This is the fifth in a multi-part post explaining why I think rhetorical criticism is a valid and helpful tool for examining New Testament texts. In part I, I talked about texts having an origin and an audience. In Part II, I spoke about texts having integrity and a genre. In part III, I discussed he shortcomings of literary criticism. In part IV, I discussed Audience Oriented Criticism. In this post, I will discuss the oral nature of the Greco-Roman culture.
If a critic should attempt to read a text as a member of the intended audience, then s/he must gain some of the competencies of the original audience.
The first of these, which seems to obvious to mention, is that the original audience member for NT texts had to understand Greek. Notice, however, that I said "understand" Greek, not "read" Greek. That is because very few original intended audience members could read at all. Estimates of literacy vary, but most hover around 10-15% for the Roman Empire. Therefore, if an audience member were to receive an NT text, they would have to receive it with their ears, that is, someone would have to read it out loud to them.
There are three main reasons that an ancient audience member would most likely have heard a presentation of an NT text rather than reading it privately (silently.) 1) Most people could not read. 2) Even if they could read, procuring a copy of a text was expensive and hard to come by (if you wanted your own copy of, say, the Gospel of Mark, you would have to find someone willing to loan you theirs long enough for you to hand copy it or pay a scribe to do so). 3) Greeks and Romans actually preferred to have written documents read aloud, even if they could read and could afford books. For good work on literacy and the oral nature of the ancient Mediterranean, see Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church, and Whitney Shiner's Proclaiming the Gospel.
In this culture, the public oral presentation of written texts was common and it is very likely that most of the original audience members for NT texts heard an oral presentation.
In the following post I will talk about the Greco-Roman education system and why that is important for Rhetorical Criticism. (Part VI).