Thursday, September 23, 2010

David Aune on oral tradition and written texts

The third chapter of Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009) is David Aune's essay, "Jesus Tradition and the Pauline Letters" (63–86). Finally. A chapter to enjoy reading. Christopher Tuckett's chapter was on form criticism, so it wasn't going to be . . . well, interesting. And Terence Mournet's chapter mainly rehearsed earlier arguments and largely failed to consider anything other than transmission of tradition.

Aune's essay, in contrast, caught my interest in that he exhibits a keen awareness of the consequences that appraisals of written texts across cultural boundaries can dramatically affect not just how those texts function but even what they are. In the case of Paul's letters, the written text could be actualized orally by being read aloud—"performed"—in a public setting, or they could be actualized textually by being copied into a new manuscript. This latter, in Aune's approach, is no less a "performance" of the Pauline tradition than the public reading.
[E]ach new "copy" of an exemplar was itself a performance in its own right, raising the question of the extent to which the traditional text-critical goal of reconstructing the "original" text is an achievable enterprise. In my own work on a commentary on the Testament of Solomon, it became evident early on that the "original text" of this second-century document cannot be reconstructed. This raises the important question about the purpose of such a commentary. In the case of the Testament of Solomon, I decided to base the commentary on a single manuscript "performance" of the text, bringing in a discussion of some of the extensive variants only when such a discussion seemed warranted. (67)

Of course (and Aune knows) the manuscript traditions for the Pauline corpus and the Testament of Solomon experience such radically different conditions that we cannot treat these traditions the same way. But in both instances, later manuscripts are not more-or-less corrupted versions of earlier texts; instead, they are performances of their respective traditions. The quality of these "performances" might vary; indeed, we would expect them to vary. But written manuscripts across a broad range of history and geography were judged by their position vis-à-vis the traditions they embodied rather than merely their fidelity to earlier manuscripts. (The word merely is important here; obviously earlier manuscripts formed an important and vital component of the tradition that was brought to bear in the assessment of later manuscripts.) In other words, texts didn't give birth to texts (the conception behind much stemmatic text-critical scholarship); cultural processes that included but transcended texts produced texts.

Aune then turns to Pierre Nora's seminal edited anthology of French history, Les Lieux de mémoire (1984–92; ET: Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past [1996–98]), and analyzes the Pauline tradition (with an emphasis on the Thessalonian correspondence) as primarily—and first—aides-mémoire ("mnemonic devices") and secondarily—and later—lieux de mémoire ("sites of memory"). I don't want to reproduce Aune's argument here. And certainly there are differences between Aune's own conception of social or collective memory and my own. But Aune provides a compelling and concrete way of thinking about the function of Paul's letters in various social contexts through time as well as the effect of writing in Paul's name (if the deutero-Pauline epistles are in fact pseudonymous, which Aune accepts).

Aune's essay is, unfortunately, a little sloppily edited. I noted at least two errors in Greek (e.g., παραλαμβάλειν for παραλαμβάνειν [73]), and on more than one occasion Aune refers to Pierre Nola (instead of Nora; the problem begins on p. 79). Nevertheless, this is an essay well worth consulting, and I highly recommend it.

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