Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Orality and Textuality

Over at LP today, Mercurius has an interesting article on Prequels. In the article, Mercurius makes this observation re biblical literature:

I suggest that the Bible, especially the five books of Moses, fulfills many of the functional attributes of a prequel, at least in an ancient-world context. Certainly it was committed to paper (ok, papyrus) centuries after the events it purports to describe, and seeks to exposit the origins of those stories. It was in all probability written by multiple authors, attempting to weave their voices together with post-explanations of an epic story arc.

This first Prequel provided a group of semi-nomadic herders with a context for their lives and the situations in which they found themselves. It offered a narrative analysis of the fault-lines of the societies in which they lived. In Genesis and Exodus, a people told themselves stories of how they came to be

To which I replied

I love the idea of the Torah as a prequel and certainly for Christian bibles the Old Testament is meant as a sort of prequel to the JC stuff. The only quibble I have is the notion of the ’semi-nomadic’ herders. None of the biblical texts were written by or for semi-nomadic herders. They were writen by scribes, most likely in temples, for the agrarian and small urban populations of Persian and Hellenistic Palestine.

Mercurius then responded:

Quite so of the texts themselves, Michael. But those texts, we have good reason to believe, were written versions of oral tales that the Hebrews had already been telling themselves for centuries, and during their semi-nomadic phase as well. I guess that’s what I was getting at by the “ancient world context” of a prequel…

I then replied pointing out that while Genesis etc present this idyllic nomadic vision of the past it's not based on any historical reality. Hebrews were Canaanites and never were a separate nomadic people.

However Mercurius' article is a good example of what I referred to as the power of biblical narratives. Let's face it the stories are quite gripping - ripping yarns even - and they are thoroughly embedded in our culture and have remained so through the various paradigm shifts in our culture over the centuries.

This notion of ancient tales handed down orally from generation to generation is a striking example of how the power of these biblical narratives is sustained through the paradigm shifts behind modernity. Clearly non-literate societies have very powerful oral cultures but that the biblical narratives, especially those of the Torah and Joshua were handed down orally over generations is a product of 19th century Romanticism. It's part and parcel of 19th century European nationalism with its fascination for folk cultures as representatives of some sort of ethno-national spirit. No doubt, too, aspects of Enlightenment ideas of the Noble Savage are part and parcel of the package. Orality and notions of oral traditions represented a sort of purity of ethno-national spirit not yet contaminated by urbanity with its literacy, hierarchies and cosmopolitanism. Historically based biblical studies began in the 19th century under the influence of such romantic historiography. And so developed notions not only of oral traditions of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, handed down through the generations but also of oral traditions associated with prophecy and prophets that were likewise handed down orally through generations of prophetic disciples before being written down. Such ideas also flowed into New Testament studies with notions of simple communities of Jesus followers who hand down oral traditions over several generations before they are written down. This process of writing down was also understood more as a process of corruption of the pure spirit of the origins. 'Mythology', hierarchy, sacerdotalism were seen as signs of this corruption and part and parcel of the historical critical biblical studies project was to get behind these corrupting accretions to reach the pure origins that had become submerged.

One of the problems with this whole approach was the naive acceptance of the overall historicity of the narratives in the Old Testament. That was okay in the 19th century when there had been little or no archeology done but nowadays archeology has undermined the facticity of the Old Testament historical narrative and as I've said before the archeological evidence shows that the Hebrews were not a nomadic people who invaded the Palestine and conquered/displaced the native inhabitants of the land. Hebrews/Israelites were Canaanites and the transformation of Palestine was not one of outsiders removing insiders but a transformation of insiders themselves, a transformation that took place in the Persian/Hellenistic period and not in the Bronze or Iron Ages.

This perspective puts at question any possiblity of longstanding oral traditions of an Abraham, let alone a Moses or Joshua. The notion of the oral stories depends on the notion of Hebrews as a semi-nomadic people as per Mercurius own observations. But if that is a fiction not based on history so too is the notion of the oral traditions handed down over generations.

The stories of the Patriarchs etc are not oral folk narratives but narratives composed by scribes, probably temple based scribes. These are not simple tales either but sophisticated theological and philosophical works using narrative. They retell and rework ancient stories but these storeis are more likely to be 'official' stories such as the Baal narrative and other sacred stories that were part and parcel of temple religions. I have an essay coming out in the Bible and Critical Theoey e-journal looking at how the story of Absalom's revolt against David is a story shaped by ritual forms, in this instance, the rituals around the Day of Atonement. These rituals have shaped or underpin a range of other Old Testament narratives such as Cain and Abel, the Binding of Isaac, the story of Jacob, and of Joseph, even the story of David, Jonathan and Saul itself.

If there are oral traditions behind the biblical narratives, the traditions are those of temple and ritual, not those of nomadic pastoralists. But the ubiquity of the notion of the biblical stories oral tales handed down by a simple nomadic people shows the success of the historical -critical biblical scholars in embedding the 'Bible' in 19th century European Romantic ethnicism and nationalism.


  1. Is this the old speech versus writing debate from "On Grammatology"
    Oh dear Michael your are a decontructionist after all. Now what would the Congregation in Defense of the Faith say about that. Anyone for dilation?

  2. "Of Grammatology" is about breaking down the duality of speech and writing as well as introducing innovative concepts in semiology ie "il nya pas de hors-texte" (there is no out-side text). What Derrida says about Speech and Writing is that both are a type of archi-writing, differance itself portrays this view, the word sounds exactly the same in French as "difference", which makes it a concept that can only exist in writing itself.

    I do believe that the whole idealization of the Nomadic (in Higher Criticism via Oral Traditions) permiated anthropology even in the mind of Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, (Derrida criticizes this in an essay in L'écriture et la différence), the criticism by Derrida placed him in what was then a developing "post-structuralism".

    The criticism was not limited to simply pointing out that idealizing Nomadic or "primitive" culture was part of Romantic ethnicism and nationalism, but rather that idealizing any other "worlds" creates a form of phantom reality of the culture which does not properly describe it within its own right and also does not give due credit to our own cultural heritage.