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Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond "The Oral and the Written Gospels" [Paperback]

By Tom Thatcher (Author) & Tom Thatcher (Editor)
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Item description for Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond "The Oral and the Written Gospels" by Tom Thatcher...

Werner Kelber's "The Oral and the Written Gospel" (1983) introduced biblical scholars to interdisciplinary trends in the study of ancient media culture. The book is now widely recognized as a milestone and it has spurred wide-ranging scholarship. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publication, new developments in orality theory, literacy theory, and social approaches to memory call for a programmatic reappraisal of past research and future directions. This volume address these concerns. Kelber himself is interviewed at the beginning of the book and, in a closing essay, he reflects on the significance of the project and charts a course for the future.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Baylor University Press
Pages   290
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.92" Width: 6.06" Height: 0.93"
Weight:   1.1 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 1, 2008
Publisher   Baylor University Press
Edition  New  
ISBN  1932792600  
ISBN13  9781932792607  

Availability  0 units.

More About Tom Thatcher

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Tom Thatcher is Professor of Biblical Studies at Cincinnati Christian University.

Tom Thatcher was born in 1967 and has an academic affiliation as follows - Cincinnati Christian University.

Tom Thatcher has published or released items in the following series...

  1. Early Christianity and Its Literature
  2. Early Judaism and Its Literature
  3. John, Jesus and History
  4. Resources for Biblical Study
  5. Semeia Studies-Society of Biblical Literature
  6. Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Jesus
2Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > Biographies > Biography
3Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Reference > Criticism & Interpretation > Criticism & Interpretation

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An Important Contribution to our Understanding of Early Christianity  Mar 15, 2009
The recent volume edited by Tom Thatcher, Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond The Oral and the Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008) provides both an appreciative and critical retrospective on the contribution of Werner Kelber to our understanding of orality and the Gospels, as well as explorations of methods and perspectives both old and new on this and related topics.

The first three chapters focus specifically on the work of Werner Kelber and in particular his groundbreaking book The Oral and the Written Gospel. The first chapter, by Tom Thatcher, reviews "Kelber's conclusions in each of these three areas: the hermeneutics of orality and writing, the media history of Christian origins, and the inevitable clash between a media-sensitive approach and traditional text-based models of biblical interpretation" (p.3). One particular contribution of Kelber's is his emphasis on the transitory character of oral words, existing only for the moment they are uttered. A corollary is that there can be no "transmission of content" in an oral context (p.4). This makes it impossible to speak of "originals" and "variants" - indeed, according to Kelber, each rendition was not only "an original version" but "the original version" (p.5, quoting Kelber; see too p.23). Oral speech/performance is thus characterized by a combination of stability in the overall framework and gist, and variability in the wording and precise details (p.6). Thatcher's chapter also highlights other characteristics of oral storytelling, providing in the process a helpful overview of the state of recent scholarly study of orality in early Christianity. One key point worth mentioning is the way written texts allow for repeated readings and thus foster reflection and commentary in a way not possible in a purely oral milieu (p.8). Also striking is the evidence that handwritten manuscripts share many of the characteristics of purely oral performances (p.10). Other key concepts and issues, such as "hot" and "cold" memory, Traditionsbruch, and the possibility that some sayings arose prophetic speech are also considered. Memory is of crucial importance to this topic, and the amount of attention given to it in this volume is welcome. Thatcher concludes the chapter with "five pillars" of Kelber's contribution in The Oral and the Written Gospel (pp.24-25).

The idea of "equiprimordiality", of every performance being utterly original and unrelated to prior and subsequent performances, is, to my thinking, the most problematic of Kelber's assertions. I suspect it is based on an excessive reliance on the Parry-Lord school's work on epic folksongs. But even in this very different genre, it is not at all obvious that the style and even the content of a great performer cannot influence the subsequent performances of his or her students, if not others. But for one to even speak of each performance as a unique original, there must be a traditional story or song that is so deeply rooted in social memory that one can draw on it without any consciousness of dependence on tradition - the story or song is simply there in one's memory and comes effortlessly to the lips and instrument without a conscious need to dig into one's memory. The question whether this depth and extent of social memory could have been achieved in the period between the public activity of Jesus and the time of the writing of the Gospels requires further investigation. At any rate, the notion that every performance is utterly disconnected from all others that went before may be useful hyperbole to startle readers shaped by modern textuality into imagining a different framework, but taken literally it is not clear that such language is meaningful, much less an accurate description of the realities of oral tradition.

Chapter two offers an interview of Kelber by Thatcher, and it includes one of the most crucial questions in this field, one asked all too infrequently: when we envisage a Gospel author writing his Gospel, what do we imagine the details of the process and procedure to have been (p.37). Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of answer at this particular juncture, but it is refreshing to see the question asked so explicitly. Indeed, Kelber himself says slightly later that an exploration of the modes and processes of composition is "one of the most urgent tasks toward getting a better grip on early Christian tradition" (p.39). In chapter three, Richard Horsley seeks to take into account the ways in which oral and written traditions flowed side by side, culminating in an examination of Mark's Gospel as a whole considered in light of Kelber's work. Horsley notes, among other things, that the assumption that the oldest layer of the Jesus tradition is in aphorisms is questionable, since "no one...can communicate in "one liners" or isolated sayings" (p.59).

Joanna Dewey continues the interaction with Kelber's work on Mark's Gospel, agreeing with many key conclusions of Kelber's while also challenging his view of Mark as a radical break for the prior oral Jesus material, one that aimed to discredit oral authorities of that early period such as the inner circle of disciples and the family of Jesus (pp.72, 74-77). It is emphasized not only that Mark works well in oral performance (p.79), but actually performing the Gospel can be helpful in evaluating interpretations of it (p.74).

Holly Hearon's chapter seeks to provide a broader context for our understanding of early Christian storytelling, examing both examples of storytelling and discussions of stories and storytelling in Greco-Roman literature. Also present in this chapter is important evidence about authors' procedures, in particular the testing of drafts of written works in oral performance. Key concepts and possible categories for early Christian tradition are considered, such as "story", "myth" and "rumor" (see p.93).

Jonathan Draper's chapter considers the two ways tradition and catalogues of vices as found in the Didache and parallels. Draper focuses much attention on the crucial topic of memory, with a discussion that ranges from the work of John Miles Foley to the "memory boards" used by the Luba people of the Congo. The pegs on these boards are used to mark, and thus remind, of key elements to be remembered, and Draper suggests that keywords which turn up in similar places and orders in various vice catalogues show that words could serve as memory "pegs" in a similar way.

One of the chapters I found most interesting was April DeConick's, which represents one of the few attempts to engage in psychological research to quantify human memory capacity in ways directly relevant to the study of the Jesus tradition. DeConick has for years been telling students a modern-day parable involving a lottery ticket, and surprising them later with a request that they each individually reproduce it. Never once have they replicated it exactly, although the gist is regularly retained (pp.135-136). Building on the work of McIver and Carroll in this area, as well as earlier studies in memory by Frederic C. Bartlett, DeConick undertook experiments to assess the ability of student volunteers to retain an extracanonical saying, parable and miracle story in four different situations: oral to oral, oral to written, written to oral, and written to written. Much of the data from her results is shared in tabulated form. It is impossible to reproduce all her significant finding here, but among them are the relative stability of the opening and closing sections of material, and of the words of Jesus in comparison to other material passed on with it. Also worth mentioning is that the proverb, while most stable of all the genres, was still only reproduced verbatim in cases in which either only short term memory was required or in which the written source was retained. While the situations created in classrooms with students obviously do not precisely parallel what was involved in early Christian transmission, this work nevertheless marks a significant advance over scholars' tendency to speak about orality, memory and writing without an attempt to ground conclusions in actual practical studies of human memory. As a result of her work on memory, DeConick is able to point out how the same alterations to a story or saying could appear in different Gospels and "have absolutely nothing to do with the conscious editorial policy of a redactor or reliance upon the same source" (p.178).

Arthur Dewey's chapter looks at the "gospel" proclaimed by the Emperor Trajan's Column. Although its relevance to the volume's theme is perhaps the least initially apparent, Dewey shows how social memory and this other use of the language of "gospel" might have interplayed with the concept as found in earliest Christianity.

Then follows a chapter on violence and the cross in early Christian memory, co-authored by Chris Keith and Tom Thatcher. Contrary to Kelber's claim that a significant passage of time was needed before passion narratives could have developed reflecting on the traumatic event of the crucifixion, Keith and Thatcher suggest that memories of traumatic events often develop fixity and require a communal response almost immediately (pp.208-209). One important type of response is the "keying" of the memories of recent events by relating them to earlier and better known stories and traditions (pp.210-211). "Whether Jesus' original followers thought of him as a messiah, a Rabbi, an exorcist and magician, or some combination of these, no aspect of their thinking about him - or about themselves as his followers - was compatible with the nuclear scripts embedded in a Roman cross. In order to continue as a coherent group, the disciples were faced with the daunting task of replacing the cross script with alternate ways of remembering Jesus and his untimely demise. The violence ratio theorem would suggest that this commemorative work must have begun almost immediately" (p.213).

Alan Kirk's chapter considers the relationship between work on orality and memory on the one hand, and ancient scribal practices and the manuscripts they produced on the other. Scrolls and other ancient texts were cumbersome to use, making memory a more convenient way of accessing materials (p.218). "In chirographic transmission, the person of the scribe was kinetically, cognitively, and existentially bound up in the recreation of the text in a way that is incomprehensible in our era of mechanically mass-produced documents" (p.225).

The final chapter is contributed by Werner Kelber himself, and focuses on the broad topic of "oral-scribal memorial arts of communication in early Christianity". Here we find Kelber looking backwards, around, and forward, and we get his most important insights expressed in a way that takes many of the criticisms of colleagues and insights of other researchers into consideration. For instance, in providing eleven bullet points of problems with form criticism (pp.244-246), Kelber writes, "Oral discourse is uniquely dependent upon concrete social contextuality. To detach words from what is already a second level of narrative emplotment and to examine them in isolation will not give us oral tradition but a studied abstraction" (p.244).

Not every element of Kelber's responses are persuasive - a case in point being an attempt to draw an analogy between early Christian memory of the trauma of the cross, and German remembrance of the Holocaust or North American remembrance of slavery or treatment of Native Americans (p.257), somehow totally missing the difference between the likely difference between forgetfulness on the part of the perpetrators of atrocities and the memory of the victims. Nevertheless, Kelber is aware that, if "media blindness" is a danger he has sought to combat, "media determinism" is a danger lying at the opposite extreme (p.260).

There is little one can say to evaluate a multi-author volume in the best of cases. In the case of this extremely rich volume that dialogues between its contributors and with both past and present trends in scholarship, there is little that needs to be said about the volume as a whole apart from to express profound gratitude. The oral context of early Christianity in all its facets is extremely important, and if Werner Kelber's past contributions have been trend-setting, this volume promises to set broader, deeper, and diverse trends that will inform and inspire future scholarship in these areas in important ways.

-- by James F. McGrath, author of John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series), The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith and The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. This review first appeared on the blog Exploring Our Matrix.

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