Friday, January 14, 2011

is this nonsense?

I'm still reading The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Now I'm working through David Rhoads's essay, "Performance Events in Early Christianity: New Testament Writings in an Oral Context" (166–93). Rhoads frames the NT texts as "performance literature," written texts that are incomplete in themselves.
Simply put, the writings we have in the New Testament are examples of "performance literature," that is, literature that was meant for performance—like music or theater or ancient poetry. It is difficult to imagine musicologists studying scores of music without ever hearing a performance. Nor can we imagine theater scholars studying scripts of ancient drama without having seen performances of the plays or without trying to determine how they may have been performed and experienced in ancient times. Yet we biblical scholars have studied the literature of the New Testament for centuries without ever hearing them performed as stories or speeches or epistolary orations, without trying to determine how they may have been performed in the early church, and without constructing ancient performance scenarios as a basis for interpretation. (169)

I agree completely. Rhoads has put his money where his mouth is. He regularly performs large sections of the New Testament (e.g., the Gospel of Mark, or Revelation) from memory; so deep is his conviction that people need to hear the text at least as much as they should read the text. And so I have a real appreciation for Rhoads's work.

But. When Rhoads turns to the question of memory, he makes the following statement: "The first century was a memory culture more than it was a manuscript culture." My question: Is this gibberish? What does Rhoads mean by "the first century," and how is that any kind of culture, memory or otherwise? Are "memory culture" and "manuscript culture" "things," separatable, isolatable, able to be set in contrast with each other like lemons and protractors?

I appreciate the question Rhoads is trying to raise, and I even agree that we need to raise it. That is, How did "memory" (whatever that is) and "manuscripts" function in antiquity in specific cultural locations? That is a very important question (or better, a very important set of questions). But notice that Rhoads's language is way too blunt to get at the question, let alone to propose helpful starts at useful answers. Rhoads's identification of "the first century" as any kind of "culture," as if it were a culture at all, swings a sledgehammer at a question that requires considerable finesse.

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