restricted access Sounding Out the Heirs of Abraham (Rom 4:9–12)
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Sounding Out the Heirs of Abraham (Rom 4:9–12)

Recent studies in the fields of orality and oral performance reveal that the recognition of oral features within texts can clarify vexing issues of interpretation and lead the interpreter to a more complete understanding of authorial intent.1 Specifically with regard to ancient authors and hearers, sound played a very strategic role in conveying meaning. Not having the luxury or ability2 to reread sections of texts to determine meaning semantically, ancient auditors relied upon oral cues such as repetition and word placement to convey meaning.3 Ancient hearers actively listened to compositions orally declaimed. Thus, John Foley remarks (1991:59), “the ‘reader’ of an oral traditional ‘text’ is more a participant actively involved in making the work than an analyst interested only in plumbing the depths of a textual artifact.”4

In Sound Mapping the New Testament (2009), Margaret Lee and Bernard Brandon Scott5 historically trace and discuss in lengthy detail the role sound played in ancient compositions. They comment that an ancient manuscript’s primary function was to “capture and record a linear stream of sound” (70) and cite, for example, the ancient Greek teacher of rhetoric Longinus (Subl. 39.3) reporting that a particular first-century CE author described his composition as a “kind of melody in words” (119). With the invention of the phonetic alphabet, the Greeks made possible the reproduction of sound in script, and they recorded sounds employing a style called scriptio continua, uninterrupted writing.6 While the lack of clearly delineated words handicaps modern readers, by orally declaiming these compositions, ancients allowed the sounds to distinguish the words or lexemes for them. Ancient authors employed elements such as arrangement and sound signals within their compositions to convey meaning, elements often lacking in modern compositions intended for silent readers (80). They created their compositions with their auditory reception in mind at every level of construction and even revised their works to improve upon their sound quality (121). These compositions were dynamic in that they came to life with each new oral performance. Authors of New Testament texts composed with oral reception in mind, but so too did most if not all authors of the ancient and Hellenistic periods (80).

To aid modern interpreters in recovering the sound signals recorded in ancient compositions, Lee and Scott developed an analytical tool called a “sound map.”7 The tool enables modern interpreters to visualize sound patterns ancient authors would have left behind. As they explain it, a sound map is “a visual display that exhibits a literary composition’s organization by highlighting its acoustic features and in doing so depicts aspects of a composition’s sounded character in preparation for analysis” (2009:168). In Sound Mapping Lee and Scott guide modern interpreters through the entire process of map creation and analysis by means of sound features (135–95). The creation process begins by defining a particular compositional unit. Grammar is often an aid in delineating these units, as elements such as a change in verbal aspect or in person or number signal unit breaks. The next step entails the division of the unit into individual components called cola (breath units). Once defined, cola can later be recombined either “paratactically” or through “grammatical subordination” into periods (169–75). With the arrangement into cola and periods made, elements such as repetitive and beginning and ending sounds become apparent and the analysis process can begin. The lengthy second half of Sound Mapping consists of examples of the creation and analysis of six sound maps; their detailed sample maps assist the modern novice in his or her own employment of sound maps for analysis (199–384).

By relying upon the insights of orality studies on the role sound plays in conveying meaning and upon the sound mapping tool developed by Lee and Scott in particular, I will here demonstrate how ancient auditors would likely have heard a structural unit in Paul’s letter to the Romans (4:9–12). My aim in using the sound mapping tool is to resolve a long-standing interpretive problem that concerns the identity of the ethnic group involved in the...