Friday, May 16, 2008

Orality and Literacy IV: Secondary Orality in Christian Origins Scholarship

In my previous post, Orality and Literacy III: Secondary Orality and Ong, I talked a little about the concept of "secondary orality" in its dominant usage in the guild. However, there has recently emerged another, different usage of the same term in scholarship on early Christian literature. April DeConick recently mentioned this in her post What is Secondary Orality? Having discussed "secondary orality" in its dominant usage, coined by Ong, she goes on:
Now what, if anything, does secondary orality have to do with oral-rhetorical cultures like the one we study? Here things get even more confusing. Scholars, including myself, have used this word to refer to possible moments when we think we see preserved in a piece of literature orality that is dependent on another piece of literature. An example? A saying in one of the gospels that is not literarily dependent on another piece of literature (that is, it hasn't been copied from one text into the other). Rather the author may have heard the saying read and is writing that down, or some such scenario.
April goes on to suggest that the new usage of the term is unhelpful -- "I wish we had never started using this term in this new way". But where did it begin? The earliest use of it in this sense that I can find is Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: the Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), in the following places:
Obviously, orality derived from texts is not the same as primary orality, which operates without the aid of texts. The passion narrative is largely built on texts and texts recycled into the oral medium, that is, secondary orality. (197).

The gospel as parable exemplifies its delicate status in the ancient world of communication. As text, we observed, it absorbed and transformed oral speech into a new linguistic construct. But we also had occasion to suspect that the gospel—like most texts in antiquity—was meant to be read aloud and heard. The text appears to be torn between competing tendencies. How can it be both removed from and committed to orality? The categories of primary and secondary orality [italics original] will help clarify the matter. Those oral units that we previously discussed (chap. 2) constitute primary orality. They owe their very existence to oral verbalization. Insofar as they contributed to the building of the gospel, they underwent decontextualization and recontextualization (chap. 3). The resultant text, as all texts, is fixed and in a sense dead, permanently open [218] to visual inspection and the object of unceasing efforts at interpretation. If this text enters the world of hearers by being read aloud, it functions as secondary orality. But now the story narrated is one that was never heard in primary orality, for it comprises textually filtered and contrived language. (217-8).
Kelber's departure from Ong's use of the term "secondary orality" is self-conscious. In a footnote to the second of those two passages, he writes:
In communications theory secondary orality usually refers to electronically mediated sound. We would suggest a differentiation of three types of orality: primary orality, textually mediated or secondary orality, and electronically mediated or tertiary orality. (226, n.118)
As far as I can tell, the term "secondary orality" is first applied to the Gospel of Thomas's mediation of Synoptic tradition by Klyne Snodgrass, "The Gospel of Thomas: A Secondary Gospel", Second Century 7 (1989-90), 19-38, where he attempts to make clear that he is not talking about a kind of direct literary "copying" by Thomas of the Synoptics; instead, he suggests, Thomas is "witness of a 'secondary orality'" (28), footnoting Kelber for "the expression".

Snodgrass, however, only uses the term in passing. The scholar who develops the term most fully in relation to Thomas is Risto Uro, who also cites Haenchen for the concept, "Literatur zum Thomasevangelium", Theologische Rundschau 27 (1961), 147-78 (178), which of course predates Kelber. Uro's key article on the topic is "'Secondary Orality' in the Gospel of Thomas? Logion 14 as a Test Case", Forum 9:3-4 (305-29), reprinted as "Thomas and the Oral Gospel Tradition" in Risto Uro (ed.), (SNTW, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998), 8-32. Like Kelber, Uro uses it in self-conscious differentiation from the standard usage in orality / literacy studies (see 10, n. 11 of the reprint), and it means the indirect dependence on the Synoptic Gospels mediated orally. For a further comment, see also Risto Uro, Thomas: Seeking the Historical Context of the Gospel of Thomas (London & New York: Continuum, 2003), Chapter 5, especially 109.

Most recently, April DeConick has used the term in the same sense. As far as I can tell, it does not appear in the first of her two major new volumes, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (Early Christianity in Context; LNTS 286; London & New York: T & T Clark, 2005), but it occurs fairly frequently in the second, The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation (Early Christianity in Context; LNTS 287; London & New York: T & T Clark, 2006). It occurs on 18, 21, 22, 24, 53, 89, 94, 111, 134, 140, 167, 169, 188, 194, 200, 201, 208, 215, 235, 261, 269, but on each occasion it is used as a convenient shorthand for oral mediation of Synoptic texts to Thomas. As I read it, there is not a lot invested in this term in the book, and April's recent comment on her blog, in which she expresses some scepticism about the term, may confirm this impression.

Given the more established use of the term in in oral and literacy studies, it may be that it is wise to drop the term in Christian origins (and especially Thomas) scholarship, where it may cause confusion. The question that then arises is whether there are other ways of conceptualizing the kind of indirect, oral mediation of a tradition from one text to another. I would like to make some suggestions on this topic in due course.


T LEWIS said...

Mark, for your interest you might also support your case with a 2006 article by Anthony Webster: "Keeping the Word: On Orality and Literacy (With a Sideways Glance at Navajo)." He looks at several oral cultures to show how many of Ong's distinctions between orality & literacy fall apart. Also, I had earlier made use of the term 're-oralization' on my blog, a term used by Byrskog who apparently is following on from Margaret A. Mills, "Domains of Folkloristic Concern: The Interpretation of Scriptures," in Susan Niditch (ed.), _Text and Tradition. The Hebrew Bible and Folklore_ (SBLSS; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 231-241. Re-oralization is likened by Byrskog to the "recitation composition" of Vernon K. Robbins, and also to the work of William A Graham, _Beyond the Written Word_.

John C. Poirier said...

Rafael Rodriguez is writing a dissertation about oral features in the gospel tradition, under the direction of Loveday Alexander. He has some difficulties, I think, with Kelber's work.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Tim, for those helpful comments. Thanks, John, for that interesting note.