From time to time I try and relate some of the scholarly conversation in Old Testament studies to a wider audience here on the blog. Paul S. Evans recently wrote an article for JBL titled, “Creating a New ‘Great Divide’: The Exoticization of Ancient Culture in Some Recent Applications of Orality Studies to the Bible.” The title represents an achievement on its own, but the content of the article is also quite good.

Overview of Exoticization of Ancient Culture

The basic idea is that there have been two main positions in scholarship when viewing the way oral culture influenced the development of the Old Testament text of the Bible (and to some degree the NT Text). On the one hand, there is the view that oral cultures and literate cultures functioned quite differently from each other in the past (a Great Divide). The progression from an oral culture to a literate culture then cemented certain changes such that orality did not exhibit any force on the culture once it became literary. Evans notes that this position is mainly held by the Toronto School, such as Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock and others. On the other hand, some scholars suggested that “oral cultures continued to exist alongside of literate traditions” (750). These scholars held that there was no evolution from an inferior oral culture toward a superior literate culture.

This debate has become one of the major debates in Old Testament. How much influence did oral culture have upon the shaping of the Biblical texts? Some, such as David Carr, and Susan Niditch, have suggested that Biblical scholars should view this divide as more of a continuum of sorts. Raymond Person has pushed the idea of the influence of oral culture on scripture so far as to say that “the scribes who composed and copied biblical books, though literate, had an ‘oral mind-set’ that would not have perceived the idea of variation and change in the same way as would a modern literate person” (752). They can be broadly categorized as considering the Old Testament texts as texts to be performed not read (Great Divide #1). There is also the parallel idea that scribes were creating records of oral performances, rather than versions of the same literary text as modern literary critics might suppose (Great Divide #2).

Evans goes on to write in his conclusion that “we must be cautious not to put in its [the old great divide theory] place a new great divide that exoticizes ancient cultures and exaggerates differences between ancient and modern literate cultures” (764). He settles on a position that he feels is close to that of Niditch. It is similar because both have “exposed extensive variation in oral literature and cautions future studies against treating orality homogeneously” (764).

Conclusions about Exoticization in Ancient Culture

This particular article intersects my area of study because I too am a critical of Raymond Person’s views of the extensive oral nature of the Biblical text. I have written about these things in my dissertation. What I have learned from this work by Evans is that there are good philosophical underpinnings for the textual observations that I have made in the text of Zechariah and its similarities to Deuteronomy. The article contributes to the field of Old Testament studies by continuing and nuancing the debate that is currently happening in the group of SBL dealing with Orality, Textuality, and the Formation of the Hebrew Bible.

Evans’ article is significant for the average church-goer because it lends philosophical credence to the idea that ancient cultures were not completely different than our own (minus the air conditioning!). The conclusions that Evans arrives at mean that the composition of the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament may not have been some sort of circular oral process in the way that Person and others have envisioned. It may have been more like the way in which we produce texts nowadays.

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