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The Oral Greek Character of Paul's Writings
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by John D. Harvey
Listening to the Text:  Oral Patterning in Paul's Letters (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books and London: Apollos, 1998.  357p.)

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In this volume, John Harvey reviews the recent studies on oral cultures, literacy and concepts of Orality.  Extensive studies have been done in recent decades on the ancient cultures and the development of literature, such as in the Greek, Roman and Hebrew traditions.  Harvey contributes greatly to our awareness of oral-culture characteristics in the ancient writings.

Oral to Literate
Harvey considers the oral patterning in literature in light of the established views of transitions from oral culture to literate culture.  He applies this specifically to the study of Paul's writings in the New Testament.  He analyzes passages minutely for style and pattern, shedding light on the meanings and uses of the writings.  He enables us to envision the letter read aloud to the target community serve as the oral representative of Paul.

Oral Culture Context
The author establishes a clear foundation of cultural context, from his own analysis, and other experts in various disciplines which clearly show that writing was primarily a support of an oral culture.  The writings of Homer and literature on up in to the Christian era, were written to be read to hearing audiences.

One important insight, surprising to modern western cultures, is that silent reading, even in private study, was not the common pattern we now accept as normal.  This practice was unknown in ancient times and was still considered a strange anomaly by Western scholars as late as Augustine.

Different Culture
A growing body of knowledge, analysis and literature has established the firm view that the ancient cultures, even with their written records, were not "literate cultures" as we use that term today.  The culture, its thought and its common body of knowledge was not focused in writing and in the written materials amassed.  This is a recent modern-culture phenomenon.

Oral Characteristics
In his analysis, Harvey details four key factors in the writings of the First Century AD.  He analyzes these to find any commonality.  He discovers that all that literature displays a pattern different from the historically recent Western analytical culture of literacy developed since the Enlightenment.  This he summarizes in four characteristics:

(1) the oral development of the message (entailing dictation, rather than silent writing or writing for the eye to read)
(2) the writing format establishing the same oral "presence" of the writer to the audience
(3) the thought patterns involved in such writing
(4) and the fact that the writings would be read aloud in their circulation to the relevant communities.

Concrete-Relational Culture
Critical to this worldview difference is a view of reality categorized as concrete, rather than abstract, practical rather than analytical.  I did not labor over the analysis of the Greek of every passage of the New Testament letters analyzed, since I was more familiar with these.

I have, in fact, made notes over the years in my study Bibles in Greek and other languages of characteristics I have recognized from my experience working in African languages and their Oral-Relational cultures.  Over my decades in African cultures, I had spent considerable time studying oral literature and learning worldview concepts of African peoples.  

I did enjoy some time reading over the text and analysis of ancient Greek and Latin authors.  It was good to see a formal and complete analysis of Paul's texts as oral "texts."  It was helpful to see the consistency of Paul's writing with the surrounding Greek styles of the period.

Paul a Greek Writer
Harvey concludes that every type of oral (rhetorical) patterning that was discovered in the Greek classics occurs in Paul's letters.  High in occurrence are patterns reminiscent of Septuagint usages.  In all quotes from the Septuagint, Paul keeps the full oral patterns, whereas some other New Testament writers paraphrase or modify passages from the Old Testament they use in their writing.

Greek Old Testament
This documents the common belief that the New Testament writers, and here in focus Paul, used a Greek Old Testament in referencing and interpreting the foundations of Christian faith.

This is consistent with what has been portrayed by other disciplines of study about the language and culture situation in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ.  Greek was the common language, and the Greek Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, commonly called the Septuagint) was the common form of the Hebrew scriptures used at that time.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Capturing Hebrew Orality
[TXT] Different Literacy -- Different World
[TXT] Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
[TXT] God and Literacy
[TXT] Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[TXT] Orality and Christian Mission
[TXT] Orality and the Post-literate West
[TXT] Orality, Literacy and the Bible
Paul, the Gospels and the Ancient World of Orality: A Theology of Reading; OR:  Stories, Letters and Theology: How We Read the Scripture
[TXT] Stories and Storytelling: Reclaiming our Oral Heritage
[TXT] Storytelling for Learning and Teaching
[review] Worldview in the Disciplines

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First writing notes made 29 January 2006
Expanded as a review article and posted on Thoughts and Resources 6 December 2007
Reviewed on Amazon 2 March 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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