This afternoon I went to the library to borrow a copy of the collection of Milman Parry’s work that appears in The Making of Homeric Verse and the librarian who checked it out for me commented that it was a fairly hefty book on a topic about which arguably little could be known. He also wanted to know if I thought it had anything to do with the material I’m working on (which he knows to be the Gospel of Thomas).
When I said that it was one of the classics on oral transmission and that the gospels are thought to have been transmitted orally for years before they were written down, he said “Well, yes, but Homeric verse is poetry and surely there are significant differences between the kinds of things you’d use to flesh out the story line in poetry and prose?” This is something that had also occurred to me and is part of the reason for my failure to read Parry before this, despite my interest in oral transmission.
That and the fact that Parry is on reserve in our library which means that during term time you have to compete against undergrads for access and can only take it out of the library overnight. During the holidays, however, you can liberate it from the library after 4 pm on Friday and not have to have it back until 9 am on Monday because the library is closed on the weekend. There are occasional advantages to the reduction in library services when the undergrads are away!
So, this weekend I plan to read Parry, or at least some of it, and try to decide for myself how much of his work on oral transmission of Homeric poetry has any direct application to the oral transmission of the gospels. Of course, seeing I’m also leading worship on Sunday morning and don’t have it fully prepared yet, I may need to borrow Parry again next weekend. Fortunately, normal library hours don’t resume until 18 February. I don’t imagine I’ll come up with any earth-shattering insights, but I will have read it, which, as noted in my last post and James’ response, is the important thing. 🙂