Orality & Literacy VII
Oral-scribal dimensions of scripture, piety and practice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
April 12-14, 2008
Dean of Humanities
Department of History
Humanities Research Center
Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology (formerly CITI)
Department of Religious Studies
Torah on the Heart:
Literary Jewish Textuality within its Ancient Near Eastern Context
This paper gathers clues to the interplay of textuality, orality and memory in the emergence of literary textuality in ancient Israel. One set of clues is comparative: judicious use of models from better documented systems of oralwritten textuality that existed relatively near ancient Israel and may have influenced Israelite textuality, e.g. Egypt, Mesopotamia and ancient Greece. Though care must be used in attending to the important differences between these cultures, their combined evidence presents an important challenge for study of ancient Israelite texts.
Another set of clues can be found in references to orality and textuality in the Hebrew Bible itself. Past scholarship often has been misled its analysis of biblical textuality by an excessive preoccupation with written texts and anachronistic assumptions about “schools,” “universal literacy,” and the like. The data looks different, however, when it is approached with models befitting a oral-written cultures such as Israel.
The final set of clues are dynamics seen in the transmission of those Biblical texts. Scholars in the humanities have shown that some manuscripts contain the kinds of variants typical of texts that are transmitted by memory: exchange of synonymous words, meaningless shifts in word order, etc. I term these “cognitive variants,” and they are common in parallel biblical traditions and early biblical manuscripts.
Together these clues do not denigrate the importance of written textuality in ancient Israel, but situate that textuality within a broader cultural matrix focused on internalization, recitation and the broader formation of individuals and communities.
Disparate Motives for Guarding Oral Transmission -Within and Between Cultures
The early Muslim opposition to the inscription of hadith has been studied by Ignaz Goldziher, Gregor Schoeler, Michael Cook and Menahem Kister, and some of these writings have spotlighted the pronounced hostility to the writing of tradition that persisted as late as the mid-8th century in Basra, Kufa and Medina. Cook reviewed a range of possible explanations for the dogged perpetuation of oralist ideology in what, by then, was a highly textualized culture, and he concluded that this holdout posture was due to Jewish influence. In support of his claim, Cook invoked two bodies of evidence. Arabic teachings warn Muslims to avoid the error of the People of the Book who went astray, according to one tradition, because they wrote down books of their own alongside the Book of God; and according to another tradition, because they found books that had beencomposed by their ancestors. Cook also appeals to the rabbinic regulation that recurs in Talmud: “oral matters must not be said in writing.”
Cook’s invocation of rabbinic oralism, and his assumption that this regulation either described or prescribed cultural transmission in rabbinic communities from the 3rd century through the Muslim era occasion my own remarks. I will argue that while “oralist” Jewish teachings formulated in Palestine in the third century and repeated in Babyonian geonic writings of ninth and tenth century Iraq may be identical in import, they were motivated by wholly different concerns. The earliest rabbinic articulations of oralism must be understood within the specific context of Second Temple Jewish sectarianism, while the oralism of the Babylonian Geonim may be best understood as an expression of Abbasid regionalism at a time of growing Umayyad supremacy in the Muslim world. Drawing on passages from Talmud and on writings by medieval Jews from Babylonia, Kairouan and Spain, my study will engage in conversations begun by the aforementioned scholars and by S. Lieberman, B. Gerhardssohn, M. Jaffee, D. Zlotnick, Y. Elman, C. Heszer, E. Shanks, D. Boyarin, M. Bregman, R, Brody, N. Danzig, H. W. Bailey, M. Muranyi, and S.M. Toorawa.
The Emergence of Christian Tradition as Spoken and Written Word
Christianity is a faith rooted in the written and spoken word. However, the precise relationship between the written and the spoken word in the period of Christian origins has been a matter of much debate. Past studies have seen the written and the spoken word as belonging to differentiated social worlds and modes of thought. In recent years a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between written and spoken words and worlds has emerged. This has direct consequences for our understanding of the New Testament. Although comprised of self-consciously written texts, the New Testament offers evidence of extensive interchange between oral and written words and worlds: in references to teaching and storytelling, in the oral patterning of the written text, in instructions for these written texts to be read aloud. Drawing on the evidence of Greek and Roman sources, I will construct a framework for examining the writings of the New Testament as a point of intersection between spoken and written words, with specific attention to how this may offer insight into the development of Christian traditions, the communities that gave birth to these traditions, and the social dynamics at play in process.
Oral and Written Communication and Transmission in Ancient Judaism and Christianity
In Hellenistic and Roman times Jews seem to have mostly communicated orally amongst themselves and with non-Jews. In a time when no telephones and emails existed, such communication was either conducted face-to-face, on the basis of direct personal contacts, or through messengers, who delivered information from one person to another. One may assume that with in this "sea" of orality "islands" of literacy existed: military commanders such as Josephus exchanged written notes with other military leaders; rabbis occasionally sent letters to their colleagues to inquire about halakhic issues; the patriarch informed diaspora communities about festival times; merchants used writing to confirm important business dealings.
The paper will examine literary references to oral and written communication in Jewish-Hellenistic and especially rabbinic writings. Besides analyzing the modes and contexts of communication and transmission of knowledge and information in ancient Judaism, the larger issues of connectivity, networking, and social power shall be addressed within the larger framework of Graeco-Roman society and in comparison with early Christianity. The paper will suggest that the modes of development of rabbinic literature are closely related to and based on the ways in which rabbis communicated with each other.
The Origin and Operation of Scripture at the Popular Level: The Gospels (of Mark and Matthew)
"Mark’s gospel was composed at a desk in a scholarly study lined with books."This statement by a prominent New Testament colleague illustrates the deep grounding of biblical scholarship in the conceptualizations of print culture. Recent work on the relation of oralities and literacies, types of writing, oral performance, oral-scribal cultivation of authoritative texts, the oral performance/ function of scripture, the (in)stability of textual traditions, scribal practices, limited literacy (very limited scribal skills) and last not least the social location of those who produced and cultivated the texts -- these and other issues raised to prominence by orality-scribality studies are leading us to rethink the origins and functioning of what became Christian scriptures.
Addressing this complex of issues I will focus on the origins of Mark and Matthew. I will explore the implications of recent work on text criticism, the gospel genre (why gospel and not new books on Torah and prophets?), the communities and popular movements in the background of Mark and Matthew, Matthew’s possible appropriation of texts available in oral-written cultivation, and the relationship between Mark and Matthew and the Hebrew scriptures.
A History of the Closure of the Biblical Texts
Werner H. Kelber
This paper attempts an overview of the history of the biblical texts from their oral and papyrological beginnings all the way to their triumphant apotheosis in print culture. The particular focus will be the oral-scribal-memorial-typographic dynamics that helped generate the transformation of biblical texts and in turn alter ways in which the Bible was communicated, interiorized and lived by.
The paper’s central thesis states that the media transformations of the Bible by and large can be viewed as a reductive process commencing with multiformity and polyvalency and moving away from oral, memorial sensibilities toward increasing chirographic controls culminating in the autosemantic print authority. That latter authority, conveying the impression of being closed in upon itself, in turn contributed toward paving the way for such diverse phenomena as historical criticism, the New Criticism, Derridean deconstructionism and fundamentalism.
This historical overview will discuss inter alia the initial status of textual multiformity, the technical innovation of the codex, early philological attempts to control the texts (Origen, Eusebius, Jerome), a developing textualization of the Bible as a result of medieval triumphs of professional scribality, nominalism’s turn toward the inner resources of biblical texts, and the Reformer’s eager embrace of print technology and their unprecedented elevation of the Bible to sola scriptura.
Torah, Textuality, and the Hermeneutics of Exodus in Early Rabbinic Judaism
W. David Nelson
This paper investigates how the oral-literary dynamics of early Rabbinic textuality shaped the theology of early Rabbinic Judaism in the centuries immediately following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. The central thesis argues that the mutually oral-performative and literary textuality of early Rabbinic Judaism shaped its hermeneutical tradition of Exodus interpretation in such a way as to incorporate both theological dissonance and historical discontinuity into the emerging Rabbinic religious worldview. An analysis of a range of early midrashic texts (e.g., Mek. of Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 13:17-18, 14:13 and 20:2; Sifre Deut. on Deut. 33:2-4; Genesis Rabbah on Gen. 1:1) reveals how the dynamics of early Rabbinic textuality enabled an assimilation of both the creation of the world and the Sinaitic revelation of “Torah in the Mouth” into Judaism’s tradition of Exodus interpretation, and, in so doing, facilitated the emergence of an early Jewish hermeneutical resistance to the potential reality of religious-historical annihilation.
Two Faces of the Qur’an: qur’an and mushaf
Contrasting the Communication Process with the Canonized Codex
The Qur’an in Western and Islamic scholarship alike is usually read as a canonical text (mushaf), constituting the foundational document of the Islamic religion. In the Muslim perception, the Qur’an is proof of the eventual victory of Islam over the earlier Near Eastern religions, that thereby have become obsolete, Western scholars on the contrary, read the Qur’an as an epigonic re-working of those traditions. Both approaches are trapped by the Qur’an’s canonicity, which has – for the Muslim reader – converted the historical communication process between the Prophet and his community into a timeless divine monologue, and which has - for the Western reader - turned a dramatic interreligious dialogue into a static auctorial text with Muhammad as the author. Both views, though incompatible, share a proton pseudos: they do not re-locate the Qur’an into the milieu of its emergence, but build on its later acquired canonical shape.
What is required is to go back behind the divide of the canonization to the communication process between the Prophet and his community. Reading the Qur’an as a pre-canonical text, qur’an, not only allows to recover its dramatic character, the dialogical exchanges between diverse protagonists, it equally enables us to reclaim its cultural context, to trace the processes of the negotiation, appropriation or rejection of earlier traditions that shaped the text. It finally frees the Qur’an from the verdict of epigonality vis a vis the Biblical traditions and allows to understand it as a revolutionary, new religious paradigm.
Contemporary Performance as a Means to Access the Orality of Early Christianity
This presentation seeks to show how modern performances of texts from the New Testament in English can assist us in constructing first century performance scenarios, in understanding oral features of the discourse, in recovering emotive dimensions of the texts, and in grasping their rhetorical power upon first century audiences. After discussing the New Testament texts as performance literature, I will define the features of a first-century performance event. I will then seek to elaborate the dynamics of oral performance of literature—the world of the text, characterization, onstage/offstage focus, subtext, non-verbal communication, the temporal experience of the text, among others. Finally, I will offer some reflections in what I have learned from the experience of performing texts such as Mark, the Sermon on the Mount, Galatians, James, I Peter, and Revelation. I will include some brief performances as part of the presentation.
The constitution of the Koran as a codified work:
Paradigm for codifying the Islamic sciences
The Koran was a book already in the lifetime of the Prophet, although only in terms of an objective, not in reality. The constitution of the Koran as a codified work took place in three phases: notes to bolster the memory, systematic collections, redacted and published book. Parallel to this and borne by the “caste” of Koran readers was an oral transmission of the text which was also maintained when the Koran was present as a redacted book.
In its main features, the process of constituting the Koran as a codified work anticipates the codification process of the Hadith (the Prophetic Tradition, i.e. the reports on the words and deeds of Muhammad), the other corpus of sacred texts in Islam, and, moreover, of most of the genuine Islamic sciences.
Unlike the Koran, the Hadith was originally intended to be taught and transmitted purely orally; many traditionalists, however, resorted already very early to written notes as aids to memory. In the case of the Hadith, this practice was hotly disputed: in the view of many traditionalists, the Koran was supposed to be, and remain, the only “scripture” in Islam. Despite these controversies, the Hadith was compiled into written collections (Musannafat) in the middle of the 8th cent. However, these works were not intended to be disseminated to readers in written form, but orally by lectures in class.
The codification process of most of the genuine Islamic disciplines (historiography, Koran reading etc.) took place in an analogous way (notes intended as aides-mémoire, lecture notebooks, published books). However, in all stages, the postulate was that the mediation of knowledge should be orally and ensue directly from teacher to pupil.
The Interaction of Speech and Calligraphy in manuscripts of the Qur’an
This presentation will explore relationships between the written and recited versions of the Qur’an primarily through a close examination of early uses of the text such as the passages contained in the mosaics at the Dome of the Rock and through a close examination of leaves and whole manuscripts preserved in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Special attention will also be given to copies associated with the recension created by the Caliph Uthman.
My basic thesis is that the oral and written versions of the Qur’an were in a functional and aesthetic dialogue through which the written and recited versions became closer over time but that there are also factors which worked against a complete convergence of the two modes. I hope to demonstrate that some changes in the transcription and presentation of the written text can be linked to evolving oral practices which were gradually incorporated in the codices of the period and region in question. These changes are not limited to the complete phonetic transcription of the words and phrases of the text but also include other pious practices connected with the use and veneration of the Qur’an as an object.
Orality, Literacy, and the Semiotics of Rhetoric in Arabic Poetry
Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych
This paper offers a speculative exploration of the transformations in the form and function of rhetorical devices at three distinctive points of Arabic literary history.
I. Rhetoric as Ritual. The pre-Islamic qasīdah (ode) was the oral poetry practiced by the warrior aristocracy of tribal Arabia. I will propose that just as ritual expresses abstract concepts through palpable, indeed bodily, symbolic expression, so, too, the pre-Islamic qasīdah, through its rhetorically patterned mnemonic language, produces (metaphorically) palpable and graphic expressions that serve to preserve core tribal concepts.
II. Rhetoric as Islamic Hegemony. This section proposes that badī‛, the rhetorically ornate and conceptually complex style of the High ‛Abbāsid panegyric ode, is the “linguistic correlative” of caliphal might and Islamic hegemony. Further it argues that this “retooling” of rhetoric to perform breath-taking feats of verbal “derring-do” is only possible because the establishment of literacy has freed rhetoric of mnemonic exigencies, and has led to the development of the linguistics sciences that have “broken the code” of syntax, morphology, and ishtiqāq (morphological derivation).
III. Rhetoric as Spiritual Devotion. The final segment examines the transformation of the highly creative badī‛ of the ‛Abbāsid period to the programmatic production of rhetorical devices of the post-classical/medieval badī‛iyyah, a Prophetic praise poem in which each line exhibits a particular rhetorical device. I will propose that the badī‛iyyah represents another “retooling” of rhetoric, to express, not caliphal might and dominion, but rather submission and supplication to the Prophet. The badī‛iyyah and prose commentary will be studied as a devotional rhetorical compendium in which the lines of the poem serve as mnemonic “hooks” (Mary Carruthers’ term) on which literary knowledge “hangs.”