As time goes on, Professor of Old Testament and James Lenox Librarian Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, MDiv '87, is less and less invested exclusively in the written word. On the one hand, his academic interests have turned toward orality at the heart of the Bible’s poetic style, and how it interfaces with writing over the course of the first millennium BCE. On the other, his visual field is quite literally shrinking as his struggle with retinitis pigmentosa progresses, requiring him to rely increasingly on memory, collaborators, and the spoken word.
Propelled by a strong interest in linguistics, philology, literary criticism, and comparative study, the first decade of Dobbs-Allsopp’s work centered around the book of Lamentations and, eventually, Song of Songs and Psalms, ultimately culminating in a book called On Biblical Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2015). But he couldn’t shake the idea that scholars were missing a big piece of the puzzle. “Commentators were asking questions about plot and character that this type of writing wasn’t designed to answer,” he says. “Biblical poetry is ritualistic and non-narrative, and it became clear to me that biblical traditions evolved out of oral landscapes.”
Dobbs-Allsopp points out that much of the Bible’s poetry is clearly dominantly oral, earmarked by pauses and inflections that are meant to be spoken. “The language they use is language of the ear, tongue, and voice, and that presumes an oral orientation,” he explains. “This is language that is then adapted to a written medium.” While alphabetic writing was always known in ancient Israel and Judah, Dobbs-Allsopp says that it wasn’t until the last third of the ninth century BCE that long-form narratives began to appear. Currently, this appears to be the earliest point at which scholars believe the Bible’s oldest poems began to be written down. “One of the most interesting dimensions of this kind of research is the need to consider the oral and the written together,” Dobbs-Allsopp says, “and only in the last 20 or 25 years have scholars really started turning to the question of what that means.”
It might seem a little on the nose, but this focus away from the written word and onto orality arrives just as Dobbs-Allsopp wrestles with his own challenges related to reading and writing. “I used to show up to classes with books and notes, and I could never imagine doing a class without them,” he says. “Over the years, little by little, I found I wasn’t able to read my own handwriting. Today, I’m able to lead a class without any of those reference materials.”
But if anyone knows that teaching, discovery, and scholarship can flourish without having to write it down, it’s Dobbs-Allsopp. “People ask me if I will retire, and the answer is no,” he says. “I may have to find collaborators or figure out how to do classes differently, but I’m a scholar at heart and I’m not ready to be done.”