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  • The Interplay Between Written and Spoken Word in the Second Testament as Background to the Emergence of Written Gospels
  • Holly Hearon (bio)

Christianity is a faith rooted in the written and the spoken word. However, the precise relationship between the written and the spoken word in the period of Christian origins has been a matter of much debate. Past studies have viewed the written and the spoken word as belonging to differentiated social worlds and modes of thought (e.g., Ong 1982; Kelber 1983). In recent years a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between written and spoken words and worlds has begun to emerge (e.g., Byrskog 2002; Jaffee 2001; Kirk 2008). Following this trend, I attempt, in this essay, to draw a kind of “contour map” of the textual world of the Second Testament with respect to written and spoken words, tracing where and how references to written and spoken words occur and the interplay between them. To assist in charting this territory, I employ as a compass references to the uses of written and spoken word found in Greek and Roman sources. My focus, then, is on primary sources rather than studies of these sources in secondary literature. While I include the broad range of texts in the Second Testament, the cornerstone of my study is Luke-Acts. The goal of this exercise is to gain insight into the different ways written and spoken words were perceived, encountered, and experienced in early Christian communities, and to explore what insight this may offer into the emergence of written gospels. This is self-consciously only an initial exploration of the territory, intended to lay the groundwork for a larger and more comprehensive project.

Words Spoken and Written

The complex relationship between spoken word and written word was recognized and commented on in the first century CE Mediterranean world. Quintilian observed that writing, reading, and speaking “are so intimately and inseparably connected that if one of them be neglected, we shall waste the labour which we have devoted to the others” (Institutio oratoria X. 1.2, from Butler 1980). Theon similarly encouraged the young rhetor both to listen to written words read well and develop skill at crafting spoken words through the practice of writing words (Progymnasmata, in Kennedy 2003:5-6). These comments, of course, are addressed to orators, members of the social and literary elite, whose goal is to attain eloquence in speaking. Nonetheless, they suggest that when we encounter a written text, such as the Second Testament, it is important to consider how these written words stand in relation to spoken words, and what this relationship may tell us about how both written and spoken words are perceived, encountered, and employed.

Illustrations of the close relationship between written and spoken words are found within the Second Testament itself. Written texts “speak”: “Now we know that whatever the law says [λέγω]...itspeaks [λαλέω] so that every mouth might be silenced” (Rom 3:19).1 Reading is not a silent activity, but a re-oralization of written words: “Philip, running up [to the chariot] heard him reading . . .” (Acts 8:30; see also Rev 1:3). Spoken word is employed to corroborate written word: “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas who themselves by word of mouth will announce the same things [written in this letter]” (Acts 8:17). In these examples, the boundary between written and spoken words is porous. The written word is perceived as having voice, a voice that is vocalized in the act of reading. Yet it is a voice that is dependent on living voices in order to assume agency, which is demonstrated by the third example.2 This suggests that written word is perceived as being, more or less, an extension of spoken word. Additional examples of this complex relationship between written and spoken word are found in Luke-Acts: for example, writing on a tablet (πινακίδιον) is substituted for the voice (Luke 1:63) while letters are written in the absence of physical presence (ἐπιστέλλω; ἐπιστολή [Acts 15:20, 30; 21:25; 23:25, 33]).

If written word is encountered as an extension of spoken word, the question then arises whether the reverse is also true: that is...

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