The assumption of orality behind written texts

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by Neil Godfrey

Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest:

What if this assumption (of orality behind the written text) is not made? Since the oral phase is no longer available to us any reconstruction of oral tradition must begin with the text. The textual medium itself must be fully analysed in order to establish the limits of a reconstruction of any previous oral tradition. Each author’s distinctive literary style and theological concerns need to be established before recourse to ‘orality’ can be evoked as an explanation. The literary conventions of the first century need to be explored to establish how these various forms functioned in written texts before asking about the oral stage. Miracle narratives, pronouncement stories, chreiae, proverbs, aphorism, allegories and parables all have their home in the literature of the first century. (p. 74)

Henaut even shows that not only ancient literary artists would use such supposedly uniquely oral devices as triads and pairs but that such techniques are even found commonly among literary works today — in works as diverse as newspaper reporting articles and critical reviews. So even in a clearly literary sentence like the following we see the way “oral mnemonics” are used to enhance the rhythm of the line — the famous ‘three’ are used to illustrate a point, yet it is clear that this is not the result of the text being a penning of oral tradition.

However entertaining a Charles Dickens, a Theodor Dreiser, an Erskine Caldwell may be, the reader must respond sharply to the social conditions described. . . . .

I was also struck by the considerable use Henaut makes of the oral historian Vansina to criticize the NT models of oral tradition used to explain the Gospels. I myself had criticized a NT scholar blogger for quoting-mining a line from Vansina to support an oral thesis. I quoted Vansina to show that the scholar had missed the main thrust of Vansina’s arguments. I was accused of misrepresenting Vansina. I wonder if McGrath will accuse Henault of mirespresenting Vansina, too?

But that’s just a by-the-way. I hope to post more from Henaut’s work on my return.

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Neil Godfrey

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