Memory and the historical Jesus – part 4 (Thomas)

Context

Apart from what I have already said here, here and here about the 2013 SBL Memory and the Historical Jesus session, I am also interested in what we might make of the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Rafael’s point about the importance of context although this is moving away from the historical Jesus to the early Jesus movement. Rafael (in his paper, at least) is interested in the importance of context for the work of contemporary historians in accessing the historical Jesus, but it has another important function – that of controlling the possible interpretations.

We are all familiar with public figures, especially politicians, who insist that their comments have been quoted out of context and that they didn’t mean what they are quoted as having said at all. Sometimes this is even true. Sometimes quoting something out of context can sometimes make it possible to interpret it in exactly the opposite meaning to that which it had originally, and decontextualising can often enable a range of quite odd interpretations, as well as those intended by the speaker (or writer). Rafael reminds us that the interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered, but it does more than this – it also explains how the writer wants them to be remembered and understood. I wonder what it says about the intent of the author of  GTh, given that copies of it were still being made in the fourth century, so it clearly wasn’t considered to have been superseded by the narrative gospels.

Thomas begins his text with the statement that whoever finds the meaning of the secret sayings of Jesus which were recorded by Judas Didymos Thomas will not taste death, and in it the most complex context provided is “the disciples asked Jesus X and he replied…”. This contrasts with the Synoptics which almost invariably provide contexts that limit potential meanings and in some cases also provide the authorised interpretation (the parable of the sower springs immediately to mind). Given that about half of the so-called ‘secret’ sayings bear a significant resemblance to sayings of Jesus reported in one or more of the Synoptics, it is difficult to know exactly what the author meant by their being ‘secret’ unless GTh really did predate Mark or Q (assuming Q existed). What is quite clear is that he is not giving the reader any clues about the meanings. Any reader who wishes not to taste death needs to do some hard yards to find their correct interpretation.

If you subscribe to the theory that GTh is a Gnostic text (and many people don’t) then only the Gnostic elite have the ability to find the meaning.  If is not Gnostic, perhaps the Thomas community might have been allowing room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help those who genuinely wanted/deserved eternal life to find the correct meaning of the sayings – although the role of the Holy Spirit does not feature significantly in GTh.

Verbatim memory

In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.

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.

Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 2

Following on from the previous post about the SBL 2013 Memory and the Historical Jesus session audio:

Rafael posed the question “How does memory study affect historical Jesus studies?” and I agree with him when he says that what it does is bring an old discussion to a close and call for a new discussion, rather than helping us to judge more accurately the authenticity (or lack thereof) of any particular material. He then makes three points:

  • that historians can’t separate Jesus’ past from his follower’s present by separating his words from their literary and historical contexts, because without their contexts, there is no reason that Jesus’ followers would have found them memorable. The interpretation given in the text explains why the words were remembered.
  • that historians have to account for the production as well as the reception of images of Jesus – why would an author want to produce this image? How would it have been accepted (if it is significantly different from something else that is clearly an account of the same event – see for example Mk 6: 1-6 || Lk 4:16-30)? Why did it work?
  • that historians have to account for the fact that whatever the details of his life were, Jesus of Nazareth must have made a significant impact on those he encountered, but they each remembered him for their own reasons and in their own situations.

He talks about the very different accounts that Luke and Mark provide of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth and talks about Luke’s version as being heavily redacted, which it certainly is if it was based on the same original as Mark and Matthew. Psychologists have known since the work of people like Frederic Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932) and Gordon Allport and Leo Postman (The Psychology of Rumor. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947)  that when people remember and re-tell stories, their personal interests and personalities will have a significant effect on the kinds of details they remember and how they choose to tell them, and that the passage of time can significantly affect how they retell their stories. Therefore the simplistic answer to Rafael’s first question – why would an author want to produce this image? – could well be: because that’s how he remembered it, and those were the details he thought it was important for his audience to know. Because his audience was distant in space and time from the actual event, it was probably received quite well. It was certainly received well by the early church, which chose to include it in its canon!

Thomas, however, presents us with the sayings of Jesus without any context, and exhorts his readers to find the true meaning of the sayings for themselves if they don’t want to taste death. Reflecting on this made me wonder about the interaction between context and interpretation. Providing a context for a saying helps to control both the way in which readers/hearers can reasonably interpret it and how they are likely to interpret it, but also controls how memorable it is. If we assume that Jesus used many of his sayings more than once, the context in which each of the authors of the canon remembered them will tell us something about how they understood Jesus, who they understood him to be, and what kinds of things interested them. The question then becomes whether how much of the differences between parallel accounts of the same saying are due to hearers distorting what they remembered post event to line up better with who they understood Jesus to be, and how much comes from Jesus having told the stories differently on different occasions. And the answer, unfortunately, is that we don’t and can’t know.

Paul is therefore correct when he said that memory research is not Historical Jesus Research (HJR) when it is defined as it traditionally has been. The study of memory is indeed a dead end in historical Jesus research in the sense that it is, as Rafael says, unable to tell us anything about the likely authenticity of any given Jesus saying or Jesus event in the canon (or outside it, for that matter). What I heard Paul to be saying which I do not agree with is that we can/should therefore set it aside and return to the traditional HJR methods. I think (and I think that the other three panelists agree with me) that memory studies, whether from an SMT perspective or a psychological perspective, indicate that some of the criteria and methods used in traditional HJR research just cannot hold up. I think that biblical scholars who want to treat any part of the gospel tradition as literal fact need to recognise that they do so from a particular faith stance about what it means that the bible is ‘inspired by God’ rather than because it is or can be empirically proven to be ‘accurate’. Those who do not want do this need to give careful thought to the implications of what we know about memory – both individual and social – for what we can, with integrity, do with the biblical texts. If they are people of faith, this may well mean reassessing their understanding of what inspiration of scripture means.

I think that I am more inclined to side with Rafael and Chris who both seem to believe that we can reach some understanding of the historical Jesus by going through the memories of his disciples, rather than with Zeba, who seems to think we must just give up on any attempt to reach him – after all, historians don’t seem to be giving up on the task of finding the historical Julius Caesar.  I do think, though, that it will be a while yet before we know what that means or what we can do with the person we find. :-)

Memory and the Historical Jesus (SBL session recording) – part 1

It’s Christmas Day and I finally have time to finish off a post that I started nearly a week ago.  It seems appropriate that on the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus I should reflect on what we actually know about him.

A little over a week ago, I was pleased to be able to listen to an audio recording of the Memory Studies in Historical Jesus Research session at SBL 2013, thanks to Anthony Le Donne over at the Jesus Blog (and, I assume, to the participants who gave permission for it to be put on line).  The presentations were/are:

  1. Chris Keith – “The Past Approaching and Approaching the Past: The Contribution of Memory Studies to Historical Jesus Research”
  2. Zeba Crook – “Memory Distortion and the Historical Jesus”
  3. Rafael Rodríguez – “An Uneasy Concord: Memory and History in Contemporary Jesus Research”
  4. Paul Foster – “Memory: Help or Hindrance in Historical Jesus Research?”

This session has been referred to as the ‘blow-up in Baltimore‘ – a name coined by Tyler Stewart – and the question and answer session at the end was certainly lively, although not quite as lively I expected of something described as a ‘blowup’. A problem with the audio of the Q&A was that it was not always easy to tell which of the participants was speaking (almost certainly because James Crossley, the chair of the session, didn’t realise he was moderating for audio-recording). While Chris Keith’s southern accent and Paul Foster’s very British tones are quite distinctive, Rafael Rodríguez and Zeba Crook are somewhat more difficult to tell apart in the heat of discussion – at least I found them so (North Americans need to note that Australians and New Zealanders find it incredible that you can’t tell our accents apart, too). Unfortunately, I can’t see a way of articulating my reactions in a reasonable number of words for one post, so I have split it into two, with my comments on Chris and Zeba’s presentations here and on Rafael and Paul’s in part 2.

I found myself agreeing with some of the things that each of them said (or the things I understood them to be saying, anyway) and disagreeing with others. One of the things I found consistently interesting is that they, and I, all seem to be coming to very similar conclusions about the nature of the gospel materials, even if what we think we should do about it is different. I think that what we have is the beginnings of triangulation, which is good.

[Alan Bryman (http://www.referenceworld.com/sage/socialscience/triangulation.pdf‎) offers the following definition of the use of triangulation in social science research: "Triangulation refers to the use of more than one approach to the investigation of a research question in order to enhance confidence in the ensuing findings. Since much social research is founded on the use of a single research method and as such may suffer from limitations associated with that method or from the specific application of it, triangulation offers the prospect of enhanced confidence."]

I found Chris’s survey of the field of Social Memory Theory (SMT) very helpful, and would recommend listening to the recording of his inaugural lecture (“Social Memory Theory and the Gospels – the first ten years”) for further information, although the video part is less than stimulating. :-) I agreed with him when he called into question the criteria of authenticity and said that memory doesn’t preserve the past in a way that means that you can separate past actions from their interpretations, but that historians can nevertheless make a reasonable guess at the past. I kind of agreed with him when he said that SMT makes a definite contribution to historiography, but that its contribution is to how we use the material we have to reach our conclusions.  Maybe I abbreviated what he said in the notes I took, but I think that what SMT does is to help us to understand what kind of material we actually have and it is this which informs (or should inform) how we can and can’t use it in reaching conclusions about history.

Zeba provided a quick tour of the psychological research on memory, noted that most groups want to keep a positive image of themselves and therefore tend to manipulate their memories for the purpose of collective self-deception, and that some of the ways that memory distorts the past are less severe than others. He listed them in order of severity. I agreed with all of this. I am not so sure about his conclusion that this leaves us with a New No Quest (for the historical Jesus), which we might perhaps replace with a quest for the remembered Jesus. The quest for the historical Jesus is no more hopeless than is the quest for the historical Julius Caesar or the quest for any other historical personage (Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels?: a comparison with Graeco-Roman biography. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004 provides comparisons between the gospels and bioi of other historical personages of the time), yet historians do not appear to be giving up on them. The difference is in what we want to do with the information we find out about the historical Jesus and the historical Julius Caesar – no-one today is trying to base their lifestyle on the sayings of Caesar and even the Romans who considered their emperors to be divine had a very different relationship to them to the one that Christians have to Jesus.

If you read the psychological literature, while it is possible to get people to ‘remember’ things that simply didn’t happen, if they are wholly fictitious events as opposed to merely altered details,  there needs to be a deliberate attempt and some significant work on the part of some external agent to create a false memory. Thus, if we are prepared to accept that the early Christians were people of integrity who had had genuine encounters with Jesus, it is less likely that we have total fabrications than that we have distortions. Again, this helps us to understand that we don’t have empirically verifiable facts, but what we have is arguably no less reliable than any other historical evidence from that period or any other period before less ephemeral records are available. the broad brushstrokes of the gospel stories are highly likely to be accurate, but the details less so.

Now read on.

Memory in real life (3)

So far, I have been talking about individual memory, but in this post, I’d like to address two things that affect how groups remember things. One is culture and the other is authority.

Cultures can be (very roughly) described as independent or interdependent. Many western cultures (eg the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are generally independent – they value separateness, autonomy and self-sufficiency and consider the individual to be at least as important as  the group. Many eastern cultures (eg China, Japan, and parts of the m\Middle East) tend to be interdependent – they emphasize connectedness, social context and harmony and value the group more highly than any individual in it.

When a group of eyewitnesses get together to talk about an event, it is almost inevitable that there will be times when two people will have conflicting memories of the same aspect of the event.  Groups from independent cultures tend to have a relatively low tolerance for this situation (often termed incongruity/cognitive dissonance in the psychological literature) and are likely to want to work out which of the two people is right.  They will employ a range of strategies to determine this including taking a vote to see which version the majority of the group agrees with. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the second person will begin his or her version with the words “No, you’re wrong – it was like this.” While we in the west regard it as a bit awkward if this causes a robust discussion in which both sides insist that their version is the correct one, we are much more interested in finding out “what really happened” than in group harmony, so if the group splits into two camps and members of the other side don’t actually talk to us again, we see that as their problem not ours.

Groups from interdependent cultures will try to maintain harmony within the group, so they will work towards a compromise, even if the compromise position cannot possibly be the truth because no-one (initially) remembers it happening in that way. They often have a higher tolerance for incongruity/cognitive dissonance – and the fact that the early church was quite happy to accept the four gospels as canon suggests that they were like this. Tatian was possibly an exception, although the Diatessaron may simply have been a different way of allowing all versions of the Jesus story to be heard. I am not sure how long ago parts of western Christianity started to try to explain how there really is no contradiction between the gospels, but it does not appear to have been an issue for the church of the fourth century. (References for the effect of culture on dealing with differences in memory of events include: Jennifer L. Aaker and Jaideep Sengupta, “Additivity versus Attenuation: The Role of Culture in the Resolution of Information Incongruity,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 9 (2000): 67–82; Jennifer L. Aaker, “Accessibility or Diagnosticity? Disentangling the Influence of Culture on Persuasion Processes and Attitudes,” Journal of Consumer Research 26 (2000): 340; Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (1999): 349–66; Michael W. Morris and Kaiping Peng, “Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions for Social and Physical Events,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (1994): 949–71.)

The other thing that has a significant effect on both recall and group processes is the relative authority of the people involved. There is significant evidence that the perceived authority of the person asking questions about an event will have an effect on how eyewitnesses answer questions. I am very frustrated that I can’t find the relevant references for this, but in general if someone with higher authority asks the questions, people will try harder to remember things and be more inclined to guess. Over time, the guessing is remembered more and more confidently (see, for example Hastie, Reid, Robert Landsman, and Elizabeth F Loftus. “Eyewitness Testimony: The Dangers of Guessing.” Jurimetrics Journal 19, no. 1 (1978): 1-8 and Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001: 115-117). And, although I don’t have references to back this up, I also suspect that the perceived relative authority of group members will affect how much notice is taken of their accounts of events. In strongly hierarchical societies, I suspect that it it both more likely that the more senior members of the group are given the opportunity to speak first and that there is significant unease about saying something that would make these people look as though they had made a mistake.  This is certainly the case with the international students that I work with, and makes it challenging for them to operate in tutorial groups where they find it very difficult to question anything said by the lecturer or tutor.

Since it is well documented that ageing tends to have a negative effect on the memory and age is one of the criteria for authority and respect in eastern cultures, we have the possibility that the most flawed memory of the story is the one that the group accepts as accurate or is the most influential in forming the version that the group accepts and passes on. Given that there were quite a few eyewitnesses to many of the events in Jesus’ public ministry, it is highly likely that a range of different “agreed versions” of what he said and did were in circulation fairly soon after each event as different small groups talked together about their experiences.

Update:

A couple of  references about the effect of the authority or credibility of the questioner are James Marshall, Law and Psychology in Conflict (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 41–63; Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony, 98; Gerald Echterhoff, William Hirst, and Walter Hussy, “How Eyewitnesses Resist Misinformation: Social Postwarnings and the Monitoring of Memory Characteristics,” Memory & Cognition 33 (2005): 770–82.

Memory in real life (2)

Picking up from where I left off yesterday, I’d like to look at how we remember time.  As I said in my response to Mike Kok’s post, Steen F Larsen, Charles P Thompson, and Tia Hansen. “Time in Autobiographical Memory,” Pages 129-56 in Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory (Ed. David C Rubin. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) point out that we remember some aspects of time more easily than others. The time at which something happened is usually remembered fairly reliably because people use what are called ‘temporal cyclic schemas’ to place an event at a particular time of day, day of the week or season of the year. If we don’t have something concrete to anchor it, though, we can often displace in longitudinal time. [Challenge: can you use the phrase 'temporal cyclic schema(s)' in a believable context on your blog this week? Link back here if you can - although unlike the Jesus Blog, I can't offer a prize.]

For example, we  might be sure that something happened on a Monday, because it happened right after we got back from the Step class at the gym and we go to Step on Mondays. We can’t remember which Monday, because every Monday is pretty much the same, but it was a while ago, although not too long ago, so probably about four weeks. When we’re telling someone the story, if when in time is really only to add colour and interest, we will probably say ‘four weeks ago’ without bothering to check. Then, when we  look at our diary, we discover that either it wasn’t a Monday or it wasn’t four weeks ago because Monday four weeks ago we were out of town at a seminar. So at that point, some of us will riffle frantically through our diaries  or try to find some other piece of external evidence to pinpoint more exactly when it happened while others will use a process of logic:

“I know it must have been Monday because it was after Step, so it can’t have been four weeks ago – so it must have been five weeks or three weeks, but it was hot, so it wasn’t five weeks ago because that was the week when we had the cold snap. Oh, hang on, I’m sure it was four weeks ago, because it was in the same week that I gave that guest lecture and that was definitely on the tenth – Oh, I remember! Because I ate so much at the conference I decided that I needed the exercise so I went to the Step class on Wednesday that week…”

If you are trying to remember something at a distance of quite a few years and you aren’t in the habit of keeping a detailed diary, you may no longer have access to all the clues you need to place the event accurately. You probably won’t remember which week it was that had the cold snap, for instance, so you will retell the story in the time-frame that makes most sense to you – which will probably place it on a Monday.

In the current discussion about memory, one of the targeted issues is the fact that Mark has the clearing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry and John has it at the beginning. Most scholars agree that it is highly unlikely that it happened more than once, so which is correct? Most people are more inclined to accept Mark’s version as accurate because his is the earlier gospel, and many attribute the earlier timing in John as the result of a deliberate decision by the author to move it to a place that better fits his particular theology. This is the equivalent of suggesting that John said to himself “I know Jesus really cleared the temple just before he died, but I think I will move it to the beginning of my gospel because it will help my readers to understand Jesus’ role in salvation history better if I put it up the front. Oh, and I’ll finish off by saying that everything that’s written in it is true.” Really?? I find it very difficult to believe that people of integrity who genuinely believed in Jesus as messiah/saviour would function like this and I do like to believe that the biblical authors were people of integrity.

Psychological research, however, indicates that time (ie season) of the year is reasonably easy to remember, but the exact year is not. John and Mark both agree that the occasion was a visit to the temple for Passover, just not which Passover. It is quite believable that Jesus went to Jerusalem for more than one Passover, and it is quite possible that only one visit to the temple at Passover was eventful – the one where he cleared the temple court of merchants. At a distance of a decade or more from the event, most of the mental time markers for the event would have disappeared, leaving the people telling the story with the difficult task of situating this important event in their narrative. As both social memory theorists and psychological memory researchers attest, remembering is about helping us to make sense of the world in which we live and for Mark, it clearly made sense that the temple cleansing would have happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry, whereas for John, it made sense at the beginning, so that’s the way they remembered it.

Yes, one of the markers used to situate the event in memory is likely to have been the theology of the two authors, but it is quite possible that they situated the event in longitudinal time at a subconscious level. It is by no means necessary to posit a deliberate redaction on the part of one of the authors. If John had access to Mark, he may have believed that he was correcting Mark’s faulty memory. It is also possible that the actual event happened in the middle of Jesus’ ministry and both authors remembered the timing incorrectly, because there respective timings made more sense of their particular understandings of Jesus’ role in salvation history. :-)

On the other issue that Mike raises, the date of Jesus’ death, I am feeling somewhat perplexed. John 19: 31 says that Jesus was crucified (with others) on the Day of Preparation so Pilate ordered that the legs of those being crucified be broken to hasten their deaths; Luke 23: 54 says that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation; Mark 15:  42-43 says Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body on the Day of Preparation and Matthew 27: 62 says that the Jewish authorities want to Pilate the next day (after Jesus died), that is after the Day of Preparation. It therefore seems to me that all four gospels have Jesus dying on the same day. What am I missing?

It would be somewhat more difficult (although by no means impossible) to argue that psychological theory explains Jewish authors remembering a different day at this time, although for a Gentile author the whole Jewish Shabbat/Passover thing might not have made nearly as much impact and he (or she) could more easily have placed an event around that time of year wrongly.

Memory in real life

In the wake of the SBL session on Memory and the Historical Jesus, a number of people have been posting about this issue, including Chris Keith – with a number of people including Jens Schröter getting involved on the Jesus Blog, and Michael Kok and others here and here. Unfortunately, the Jesus Blog comments have currently disappeared. I hope they can get them back again, because there were some really interesting contributions in them.

I am proposing to do some posts over the next little while to try to draw some links between psychological memory research and the work being done in the area of social memory. This first is more to set the scene than to address the links.

The question at issue in the SBL session seems to have been whether or not we can access the historical Jesus through the gospels, but I think that it is probably better to ask how much about the historical Jesus we can know through the gospels, assuming we are prepared to accept that there was an historical Jesus. As I believe I have said elsewhere, Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) provides the best coverage on the psychological literature about memory as it applies to the gospels that I have so far read, but I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws. If you want a shorter version or can’t get hold of the book, my article:  “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97) and his response: “Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 131, no. 3 (2012): 529-46), are a good place to start.

McIver picks up on some research done in Canada which indicates that about 80% of what eyewitnesses remember of an event is accurate and says 80% is a lot  so we can be confident that the gospels are pretty reliable at the level of gist. He also cites research that indicates that when eyewitness testimony is inaccurate, the mistakes are things that are likely to have happened, rather than wild fabrications. I suppose this is helpful when confronted with people who suggest that the miracle stories are wild fabrications, but not if what you are looking for is a way to track Jesus’ actual words. It seems to me, though, that far more of the controversies within the church stem from people wanting to treat particular parts of the gospels as Jesus’ actual words and having problems with what appear to be accounts of the same events that vary on the level of fine detail than come from arguments about whether or not he really performed miracles.

If we have to accept that not every word is accurate, we want to be able to tell which bits are most likely to be inaccurate. The problem is that in order to be able to predict that, we need to have a very good knowledge not only of the social and cultural conditions at the time, but also quite a lot about the interests and life experience of the authors, and we just don’t have that knowledge.

Very few of us have eidetic, or photographic, memory. We tend to concentrate on the things that interest us or are important to us, and other details tend to be forgotten, but when we want to tell someone else about our experiences, if the telling of the story needs particular details in order to hang together well,  our minds will helpfully fill in lost ones with things that we know from past experience are likely to have happened. This isn’t a conscious action and it certainly isn’t an attempt to mislead the hearer and usually it’s harmless and undetectable because it’s only filling in tiny gaps with what the person telling the story’s unconscious thinks are irrelevant details – whether something happened on a Monday or a Tuesday, what coloured clothing they were wearing etc.

As memory fails with age, we are likely to substitute more details from what psychologists call schemas – information about what we normally do in particular situations. Things like our normal Monday routine, the route we normally take to the shops etc provide us with schemas. When something goes wrong with our neural processes, the gaps get bigger and the substitutions from schemas more pronounced until they become abnormal and the medical profession call them confabulations. Since my mother had her second stroke, there are significant gaps her memory and she often confabulates. My brothers and I can frequently pick up the confabulations faster than can the staff in the aged care facility where she lives, because when she tells them things that might conceivably have happened in the life of someone of her age and life experience they can only take them on face value. My brothers and I often know either that what she is describing simply didn’t happen or happened in an entirely different context. She isn’t trying to deceive anyone. She genuinely believes what she is telling us and it is believable. It’s just not true.

My brothers and I have special knowledge of my mother’s interests, experience and circumstances which make it much easier for us to separate truth from confabulation in our mother’s stories. The facility staff don’t. When it comes to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, readers in the twenty-first century don’t even have the same level of ‘insider knowledge’ as the facility staff do of my mother. Our chances of being able to work out which believable details of the gospel accounts are accurate and which are not are very, very slim, even when we are pretty sure that some of them simply cannot be correct.

Fellowship for Biblical Studies Inaugural Conference

Earlier this year, I attended a seminar in Melbourne at which Richard Burrdige was one of the speakers. I found out that there is a Fellowship for Biblical Studies operating and I joined just in time to offer a paper for their inaugural conference and have it accepted.

Sean Winter has posted the program on his blog, so I won’t bother. I am a little awed to discover that all the papers are going to be presented in plenary, since I am used to being part of a parallel program where people have some opportunity to choose what they want to hear. At least, however, I will only be presenting to biblical scholars, even if some of them focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. At UNE school seminars, I get to present to historians, classicists, philosophers, archaeologists and people from peace studies and international studies so I spend about half of my presentation sketching in the background.

Here’s the abstract:

Matthew, Luke and Thomas all tell stories about a man who lost one of his hundred sheep and left the other ninety-nine to go and look for it. They start out with the same basic details, but the significance they give to the sheep and to the happy ending are different in each gospel. This paper will explore the similarities and differences between the three lost sheep stories and examine their implications for our understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd and the relationship between the three. In doing so, it will try to take seriously the effects of oral transmission and human memory as well as scribal redaction on the extant versions of the text.

I’ve been enjoying doing the research for this – it is helping me to think about how to integrate my work on memory and eyewitness testimony better into my thesis/dissertation. In the process, I have been interested to note how much tighter the referencing conventions have become in the last thirty or forty years. Jacques Ménard’s 1975 commentary on Saying 107 owes a huge amount to that of Wolfgang Schrage (1964) – in a significant part of the comment he has done virtually nothing other than translate Schrage’s words from German into French – yet there is very minimal acknowledgement. Even a first year undergrad would get a very stern warning about plagiarism nowadays, but I assume from the fact that the book is published by Brill that this was considered fair dealing back then!

Relationship between Thomas and the Synoptics

In the comments Mike K says:

I take it you view Thomas as largely independent of the Synoptics so that there similarities and differences may be explained as a result of different processes of oral transmission from the original eyewitnesses? I was just reading Andrew Gregory’s “The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Ireneaus” and he is very cautious about accepting any literary dependence as demonstrable unless it meets Koester’s criteria of whether the redaction is present, but he too finds evidence of Lukan redaction in the Greek fragments of Thomas (so difficult to blame on later scribal harmonization in the Coptic version). So I was wondering if you think it may be possible that whoever put together this compilation of sayings in the 2nd century was familiar with the Synoptics in some way, yet perhaps many of the sayings still reached the author independently from oral tradition?

This is too big to answer in the comments, so I am bringing it up to a post of its own.

I don’t know that I want to be that definite, but that’s certainly the way I am leaning, yes. As a person of faith, I believe that Jesus really existed, that there were many eyewitnesses to the various parts of his ministry and that they shared their stories of their encounters with Jesus with friends, family, colleagues. I would also like to believe that the early Christians were, in general, people of good will and integrity who told others what they genuinely believed to be true and accurate accounts of what they saw, heard and experienced, rather than deliberately reshaping material to convince others to their way of thinking. A lot of the redaction criticism theory sounds too cold and calculating to me: author X took author Y’s version and edited it so that it fitted in with his theology sounds like a very deliberate thing to me.

I think that the level of verbatim correspondence between some parts of the Synoptics are long enough for us to be pretty sure either that one version was copied from the other or that there was some common source with which both authors were familiar. If what scholars beginning with Gerhardsson suggest is correct, it may well be that this source was oral material learned verbatim, rather than necessarily a written copy but I suspect that alterations were made because the version that was available did not line up with the author’s memory of the event (or the account that s/he had heard from an(other) eyewitness), rather than something more deliberate. How we understand an event andwhat we remember of an event are strongly shaped by what we believe about the world, so our memories do tend to line up with our beliefs and therefore theologies but mostly this shaping is unconscious. McIver summarises the evidence here quite well (see my review of his Memory, Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels) although I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws about what it means for reliability.

Another possible explanation, however, of how there are different versions of what appears to be the same story in circulation is that Jesus actually told basically the same story several times with slightly different details because he was telling them to a different audience in different settings. In other words, it is possible that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke have parallel stories in different settings is not that they wrote their gospels to achieve particular theological purposes that worked best if they put them in different orders, combinations and settings and but because Jesus actually used them in different orders, combinations and settings and the ones that fitted best with a particular eyewitness’s theological emphasis were the ones that were remembered by that person. Quite a few of the changes that we see that are named as ‘redaction’ could equally be the result of people retelling a story in their own words and it doesn’t matter whether the story is one they have read somewhere or one they have heard somewhere. My article  “How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97 summarises the literature on both eyewitness testimony and human memory.

So, in short, yes, I think what you suggest is possible, Mike, but because we are working with Greek text of the Synoptics and largely Coptic text of Thomas and some of the Greek text we do have puts the sayings in a different order to the Coptic text, I don’t think we canbe at all certain about which of the various theories is correct. I think that on the basis of the evidence we have, it is perfectly possible that Thomas was written in total isolation from the Synoptics, on the basis of teaching that he learned verbatim from Jesus. That he used the sayings he used because they were the ones that he remembered best over the years because they were the ones that helped him to make sense of his world and his life.  I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the author picked up texts of the Synoptics, selected his/her favourite bits, changed them so that they would produce the spin he wanted and made up a whole pile of other stuff so that he could convince a group of gullible people of the veracity of his/her particular theological system (whatever that is). What we need in order to make a more definitive statement about which of the various theories of composition is most likely is an early copy of a full Greek text. Even then, however, if you accept that Jesus tried to get his disciples to learn his sayings verbatim, you don’t need to have a theory of textual dependence even with really significant verbatim sections.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (6)

I have finally finished the book and propose to deal with the remaining 8 chapters in one post. The other option would be to look at each chapter in detail and that would take too long.

Chapter 6  is entitled Thomas and the Synoptics: A Method for Assessing Influence and proposes 6 stages in a method for assessing the influence of the Synoptics on Thomas. Gathercole outlines it as follows:

  1. Influence from the Synotpics on Thomas will be evident where Thomas reproduces redactional material.
  2. Where there is influence, taking the direction of that influence to be Synoptics –> Thomas (rather than Thomas –> Synoptics) can be justified on various grounds.
  3. The influence from the Synoptics can only reliably be seen in Thomas’s reception of Matthean and Lukan redaction of Mark.
  4. The sample of Thomas sayings to be analysed is thus restricted to places where there are parallels with Mark and at least one of the other Synoptics.
  5. Various options are discussed for how influence might take place, including combinations of oral and literary factors.
  6. Finally, the quesiton is raised of when in Thomas‘s compositional and transmission history any influence of the Synoptics might have been exerted (p 145).

On the basis of point 4, Gathercole only looks at 20 sayings – those that have a parallel in both Mark and at least one of Matthew or Luke.

Having amplified the six points, he then applies the method in chapters 7 & 8, Matthew in the Gospel of Thomas and Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. In doing this, he picks up Elaine Pagels’ suggestion that GTh 13.3 (where Jesus asks the disciples what they think he is and Matthew answers that he is a wise philosopher) is a reference to the content of Matthew’s gospel, although he rejects the notion that Peter’s comment about Jesus being like a righteous angel does not need to be a reference to either Mark or Gospel of Peter, because Peter is an unsurprising interlocuter, whereas Matthew is not. The notion that GTh 13.3 is a reference to Matthew’s gospel appears to be a key piece of evidence because he mentions it quite frequently. On the basis of his methodology, 11 of the 20 sayings are examples of Thomas‘s reception of Matthean or Lukan redaction of Mark.

Section II ends with chapter 9, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas, in which Gathercole surveys the previous chapters and concludes that:

attempts to exclude the influence of the Synoptics from the Gospel of Thomas are unsuccessful. There is in Thomas what one might term ‘significant’ influence indentifiable from Matthew and Luke. The influence is significant not because the redactional elements … which appear in Thomas are remarkably extensive in any particular places, but rather because these redactional traces appear in eleven out of twenty sayings in which they might be identified ( p 223).

He notes that it is not possible to know by what method this influence was exerted – whether it was oral, literary or “secondary orality”, but it is clear from the foregoing and succeeding parts of the book that his definite preference is that it is literary influence.

I find his arguments significantly less convincing than he does, especially for literary influence. He continually uses words such as ‘significant’ and ‘striking’ for extremely short strings of correspondence, similar wording that is not the same and the occasional shared use of an unusual word. Research on human memory has demonstrated that even members of highly writing-dependent cultures can reproduce strings of 15 words or more verbatim from memory and people living in oral and verbomotor cultures can do significantly better than this, so strings of 6-7 words, even with one of 13, are not convincing evidence of literary influence. While it is, of course, possible that the author of Thomas was familiar with written versions of both Matthew and Luke but chose to change the wording to suit his own ends, the evidence provided is not enough to rule out: oral transmission; a common source, either oral or written; or transmission of traditions that sprang from two different eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching. Gathercole dismisses the first two of these and does not address the third. Indeed, it appears that he has done very little reading in the area of oral transmission and none at all in human memory and eyewitness testimony. The latter two are, at least in my opinion, very important given that we hold that the gospels are, in general, eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus which were transmitted orally in Christian communities for several decades before they were recorded in written form.

Part III looks at Thomas and other early Christian literature. Chapter 10 examines two passages in Romans and one in 1 Corinthians and concludes that Paul influences Thomas.  Chapter 11 looks at the phrase ‘the world is not worthy’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews and GTh 56, 80 and 111 and concludes that Thomas was influenced by the Epistle to the Hebrews. It seems to me that the argument he provides and dismisses for the expression simply being a pre-existing multilingual Jewish expression is stronger. Chapter 12 is entitled A note on the “two wys” tradition and GTh 25 and in it he concludes that Thomas should be included in the group of texts influenced by a hypothetical re-existing “two ways” source.

In summary, Gathercole finds that Thomas was originally written in Greek, is dependent on both Luke and Matthew as well as some of the Pauline corpus and the Epistle to the Hebrews (and probably other sources as well). Gathercole makes it clear that he is not arguing that the author of Thomas sat down with the texts of the Synoptics, Paul and Hebrews in front of him and copied and pasted as he saw fit, but it is also clear that he prefers the notion that there is literary rather than oral dependence of Thomas on the Synoptics. What this actually means, though, is rather unclear. The book would have benefitted from a careful definition of dependence (as would most works addressing this issue). Sometimes he suggests that this might be as vague as once having heard them read and remembering them, at other times, the reader gets the impression that he thinks that the author may have read them. In the latter chapters, he tends to use ‘influence’ rather than dependence, and this seems to be a better way of talking about what he is claiming. I think that  he succeeds in making it obvious that we simply do not have sufficient evidence to be able to be dogmatic about any theory of  composition of Thomas and that theories about source, dating, original language etc are all intertwined, but I do not find his arguments for his position nearly as compelling as he does.