I want to preface my remarks with a word of thanks to both Paula Sanders and Werner Kelber, as well as Rice University, for hosting this conference so generously and well. I was asked by our two conveners to offer, at the end of our work these past two days, some reflections on what has transpired among us. Let me begin by noting that, for me, the key to any successful conference—and I have attended several unsuccessful conferences and a smaller number of successful ones over the past four decades with which to compare this one—is the degree of interaction and interchange, the frequency of give and take, the ease of asking and learning, and the minimum of demonstrations of cleverness or willingness to upstage or diminish the work of other scholars. By these criteria, I am happy to say that this has been an unusually fruitful and successful consultation, for it has been marked, so far as I can tell, by a genuine colloquy among a thoughtfully assembled group of scholars who have been not only willing but genuinely interested in engaging one another concerning issues to which we all have devoted time and about which we care, albeit in often very different ways and from differing perspectives. In my opinion, the give and take, even when differing positions were being presented and differing conclusions were being drawn, have been exemplary, and I want to thank all of my colleagues and our two hosts again in particular for their parts in what has proven to be a most valuable and productive interchange.
As we conclude, I would like to identify five issues in particular among those that have been in play, all of which seem to me especially worth holding up for our shared, concluding reflection. All of these are, I think, worthy also of continued or new consideration.
The first issue is the possibility that the reciprocity, interdependence, and overlap of the oral and the written is in most contexts more important than the undeniable contrast, opposition, or competition between these two modes of expression and communication. Ruth Finnegan, in her response to the first day’s papers, emphasized much the same notion in her discussions of “uniformity to multiplicity” and “the elusiveness of orality.” David Carr writes specifically in his paper of the “interplay of textuality, orality, and memory in the emergence of literary textuality,” noting that his own work has proven to him that the “bible was formed and used in an oral-written context.” I might note also here Talya Fishman’s emphasis, like that of both Werner Kelber and Gregor Schoeler, on the changing balance of oral and written emphases on the sacred texts that she, like Kelber and Schoeler, studies, and the various motivations for these changes over time.
David Nelson’s assessment that “early rabbinic textuality was comprised of both oral and literary processes” and his nuanced presentation of evidence for this go nicely with Catherine Hezser’s remarks on the various complementary and sometimes overlapping roles of written and oral messages in Jewish and Christian contexts in the Roman period. Examples include Josephus’ reports that express the need for personal oral confirmation to establish the reliability of a written message; the importance of the oral reading of written letters, as in the early Christian churches in the time of Paul and later apostles; the significant but differing roles of both oral preaching and written documents in the growth and consolidation of the Christian community; and the importance of both personal contact and oral communication, as well as letters, among early rabbis after the fall of the temple. Hezser also notes the ambivalence in many of these cases toward the use of written communications to supplement oral letters or face-to-face meeting. (Here I might point out the comparable elements in the phenomenon in classical Islamic religious learning of preferring to hear oral reports transmitted from the Prophet and Companions over, though not excluding, simple transmission of physical, written documents).
Holly Hearon’s paper joins Catherine Hezser’s in showing the strong reciprocity of the spoken and the written word and their interplay in...