Oral transmission and human memory

One of the people who has been commenting around the blogosphere on posts about eyewitness testimony, human memory etc seems to have got the idea (without having read the relevant material) that some of us in the twenty-first century think that the people of first century Palestine were not as intelligent as us because they could not read. This is certainly not what I have been saying and not what any other scholar I’ve read has been saying, but I thought I might try to clarify, just for the blogosphere record.

I use written notes to remind me of things. I have an electronic diary that pops up little reminders that I am supposed to be on the other side of campus in 15 minutes, or at an appointment down town in half an hour, so I don’t have to keep my appointments for the day in my head. I have a shopping list on the fridge at home which I take with me when I go to the shops, so I don’t have to remember what I need to buy. Even if I forget to take the note off the fridge, I can often phone home from the supermarket and compare the contents of my shopping trolley with what a family member reads off to me from the list. My memory is therefore not especially well trained because it doesn’t have to be.

Nearly thirty years ago, when “talking text” was in its infancy, I had a friend who was blind. His memory was much better trained than mine because carrying notes around was more difficult for him. Notes written in Braille were much bigger and on much thicker, stiffer paper and producing them in the first place required access to a Brailler, which was much more awkward to carry around than a pen and scraps of blank paper and putting his list back into the Brailler to add things was not an easy task. In addition, if he put something down, he had to remember where he had left it because he couldn’t just look around to see where it was. He was also much better at recognising people by their voices than I was. Colours were not meaningful concepts for him, so he only remembered them if he needed to.  He knew the colour of his check-in baggage so he could describe it to the airport person who was collecting it for him when he flew anywhere alone, but could not choose appropriate colours for graphs in PowerPoint presentations when he started doing presentations at international conferences.  He had trained himself to use the information available to him in ways that made it easiest for him to function, just as I had. We had different information available, so we functioned differently.

I am therefore very much aware that we cannot assume that just because a hundred western undergraduate students in the twenty-first century can only remember X% of whatever they heard a week ago, illiterate people in first century Palestine would only have remembered X% of what they heard. I am quite sure that they would have remembered significantly more than X%, so I don’t think that we can directly transfer statistics from contemporary research on human memory back to the early Christians ie the quantitative parts of the research.

I do think, however, that we can transfer research about the factors that affect what people remember and forget, ie the qualitative parts of the research. For example, no matter how well trained someone’s memory is, s/he will still only remember the things s/he notices, and they will be the things that s/he finds interesting or considers important. The ways in which memory slips over time will still apply, although the rate of slippage will almost certainly be faster in the twenty-first century than in the first.

As you can see, this has absolutely nothing to do with any assessment of anyone’s intelligence.

How they got here

Every so often, when looking at your blog stats, you find a search string that makes absolutely no sense. Yesterday someone got here using:

archive photos of vluyn

Vluyn appears to be a town in Germany just north of Düsseldorf, or at least Neukirchen-Vluyn is. As far as I am aware, I have never mentioned it in this blog until now. I wonder if mentioning it will increase my hit rate? :-)

Blog tidying

Earlier this week, I came looking for a link that I wanted  and discovered that I had somehow managed to remove my blogroll from the site design. I’ve just re-instated it, removed a couple of links to places that no longer exist, subdivided it and added links to a few of the blogs that I read regularly that don’t have anything specifically to do with my research. I hope to add a few more as time goes on, but right now I need to get back to fun things like the weekend cleaning and writing a job application. :-)

Learning, teaching and researching biblical studies

The first article in the Spring 2010 JBL is David Clines’ presidential address from the last SBL Annual Meeting. His topic is “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow” and in it, he looks at using student-centred learning in Biblical Studies.

I found it particularly interesting because I have been working as a research assistant on two teaching and learning focussed grant projects over the last few months, as well as teaching into a Religious Studies unit on Earliest Christianity. These three things have started me thinking about effective ways of teaching and learning and Clines’ article pushes some of the things I’ve been thinking a bit further.

He talks about designing courses around the outcomes that students want and around the learning styles that best suit them, and about teaching them to be researchers from day 1. Thus, he recommends asking students what they want to get out of a course at the beginning and then designing learning material around this. This sounds like a great idea. It would certainly make the transition to postgraduate studies easier. One of the common problems that we experience with new postgrads is that they expect their supversiors/advisers to organise everything for them and the supervisors know that this is not their role but often forget to point this out. Students who were used to being part of a research culture would cope much better.

Lots of students, however, don’t want to be researchers. They want to get the degree they need to get the job they want and they resist strongly any notion that university education should be more than being told what they need to know and the practical skills they need to get the grades they want. Lots of the students I went through ministerial formation with just wanted to pass the course so they could be ministers. Clines draws the distinction between knowledge, which allows you to:

  • name
  • describe
  • list
  • state
  • given an outline of
  • given an account of
  • give and example of
  • summarize

and understanding, which enables you to

  • explain
  • give reasons for
  • give reasons against
  • find connections between
  • discuss the issue of
  • show the purpose of
  • state the meaning of
  • show the importance of
  • state the results of
  • draw conclusions (p 10)

(Bother – I hit publish before this was ready to go…)

IMHO, the attributes of someone with understanding are what is wanted in ministers and something that employers want in a wide range of fields, but the challenge is to get students to see this.


I also wanted to comment on the practicalities of totally student-driven courses. At least here in Australia, it takes about 3 months to get enough text books for all the students in a course into the bookshop and the library resources can be rather limited if you have a large class, so there is a limit to how flexible you might be able to be in developing courses once you have students enrolled and ready to start.

I’m also not sure that Clines’ ideal of designing learning around the preferred learning modes of the students you have in your class is do-able, but certainly developing a range of ways of helping students to engage with the material is possible and a good thing. This is, of course, a challenge for a teacher who is not a multimodal learner. I did the questionnaire that Clines pointed to at www.vark-learn.com and discovered that I am quite strongly read-write. When I read ideas for developing learning for other styles, I found myself saying “but students wouldn’t want to do that, surely?”

And, of course, the more student-centred you make your classes, the more work assessing them is going to be, because you will have a wider range of assessment tasks to get your head around as a marker.

Looking back over this, it sounds as though I am rather negative about the article, but I’m not. I think people teaching Biblical Studies (or any other theological discipline) really need to give it some serious thought, if they’re not already doing the things he is talking about.

Complete reference: David J A Clines. “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow”, JBL 129, no 1 (2010): 5-29

Women in biblical studies – a strange coincidence

My hard copy of the Spring 2010 issue of JBL arrived in today’s mail. Of the eleven articles in it, three are by women. That’s nearly 30%, a much higher proportion of women authors than the proportion of women bibliobloggers (see JK Gayle’s comment that suggests less than 10% here), but the sample size is quite small.

The first is “Gog’s Grave and the Use and Abuse of Corpses in Ezekiel 39:11-20″ by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, from the University of Exeter (UK). The second is “The Gospel of John and the Five Senses” by Dorothy Lee from Trinity College/Melbourne College of Divinity (Australia). The third is my “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses?” and I am from the University of New England (Australia). Thus, nearly 20% of the articles in this edition of JBL are by (ordained) Australian women. This must surely be unusual!

Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

Update 21 April

My article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” appears in the latest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. April DeConick mentions it in a very flattering way on her blog, the paper version arrived in my mailbox a week or more ago and today I received an email saying that is is now available for free to SBL members at the JBL website.

Richard Bauckham suggests in his 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that we can be significantly more confident than form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministy. In response, I examine the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory, asking:

  • What light does psychological research shed on the extent to which information obtained from eyewitness accounts could be considered to be accurate information about the historical Jesus?
  • What consequences does this have for the way biblical scholarship might treat eyewitness accounts?

I was just about ready to submit the article for publication when the JSHJ and JSNT issues with critiques of the book and Bauckham’s responses to them were published, so it also takes into account the comments and Bauckham’s somewhat more nuanced expression of his position. I was relieved to discover when I read them that no-one had written “my” article. :-) I’m not going to put my conclusions up here because justifying them would take more space than one can reasonably put in a blog post and I’d rather have people critique what I actually wrote than what they think I might have written.

The article began as a paper for SBL Auckland in 2008. I ended up reading 80-90 papers and books to get my head around the psychological literature. An early version of the review of the psychological literature was read by one of the psychologists at UNE who has done significant work in eyewitness testimony and a near-to-final draft was read by a psychologist at University of Otago, so I’m confident that I haven’t done anything outrageous with the psychological evidence. I’ve found it very useful background for my doctoral research and also for the teaching on biblical criticism I have been doing  for the Earliest Christianity unit in my School over the past few weeks.

Like April, I am very pleased to see it in print at last and I’m grateful for her support and that of my two doctoral supervisors (advisers) Profs Lynda Garland (UNE) and Majella Franzmann (Otago) and my family during the production period.