Oral Literature Was the Prestigious Literature

In the ancient world, and in the world of the early Christians, we need to remember this. Prestige was associated with oral literature first, and with written literature only second. Learning was training the memory first, and the ars memoriae of locative memory and memory palaces.

In most traditional societies, it’s common to start learning bits of long epic poems at preschool ages, when kids don’t even understand the words of the archaic language they’re learning to recite or sing. They are directly exposed to all the rhetorical devices that aid memory, even when they just understand the sounds of them.

And of course, the early Christian Papias, who is known to have been mentored by some of Paul’s cousins who were female physicians, and ran a free clinic but sponsored the building of three monasteries, said outright that he preferred learning the teaching of Jesus and the apostles from people who had heard them preach, and not from books.

(Although his huge book of written reminiscences of eyewitness testimony has almost entirely been lost to us. Which shows the problem with relying on oral or written testimony.)

So it makes perfect sense that Paul (or whoever, or Paul’s team helping him) would compose a speech or series of speeches with more formal Greek and more rhetorical devices than he would use in a mere letter.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Oral Literature Was the Prestigious Literature

  1. Fascinating point. Would you infer from this a much stronger possibility that St. Paul did in fact compose the Letter to the Hebrews than today’s “Scripture scholars” are willing to admit? I have always found unconvincing some of the “consensus” positions on the authorship and sources of Scripture, especially the New Testament, including the origin of Hebrews. I am no Scripture scholar, nor am I a theologian, but to me, those are both good things. 😂. I just look to the historical Magisterium and try to use good sense. Thus, I accept Paul as the author/composer of Hebrews, and accept the traditional ordering of the Gospels as indicating their chronological age, so to speak.

    I also find the entire “Q Document” theory to be silly speculation, likely invented by people who don’t want the Scriptures to be accepted as inerrant and Divinely inspired. I like to ask folks who push that theory two questions: First, where is the Q document or any evidence that it actually existed? Second: What if we just accept the Synoptic Gospels as true and stop trying to poke holes in traditional understanding of how they came to be written? I haven’t yet received a satisfactory answer to either question.
    Ok, sorry for the long rant. Happy Advent!

    • I’ve noticed “scripture scholar” tends to mean “guy who is saying something that nobody else is”, which isn’t exactly a good selection factor for accuracy. 😀

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