Wednesday, January 12, 2011

on imagining new worlds

I'm currently reading Richard Horsley's essay, "The Gospel of Mark in the Interface of Orality and Writing," in 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). If you're familiar with Horsley's other works then you'll already know what to expect from this essay: a critique of certain culturally inappropriate models sustaining biblical scholarship and a striking reliance on certain key binary oppositions (Judean vs. Galilean, élite vs. ordinary people, etc.).

Despite the need to improve on and further Horsley's work, he nevertheless does provide a helpful opportunity to think more largely about biblical studies and the concrete social functioning of the texts we analyze. This has always been one of the key strengths of Horsley's scholarship. So I thought I'd reproduce this helpful quote on the need for us to get past ourselves and appreciate Mark's gospel as, perhaps, a single performance of the Jesus tradition rather than a collection of previously independent short stories (novella, according to Dibelius).
What remains difficult even for those who recognize Mark as a sustained story, I think, and perhaps also for those of us who also recognize the interface of orality and writing, is to imagine the formation, the composition, of the whole (Gospel) story. Perhaps because we are so habituated to composition in/as writing we have particular difficulty imagining how a text of the length and complexity of Mark could have been composed other than in writing—even though many epics that are orally performed (and composed) are much longer and more complex in plotting than Mark and the other Gospels. (157)

Of course, worlds of difference separate Mark and the other gospels from the epics I think Horsley has in mind (Homer, Moslem Yugoslavian epics, etc.). But that's not the point Horsley's making. He's reminding us that Mark's story—impressive and complicated as it is—isn't really so impressive and complicated that it had to be composed by an author in possession of himself, deliberate and laboriously working at a table or desk, free of the distractions of the wide world around him.

Instead, Mark certainly could have been (I think probably would have been) the kind of story Jesus' followers told as they gathered together to learn, to worship, to fellowship, and to pray. Certainly at some point someone (let's call him Mark) wrote the story down—though strangely Horsley would disagree. But that doesn't mean that Mark's written gospel was the first time the story ("the whole [Gospel] story") was apprehended in a single social engagement by women and men devoted to Jesus. In fact, given that the first mention of Mark's gospel doesn't occur until early in the second century CE (Papias), I suspect no one thought what Mark had done to Jesus' story was particularly groundbreaking or innovative (pace Kelber). Mark's gospel provided another in a very large number of possible performances of the Jesus story, and before long Matthew and Luke (and even John) would show that Mark's story, indeed, wasn't even that long!


Anonymous said...

Dear Rafael,

Do you see any evidence of an "oral tradition" that you can point me to?

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

Rafael said...


I've been trying to figure out how to answer your question. Certainly a number of scholars seem to be trying to find "oral tradition" in the gospel, whether Mark or otherwise. But this, I think, is a bit ridiculous. What can "oral tradition" in a written text mean, except that perhaps we're thinking of "oral tradition" as a source, like Q or Ur-Markus, whose contribution to the written text is detectable, isolatable, and analyzable.

A number of us (esp. Kelber and Horsley, though I have significant differences from these two) have learned a great deal from John Miles Foley, who speaks of "oral-derived texts" to describe written texts that stand in some organic relation, of whatever quality, to a living, vibrant (oral) tradition.

So in my work, "oral tradition" is a sociohistorical hypothesis rather than a literary or source-critical one. It's influenced by a number of factors, including the rather different social functions literacy (the ability to read) played, the disjunction of reading and writing as skill sets (the ability to do the former did not result in the latter), the apparently different perception of written texts in a broad cross-section of Judean culture in antiquity (inc. the DSS, the NT, apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts, and rabbinic documents, among others).

So "oral tradition" as a sociohistorical hypothesis has consequences for how we read written texts. I'm not looking for "oral tradition" in a gospel so much as for how an author and his audience, as participants in a living, vibrant oral tradition, perceived the written expressions of that tradition.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Dear Rafael,

I understand your answer completely, and I appreciate your time. I have followed your blog via my RSS reader for some time now. I am interested in the history of Christianity. While I am a naturalist, and I get from your prior posts that you are a supernaturalist, I have found that you have a good level headed approach to your topic, and you write on items and in a way that they interest me, and that I get value from. So, I thought that I would ask your thoughts on the question, and as I said, I do understand and appreciate your answer and your time.

I have in the last few years moved to include more than my original study of the historical Jesus, and the gospel and pauline material, and am now enjoying the later period often called Patristics. I am finding that writings and those that write on Irenaeus, Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, etc... are helping me clarrify even more my understanding of the origins and initial growth of Christianity.

I will continue to read, and expect t enjoy your posts into the future.

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

Rafael said...

This isn't a reply to Rich so much as an example of what I was talking about in my previous comment. In his essay, "Performance Events in Early Christianity: New Testament Writings in an Oral Context" (Interface, 166–93), David Rhoads issues the following complaint: "Everyone agrees that the writings would have been heard rather than read silently. However, only recently has work begun on the oral features of the texts, the nature of their performances, and their oral impact on audiences" (167).

I'm not at all sure that everyone agrees that texts were read aloud, but I do. But when Rhoads talks about "the oral features of the texts," I have to confess that I'm not sure what he means. And even if he could name specific features that he thinks are "oral"—like repetition, alliteration, formulaic structuring, etc.—I have no idea what it means to call these features of written texts "oral."

I'd like to see NT scholars get beyond looking for "oral tradition" "in" the NT texts. Or if not, to explain what it means to say that "oral tradition" can ever be "in" any written text. This, I think, is one reason why so many NT scholars are so skeptical about the value of media-critical approaches to the NT and Christian origins. I can't say I blame them, even if I don't share their skepticism.

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