[This entry contains two subentries, HEBREW BIBLE and NEW TESTAMENT]

Hebrew Bible

The study of oral traditions has been influenced by various schools, including the “ethnopoetics” of Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock, the study of orality and literacy by Walter Ong and Jack Goody, and the study of living oral traditions and orally derived texts by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Of these, the most influential in biblical studies has been the Parry/Lord approach.

Nineteenth century classists argued over the Homeric question—that is, whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by one Homer (the Unitarians) or many Homers (the Analysts). The Analysts had philology on their side, because Homer’s language contained grammatical forms from multiple historical periods, suggesting multiple redactions.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Parry entered this debate with a compromise that accepted the Analysts’ philological arguments but argued with the Unitarians that the Homeric epics could be composed by a single individual. His initial insight came from the fieldwork of Vasilii Radlov with the Turkic traditions of Central Asia, which suggested that the Homeric question could be addressed not only by textual study but also by comparative study with living oral traditions. Thus, in 1934–1935 Parry and his student Lord visited the former Yugoslavia and recorded performances by Serbo-Croatian guslari. Their fieldwork demonstrated that the traditional idiom used by these oral bards included both archaisms and neologisms, thereby undercutting the argument for multiple redactions.

After Parry’s death in 1935, Lord refined Parry’s work and applied it to other literature, including Beowulf, the Song of Roland, and the Bible. Lord defined formulas as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea” (1960, p. 30). Lord also defined themes as “groups of ideas regularly used in telling a tale in the formulaic style of traditional song” (p. 68)—for example, preparing for battle. With these basic observations—formula and theme—the Parry/Lord approach to orally derived literature demonstrated that the type of formulaic language found in, for example, the decasyllable of Homer or the alliterative verse of Beowulf could be composed orally.

The foremost successor to Parry and Lord is John Miles Foley. Foley has written the definitive history of the school, five other monographs, and numerous articles and essays. He has edited and translated a performance of a Serbo-Croatian epic. He has encouraged the use of the Parry/Lord approach in other areas of literature and has refined earlier understandings of formulas and themes. For example, in Teaching Oral Traditions, he included essays by scholars in the following living oral traditions: Native American, African, Hispanic, Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, South Slavian, and British American, as well as essays by scholars in the following textual traditions with “roots in oral tradition”: the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Middle English, Old French, the Icelandic sagas, and medieval frame narratives. A greater diversity is evident in the journal Oral Tradition, which he founded in 1986 and edited until his recent death. Foley has had a significant impact in biblical studies. He has directed three National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars that have included biblical scholars as participants; he has participated in annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature; he coedited a Festschrift for Werner Kelber (Horsley, Draper, and Foley 2006); and he edited the Blackwell Companion to Ancient Epic.

One significant revision that the increased comparative work has required is a rejection of “the Great Divide thesis.” Based on early studies of orality versus literacy—for example, Ong’s Orality and Literacy—many scholars imagined a tremendous gulf between orality and literacy. It was as if, when an oral epic was written down, it was completely removed from its traditional culture, never again to be influenced by that culture, and even the earliest readers of this new text were ignorant of its traditional culture. Furthermore, it was as if the very act of writing changed the idiom of oral discourse. More recent studies, however, discuss an oral-literate continuum, thereby narrowing the supposed gap between oral and literate cultures, especially as it relates to the interaction of orality and literacy in transitional cultures like ancient Greece and medieval Europe (Clancy 1979; Stock 1983; Thomas 1989). Therefore, not only can the traditional idioms of orally composed epics be preserved in dictated texts, but also texts that are produced in a scribal environment removed from oral performance can nevertheless be influenced by the traditional oral idioms. In fact, the traditional idioms can continue to influence the texts after their composition—that is, during their scribal transmission. Thus, although some earlier studies assumed that the mere presence of formulas and themes strongly suggested oral composition, this assumption has been widely abandoned (Foley 1990, pp. 3–5).

Oral Tradition and the Hebrew Bible.

The most influential early applications of the Parry/Lord approach to the Hebrew Bible can be found in the work of Robert Culley, Robert Coote, and David Gunn (see Culley 1986). Although some biblical scholars have too easily succumbed to the “Great Divide thesis” (for example, Polak 1998), Culley, Coote, and Gunn were somewhat more cautious. More recent studies extend this more cautious approach with regard to the value of formulas and themes as evidence of oral origins and rather begin with the growing consensus that ancient societies were primarily oral societies in which writing was limited to a small elite. Thus, within primarily oral societies, even written texts were produced within the framework of those oral societies—that is, written texts drew from the oral aesthetics of the society and were often mnemonic aids. These studies are informed by archaeological studies and comparative studies that strongly suggest that writing in ancient Israel was not widespread and that for the vast majority of ancient Israelites the act of learning to read and write would have been far too costly (for example, Jamieson-Drake 1991; van der Toorn 2007). When one starts from this position, one begins to understand the composition, transmission, and reception of ancient texts quite differently. Below, the work of four scholars who have made significant contributions to discussions concerning oral traditions and the Hebrew Bible in the last twenty years—Susan Niditch, Raymond Person, David Carr, and Martti Nissinen—will be summarized.

Susan Niditch.

Niditch earned her doctorate at Harvard, where she studied under Lord. Her two most significant contributions are her 1996 monograph Oral World and Written Word and her 2008 Judges commentary.

In Oral World and Written Word, Niditch provided a nuanced argument for understanding all Israelite writing within the context of a primarily oral society.

"Our position throughout this study is not that ancient Israelites knew little of writing, but rather that Israelite literacy in form and function is not to be confused with modern literacy and that ancient Israelite literacy has to be understood in the context of an oral-traditional culture. Literacy and orality are part of an ongoing continuum even in the latest biblical period. (1996, p. 99)"

She drew from comparative studies of literacy in the ancient world and discussed how the logistics of writing—that is, archives, education, and writing materials—strongly suggested that few Israelites were literate. Although she concluded that we cannot prove that any particular biblical text was composed orally, she nevertheless insisted that all biblical texts belong within an “oral register”—that is, regardless of the mode of composition, biblical texts were composed under the influence of the dominant oral traditional style. Thus, “an oral aesthetic infuses the Hebrew Scripture as it now stands” (1996, p. 24). This oral traditional style is evident in the use of repetition, formulas, and conventionalized patterns, which she illustrated with Genesis 1, Genesis 2—3, and Ezekiel 28.

Niditch explored what she considered to be at the literate end of the continuum—that is, the references to writing in Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Deuteronomy 17:14–20; 2 Kings 23; selected passages in Jeremiah; and Nehemiah 8—and still concluded that an oral aesthetic was present.

"Thus even at the literate end of the continuum, the oral mentality is present and active, informing the way writing is used. Exploring the interplay between orality and literacy is essential to understanding the social contexts of reading and writing in a traditional culture. (1996, p. 98)"

Niditch acknowledged that understanding ancient Israel as a primarily oral society “forces us to question long-respected theories about the development of the Israelite literary traditions preserved in the Bible” (1996, p. 134)—especially source criticism. As a proposal to understanding better “the genesis of the Hebrew Bible,” she proposed four models:

  • (1) the oral performance, which is dictated to a writer who preserves the text in an archive, creating a fixed text out of an event;
  • (2) the slow crystallization of a pan-Hebraic literary tradition through many performances over centuries of increasingly pan-Israelite tales to audiences with certain expectations and assumptions about shared group identity; late in the process authors write down the shared stories;
  • (3) a written imitation of oral-style literature to create portions of the tradition;
  • (4) the production of a written text that is excerpted from another written text by a writer who deftly edits or recasts the text in accordance with his own view of Israelite identity. (1996, p. 130)

For the majority of “the large narrative threads” she preferred model 2, the slow crystallization of oral performances (1996, p. 127). However, she noted that even those texts composed according to model 4—that is, based on a written Vorlage—nevertheless reflect the oral traditional style. For example, even though Chronicles is a late rewriting of Samuel–Kings and despite their multiple variants, the tradition preserves both works in their multiformity.

Niditch’s Judges commentary is the first commentary that reflects a concerted effort to apply the Parry/Lord approach. She wrote:

"The present commentary…offers an exciting opportunity to study closely one rich collection of biblical tales from the perspective of the field of early and oral literatures. The conviction that Judges reflects a traditional-style culture has important implications for the way one goes about doing a commentary, touching upon text-critical approaches, translation, format, and the exegesis itself. (2008, p. vii)"

In her introduction, she laid out the implications for how this perspective influenced her analysis and the format of her commentary. For example, rather than describing the redaction history of Judges in the standard manner, she identified three voices: the “epic-bardic voice” (pre-Deuteronomistic sources), the “voice of the theologian” (Deuteronomistic redactors), and the “voice of the humanist” (post-Deuteronomistic). She also included a brief but excellent discussion of “epic language” (for example, “And it was in those days” and “And it was in the days of X”) and the oral-traditional register in Judges.

Throughout the commentary itself, Niditch provided insights from oral traditional studies. For example, in her discussion of the Song of Deborah (Judg 5), she wrote:

"The style of the song is characterized by parallel constructions typical of the most poetic of Israelite literature, with oral-style variation upon formulaic expressions and phrases, the use of an economical or limited vocabulary, and frequent chant-like refrains. (2008, p. 77)"

Niditch ended her commentary with a second English translation, this one much more literal, even to the point of preserving the verb-subject word order of the Hebrew. Her division of the verses into lines also appears to be influenced by the ethnopoetics of Tedlock by dividing the verses up into smaller units of meaning, thereby attempting more accurately to reflect the oral register of the Hebrew text.

Raymond Person.

Person participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute directed by John Miles Foley in 1992. His significant contributions are his 1998 Journal of Biblical Literature article “The Ancient Israelite Scribe as Performer,” his 2002 monograph The Deuteronomic School, and his 2010 monograph The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles.

In “The Ancient Israelite Scribe as Performer,” Person concluded as follows:

"The ancient Israelite scribes were literate members of a primarily oral society. As members of a primarily oral society, they undertook even their literate activity—that is, the copying of texts—with an oral mindset. When they copied their texts, the ancient Israelite scribes did not slavishly write the texts word by word, but preserved the texts’ meaning for the on-going life of their communities in much the same way that performers of oral epic re-present the stable, yet dynamic, tradition to their communities. In this sense, the ancient Israelite scribes were not mere copyists, but were also performers. (1998, p. 602)"

As support for this conclusion, he reflected on the definition of “word” in oral traditions in contrast to our modern notion and then examined selected text critical variants. When he asked “What is a word?” he found answers in both the Serbo-Croatian tradition and in the semantic range of the Hebrew word dabar. Within Serbo-Croatian epic, a word is understood as a line, a stanza, or even the entire epic. The semantic range of the Hebrew word dabar can be translated as “word” but also “speech” and “utterance.” Thus, what the ancient Israelites understood as a “word” included much more than what we moderns typically understand as a “word.” Even if the scribes did not copy their texts “word for word” from our perspective, from their perspective they very well may have copied them “word for word.”

Person then turned to a discussion of text critical variants, beginning with “synonymous readings”—for example, “against this place” (2 Kgs 18:25) and “against this land” (Isa 36:10). He then discussed the type of common variants found between Masoretic Text (MT) of Jeremiah and Septuagint (LXX) of Jeremiah (the MT pluses are given in italics): such as “And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet”(Jer 28:5), “Baruch son of Neriah” (Jer 36:8), and “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel” (Jer 29:21). He noted that what the ancients understood as “word for word” may allow for this kind of multiformity—for example, the reading “Jeconiah” (LXX Jer 28:4) and “Jeconiah, son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah” (MT Jer 28:4) may be understood as the same “word,” since both clearly refer to the same individual.

In The Deuteronomic School, Person understood the redactional process behind the Deuteronomic History as one that introduced numerous “changes” (that is, from our modern perspective) each time the text was copied by the Deuteronomic scribes as performers, a process that continued into the Persian period. He included a survey of scribes and scribal schools in the ancient Near East as an analogy to the Deuteronomic school as a scribal guild. He then provided fresh readings of selected passages in the Deuteronomic History in the Persian period.

In The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles, Person extended his earlier arguments to critique the consensus model of the relationship between Samuel–Kings and Chronicles—that is, the idea that Chronicles is a late rewriting of the earlier tradition, with Samuel–Kings as its main exilic source. That is, if the redaction of the Deuteronomic History extended into the Persian period, the consensus model required reassessment and was found insufficient. As an alternative, he imagined both Samuel–Kings and Chronicles as contemporary historiographies descended from a common source produced by the same exilic scribal guild—that is, the Deuteronomic school. With the return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, the scribal guild divided into two groups: the Deuteronomic school in Yehud and the Chronistic school in Babylonia. With the return of Ezra, the two schools came into contact with each other, eventually leading to the demise of the Deuteronomic school as a scribal institution.

Based on his survey of both the Deuteronomic History and Chronicles–Ezra–Nehemiah, Person concluded that the portrayal of scribes and writing in these works strongly supports Niditch’s notion of the interplay between orality and literacy. He then discussed multiformity as an important characteristic in oral traditions and literary texts with roots in primarily oral cultures. Such multiformity is found within the Deuteronomic History (for example, between the MT and LXX versions of the story of David and Goliath in 1 Sam 16–18) and the book of Chronicles (for example, the various source citations, many [if not all] of which probably refer to the same source). He noted that the idea of multiformity in oral traditions parallels well the notion of textual plurality in text criticism, especially in Julio Trebolle’s assertion of “the co-existence of parallel editions” (2006, p. 98). He then discussed the multiformity between Samuel–Kings and Chronicles in both the synoptic and non-synoptic material.

Drawing from the work of memory in oral traditions, including that of Carr, Person concluded that, despite their apparent differences, these two contemporary historiographies from competing scribal schools nevertheless faithfully represent the broader tradition.

"In an oral tradition, no one performance can be understood as the primary authoritative performance that must be replicated verbatim. All performances are simply one instantiation of the tradition, such that past and future performances may represent more or less of the tradition but none of them can alone represent the tradition in its fullness. Likewise, no one text in a primarily oral society can fully represent the broader tradition in its fullness. Therefore, no one text is determinant for future texts. In a primarily oral society a constant interplay between literary texts and the broader oral tradition preserved in the community’s memory occurs. Thus, co-existing parallel editions of texts, despite their apparent differences, can nevertheless equally re-present the tradition, and the broader tradition is best understood by the collective re-presentation of the texts in all of their multiformity. (2010, p. 169–170)"

Thus, for example, even the “unique” readings in Samuel–Kings and Chronicles may faithfully represent the broader tradition in ways that those in the competing scribal guild may still find acceptable.

"We must, therefore, practice great caution when reconstructing theological differences on the basis of what from our modern perspective are variant readings but what may be from the ancient perspective a faithful representation of the tradition. (2010, p. 170)"

Thus, he concluded that his study had implications for how the composition, transmission, and reception of biblical texts in general should be imagined. We must avoid the assumption of a unilinear process with one definitive, original text. Rather we must take seriously the textual plurality of the extant texts and understand this plurality with reference to the characteristic of multiformity as found in primarily oral societies.

David Carr.

Carr’s most significant contributions are his 2005 monograph, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, and his 2011 monograph, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction.

In Writing on the Tablet of the Heart, Carr drew extensively from comparative data. He provided chapters on ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient Greece as precursors and/or contemporary cultures to ancient Israel and chapters on Hellenistic culture in Egypt, Israel, and the Jewish Diaspora as later comparands. He concluded that “many ancient texts were not written in such a way that they could be read easily by someone who did not already know them well” (2005, p. 4). Many manuscripts have no spacing between the words. The Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieratic script, and the consonant-only Semitic alphabets are limited in their representation of how the texts should be pronounced, thereby requiring a high degree of familiarity with their content. In fact, an early Hebrew manuscript (Oxford Ms Heb e 30) provides the first word of each verse and then simply the first letter of subsequent words in that verse. Thus, he concluded,

"[T]his element of visual presentation of texts is but one indicator of the distinctive function of written copies of long-duration texts like the Bible, Gilgamesh, or Homer’s works. The visual presentation of such texts presupposed that the reader already knew the given text and had probably memorized it to some extent. (2005, p. 5)"

Carr then concluded that these texts were composed and transmitted in educational settings in which they were used as mnemonic aids for the internalization of the tradition.

"[S]uch written copies were a subsidiary part of a much broader literate matrix, where the focus was as much or more on the transmission of texts from mind to mind as on transmission of texts in written form. Both writing and oral performance fed into the process of indoctrination/education/enculturation. (2005, p. 5)"

Since texts were used as a means of teaching oral recitation, “written texts are intensely oral” (2005, p. 7). “Orality and writing technology are joint means for accomplishing a common goal: accurate recall of the treasured tradition” (2005, p. 7).

When he discussed education, Carr noted that, due to various forms of evidence, the educational system in which these texts would have been used would be limited to a small minority of elites. Epigraphic data and the material conditions of writing as well as the biblical portrayal of writing and reading as belonging to the realm of literate professionals all suggest that the majority of ancient Israelites were illiterate, having no formal education. He illustrated this by his reading of various texts, especially in wisdom literature and the Deuteronomistic History. Being literate primarily meant more than the ability to read or write; it meant having “an oral-written mastery of a body of texts” (2005, p. 13)—that is, the kind of formal education limited to elites. However, even the literati approached texts differently from educated modern Westerners.

"Rather than juggling multiple scrolls or having one scribe take dictation from two or three others, this model suggests that Israelite scribes most likely would have drawn on their verbatim memory of other texts in quoting, borrowing from, or significantly revising them. Of course, as in other cultures, Israelite scribes probably visually copied certain texts that they wished to reproduce precisely. Yet, as in other cultures, Israelite scribes probably did not work with cumbersome scrolls when they needed to produce something new, something not bearing the claim of being a precise visual copy of an earlier document. (2005, p. 161)"

Carr extended his earlier arguments on memory in The Formation of the Hebrew Bible. He introduced the term “memory variants,” which are “the sort of variants that happen when a tradent modifies elements of texts in the process of citing or otherwise reproducing it from memory” (2011, p. 17) such as “exchange of synonymous words, word order variation, [and] presence and absence of conjunctions and minor modifiers” (2011, p. 33). He provided numerous examples from the Gilgamesh epic, the Temple Scroll, parallels between Samuel–Kings and Chronicles, and parallel proverbs.

Carr undertook various case studies of “documented cases of transmission history” such as the Gilgamesh epic and the Temple Scroll in order to provide a more empirically based model of transmission. He concluded that “three main trends of revision” are evident:

  • (1) ancient scholars who were producing a new version of an ancient tradition (or portion of an ancient tradition) either preserved it unchanged (aside from memory or graphic variants) or expanded it….
  • (2) Conversely…ancient scribes rarely appropriated earlier compositions in their entirety. In particular, they often eliminated their beginning and/or end in the process of strategically redirecting them.…
  • (3) the tendency of many ancient scholars to harmonize and/or otherwise coordinate ancient written traditions with themselves and other texts. (2011, pp. 99–100)

Carr noted that from the perspective of the ancients such revisions are meant to preserve the tradition.

"In cases of memory variants, the shifts probably were seen as reproductions of what was essentially the “same” tradition. In cases of harmonization/coordination, the tradition was being made more true to itself. In cases of expansion, the bulk of the tradition was preserved, but enriched through additional exclusively oral traditions, theological updates, and other elements perceived as enhancements to the sacred deposit of more ancient material. (2011, p. 100)"

Carr’s methodological reflections led him to conclude that much of the past and present scholarly consensus concerning the formation of the Hebrew Bible must be revised, especially when such models posit the isolation of multiple redactional layers. The bulk of the volume then contains his “modest” but systematic reconstruction of the formation of the Hebrew Bible, working backwards from the Hasmonean period to the tenth and ninth centuries. Most of his reconstructions closely follow earlier more traditional approaches, although reaching more minimalistic conclusions. Notable exceptions are his dating of Proverbs, Qoheleth, and Song of Songs to the early monarchal period.

Martti Nissinen.

Nissinen has established himself as one of the top scholars concerning the comparative study of prophecy in the ancient Near East. He has edited the 2003 collection of primary sources in English translation, Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, and a related 2000 collection of essays, Prophecy in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context, as well as authored a variety of essays and articles. Although he may not be familiar with the Parry/Lord approach directly, he has accepted many of the conclusions of Niditch and Carr.

Nissinen defined prophecy as containing four elements: the divine sender, the message, the messenger/prophet, and the recipient. Thus, the prophetic process consists of two phases: the transfer of the message from the divine being to the prophet and the transfer of the message from the prophet to the recipient. Furthermore, the prophetic process was a communal event that often occurred within institutional settings, especially temples. He concluded as follows:

"[A]ncient Near Eastern prophecy was basically oral performance, that is, delivery of verbal messages spoken by a prophet. The message could be transmitted orally by one or several go-betweens all the way through, from prophet to destination. Occasionally, but never quite systematically, the spoken word ended up in written form, for different purposes and under varying circumstances. Writing was used, not only as an aid for memory, but also either (a) to make the divine message communicable if the addressee was not reachable by means of oral communication, or (b) to preserve the oracles for posterity, thus enabling its subsequent quotation and interpretation. (2000b, p. 268)"

These two uses of writing are illustrated well in the Mari letters, which contain reports of prophetic oracles to the king, and the Neo-Assyrian prophetic collections, which were probably compiled from other written records.

In “How Prophecy Became Literature” Nissinen dealt with the Hebrew Bible and how an oral phenomenon like prophecy became a unique genre of literature—that is, “[t]he Hebrew Bible forms a special case, since it includes the only extant collection of prophetic books, a genre otherwise unknown in the ancient Near East” (2005, p. 172). He asserted that prophecy was a strictly oral phenomenon.

"From the point of view of the process of communication,…the communication was considered finished when the message was received and heard. (2005, p. 169)"

Anything beyond that must be considered interpretation of the prophetic message.

"The physical restrictions alone—the writing speed, the dimensions of the writing material, etc.—prevented the verbatim memorization of the spoken words of the prophet, and this was not even attempted. Hence, and according to the usual laws of communication, the interpretation began immediately when the word came out of the prophet’s mouth. (2005, p. 169)"

Nissinen distinguished between “ancient Hebrew prophecy”—that is, the phenomenon of prophecy behind the literature—and “Biblical prophecy”—that is, the biblical portrayal of prophecy. Although “ancient Hebrew prophecy” was an oral phenomenon, “Biblical prophecy” included a greater use of written texts—for example, references to the prophets themselves as writers (Isa 8:16; 30:8; Hab 2:2). He rejected such portrayals of literate prophets—at least as a general phenomenon—and he suggested that Jeremiah 36 provides a more “historical” perspective concerning how prophecy became literature, even though his interpretation does not require the historicity of the specific events narrated in the passage.

In Jeremiah 36, God tells Jeremiah to write a scroll of prophecy. Jeremiah dictates the prophetic oracles to the scribe Baruch, who writes the scroll and then reads it aloud in the temple. When he receives the scroll, King Jehoiakim rejects its contents and burns the scroll. God then commands Jeremiah to write another scroll with all of the earlier content plus much more. Nissinen noted that this passage illuminates the literarization of prophecy in four ways. First, the reason for the writing of the prophecy is religiopolitical—“It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I [God] intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (Jer 36:3). Second, it suggests that even some prophecies that were written down may have been judged to be false and were therefore destroyed. Third, the prophets did not write down their own prophecies, but professional scribes were involved. Fourth, it hints at the redactional process of the prophetic books themselves, including rewritings with additional materials. Thus, he concluded, “Irrespective of its historicity, then, the story…serves as a paragon for the emergence and legitimation of the prophetic books” (2005, p. 164). He also concluded that, like the Neo-Assyrian collections, the story suggests that the redactors of the prophetic books probably had sources from archives.

Nissinen considered the proposal that materials from the ancient Hebrew prophets may have been preserved orally by their disciples. Especially since there is no comparative evidence for the oral transmission of prophetic materials or such prophetic schools, he remained skeptical of the proposal.

"As it is easier to assume than to prove, the assumption of oral transmission may be used as an emergency solution to circumvent some difficult historical questions concerning the prophetic origin of the texts. (2005, p. 172)"

Noting that prophecy in the ancient Near East was located in temples, he concluded that ancient Hebrew prophecy occurred in institutional settings.

"If there were oral prophetic traditions, their carrier groups must have been close enough to the literate circles to have their traditions accepted into the corpus of authoritative literature. (2005, p. 172)"

Here Nissinen hinted at a possible interplay between the oral and written in the preservation of prophetic oracles, even though he preferred written preservation of an oral phenomenon.

[ See also FOLKLORE AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION; and Orality Studies and Oral Tradition, subentry NEW TESTAMENT.]


  • Carr, David M. The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Clancy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Culley, Robert. “Oral Tradition and Biblical Studies.” Oral Tradition 1 (1986): 30–65.
  • Foley, John Miles. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
  • Foley, John Miles. Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  • Foley, John Miles, ed. A Companion to Ancient Epic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Foley, John Miles, ed. Teaching Oral Traditions. New York: Modern Language Association, 1998.
  • Horsley, Richard A., Jonathan Draper, and John Miles Foley, eds. Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark: Essays Dedicated to Werner Kelber. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
  • Jamieson-Drake, David W. Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah: A Socio-Archeological Approach. Sheffield UK: Almond, 1991.
  • Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
  • Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word. Ahcirent Irralite Literature. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
  • Nissinen, Martti. “How Prophecy Became Literature.” Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament 19 (2005): 153–172.
  • Nissinen, Martti. “Spoken, Written, Quoted, and Invented: Orality and Writtenness in Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.” In Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy, edited by Ehud Ben Zvi and Michael H. Floyd, 235–271. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000b.
  • Nissinen, Martti, ed. Prophecy in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Arabian Perspectives. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000a.
  • Nissinen, Martti, ed. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.
  • Person, Raymond F. Jr. “The Ancient Israelite Scribe as Performer.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998): 601–609.
  • Person, Raymond F. Jr. The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles: Scribal Works in an Oral World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010.
  • Person, Raymond F. Jr. The Deuteronomic School: History, Social Setting, and Literature. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
  • Polak, Frank. “The Oral and the Written: Syntax, Stylistics and the Development of Biblical Prose Narrative.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 26 (1998): 59–105.
  • Stock, Brian. The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Thomas, Rosalind. Oral Tradition and Written Records in Classical Athens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Toorn, Karel van der. Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Trebolle, Julio C. “Samuel/Kings and Chronicles: Book Divisions and Textual Composition.” In Studies in the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, and the Septuagint Presented to Eugene Ulrich, edited by Peter W. Flint, Emanuel Tov, and James C. VanderKam, 96–108. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006.

Raymond F. Person, Jr.

New Testament

In his 1989 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Paul Achtemeier issued a challenge. He noted that while scholars had researched a plethora of dimensions of the social, anthropological, and historical world in which the New Testament took shape, one aspect neglected by all but a small cadre of scholars was the fact that these writings arose in a world that had high levels of residual orality. In this address he urged that biblical scholars recognize in all their work the oral environs within which the New Testament took shape. Serious reflection was needed regarding the nature of this media world and how awareness of this neglected dimension of the ancient world might reshape biblical interpretation. This new mindset would demand that many assumptions then current in biblical scholarship would need intense reexamination and reformulation. Scholars would need to abandon the anachronistic projection of our own print world back onto New Testament texts; they would need to take seriously the complex interface between orality and writing that existed at the time of the composition of New Testament literatures.

Several scholars have joined forces with that small cadre of early researchers so that, two decades later, sessions at the SBL now abound in which presenters take seriously one dimension or another of Achtemeier’s challenge. Since much of the work that addresses this challenge has begun with research of the Gospel of Mark, that will provide the focus for much of what follows, so that a broad spectrum of the issues raised by a particular text may be examined. The bibliography will help orient the audience to how awareness of orality has shaped other elements of biblical interpretation.

Early Precedents.

Interest in oral dimensions of the biblical text is not new to biblical studies. Johannes Gottfried Herder made claims about the oral nature of the Gospels as long ago as the eighteenth century. The most influential figure in twentieth-century biblical criticism, Rudolph Bultmann, constructed his system of form criticism on the assumption that oral traditions were incorporated into each of the synoptic Gospels. He envisioned these oral traditions as brief fragments and discrete units that the author gathered together and steered toward his own purposes. The trained scholar sees the stitching that holds together the author’s additions as well as the other multiple layers of tradition that preceded the final received form.

Bultmann downplayed the difference between oral and written sources and their use by the evangelists, believing that oral and written traditions functioned under similar evolutionary laws. Drawing upon what happened to the tradition as it passed from Mark’s Gospel into Luke’s and Matthew’s, Bultmann sought to formulate the rules or laws that had governed the transmission of materials within oral processes as well as in the shift from oral to written narrative. This quilt of multiple sources could be disassembled, and the scraps could be sorted according to the phase at which their contribution appeared, using the laws Bultmann had formulated. In the end, this process would help separate that which authentically could be traced back to the historical Jesus from strata that accumulated during the evolutionary process. Bultmann formulated his understanding in dialogue with secular scholars who explored other folk traditions. He imagined an analogous process within the biblical witness.

Secular Studies on Orality.

The small cadre of scholars that Achtemeier mentioned in his address had been influenced by the work of secular scholars. Milman Parry, an expert in Homeric studies, was concerned with the performance of Homer’s epic poetry. Parry explored the level at which ancient performances of the epics was dependent upon prior written sources. He concluded that the epics were constructed in the act of performance, with the storyteller weaving together blocks of material using standard themes and formulaic phrases. He drew upon contemporary oral performances in Yugoslavia as an analogy for the ancient performances. Upon his death, his work was continued by his student Albert Bates Lord and finally published in The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960). These theorists made a clear distinction between the improvisational work done by the storyteller using traditional materials and the fixed control asserted by written texts.

Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technology of the Word (1982) added to the understanding of the interface between subsequent media. He formulated an understanding of the different ways that consciousness is shaped in the transition from primarily oral to primarily literate cultures. He argued for particular features that distinguish the two modes of organizing thought. Orality is additive and aggregative in its organization of thought as opposed to literacy, which inclines toward subordinative and analytic modes. Orality is drawn toward lived experience in the world as opposed to abstraction from the world. It is profoundly interested in the agonistic dimensions of reality and portrays those in ways that encourage empathetic responses and participation. Written discourse, on the other hand, pushes the reader back, creating distance from the material at hand. Words in oral performance do things to their hearers. They do not simply reference reality; they create reality for those listening. Thus the different modes of discourse actually create different habits of the mind, different ways of knowing, and different ways of socially organizing life; they are not simply generative of different pools of knowledge, but have different currents to be navigated by those who swim in their waters.

The Small Cadre.

A solid overview of seminal work in this field is best explored through an examination of several of the scholars that Achtemeier may have had in mind in his address when he spoke of a small cadre of scholars. Thomas Boomershine, Werner Kelber, and Joanna Dewey were among the primary pioneers in this field and have continued to lead in reflections to this day.

Thomas Boomershine.

Fifteen years before Achtemeier issued his challenge, a biblical student at Union Theological Seminary in New York was already addressing the task in that most difficult medium of all to express innovation, his doctoral dissertation, “Mark, the Storyteller: A Rhetorical-Critical Investigation of Mark’s Passion and Resurrection Narrative” (1974). Here Boomershine lays the foundations for a lifelong examination of how attention to oral dynamics in this literature transforms basic assumptions held by biblical scholars. Boomershine argues that the Markan narrative was intended for oral performance in its entirety. Ears listening to a storyteller, not eyes scanning a page, were the original filters through which almost all people would have received this story in its ancient context. Thus, common scholarly references to “readers” of a text must be replaced with “hearers” of the story. Sound, not silence, situated the story. Drawing upon the dynamics observed by Ong, Boomershine argues that this medium invited empathetic engagement rather than the detachment that scholars in the twentieth century had come to prize.

Boomershine argues that the oral medium of the story is essential to understanding how it made an impact on ancient audiences. Following Ong, Boomershine claims that the form in which the Gospel narratives were produced shapes narrative meaning in an essential and not merely instrumental way. For example, “verbal threads,” Boomershine’s term for repeated words and phrases, are more easily registered with the ears than with the reader’s eyes. When Jesus’s prediction of betrayal is repeated at the point of Peter’s actual denial (Mark 14:72), it is recognized as an echo by the audience’s ears. The passion predictions and their fulfillment also share in this dynamic. These repeated phrases stitch together major motifs throughout the Gospel, create emphasis within specific episodes, and provide an audio structure for the narrative as a whole.

The narrator tells the story in a way that also puts in play levels of distance and nearness between the audience and various characters. The audience is caught up in the tensions of the Jesus story in such a way that they must sort the issues out for themselves. Through this dynamic, the norms of the story are transmitted to the audience, shaping and forming not only the audience’s immediate response but also their on-going self-understanding. Boomershine shows that the structure of the passion narrative causes the audience to participate in the passion of Jesus, empathetically sharing his suffering.

This focus on what the narrative does to those hearing it persists throughout the monograph. Boomershine shows how the particular form of an episode moves the audience toward desired responses. For example, when accusers of Jesus in the Sanhedrin utter false testimony against Jesus, those who have heard the whole story know for themselves that lies are spoken. They find themselves thinking that Jesus said no such thing. Often in the performance, the audience is cast as characters in the story; the questions addressed to crowds throughout the trial scenes are also addressed to the audience members, demanding their own response. Boomershine is very attentive to the level of identification that the narrative creates between the audience members and various characters. The dance between identification and distance is carefully choreographed. In the end, Mark’s telling recreates the tensions inherent in the crucifixion itself—and points the audience toward a faithful resolution of them.

Boomershine’s most radical claim for interpretive methodology is that actually hearing the performance of the Gospel narratives must be an integral part of all biblical research. Even more radical is the fact that Boomershine put into practice this claim with his dissertation by submitting an audiotape in which he performs the passion narrative in Greek. While scholars have not always had ears to hear this proposal, Boomershine has taught thousands of ordinary interpreters of the biblical narrative to engage in this practice and has had a dramatic impact through this expanding interpretive practice.

Werner Kelber.

Werner Kelber has been the most publicly recognized head of Achtemeier’s cadre. If Boomershine conceives of Mark in the oral orbit, Kelber’s book The Oral and Written Gospel (1983) draws heavily upon the other side of Parry, Lord, and Ong, emphasizing the shift that occurred when the Gospel was committed to writing. He admits that, in this shift, Mark’s author carries forward elements of the Gospel’s oral provenance. Kelber sees that Mark’s Gospel is closely aligned with oral traditions and that it carries forward an oral legacy. Signs of orality remain embedded in the text, including heroic stories of healing that work with established forms like those the form critics identified. Yet despite the similarities within forms (heroic stories, polarization stories, parables), Kelber notices how similar forms are put into different service for a multiplicity of effects. The healing of the leper introduces the secrecy motif (Mark 1:40–45); the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1–12) creates the controversy regarding the authority to forgive sins. These stories are marked by concreteness, with individual, personalized characters receiving the focus. Other stories bring to light orality’s penchant for the agonistic dimensions of life. The stories of demoniacs especially exhibit this characteristic. Parables also invite audience engagement, speaking out of commonplace experiences but infusing the known with radical surprises. These parables embody the heart of oral speech dynamics, drawing in the audience to a plethora of reflective possibilities.

Likewise, the Gospel’s grammar has not shed itself of key components from its oral roots. The excessive use of the additive conjunction “and” links otherwise disjointed events into a stream of urgent proclamation. Words spoken by the main characters do things, as Ong suggested, leaving reality in a different state. Triadic repetition typical of folklore appears throughout the text: three passion predictions, three denials by Peter, three times Jesus enters Jerusalem. Progressive duplication introduces a theme only to revisit it immediately, bestowing on it even more complex meaning. The stories are action driven rather than character driven. Verbs in the historical present tense create immediacy with the story told. Clearly in the oral event, the bond that develops between storyteller and audience is part and parcel of the message. There is no original form of the story from which all others were born. Bultmann and the others were calling forth a phantom imagined within the confines of literacy. Every telling was original as the storytelling, shared by performer and audience, came together in a way without precedent and without hope of antecedent. Each performance was an original.

Yet, argues Kelber, the oral remnants within the written Gospel should not blind us to the fact that something tremendous has happened once this Gospel is written down. Kelber identifies the literacy side of the equation developed by Parry, Lord, and Ong and therefore sees what later critics dubbed a “great divide” between the oral and written accounts. The early flow of oral traditions became frozen once the story was written down. Writing down the story changed everything, or perhaps, better, stopped the flow of continual change from occurring. The living and lively voice of the storyteller is silenced as the narrative passes into print. Kelber accuses the author of the Gospel of remembering past voices in order to silence them. Speech is abandoned in favor of the new medium. Therefore, Mark’s use of the oral traditions should be approached with suspicion. He has claimed the tradition only to destroy its life. Mark’s act of recording the Gospel breaks the speaker/hearer bond, distances readers from the narrative’s impact, and crucifies the word in order to bring to life a new textuality. This move by the author claims authority for a particular version of the story in order to destroy the lively multiplicity inherent in the oral forms. Lively performance gives way to the author’s preferred, static account.

Joanna Dewey.

Joanna Dewey, also from the cadre of those early explorers of biblical orality, maps out a proposal that understands with Kelber the long oral life that the basic framework of the Gospel of Mark enjoyed before it was written down. Yet she also argues for the continuation of this active oral life even after the scribal work was done. She argues that the account written after the Roman-Jewish War did not halt the oral performance of the story. Storytellers continued to tell it with little or no use of the recorded manuscript. The level of authority that Kelber seeks for Mark’s account forgets that the original writing of the Gospel did not confer upon it status as “scripture”; that was not given until much later in the canonical process. While Dewey admits that claiming a long, dynamic oral life for Mark alongside and at times independent of its manuscript presence is a hypothesis that cannot be definitively proven, she does construct a framework that makes this possibility credible.

Dewey notes that the Gospel of Mark works well when performed as a story. It has an appropriate length for such performance. Both storyteller and audience would find it easily remembered. Like Boomershine and Kelber, Dewey sees the markers of orality that were identified by Parry, Lord, and Ong throughout the entire narrative. Mark contains short narratives, repetitive patterns, sets of three, and other devices most at home in oral performance.

Dewey notes that, since storytelling was a popular practice virtually everywhere in the ancient world, in all likelihood Mark’s Gospel enjoyed a presence in that medium. Writing need not be conceived of as the correcting of an oral process, since these two forms of publication (performance and manuscript) often operated in support of each other. She argues that the oral patterns and practices so deeply embedded in Mark’s writing make it likely that it was composed orally.

The content of Mark’s Gospel also suggests a rural audience, which would have an even lower level of literacy than more urban areas. Since these communities would lack basic literacy as well as the financial means to acquire manuscripts, the audience the narrative seems to assume requires that communication happened in performance.

Especially interesting in Dewey’s proposal is her examination of data extraneous to the narrative itself that may be found through text critical observations. First, critical editions of the New Testament indicate that Mark’s text has a significantly higher presence of textual variants than the other canonical Gospels. Since transmission through orality is known to be more variable than transmission through successive written versions, this evidence points to orality. Second, extant Markan manuscripts are relatively scarce compared to the other three Gospels, with only one known manuscript prior to the end of the third century. If this Gospel was primarily encountered via performance, this would explain the absence of manuscripts. Third, citations of Mark’s Gospel by early Christian writers drop precipitously from the second to the third century. These elite authors quoted Mark as a popular source early on, but then this practice declined as Mark’s Gospel was overshadowed by the more literary Gospels in the move toward canonization. Given Mark’s lively and popular oral life in the earlier century, it could not be ignored even by those who may have preferred the other Gospels. Dewey has responded well to the question posed in her article title, “The Survival of Mark’s Gospel: A Good Story?” (Journal of Biblical Literature 123 [2004]: 495–507).

Further Developments.

Since the work of these early pioneers, many scholars have deepened the understanding of New Testament texts as themselves oral traditions. We will explore a sample of the issues that arise: the role of sound in the ancient world, the style of performance in that place, the role of social memory in relation to the Gospels, and, finally, how competing social visions are noted even within a given Gospel.


One of the important elements of the early proposals is the importance of sound in the ancient world. Leading the research on this front are Margaret Ellen Lee and Bernard Brandon Scott with their book, Sound Mapping the New Testament (2009). For most people in the ancient world, words were not markings on paper or tablet, but sound. Even in urban areas, literacy broadly defined was not possessed by more than 15 percent of the population; in Palestine the number would be more like 3 percent. Even by literate groups, words were typically vocalized during both reading and writing. The dominance of declaration was true for pedagogical, economic, and pragmatic reasons. Schooling in the ancient world stressed recitation and memory. Writing existed to be at the service of this pedagogy. Economically, the material and processes that led to the production of manuscripts were expensive, and so even a single text would be a luxury in a given educational community. Students were not instructed to turn to a passage in their own personal copy of a text, but listened as it was read aloud. Finally, with low literacy rates, the primary form of publication was oral recitation. Manuscripts were at the service of this form of publication. Manuscripts were not first thought of as repositories of concepts and ideas; they first and foremost captured the linear stream of sound so that it could be vocalized at a later date. Lee and Scott have done important work exploring the grammar of sound. They have created a method for discerning and analyzing sound patterns in the New Testament that opens up new dimensions of the text. Conclusions about narratives and discourses can be based on ancient understandings of how particular sounds and sound patterns organized emotional and tonal effects in a discourse.


Whitney Shiner has mapped out the cultural ideal of performance in the ancient world in his book, Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark (2003). Shiner has argued that the four Gospels as well as many other parts of the New Testament would likely have conformed to the norms implicit in the performance ideals of antiquity. Drawing upon rhetorical handbooks as well as descriptions of public performance from the ancient world, he offers a framework for understanding how the Gospel of Mark would have been presented. Mark is of a length that was fully capable of being memorized in the ancient world. The Gospel as we have it would take approximately two hours to perform. The performer would have some freedom to shrink or expand the material in light of audience need, while maintaining the accepted contours of the tradition. The performance would be lively, with the storyteller using vivid gestures, variation in tone and speed, and different voices to distinguish the characters from one another. The style would often be bombastic by modern standards, with an emphasis on agonistic dimensions of the story. This is especially true when the venue is large and subtlety would be lost on those farthest from the performer. The narration would drive toward making an impact on the audience’s emotions and motives rather than simply teaching about events or presenting doctrinal understanding. Performance contributed to community formation not only the conveyance of information. The narration would create a primary experience of the story world for the audience. The audience in return would play an active role in the performance. They would respond openly, loudly, and physically to the performance.

Social Memory.

Holly Hearon has written an article whose title expresses another dimension of the work on oral traditions, “The Construction of Social Memory in Biblical Interpretation” (Encounter 67 [2006]: 343–359). In this work she explains how performance functions to create a social memory that gives a people a solid sense of communal identity. This social memory weaves a connection between individuals using an interpretive narrative that draws upon the past in order to make sense of the present. Additionally the past is pressed into the service of mapping out a preferred future for the community. In the process of constructing this shared memory, personal memories are taken up into a larger narrative and find their place within it. While this may often occur consciously, just as likely this creative activity happens on an unconscious level.

This growing focus on social or collective memory differs from some of the ways memory has been thought about in earlier biblical approaches. Memory is understood not simply as a technique for storing and passing on the tradition, but is itself a generative process that synthesizes the past into meaningful directions in the present. In this understanding, memory is a constructive tool in the quest for identity that is not wielded by a lone individual but comes into being through communal dynamics. Historical events and elements of material culture are taken up into memory and are morphed to serve the challenges facing the community. The community condenses, conflates, marks the boundaries of, and even invents details so that the whole process of remembering what happened maintains a tension between the historical and the fictive.

Because memory in this process serves particular interests, it does more than preserve remembrances of social conflicts from the past; it is itself a participant in and product of such tensions. The construction of identities happens in a site of contending interpretations by different elements of a society or a community negotiating traditions in light of the exigencies and desires of their time and location (Holly E. Hearon, “The Construction of Social Memory in Biblical Interpretation”). The first-century performance of the Gospel of Mark played precisely this role. The performed Gospel draws upon the history of Israel and the life of Jesus in order to map out the direction for the community who have identified with him.

Contending Memories.

Richard A. Horsley in his book, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001), has applied this framework in order to observe contending interpretations of Israel’s past within the Gospel of Mark. He notes that the central conflicts in Mark’s Gospel pit the Galilean Jesus against the Pharisees and scribes. Horsley claims that Jesus’s opponents in the narrative do not represent a normative Judaism preoccupied with the law, as common interpretations often assume. Rather, what is on display are contending versions of what it means to be an Israelite. These versions were in conflict during Jesus’s time and in the time the memories of him were constructed.

Horsley notes that scholars often assume that both Jesus and the religious elite of his day appeal to the same scriptures, but offer different interpretations of those traditions. Horsley sees the conflicts flowing out of different social locations and the variant traditions about key figures from Israel’s narrative that were constructed within those different locations. Following James C. Scott, he sees at play within Mark’s narrative world an elite or great tradition of Israel that contains memories that run counter to the popular or little tradition of Israel’s memory upon which Jesus relies. Mark’s story is shaped by particular oral scripts that remember Israel’s traditions in ways that occasionally parallel the official, written version but at other times demonstrate extraordinary twists that resist the inscribed telling of its own history. So while not accepting Kelber’s conclusions regarding the divide between written and oral versions of Mark, Horsley does see a different written/oral conflict playing out within the narrative. He takes pains to remind us that even among the literate elite, the primary mode of teaching their traditions was oral. In fact, he will not allow us to forget that even when written texts are invoked by the elite, no authoritative version of the Torah yet exists.

In Horsley’s reconstruction, Jesus is interpreted through and draws upon oral scripts or memories of Moses, Elijah, and David as prophetic figures. For example, not regal David, but subversive David is used by Jesus to drive home his points. When this occurs, clearly the oral script differs from the written official versions that eventually became part of the canon. One example may suffice to illustrate his point. Horsley looks at Jesus’s appeal to David in the controversy over plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28). He notes that the story Jesus draws upon to express David’s actions differs in significant ways from the version we have in the later canonical form from 1 Samuel 21:1–6. The priest’s name is different; David has companions with him; they are identified as hungry; he actually enters the house of God and does not wait at the door; and they all eat the bread. Jesus is drawing on a popular Israelite tradition that holds a memory of David as supporting the right of people to address their real hunger rather than respecting laws that set aside such rights for the religious elites alone (“which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat,” Mark 2:26). Through the invoking of such popular memory, Jesus initiated a movement of renewal among rural Israelites that appealed to the needs and aspirations of Galilean villagers. The Gospel of Mark that we possess was originally heard as good news when performed orally to communities of subjected people.

A Name of its Own.

In light of multiple emerging trends that take seriously the role of orality in biblical texts such as the Gospel of Mark, David Rhoads, one of the scholars we have yet to engage from the original cadre, has proposed a name for this collection of interests in his two-part article, “Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology in Second Temple Studies” (Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 [2006]: pp. 1–16 and 164–184). In this decisive article, Rhoads draws together the concerns of those whom we have already explored as well as many others that space has not allowed us to pursue. He claims that the New Testament writings were like the fossil remains of living oral performance. Orality played a role in composition, transmission, and publication of them all. Performers of the texts and communities who heard them were always present in the original proclamation of these narratives and discourses. Concrete performances rooted in particular communities were always involved in the reception of what scholars think of in strictly textual terms. Frequently, perhaps more often than not, these written remains of the lively event were not even present during the memorized performance. In light of this he wonders why the performance realities of the ancient world have played so small a role in much of biblical scholarship.

Rhoads argues that given the way that biblical texts were performed, the typical method of interpreting texts privately and silently is like musicologists studying musical scores without ever hearing the music played. Like Boomershine, Rhoads advocates for contemporary performances as a necessary tools for understanding the textual remains of earlier performances. Performance will shift attention to several neglected elements of the ancient Christian context. The performer him or herself must be taken into account as must the audience that would have heard the performance. The shift from text to performance makes clear the relational nature of what is conveyed through biblical narratives. Likewise the physical place and social location of a telling shifts its meaning. All this leads to an analysis of the impact that the story would have made on various audiences. Rhoads argues that the performance in all its dimensions contributes in incarnate ways to the impact that the audience experienced. The narrative carried much more than a neatly packaged set of beliefs and ideas. The narrative created a relationship between the audience and the performer through which transformation could occur. The story that took on flesh in performance became the means to propel the hearers into lives of particular forms of faithfulness.

While Rhoads advocates for a brand new paradigm for biblical interpretation based on performance, he recognizes that many already established approaches have important contributions to make to this emerging discipline. Joining hands with these disciplines will not lead to a definitive interpretation of an original performance, since, as Kelber has noted, every performance is an original and no single, pristine specimen ever existed. Rather these disciplines can aid in the construction of credible performance scenarios that are generative in understanding the multiplicity of ways the narrative may have made an impact in the ancient world.

Rhoads gathers a broad list of areas of biblical studies that might assist in creating credible scenarios and in interpreting the impact of performance within those contexts. Historical criticism helps in the reconstruction of social and media context; form and genre criticism call attention to patterns that play into performance. Narrative criticism offers means to interpret plot, setting, and conflicts. Reader-response criticism guides reflection on possible audience responses. Rhetorical criticism helps us understand how ancient forms of argumentation play a role in the narrative. Orality criticism helps in reflection on media impact. Social scientific criticism helps unpack the social dynamics at play in the narrative. Areas outside the field of biblical scholarship, particularly in the fields of theatre and performance studies, make essential contributions as well. Rhoads envisions a broad convergence of resources. With this initiative, it is safe to say that Achtemeier’s dream has become a reality.



  • Achtemeier, Paul. “Omni Verbum Sonat: The New Testament and the Environment of Late Western Antiquity.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 3–27. Achtemeier’s Society of Biblical Literature presidential address that challenged scholars to take account of the oral environment of the New Testament’s creation.
  • Bailey, Kenneth E. “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” Asia Journal of Theology 5:1 (1991): 34–54. Offers an important understanding of how the oral tradition may have been regulated by the community. Bailey’s extensive experience in the Middle East shapes his understanding. His article and Bauckham’s work (following) provide an alternative to Kelber’s understanding of the relationship between oral traditions and written word.
  • Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006. A detailed account that seeks to demonstrate that the Gospels are rooted and controlled by eyewitnesses to the events recounted.
  • Boomershine, Thomas E. Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1988. A primer on elements of narratives that a storyteller should take into account when performing Gospel accounts. For those interested in learning to do performance of biblical texts, this is the definitive book.
  • Dewey, Joanna, ed. “Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature.” Semeia 65 (1994). A collection of essays examining various aspects of orality and textuality in Early Christian literature.
  • Harvey, John D. Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998. The most thoroughgoing exploration of how orality shapes the Pauline corpus.
  • Hearon, Holly E. The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2004. Helpful reconstruction of the role of storytelling that complements Shiner’s work with special attention to the role of women.
  • Hearon, Holly E., and Philip Ruge-Jones, ed. The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media. Biblical Performance Criticism Series 1. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2009. Collection of essays by leaders in the field who communicate their central insights in a way that is accessible to beginners in biblical studies.
  • Horsley, Richard A., and Jonathan A. Draper. Whoever Hears You, Hears Me: Prophets, Performance and Tradition in Q. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1999. The most important volume to explore orality in relation to Q.
  • Horsley, Richard A., Jonathan A. Draper, and John Miles Foley, ed. Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000. Continued exploration of dynamics and issues identified by Kelber.
  • Juel, Donald. “The Strange Silence of the Bible.” Interpretation 51 (1997): 5–19. An experiential account by a fine biblical scholar about the insight he gained by watching someone perform a Gospel.
  • Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983. The book that started the scholarly conversation about orality in relation to the New Testament. In addition to the work on Mark discussed earlier, Kelber addresses Paul’s commitment to the oral gospel.
  • Lee, Margaret Ellen, and Bernard Brandon Scott. Sound Mapping the New Testament. Salem, Ore.: Polebridge, 2009. Explains the material aspects of ancient media and the centrality of sound as an organizing principle in rhetoric. This work provides a method to analyze and interpret biblical texts using sound maps.
  • Maxey, James A. From Orality to Orality: A New Paradigm for Contextual Translation of the Bible. Biblical Performance Criticism Series 2. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2009. Demonstrates the challenges and possibilities encountered when translating the Bible’s orality for contemporary oral communities.
  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technology of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982. A classic work exploring the ways that different media result in different ways of structuring and understanding and society.
  • Ruge-Jones, Philip. “The Beginning of the Good News.” Select Multimedia Resources, 2009. A DVD recording of a live performance of the whole Gospel of Mark.
  • Shiell, William David. Reading Acts: The Lector and the Early Christian Audience. Biblical Interpretation Series 70. Boston: Brill Academic, 2004. Does work similar to Shiner’s (following) but with a focus on the Acts of the Apostles.
  • Shiner, Whitney Taylor. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity, 2003. Documents the expectations for performance in the antiquity and how that informs interpretation of Mark’s Gospel.
  • Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel: Methods to Embody Biblical Storytelling Through Drama. Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2004. Great pedagogical resource to create engagement with the text through theatrical improvisation techniques.
  • Thatcher, Tom, ed. Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond the Oral and Written Gospel. Waco, Tex.: Baylor, 2008. Appreciative volume of essays that examines the work of Kelber in terms of oral and written interfaces as well as the role of memory in contemporary research.
  • Wire, Antoinette Clark. The Case for Mark Composed in Performance. Biblical Performance Criticism Series 3. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2011. The most thoroughgoing attempt to demonstrate that Mark was composed for and lived in performance. Wire provides an interesting possible reconstruction of the role of women in preserving Mark’s Gospel.

Philip Ruge-Jones