Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gambl[ing] again, a story of relapse

I've returned to Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). But it's okay. I can stop whenever I want to.

The first part of Gamble's fifth and final chapter, "The Uses of Early Christian Books" (203–41), begins with a discussion of the form and function of written texts in early Christian liturgical practice. (Recall that Gamble spent considerable time discussing the form of early Christian texts—as codices [i.e., books]—in a previous chapter, where he postulated the Pauline epistolary collection as the formative influence over the early Christians' preference for the codex over the scroll; see my comments here.) The opening sentence deserves citing here:
Books are written to be read, but they are read for many purposes and in many contexts, and the act of reading varies accordingly. (203)

I have argued elsewhere that what it means to read is, for us, so self-evident that we assume we know what we're looking at when we find people doing it in ancient texts. When Jesus stands up ἀναγνῶναι ("to read") the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he must be doing the same thing I do when I read Isaiah 61, right? Of course, he's physically handling a scroll rather than a book; but still, his eyes and his brain are doing the things my eyes and brain are doing, right? Of course, the problem here is that what Luke reports that Jesus read doesn't exist on a page anywhere, until, that is, Luke writes it. If Luke can emphasize the image of Jesus reading the way he does in 4.16–21 and still report a nonexistent text, and all this without any sense whatsoever that anything is amiss, perhaps to read doesn't mean what we think it means. I know, I know: Inconceivable!

Gamble goes on to provide a marvelous explanation of the act of reading in antiquity. He makes a lot of the difficulty presented by scriptio continua ("continuous script"), though I think we need to recognize that no one in antiquity complained of the lack of spaces between words (at least, not as far as I am aware; Gamble certainly doesn't provide an instance of such a complaint). Even so, reading the "relentless march of characters across the lines and down the columns" (203) involved the voice and the ears in a way that "reading" in the modern sense doesn't, as ancient readers "organized [written syllables] as much by hearing as by sight into a pattern of meaning" (204). This aspect of "reading" in antiquity results in a more broadly social dynamic of texts, a social dynamic that vitiates, somewhat, the modern dismay at the shockingly low levels of literacy that scholars have estimated for antiquity since, at least, Harris's landmark study, Ancient Literacy: "the illiterate were as capable as the literate of hearing books read. Thus the absence of literacy had limited consequences in the context of public reading" (205; remember Gamble's phrase, participation in literacy, which I discussed here).

Gamble turns to the function of written texts in the early synagogues as an entrée into the function of texts in the early churches. The relation between Palestinian synagogal practices and the practices of synagogues in the Greek Diaspora is unclear.
It is less clear whether strictly Gentile Christian communities of the first century, though they were often spawned from hellenistic-Jewish missions, adopted synagogue usages. For these reasons it cannot be uncritically assumed that scripture reading belonged from the outset to specifically Christian worship or, if it did, that it played the same role that it did in the synagogue. (212)

Gamble may be right, but we need to remember that we're talking about specifically liturgical (i.e., as part of the worship service) uses of texts. The point is less debatable that the early Christians, like their Jewish neighbors, were from the start oriented toward textual traditions irrespective of whether and/or how written texts functioned as part of their worship. Behind a number of our earliest evidences (Paul [1 Corinthians], Matthew, Acts) are specifically and emphatically textual sources of tradition, even if those sources functioned symbolically more than textually. Paul is emphatic that Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection happened "according to the scriptures," even though he doesn't bother to clarify which, specifically, he has in mind. Matthew famously links to written biblical tradition in his account of Jesus, even to the point of explaining Jesus' return to erets Israel in terms of Hosea (11.1). Acts, too, appeals to written authorities in the disciples' actions in chapter 1, in the first presentation of the gospel in chapter 2, in Paul's denunciation of the Roman Jews in chapter 28, and at nearly every point in between. Whatever the early Christians did in their worship services, they were oriented to their world, at least in part, by means of written texts.

I'm also a little skeptical of an important assumption about written texts that Gamble accepts (uncritically, I might say); in an off-handed comment he says, "the text was fixed" (227). In light of the amazing textual fluidity we find within and between manuscripts, I'm not sure how we can say this. I assume he means that once a manuscript was written, that manuscript was no longer subject to change. This is close to true, though we are awash with ancient manuscripts that have been "corrected" (or simply emended) by later hands, sometimes by multiple later hands. Writing a manuscript was not the same as inscribing a stone tablet or stele. But Luke's citation of Isa. 61 in Luke 4, Mark's reference to "Isaiah" in Mark 1.2–3, James' enigmatic reference to "the scripture" in 4.5, and a host of other examples serve to suggest that if "the [written] text," ἡ γραφή with all its theological freight, "was fixed," its fixity looked and functioned rather differently than the stability of our own printed texts.

Gamble makes another interesting point, especially in the face of the claim made recently by a number of scholars (e.g., Richard Horsley) that written texts were prohibitively expensive. In his explication of "the private use of Christian books" (231–37), Gamble argues that Christian texts were rather widely available to anyone who wanted them and that Christian preachers often expected their hearers to have access to make use of written texts. Indeed, the problem for these preachers was often that not enough of their hearers did so! "Apparently the problem was not that Christian books were especially difficult or expensive to procure for private use, but that few troubled to obtain them, and fewer still to read them" (233). This doesn't suggest that Christians were broadly or usually literate; Origen, for example, "certainly does not assume the literacy of all Christians, but he does presuppose the availability of texts to those who could read" (232). The material costs of written texts, apparently, were not nearly as high a hurdle as the educational costs. Gamble concludes,
It seems clear that literate Christians were able to obtain Christian texts for private reading. Because the matter of their cost almost never comes up, expense does not appear to have been an obstacle. Some cost was involved, no doubt, but it was not prohibitive for most. (237)

Finally, Gamble raises the question of "the magical use of Christian books" (237–41), which provides perhaps the most striking difference between ancient and modern uses of written texts. Gamble rightly rejects the idea that only the common, vulgar populace used texts "magically"; Origen, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all attest such uses. The issue is interesting, and Gamble's discussion of it is helpful if only too brief.

Overall, this is a great book that deserves its near-classic status. For those of you interested in media criticism, literacy, the form and/or function of written texts in Christian antiquity, or a host of related questions, I highly recommend Gamble's book.

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