Tuesday, September 14, 2010

problems with transmission

I've started into Terence C. Mournet's essay, "The Jesus Tradition as Oral Tradition," which is the second chapter of Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner H. Kelber and Samuel Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009). Mournet's PhD thesis—which I believe was supervised by James D. G. Dunn at Durham University—was published as Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2005); given the somewhat well-known disagreements between Dunn and Birger Gerhardsson it is perhaps a bit surprising that Mournet is writing this chapter in a quasi-Festschrift for Gerhardsson, though Mournet takes a respectful and conciliatory line from the start.

As I read Mournet's essay, though, and especially as I remember Christopher Tuckett's immediately preceding discussion of form criticism (21–38), I'm struck that NT scholarship seems nearly incapable of thinking about oral tradition in any terms other than "transmission." In other words, what makes "oral tradition" oral is how it moves through time and/or space: namely, by word of mouth. This seems a pretty big problem, given that for at least two decades the discussion of oral traditional texts and performances has raised a number of other, more interesting questions. Among these are:

  • How do traditional societies understand the relation between different (and differing) performances of the same tradition?
  • How do traditional societies understand the relation between different traditions within the same genre, social context, etc.?
  • How do traditional societies experience the movement of their traditions across and between media, including oral performance and written text?
  • How do media dynamics differentiate between different traditions and/or different traditional genres within the same traditional society?
  • How do traditions—whether oral, written, or oral-derived—mean what they mean, and what role do other factors (performance, language, instrumentation, etc.) play in the generation of meaning?

And so on and so on. Oral traditional dynamics present such an interesting and lively field of research, and this field is so self-evidently relevant for biblical scholarship (including, of course, New Testament scholarship). How unfortunate, then, that the legacy of German Formgeschichte has been to restrict our discussion to the rather myopic question of transmission!

Or, to paraphrase Jim Mora: Transmission?! Don't talk about transmission. You kiddin' me?! Transmisison?

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