Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Learn’n in the Ancient World (Part 1)

Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews and Christians (Religion in the First Christian Centuries)As anyone who has ever sat through a small group Bible study knows, books don’t read themselves. Readers carry with them certain assumptions and expectations about what they are reading. As a result, many small groups “study” the Bible by reading a specific book separately and then gathering to talk about how it “spoke to them” individually. It is sometimes surprising how differently the text speaks to different readers. Other small groups rely on a “teacher” to tell them how the text should speak to them. Increasingly, these teachers come in the form of a commenting author or an accompanied video. Occasionally the “teacher” will actually sit in the group and describe the meaning of the text. I’m not going to pontificate on the relative merits of these various ways of reading the Bible in a group. I only bring up the setting as a window into the way reading commenced in the ancient world.

Today books are conveniently organized in stores and libraries to tell us what we should expect from them. Individuals purchase or check out these books and consume them privately. They know what to expect at the time of purchase because the books are labeled accordingly. If you want to spend time in a magical land you read fantasy. If you want to learn about a person you purchase their biography. If you want to read an interesting story you check out something from the literature section. In short, modern books are produced to be read by a large audience of literate individuals who rarely ever meet one another. In sharp contrast, ancient books were produced and used in a vastly different context.

It is to the context of reading in the ancient world that H. Gregory Snyder turns his attention in his fascinating book, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews and Christians. Snyder begins by observing that texts were chiefly used as “part of the everyday business of teaching and learning” (1). Since reading in the ancient world was mostly a social activity, texts required “performances” and presumed and audience (2). Usually, texts were performed by a teacher and the audience was composed of students. Teachers, therefore, often functioned as “text brokers” (3). For most people, these text-brokers were the only available means of accessing texts. Snyder focuses his study on how various groups (or schools) used their respective texts. He is particularly interested in “text-centered” groups and how they “study, maintain, transmit a discrete set of authoritative texts” (5). Snyder’s goal is to understand the reciprocal role of teachers and texts in the ancient world.

To this end, Snyder analyzes five distinct groups and their use of texts. He limits his analysis, for the most part, to the period from the first century BCE to the second century CE. In chapter one Snyder describes his method of evaluation, which is geared toward comparison, and then applies it to how Stoics used their texts. Chapter two evaluates how Epicureans handled their written texts. Chapter three is concerned with Aristotelians (or Peripatetics). Chapter four evaluates the textual practices of Platonists. Finally, in chapter five, Snyder focuses on Jewish and Christian textual practices.  Part one of the review will focus on the first four chapters. Next time I will address his treatment of textual practices among Jews and Christians.

Snyder describes his comparative method at work in each chapter,
I will consider whether the group(s) in question bothered to collect and organize their School texts, and whether they sought to maintain them through textual criticism. Then, we shall ask about the practice of commentary. Following this, we will explore more invasive procedures that involve ‘re-presenting’ the texts: altering them either by epitomizing, paraphrasing, or expanding.  Finally, we shall pursue the question of use, exploring any available testimony that promises to shed light on the way that members of these groups used books in their gatherings. (14)
In the subsequent chapters he follows this method quite closely and with some intriguing results.

Stoics, though “famous for their literary production” (14) exhibit little evidence that they had a recognized body of authoritative works. They do not engage in textual criticism, write commentaries or quote their founders with reverence. Still, Stoics used and produced a significant number of texts. Indeed, we learn from Epictetus that there was a specific reading method used in classroom textual performances that took four stages (22-27). First, a basic reading of a selected text would be recited by the teacher or perhaps an advanced student. Second, an exegesis that defined and interpreted the terms of the passage would given by either the teacher or students. Third, the logic of the argument would be scrutinized. Fourth, the text would be evaluated by testing another hypothesis by its logic. The argument might be extended or limited for the purpose of equipping the student to evaluate how to use texts. Snyder also looks at the literary practices of Seneca which are instructive as a teacher who instructed from a distance through texts. In general, Stoics were committed to textual performances in classrooms, but the goal was not competence in literature but development of reason and character. Thus, they did not venerate texts as much more than tools for development.

In sharp contrast to Stoics, Epicureans “show a remarkable reverence for their founder-figures and the written texts the founders left behind” (45). They labored in textual criticism to have an accurate rendering of Epicurus’ literature (46-53). Epicureans also produced epitomes – shortened versions of original texts or bodies of thought (53-56). These epitomes would provide access to Epicurean thought without the difficult work of reading all of Epicurus’ books. Epicureans even developed a reputation of being lazy or unskilled with books (57-61). This was probably prompted by the fact that Epicureanism was fairly popular among uneducated people. Furthermore, Epicureans were not primarily concerned with Epicurus’ texts per se but rather with his doctrine. For Epicureans, “Texts were vehicles, valuable for what they carried, but not venerated in and of themselves” (65).

Aristotelians were rigorously devoted to their books. Snyder suggests that the primary means of instruction among Aristotelians was continuous reading peppered with comments by the teacher (67). The history of Aristotle works is a bit mysterious. It seems that the texts were lost or significantly damaged and his students set about to recover them (67-69). Thus, Aristotelians often engaged in text critical issues and the need to organize Aristotle’s massive body of writing. The most characteristic form of literary production among Aristotelians was commentary. There were two types of commentary (75). The first commentary type was a continuous comment form following the basic structure of the source text. The second type of commentary was devoted to explaining only selected passages from one or more books. These commentaries seem to indicate that educational practices were typically focused on interpreting Aristotle’s writings. Thus, Aristotelians were the most bookish of the philosophical schools.

Plato’s writings were known for being eloquent and thus attracted an audience beyond the typical student of philosophy. As a result, numerous secondary works were produced to provide access to Plato among those without formal philosophical training. This also produced debate about how the dialogues should be ordered and which dialogues were authentic (94-99). Though less devoted than the Aristotelians, Platonists produced numerous commentaries that were usually focused on only portions of the dialogues. Among this diverse group practices differed, but it seems a large body of secondary literature was produced for classroom use as one way of accessing the wisdom of the dialogues which were unwieldy for classroom teaching. Platonists were used books, but it seems they like their preferred oral debate.

Each of the first four chapters was an enlightening foray into ancient reading practices, but I must admit it was quite outside my area of expertise. I have nothing in the way of critique to suggest in regard to Snyder’s reading of these texts. I will say, however, that after reflection it seems a bit odd to compare the reading practices among elite schools to the literary practices among Jews and Christians. Snyder addresses this objection in his introduction (8-9). He tempers the criticism by pointing out that “not all members of the various philosophical Schools were uniformly wealthy” (8; cf. esp. Epicureans) and conversely that some Jews (i.e. Philo) and Christians were quite wealthy. So since Snyder’s goal is to compare their use of texts, he finds the comparison quite helpful. This is fine goal, but the differences are perhaps more pronounced than he lets on.

Consider for example, the fact that each of these philosophical schools began in the third century BC. As a burgeoning movement, it is difficult to compare the practices of Christians to schools established hundreds of years earlier. In regard to Jews, Israel’s sacred texts were tied with ethnic and social identity in a way that these schools were not.  Perhaps in its more academic forms Christianity and Judaism might be compared to these groups, but as a whole it seems to me that the burgeoning Christian movement has less similarity to these schools than this study might suggest. This is not to say that the comparison is not valuable, but only to recognize that early Christians and Jews did not think of their identity in the same way as these philosophical schools.

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