New College, University of Edinburgh

The beginning of the New Testament: oral, written, or both?

In my thesis, I examine my practice as an oral storyteller for the ways in which performance is a means of interpretation drawing on intuition and imagination, on the authority that resides in the embodied human person. To this end, I have performed the letter to the Romans (abridged and in smaller portions). And however much I may be focused on reception of the letter today, for many of my audiences, my performance of Romans inevitably highlighted features of its origins.

This was particularly so regarding Rom. 16, in which Paul names many people with the exhortation to greet – or, embrace. As audiences heard these names spoken aloud, and felt the love and joy in my expression, they could almost see the people in the space I created between us. The people named in the letter, the communities of Jesus-followers in Rome and Cenchreae, Paul and his emissary Phoebe, are present with us as we receive the letter in that moment.

Biblical performance criticism’s practitioners have made bold claims about the origins of the New Testament as primarily oral rather than written, and Larry Hurtado offers strong critique of such claims.[i] In my thesis I note, rather than engage directly with, this debate. However, embodying this letter has illuminated that dynamism of interplay between writing and speaking, reading and hearing, for those earliest Jesus-following communities.

In one performance, I told Phoebe’s story, then recited the letter from Rom. 12. I imagined her, present with Paul and Tertius composing the letter, discussing the issues at hand; learning the letter, reading it aloud for Paul and receiving feedback on delivery; holding the letter as she rehearsed on the boat from Corinth, realising she had come to know the words, and could speak them as if they were her own.

The question of the oral/written nature of the letters is less contentious than the same question with regard to the gospels, over which the above-mentioned debates are usually carried out. The way letters were composed, delivered, and received, as I reflect in my story of Phoebe, demonstrates the importance placed on both oral and written communication in the time and culture of Christian origins. The physical letter is as much a representation of the author as the bearer of the letter is, while having letter bearers read the letters aloud demonstrates the authority that was given to the spoken word, embodied in a living person. I wonder how un-recognised is the authority of the embodied word in our time, so much emphasis does Western culture in particular place on the printed word. Yet politicians and protesters, for example, still choose to speak in live, embodied gatherings of people to gain support.

Never-the-less, I do not want to elevate the importance of the orality of NT compositions over their written-ness. In performance I did not take on the character of either Phoebe or Paul. I stood on stage as myself, giving voice to a letter we (the Christian community) receive as a spiritual inheritance. However, had I been engaging in a historical reenactment of Phoebe’s delivery, I would have had the physical letter (or something that looked like it) on stage with me. In some moments, it felt to me that Phoebe might have been able to point to the physical letter to separate herself from Paul, and remind her listeners that it was Paul who was speaking. For example, in 16:1–2, so that she was not seen to be commending herself!

The importance of both written and oral word together to communicate between Paul and the churches in Rome suggests fluid compositional origins for the gospels also. Perhaps they were composed from speaking stories aloud together, recording them for sustained and accurate corporate memory, and returning them to the embodied voice of a living person, where authority lies, more than we acknowledge, perhaps, for that, and our own, time.


Version 2

Written By Sarah Agnew



[i] Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60(2014).

  • CSCO Team,
  • 6th October 2016

Add comment