Consequences of multiple tellings of stories

Ben Byerly and Mark Goodacre have made comments on this post which have caused me to give some more thought to how the tradition might have been effected by the extreme likelihood that Jesus told at least some of his stories more than once. I think there are two issues.

1. Development of separate tracks

Mark, I think I can see two ways in which Jesus’ telling the same stories more than once might result in separate tracks of the tradition, but that might depend on exactly what you mean by that. And please note that this is a might, rather than a must. I am very much saying that when faced with parallels that have significant differences, these are options to explain how it came about. Much more work needs to be done on individual passages to decide which option or options are most likely.

  1. The scenario that makes sense to me is that Jesus had a number of stories that he used to illustrate particular points. Since he was clearly a charismatic teacher, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he might have used different illustrations for the same point in different circumstances. For example, the parables of the pearl and the treasure as they appear in the Synoptic tradition are both about selling everything you have in order to get something (the Kingdom) which is of much higher value.  The pearl would appeal to merchants, whereas the treasure would appeal to farmers. He might well have used either or both in particular circumstances, depending on who was in his audience. As I suggest here, the fact that he was likely to have used stories in different combinations, again depending on his audience, is likely to result in their being remembered in different combinations by different people. This would include both people who only heard Jesus once or twice and those who travelled with him all the time, because different people find different things memorable. It is therefore quite possible that one of the disciples might remember one combination because of something that happened on a particular day that didn’t interest another disciple.
  2. Jesus may have told the same basic story but with a different twist to illustrate a somewhat different point- so perhaps Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11: 39b-41 (the bit about washing the inside of the cup) might have been told differently by Jesus. Again, different disciples would potentially remember different versions because of their own particular interestes.

On the other hand, Jesus may have used common themes to illustrate different points – so that what on the surface appear to be parallels are actually different stories. I think that GosThom 8 (the parable of the wise angler) and Matt 13: 47-48 (the parable of the net) come into this category. I think that they are simply two of the various fishing  stories in circulation at the time that illustrate quite different points. In Thomas, Jesus is pointing out that once people have found the meaning of Jesus’ sayings it will be easy to distinguish from the wrong ones, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is talking about the fact that not everyone who is part of the church will necessarily make it into the Kingdom.

2. Consequences of frequent hearing

Ben’s comment that the disciples would probably have heard some of Jesus’ stories often enough to have known them really well opens up a new stream of thinking about what might constitute incontravertible evidence of textual rather than oral transmission, and of reliability of transmission. I’m sure we’ve all seen partners and children who have heard favourite stories told so often that they can repeat them more or less verbatim. Children in particular are inclined to do so in unison with their parent’s (boring) story. Perhaps, therefore, it doesn’t matter that the disciples were not trained oral tradents. The repetition may have made up for this, and may have enabled them to keep the Jesus tradition reliably in their minds for much longer than would make sense if they had only heard it once or twice?

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5 thoughts on “Consequences of multiple tellings of stories

  1. Judy,

    What do you do with the fact that the students in McIver and Carroll’s experiment were financially rewarded for reproducing the wording as exactly as they could? Is there any analogous inducement in the case of the evangelists or their forebears to reproduce wording as exactly as possible?

  2. Oh! Where did you find that information? I couldn’t see it on a quick scan through their two articles, although I did note that they had been warned that they were going to be asked to recall the information over time. McIver and Carroll were interested that the students hadn’t made any particular effort to remember the stories between experimental recalls. Payment to participate would be unusual for research conducted in Australian universities, where the code of conduct actively discourages offering inducements to participate.

    However, I think it would depend to some extent on how the incentive was offered. If they were just paid to participate, that would be quite different to being paid more the more accurate they were. I think that telling people before they heard/read an item that they are going to be required to remember it creates a different circumstance to having people listen to something because they were interested and then be asked afterwards to recall what they heard. I have no idea whether external motivation (payment) could be analagous to internal motivation (interest in Jesus’ teachings),but it’s a very interesting question.

  3. On the financial incentives, it is on p. 674 of the JBL article, “Financial incentives were announced for the first volunteer to repeat what had been said word for word.” I think this is one of many odd things in the way that the experiments were set up (see Jack’s response for more on this). Similarly, it is clear that the students were repeatedly encouraged to repeat material as accurately as possible. The same is true in April DeConick’s similar experiments, though there without the financial incentive. I can’t help wondering if there is a presupposition underlying McIver and Carroll’s work that the evangelists were being as accurate as they could have been. I don’t understand why this should be factored into an experimental study.

  4. Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Judy. You make some good points, though I would be more inclined to see the variations in Matt 23 and Luke 11 as those that are generated by redaction rather than resulting from different oral tracks and memories of those. The difficulty is that we know that there is literary dependence and so hypothesizing additional oral memory tracks is uneconomical.

    With respect to the pre-Gospel oral tradition, I think it is too rarely noticed that it clusters around three named apostles, Peter, James and John, two of whom we know to have been prominent early leaders in Jerusalem (Galatians 2). We never hear in the Synoptics about Bartholomew or Thaddeus or Philip or James son of Alphaeus or any of the rest of them. I suspect, therefore, that the tradition had crystallized around those three from early on and we should be wary of the idea of multiple early tradents.

  5. There seems to be ample evidence to question authoral intent in any significant sense of a concern to report the Historical Jesus in the writings of the New Testament. It consistently is a dipection of the mythical Christ of Faith, thus not a reliable source for reconstruction of the Jesus of history. I have to see this as the real problem for Jesus understanding.
    According to Schubert Ogden: “– the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real Christian norm”. The queston is where to locate this apostolic witness. His answer: “in the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition”. Which is to say that this the solution to the Jesus problem.

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