In a word, we naturally, habitually and instinctively work within a literary paradigm. We are, therefore, in no fit state to appreciate how a non-literary culture, an oral culture, functions. And if we are to enter empathetically into such a culture it is essential that we become conscious of our literary paradigm and make deliberate efforts to step outside it and to free ourselves from its inherited predispositions. It becomes necessary to alter the default settings given by the literary shapedIn previous posts in this series, I have attempted to argue that Dunn is overstating the case for the extent of our immersion in a literary culture. He is offering a valuable corrective but it is a perspective that may need a little nuancing. What Dunn describes is not our broader culture but the rarefied atmosphere of the academic sub-culture. His characterization of "our print-determined default setting" (150) and the"blinkers of a mindset formed by our print-dominated heritage" suggests that he is not engaging with the secondary orality of our culture and is inclined to over-emphasize elements in the academic's experience of the world. In this post, however, I would like to begin to think a little more about the other element in Dunn's contrast, the "oral culture", the "non-literary culture" that he says informed Christian origins.
software of our mental computers. (142; emphasis original).
The description of the world in which early Christians moved as an "oral culture" may be unhelpful. It is a world more accurately characterized as one in which there was interaction between orality and literacy, a "rhetorical culture" to use the term coined by Vernon Robbins. It is my working hypothesis that Dunn underestimates the importance of literacy in emerging Christianity and I will attempt to explain why by focusing on one element in Dunn's article that is shared with other studies of early Christianity, the issue of literacy rates and their relevance to the development of the synoptic tradition.
Now, Dunn is surely right to remind us of the extent of illiteracy in in this period. Citing Harris and others, he says that "literacy in Palestine at the time of Jesus would probably have been less than 10 per cent" (148). But what is the relevance of this frequently made observation to the discussion of the Synoptic Problem and the transmission of Jesus tradition, the elements at the heart of Dunn's study? The Gospel authors were of course literate, so the issue of literacy rates appears to be focused on (a) the pre-gospel period and (b) the mindsets of and the communities in which the evangelists moved. But how important is that fact of widespread illiteracy in these areas? Dunn writes:
In my judgement, discussion of possible allusions to and use of the Jesus tradition, both within the NT epistles (Paul, James, 1 Peter), within the Apostolic Fathers, and now also within the Nag Hammadi texts, has been seriously flawed by overdependence on the literary paradigm. For if we are indeed talking about largely illiterate communities, dependent on oral tradition and aural knowledge of written documents, then we have to expect as the rule that knowledge of the Jesus tradition will have shared the characteristics of oral tradition. That is to say, the historical imagination, liberated from the literary default setting and tutored in regard to oral culture, can readily envisage communities familiar with their oral tradition, able to recognize allusions to Jesus tradition in performances of an apostolic letter written to them, and to fill in ‘the gaps of indeterminacy’ in other performances of that tradition. (169-70)I am particularly interested in the words underlined in the passage. The assumption appears to be that the tradents were illiterate or that the illiterate community members were themselves acting as tradents. Perhaps this was the case but I am not sure that this is self evident. After all, "aural knowledge of written documents" presumes literate community members reading out these documents, something that will itself have invested those who were literate with a particular authority that could not be shared by those who were illiterate. Might the same have been true also of tradents more broadly, of those who were sharing oral traditions about Jesus? How many of the early Christian tradents were literate?
Let us take a moment to think about the early Christian tradents we actually know about. The most well known, Paul, was of course literate. His sharing of Jesus tradition in places like 1 Cor. 9, 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 15 is a case of a literate tradent sharing Jesus tradition with another literate tradent (the reader of the letter) who will then share that tradition with his or her hearers. Here we have a clear example of the kind of interaction between orality and literacy that characterizes the development of Christian origins, or, more specifically, between literate tradents and (presumably) illiterate hearers of the tradition. Presumably Apollos too was literate (e.g. Acts 18.24) and so were Silas, Timothy and, we would have thought, Phoebe, Barnabas, Prisca and Aquilla and many others. If we can trust Luke, it is broadly implied that James too is literate (Acts 15.20), and his importance in the emerging Christian movement (cf. Josephus, Ant. 20) may also suggest literacy.
It is reasonable to assume that such people were participating as literate tradents in a culture in which there was interaction between orality and literacy. But we can go a little further than this. The tradition itself presupposes literate tradents. In 1 Cor. 15.3-5, he presents what he has received as of first importance (i.e. major, early tradition) and which he also passed on to the Corinthians (παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον), "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures". The content of the tradition invokes what is written. It is difficult to imagine illiterate tradents having success with the sharing of material that itself presupposes literacy in this way.
Additional note 1: I have deliberately used the term "literate" in a generalized way of those who would be able to dictate a letter, or to read and understand writing. The meaning of "literacy" of course changes, and there are different kinds of literacy even today, and different degrees of competence. We too readily think of (the physical act of) writing when we talk about literacy, and one of the difficulties for us is to imagine our way into a culture where the educated did not need to be and usually were not good scribes. More too on this in due course.
Additional note 2: Before anyone else says it, what about Acts 4.13, where Peter and John are described as ἀγράμματοί? Does this mean "illiterate"? This post is long enough already, so I will add a comment on this verse in my next post in the series.