Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

Following on from my previous post, I want to look at Alan Kirk’s paper in the same edition of Early Christianity: ‘Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research” (vol 6, pp 280-310). Again, Kirk is not a blogger, but I’ve linked to his university page. The paper is fascinating, but the language is dense and deals at some depth with the psychological and neurobiological literature around cognition and memory, and he also quotes a significant amount of German literature in German – a not unreasonable thing to do in a journal published by a German company and which has German abstracts for all papers, but makes it heavier going.

Kirk begins by reminding us that there is a distinction between memory (what individuals remember about events) and tradition (what is handed down) and traces how tradition develops, with an emphasis on the neurobiological processes involved. He concludes that “We have been able to clarify where the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition lie, but these have little to do with the quality of eyewitness recollection.” (p 310) I think that the account he gives of the process is very useful, that his analysis of the significance of many of the facets of the process is insightful and helpful, but I want to suggest that what he has actually demonstrated is something different. In order to do so, I need to deal with the paper in some detail, so I am dividing my response into 3 posts.

Kirk begins with the concept of memory distortion and suggests that both sides of the historical Jesus debate now take for granted the fact that memory distortion occurs, with the more skeptical emphasising how much it contaminates fact and those who defend the tradition arguing for limitations on its effects. He points out that:

  • Psychological research into memory does not deal with real life situations because it asks participants to remember things that have no significance to them (like word lists) and deliberately tries to manipulate people into misremembering, thus exaggerating memory’s susceptibility to distortion (pp 289-291).
  • Although no two activations of a particular memory are exactly the same because neural activation of particular memories is driven by the immediate social context in which we remember it, most people are able to remember well. Thus, he contends, not all memories are necessarily distortions of events remembered (p 292).
  • Psychological memory distortion studies are mainly done in forensic (legal) situations where incidental details can be critical in determining guilt or innocence, so loss of detail can be critical and is taken as an indicator of the fragility of memory. In most other situations, he argues, what is important is the ability to determine what is worth remembering ie determining the salience of various details, rather than trying to keep track of all the detail. This involves subjective factors and makes remembering and recounting history much more complex than simply remembering a list of words by heart. (p 293-4)
  • ‘[R]emembering a significant past is an inherently relational activity’ which ‘…entails that it is under obligation to ethical norms, to the virtues of integrity, responsibility, and accountability to others’ and thus ‘…cannot be separated from its moral, existential significance for its rememberers’ (pp 294-5, emphasis Kirk’s). This, it seems to me, is a cognitive psychological explanation for Kenneth Bailey’s observation that community members in an oral society act to stop oral tradents from straying too far from what the community sees as the facts.

Thus, Kirk reiterates, but with neurobiological data as evidence, the fact that observers do not remember all the details of events that they have witnessed. This provides triangulation for previous work that looks at eyewitness testimony and human memory from psychological and social memory theory standpoints. His new contribution is in making the case that it is only in situations like that of a court-room that this is necessarily problematic. In other situations, discarding unnecessary information is a useful skill. It thus seems that he is arguing that it depends how one defines ‘accurate’ as to whether what is reproduced from people’s memories can be considered accurate.

It appears that the point he is trying to make (although he does not say this) is that the level of detail provided is not the same as the level of accuracy. For example, if I stop and ask for directions to get to 25 Smith Street, one person may tell me to drive the way I am headed and turn right into Brown Street and then left into Smith Street and number 25 will be in the second block on my left. Another may tell me that I need to keep heading south for two blocks and turn west into Brown Street, which has a McDonalds on the corner, then keep heading west for two blocks and turn south into Smith Street and that I will find number 25, which is a two-storey white house, two blocks down on my left. Both these sets of directions will get me to the same place, so they are arguably both accurate, although the second one is more detailed. Despite the extra detail, I would find it less helpful because I am not at all good at determining compass points when I am driving, so the first one would probably get me to my destination more effectively.

Kirk is, however, more interested in the material that we have available to us – the tradition – than he is in individual memories, and it is to the tradition that he turns next.

(continued in part 2)

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Eric Eve on Memory, Orality and the Synoptic Problem

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

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

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

I think that this is a very helpful distinction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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