Ancient Texts 1a – What do you trust?

I realized today that I left an important thought out of my discussion of oral cultures this morning — the cultural bias of trust. In an oral culture, texts tend to be distrusted. That was particularly true in the ancient world where all texts were written by hand. How do you know that a text really comes from whom it says it comes? Even if it did, how do you know that it hasn’t been altered? By contrast, verbal communication, especially in the form of oral tradition, tended to be trusted. You knew who was giving you the tradition and you had a basis on which you could decide whether or not you trusted that person and thus whether or not you trusted what they said.

If you look, you can actually see that dynamic at play in the NT texts, especially in Paul’s letters where he is typically trying to address problems and needs the Church to accept his communication in absentia. He makes a point of greeting and saying things that indicate his personal knowledge of people in the Church. He often describes who is with him as he was writing the text. He will sometimes commend the one carrying his communication (and who will present it to the Church). He will write a greeting in his own hand at times. While those serve multiple purposes, one thing Paul is doing is trying to overcome the automatic cultural distrust of texts.

By contrast, in a literate cultural we are biased to trust texts over oral communication. When we can reference something in a publication, it gives greater weight to our argument. Printed texts are not necessarily easy to modify. (We can see that dynamic changing with electronic communication, but there remains a cultural bias toward the written form.) It’s an unconscious bias that permeates our evaluation of the things we can or can’t trust.

I will note that the idea that an oral tradition — even one that can be traced continuously back to the first or second century — can’t be trusted unless it can be confirmed in a text is one that could only arise within the context of a literate culture. As such, it can be eliminated as a technique used in the ancient world. Instead, the bias would have worked the other way. The oral tradition would have had to attest to the reliability of a text before the text would be trusted.

If you don’t grasp the way in which that underlying bias works, you’ll probably make the wrong assumptions when examining ancient Christian writings.

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