Composition in an Oral-Literate Culture and a Book Note: A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World (Amin Sweeney)

What does a book about contemporary literacy in Malay have to do with biblical studies? Quite a bit actually. As I continue to prepare my paper "Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," I find myself drawn to all kinds of studies on orality and literacy. Sweeney's book, A Full Hearing, is particularly interesting to me because it examines a society dominated by orality but encountering literacy. Fascinating is Chapter 9, "Oral Orientation in Written Composition," in which Sweeney describes the shape of Malay literature, a literature preserving orality. He writes on pp. 307-308:
"The introduction of print literacy - which brought with it the possibilities already realized in the 'donor' cultures - did not cause a clean break with the past. Even those highly literate in a Western language who rejected the old modes of expression found themselves in a battle with the past when they wrote in Malay, for the language brought with it the past, a past of radically oral manuscript culture...The introduction of print literacy did not cause an immediate change in the general state of mind. The natural tendency was to perceive the new in terms of familiar schemata. The result was that even the educated sector of the populace continued to favor a paratactic, formulaic, copious, repetitive, narrative, and concrete mode of expression. Such a mode was necessary for effective communication in an oral or aurally consuming society; in a print culture, it is not: what became redundant in print now strikes us as mere verbosity."
When we think about the oral-scribal culture of the ancient world, and the type of literature that we are dealing with by and large, we see a similar oral mode of expression dominating the writing. What our early Christian literature is, is literature produced within orality, often as a support for oral performance behaviors, including reading which was an oral-aural enterprise.

I am more and more convinced as I continue to immerse myself in these studies, that our old way of framing the Synoptic Problem (and the Thomas Problem) just is not correct. We don't seem to have a good enough handle on how the ancient peoples actually composed literature, and for what purposes. We must push head on in the direction of orality-scribality if we are ever to have a chance to work out these issues fully, and we must leave behind the cut-and-paste literary redaction model, which may work for our world of composition, but has little to do with oral consciousness and composition of works within that type of environment.