More on memory and orality

James McGrath over at Exploring our Matrix has commented on my previous post.

He says:

The main point I would make in response is that, without writing being involved, the entire notion of a precise verbatim repetition of a story is meaningless. It may be that with some sayings, plays on words were central, and thus we can be fairly certain that such details were preserved (e.g. straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel). But unlike a book read over and over to a child, a story which Jesus composed and told more than once would be subject to the same limitations of memory to reproduce material verbatim that would subsequently affect the retelling by others. Anyone who has written something – even a poem or song in which melody, meter, rhyme, and other features aid recollection – will know that having written something yourself is not a guarantee that you will remember it.

I agree entirely that verbatim reproduction is generally meaningless in oral societies, although there is apparently evidence that some religious rituals are deliberately remembered verbatim and of course, as the late Birger Gerhardsson pointed out, rabbis were trained to remember scripture verbatim. In fact, I think that it was the news of his death which is being reported around the blogosphere that reminded me that I am not as pessimistic as I might sound about our having access to Jesus’ content, even if not his actual words. I read Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity; with, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Eric J. Sharpe (trans). Grand Rapids, Mich. & Livinia, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. &  Dove Booksellers, 1998) soon after Ong’s Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. (New Accents. London and New York: Methuen, 1982) when I was still a research masters candidate and both made me think. I haven’t ended up agreeing with Gerhardsson, but his work has definitely shaped my thinking in a positive way. I also read Jacob Neusner’s preface and was struck by how easy it is to forget the power of our words on people when you are caught up in enthusiasm for disagreeing with their arguments. I always try to disagree politely and thoughtfully, but looking back on my blog posts, I suspect that I don’t always succeed. :-(

To return to James’ point and the reason for this post:

I think that what may have been coming across in this discussion is that all memory is distorted so we have no hope of knowing anything that Jesus said. I want to reiterate that I don’t think we have any hope of proving that anything recorded in the gospels is something that Jesus actually said and I don’t think that we can come up with any particularly water-tight guidelines for working out what is most likely to be things that Jesus said because we don’t know enough about the people who wrote the gospels or their circumstances. I do think, however, that there are some things that we know about oral transmission and human memory that swing the pendulum back towards confidence in our material at the level of content. Robert McIver’s work with the psychological data provides some helpful insights although I think he seriously overstate the case that can be made from his research. What I was talking about in my previous post is, I think, another positive factor.

I agree that having composed something doesn’t mean that you will remember it word for word. I do think, however, that when a person has composed a story to illustrate a particular point, s/he is much more likely to reproduce the significant points accurately than is someone who has just heard it. I also think that when you are retelling your own story, you are more likely to use similar wording for subsequent retellings than is someone else who is retelling it from your ‘original’ because you talk like you and they don’t. I therefore think that Jesus is likely to have retold reasonably close versions of his parables, so the disciples would have heard essentially the same thing several times.

I also think it is likely that the disciples who travelled with him regularly would have discussed them amongst themselves, which would also have facilitated a more accurate recall of something that had been reinforced a number of times. While the process of recalling in a group can tend to ‘sanitise’ the memory of an event, trying to cast the tellers in a more positive light, it can also result in a larger number of more accurate details being recalled than happens when an individual tries to remember something.

Both these things would increase the likelihood of accurate memory of Jesus’ version, whereas a lot of the discussion (particularly from me) has been stressing the forces that move memory away from Jesus’ versions. We also need to remember that, as Rafael reminds us, whatever the details of his life were, Jesus of Nazareth must have made a significant impact on those he encountered. After all, his followers were prepared to be killed in horrific manners by the Romans rather than recant their faith. This suggests to me that there must have been situations where flashbulb/personal event memory kicked in. These are events that are so significant that the person remembering them can produce very vivid and persistent details – including visual, auditory, olfactory images or bodily sensations associated with the event (see McIver’s account of work by David Pillemer in ch 3 of Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels. Atlanta: SBL, 2011).  We also have evidence that in oral societies, once material is established as part of the community heritage, the community tends to take responsibility for ensuring that it is transmitted correctly. Although Bailey’s work (eg “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” The Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991): 34-54) has been criticised by some as being anecdotal rather than involving proper controlled experiments, I cannot see how you can do controlled experiments in this kind of area and the observational data that he provides is informative.

So, no, I don’t think we need to give up and go home. :-)


Do go back to Exploring our Matrix and read James McGrath’s response to this post. I agree entirely.

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One thought on “More on memory and orality

  1. Pingback: Remembering Without Recording

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