Most of my reading, aside from novels, is focused on biblical studies. Right in line with my interests, this summer I’m doing an independent study focused on the Apostle Paul’s education. I am chiefly interested in discovering how educated Paul was and the significance of his education for reading his letters and understanding his mission.
In the contemporary world, literacy (both the ability to read and write) is a key component of education. In fact, without this basic skill advanced education is impossible. In the ancient world, however, the ability to read was limited (perhaps 10 %) and the ability to write was scarcer still. Paul lived and wrote in a world that was dominated by the oral rather than the written word. In the modern world, the written word is such a basic part of everyday life that we have no idea how much the technology of writing influences the way we think. Imagine, for example, “a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything” (31) or an educational system with no written homework or required reading. Whatever education Paul may have had, it must have been drastically different than modern education simply by nature of the transition from an orality to literacy.
So, I picked up Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word in order to understand the significance of the orality-literacy shift. I’ll admit that at first glance, I was not excited about the book. It seemed a necessary evil, but much to my surprise I found the book to be a delightful read. Ong’s introduction to the field of orality studies is fascinating and in many ways paradigm shifting. In lively prose Ong shows how much writing is a technology that has reshaped how humans think.
The first chapter shows that human language is essentially oral. “Indeed, language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages [. . .] spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all” (7). Further still, written texts are based on oral languages. So, while “Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality” (8).
So, language is thoroughly oral, but as literates we have a difficult time comprehending the significance of orality and so we tend to describe oral performances using our literate category of “oral literature.” Ong has a helpful illustration of the inadequacy of this approach:
Thinking of oral tradition or a heritage of oral performance, genres and styles as ‘oral literature’ is rather like thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels. [. . .] Imagine writing a treatise on horses [. . .] which starts with the concept not of horse but of ‘automobile’ built on the readers’ direct experience of automobiles. [. . .] In the end, horses are only what they are not. (12)
Unfortunately, it is precisely in literary terms that oral traditions have been analyzed. This is problematic especially because we “read” Paul’s letters as literates when they were written to serve an oral function. The shift from orality to literacy has changed how we “read” but we are often unaware of the changes.
The second chapter of the book outlines how scholars stumbled upon the significance of orality as they analyzed Homer’s literature. This history of the subject chapter is interesting but the book gets really good in chapter three which focuses on how orality alters the mental state of humans. Consider how the orality-literacy shift changes complex problem solving. How does a person “work out” a complex problem without the assistance of writing? Further still, how would a person retain the learned information without writing to preserve it? “The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. [. . .] you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence” (34). As a result, oral traditions have patterned formulaic sayings and type-characters because without the aid of writing complex syllogisms and plot-lines cannot be retained.
One of the many results of this phenomenon is the traditional orientation of oral cultures. “Oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages” (41). This is directly contrasted to contemporary measures of education that reward novelty. Another example is how oral cultures tend to think in terms of situations rather than abstractions. When confronted with geometric shapes, oral cultures don’t see circles and squares but rather situated objects like plates and doors (50). Clearly, the way of thinking in an oral culture is different than that of a literate one.
Even the idea of memorization is different in oral cultures. Literate societies think of memorization as being measured “word for word,” constantly checked against a text as the point of reference. Oral cultures have no way to check a verbatim rendition. So, an oral poet will remember formulaic sayings and type characters in his retellings. Though oral cultures claim verbatim retellings, analysis of contemporary oral cultures suggests an average of 60 percent accuracy when the same story is recorded twice and the two checked against one another (61). It has been noted, however, that the accuracy of oral retellings is significantly higher in some ritual texts (62-64). Here Ong points to the textual fluidity of the Last Supper (Mt 26.26-28 || Mk 14.22-24 || Lk 22.19-20; cf. 1 Cor 11.23-25) as an indicator of the oral way of remembering in the early church (64). Orality changes the way we think about memory and this ought to significantly influence, among other things gospel studies and approaches to the so called “synoptic problem.” Memory was measured differently in the oral world.
In chapter four Ong turns his attention to the way in which “writing reconstructs consciousness.” He argues, “More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (77). Most significantly, writing is a technology that transforms communication from the oral-aural sensory perception to visional perception. Communication in oral situations is fundamentally different than written communication. Spoken words are always highly contextual between multiple people. Written communication, however, is a single person’s word crystallized forever in a text (100). There is no interchange or exchange. Because of this, “written words sharpen analysis, for the individual words are called on to do more. To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context” (102-3). To illustrate his point further Ong traces the use of Latin as the premier “learned language” and rhetoric as the prime subject for much of western history (107-13). He shows that writing reshapes how humans communicate with one another.
Chapter five is concerned with the development of print culture. When the technology of writing shifts communication from an oral/aural sphere to a visual one, it creates “a shift from sound to visual space” (115). This oral to visual shift is, as chapter five argues, observable in the development of print culture. Whereas early manuscripts were focused on producing a written document usable in a primarily oral culture, today print is intended to serve a literate culture. There are two very helpful illustrations of this point. First, the concept of plagiarism is a preoccupation of a literate society and was of little concern in an oral world. “Typography had made the word into a commodity. The old communal world had split up into privately claimed freeholdings” (129; cf. 131). Stories no longer belong to groups or tribes but to individuals. The second illustration of print culture that I found quite illuminating was the development of plot-lines. This illustration is only introduced in chapter five and transitions to chapter six.
The shift from orality to literacy was first observed in literary analysis of Homer. Not surprisingly then, most studies of orality-literacy shift dynamics have focused on literature and narrative in particular. The shift is keenly observable in the development of the concept of a plot line as seen in chapter six. Today, elementary school students learn the development of a plot in terms of a story arc (139). In the world of literature the climax of plot is the detective story (141). “In the ideal detective story, ascending action builds relentlessly to all but unbearable tension, the climactic recognition and reversal releases the tension with explosive suddenness, and the dénouement disentangles everything totally – every single detail in the story turns out to have been crucial – and, until the climax and dénouement, effectively misleading” (146). Thus, a very tight plot line allows for great complexity in character development and “plot twists” that turn out to be quite important (148-52). In the context of an oral world, however, the primary genre of oral tradition is the epic, which does not have a linear plot. Epic poetry is episodic. The story begins “in the middle of things” and can contain lengthy digressions that do not serve a specific plot development. Literate stories have intricately woven plots but oral cultures have creative ways of immersing their readers in an episodic experience.
The last chapter of Ong’s book is devoted to some theorems about how the orality-literacy shift can be applied in other fields of study. He points to implications for literary theory (157-162), deconstructionist theory (162-66), speech-act theory and reader response criticism (166-68) and, most interesting to me, the fields of social sciences, philosophy, and biblical studies (168-70). He is particularly emphatic about biblical studies,
Orality-literacy theorems challenge biblical study perhaps more than any other field of learning, for over the centuries, biblical study has generated what is doubtlessly the most massive body of textual commentary in the world. [. . .] But [. . .] biblical studies, like other textual studies, are inclined unwittingly to model the noetic and verbal economy of oral cultures on literacy, projecting oral memory as a variant of verbatim literate memory and thinking of what is preserved in oral tradition as a kind of text that is only waiting to be set down in writing (170).
Ong’s argument burns away much of the scholarly dross that has accumulated around the biblical text over centuries of studying it as a text apart from a developing oral tradition. I think this has significant implications for how we read Paul in light of developing hermeneutical traditions after his death. But alas, I digress.
There is much to commend in Ong’s book. First, it was unexpectedly readable. Filled with interesting illustrations of his points, Ong held my attention throughout. Second, the book forced me to rethink a lot of my assumptions about how I read a text and especially the biblical text. But this rethinking helps in deconstructing false assumptions and reconstructing accurate assumptions about what to expect in oral cultures. Third, Ong’s thesis is bold without being all-encompassing. He rigorously argues that the shift from orality to literacy provided a context for the development of the western world, but he does not want to relegate every development simply to the invention of writing. Orality and Literacy is a fine example of an introductory book to a paradigm-shifting subject. Students of the Bible need to learn to think in an oral world as they “read” in a historically responsible way.