Readers and Reading in Roman Antiquity

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(Larry Hurtado):  I want to flag up a newly published book by William A. Johnson (Duke University):  Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire:  A Study of Elite Communities (New York/Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010), which provides a wealth of information relevant also to those of us interested in earliest Christianity.  Essentially, Johnson focuses on the social settings, circumstances and conditions in which literary texts were read in the Roman period:  the typical people, settings, and actions involved.  This isn’t the place for a ful review, but a few tips to encourage others to consult the book.

Johnson shows that literary texts were typically read by/in elite social circles.  Indeed, these texts served to reinforce the elite status of these circles.  One of his most intriguing proposals is that the typical format of high-quality Greek literary texts (continuous text with no word-spacing, punctuation, etc.) was intentionally demanding and elitist.  In an essay forthcoming in 2011, I’ve proposed that the format of early Christian manuscripts of scripture-texts reflect a contrasting aim of assisting readers of a wider spectrum of competence and social standing.

Johnson also discusses evidence of personal/private reading and group reading of literary texts, and the distinguishable purposes of each setting.

He discusses memorization and reading of texts, the memorization of passages of prized/valued texts being a marker of one’s sophistication and participation in elite culture.

It is also interesting that in the group setting, one person reading out to a group, there could be demands that a give passage be re-read, and discussion (even arguments) about the meaning of the passage.  So, in these instances “reading” was a collegial and discoursive act.   Does this offer some light on what may have happened in earliest Christian settings, when scripture-texts were read out?

Johnson also shows the interest of these elites in comparing copies of a given text with a view to having the most accurate copy.  Should we think of earliest Christians as influenced at all by this concern as well?

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About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

8 responses »

  1. Did christians, then, memorize texts? If so, could the synoptic problem be a lot more complicated than is usually supposed? For example, could Mark’s gospel have been committed to memory and then transmitted to Luke orally?

    • I don’t know of any evidence of early Christians memorizing a text the size of Mark. Johnson gives evidence of elites memorizing key passages of favorite texts, as a way of showing their literary tastes and elite status (rather the way that learned people who wish to show off their learning might recite passages from Shakespeare or favorite poets today). I don’t think memory gives us any traction on the Synoptic problem.

    • I’m not sure what you’re asking. Early Christian manuscripts typically have features different from the elite copies studied by Johnson. See, e.g., my essay “The Meta-data of Early Christian Manuscripts” posted on my own blog site: http://www.larryhurtado.wordpress.com (on the “Essays, etc.” page). That’s the point I’m making in light of Johnson’s interesting study.

  2. Thanks, Larry, for mentioning this book. Chris Keith put me onto Johnson’s 2000 article, “Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity.” I’m looking forward to seeing this book.

    Regarding the question of memory, memory studies themselves have moved well past the equation of memory with memorization (as in the word-for-word internalization of a text for later recall/performance). Oral tradition studies, too, have a lot to offer here. I know (or at least suspect) you’re skeptical of the value of Albert Lord’s work for gospels studies (and especially of Kelber’s appropriation of Lord’s work), but his point here (re: the interplay of stability and variability in traditional performance) is more helpful than the oral-formulaic stuff Lord is more famous for.

    • I’m sure that “memory studies” have moved on from when I last seriously checked a decade or so ago. I don’t doubt the importance of memory in the ancient world. I simply want to emphasize that (1) texts played a crucial role, not supplementary to memory but in their own right, and (2) early Christianity was comparatively an unusually textual-oriented religious movement. So, it would be inappropriate to emphasize memory at the expense of the place of texts.

  3. Persecution was a recurring theme for the first century church. Could Christians have got into trouble with the civil authorities (or with others) for having in their possession texts that could be construed as subversive? If so, was there a tendency to use memory instead of texts, at least for the most politically sensitive material? Would there have been more self-censorship in writing than in the spoken word? I have argued elsewhere that Luke omitted certain events in Acts to avoid providing ammunition to potential persecutors, but what about the gospels? I am not a gospels specialist. I know only of the discussion of protective anonymity.

  4. Well, the earliest “persecution” was against Jewish believers and by fellow Jews (e.g., Saul of Tarsus), and the earliest “official” persecution seems to have been localized and only sporadic. It wasn’t really till well into the 2nd century that we have indications of a real gathering storm. Granted, as several have proposed, the author of Acts seems to have selected and emphasized his narrative in a way that tries to minimize conflict with govt authorities (mainly local). But I don’t see any indication of some sort of secret knowledge kept only in memory. The early Christians were textually committed people. We have, therefore, more literature from that tiny movement than from the whole of Roman religion more generally of the time.

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