Sunday, June 22, 2008

When is a Text not a Text? When is a Reader not a 'Reader'?

We are a text driven culture. We are preoccupied with things like copyright infringement, and used to looking at computer screens. And so it is natural to assume, when one is part of a largely literate culture that ancient texts are like ours, and ancient readers just like us. We could hardly be more wrong on both counts. Consider for example this text here to the left from near Mt. Nimrud in Turkey. Here is a text with no punctuation, and for the most part no division between paragraphs, sentences, or even between words and all letters are capital letters. What sort of text is this? The answer is simple-- an oral text, one that can only be figured out if you sound out the syllables out loud, one by one. For if you are not already familiar with this text, there is no other way to decipher it. In a culture where the literacy rate is under 20% texts could only be read by a minority of the population anyway, and furthermore, literacy and texts were ways that the elite asserted their power and authority in an oral culture, especially when we are talking about the most important texts in any such ancient culture-- sacred texts.
If ancient texts are oral texts, meant to be heard, and never meant to be silently read, what then of readers? There has been a lot of loose talk about readers and the references to readers in the NT. And many of the usual deductions about such references are wrong, as we shall now point out.

Some scholars, on the basis of the occasional reference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled that Christians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to produce books, or even literature meant for reading. For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anaginōskōn a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric.

As Mark Wilson recently suggested in a public lecture at Ephesus, this surely is likely to mean that the singular reader is in fact a lector of sorts, someone who will be reading John’s apocalypse out loud to various hearers.[1] We know for a fact that John is addressing various churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 2-3), so it is quite impossible to argue that the reference to ‘the reader’ singular in Rev. 1.3 refers to the audience. It must refer to the rhetor or lector who will orally deliver this discourse to the audience of hearers. I would suggest that we must draw the same conclusion about the parenthetical remark in Mk. 13.14, which in turn means that not even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant for private reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’ Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who will be orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time when this ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help the audience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple in Jerusalem was being destroyed. Oral texts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse in question. So in fact it is not likely the case that the reference to 'a reader' in the NT functions like it would in a modern text. The reader in question is not the audience of the discourse or document, but rather its presenter who knows the text in advance and can appropriately and effectively orally deliver its content to the intended audience or audiences.

(The above is a brief excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming textbook entitled NT Rhetoric-- due out in the fall).

[1] In a lecture delivered by him at a conference at Ephesus in May 2008 where we both spoke on the oral character of these NT texts.


phil said...

Dr. Witherington,

Let me first start out by saying that I am thoroughly enjoying your posts. I appreciate you taking the time to share with us your insights, photos, and experiences you are having this summer. Your recent post had me thinking… If I understand you right, are you saying that these early Christian writings (canonized writings) were only meant to be read by a lector? Was this case ever made from the Catholic Church towards leaders in the reformation such as Luther? Which makes me ask another question: Do you think more harm than more good has been done, by taking scripture out of the lector’s hands and placing it in the masses?

Bethel said...

Hi Ben,

What about Luke's Gospel and Acts?

Also, what would be the main implications of an oral audience on our understanding of the text in terms of our NT teachings?

Thanks & best regards,

Bethel said...

Oh wait - this is part of an upcoming book. I guess my earlier questions will be dealt with in your book :-)


Ben Witherington said...

I see no reason to think Luke and Acts are not oral texts. especially since Luke varies the style and sound of the text so much. For example both the beginning of Luke and the beginning of Acts are highly Semitic in character, but the further one gets into Acts especially the more Hellenized the Greek is and sounds, suiting the move in the narrative to more and more Gentile territories. I suspect Theophilus is Luke's patron, and he would have had a scribe or someone knowledgable read the text to him out loud.

The Catholic Church certainly did make the case that the Bible should not be put into the hands of just anyone, as did the Anglican Church before and during the English Reformation.

The implications of this for teaching and preaching are pretty clear: 1) you are going to lose about 30% of the force, and at least 15% of the meaning of the text if you do not hear it in its original language. Especially if you want to know how to preach this text, not merely teach its content, then you need to know where the climaxes are, where something is said for rhetorical effect, where there is word play, where there is irony, and so on. 2) if you don't grasp rhetoric for sure you are going to miss HOW a text intends to persuade an audience. Some arguments would persuade in antiquity that have little force today, and vice versa.



Unknown said...

Hello Dr. Witherington,

What text is pictured in this blog, and which language is it written in?

phil said...

Good thing we have Socio-Rhetorical Commentaries :)

Ben Witherington said...

The language is Greek, Asiatic Greek to be specific, and the locale is Apamea, the former capital of the Comamagene kingdom of Antiochus Commagenes in the shadow of Mt. Nimrud.


Keith Williams said...

Thanks so much for this post. I have always appreciated your work and read it with profit.

I agree that the orality of the NT documents is more important than is usually recognized. It is easy to forget in our literary culture, even for someone who has been alerted to the issue. I would be interested to hear your perspective on what, if any, implication this has for Bible translation and publishing.

To pose the question more directly, how can a printed English Bible, intended to be read by a 21st century believer, avoid losing the orality of the text? Is this something that pastors and Bible teachers are solely responsible for passing on to the masses, or can a Bible publisher do something to help?


MarkAB said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am not Catholic, but I have commented before that I do thoroughly enjoy your posts, particularly the way you hold right-wing religiots accountable for their hypocrisy.

But I think this post gets to the core issue of why I am not Catholic and where I strongly disagree with you. Your argument is essentially this: because most people were illiterate 2,000 years ago, they should continue to be illiterate to this day.

Now I know you will disagree with that presentation of your argument, but that is in fact what you are saying. Any mention to a singular reader for oral presentation in any texts would be a matter of practicality! That was the medium of the times. You don't see any mention to e-mail or blogs in the Bible (which of course Jesus would have known about) because it would've been lost on the people of the time. They were mostly illiterate, and the only way that had of receiving information was for it to be read to them.

Now, that is NOT the same as the masses staying illiterate through the ages, which is what you seem to be advocating (I don't mean illiterate in general, but you seem to be advocating that the original intent was to keep the public from seeing the texts themselves). I can't disagree with you more strongly if that is in fact your position. As you yourself stated, ignorance has always been the weapon the elite have used to enslave the majority, the population they see as a threat to their lofty well-being.

This comes down to principle, and one cannot take one principle and condemn it in secular terms and then say that it is good in religious terms. The elite (both people and nations) in this world keep the masses ignorant so as to enslave them and keep up their marvelous standard of living. How then can ignorance be justified with regards to the Lord's message, other than the way it was for almost 2 millenia?...that the Catholic Church extorted the public so as to fund its coffers and promote its sense of divine power over world affairs?

This is my problem Dr. Witherington. I'm a left-minded person, so as that I see many things wrong with the Christian Right and virtually all Protestant groups. It seems that most left-thinking people like me are grandmother is. But this is why I never embraced Catholicism. Teachings like confession...that someone can't be in touch with the Lord themselves. Teachings like tithing...which in and of itself is GOOD, but when it was mandated by the church for thousands of years for secular reasons, the central point was of none effect. Now money is changed inside the temple during services. Calling priests "father" when it says verbatim in the Bible to not call anyone on Earth by that name. Praying to Mary, when it says verbatim in the Bible to pray to none other than the Lord.

And now we are to believe that unless we have been trained by the Church, we are not intended to read the Bible? God forbid. This kind of logic perpetuates the chains that bond all men, including those who in good faith give their life to a church that is usually led by men, not saints, that have alterior motives.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Mark:

Perhaps you will be happy to hear that you have nearly totally misunderstood the implications of what I am saying. Indeed the whole of this blog to to aid the lay person to be better informed about all such matters.

I am certainly not saying the original intent was to prevent anyone from seeing these texts! There was however care taken in the handling of sacred texts especially, and rightly so. They were fragile and needed for long term use.

In regard to the Bible being for everyone, I am thoroughly Protestant and happy for all the work of the Bible Societies. What I do not believe is that all persons are equally capable of interpreting the Bible without outside help from scholars and others. Indeed, I would say we all need such help. And the issue here is not the church suppressing knowledge in the 21rst century any more than it is that Protestants think all they need is their brains and the Holy Spirit to make sense of the Bible.
Both such ideas are wrong, and wrong-headed.


Ben W

P.S to Keith. I don't think a printed English translation can avoid losing the oral dimension of a foreign language text. But there is the possibility of compensation by making the English version also have rhyme, rhythm, assonance etc. were appropriate, and making very clear differences when something is prose rather than poetry and so on. These devices and differences can also be reflected in our languages. The problem is that with such a focus on the meaning of the text, we often don't have equivalent words that can easily be put into rhyme etc.


When is a reader not a reader?

When they are the rheTOR or lecTOR.

Stay on groovin' safari,

MarkAB said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for your reply. I read your post a second time, and if I misunderstood you in whole, then my apologies. I think your tone is a little lighter than my first reply would make it seem, but I do see a subtext to what you are saying. Perhaps it will make more sense if I state my position more clearly:

It would seem that your interpretation of "reader" here is someone who has sufficient theological instruction to understand the text, and then (and this is probably what you were trying to point out as well) someone who had taken the care and hard work to be able to appropriately present the text via sermon, etc.

I don't see anything wrong with that. I agree with you that there are people who can't, on their own, pick up all of the meaning that is conveyed in the words of the Bible. That's why church and Bible study groups are great, if you can find one you like. But again, your post implies that because this is so, the masses should not try to learn on their own, because they are incapable of picking up the information they need. That they need to have it properly explained to them. God forbid!

The very nature of being a Christian and loving the Lord, is to take it upon oneself to develop a relationship with Christ and to serve Him and make the world a better place for others. If we ask for submission and acceptance, how might we expect leadership and example?

I really don't think there should be an extreme in this debate. The truth is, either method, complete self-examination or instruction is open for contamination. The sumbission and teaching philosophy opens the door for corruption and tyranny as has happened for most of the last 2,000 years, and moreover it teaches passivism and altogether takes the spark out of Christianity in my opinion, that is an ACTIVE relationship with Christ and fellow man. On the other hand, complete self-exploration has the perils of, as you argue, one not correctly understanding what they are supposed to learn.

This is why I stress people take both sides. Learn on your own, and also learn from those who have better insight than you. And when in doubt, trust yourself. If someone truly has a good heart and wants to learn the Lord's message, would He abandon them to false hope and misguided zealotry? God forbid. Those who seek religion for their own purposes fall victim to that peril, but when God sees the light in one's heart, to that man or woman anything can be revealed.

MarkAB said...

Dr. Witherington,

Also accept my apologies if I still in fact misunderstood your original post. Which is odd, usually you and I agree with most everything you say!

God Bless,

John Farrell said...

Dear Prof. Witherington,
Enjoying your blog very much (I basically came upon you by googling book reviews for Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus").

Some years back I recall reading a small book by a Catholic NT scholar named Jean Carmignac. As I recall, his work centered around a sort of backwards redaction of the Gospels (particularly Mark and Matthew) from Greek into the Hebrew and Aramaic of first-century Palestine. My understanding is that he passed away a few years ago, but I found his book (Birth of the Synoptics) fascinating and wonder whether there is ongoing study of the NT in that fashion, i.e., studying how closely our Greek manuscripts of the Gospels are(were?) to possible Hebraic originals.

Skybalon said...

I like your suggestion that reading involves so much more than simply being literate; the act of hearing a reading by a lector is part of the act of creating understanding in one context and is as much a layer or component of rhetorical authority and reception. It is as legitimate and important a part of its epistemological system as "complete self-examination" may be in another setting. I would emphasize though, that no one learns on their own. The act of learning is done within a cultural framework so that we see the possibility of legitimate self-instruction or trusting one's self is a taught and learned artifact of a people. Perhaps, markab, that should be the important point taken from this post- not necessarily that one can only passively receive instruction from their betters.

yuckabuck said...

Keith Williams said "How can a printed English Bible, intended to be read by a 21st century believer, avoid losing the orality of the text?"

Can we go one step further?

With our modern culture's use of CD players in their cars, Ipods and mp3 players, will the Bibles of the future be mostly audio instead of printed? Perhaps we can make a "dynamically equivalent" audio translation that goes beyond thought-for-thought analysis and extends to appropriating the various rhetorical signals that we are beginning to understand are right there in the text?

For example, if I recall right, Ben's interpretation of Romans 7 says that Paul is using a rhetorical style where he is impersonating Adam describing the Fall. The words of the text do not say this, because the original hearers would have picked up on the rhetorical signals. What if our audio translation presented this passage in a way that made it clear that Paul was now doing an impersonation? Wouldn't his argument come through even clearer than any of our current print translations, no matter how literal or dynamic?

God bless you,

Ben Witherington said...

Listen sometime to what they are doing with the Bible Experience. They are putting the drama back into the narrative and it makes a huge difference.


normajean said...

Is the "Bible Experience" doing what Yuckabuck has commented? Do you think it is a *good* audio bible? Or should I stick with the popular, Max Maclane [spl] version?

Ben Witherington said...

Frankly the Bible Experience is in a whole different class than the audio Bible you mentioned.


Eutychus said...

On and off over the years, I have toyed with an alternative explanation of Mark 13:14. Most interpreters have talked about the reader of Mark. What if the comment refers to the public reader of Daniel? In that case, "let the reader understand" would not be intended as a narrative aside, but as a dominical saying giving advice on the public reading of Daniel. To speculate a little further, such advice would be especially relevant in a targumic tradition, where the public reader is expected to give glosses. Of course, there are no extant targumim of Daniel, and I am not aware of evidence that Daniel was part of 1st century synagogue readings.

I haven't done a through literature review on this yet, so maybe this one has already been proposed and discussed. Craig Evans says something similar in his WBC commentary. He still sees it as Mark's direction to the private reader, however.

I am thinking about doing a paper on this, maybe for presentation at ETS or SBL. I would love to hear your initial thoughts on the idea.

Bethel said...

I do appreciate the socio-rhetoric approach - I think it's compeling to say the least, especially when one can glean much more nuance and understanding from the text as a rhetorical device as opposed to a written one.

While understanding the structure and dynamics rhetoric in Greco-Roman times would be an important tool in our studies (I'm really looking forward to having some of Dr Witherington's commentaries), I think we should also remember Paul's testimony about the power of the Gospel apart from human wisdom and words:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. 1 Cor 2:1-5 (NIV)

Keith Tan