Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

The latest (ie September 2015) edition of Early Christianity looks at on Jesus and Memory: The Memory Approach in Current Jesus Research. My thanks to Chris Keith for pointing it out on the Jesus Blog. I plan to read most, if not all, of the articles in it but started with Eric Eve’s offering, Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem (pp 311-333). If you are at all interested in the issues of memory and orality as they relate to the Synoptic problem, I would thoroughly recommend this paper.

Not surprisingly, given the paper’s title, Eve begins by talking about memory (pp 312-317), providing a brief overview of the field and, in particular, the notion of schemata and the role of narrative forms in circulation in a person’s culture in shaping how s/he narrates an event. He then draws attention to the fact that ancient authors tended to memorize sacred texts and then cite them from memory rather than checking written versions of their references. He suggests that

Where both redaction criticism and Synoptic problem studies have traditionally envisaged later Evangelists editing their sources, it might thus be better to think in terms of the later Evangelists reworking their source in memory, with lesser or greater fidelity to the source material dependent on a number of factors. …[This] suggests a model of scribal composition that is as distinct from oral performance as it is from literary production in a print culture. (p 317)

I think that this is a very helpful distinction.

He next moves on to orality (pp 317-323), where he begins by critiquing the ‘distressing vagueness’ (p 317) with which the term ‘oral tradition’ is often used in biblical scholarship to mean anything communicated orally, which ‘has allowed scholars to use “oral tradition” as a kind of wildcard to play in default of any other explanation that fits their preferred theory.’ (pp 317-18)

He then outlines Vansina’s distinction between oral tradition, which is material that is passed down in relatively stable form over a number of generations, or which persists for a number of generations; and oral history – the personal reminiscences of eyewitnesses to an event or those who have heard eyewitnesses more or less first hand. He suggests that not everything that the gospel authors heard by word of mouth was oral tradition in this restricted sense, and while I don’t actually find Vansina’s terms particularly intuitive, I agree that the distinction is significant.

The next point is, I think, very important. He argues that only genuine oral tradition can provide substantial help in explaining synoptic relations because in order to account for detailed similarities or differences in wording between synoptic parallels, the oral material needs to have been stable enough to influence the author’s wording, and to have reached each author in much the same form. This is only possible if the material is oral tradition of the kind that is relatively stable at the level of wording not just gist, rather than oral history (p 319). He appears to be suggesting that while we have evidence that the people of Jesus’ time could learn vast blocks of text by heart, we have no evidence that they did so as a matter of course.

He then moves on to psychologist David Rubin’s fascinating work (Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) on how some oral traditions become remarkably stable over time and introduces Rubin’s ideas of serial cueing and the use of multiple constraints to preserve text. Cueing happens when someone performs a song or poem and ‘each line or unit prompts the memory of what comes next.’ (p 321) Eve illustrates this concept using Rubin’s example of the counting-out rhyme Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.  The use of catchwords that is suggested to order GThom is another example of cueing. Rubin suggests that as well as the use of schemata, overall plot structure and vivid imagery to help hearers to remember at the deeper levels of meaning and gist, but that ‘surface features’ such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and melody can also be retained in memory. (p 322)

The third section of the paper looks at agreements and disagreements in the Synoptic tradition (pp 323-327). Eve argues that if Rubin is correct about the role of multiple constraints in oral tradition, then surface linguistic characteristics may well survive together with deeper or schema-related characteristics like gist and imagery and be equally important in stablizing the tradition. Thus the assumption of people like Kenneth Bailey, James Dunn and Rafael Rodríguez that oral tradition primarily preserves gist ‘may not always apply in the case of more poetic or aphoristic material’  (p 323) because the wording may be part of what is necessary to enable the oral text to survive as a piece of memorable tradition. He also recognises that not all of the Synoptic material will work in this way since some (like the Good Samaritan) relies primarily on the imagery and unexpected twists to make it memorable. He also notes that putting material into writing changes the constraints on the author with regard to memorability.

Eve contends that ‘the degree of variation or similarity between parallel versions is not of itself an automatic index of whether the relation between them is oral or literary’ (p 325). Lack of verbatim agreement is not necessarily due to oral tradition, while close verbal agreement between strikingly formulated sayings or memorable poetry need not be the result of text-based copying, because oral tradition can  stabilize this kind of material quite well. Close verbal agreement between prose narratives which lack the surface features of memorable oral tradition would, however, strongly suggest some form of literary relationship. He also argues that “oral tradition” does not provide a good explanation for minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Finally, he addresses the issue of oral tradition and alternating primitivity (pp 327-331) ie the notion that sometimes the more primitive form of the tradition appears in Matthew and sometimes in Luke. He suggests that ‘being shorter does not necessarily make something more primitive, especially in oral tradition’ where extra words may in fact be an aid to memory. This lines up with Frederic Bartlett’s research which showed that successive tellings of stories tended to strip unnecessary detail. After analysing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer, he states that

‘there is simply no way of distinguishing a written deposit of a genuine oral tradition from a good literary imitation of one by a writer steeped in the tradition in question. Formal linguistic features might persuade us that a particular passage could never have been genuine oral tradition, but they can never demonstrate that it must have been one (pp 231-2).’

I very much agree with Eve about the fact that we can’t be nearly as certain about the trajectories through which parallel material in the early Christian writings travelled to the Synoptics, and I find the ideas he outlines intriguing. His theory about the possibility of something closer to original wording being preserved in work that is poetic or aphoristic seems right, but I am not sure if this gets us very much further with respect to the Synoptic material, since very little of it is poetic and most of the sayings recorded are probably too long to be considered aphorisms. I would be very interested to see an extension of this work that indicates which pieces of text he considers to belong to this category.

Little things can make a big difference!

This post has absolutely nothing to do with either The Gospel of Thomas or Early Christianity so if you are in an academic frame of mind, you might like to skip it.

I have been associated with the University of New England for around 15 years (and I have been a PhD candidate there for more than half that time) and up to now I have only ever had positive interactions with their IT HelpDesk staff. Some of their staff have gone well above and beyond their basic job descriptions to be helpful, in fact. A couple of days ago, however, their student email system started telling the world that my email domain name was rather than so I have been having problems posting to email lists. I contacted them using their on-line form and got a prompt response that suggested I should ring them if the problem wasn’t fixed. It wasn’t, so I rang and for the first time I got someone who didn’t tell me their name, wasn’t interested in listening to me and insisted that I try a fix that I was fairly sure wouldn’t actually work. It didn’t, so I added a comment to my incident report and the same person who’d replied to my first report replied again, asking me to try something else and then ring if that didn’t work. Again, I tried it and it didn’t work.

Now I find myself very unwilling to ring again. I am quite sure that the person who has been sending me emails wants to talk to me because it will be so much easier to diagnose the problem if I am on the end of the phone and can try things and report back. I am also quite sure that if he happens to be the person who answers the phone, he will be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person. Since there are quite a few staff who answer the HelpDesk phone, I could easily get one of them, too, and they are also likely to be helpful. But I might get the unhelpful person … so I don’t want to ring.

It is amazing how just one encounter with an unhelpful person can have such an effect, and possibly if this last few weeks hadn’t been rather challenging in other ways it wouldn’t have been so bad.  It reminds me, though, that I don’t know what life has been like for the people I encounter and I need to be careful in my interactions with them, lest I put them off unintentionally.

I (Still) Believe – review

9780310515166, I (Still) Believe : Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship, John ByronA little while ago, I bought a copy of John Byron and Joel N Lohr (eds)  I (Still) Believe – leading bible scholars share their stories of faith and scholarship. (Zondervan, Michigan, 2015) because I thought it sounded interesting. I used it as bedtime reading for a week or two, and then got to read most of the rest of it in one day, whilst killing time between appointments.

It proved to be as interesting as I had expected. The editors have put together reflections from 18 experienced biblical scholars from the US, Canada and the UK, specialists in both testaments, whose faith has not been destroyed by the serious academic study of scripture (even though many people are sure that this is what happens when you do it). I hadn’t heard of all of them but knew and was interested in enough of them to make it worth buying, to my mind. I haven’t been disappointed. It is very clear that academic biblical study has changed what and how these people believe, but it is equally clear that each of them still has a strong Christian faith.

Theologically, they represent a wide cross-section of positions and there are some interesting juxtapositions because the chapters are in alphabetical order of family name.  Bruce Waltke’s piece begins with the statement:

My faith in the inerrancy of Scripture as to its Source and in its infallibility as to its authority for faith and practice was firmly rooted in my formative years, nurtured throughout life by my walk with God, defended in college by an apologetic of defensible partiality, enriched in seminary, challenge throughout life, especially at Harvard, and matured in my career. (p 237)

and follows directly after Phyllis Trible’s account of wrestling with the ‘texts of terror’ in the Hebrew Scriptures from a feminist perspective.

In almost all of the pieces, I found things to which I related, things that struck a chord from my own experience. In particular, however, I warmed to Morna Hooker’s notion that ‘trust’ might be a better word than ‘faith’ to translate the Greek pistis (p 125). She argues that faith suggests a set of particular doctrines that one has to believe, whereas the biblical understanding is rather on relying on someone who is utterly reliable – God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

I was also interested in Scot McKnight’s contention that ‘the church does not need historical Jesus studies.‘ (p 168)  He isn’t arguing that it is a waste of time, but that the conclusions it offers are limited.

I can prove that Jesus died, but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove that he rose for my justification. (p 168)

While I had never thought about it in these terms, I have for a long time thought that much of the enthusiasm for historical Jesus studies lies in the hope that we will be able to prove the Bible and that this kind of aim is hopeless. Faith is faith by definition because it believe in things that are essentially unprovable.

Zondervan has a short YouTube clip in which John Byron talks about the book concept – the wish to combat the notion that doing serious biblical study causes you to lose your faith and an understanding of the importance of testimony. I agree that the testimony of these scholars is important. So often we hear that theological/biblical study makes you lose your faith, and that you can’t tell people in the pews these kinds of things. We hear about the biblical scholars who no longer count themselves as Christian, but very rarely from those who do.

Although I have used it as ‘light reading’ – and it is, in comparison to the material I am reading for my research – it is aimed at people who have a grounding in the academic study of the Bible and much of what the authors write about would probably mystify the average reader-in-the-pew. It would, however, be a valuable resource for people who are preparing for ordained ministry and for those in charge of their preparation and a prompt for reflection for the ordained about how they actually integrated their studies with their faith. For those who can’t read the names in the photo, the book contains chapters by:

Richard Bauckahm Walter Brueggemann Ellen F Davis
James D G Dunn Gordon Fee Beverly Roberts Gaventa
John Goldingay Donald A Hagner Morna D Hooker
Edith M Humphrey Andrew T Lincoln Scot McKnight
J Ramsey Michaels Patrick D Miller RWL Moberly
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld Phillis Trible Bruce Waltke

Is Gospel of Thomas a reaction to faith in Jesus’ miracles?

Recently I attended a workshop led by Emeritus Prof Bill Loader (as far as I know, he doesn’t actually blog, but here’s his website) on sexuality in the Bible. As part of the session on how we use the Bible, he said in passing that there is evidence in the New Testament that Jesus/the early church was uncomfortable with people who believed in Jesus simply because he performed miracles. This caused me to wonder whether the total absence of narrative in GThom might in fact be a reaction to this kind of faith, so I asked Bill for some more detail, which he kindly provided by email. He suggests that the relevant texts (all NRSV) are:

John 2:23 – 25: When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.


John 3:1-3: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

which indicate a critique of faith based just on miracles, rather than being against miracles themselves. Also

John 4:48 (his comment to the royal official who asked Jesus to heal his sick son): Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”


6:14-15 (the end of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000): When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

and then

Matt 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

which suggests that there is more to faith than miracles and charismatic gifts.

Bill also suggests that Paul is doing the same kind of thing in 1 Cor 12 – 14, ie that he is putting the priority on love rather than the various ‘spiritual gifts’ and that ‘in a sense Mark puts things in perspective – not by denying miracles – but by portraying the way of the cross in contrast to the values of Peter who assumes winning and power matter’. In addition, Bill points to the warnings that believers need to be careful about testing spirits and teachers who claim authority on the basis of their ability to perform miracles. It occurs to me that Jesus’ instruction that people he has healed shouldn’t tell anyone about it (something they invariably ignore) could also be part of this.

Bill argues in his forthcoming book, Jesus in John’s Gospel, (Eerdmans, c. 2016) that John’s gospel contends that a miracle-focussed Christology is inadequate because it does not confess the one who came from above. [I hope it is clear that I am saying ‘Bill says’ to make it clear which bits of this post are his ideas and which are mine, rather than because I think that what he is saying is dubious.]

I wonder, then, whether Thomas’ gospel is also working against the idea that believing in Jesus as a miracle worker is adequate for salvation and does this by removing the distraction of accounts of the miraculous altogether.* John says that in order to see the kingdom, one needs to be born from above (Jn 3:3). Thomas says that finding the interpretation of Jesus’ sayings is necessary in order not to taste death (GThom 1).

Bill wondered whether the absence of miracles might just be a feature of the sayings gospel genre, because Q contains very few accounts of miracles but does contain references to Jesus’ miracles – such, I assume, as

Q 7:22 And [he] answered and said to them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk, lepers are made clean and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor are given good news. (

Of course, we don’t exactly have a huge number of examples of the genre to work on, but I don’t think it is a function of genre for two reasons. First, Q as generally reconstructed contains some accounts of miracles. Not as many as any of the Synoptics, but several. Second, although there is some mention of miracles in GThom, there is very little and it is all, I think, about miracles that Jesus’ followers will be able to do, rather than miracles that Jesus himself has performed, or about miraculous occurrences that will take place in the end times. For example, S4 talks about an old man talking to a 7 day old baby, but this is in the end times. There are also three Synoptic parallels/allusions: S14 says that if the disciples visit places where they are received they will heal the sick; S19 says that if people become his disciples, stones will minister to them; and S106 says that when you make the two one, you will become the sons of man and when you say ‘mountain, move away,‘ it will move away.

Thus it seems to me that GThom is not like Q in this respect, but perhaps having narrative is not an essential part of the genre. Regardless of the genre question, however, Thomas has no interest in miracles, nor, for that matter, in contextualising Jesus’ sayings in any way. And perhaps this is because he wants people to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings and not be distracted by the fact that he was a miracle worker. What do you think?

*A response to this in the Gospel of Thomas email forum has alerted me to the fact that this is poorly worded. I am not necessarily suggesting that the author of GThom removed accounts of miracles from a source text, simply that he felt that including accounts of Jesus’ miracles (and I am sure he was aware that Jesus was a miracle worker) would be a distraction from the ‘main game’ of gaining eternal life.

Why do doctoral students blog?

Source: Why do doctoral students blog?

This is a copy and paste from Inger Mewburn’s post.

Inger from The Thesis Whisperer and Pat from Patter blog aim to find out the answers to these questions – with your help.
We’ve designed a small online survey which, we hope, doctoral student bloggers might fill in. We are looking for doctoral researchers who blog regularly or occasionally, on their own blog.
The survey is also open to people who blogged during their doctorate and who may now be finished. We are very interested in people who started a blog, but didn’t keep going with it.
The survey could take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how much information you want to give us.
We will report the results of the survey on our blogs and will also keep you in touch with the paper that we intend to write as a result.
If you know a person who might want to fill in this survey, please feel free to pass this link along.
Thank you!

There’s something about hard copy…

I have been working on the parable of the pearl for months, looking at the text in both Thomas and Matthew, reading what others have written about it, trying to get things into some kind of order and come to a position about the issues for myself. I have not been happy about what I have written. In the document two versions ago, I have a comment that says: “This section wanders in an undisciplined way between interpretations of Matthew and interpretations of Thomas and needs reorganising so that it is clear which is which, and I need to take a position on it myself.”

Earlier in the week, I thought I had it in something that looked like reasonable shape although I was still not happy with it, so I pasted it into the chapter where it belongs and left if for a couple of days before re-reading it. Previously, I had printed out each draft and read it in hard copy, but this time around, I decided that this was a huge waste of paper, so I just saved electronic copies and read on screen. After all, I mark on screen and I edit other people’s work on screen, and if I work on screen, I can make adjustments as I pick them up, so why not do it with my own work?

I started reading it on screen again and then decided that I was going to print myself a hard copy. My printer is currently refusing to print double sided unless I turn the pages manually* and then it sometimes picks up several pages at once, so I get the wrong pages printed on the reverse sides, so I compromised and used the blank sides of old printouts.

Suddenly, with the hard copy in front of me, it all started coming together, because on paper, I can circle things, I can draw arrows backwards and forwards and write notes where I want them, rather than when Word thinks I should have them. I can highlight and number things and then spread them out around me so I can see multiple pages at once, all in reasonable sized font. I still have some work to do on the section, but at least now I know what I need to do and how I need to rearrange it.

And before people start telling me I can do this all on the computer, yes, I can … but no, I can’t. I have two screens, one of which is actually larger than our TV screen, so I can have multiple version open in front of me. I have tried using highlighting on screen, but scrolling backwards and forwards through the document isn’t the same. I know that people rave about Scrivener, and I think that it would do quite a bit of what I want except that it doesn’t cope with Greek and Coptic fonts – it changes them into odd characters and when I paste it back into Word, the odd characters are still there.

So in future, when I get stuck, I think I will print hard copies and hope that I don’t waste too many trees in the process. Computers make research so much easier in so many ways, but sometimes you just can’t beat paper and pencil. :-)

*I know exactly what the problem with the printer is. It is old and even though Epson provides drivers for Win8, they don’t actually work properly. It still double sides just fine from Bruce’s Win7 computer. I think that Epson would like me to buy a newer printer, and I probably will, but when we took it in to have it repaired a while ago, the repairer was very impressed by how good it was.

Further detective work – Montefiore and Jeremias

Today I collected the 1954 English edition of Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus from the library and discovered that the information about the Aramaic le is there on p 78. I also read a couple of the footnotes with new eyes and realised that although they said “Examples: …” they might not be simply citing editions of Aramaic texts, but older commentators. Ooops!  And yes, kind of: some of the examples are in H. L Strack & P. Billerbeck’s Kommentar zum N. T. aus Talmud und Midrasch vol II (München, Beck, 1924)  pp 7ff and others in Paul Fiebig’s Rabbinische Gleichnisse (Leipzig, 1929) – many pages.

Strack and Billerbeck is available on-line at but it seems to me that they are not taking the same line as Jeremias. They simply say that the Aramaic le is the equivalent of the German ‘gleich’ (like, similar, the same as), rather than pushing it as far as Jeremias does ie suggesting that it pushes the focus away from the direct object to some other part of the sentence.

Unfortunately, none of the libraries to which I have access have a copy of Fiebig, and it probably isn’t important enough to chase it by interlibrary loan. WorldCat suggests that there are no copies in Australian libraries, and although this, as I established earlier, is not always reliable, it is certainly not important enough to get on international ILL. I think I will need to conclude that Montefiore is probably guilty of sloppy referencing because he is likely to have picked up his comment about the Aramaic le from one or more of these three authors and that Jeremias has pushed his translation theory further than at least Strack and Billerbeck did in their treatment of this construction.