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.

7 thoughts on “Oral transmission and human memory

  1. Quantitative research done in tribal societies where literacy is not much used (like African villages) might be more relevant. This loss of memorty is just what Socrates feared from the adoption of writing 😉

  2. I agree, Tim, but I’m not sure how effective quantitative research in this kind of setting would be. I suspect that it would be very difficult to set up a controlled experiment where the fact that an outsider was telling a story would not cause an overestimate of the effectiveness of casual memory because the participants were eager to please.

    Kenneth Bailey has written several articles on the operation of what he terms informal controlled tradition in the Middle East, where he taught and ministered for forty years. He descibes the process whereby the designated story-tellers of a village retell community tradition and are corrected by listeners when they make a mistake.

    It’s a bit like telling/reading your small child a well-loved story before bed and trying to condense it by missing out details. You are quickly told that you missed a bit. “No, Mummy/Daddy, it was a big, huge, enormousmouth, not just a big one and you forgot the bit where he sat down on the chair before he opened it,” you are told.

    Bauckham tries to use this as evidence for the accuracy of transmission in Middle Eastern oral culture, but the significant difference here is that what is being preserved is material that is already deemed important. Bailley also talks about the frustration of western youth leaders who try to play the game of Whispers with Middle Eastern youth. In order to humour the visitors, they pay careful attention to what has been whispered in their ear and make sure that they pass it on carefully to the next person, so the story comes out the other end more or less unaltered, but again, they are motivated to get it right and the circumstances are not the same.

  3. Judy,

    Do you still consider Jan Vansina’s work important? I know he used to be thought of as the premier authority on oral traditions.

    Thanks and I appreciate your scholarship in this area.


  4. Ken,

    I haven’t read much of his work because I was concentrating on psychological research rather than the historical research and the psychologists don’t know him. I would need to read more before I made anything like a definitive comment, but a quick look suggests that his work is still important.

  5. Hi Dr. Redman,

    I am very interested in reading your recent article on eyewitness testimony. Unfortunately I do not have access to the Journal of Biblical Literature, so I was wondering if you could send me a PDF? I majored in religion in college so this is very much my field, but alas I don’t have access to the major scholarly journals anymore.

  6. Hi heyzeus7, if you email me, we can probably sort something out. jredman2 at une dot edu dot au if you adjust the at and dot to symbols and leave out the spaces will work. I can’t send you anything if I don’t know your email address. 🙂

  7. Schubert M. Ogden on apostolic witness:
    “– none of the writings of the New Testament are apostolic witness – – they all depend on sources earlier than themselves, hence they are not the original and originating witness which the early church mistook them to be – – the apostolic winess is located in the earliest stratum of the Jesus tradition. The first step one must take in locating this apostolic witness is historical rather than hermenutical – the step of reconstructing the Jesus tradition to thereby identify this earliest stratum of tadition – – the apostolic witness is still the appropriate source for Jesus understanding ‘

    I am quoting from memory which may say sometning for the mwmory question. See the online article Faith and Freedom by Schubert Ogden for what he realy has to say.

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