Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature

Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature

Cotter, David W

SUSAN NIDITCH, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Library of Ancient Israel; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996). Pp. xi + 170. 19.

This is a thought-provoking book in which Niditch brings the results of recent research on the interplay between orality and literacy in traditional societies to bear on the Hebrew Bible and its development. She challenges the notion of cultures as either oral or literate and replaces it with the idea that a culture may well operate according to another model in which there is a spectrum of orality and literacy, each mode of communication being used by the people of that culture at the same time for different purposes. This third model, according to N., is the one which best describes the creation of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). This calls into question the modern search for documentary sources and editors, which is informed by the purely literary world of the investigator.

This development of an aesthetics of an oral world is the first task which N. sets herself. She accomplishes it in chaps. 1 2. Her second task is to discover how Israelites themselves thought about orality and literacy. In chaps. 3-4 she surveys current studies on the relationship of orality and literacy. This raises several topics for further study: the purposes of writing; the nature of literacy in a culture in which writing is used for commercial and pragmatic purposes rather than creative ones, the way in which archives in such a world serve an iconic and memorial purpose rather than the modern one of record keeping, and the reliance of traditional societies less on reading and writing than is the case in a modern culture. In chaps. 5-7 N. explores ancient Israelite attitudes toward writing by examining (1) passages that are typical of the attitude toward writing of one who neither reads nor writes and so endows writing with magical or transformative capacities, (2) passages that convey a more modern sense of the use of writing (e.g., by reference to a written text), and (3) passages which are truly evocative of the interplay of orality and literacy in a world in which this spectrum functions.

In chap. 8, N. proposes four alternative models to account for the process by which the various parts of the Hebrew Bible were created. They are (1) the transcription, by some sort of shorthand or memory, of an originally oral performance, (2) the transcription of an oral performance which is later reoralized on the basis of the written version and other oral traditions, (3) the literary imitation of an oral performance, in an originally written work, by one immersed in the aesthetics of an oral world, and (4) the use of previously existing written sources for a later written work.

This otherwise fine book was marred-for this reader, at least-by the description of medieval monastic scriptoria in the book’s conclusion. While there was a certain economic concern in the production of books in monasteries, the sort of copying described by N. was more typical of secular scriptoria. Monastic life, witnessed by the various reforms, was concerned with the teaching of grammar and the inculcation of at least minimal literacy for the monks.

David FU Cotter, O.S.B., Saint John’s University, Collegeville, MN 56321

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1998

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