Book Review – W, Shiell, Delivering from Memory: The Effect of Performance on the Early Christian Audience

Book Shiell Delivering from memoryThis book speaks directly into the topic of performance criticism of biblical texts. I found it an easy read for an academic book. Though I also found it easy to glaze over what he was saying because his sentences were long and repetitious.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 110
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Topic: Hermeneutics, Interpretation
  • Audience: Academic, Theologically Trained

“An emerging discipline in New Testament studies suggests that we can interpret texts in light of the communication event. Performance criticism of the New Testament shows how public delivery of early Christian writings affects interpretation.

1 The text comes alive, an audience is engaged, and they participate in interpreting the document. Several recent monographs and articles explore this concept of contemporary performance as interpretation.

2 Preachers and readers speak the word and perform orally, and the delivery affects interpretation and the formation of community no matter which conventions are used.” (Loc 206) 

“This book argues that by ignoring the oral performance , we have limited interpretation to meanings that come from silence and privacy.” (Loc 2573)

For some time now I’ve been interested in speech act theory (e.g. Austin, Searle, Vanhoozer) and how it can affect our interpretation of biblical texts, especially Romans 1-4.

People who study Romans seriously will have heard of Stowers (Link), Campbell (Link) and perhaps Song (Link). These scholars in my opinion highlight a much neglected aspect of interpreting Romans 1-4. The rhetorical convention called Diatribe. See my series on Dialogue with a Jew (Link).

You may have heard of the historical-critical field of interpretation? In the field of hermeneutics there is also reader-response criticism (See p73-75, Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation). It’s prone to be quite subjective, however if it focusses on the text it can be more objective and yield good results.

Scot McKnight brought it to my attention in one or two posts in his blog (Link). For these reasons I felt it worthwhile to read the book.


Main points

A Performance that Mattered.

Chapter one serves as an introduction for the whole book. It introduces us to the concept of paideia. The education and upbringing of the first Christian communities.

“This book proposes that the Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions of delivery and memory can contribute uniquely to performance and interpretation of New Testament texts through reading or preaching in worship or study in classroom. Early Christian audiences expected to see the texts performed using these conventions of delivery and memory.” (Loc 179)

Delivery and Memory in the Ancient World.

Chapter two describes Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions of delivery and memory as part of the performance of the text. In Hellenistic Jewish and Greco-Roman audiences, the performer and the audience were shaped together by the recitation, retention, and response to the performance.

The more prominent Greco-Roman sources he quotes are several works of Aristotle, Cicero, Philo, and Quintilian. If your familiar with Ben Witherings work (e.g. my post on Rom 7) you will recognize Quintilian.

I also recognized Arrian’s Discourse of Epictetus, Dionysius Roman Antiquities, Clement of Alexandria Stromata, Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Hippolytus Tradition apostolica, and Seneca Epistulae morales having looked at them for my series on justification in the early church (Link).

Delivery and Memory in Early Christian Performances.

Shiell considers how the conventions from chapter 2 can be seen in early Christian documents. The New Testament books were the key documents which enables the community to form around Jesus and shape the character of early Christ-followers into imitators of one another and of him. The book primarily focused on the gospel narratives.

Prior to performance, the reader practices, remembers, retains, and paraphrases the reading. During performance, the lector remembers the text, omits information, elaborates a saying, and responds to the audience.

An audience responds with memories of other stories and reacts to the speaker’s performance. The entire process shapes early Christian education and upbringing.

“Given what we know, however, we can approach the early Christian documents with a different set of questions . Interpreters are already armed with the historical-critical, source, form, narrative, and rhetorical analyses of early Christian writings.

Most of these analyses approach the early Christian documents as static texts written by asking what the author meant or what the audiences expected the author to mean.

The above discussion suggests we could approach the documents as texts that come alive when given to living people, the reader, and the audiences in collaboration with one another. We need a different set of questions that open different doors of interpretation.” (Loc 1653)

Delivering Jesus from Memory.

Shiell lists a set of questions based on the conventions of ancient delivery where one can read and listen with the eyes of the ancient performers.

These questions are;

  1. Where are the lists, allusions to ancient texts, arguments, impersonations, and visualization?
  2. What are the gestures, both explicit and implicit, and what do they imply about the effect?
  3. What emotions are present in the text?
  4. Where is a performance audience addressed directly in the story audience?
  5. How does the story audience respond explicitly within the narrative?
  6. What does the text help the audience remember?
  7. How does a performance change the performer?
  8. How does a performance affect an audience?

He then works through Mt 5.1-11; 6.5-23; Mk 3.1-6; 4.1-41; Lk 4.16-30 using his questions, highlighting aspects of the text which could be applied in a performance. His attention is squarely on Jesus throughout. Which is what one would expect from the gospel.

Interpreting in Performance.

Finally Shiell draws conclusions connecting the ancient audience to modern interpretation. If we read and perform in light of the ancient audience, how does that shape the education and upbringing of the listener and reader?

Take away value

The book gives us a well grounded explanation for how the early Christian communities engaged with the New Testament texts. Particularly the gospel narratives.

It highlights on several occasions the difference in possible interpretations arising from individual silent reading (which is what everyday Christian culture is primarily focused) and community engagement with a performed text (early church emphasis).

Shiell points us in the direction of asking how various texts could be performed and interpreted by Christian audiences today.

Issues with it

I was hoping to see performance criticism applied to Paul’s letters. Particularly Romans. Though perhaps if it had done this the book would have drawn more flak than wanted. This book wants to get performance criticisms foot in the door. Interpretations of Romans 1-4 will follow (e.g. Rodriguez, If You Call Yourself a Jew Reappraising Paul’s Letter to the Romans).


I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in learning about how the early church engaged with the New Testament texts. It’s a new field which opens up fresh possibilities of interpretation.

I would recommend it to any Christian leaders who would like to consider the possibilities of performing a gospel (drama) as an evangelistic tool for not yet Christians investigating Jesus.

It is an easy read, even for an academic book and it didn’t take me a long while to finish either.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.