How Performance Changed My (Scholarly) Life

Article excerpt

My title frames the topic of performance criticism in terms of a conversion narrative, and is only partly tongue-in-cheek. Performance criticism erupted into my scholarly work like a geyser, baptizing familiar analytical tools with a salty spray. The tonic tasted bad but it did its work. I hope this essay will suggest how this curative can shape a scholar and influence interpretation.

My interest in biblical material rests on my concern that the New Testament too often supports inaccurate perceptions of the world. Its use over two millennia has too often been used to authorize interpretations of its contents as mandates for brutality and oppression. Yet scholarly explorations of the historical Jesus and our growing understanding of the history of early Christianity strongly indicate a different trajectory for the Jesus movement at its inception. (1) I have therefore sought clues for faithful readings of the New Testament that promise different results in our own time. My efforts have assumed that faithful readings begin in the language of the compositions themselves. In an effort to retrieve aspects of earlier interpretative traditions of the New Testament and the materials used to compose it, I have asked how its original audiences may have experienced these literary compositions as spoken performances.

Orality studies inaugurated by Walter Ong and in New Testament studies by Werner Kelber have awakened a modern appreciation of the public, performed character of ancient literature. (2) What we read silently, ancient audiences heard in theaters, courtrooms, and marketplaces. This realization challenges conventional understandings of literary composition and publication as we learn to appreciate that the elements of composition in antiquity were not letters or even words, but sounds. Thus, I have sought to invent an empirically based method to analyze Hellenistic Greek literature as speech and to approach New Testament compositions as linear streams of sound. (3)

The power and beauty of spoken sound have persuaded me that the New Testament's very language enshrouds a code that prescribes fresh interpretation. By analyzing the spoken sounds of the New Testament at the level of the phoneme, syllable, and colon, I have noticed complex systems of auditory patterns, even in literary strata sometimes judged to be devoid of sophisticated technique, such as Q and the Gospel of Mark. Such patterns function at the level of the signifier rather than the signified; in other words, they occur in units of language that do not necessarily carry semantic meaning. Since such patterns operate independently of semantics, their impact on meaning some times is not immediately apparent. Each composition's sounds, not its words, create its structure. A composition's auditory architecture frames the house in which its meaning resides. So the relationship sound to meaning becomes comprehensible first in its structural integrity, its design, rather than in its "message." In fact, the notion that a New Testament composition has a message for the individual, solitary reader is presumptive. It skips over multiple vehicles of meaning inherent in the composition's language and neglects its social impact as performance.

The relevance of performance criticism to these concerns might seem obvious, but it took a long time to dawn on me, primarily because my work had engaged the Greek text, whereas performances for contemporary audiences necessarily take place in modern languages. I had long since resigned myself to the irrecoverable loss of anything like an ancient performance experience. I knew something of what Professor Rhoads, his colleagues, and students were about, but I reckoned their concerns to be different from mine and their trajectory aimed toward a divergent goal: making the New Testament "come alive" for the modern believer. In other words, I did not appreciate the value of performance criticism as criticism. …