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  • Oral and Written Communication and Transmission of Knowledge in Ancient Judaism and Christianity
  • Catherine Hezser (bio)

In antiquity, when no telephones, postal services, and internet connections existed, the transfer of information and knowledge depended on direct or indirect contacts and personal mediation.1 If one wanted to ask someone’s advice or tell him or her something, one would either have to go and visit that person oneself or send an oral or written message through an intermediary.2 Only face-to-face communications would guarantee the reliable transmission of the words and opinions of one person to another, whereas mediated messages would always be suspected of misrepresentation or even forgery. Face-to-face communication could easily be conducted with one’s immediate neighbors and fellow villagers or townspeople. In the case of more distant communication partners, a larger effort would have to be made to reach them. In such cases, communication would be intrinsically linked to mobility, either one’s own or that of one’s messengers.3 Only the most mobile members of a particular social group, and those who had the greatest access to mobile intermediaries, would be able to establish and maintain contacts over longer distances. One may assume that those who sat at the nodal points of the local, country-wide, or international communication system would be the most powerful members of their respective social circles.

In the following we shall investigate the forms and modes of communication reflected in Jewish and early Christian literary sources from the Roman period. We shall focus on Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic sources here. The various forms of communication and transmission of knowledge were always context-specific, serving the respective individuals and groups to reach their particular goals. Communication among early Christians was closely linked to the empire-wide expansion of Christianity. In the case of rabbis, communication with distant colleagues helped to establish a province-wide decentralized rabbinic network, which would eventually be able to collect and transmit traditions to later generations of scholars in both the Land of Israel and the Diaspora.

Communication Among Rebel Leaders in Josephus’ Vita

In his autobiographical Vita, Josephus is quite explicit about the exchange of information among his fellow rebel leaders. This information can either be correct and beneficial or false, misleading, and potentially dangerous to the extent of threatening the recipient’s life. Most often, such military information is said to have been transmitted by messengers.

The messenger himself is sometimes not mentioned directly at all: Jesus “sent and requested” (Vita 106), or “the news was reported to me in writing” (319), a “messenger” or “courier” is called (89, 90, 301) or identified as a relative, a freedman or household slave, a soldier, or elder and community leader as part of an embassy, sometimes accompanied by an armed cohort. This means that the potentially most reliable and trustworthy person would have been chosen as an intermediary (Hezser 2001:265-66). Sometimes the trust in messengers would be disappointed, though. They could leak the message or information to one’s enemies or they could be caught on the road and prevented from reaching the recipient. In the case of oral messages, the information could be forgotten, changed, or falsified. Thus, using an intermediary never guaranteed the safe and correct transmission of a message, but there was often no alternative if the sender could not travel himself and meet the recipient face-to-face.

The purposes for which messages were transmitted ranged from the pragmatic and trivial to issues of public concern. We have to assume that the form of the message, that is, its oral or written format, varied in accordance with the purposes for which it was sent and the respective circumstances. For example, the approach of enemies or supporters would be announced by a messenger orally: “A messenger arrived and whispered to Jesus that John was approaching with his troops” (301; see also 90). Or Josephus sent a courier to Tiberias to let people know that he was approaching (90). On another occasion a deserter of Jesus is said to have come to Josephus to tell him of Jesus’ impending attack (107). These were messages of immediate...

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