Die Christen (mse)

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Werner H. Kelber

Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space

in: Semeia 65. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature (1995)

And yet, in order to grasp the fuller implications of hearers' participation (not simply responses!), we will in the end have to overcome our textbound thinking and come to terms with a reality that is not encoded in texts at all. It means that we must learn to think of a large part of tradition as an extratextual phenomenon. What permitted hearers to interiorize the so-called parable of the "Good Samaritan," for example, was a culture shared by speaker and hearers alike. Unless hearers have some experience or knowledge of the role of priests, Lévites, and Samaritans in society, or rather of their social construction, this parable will not strike a responsive chord with them. Whether hearers are Samaritans themselves or informed by anti-Samaritan sentiments will make a difference in the way they hear the story. Shared experiences about the dangers of traveling, the role of priests and Lévites, and the ethics of charity weave a texture of cultural commonality that makes the story resonate in the hearts and minds of hearers. Tradition in this encompassing sense is a circumambient contextuality or biosphere in which speaker and hearers live. It includes texts and experiences transmitted through or derived from texts. But it is anything but reducible to intertextuality. Tradition in this broadest sense is largely an invisible nexus of references and identities from which people draw sustenance, in which they live, and in relation to which they make sense of their lives. This invisible biosphere is at once the most elusive and the foundational feature of tradition. (S. 159)

This essay has a t t e m p t e d to raise consciousness about the Enlightenment parentage of the modern discipline of biblical scholarship. Throughout, the underlying, nagging question has been whether the scholarly discourse of reason corresponds with the hermeneutical sensibilities of late antiquity. To be sure, serious doubts about the premises of historical criticism have been raised before. From the collapse of the liberal quest, for example, we had to learn the lesson that written language and historical actuality do not relate to each other in a one-toone relationship. What we have to learn additionally is that our understanding of the hermeneutical status and functioning of language itself is patently culture-bound. Our search for singular originality concealed behind layers of textual encumbrances reveals much about the force of our desire, b u t falls short of u n d e r s t a n d i n g the oral implementation of multioriginality in the present act of speaking. Only on paper do texts appear to relate in a one-to-one relation to other texts. The fixation on authorial intent, on language as self-legitimating discourse, on the reduction of tradition to processes of textual transmission and stratification, a n d on the perception of ancient chirographs as visualizable, disengaged objects opens a vast conceptual gap that separates our o w n typographic rationalities from ancient media sensibilities. (S. 162)