Jesus the Voice and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel

Werner Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983) introduced biblical scholars to interdisciplinary trends in the study of ancient media culture. The book is now widely recognized as a milestone and it has spurred wide-ranging scholarship. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of its publication, new developments in orality theory, literacy theory, and social approaches to memory call for a programmatic reappraisal of past research and future directions. This volume address these concerns. Kelber himself is interviewed at the beginning of the book and, in a closing essay, he reflects on the significance of the project and charts a course for the future.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus the Voice and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel

  1. Review

    Book Review: Jesus the Voice and the Text: beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel   by Tom Thatcher Editor et al; Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, 2008; 317 pages; ISBN 978-1-932792-60-7; $69.95.

    In 1983, Werner Kelber published his important book, “The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), abbreviated as OWG.

    Twenty five years later, Tom Hatcher has edited a collection of essays exploring, confirming or challenging aspects of Kelber’s 1983 book. Thatcher includes on the cover Samuel Byrskog’s opinion that “Werner Kelber is one of the most influential biblical scholars of our time” and Martin S. Jaffee’s reference to “Werner Kelber’s ground-breaking work into the nature of orality and textuality”.

    Readers of Kelber’s 1983 book are aware that he has explored the pre-canonical synoptic transmission as depicted in the “evolutionary progression” of Rudolph Bultmann and in the “passive transmission” of Birger Gerhardasson. Kelber also explored the oral legacy and oral pluralism relating to the Gospel of Mark, as well as this Gospel’s textuality, its counter-form to orality and its nature as a written parable.

    Following his analysis of Paul’s oral and written stages, Kelber proposed the late composition of the Messiah’s death and a typically oral equation of the Earthly Jesus with the Exalted Christ or Living Lord.

    In his chapter 5, Kelber articulates very clearly his main theories, namely that the written and fixed Gospel is a counter-form or correction to the  co-creative and fluid oral speech (OWG, p.207); that Mark’s oral tradition and written text present both the tradition itself and the Jesus of the text as parabolic (OWG, p.211) and that parabolic tradition involves such co-creation and stories as unfinished (OWG p.218). His 20 pages of bibliography provide excellent sources for both general literary criticism and for biblical scholarship.

    The present 2008 book under review moves 25 years beyond Kelber’s 1983  The Oral and Written Gospel. In it,  Tom Thatcher  gives further voice to Werner Kelber in the form of an interview as chapter 2  titled “It is not easy to take a fresh approach” (pp.27-43) and in an article published as chapter 11 titled “The oral-scribal-memorial arts of communication in early Christianity” (pp.235-262).

    Kelber, who locates himself within the West’s humanistic intellectual tradition, is pleased to acknowledge his debt to such “humanists of uncommon erudition and originality” as Albert Lord, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Mary Carruthers, John Miles Foley, Ruth Finnegan and Jan Assmann, among others.  He also appreciates the six volumes of the publication Semeia , which have dealt extensively with the issues of orality and scribality or textuality (p.237).

    Kelber is also continuing his challenge to the blind-spot of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” (formulated earlier by Marshall McLuhan), which Kelber sees as the academic and scholarly fixation or “typographic fixity” on textuality displayed in most of the  contemporary study of biblical texts (p.239). Many would also see an example of this “typographic fixity” in confessional Jewish and Christian biblical apologetics and in fundamentalistic bibliolatry.

    In contrast, Kelber prefers an “oral identity of the Gospel and he supports the reading of Mark as oral text being developed by Pieter Botha, Richard Horsley, Whitney Shiner, and Joanna Dewey (p.249).

    However, Kelber bears in mind the actual scribal or chirographic medium of Mark and suggests for Mark’s Gospel a status as “a classic oral-scribal media mix” (p.250).

    Hence, he views the narrative role assigned to the first century’s twelve disciples, to the family of Jesus and to the post-Easter charismatic “God-Men” and prophets in a very negative, critical and condemnatory manner (p.250). The role of these negative characters is thus to act as spokespersons and authorities of a post-Easter heavenly Jesus Christ on behalf of the oral tradition. In contrast, Kelber views Mark’s written Gospel, with its pre-Easter, earth-bound Jesus/Joshua the Nazarene who is located mainly in Galilee and Judea, as acting as a counter-form to the heavenly,  sayings-imparting celestial Christ, in the style of Paul.

    Thus, Kelber assures us that in “composing a narratively generated return to the foundational figure, Mark dissociated himself from the first-level bearers of tradition, writing a second-level foundation story in ways that explained the present demise and offered a way into the future” (p.251).

    He then explores memory and remembering (p.253); the fluidity of scribal tradition of Jesus’ sayings and scribal pluri-formity (p.255); dynamism in the creation of manuscripts (p.255) and reveals his amazement at the way academia is held captive by a predominantly print-oriented mode of thinking (p. 260).  Kelber’s aim to “reconstruct early Christianity as a communications history” and to “conceptualise the interfacing of language and thought, memory and social life” all pose continuing challenges to readers by Kelber, as he concludes his valuable chapter which presents his most recent thinking.

    This book’s remaining chapters are the equally valuable contributions of nine scholars, whose articles either support, confirm, add to or criticise Kelber’s ideas or aspects of his scholarly work.

    Tom Thatcher explores Kelber’s work as a “media history of Christian origins”; Richard A.Horsley focuses on oral performance; Joanna Dewey analyses Mark’s Gospel as “oral hermeneutic”; Holly E. Hearon investigates story-telling in the Mediterranean world; Jonathan A. Draper explores vice categories in the Didache as oral-mnemonic cues; April D. DeConick presents important experimental and empirical data on human memory and its relevance to the transmission of the Jesus tradition; Arthur J. Dewey explores the Gospel of Trajan; Chris Keith and Tom Thatcher examine the crucifixion and its violence ratio in the earliest Christian memories of Jesus and Alan Kirk explores orality and memory in scribal practices and in the manuscript tradition.

    This book, which Kelber has labelled “humanistic scholarship”, concludes with a useful 20-page list of works cited and interesting notes on the scholarly contributors.

    A further issue which may be relevant to the orality and scribal interface is the use and influence  in first century  of the regular yearly cycle of the sun through the 12 constellations of the zodiac on an ongoing basis.  J Glen Taylor has equated the sun with Yahweh and has assembled much evidence in relation to such an identification in his book “Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel (JSOT Press, Sheffield 1993) and Bill Darlison has proposed an annual zodiacal and seasonal basis for the Galilean and Palestinian stories and for the later written Gospel of Mark in his book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus (Duckworth Overlook, London, 2007). Kelber does not refer to the sun or the Zodiac but his approach would tend to associate the ongoing, yearly solar cycle with fluid orality and to see the Markan written and scribal presentation of Jesus/Joshua as the personified Yahweh recorded by Mark within a one year ministry and in close parallel with the four seasons and with the themes of the zodiacal signs. Both books have shed valuable light on both orality and literality in the first century.

    Since the sun is high over Galilee at its summer peak and lower over Judea in winter, Kelber  indicates on page 215 of his 1983 book (OWG) that Judea and Jerusalem were seen as the chaos pole, whereas  Galilee was viewed as the pole of order and redemption.  

    Kelber is fully aware that there is academic criticism of his ground-breaking and challenging work and ideas but he views such criticism as  deficient in the power of logic but strong on “deep-seated passions and strong polemical charges” (p.236).

    Negative criticism also arises from readers with religious and theological perspectives. This is most apparent in the confessional books on Christian and Gospel origins written by apologetical and dogmatically-minded deductive evangelicals. Such writers tend to view post-Easter memories of oral traditions from 30 CE to 70 CE  as fixed in the mind in the manner of  a tape-recording. Jewish and Christian fundamentalists even go further and ignore the period of oral tradition altogether. They prefer to believe that the origin of the written biblical texts lies in them being miraculously, super-naturally and divinely revealed and that this revelation makes the texts inerrant and infallible.

    However, for those readers with less theological and more humanistic and historio-graphical concerns, as they study early Jewish and Christian foundation texts and as they attempt to establish the actual existence, words and deeds of Jesus the Nazarene, Werner Kelber’s challenging, humanistic  writings on biblical origins should not be overlooked, avoided or ignored.

    John Noack, July 2011.

    Reviewer: John Noack has been a Lutheran clergyman at Rainbow in Victoria (1969-1972), Student and Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne (1973-1982) and a Secondary Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew (1982-1994). He is at present engaged in a study and resolution of the enigmas in the Gospel according to St. Mark.

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