Baker Academic

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing

In 2009, Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock) launched the Biblical Performance Criticism series. The series currently has thirteen volumes, including single-author monographs, edited collections of essays, at least one PhD dissertation, and at least two reprints of books that would otherwise be difficult to access. The series is related to the Biblical Performance Criticism website, both of which are under the leadership of David Rhoads, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Each volume in the BPC series includes the following description of the series:
The ancient societies of the Bible were overwhelmingly oral. People originally experienced the traditions now in the Bible as oral performances. Focusing on the ancient performance of biblical traditions enables us to shift academic work on the Bible from the mentality of a modern print culture to that of an oral/scribal culture. Conceived broadly, biblical performance criticism embraces many methods as means to reframe the biblical materials in the context of traditional oral cultures, construct scenarios of ancient performances, learn from contemporary performances of these materials, and reinterpret biblical writings accordingly. The result is a foundational paradigm shift that reconfigures traditional disciplines and employs fresh biblical methodologies such as theater studies, speech-act theory, and performance studies. The emerging research of many scholars in this field of study, the development of working groups in scholarly societies, and the appearance of conferences on orality and literacy make it timely to inaugurate this series. For further information on biblical performance criticism, go to
Considering the disparate places in which biblical media criticism has been published (including my own Oral Tradition and the New Testament [Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014] and Eric Eve's Behind the Gospels [SPCK, 2014], but also more difficult books to access, such as Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher's edited volume, The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [LNTS 426; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011]), I think it's probably a good thing that there is now a series dedicated to bringing together media-critical work.

Volume 9 in the BPC series is Richard A. Horsley's book, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing (Cascade, 2013). Anyone familiar with Horsley's work (especially over the last two decades) will find much that is familiar here: a broad vision of New Testament studies in general as well as an emphasis on recent challenges to dominant assumptions thereof, an emphasis on broad-scale illiteracy and access to tradition through means other than written texts, a focus on performance as the multidimensional experience of our two-dimensional written textual remains, a strong bifurcation of rich and poor, ruling-class and ruled, city and village, "great tradition" and "little tradition," a refusal to distinguish theology from politics and economics, and so on. Few people have been as consistent (or persistent!) as Horsley in pushing a relatively stable set of ideas and agenda in the various areas of biblical scholarship that he engages. Horsley's NT work has focused especially on the Gospel of Mark and the sayings source, "Q," but he also addresses the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish literature (especially Ben Sira), and social and archaeological research of our era and area. (He has also recently published on the Fourth Gospel [along with Tom Thatcher; see John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel (Eerdmans, 2013)], and of course he has multiple publications on the historical Jesus.) In other words, Horsley ranges broadly in time and space. New Testament and biblical scholarship could use more scholars who range more broadly rather than focus too narrowly.

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing comprises twelve essays, three of which (Chapters 1, 9, and 10) appeared in previous edited volumes and one of which (Chapter 12) appeared in the journal, Oral Tradition. The essays appear as follows:

  1. Oral Communication, Oral Performance, and New Testament Interpretation (1–30)
  2. The Origins of the Hebrew Scriptures under Imperial Rule: Numinous Writing and Ceremonial Performance (31–52)
  3. Oral-Written Scribal Cultivation of Torah—Not "Re-Written Bible" (53–72)
  4. Oral Composition-and-Performance of the Instructional Speeches of Ben Sira (73–98)
  5. Contesting Authority: Popular vs. Scribal Tradition in Continuing Performance (99–122)
  6. Israelite Tradition and the Speeches of Jesus in Q (123–55)
  7. Hearing Q/Luke 12:2–12 as Oral Performance (156–74)
  8. The Speeches of Yeshua ben Sira—and the Speeches of Yeshua bar Marya (175–97)
  9. The Language(s) of the Kingdom: From Aramaic to Greek and Galilee to Syria (198–219)
  10. Oral Performance and the Gospel of Mark (220–45)
  11. Imagining Mark's Story Composed in Oral Performance (246–78)
  12. Oral Performance in the Emergence of the Gospel of Mark as Scripture (279–301)

Horsley's work is consistently innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary. There is much with which to argue, whether as part of Horsley's analytical framework, his sociological perspective, his exegetical decisions, his comparative analysis, or his working assumptions. And I will mention some of these, below. But before I offer any critique, I want to acknowledge that there is much to learn here. Whereas I will offer different answers to many (most?) of the questions Horsley raises, I think he is at least raising many (most?) of the questions that need raising but are too-often ignored. If you haven't read any of Horsley's earlier works, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing is a good place to get stuck in.

I offer the following three observations:

First, I do think Horsley is too radical in his denial that written texts as written texts played important functions in Jewish culture during the early Roman period. For Horsley, written texts are the products of the ruling elite (and their servants), especially in Jerusalem and the Temple complex; non-elites (esp. in the villages of Judea and Galilee) had no access to and use for written texts. Also, Horsley thinks that written texts were "largely unintelligible even to the literate who were not already familiar with the text, and extremely difficult to consult" (xii). However, as Larry Hurtado argues (rightly, I think), written manuscripts bear the marks of actual use by readers, and just as importantly we do not read complaints from users about texts being cumbersome or difficult to use (see the essays linked to in this post). Instead, as I have mentioned elsewhere, "[d]espite the relative lack of literacy in the ancient world, written texts were everywhere. . . . Jewish culture in the first centuries BCE and CE demonstrated 'an appreciation for texts among the general population'" (Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament, 3, 4; citing Larry Hurtado, "Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark," BBR 7 [1997]: 91–106 [96]). Texts, it seems to me, participated in power dynamics; they were not tools wielded only by the powerful. Horsley points us toward the symbolic value of written texts as cultural objects, a value that is other than a text's written contents (see my "Reading and Hearing in  Ancient Contexts," JSNT 32 [2009]: 151–78 [165–66]), which is significant. But this symbolic value should not lead us to presume that written texts were not also objects to be read.

Second, Horsley offers a new image for the relation between written texts, on one hand, and tradition, on the other. In 1995, Werner Kelber referred to tradition as a "biosphere," a context in which a group lived and to which it made reference in its traditional communications (performances, texts, rituals, etc.). Horsley, who also uses the biosphere-image, offers another: written texts are "the tips of icebergs floating in a sea of Israelite culture or cultural tradition with various identifiable currents" (xii [see also p. xv]; Horsley won't use this metaphor again until p. 265). I like this metaphor because it, like the biosphere metaphor, gets us thinking about tradition as a contextual field within which "texts" (whether written or oral, ritual or informal, etc.) become meaningful. This is a significant advance over the way biblical scholars have been trained to think about traditions, namely as materials that are contained within texts (like Legos). Tradition is not smaller than texts; it is larger, similar to the way English—the language—is larger than any particular English sentence.

Third, I wish Horsley had emphasized more thoroughly the function of tradition, as the sea in which the icebergs of a particular traditional expression (whether oral or written), in the construction of meaning and the navigation of processes of memory and identity. Instead, Horsley focuses on orality, which then sets up an unnecessarily stark conflict between purported functions of written texts (see the first point, above) and those of oral performance. As I argued in Oral Tradition and the New Testament, we don't have any surviving early Christian oral tradition, so our emphasis should be on the noun rather than the adjective. Approaching our written texts as instances—or "actualizations"—of the tradition, as actual embodiments of the potentialities inherent in the tradition itself, helps us to get past the anachronistic models of textual function we have inherited from our training as biblical scholars, but I think it can do so without caricaturing the differences between our alleged "print culture" and their alleged "oral culture." Oral communications are just as vibrant today as they ever have been; similarly, written communications were significant cultural and traditional realities in the early Roman empire, both among Jews and gentiles. We simply do not have to choose between written and oral expressions of tradition, because neither we nor the people we study chose between them. In fact, the constant that transcends various media of communication is the noun which I have been stressing all along: tradition.

There is, of course, more to say about this book; indeed, one could write a serial review if one were so inclined. ðŸ˜‰ Horsley's work is creative and innovative and deserves careful consideration from those of us interested not just in early Jewish and Christians texts but also in the people whose lives were in some way lived in reference to these texts. And as much as we might learn from Horsley's content, I would like to see more of us learn from his example, that more of us would read broadly in the Humanities and Social Sciences, develop truly and thoroughly interdisciplinary perspectives, and discover how these other fields can broaden and deepen our understanding of our texts and, for many of us, even our faith.


  1. Thanks for the post. I think I understand what you are getting at when you say that we need to move away from viewing traditions as materials contained within texts, as well as conceiving the texts themselves as actualizations or embodiments of potentialities. How would you understand different statements within texts that seem to refer to oral retellings which were passed on and received within the Christian community? I am thinking of 1 Cor 15:3 as one example.

    1. Thank you, Chad, for your question. I'm not sure exactly what you're asking. First Corinthians 15.3 is one of the instances in which an early Christian writer mentions early Christian traditioning, though sadly Paul does not say nearly as much as we would like. Who passed on this tradition to Paul? In what setting(s)? In what level of detail? etc. etc. etc.

      But yes: Of course the early Christians spoke about Jesus and about the traditions they received and passed on. Their communications were not limited to written texts, even though our evidence of their communications is.

      Does that address your question?

    2. Yes it does. Thank you

  2. I wonder whether "tradition" though, captures the chaos of oral or popular culture.

  3. Awesome review! I was wondering (after reading your review of Erhman's book) about what you think of Jesus and the victory of God by N.T. Wright. I am enthralled by the hypothesis he's making so far because it's critical in and of itself and I think it is grounded on good evidence (so far). He shortly talks about about the oral argument but doesn't going in depth into memory and whatnot. Is there a review of it on this site or any review in particular that you'd recommend I look at? Just trying to critically assess it to see if it holds up you know. Anyways, do you think it has a plausible hypothesis or are there any other works on the historical Jesus that you would recommend more?

    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for your question. Honestly, I haven't sought out reviews of Wright's book. There's a lot I think Wright gets right about Jesus and historical Jesus research, especially his claim that the application of criteria of authenticity were really only hypotheses about the historical Jesus working their way through the extant traditions. I also appreciate his programmatic effort to identify continuity as well as distinction between Jesus, his context, and his effects (put crudely, between Jesus, Judaism, and Christianity). Working out and understanding the points of continuity and distinction would reveal many points of disagreement between myself and Wright, and of course I would pay much more attention to traditioning processes (whether oral, textual, ritual, or whatever) and to memory than does Wright. But Jesus and the Victory of God is certainly an interesting part of the history of scholarship on Jesus.

      As I said, I don't have a review. But I do discuss (briefly) Wright's approach to Jesus in this article: "Authenticating Criteria: The Use and Misuse of a Critical Method," JSHJ 7 (2009): 152–67.

    2. Currently hooked on the article! It's been quite helpful (I'm probably going to read it a couple more times) I just saw that you foot noted James Crossley's book on the dating of the gospel of Mark. Do you think that he offers a plausible argument? (Haven't been able to read the book because it's quite expensive) Because if he does, I think it would have great implications towards the oral tradition argument (from the late 60's to the 40's!)

    3. Thank you, Anonymous. Yes, I've read Crossley's book and learned a lot from it. I think there are some places where James is open to critique, and those places cluster especially around the specific task of dating the features of Mark's Gospel that James identifies. Also, his argument has had very little impact (as far as I am aware) on Markan or Jesus scholars dating of Mark (with the exception of Maurice Casey, who incorporates James's work thoroughly into his reconstruction of the historical Jesus). That, however, does not take away from the value of his book, which offers a lot of insight into our attempts to recover the thoroughly Jewish character of "earliest Christianity."