Monday, October 04, 2010

letter-collections and written tradition in antiquity

Now that I've finished reading Jesus in Memory, I've been able to return to Harry Gamble's very important monograph, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). Earlier in the book Gamble proposed the collection of (ten of) Paul's letters to seven churches as the motivating factor behind the Christians' early adoption of the codex format (rather than the scroll; see pp. 58–66). Now I'm reading Gamble's discussion of another collection of early Christian epistles: the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (109–12). Gamble's analyses of these letter collections are always interesting, even if I find parts of them still open to question.

Even so, what caught my interest is an almost off-handed comment about the early interest in written texts early in the second century among the church in Smyrna (western Asia Minor). Gamble has carefully teased out a surprising level of literary activity among the Smyrnaean Christians, and then he says:
This intense activity shows that the church at Smyrna in particular had both the interest and capacity to reproduce and distribute texts, and this, moreover, during the first two decades of the second century, a period often regarded as still heavily committed to oral tradition and little interested in the written word. (112)

Indeed. If Gamble has accurately reconstructed the letter-gathering, -transcribing, and -transmitting activities of the Smyrnaean church, then the interest in written texts at this Christian center is surprising. And Smyrna isn't the first major center of Christianity in the ancient world that comes to mind; if this state of affairs obtained in Smyrna, what must the text-production situation have been like in Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem, or Antioch?

But what catches my attention, at least at this point in Gamble's analysis, is the way this textual interest breaks down generically. That is, the texts in which the church at this historical juncture (late-first to early-second century) exhibits such striking interest are all letters, and in fact the collections are of a single author's epistolary works. Collections weren't made on the basis of letters to specific churches or regions of churches (e.g., letters to Asian churches, or Syrian-Palestinian churches, or European churches, etc.). They also weren't all collected together in a single mass (important Christian epistolary texts). What we see are specific anthological interests in Paul's letters, Ignatius's letters, and so on.

Here's my point: What we don't see—and what makes Gamble's barb against the predilection for oral tradition that many of us assume among the general culture of Late Antiquity (and the early Christians in particularly) somewhat specious—are interests in written texts across multiple genre. We don't see at this stage in the Church's history a collection of gospels. Justin Martyr will demonstrate awareness of at least two and possibly all four canonical gospels in just a few decades, but this isn't the same as collecting and binding together multiple narrative texts. Tatian, a few decades after Justin, will bring together the four gospels in his Diatessaron, but this, too, is a far cry from collecting and anthologizing narrative texts. Irenaeus, just a few years after Tatian but on the other side of the Empire, may be the first instance we have of a four-gospel collection, but even here his interest in collecting narrative texts results more from Marcion's exclusive preference for [a corrupted version of] Luke's gospel rather than from the same sorts of impulses we see behind the collection of Paul's and Ignatius's letters.

So when Papias, the late-first- and/or early-second-century bishop of Hieropolis, says, "For I did not think that things found in books would benefit me as much as things from a living and abiding voice," he clearly demonstrates a preference for oral tradition over written texts.1 In context Papias's preference for the "living and abiding voice" applies especially to evangelical and, perhaps, paraenetic tradition. Presumably, if Papias had been writing on the apostle Paul, his estimation of the value of written texts would have differed. And equally clearly Papias doesn't reject tout court the value of written texts; after all, Papias is writing his own text, the now-lost Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord.

Harry Gamble, then, hasn't actually demonstrated any parity between oral and written expressions of the tradition in the early church, though he has very helpfully encouraged us to consider how generic dynamics intersect with media dynamics.

1 οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον, ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης (Papias, Frag. 3.4; Greek text from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations [third edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 734).

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