I would like to comment here on one of the elements in the way that the case is argued in the scholarship. When contemporary scholars are attempting to contrast our culture with that of the ancient world, they sometimes greatly exaggerate the literary nature of our culture. (By "our culture" here I mean early twenty-first century life in the west, particularly the English speaking west). James D. G. Dunn is a case in point. In his important article, “Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition,” New Testament Studies 49/2 (2003), 139-75, he writes:
We here are all children of Gutenberg and Caxton. We belong to cultures shaped by the book. Our everyday currency is the learned article and monograph. Libraries are our natural habitat. (142).There is, of course, a lot of truth in this; no one would deny the importance of the book in our culture. But what Dunn is talking about here is not so much our culture, which is full of orality at every turn, but the academic sub-culture of research and writing. Even within that sub-culture, our literary research interacts with oral and aural elements. Our primary means of communicating our scholarship is the classroom, which is all about speaking and hearing and only minimally about text. For many of us, the oral interaction in the classroom is a major contributor to the development of our thoughts. In the preparation of our scholarship, the oral plays a key role. Dunn's own article began life as an SNTS Presidential address in 2002. A lot of my work has begun life as conference papers, presented orally (and yes, I know that a lot of scholars simply read papers out loud, but even there, the primary means by which their scholarship is being appropriated is aurally). The interaction between written draft, oral presentation, revised drafts in the light of live questioning -- these are the staples of the development of academic work. Thus where Dunn conceptualizes the scholar as living in the library, I prefer to think of the enterprise as one of interaction in which solitary library time is only one feature, and not necessarily the most important feature.
Outside of that academic sub-culture, the world we live in is a world still dominated by orality. Many more people receive their news through television and radio, oral media, than through newspapers. And many who do use newspapers are now no longer simply reading them but they are combining the reading experience with watching online videos, listening to podcasts and so on. I describe myself as an avid Guardian "reader" because of the familiarity of that expression, but my "reading" in fact incorporates Guardian podcasts and sometimes also video material.
Dunn is inclined to underestimate the extent of orality in our own culture. Later in the article, he writes:
In an overwhelmingly literary culture our experience of orality is usually restricted to casual gossip and the serendipitous reminiscences of college reunions. (149).This is a surprising statement in the light of the pervasive orality of our culture. The spoken word is everywhere. For many, the written word is secondary. It is worth reminding ourselves that being literate does not necessarily mean that the written word is primary, or that we always think along literary lines. Consider the specific case of knowledge of the Bible. As any of us who have taught the New Testament know, our students' knowledge of the texts is often received through oral tradition and not through direct familiarity with the text. How many people who think they know the Christmas story get their knowledge directly from reading Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (or the Protevangelium of James)? Very few. Their knowledge is conveyed through our culture's oral tradition and its harmonized and legendary version of the story so frequently retold.
My point here is not to attempt to narrow the gap between the ancient world and our world. The key task of the ancient historian is to convey some sense of the utter difference of the worlds we study from our own, and to avoid anachronistic reading in of our own way of looking at things. My point rather is that in our attempts to conceptualize the ancient world, we should be careful not to lapse into caricature of the modern world. Imagine the person who in a millennium is reading Dunn's article, looking for information about how we communicate with one another in the early twenty-first century -- that researcher would have precious little idea of how we actually live our lives. We live in libraries ("our natural habitat"), we trade in monographs and learned articles ("our everyday currency"). Where Dunn is exploring the analogy of a computer's "default setting", he conceives of the computer solely in word-processing terms, not as a communications device that combines the functions of television, radio, telephone and more.
It may be that the attempt to reimagine the orality of antiquity proceeds in part from the contemporary academic's anxiety about the heavily literary nature of his or her experience of the contemporary world. Dunn is one of the most prolific New Testament scholars ever -- his latest book running, apparently, to 1300 pages. Is it a coincidence that the scholars who stress the attempt to regain access to an ancient oral culture are those who are the most prolific writers in the contemporary culture?