Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters

Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters

Blum, Edwin A

Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters. By John D. Harvey. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998, xviii + 357 pp., $24.99 paper.

This work is the first volume in the ETS Studies series. The Evangelical Theological Society has published or sponsored outstanding scholarly monographs in the past, and it is good to see a new series of studies under David W. Baker’s editorship.

As the title indicates, Harvey investigates the ways in which the oral nature of the Greco-Roman society is reflected in the NT letters. Estimates of literacy in the NT period vary from ten to 30 percent of the population. Books and writing materials were expensive. These two factors alone meant that many or most of the early Christians would not be able to read the letters of Paul or other Christian literature. So the early churches often had one person read the text aloud and the rest of the group would listen (see Rev 1:3). It must also be remembered that almost all reading at that time was aloud. Acts 8:30 is a reflection of that practice.

Harvey first researches oral patterning in a historical perspective and reviews past studies in various disciplines. This will be useful for most, because this area of study is a bit removed from many NT students. He then moves to the area of orality and literacy in the first century. Part 2 of the study focuses on Greco-Roman parallels and includes a chapter on the Septuagint. The LXX chapter treats the major books quoted by Paul (Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah) to see if oral and compositional patterning was common in the OT. With this groundwork, Harvey then sets out his controls and categories. He limits his study to seven of Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). The stated purpose of the limitation is to keep the study within manageable bounds and to make his results acceptable to a larger audience.

Eight categories of oral patterning that are found in the OT and in the rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world are identified and defined. He also sets out the criteria for their recognition. These eight categories are chiasmus, inversion, alternation, inclusion, ring-composition, word-chain, refrain, and concentric symmetry (pp. 283-84). Harvey then draws out the value of recognizing these patterns for the interpreter of the NT. In some cases, it helps to clarify Paul’s argument and to delineate thought units.

This publication includes a bibliography and indexes. To get the most from this work, the reader must know Greek because it contains a lot of Greek text without translation. (This is necessary in the nature of this material.) I recommend this book and the study of its materials and the application of its thesis to other NT books. Our thanks go to John Harvey and to Baker for making it available.

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Jun 2001

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