Baker Academic

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hurtado on Oral Fixation in New Testament Studies—Chris Keith

Readers of the Jesus Blog who are interested in orality, textuality, scribality, etc., as it relates to the Gospels will want to make sure to read Larry Hurtado's article in the new issue of New Testament Studies "Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? 'Orality', 'Performance' and Reading Texts in Early Christianity."  I saw an early version of the article and have been waiting for it to land.  Hurtado's main targets are advocates of so-called "performance criticism" in New Testament studies, who argue that, basically, when early Christians "read" texts they, in reality, performed them from memory.  That is, they did not actually read manuscripts.  David Rhoads is probably the most vocal leader of this group of scholars, whom I know well as the current co-Chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media session, where many of them are active.  These are good scholars, but I've for some time not been convinced of this claim that all or most reading of texts in early Christianity was actually oral performance.  (My presentation at the 2014 Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity conference, and essay in the forthcoming published proceedings, was/is a critical engagement with Richard Horsley's work on this point.)  Hurtado's arguments are, to my mind, convincing.  I'll add further that I recently served as the "faculty opponent" for Dan Nässelqvist's PhD defense at at the University of Lund, where he was supervised by Samuel Byrskog.  Dan's (successful) PhD includes probably the most thorough study on the role of the lector in the first two centuries of early Christianity to date.  Like Hurtado, he argues thoroughly that when early Christians "read" texts, they actually did read manuscripts, not perform them orally.


  1. Darnit! I wanted to be the one who coined the term "oral fixation" in relation to this debate. I've been snickering about that pun for the last year or so.

  2. LH has also made the article available on his blog/website:

  3. The "performance" school often seems theatrical to the point of being melodramatic and exhibitionistic, and self-loving, to be sure. And in that way they are an easy target. Though a mild version of what they seem to say might be defensible: people read texts in the way they like, often.

    This would explain how early Christian writers might feel considerable latitude; enough to very nearly even invent words for Jesus himself. Believing that they were granted considerable interpretive latitude. Or might even speak new words for God himself; though allegedly from an inner spirit. Thus very nearly - especially in Paul - inventing Christianity. Or deviating considerably from any actual historical root.

    These were not historians, many of them, working from texts; they were to a high degree inventing texts, after all. (Oral expulsive behavior?).

  4. I would love to hear you and Anthony talk more about this. On the surface, it would seem that orality would go hand-in-hand with memory theory in general, and your work on the scarcity and elite nature of scribal literacy in particular. OTOH, your work also stresses the high level of textuality in Jesus' world, and I think I recall similar discussion of textuality in early Christianity.

    As I read your recent book, I asked myself what Jesus WAS doing when he taught in synagogue, if he couldn't read text in a scribal-literate way? Not that I remember your saying anything like this, but the picture I got was that Jesus performed text from memory. I'm not sure what else Jesus could have done that would have produced the kind of confusion over his literacy that you described.

    I don't have a specific question for you here, just a request to tell us more if/when you are so inclined. Is your presentation at the 2014 "Evil" conference available in some form?

  5. BTW, the full text of Hurtado's article is available here:

  6. I spoke with Dan Nässelqvist briefly at the performance networking event at last year's SBL. In the course of our (very short) chat, he made it sound like his PhD was on approaching public readings as performances in early Chrsitianity. In any case, I'll be very interested to read his dissertation. His article in NTS on Hebrews, John, stylistic levels, and oral performance is really good.

    Question for Anthony and Chris: What role, if any, do you all think performance played in the composition and circulation of the earliest Jesus traditions?

  7. A partial answer to Larry and Denny before I turn in for the night. . . . I don't think that anyone involved would deny that there is a "performance" element to the reading of texts in early Christianity, by which I mean a reciprocal relationship between the reader and the audience. I, at least, would certainly not deny that. That's not the problem at all. The problem is with the further assertions that these events did not, or at least did not typically, involve the actual consultation of a manuscript; that is, that the readers didn't actually read (and, related, that scribes did not typically write, but rather composed orally). This is where I think there simply is not evidence enough to say this, and there is evidence quite to the contrary in Jewish, Greco-Roman, and early Christian sources. There's no doubt that orality was a very important factor in the ancient media environment. But it was not the only factor. And for me, the significant issue with orality is not that it made textuality unnecessary or irrelevant, but that it provided a context in which textuality functioned in diverse ways.

    1. Chris, I just today came across this June 9 post. My interest in gossip is what draws me to, at least, some of the implications of "performance" in a primarily oral culture. But admittedly, since my first encounter with “performance criticism,” I’ve always been baffled at the implication (if not outright claims) that what was, say, going on in early communities when one of the gospels was being “shared” out loud (yes! From a manuscript, I think!) would have looked anything like the “performance” of Mark’s passion I watched at a church during Lent – clearly memorized and dramatized (quite well, too!) by a performer.

      I appreciate your phrase "reciprocal relationship between the reader and audience." It’s on target for describing the dynamic of reading, and something worth considering at greater depth, especially with respect to the Paul’s letters. I think it’s fair to imagine Paul being a little concerned about how the reader(s) of his missive to the Galatians might handle 2:11-14. How it was read may have swayed an audience in a particular direction: “Well, that’s a little harsh, don’t you think, Paul?” or “Yeah, that Peter. Jerk!”

  8. I will be the first to admit that I have an oral fixation.