Floyd and Redford on Oral Tradition and Written Tradition

I’m continuing my way through Writings and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy.  I read Michael Floyd’s “‘Write the Revelation!’ (Hab 2:2): Re-Imagining the Cultural History of Prophecy” (which, incidentally, doesn’t talk much about Habakkuk 2:2), and most of Donald B. Redford’s “Scribe and Speaker”.

1.  Michael Floyd is essentially arguing against a scholarly model that says that ancient Israel went from being an oral culture to one that had more writing, which corresponded with developing complexity in its society (e.g., diversification of social roles, hierarchization, etc.).  According to this model, an aspect of this progress was secularization, as scribes downplayed traditional religion in order to make sense of the world rationally.  Floyd narrates that Julius Wellhausen viewed such a development as negative, for he preferred the time when prophecy was oral and dynamic, rather than the time when prophecy was written down—either to record what for many years was orally transmitted, or in cases in which the prophecy immediately became a literary product (as occurred in later years).

Floyd disagrees with this model, and his goal in his essay is to demonstrate that reality is more complex than the model presumes.  He argues that people pass on information or stories orally even in societies that have writing, that literacy does not necessarily imply technological advancement, and that we’re not even sure that scribal schools taught students how to read—for they may have simply instructed them in such subjects as ethics.  Although Floyd agrees that scribal schools in ancient Israel were late, he contends that writing in ancient Israel went back as far as the tenth century B.C.E.—on the basis of clay seals, a few inscriptions and documents, the ancient Song of Deborah’s reference to scribes mustering the troops (Judges 5:14b; cp. II Kings 25:19; II Chronicles 26:11; and Jeremiah 52:25), and the long scribal tradition in other ancient Near Eastern nations.  (Like Giovanni Garbini, Floyd apparently wonders why we should assume that ancient Israel was that different from her neighbors!)

Floyd does not think that scribal activity necessarily entailed the existence of schools, for people could have learned writing “through apprenticeship in nonacademic settings where it would have been used for nonacademic purposes” (page 136).  As Floyd states, “In the public spheres scribes worked in the areas of international relations, civil administration, military deployment, law courts, religious cults, trade and commerce, etc., and in the private sphere they provided domestic records and facilitated personal correspondence” (page 136).  Floyd also takes issue with the characterization of the scribes as secular, viewing that as the projection of Enlightenment ideas onto history.  Moreover, if the scribes were secular, Floyd points out, then the mantic interests of ancient Near Eastern scribes as well as the scribal concern about prophetic writings in ancient Israel are quite odd indeed.

2.  The subject of Donald Redford’s essay is oral tradition and writing in ancient Egypt.  There were three issues in this essay that stood out to me.  First of all, what evidence is there that oral tradition even existed?  Whenever someone asserts that the Bible contains ancient oral traditions, some ask, “Says who?”  Redford does not defend the existence of such traditions in the Hebrew Bible, at least in what I have read so far.  But he does refer to evidence for oral tradition in ancient Egypt, as documents talk about telling about the great deeds of the king and storytelling.  Some of the statements about oral tradition in ancient Egyptian documents reminded me of parts of the Hebrew Bible—which talk about parents teaching their children about the deeds and laws of the LORD, as well as wisdom.  Word-of-mouth played a role in ancient Israel, and/or among exilic and post-exilic Jews.

Second, an issue that has come up repeatedly in this book is whether and how one can identify oral tradition in the Hebrew Bible.  Scholars have portrayed oral tradition as less sophisticated and organized than what is written.  But, as Redford notes, oratory in Egypt entailed organization and sophistication.

Third, which did the ancients consider to be better—oral tradition or written tradition?  In ancient Egypt, writing had the advantage of solidifying and recording the past, allowing it to be a precedent for later generations; oral tradition, by contrast, was not deemed to be fully reliable, although Egyptians fully respected the power of the spoken word.  James Crenshaw, however, refers to Plato’s Phaedrus 274b-278b, in which Plato argues (in Crenshaw’s words) that “a written text cannot choose its readers”, and that, “Once put in writing, a text is subject to manipulation by literate interpreters” (page 43).  According to Crenshaw, that’s why oral prophecies were circulated within prophetic circles: to restrict who could handle and circulate the tradition.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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