Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Oral traditions and the Resistance to Writing

Today across America high school students are taking their SAT test. Favorable results are considered an important criterion for admission to college. And they are using No. 2 pencils to complete their exams.

There is a lot of talk about the SAT writing sample requirement. And to think there was a period of time when there was active resistance to the introduction of writing. Of course, the only reason we know about the resistance is because the dispute was recorded. Plato[i] noted that the discovery of writing threatened a time-honored reliance on memory.

Crenshaw presented the biblical and epigraphic evidence for the existence of schools in ancient Israel concluding his chapter on this subject with these words: “the Gospels assume that the son of a carpenter was literate, and this understanding of things accords with the rabbinic tradition about the beginnings of public education.”[ii] Ben Sira’s school “is a private place of learning consonant with the theory of limited education by an elder statesman.”

The Book of Proverbs may have initially functioned as a textbook. Scholars have recognized that the intentional arrangement of proverbial sayings into ten speeches and in small units with various linking devices may have served as an aid to memory. Poets who wrote Lamentations and the acrostic Psalms searched for a workable mnemonic device as an aid to memory.

I do not recall if Crenshaw included any percentage on the literary level of society but his comments across the board demonstrate that schools for education existed in ancient Israel and that students were taught the skills necessary for the survival of the oral traditions. Since I been reading Josephus, I can add that he asserted in Against Apion that every Jewish man, woman, and child knew the law completely but this knowledge could be acquired either hearing the Torah recited in the synagogues or from studying a written text. However, I suppose those who deny any modicum of literacy would also deny the existence of synagogues in this time period. We are then left with realization that exaggeration, as rhetorical tool, is successful only it there is a grain of truth to the statement. Josephus also claimed that many people purchased his books. Some people must have been reading.

One final comment. The Hebrew word for "minister of the word" is "huzzan" which is the name of the synagogue official in charge of the scroll.[iii] Bailey claims that Luke's use of this word in this context means that these persons in charge of passing the controlled oral traditions are eyewitnesses who have the tremendous responsibility to ensure that the word is accurately transmitted.[iv] This appears to be an important part of Luke's message. These persons were pre-selected by Jesus and trained by Jesus for this special role and include not only the twelve disciples but also the 120.

[i] Phaedrus 274C-275B.
[ii] Crenshaw, Education in Ancient Israel, (1998), 113.
[iii] Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels," Asia Journal of Theology, 5(1): 34-54.
[iv] Bailey.

copyrighted 2005


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