Memory and the Historical Jesus – part 3 (reflections)

I want to pick up some of the issues raised in the previous two posts and the comments on them, although I am not sure that I am actually answering the questions asked. Mike K says:

… do you see the early Jesus followers as preserving sayings collections to draw from for different occasions (e.g. Paul quoting a saying of the Lord in a discussion about marriage) before they were placed into the contexts of the narrative Gospels (e.g., the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount or Plains, Mark’s teachings about the greatest as the one who serves in a different context in Luke’s last Supper, etc)? Would that be possible counter-evidence to Rafael’s position that a saying would not be remembered apart from a context, or perhaps remembered in a very different context in the memories of oral tradents from where it was placed in the Gospels, and perhaps in some limited cases we could see signs that an older tradition has been put in a new literary context by the Gospel writers?

Yes, I think that it was highly likely that Jesus followers had collections of sayings and quite possibly stories of miracles etc that were used when the narrative gospels were developed. This lines up with what we know about the way oral tradents produce hero sagas. Lord’s “The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature,” (pp 33-91 in The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Ed William O Walker, Jr. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978) has some helpful material on this. Unfortunately, lots of people just read Singer of Tales, which is about oral tradents producing poetic sagas, and get sidetracked by the libraries of stock phrases which are only necessary when you have to perform in a set meter.

There are basically two ways of rehearsing stories that you want to retell. One is to learn the gist or basic story outline and the punchline and choose the actual words every time you tell it. The other is to learn it verbatim and reproduce it word for word each time you tell it. The second method was used by the rabbis to learn the Hebrew Scriptures, but it is quite unusual in general story-telling circles. Even modern literate story-tellers  generally only write down the outline of their stories, and the illiterate Slavic oral tradents that Parry and Lord worked with used the story-line-plus-punch-line method. The tradents insisted that they told the same story each time, but Lord and Parry’s recordings demonstrated they were gist rather than verbatim reproductions. Experienced oral tradents tend to have  a library of stories that they can tell – typically lives of heroes which consist of a significant number of episodes but all following a similar template.  Different versions of the same saga may present episodes in a different order or add or subtract episodes, and may set them in different frames. Oral tradents certainly see no need to reproduce their stories verbatim (and I get the impression that they would see this as inappropriate).

With respect to NT biographies of ‘heroes’, Bauckham in “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John” (NTS 53, no. 1 (2007): 17-36), makes it quite clear that Graeco-Roman historians of Jesus’ time felt free to ‘deploy their own rhetorical skill quite liberally’ in composing speeches that represented ‘what the speaker in question would have said in the given circumstances’ (p 31) and there is general agreement that the gospel authors used similar methods. It therefore seems quite unlikely to me that the authors of the gospels were actually trying to reproduce Jesus’ words verbatim. They were, rather, trying to reproduce the content – the point that Jesus was trying to make with his stories – and given that what hearers take away from a particular speech event can vary considerably, and sometimes vary considerably from what the speaker thought s/he was conveying, it isn’t particularly surprising that different authors produced different versions of the same story. This is even without thinking that Jesus might have used the same story, with variations, a number of times during the course of his ministry, so different people might be remembering different originals.

As I said in response to this in the comments, people use contexts to help them remember, and this is especially true for oral transmission, but I think it depends on what they are remembering as to whether these are the contexts in which the events occurred on contexts which they’ve provided themselves as aids to memory.  If you do a memory course, you will be told that when you try to remember names or other fairly isolated items, you need to link them to things that you find memorable. In other words, where there is no natural context you construct one.  I am sure that there were times when Jesus preached to a crowd on a mountain and times when he preached to a crowd on a plain. It is quite likely that he used particular themes to do this rather than producing a random selection of stories. It is possible that what the evangelists present as the content at one of theses times is accurate, but it  is also possible that they have included material that was told at other times, but with the same theme because what has fixed in their memories is that the day when Jesus was at place X is the day when he talked about topic Y. Either would fit what we know about the way human memory works and we have no way of working out what actually happened. And it is, of course, also possible that the author of the gospel did actually make conscious decisions about placement of material within his structure in order to make particular points. It just isn’t the only explanation – and perhaps it’s a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

Memory is really complex. A whole lot of things will affect how someone remembers any particular story or event. One of the significant issues is what interests a particular person, and that will affect not only what details s/he remembers but also what actual events s/he remembers. For example, my daughter and I were recently talking about C, a mutual acquaintance. My daughter informed me that C had bought a house earlier this year, which surprised me – but apparently I was the person who told her about this! This is perfectly credible, because I saw C earlier in the year and she told me quite a  bit about her life since I had seen her twelve months earlier, but clearly her house-buying was not as important to me as it was to my daughter, so I dropped it from my memory stores and she didn’t.

Allport and Postman did some research in the 1940s where they showed people pictures of various events and then got them to tell someone who hadn’t see the picture what they had seen, and that person then told someone else, who told someone else etc. One of the pictures was of a scene in France and they found that the group of army ordinance officers remembered things like the signpost with the name and distance to the nearest town and the fact that there were army manoeuvres in the background – things that other people simply didn’t notice, but it was the job of ordinance officers to remember these kinds of things. Frederick Bartlett told a group of people a story that they would not have heard before and got them to retell it (in writing) on a number of occasions over a reasonable number of months, and in some cases years. He found that the stories rapidly became stereotyped and got shorter and shorter as time went on, with the bits that the teller found most interesting/important being moved closer and closer to the beginning of the account.

Although neither of these situations is exactly what happened in the retelling of parables and events in Jesus’ life, it suggests that the fact that one account of an event or retelling of a story does not contain the same details as another may mean that the shorter account has been told more frequently, rather than that it is more primitive, or that the more detailed account has been produced by someone who had a better eye for detail and/or was more interested in those particular features than was the teller of the shorter account. Both of these work against the traditional wisdom that the complexities of the more complex account are the result of redaction by the author to produce a particular effect, although this could also be true.

Thus, I think that Rafael is right that trying to separate Jesus’ words from their contexts is unhelpful, but the contexts in which we find them reported in the gospels are not necessarily the contexts in which Jesus said them because I think that the gospel writers are trying to tell us who Jesus was for them (and perhaps for their communities) rather than trying to produce either verbatim reproductions of his words or blow by blow accounts of his actions. Further, I while I don’t think that the gospel writers were deliberately trying to alter the facts, what they genuinely believed to be the facts may well have been altered in the course of their remembering them over time. I don’t think that Rafael is suggesting otherwise.

3 thoughts on “Memory and the Historical Jesus – part 3 (reflections)

  1. Pingback: Can Jesus Traditions be Extracted from their Gospel Contexts? | Euangelion Kata Markon

  2. Pingback: Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas) | Judy's research blog

  3. Pingback: Recommended Reading (01.10.2013) | NEAR EMMAUS

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