Baker Academic

Friday, July 22, 2016

Does media criticism make any difference?

I just received a message regarding my book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Guides for the Perplexed; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). The person raised an insightful and important question, and I thought I'd share it here, along with my response.

First, the question (slightly edited):
I just finished reading your Guide on Oral Tradition & the NT and came away with mixed feelings. While I was looking for a more general, less polemic introduction to the field, I think your exposition of the contextual approach was very well thought-out and definitely helped clarify the way I think about media in the ancient world. Also, as the kind of person who can easily get carried away with social theory, I appreciated your reminders that written texts are all we have to work with.

However, I came away disappointed because none of your four examples of media criticism at the end of your book seemed to really demonstrate the power or necessity of a media critical approach. Your interpretations were convincing or at least intriguing, but they still relied entirely on textual referents and interconnections. It seemed like your approach was leading you to think "outside the box" and approach these texts in a different way from other scholars, but it was unclear to me how media crit, specifically, led to those conclusions, rather than just casting a wider net of potential textual references. What am I missing?
And second, my response (again, slightly edited):
Dear [sir],

Thank you for your message. You actually raise the one issue (well, perhaps there are two) with my book that readers have conveyed to me. How does media criticism, as a method, affect textual exegesis and/or historical reconstruction? We can see, at the level of method, how redaction criticism handles texts differently from, say, form criticism. But how does media criticism affect the interpretive or analytical procedure? It really is a great question.

The problem, for me, is that I don't think media criticism is a method, necessarily, as much as it is a shift in perspective. In other word, how I read texts might not be that different from a media-critical perspective, but the assumptions that I bring to the texts will certainly be different. So, for example, my discussion of ekballō ["cast out"] in Mark 1.12 did not try to explain the Markan text with reference to other textual artifacts (i.e., specific passages from Exodus, or even Exodus as a whole) but rather by placing Mark, as a tradent within the Jesus tradition—which itself was situated within Israelite tradition—in a larger cultural and traditional context and examining how he used language to take advantage of communicative potential afforded him by his community's (broadly conceived) experience with the tradition. In other words, I privileged the question of how Mark's text functioned as a vehicle of meaning between the author/performer and his readers/hearers. This is distinct from the question of traditional philological questions about the meaning(s) of words, phrases, syntactical structures, etc. My approach focuses on questions of production, performance, and reception, and tries to see how the text arises from the communicative exchanges between author/performer and readers/hearers. So I'm not so much "casting a wider net of potential textual references" as I am trying to cast a wider net of potential cultural (or traditional) references.

I think issues of text and performance, of tradition and culture are terribly exciting. Perhaps my little book was polemical; I didn't intend it to be, but I also did not hesitate from advocating for a particular vision of the future of media criticism. I admit to thinking that many of the voices in this field are using terms too loosely and/or looking for things that don't exist (e.g., remnants of "orality" in written texts), and I think scholars looking in from outside of media criticism see that and so avoid taking an interest in a field that should interest them. So if I can be a part of setting the media-critical discussion on firmer and more fruitful paths (I'm probably mixing metaphors here) and thereby expand its impact among biblical scholars, I will be thrilled.


  1. I don't speak academese (or spell it properly), but I can read it and I think you're on to something. If I'm reading you correctly, what you are talking about is accounting for things like how people actually speak to each other and how language, memory and communication actually work. Sometimes I wonder if the problem of how language becomes flat over time is what Jesus was speaking of when he talked about the need for new wine-skins. The words are the container for a specific message, told in a way that is widely understood, appreciated and accepted at the time it was created - the wine. Like liquid, spirit has no form of its own, but will take on the shape of the container which holds it. But wine-skins wear out and eventually we're having to patch them back together using exotic substances like redaction criticism and interpretive or analytical procedure.

    Anyways, I think you're on to something. How did the language used actually work in the context in which is was spoken. I think that one overlooked aspect of Jesus' teachings is the use of rhetoric. Rhetoric gets a bad rap owing to its misuse, but at the bottom, it means communicating in such a way that the listener hears what you intend to communicate. Good rhetoric can by-pass the filters people use to protect themselves from experience cognitive dissonance. Jesus was much smarter and more skilled in communication than I think he's been given credit for.

    1. Rebecca,

      Thank you for this. (For the record, I also would've spelled it "academese.") You're exactly right: I'm trying to account for "how people actually speak to each other and how language, memory[,] and communication actually work." I'm just now reading Richard Hays's massive book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, and he describes the academic task similarly: "not some arcane theory-driven methodology . . . [but rather] simple attention to the way that human language and storytelling ordinarily work" (p. 11). John Miles Foley, who is a much bigger influence on my thinking than Hays, agrees: We're talking about language and how it actually works (rather than abstract theories applied to artificial utterances or in artificial environments).

  2. Hi Raphael,
    Very interesting read. I'm wondering if you are a person of faith? conservative or liberal? I understand that Anthony is quite liberal.
    I just joined and was trying to get a handle on how the scholars who post here are oriented. Cheers!!

  3. Hi Rafael I was wondering if you have read James Dunn's book 'the oral gospel tradition'. I bought it recently. If you've checked it out, what do you think of it? Your book on the oral tradition has been greatly illuminating though thank you for that!

  4. And also, I noticed that in your book you didn't critique Kenneth bailey's oral tradition theory on the grounds of saying that you disagreed with it as not being an accurate theory of how the tradition may have been passed down throughout the early church (other than when you disagreed with how Bailey uses the word 'authentic'). So do you agree with his argument or not very much?

  5. Only on the third chapter sorry if I misunderstood the argument!