Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 7, 2008

Orality in New Testament Times

A very interesting article: Paul J. Achtemeier, “Omne Verbum Sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 190/1 (1990): 3-27.

In this article, Achtemeier is concered to draw out for NT study some implications of “the fact that we have in the culture of late Western antiquity a culture of high residual orality which nevertheless communicated significantly by means of literary creations.” (3)  That is, writing was quite common, but it was a writing culture with an “overlay” of being an oral culture.  Some interesting tidbits:

Documents were extremely hard to read “by sight” in that “the written page consisted entirely of lines each containing a similar number of letters, lines that ended and began irrespective of the words themselves. Documents were written without systematic punctuation, without indications of sentence or paragraph structure, indeed without separation of the letters into individual words.” (10)

The manner in which literature was produced and the manner in which it was read were both primarily oral.  On the one hand, most writing was done by dictation to a scribe, and even when a person was writing for himself, he spoke aloud as he wrote.  “The oral environment was so pervasive that no writing occurred which was not vocalized.” (15) This has implications for the writing of John’s name that proved Zechariah’s speech had been restored (“he wrote, saying” — egrapsen legwn) in Luke 1:63.  As well, “it is apparent that the general — indeed, from all evidence, the exclusive — practice was to read aloud,” not silently. (15)  So when Philip “heard” the eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:30), the eunuch was merely reading to himself aloud as everyone else in his culture did.

Achtemeier moves from the typical practice of reading and writing in late Western antiquity to implications for interpretation, noting that structure in NT documents must needs have involved aural clues to the structure of the letter.  “Signs of organization had to be apparent not through their visual appearance but through their sound, since without exception . . . all material in antiquity was intended to be heard.” (18)  (In this connection, another excellent article [which, oddly, is not referenced by Achtemeier] is H. Van Dyke Parunak, “Oral Typesetting: Some Uses of Biblical Structure,” Biblica 62 (1981): 153-68.)

Another resource, related to the notion of the culture of orality in NT times and its implications for NT interpretation, is this very interesting video available online: Ben Witherington, “Oral Texts and Rhetorical Letters: Rethinking the Categories,” Baylor University, Parchman Lectures, Lecture 1 (October 2, 2007).



  1. […] question to the commonplace that ancient reading was always, only done out loud (noted, e.g., in Achtemeier’s influential article a couple of decades ago) by citing a good number of instances in ancient Greek literature where […]

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