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Re: [Synoptic-L] Millard, Reading and Writing

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  • Peter M. Head
    I have reviewd this book. For those who are interested I attach a slightly edited version (which highlights some different issues compared to Brian s post):
    Message 1 of 3 , Dec 1, 2000
      I have reviewd this book. For those who are interested I attach a slightly
      edited version (which highlights some different issues compared to Brian's

      Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (The Biblical
      Seminar 69; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
      288 pp., p/b.,

      "The material evidence and related arguments set out in these chapters
      indicate far more weight than has been allowed should be given to the role
      of writing in preserving information about Jesus of Nazareth from his
      lifetime onwards and so in forming the Gospel tradition.' (p. 228) This
      sentence, which closes Millard's book, seems to offer an appropriate
      introduction to our review. The bulk of the book is given over to an
      impressive collection of "material evidence" relating to Reading and
      Writing in the Time of Jesus; only in the the closing two chapters does the
      tone shift from descriptive to a more argumentative one. The claim is made
      that the dominant oral paradigm which has dominated twentieth-century
      approaches to the gospels has not taken account of the possibility that
      written records of Jesus' teaching might have been made from the outset of
      his ministry and been utilised by the evangelists.

      The first chapter is a general introduction to 'Ancient Books and Their
      Survival'. It offers a very helpful survey, amply documented and with
      helpful photographs, of ancient archives and libraries (now completely
      lost), the materials used for ancient books, and the way some, in fact only
      a tiny proportion, survived in Egypt and around the Dead Sea. Especially
      useful, because it is not normally drawn into such discussions, is the
      section on bullae, lumps of clay used to seal papyrus rolls. These turn up
      in small quantities in many archaeological excavations, and survive in
      large quantities even where the rolls do not, bearing the imprint on the
      papyrus fibres and sometimes attesting extensive archives (5,000 seals in a
      family archive at Delos, 2,500 rolls in a temple at Carthage, 14,000 from
      Paphos etc.). Millard fully justifies his conclusion that 'an enormous
      amount of writing was done throughout the Near East in Hellenistic and
      Roman times, most of it for administrative and legal purposes.'

      In chapter two Millard surveys what can be known about 'Early Christian
      Manuscripts', from complete Bibles, through pre-Constantinian parchment
      copies and second-century papyri (he rightly rejects 'the will-o'-the-wisp
      lure of first century New Testament manuscripts'). The third chapter is
      entitled 'The Form of the Book: Page versus Roll' and discusses the
      well-worn comparison between roll and codex, tentatively suggesting a Roman
      provenance for the early Christian enthusiasm for the codex. This survey
      also justifies the conclusion that 'books evidently played an important
      role among Christians in the second century, whether read by individuals or
      in public' (p. 82). The two preliminary conclusions I have cited form the
      two prongs of a pincer movement in Millard's overall argument; they are
      then supplemented by an investigation of the situation in Herodian

      This material is covered in chapters four to six. Chapter Four covers
      'Writing in Herodian Palestine', surveying papyri, seals, ostraca, coins,
      marriage deeds, graffiti, inscriptions, and literary remains in Aramaic
      ('the dominant written language for the people of the land, for affairs of
      daily life and death', p. 102), then Greek ('there were few parts of the
      country where some knowledge of the language could not be found', 117),
      Hebrew and Latin. This survey of the realia then informs the discussion of
      chapter five 'A Polyglot Society', which has sections on the Language of
      Jesus (fundamentally Aramaic), and on Spoken Latin in Herodian Palestine.
      This is followed by chapter six, 'Who Read and Who Wrote', which suggests
      that although scholars and the wealthy would have written and collected
      books, a wide variety of people would have needed basic literacy,
      especially within Jewish circles, 'only the most isolated hamlets in
      Herodian Palestine may have lacked anyone who could read' (p. 168).
      Writing, keeping accounts and memoranda would have been an integral part of
      life for a huge number of people. Millard responds to an anticipated
      objection, that very little comparable evidence for writing comes from the
      Galilee, in a variety of ways. First, he admits that relatively few
      discoveries have been found in the Galilee, but argues that evidence from a
      number of key areas (such as Sepphoris, Gamla, Bethsaida) suggest that
      'basic features of the culture were no different from those in Judea'.
      Secondly, coin hoards reveal both some evidence of individual wealth and
      evidence of wide trading relations. Thirdly, the road network, the building
      works at Tiberius, the fish-exporting business at Magdala would all have
      required writing, and all count against a narrow parochialism.

      The main argumentative function of Chapter Seven is to critique the
      dominant oral proposals of form-criticism. Towards the end of chapter
      seven, 'Oral Tradition or Written Reports?', in a key paragraph which
      summarises the thesis of the whole book, Millard writes:

      'Together the rabbinic and Greek educational styles and the remarks of
      early Christian writers make a case strongly in favour of the theory that
      the Christian Church preserved the teachings of Jesus principally in oral
      form through the first three to five decades of its life. Persuasive as the
      case has been for the majority of New Testament scholars, objections can be
      raised and arguments adduced which weaken it, while the discoveries about
      writing in Palestine and publication of more texts from the Dead Sea
      Scrolls suggest that it can no longer stand unchallenged. In his
      examination of the history of the Gospel traditions, Martin Dibelius wrote,
      'one requires a constructive method which attempts to include the
      conditions and activities of life of the first Christian Churches'. For
      Dibelius the 'constructive method' was largely devised from the very texts
      he was studying, with the form-critical presuppositions about oral
      literature outlined above. After eight decades, to meet Dibelius's
      requirement, currently accessible evidence has to be brought into play,
      both from literary and from material sources.' (p. 196)
      Millard concedes of course that Jesus was a wandering oral teacher, that
      his teaching took place within a Jewish context. Within the Jewish
      tradition there was a great emphasis on the memory of the opinions and
      teachings of leading "rabbis", and a supposedly strict distinction between
      the written Law and the Oral Law: 'You are not to pass on sayings
      (received) in writing by word of mouth; you are not to pass on sayings
      (received) by word of mouth in writing' (b. Git. 60b, p. 191). This
      material, however, post-dates the fall of Jerusalem and arises from only
      one stream within first-century Judaism. Statements in favour of speech
      over writing can be found in Plato and Early Christianity (Papias, Clement
      of Alexandria); but these, argues Millard, must be balanced by the use of
      written notes in numerous philosophical schools. Somewhat similarly, even
      in rabbinic circles notebooks and memoranda were known and used. Qumran
      scrolls show a willingness to add authoritative written texts to the
      community library.

      Chapter eight is entitled 'Writing and the Gospels'. Here Millard argues,
      especially in view of 4QMMT, that Jesus' teaching, being similarly
      authoritative, might be preserved in similarly written records, that in
      fact, this non-rabbinic type of Judaism might stand as a closer parallel to
      the Jesus movement (and therefore not be susceptible to the rule against
      writing down oral traditions). Since some of Jesus' disciples and followers
      included people who would have needed written skills (tax collectors,
      officials, etc.) it is clearly feasible 'to imagine some of them opening
      note-books they carried for their day-to-day business ... and jotting down
      a few of the striking sayings' (p. 223). These then may have come into the
      hands of the evangelists and been incorporated into the extant Gospels.

      This book is an unparalleled resource for the study of reading and writing
      in the first-century. It is hard to imagine that anyone could read it
      without learning a number of new things and having about a dozen new
      bibliographical items to chase up and read. It deserves to be widely used
      as a reference work on this subject. Inasmuch as the argument for written
      notes never gets very far beyond, 'it might have happened', it is an open
      question whether it will have a major impact on NT scholarship. Certainly,
      Millard's argument has some merit and deserves not only consideration, but
      also further exploration. But the problems are numerous, as Millard himself
      acknowledges. Indeed, Millard's presentation could have been improved by
      discussing earlier attempts to suggest that written traditions might have
      contributed to the transmission of the Jesus tradition. Millard refers
      three times to S. Liebermann's opinion that Jesus' disciples would have
      written down his sayings in codex notebooks; but otherwise does not
      interact with a variety of potentially sympathetic predecessors. In the
      main bulk of the book there are few indications that Millard is actually
      primarily on OT scholar (perhaps the equation of Byzantine texts with the
      Textus recptus on p. 42 is the only exception); but this becomes more
      obvious, and important in the closing chapters. There is no mention here,
      for example, of Earle Ellis' somewhat similar argument that Jesus'
      movement, being more prophetic than rabbinic in style, would not have been
      inhibited about writing down Jesus' words (E.E. Ellis, 'New Directions in
      Form Criticism' Jesus Christus in Historie und Theologie (FS H. Conzelmann;
      ed. G. Strecker; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1975), pp. 299-315). Nor is there
      any interaction with the developments of the Scandinavian school in the
      well-known work of Rainer Riesner (Jesus als Lehrer) and the recent, and
      very relevant study by Samuel Byrskog (who among other things, offers a
      great deal of material on the interaction between oral and written
      traditions within both rabbinic and prophetic movements) in his Jesus the
      Only Teacher: Didactic Authority and Transmission in Ancient Israel,
      Ancient Judaism and the Matthean Community (CB NT 24; Stockholm: Almqvist &
      Wiksell Int., 1994). Some reflection on earlier approaches to Mark and Q as
      arising out of written notes would also have been welcome (e.g. .M. Sato, Q
      und Prophetie).

      Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is the brevity with which
      the theory is applied to the gospels themselves. A couple of pages of
      generalised possibilities at the close are not enough to demonstrate the
      plausibility of the theory. Millard has done enough to counter those who
      would rule written sources out of court; it is possible that some of Jesus'
      followers may have written down some of his sayings. He has not done enough
      to show whether his theory would account for the whole range of gospel
      phenomena better than the oral theory. There is more work to be done and
      perhaps a reader will take up the challenge.

      Dr. Peter M. Head
      Tyndale House
      36 Selwyn Gardens
      Cambridge CB3 9BA
      Tel: 01223 566607
      Fax: 01223 566608
      email: pmh15@...

      Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l
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    • Wieland Willker
      ... I have immediately ordered this book. Cool: Photographs of ancient archives and libraries now completely lost! I didn t even know that Millard was in our
      Message 2 of 3 , Dec 1, 2000
        Peter M. head wrote (with equivocal commas):
        > helpful photographs, of ancient archives and libraries (now completely
        > lost),

        I have immediately ordered this book. Cool: Photographs of ancient archives and libraries
        now completely lost!
        I didn't even know that Millard was in our time-travel crew lately to Caesarea. Bad boy,
        we were told NOT to photograph and NOT to transcribe!

        Best wishes
        Wieland Willker, Bremen, Germany

        Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l
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      • Peter M. Head
        Good try Wieland, but I think I d stand by my commas in that sentence. Pete Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l List Owner:
        Message 3 of 3 , Dec 1, 2000
          Good try Wieland, but I think I'd stand by my commas in that sentence.


          Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l
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