Rhoads, David. "Biblical Performance Criticism: Performance as Research." Oral Tradition 25:1 (2010), 157-198.
Rhoads proposes we should study the New Testament writings as transcripts of materials composed and performed orally, rather than as documents composed on paper to be studied as part of a print culture (Rhoads 2010, 157). This represents a paradigm shift in the scholarly methods common over the last several centuries. As a tool for scholarly methodology, Rhoads views contemporary performance as a proving ground of sorts, allowing us to evaluate scholarly methods (Rhoads 2010, 158).
The New Testament arose in a primarily oral culture. Rhoads cites numerous scholars suggesting the literacy rate was between three and ten percent (Rhoads 2010, 158). Rhoads ties an oral/aural culture to one in which personal and familial boundaries would be weak, a more communal life than we would see in literate cultures. Knowledge would be shared in community and spread through group encounters. Rhoads does not provide evidence for this conclusion (Rhoads 2010, 158). He goes on to note that memory is considered very important in oral cultures, though some level of creativity in performance may be encouraged. It is significant to Rhoads that composition was done with particular attention to the sound patterns of the language. Material was selected and presented so as to be memorable (Rhoads 2010, 159). Rhoads sees this as highly likely in the case of the New Testament documents as well. The work of writing, then, would serve orality rather than governing it.
Rhoads goes on to describe scrolls as "peripheral to performance" (Rhoads 2010, 160). A possible challenge to this idea, in practice, is the known habit of actually reading from Moses and the prophets in the course of a synagogue meeting. This would tend to indicate at least some level of authority given to a written document intended to be spoken and heard. Rhoads' argument against such a situation is that "readers" would study the manuscript, or have it present if needed, as a prompt for memorized performance (Rhoads 2010, 160).
Rhoads observes that scrolls were, by nature, expensive and therefore rare. Because he alleges that "early Christianity was predominantly a movement of the peasant class and the urban poor with the presence of some elites" (Rhoads 2010, 161), he concludes that the presence of written texts would be unlikely in Christian communities, especially prior to the end of the first century. While he makes a valid point which could be applied to individuals, a community would be more likely to retain a text of a letter which was brought to them, even if it would be retained for occasional reference. Rhaods' argument is not conclusive. He does, however, make a valid point as he speaks of the primacy of oral performance, which is also reflected in the dynamics of the texts.
Rhoads says boldly that the New Testament writings "were not originally conceived of as scripture" (Rhoads 2010, 162). While he doesn't define "scripture" clearly, he does discuss it in terms of a written tet which would be studied as writing, but would more likely be heard and performed. The performance would presumably tbe of the work as a whole, rather than in parts as smaller elements within a worship service. The early audience would have treated the entire letter or Gospel as a whole work.
Because the New TEstament works would have been "performed," Rhoads urges work of "performance criticism" (Rhoads 2010, 164), which moves to envision the nature of early presentations of parts of the New Testament, and to present them in performance as well. Rhoads describes each element in turn, whith the majority of his discussion based on actual performances.
To imagine the performance event in its original context, we would consider portrayals of public readings or performances in or around the time period of the original presentation. We would also consider the purpose of the performance as well as the way a performance would take place (Rhoads 2010, 165).
Performance criticism could require a major shift in the orientation of New Testament scholarship. Rhoads sees multiple different disciplines contributing to his model of scholarship. He lays out roles of traditional historical/critical methods (Rhoads 2010, 166), then addresses more recent scholarly methods, many of which already attempt to deal with oral and rhetorical elements (Rhoads 2010, 167).
Rhoads discusses the recent develoments in performance of biblical portions (Rhoads 2010, 168). The act of performing is helpful to understanding the materials which were produced for performance. Rhoads understadns both performing and hearing the New Testament materials as a new discovery, though some in the world of pastoral care would certainly disagree with him. However, he continues by detailing ways that performance can assist us in our understanding of the New Testament (Rhoads 2010, 169). The experience of the audience member, hearing the material in real time without the opportunity to stop, reflect, and review is very different from the experience of one who reviews a document.
In performance, Rhoads suggests, the performer discovers the aesthetics of a work to a greater degree than is normal when doing exegesis of a text (Rhoads 2010, 170). The manner of presentation, including pacing, posture, and expression, is important in the artistic presentation of the material (Rhoads 2010, 171).
Modern-day performers of biblical materials must make some choices which will govern their approach. Rhoads comments on choice of language for the performances, whetehr to use one's own translation or one prepared by someone else, and how to translate for best oral presentation (Rhoads 2010, 172). Rhoads does consider whether performances would normally present a story verbatim or would include spontaneous elements of composition. He prefers to stay as close to a verbatim account as possible, partly because the texts we have appear to be transcriptions of a performance, and partly due to the rabbinic tradition of remaining very close to a text (Rhoads 2010, 173).
Rhoads ginds as he performs a text that he continually becomes aware of different nuances (Rhoads 2010, 174). The performer, in a sense, is able to enter into the world of the selection. The world, then, comes alive to the audience in the performance (Rhoads 2010, 175). All the elements of the presentation serve a purpose, all geared toward the ultimate purpose of transformation. The transformation may well be applied to both the performer and the audience (Rhoads 2010, 177).
The performance Rhoads envisions is not speaking the text aloud. It is more akin to acting the text out. The performer attempts to supply what would otherwise be left to the imagination (Rhoads 2010, 179).
The performer becomes a narrator but also in some way expresses the emotions and actions of the characters being narrated (Rhoads 2010, 181). Each character is important in some way. Rhoads urges finding means of communicating them as individuals. In som instances, the narrator will address on-stage issues, some times off-stage, and sometimes the audience. These moves need to be deliberate and clera (Rhoads 2010, 183).
Rhoads considers the issue of a subtext to be very important, though often left inadequately addressed (Rhoads 2010, 184). The subtext becomes more prominent in a performance setting simply due to the oral presentation. The way an idea is expressed orally demonstrates a subtext (Rhoads 2010, 185). All this contributes to an adequate interpretation of the emotive nature of the material presented (Rhoads 2010, 186). Drama, humor, disappointment, and victory all appear in the biblical narratives. The temporal element is also important, as events unfold in order (Rhoads 2010, 188).
In the end, Rhoads considers the elements of performance to be foundational to entrance into the biblical materials, both as an exegete and as a recipient of the message (Rhoads 2010, 190).