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.

Gathercole on the composition of Thomas (3)

In Chapter 3, Gathercole works through 77 areas in the Coptic text of Thomas that have been proposed by various authors as Semitisms. He looks at those identified by Quispel and Guillaumont and listed by DeConick in her The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation but adds a number of others presented elsewhere in the scholarly literature. He quite rightly says that problematising the proposal of a Semitic background requires a large sample size.  He does not, however, attempt to include all the 502 Syrian catchwords proposed by Perrin. Of the aim of the chapter, he says:

It is hoped that the present chapter will show that in almost every instance, alternative explanations are readily available, and to suggest that, as a result, the case for a Semitic Vorlage underlying our Greek and Coptic texts has been greatly exaggerated and is in fact very vulnerable. In addition to the immediate concern with the original language, this chapter is also significant for the question (which will loom large later, in Part II) of Thomas’ s independence, since we will treat here a number of alleged cases of Aramaic Vorlagen translated differently (and thus independently) by Thomas and the Synoptics. (pp 43-4)

As can be seen from the previous post, Gathercole’s argument about the Semitisms in Thomas looks at three main areas: the identification and classification of Semitisms in the text; the identification of mistranslations or wooden translations which could are explained by an underlying Semitic text; and the identification of divergent translations that occur in either the Greek and Coptic Thomas or  in canonical parallels to Thomas and which could be explained by a common Semitic Vorlage.

I think he demonstrates quite credibly that quite a few of the pieces of text identified by other scholars as Semitisms are either acceptable Greek or acceptable Coptic idiom and that others, while clearly arising as a result of translation from a Semitic language can be classified as Septuagintisms, rather than what might be termed de novo Semitisms. He also demonstrates that a significant number of those passages which have previously been considered to be the result of mistranslation are actually the result of problematic exegesis and are acceptable was they stand; and that in a number of situations where real problems exist with the text, there are Greek explanations that are equally as likely as the Semitic ones that have been proposed, or they could be explained by textual corruption. Thus, he raises significant doubt in the first two areas.

In looking at the third area, that of divergent translations, he notes that in a number of situations the parallel texts are so different that they could only be considered to be loose translations at best, so do not provide convincing evidence that they are translations of a common Semitic Vorlage. In other situations, the divergences are translations of conjunctions and prepositions which are acknowledged by scholars  to be translated unpredictably between other languages and Coptic. Finally, there are places where the explanations offered by other scholars require a translation directly from a Semitic language to Coptic, which he finds untenable.

He finishes with: “These conclusions do not, of course, mean that it is impossible that various sayings in Thomas go back to Semitic originals  . . . The analysis in this chapter does emphasise, however, how difficult it is to conjure up evidence which can only be explained on the basis of a Western Aramaic or Syriac Vorlage.” (p 104)

Again, however, while the evidence he provides is well researched, it seems to me that the conclusions he draws from it are an overstatement of the case, for several reasons. First, even though it may be possible to provide an individual explanation of every Semitism proposed that does not require that it comes from a Semitic language original, the people who are proposing a Semitic original are saying, in effect, that when you put all these pieces together the overwhelming ‘feel’ of the text is that there is a Semitic language underlying it. To provide a modernt parallel: When I read the English translation of Uwe-Karsten Plisch’s commentary on Thomas, there is nothing in it that is incorrect, but there are definitely segments which someone who speaks English as their first language would have worded differently. The fact that I can provide perfectly acceptable explanations for each one of them in English does not take away the “germanic” feel which is caused by their presence in numerous places in the text. Of course, as Gathercole himself notes once or twice, it is difficult to identify the source of this Semitic feel. Given that Jesus did most, if not all, of his teaching in Aramaic and Thomas consists almost entirely of  Jesus’ words, it may come from Jesus. If the person who translated the text into Coptic spoke a Semitic language as his/her first language s/he may have introduced Semitisms that did not exist in the original text, and the notion of LXXisms of course makes sense, too. Thus, while a Semitic Vorlage may not be the only explanation for many of the Semitisms detected in the text, it must one of the possible explanations remain at this stage and I don’t think it is necessary that it be the only possible explanation in order for it to be the best one.

From my perspective, however, there is a more significant gap in Gathercole’s treatment when he deals with the divergent translations. While I concur that we are on shaky ground trying to demonstrate a common Vorlage for material that appears only to be a loose translation of the original, much of the problematic material seems to me to have an explanation which Gathercole does not explore. The more I read about eyewitness testimony and human memory, the more likely I think it that divergences such as those between Thomas and the canon come from the accounts of different eyewitnesses to the same events, exacerbated by the fact that the transmission for the first decade or two was oral. Most of the divergence theories were proposed several decades ago, before much research had been done about eyewitness testimony and when biblical scholars were largely unaware of research on human memory and oral transmission that was being done in other fields. The variations seem to me to be better explained as gist transmissions by several eyewitnesses through different trajectories than by loose translations of one underlying text. Whether they became stable as part of community tradition (see eg Bailey) or as a result of Jesus teaching his disciples in the manner of the rabbis of his time (see eg Gerhardsson) is unclear.

In chapter 4, which will be the subject of the next post, Gathercole moves on to positive evidence for a Greek-language origin. This may build a case which outweighs the difficulties that I’ve raised above.