Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity


Exegetes and historians of Early Christianity are gradually rediscovering the importance, principles and functions of orality in ancient communication. Although this discovery has led to some excesses and simplifications (cf. the recent criticism by L. Hurtado,  NTS 60/3, 2014), the status and interaction of orality and writing within the cultures of the Greco-Roman world as well as the Christian subculture deserve being taken seriously and analyzed in depth. This inquiry, involving a strong hermeneutic and methodological potential, is nowadays being led (almost) exclusively in the English speaking world and in (South) Africa. Our research group proposes to fill in the blank within European exegesis and bring its own contribution to the debate. Its intention is, to start with, to describe the status and role of orality in the context of the cultures of the 1st century Mediterranean world, especially of the Christian subculture, its interactions with written texts and the degree of literacy in the proto-Christian microcosm. Once this cultural background has been set, we aim to explore two different cases and forms in the ancient Christian communication – the Pauline letters and the Gospel of Mark – and the interface of orality and writing in them.


Orality, Literacy, Memory, Ancient Media, Early Christianity


Simon Butticaz
University of Lausanne 

Priscille Marschall
Université de Lausanne

Ma. Marilou S. Ibita
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and De la Salle University-Manila

Member Area

Wuppertal 2021 Call for Papers

EABS 2021 – Crisis in Oral Tradition and Mnemonic Mechanisms

Having explored orality and literacy in Pauline literature (2017), and in the Gospel of Mark (2018), the 2021 sessions will shift the focus to what may be termed the “crisis in oral tradition” at the end of the first century and the first part of the second century CE (cf. W. Kelber, “The Works of Memory: Christian Origins as MnemoHistory – A Response,” in: A. Kirk, T. Thatcher, ed., Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, 221–248). This period represents a key phase in the development of Christian communities, marked notably by the establishment of ministries and the writing of the last books that would later become part of the NT canon. According to J. Assmann’s model and categories (Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, trans. D.H. Wilson, 2011), this is also the period in which the so-called “floating gap” (J. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, 1985) begins, that is, the passage from “communicative memory,” mainly oral, to “cultural memory,” materialized in authoritative texts and rites (for the application of those Assmann's categories and models to early Christianity and its results, see S. Huebenthal, “‘Frozen Moments’ – Early Christianity through the Lens of Social Memory Theory,” in: S. Butticaz, E. Norelli, ed., Memory and Memories in Early Christianity, 2018, 17–43; cf. also A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory,” in: A. Kirk, T. Thatcher, ed., Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, 41; E. Norelli, “La notion de ‘mémoire’ nous aide-t-elle à mieux comprendre la formation du canon du Nouveau Testament?,” in : Ph.S. Alexander, J.-D. Kaestli, ed., Le canon des Écritures dans les traditions juive et chrétienne, 2007, esp. 183–94). 

Paper presenters are invited to deal with the questions of how the practices of collecting, reading (or performing?) and copying texts interact with processes of constructing a sense of Christian identity and ethics, as well as the role that these practices play in the stabilising mechanisms of memory. This involves a discussion of the status of texts and manuscripts (both Jewish Scriptures and “NT” texts) in the specific context of early Christian communities, as well as addressing the issue of concrete reading practices (including which texts are read, how, by whom, and in which context). Attention will also be paid to the topic of orality and literacy in texts and testimonies dated from this time span, such as the so-called pastoral and catholic epistles, the Apostolic Fathers, or the fragments of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis. As in the previous years, the research group will have a session with invited speakers and an open session. For the open session, we encourage proposals from all the areas mentioned above.