Then we must first of all, it seems, control the story
tellers. Whatever noble story they compose we shall
select, but a bad one we must reject. Then we shall
persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children
those we have selected and by those stories to
fashion their minds far more than they can shape
their bodies by handling them. The majority of the
stories they now tell must be thrown out.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
—Shakespeare, As You Like It
THE NEW TESTAMENT SITS ON THE BLURRED edge between orality and literacy. A peasant culture nurtured the early Jesus movement, and its initial elaboration was oral. The earliest traces of Jesus’ sayings show a heavy indebtedness to orality. The Gospel of Thomas and Q (the Synoptic Sayings Source) are collections of sayings structured in a proverbial form like the Book of Wisdom. The Gospel of Mark, the first written gospel built around a narrative outline, sports orality’s signals. The patterned form of its miracle stories, for example, betrays an oral origin. The Gospel of Matthew, written in the last half of the first century, still evidences oral forms in the elaborate sermons it constructs for Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount imitates the patterned units of oral speech, unlike Paul’s Athenian speech (Acts 17:22–31) with its highly abstract connectives.
Since we have always known a printed Bible, we find it difficult to either see or appreciate orality’s vestiges in our printed text. Actually, our assumption that these people were like us, that they wrote