Saturday, September 25, 2010

re-oralizing written manuscripts

Martin Jaffee is probably one of my favorite scholars of oral tradition and the relation between orally transmitted and actualized material and the written texts in which such material exists today. Jaffee, in my opinion, has not only read John Miles Foley (something more people who cite him ought to do) but also understood him. Jaffee's most substantial work that I've read is his 2001 monograph, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press), but I've run across a number of his essays in edited volumes throughout the course of my own research.

Most recently, his essay, "Honi the Circler in Manuscript and Memory: An Experiment in 'Re-Oralizing' the Talmudic Text"—the fourth chapter in Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (Werner Kelber and Samuel Byrskog; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009; 87–111)—presents an excellent example of the kind of analysis Foley advocated in his 1995 monograph, The Singer of Tales in Performance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press). That is, Jaffee balances the primary target of his analysis (viz., an orally mediated tradition) with a respect for the inevitable field of that analysis (viz., handwritten texts). This balance eludes much of media-critical scholarship; we seem to either forget the text-based nature of all our work or to underestimate the significance of the oral milieux contextualizing our written texts.

Jaffee's essay in the Gerhardsson Festschrift offers two presentations of the Honi tradition from the Munich manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud. The first represents in English the visual appearance of that tradition in the MS Munich, "attempting to represent in English what a reader of the manuscript finds in the published facsimile edition: line after undifferentiated line of text without any of the normal cues of punctuation that would signal to a reader how to vocalize the text" (91). The second presentation employs different typefaces (italics, plain text, BOLD ALL CAPS, etc.) in an attempt
to represent visually the various oral-performative sources of textual tradition that are manifest in the editorial shaping of the material but concealed by the scribal format of the manuscript. My goal is to permit the reader to grasp the fundamental ways in which the linear, scribal version of the Talmud neutralizes the oral-performative traces of the transmitted text even as it becomes the very condition of the recovery of the text's oral life. (91)

At this point many of us textually-trained practitioners of biblical scholarship will object that Jaffee does not—indeed cannot—provide any methodologically rigorous criteria to ensure that the "oral-performative" interpretation of the Honi pericope actually obtained, either in the original composition of the MS Munich that provides the text with which he works or in that manuscript's subsequent reception. And Jaffee recognizes this problem (see pp. 96–97). But Jaffee refuses to abandon the attempt to recover oral-performative dynamics that we know with near-certainty contextualized the written textual artifacts with which we work simply because we cannot know if, or how well, we have recovered those dynamics. As Foley would say, we already de-nature oral-derived texts when our interpretations take account of their strictly textual dynamics and neglect the performative and traditional cues embedded in and yet obscured by those textual dynamics.

As a result, we cannot know with any certainty the degree to which Jaffee's "re-oralization" of the Honi pericope accurately revivifies how that pericope would have been heard by its audiences in any given cultural or historical milieu. And yet we can appreciate the way his presentation of the text in discrete "breath-units" and highlighting the multiple "voices" comprising the talmudic text adds depth and texture to the flattened words on the page. Work still remains to be done, of course. But Jaffee advances our reading of oral-derived texts. Now to turn to the gospels . . .

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