Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

The latest (ie September 2015) edition of Early Christianity looks at on Jesus and Memory: The Memory Approach in Current Jesus Research. My thanks to Chris Keith for pointing it out on the Jesus Blog. I plan to read most, if not all, of the articles in it but started with Eric Eve’s offering, Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem (pp 311-333). If you are at all interested in the issues of memory and orality as they relate to the Synoptic problem, I would thoroughly recommend this paper.

Not surprisingly, given the paper’s title, Eve begins by talking about memory (pp 312-317), providing a brief overview of the field and, in particular, the notion of schemata and the role of narrative forms in circulation in a person’s culture in shaping how s/he narrates an event. He then draws attention to the fact that ancient authors tended to memorize sacred texts and then cite them from memory rather than checking written versions of their references. He suggests that

Where both redaction criticism and Synoptic problem studies have traditionally envisaged later Evangelists editing their sources, it might thus be better to think in terms of the later Evangelists reworking their source in memory, with lesser or greater fidelity to the source material dependent on a number of factors. …[This] suggests a model of scribal composition that is as distinct from oral performance as it is from literary production in a print culture. (p 317)

I think that this is a very helpful distinction.

He next moves on to orality (pp 317-323), where he begins by critiquing the ‘distressing vagueness’ (p 317) with which the term ‘oral tradition’ is often used in biblical scholarship to mean anything communicated orally, which ‘has allowed scholars to use “oral tradition” as a kind of wildcard to play in default of any other explanation that fits their preferred theory.’ (pp 317-18)

He then outlines Vansina’s distinction between oral tradition, which is material that is passed down in relatively stable form over a number of generations, or which persists for a number of generations; and oral history – the personal reminiscences of eyewitnesses to an event or those who have heard eyewitnesses more or less first hand. He suggests that not everything that the gospel authors heard by word of mouth was oral tradition in this restricted sense, and while I don’t actually find Vansina’s terms particularly intuitive, I agree that the distinction is significant.

The next point is, I think, very important. He argues that only genuine oral tradition can provide substantial help in explaining synoptic relations because in order to account for detailed similarities or differences in wording between synoptic parallels, the oral material needs to have been stable enough to influence the author’s wording, and to have reached each author in much the same form. This is only possible if the material is oral tradition of the kind that is relatively stable at the level of wording not just gist, rather than oral history (p 319). He appears to be suggesting that while we have evidence that the people of Jesus’ time could learn vast blocks of text by heart, we have no evidence that they did so as a matter of course.

He then moves on to psychologist David Rubin’s fascinating work (Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) on how some oral traditions become remarkably stable over time and introduces Rubin’s ideas of serial cueing and the use of multiple constraints to preserve text. Cueing happens when someone performs a song or poem and ‘each line or unit prompts the memory of what comes next.’ (p 321) Eve illustrates this concept using Rubin’s example of the counting-out rhyme Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.  The use of catchwords that is suggested to order GThom is another example of cueing. Rubin suggests that as well as the use of schemata, overall plot structure and vivid imagery to help hearers to remember at the deeper levels of meaning and gist, but that ‘surface features’ such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance and melody can also be retained in memory. (p 322)

The third section of the paper looks at agreements and disagreements in the Synoptic tradition (pp 323-327). Eve argues that if Rubin is correct about the role of multiple constraints in oral tradition, then surface linguistic characteristics may well survive together with deeper or schema-related characteristics like gist and imagery and be equally important in stablizing the tradition. Thus the assumption of people like Kenneth Bailey, James Dunn and Rafael Rodríguez that oral tradition primarily preserves gist ‘may not always apply in the case of more poetic or aphoristic material’  (p 323) because the wording may be part of what is necessary to enable the oral text to survive as a piece of memorable tradition. He also recognises that not all of the Synoptic material will work in this way since some (like the Good Samaritan) relies primarily on the imagery and unexpected twists to make it memorable. He also notes that putting material into writing changes the constraints on the author with regard to memorability.

Eve contends that ‘the degree of variation or similarity between parallel versions is not of itself an automatic index of whether the relation between them is oral or literary’ (p 325). Lack of verbatim agreement is not necessarily due to oral tradition, while close verbal agreement between strikingly formulated sayings or memorable poetry need not be the result of text-based copying, because oral tradition can  stabilize this kind of material quite well. Close verbal agreement between prose narratives which lack the surface features of memorable oral tradition would, however, strongly suggest some form of literary relationship. He also argues that “oral tradition” does not provide a good explanation for minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Finally, he addresses the issue of oral tradition and alternating primitivity (pp 327-331) ie the notion that sometimes the more primitive form of the tradition appears in Matthew and sometimes in Luke. He suggests that ‘being shorter does not necessarily make something more primitive, especially in oral tradition’ where extra words may in fact be an aid to memory. This lines up with Frederic Bartlett’s research which showed that successive tellings of stories tended to strip unnecessary detail. After analysing the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer, he states that

‘there is simply no way of distinguishing a written deposit of a genuine oral tradition from a good literary imitation of one by a writer steeped in the tradition in question. Formal linguistic features might persuade us that a particular passage could never have been genuine oral tradition, but they can never demonstrate that it must have been one (pp 231-2).’

I very much agree with Eve about the fact that we can’t be nearly as certain about the trajectories through which parallel material in the early Christian writings travelled to the Synoptics, and I find the ideas he outlines intriguing. His theory about the possibility of something closer to original wording being preserved in work that is poetic or aphoristic seems right, but I am not sure if this gets us very much further with respect to the Synoptic material, since very little of it is poetic and most of the sayings recorded are probably too long to be considered aphorisms. I would be very interested to see an extension of this work that indicates which pieces of text he considers to belong to this category.


3 thoughts on “Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

  1. Pingback: Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion | Judy's research blog

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