More SBL – memory and oral transmission

As Tim Bulkeley indicated, quite a number of presenters didn’t arrive. One of the major disappointments for me was that Jon Ma Asgeirsson was unwell and unable to get here from Iceland to present Constructing Memory of No(-)Thing and the Need for Societal Ethos, both because the paper looked interesting and because I wanted to put a face to his writings. I do hope he recovers quickly. He did, however, let SBL know that he would not be there.  Some presenters didn’t bother – they just didn’t arrive.

The other (and therefore the only) paper in that session was Robert McIver from Avondale College, the Adventist theological college in New South Wales, and I was very pleased to have heard it.  His topic was Skilled Memory and the Jesus Traditions. I was a bit perplexed when he began because he was presenting research with which I was familiar about the difference between copying and recalling from memory and I then realised that in preparing for my own paper, I had actually read the paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology where he and his colleague, Marie Carroll, had written this research up.  It’s well worth reading (McIver, Robert K. and Marie  Carroll. “Distinguishing Characteristics of Orally Transmitted Material When Compared to Material Transmitted by Literary Means.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 18, no. 9 (2004): 1251-1269), although apparently he has published something similar in JBL, which may be more accessible to biblical scholars.

He was providing evidence that the kinds of differences in wording between gospel accounts could not be the result of copying errors, but could quite easily be the result of oral transmission.  He also suggested that Jesus may well have used some of the techniques employed by rabbis to transmit oral tradition to train his disciples to pass on his teachings.  For me, it was one of the best papers at the conference, in the sense of most useful to my research, but also well presented.

Earlier that day, I head a couple of other papers in the same Program Unit (Mind, Society and Tradition). One was by Risto Uro, entitled Ritual and Cooperation:  Evolutionary Explanations for Early Christian Rituals, which was somewhat outside my area of expertise, but it was good to be able to put a person to the books that he’s written and edited on Thomas.  The second was A Cognitive Perspective on Identity and Behaviour Norms in Ephesians, presented by Rikard Roitto, a PhD student from Sweden.  He explained the structure of Ephesians very credibly in terms of beginning by describing the protoypical Christ-believer (the author of the book), to which the Ephesians should aspire, and then advice about what they needed to do in order to get there.  I liked the concepts he presented and also enjoyed the notion that Christians might be “clients of God” – said at least partly tongue-in-cheek.  The paper after morning tea in that session also sounded interesting, but I had a session booked with my doctoral supervisor, who is now based in New Zealand.

I will try to write more over the next few days, but it appears that I am now the only person awake in the household – I am staying with my brother and his family – which probably means that everyone will be up and enthusiastic quite early tomorrow morning.


11 thoughts on “More SBL – memory and oral transmission

  1. Your supervisor is in NZ? Where is she based?
    Did McIver give any consideration to Aramaic sources in his textual analysis of gospel variations?

  2. Judy,

    Do you have any examples of McIver’s “evidence that the kinds of differences in wording between gospel accounts could not be the result of copying errors, but could quite easily be the result of oral transmission”? Does McIver think that differences between the gospels’ wording are always due to error, rather than to simple preference?

    Did McIver give any indication that this new paper might be published somewhere?

  3. Thanks so much for the recommendation of this article! You may or may not be aware that oral tradition is one of the subjects I’m currently working on. I’ve found the research on psychology of rumor (which almost made an impact on New Testament studies back in the 70s, but since then has been largely ignored) very interesting in relation to this subject, and am glad to be directed to some more recent relevant work in psychology.

    I didn’t see your name in the program book for SBL in Boston. Hopefully if you are ever going to be presenting something on the other side of the globe, you’ll highlight it on your blog and those of us over here will attend! 🙂

  4. Judy,

    Thanks so much for blogging the convention. I know it must be a whirlwind of a trip. Anything else you can publish will be greatly appreciated. And thanks especially for the report on McIver et al.

  5. Steph: My supervisor is at University of Otago, Dunedin where she’s Pro Vice Chancellor, Humanities. McIver is interested in the mechanisms of transmission, not a detailed analysis of the text.

  6. More generally: McIver and his colleague did some experiments (probably with students) that asked them to copy pieces of text, including a section that consisted of uppercase letters with no punctuation or word spacing and also to retell stories that they’d been told orally. They looked at verbatim and gist accuracy in the reproductions and showed that copying, even of the uppercase, no punctuation sections is very, very accurate, whereas the level of verbatim vs gist reproduction of oral material compares very closely to the level of verbatim vs gist reproduction of parallel passages in the gospels. He has a book with a publisher, but it hasn’t yet been accepted. I will keep in contact with him and will let people know when I find out anything.

    April DeConick has done some similar work with her students. I think she has just published or is just about to publish a summary of this, but I am not absolutely clear when or where. I know that it does not include all the data from which she drew her conclusions.

  7. James: No, I’m not going to Boston. Neither funding nor time permit. One of the problems of doing a part time PhD and a full time job that is different to your area of study. Are you familiar with David C Rubin’s work? He has published a number of things in the area of memory, eyewitness testimony and oral tradition.

  8. That’s fabulous. Congratulations to her – and Dunedin is a beautiful city in a beautiful island … a bit cold though, especially now! They get snowed on down there!

    About the other, I’ll try a read the paper. My concern is that the original transmission would have been in Aramaic which affects the transition to Greek and this is often ignored. But I should read the paper…

  9. Thanks, Judy.

    Another question, if I may: having read the McIver/Carroll essays in both *JBL* and *Applied Cognitive Psychology* some time ago (and having responded to the *JBL* one in a later *JBL*), I noticed that, although both articles are based on the same research, the former one claims a 16-word threshold for the need to posit a written source, while the latter claims an 18-word threshold. No reason for the disparity was noted.

    So, if McIver referred to such a threshold at the SBL meeting, do you remember if it was a 16-word threshold or an 18-word threshold?

  10. Pingback: More on McIver and Oral Transmission « Judy’s research blog

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