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983), which in my initial opinion posited too-strong a disruption between oral and written communicative media. Since then Kelber himself has acknowledged this shortcoming, though he still (again, in my opinion) slides too-easily into an oral vs. reading dichotomy.

Those criticisms aside, I find myself enjoying the current essay very much, perhaps more than I've enjoyed any other thing Kelber has written. With that, I'd like to quote Kelber's analysis of biblical scholarship and why objections to cross-cultural and/or transhistorical analytical models are red-herrings.
As an academic discipline, biblical scholarship is laden with centuries of received manners and mannerisms. Not infrequently it has operated in a state of culturally conditioned and/or institutionally enforced isolation. More to the point, many of its historical methods and assumptions about the functioning of biblical texts originated in perennial working relations with print versions—typographic constructs of modernity. Plainly, New Testament (and biblical) studies stand in need of a rethinking of the communications environment in which the early Jesus tradition participated. (181)

Kelber is exactly right. The danger—for Kelber as well as for any of us who search for sociological and anthropological models to help illumine ancient texts—is thinking that we have avoided misapprehending the biblical texts while everyone else sees them through culturally inappropriate lenses. Kelber may too easily critique other scholars for assuming an inapplicable communications model, but his work also constantly reminds that our own ways of perceiving, processing, transmitting, and working with words differ in nearly every respect from Jesus, Paul, and every other figure from antiquity. Cross-cultural models help us become better aware, at the very least, of our own ways of verbalization and so to question how ancient communicative techniques and technologies may have functioned in ways different from our own.

1 comment:

Rafael said...

I want to justify my criticism that Kelber "slides too easily into an oral vs. reading dichotomy." A little further on in his essay, Kelber asks, "How can we sort out oral from scribal components inscribed in the Gospel narratives?" (184). But this is precisely the problem facing media-critics of early Christianity. We can't separate oral from scribal traditional components because the tradition itself has been transformed by oral-performative and scribal dynamics. Kelber views oral and scribal effects on the tradition like little shards of quartz on the beach, difficult to separate but still, with the proper care, sortable. I, on the other hand, view oral and scribal effects on the tradition more like the eggs and butter in chocolate chip cookies: both make an important contribution to the final product, but you can't subtract either out once you're done baking.

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