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  • Biblical Performance Criticism:Performance as Research
  • David Rhoads (bio)

Traditionally, scholars have studied the writings of the New Testament by reading them silently and in private. For centuries, we scholars have been treating these scriptures as “writings”—written to be studied and interpreted as manuscripts, written to be broken up into episodes and verses for scholarly analysis. We have been dealing with them as if they originated as part of a print culture. But this is not at all how the early Christians of the first century experienced the writings in the context of the oral cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is the thesis of this paper that the contents of the writings that comprise the New Testament were originally composed and experienced orally. As such, the New Testament writings ought to be treated as remnants of oral events. That is, we need to study the writings of the New Testament as (trans)scripts of performances in an oral culture.

The New Testament as Oral Literature

Treating the New Testament writings as oral literature is a “paradigm shift” that has enormous implications for the entire field of New Testament studies (Kuhn 1996). These collected writings did not arise as scripture on inked pages as we have experienced them in book form since the sixteenth century. Rather, the contents of the New Testament originated as oral stories and spoken, epic-like tales and rhetorical orations and oral-letters and theater-like performances. These traditions were most likely composed orally and then handwritten on scrolls of papyrus paper. The scripts of these oral events served the oral performances. The oral compositions preserved in the later manuscripts of the New Testament were not originally read privately or silently but were performed in social settings before gatherings of people. The compositions were most likely originally performed by memory, although they may also have been read aloud. And they were likely presented in their entirety, not broken up into smaller sections.

In order to gain an appropriate understanding of these New Testament writings as oral literature, we should study them in the same oral medium in which they originated. We need to imagine originating performance events in the context of the oral cultures of first-century Christianity. To do this, we need to revise our traditional disciplines of study and develop new methodological tools of analysis. And we can use contemporary performance as a way to help bridge the media gap between the written and the oral.

On what grounds do we assert that that the New Testament writings are remnants of oral events, namely, that they were composed orally, that they were probably performed from memory, and that they were most likely presented in their entirety? Here are some considerations to support these points.

1) Oral cultures

First and most obvious is the fact that the first-century world of the New Testament was comprised of oral cultures (Havelock 1963; Lord 1960; Niditch 1996; Draper 2004; Achtemeier 1990). Orality studies are teaching us a great deal about the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world as oral cultures. It is likely that only about three to ten percent of the people—mostly wealthy elites—were able to read and/or write (Gamble 1995; Harris 1986; Bar-Ilan 1992; Hezser 2001). In ancient societies, where there was no middle class, ninety percent or more of the people were non-literate peasants, urban dwellers, and expendables who experienced all language aurally. Everything they learned and knew, they knew by word of mouth. People had little or no direct contact with written language.

Predominantly oral cultures tend to be collectivist cultures. There was no individualism in the first century as we know it today. The identity of individuals came as part of their collective identity. In the collectivist cultures of the first century, there was little opportunity for privacy for most people. People lived together as large nuclear or extended families. Houses were open to neighbors, and marketplaces were centers of social interaction. Life was communal life. The point is that people were with other people virtually all the time, and what one person knew everyone knew. Knowledge was commonly-held social knowledge, because everyone in...

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