Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography

Memory, tradition, and historiography

This is the third of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310. It   follows on from here and begins here.

Kirk’s final section (pp 306-310) addresses the issue of the challenges that the gospel traditions offer to critical historical enquiry. The people responsible for the formation of the tradition were not trying to write history but to sustain culture, and the details that are important to the historian are often least important to the formation of cultural tradition. The formers of cultural tradition are interested in the conceptual and morally signifying elements that can be drawn from what happened, rather than in the detail of the events themselves. These significant elements are distilled from the historical events and making it possible for the tradent communities to maintain their connections with founding events.

I am going to cite extensively from p 309 because I am at a loss as to how to summarise it effectively:

Synoptic communities are not directly remembering the past, but the tradition, which mediates the normative past in symbolic forms into the present. The tradition circulates in visual, oral, and written media, all of which have tractable properties. It can be redacted, reformulated, recontextualized, reconfigured, consolidated, and in the course of unfolding its symbolic potential supply the resources for Christological and moral reflection and for its own elaboration. The autonomy of the tradition entails that past and present come to co-exist in the tradition in ways that are not easily separable.

This, then, affirms from the perspective of neuroscience what others have said using different data: what is found in the Synoptics cannot be viewed as a simple historical account of the Jesus events and it is difficult to know which parts of it are from the time of Jesus and which from the time and place in which each gospel was written. He then says:

The tradition thus gives much scope for the exercise of critical historical judgment. But the indissolubility of the connection between the tradition’s symbolic mediation of the past and its autonomous course of development is what opens up productive lines of historical enquiry on the basis of the materials of the tradition. It accounts for why the Synoptic tradition has in fact proven so responsive to historical analysis.

The point he appears to be making here is that there is historical fact embedded in the Synoptic accounts – they mediate the historical events for the reader. The authors did not simply make up material. He sees this paper as having provided the theoretical basis for a model for the formation and history of the Synoptic tradition,

one that shows how the Wirkungseffekte of Jesus might be traced back into the cognitive formation of memory itself and to the formation of the tradition at the interface of the cognitive processes of memory with cultural media. We have been able to clarify how it is that the tradition mediates historical realities, and yet how it enables, and is itself part of, a complex Wirkungsgeschichte [effective history] that includes the appearance of the Gospel narratives themselves.

Kirk then makes two final points.

The first is that his analysis suggests that the Synoptic Gospels are not garden-variety archival materials – that they are actually ‘symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregates of events’ (p 310) rather than incomplete records of particular events. This, he suggests, helps to explain the lack of extra early Jesus tradition in the non-canonical material, and supports Gerhardsson’s questioning of the notion that the authors of the canon selected material from a large amount of Jesus-tradition. The notion that the Synoptics are not ordinary archival materials is not new, nor is the idea that they nevertheless contain historical information. His suggestion that they are concentrated aggregates of events rather than selections from a large amount of circulating material is new – at least to me. This builds, I assume, on the fact that tradition replaces individual memories in the memories of the community to which the tradition belongs, so that other material is forgotten unless it is recorded in some way. I am not sure, however, that there is as big a lack as he suggests in the non-canonical material. About half of GosThom is not found in the canon and there is other material in the other apocryphal gospels. While some of this is, to our thinking, clearly fantastic, to the person who is unused to the canon, much of the gospel material is also fantastic, although Christians hold it to be true. Clearly, however, this contention deserves more thought.

Second, he maintains that even though it has been usual to view the question of historicity of the gospel tradition as being a question of its relationship to individual eyewitness recollection, this is not really accurate. The fact that individual memory has an uneven ability to remember episodic details is not really important because it is these details that are filtered out as of minimal relevance for the task of the tradition – ‘to distil out and transmit the normative past.’ Thus, he contends that the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition have little to do with the qualities of eyewitness memory.

I think Kirk’s paper is an important contribution to the field, but I think he has misunderstood its significance. He spends significant time demonstrating that in everyday life, as opposed to forensic situations, a critical part of remembering is determining which of the details of an event are salient and therefore worth remembering. Tradition, he contends, is formed as individual eyewitnesses share their memories and the community determines what is salient for the purposes of understanding its collective moral and social identity. He seems to see this as somehow different to what happens when individuals remember and yet psychologists suggest that individuals rarely remember events in order to reconstruct history, but rather to help them to understand themselves as moral and social beings (see my paper here http://www.revistajesushistorico.ifcs.ufrj.br/arquivos13/2-Redman.pdf for references). Thus, what Kirk describes as he describes the formation of tradition appears to be the same process that individuals go through in remembering the past, just at a group rather than an individual level. It is also the same process that the people working in social memory theory are describing, but using a different theoretical basis. What communities do when they create traditions in which to preserve important memories is the same as individuals do when they create and retrieve individual memories. Yes, they are more stable than individual memories because more people are invested in maintaining their stability, but the process of sifting, sorting and re-sorting is basically the same, because it is using the same basic tool – the human brain. I think that what is actually happening is that we are getting increasing triangulation from various sciences – psychology, neuroscience and sociology – that helps us to understand the nature of the gospel materials and therefore what kinds of conclusions we can reasonably draw from them.

They are not ordinary historical accounts and cannot be treated as though they are, but nor are they simply ahistorical materials designed to convince the reader of the author’s particular theological perspective. That we have increasing scientific evidence of this has important implications for Christians, but does not, I think, invalidate the preceding two millennia of faith.

Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

How tradition emerges

This is the second of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310, and follows on from here.

Kirk begins his account of the emergence of tradition by looking at ‘schemas’ – the structures containing a set of ‘typical’ elements for particular activities that our memories use to save space by configuring memories in logical (conceptual or sequential) order. ‘Experiences unfold in unpredictable, diffuse ways, rarely schematically, but in memory they will be organized and recalled as such.’ (p 296) Further, memories which are schematically similar will blend together over time to form a generic memory which achieves the smallest possible size for minimal loss of information (p 267). Although each of us has individual schemas for particular kinds of events, many of them are drawn from the schemas and scripts of the culture into which we are socialised. Kirk argues that that ‘cognitive schemas are already a form of tradition’ and that memory makes sense of the present by enabling us to make connections between present experience and the schematic patterns laid down in the past (p 298).

How well something is remembered depends on the strength of neural connections formed, which depend on the conditions when the memory is initially encoded, and then on what happens when it is subsequently recalled. People are more likely to remember material that matters (is salient) to them and to forget that which is not. They are more likely to remember events that arouse their emotions, and to become emotionally aroused again when they remember these events. In particular, events that have moral significance to the person are more likely to be deeply encoded and more frequently remembered and thought about, which further reinforces the patterns in which they are encoded. This, again, is triangulation of findings from psychology and social memory theory.

He then notes the similarities between memories as cognitive artefacts and tradition forms as cultural artefacts – they both have schematic, scripted structures, filtering of details and convergence upon existentially and morally salient element. They are thus ‘economical bearers of judgements, evaluations, and affects’ (p 299) From here, he moves to memory genres and forms.

When people communicate their memories, they do so using the formulaic patterns of the genres in circulation within their cultures, and the way that the memories are communicated consolidates the memories. Kirk illustrates this with Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnal’s Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis [trans: Grandpa was not a Nazi: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2002), which details the shift in the way family memories are told between the generation that lived through the National Socialist era and their grandchildren as they tell the stories using schemata from their respective ‘ambient cultural fields.’ They show that there has been a shift between generations from the grandparents who simply use the narrative schemas from the Nazi era to tell stories about the soldiers being transported east to Soviet prison camps, and the women in houses trying to hide from Russian soldiers, to grandchildren who distance their grandparents from the regime (Opa war kein Nazi) and even cast them as heroic resisters and helpers of the oppressed. Clearly this tendency for the tradition to ‘romanticise’ events is problematic for the historian and biblical scholar, although Kirk aims to minimise the difficulties by saying that (unlike, the reader must assume, the Jesus events) this study is on memories which could potentially disrupt rather than strengthen the family, so, he suggests the grandchildren view the era as one from which lessons must be learned but which has no bearing on them personally; and that the sample excludes those who are unwilling to talk about their memories, thus biasing it. (pp 299-301)

Kirk next examines how commemorations become traditions (pp 301-303). ‘Community identity is grounded in a shared past; remembering therefore is a high stakes activity: commemoration.‘ (p 301) He describes commemorations as more than just the sum of individual recollections. They form around elements that are important for the moral and social identity of the commemorating community and thus have had individual recollections filtered out. ‘Emergent representations thereby escape the limitations of unreflective, notoriously unstable eyewitness memories with their fragmented, idiosyncratic perspectives’ and thus ‘[c]ommemorative artifacts highlight morally significant elements of a past event at the expense of specific details and thus take on timeless, exemplary qualities.’ (p 302) He states approvingly that they become cultural symbols, virtually decontextualised and stabilized in ‘culturally resonant media forms.’ Again, however, freeing the important elements of a story from their historical context is problematic for the historian and potentially also for the biblical scholar.

From here he moves to the effects of these cultural artifacts back on the cognitive processes (pp 303-305). This section is very dense and provides significant information about the neurobiology of memory, but Kirk appears to be saying that using cognitive-cultural coupling, the brain is able to extend its capacity by using ‘cultural artifacts’ (such as tradition) to store important information. Because of the way that memory works, the memories of individuals are relatively unstable, whereas cognitive-cultural coupling in the form of tradition provides external support which renders salient memories very stable. Tradition, however, displaces or overwrites individual memories, becoming the cognitive basis for individual recollections. Thus, Kirk seems to be saying that once an account of an event becomes part of a tradition, the individual eyewitnesses will no longer actually remember the details of what they saw and experienced – what was salient for them is replaced by what is salient for the community.

My note in the margin of this section says ‘but what about accuracy?’ Tradition is very stable, but it may not necessarily be correct. Opa may not have been a Nazi, but he probably wasn’t the hero that the grandchildren talk about either. This doesn’t matter if the purpose of the communal memory is to extract information about appropriate responses to something like the Nazi regime, but could become quite problematic if someone thinks it would be good to nominate Opa for an award for his bravery.

Finally, before applying his work to the Synoptic tradition, Kirk looks at tradition as an autonomous cognitive system (pp 305-306). His argument here appears to be that when unnecessary detail is stripped so that the tradition can be stabilised and the memory load decreased, the material can be operated on at the higher levels of cognition which are necessary to enable ‘tradent communities’ to apply the information it contains within their shifting historical and social horizons. That is, successive communities are able to apply the concepts and precepts of tradition to the new challenges that arise as the society in which they live changes, thus ensuring the transmission of a cultural identity across generations. This, of course, is an extremely useful thing for people to be able to do with religious tradition because as time goes on it becomes increasingly unlikely that followers of a particular religion will encounter situations that are close to those in which the teachings of their faith emerged. It is not so useful for the historian.

(continued in part 3)

 

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)

 

 

 

 

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.

Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.

Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:

When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.

We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)

If we do this:

we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)

This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.

Rafael says:

New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)

In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.

In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.

One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:

Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)

To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling.  When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.

Criteria of Authenticity

I have been doing some reading around the Criteria of Authenticity for sayings of the Historical Jesus and find that I am now confused. It appears that, despite the fact that scholars talk about The Criteria of Authenticity as though they were an agreed list, they aren’t.

A quick search of the web came up with:

Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
He has

  1. The criterion of multiple attestation on the cross-section approach
  2. The criterion of multiple forms
  3. The criterion of Aramaic linguistic phenomena
  4. The criterion of Palestinian environmental phenomena
  5. The criteria of the tendencies of the developing tradition
  6. The criterion of dissimilarity on discontinuity
  7. The criterion of modification by Jewish Christianity
  8. The criterion of divergent patterns from the redaction
  9. The criterion of environmental contradiction
  10. The criterion of contradiction of authentic sayings
  11. The criterion of coherence (or consistency)

Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals. JSNTSup 191. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

If Richard Vinson’s review of this for JBL is accurate (and it seems to be from what I can see of the book on Google books), Porter suggests that there have been five criteria but thinks there should be three more.

  1. dissimilarity
  2. coherence
  3. multiple attestation
  4. least distinctiveness
  5. Aramaic background plus
  6. Greek language
  7. Greek textual variance
  8. discourse features

John Kloppenborg has an article on his website where he lists one preliminary criterion, five primary criteria and three secondary ones.

The preliminary one is being very suspicious of anything that lines up too closely with the evangelist’s particular theological leanings. This is followed by:

  1. dissimiliarity
  2. embarassment
  3. multiple attestation
  4. coherence
  5. historical plausibility plus
  6. Palestinian environmental phenomena or Aramaism
  7. stylistic criterion
  8. plausible tradition history

Michael Kok has gone with Kloppenborg’s first five criteria.

All this rather surprised me, because I was expecting to find the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar in voting on the gospel sayings. The book that outlines the process and presents the findings is Funk, Robert Walter, Roy W. Hoover, and Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan; Maxwell Macmillan Canada; Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993 and it doesn’t have a neat list of criteria. When you look at pp 16-34, they looked at and for:

The rules of written evidence

  1. Clustering and contexting
  2. Revision and commentary
  3. False attribution
  4. Difficult sayings
  5. Christianizing Jesus

The rules of oral evidence

  1. Orality and memory
  2. The storyteller’s license
  3. Distinctive discourse
  4. The laconic sage

FWIW, my summary of the Funk etal criteria can be found at Jesus_semnar_criteria (because I can’t type accurately and changing the file name now is just too hard). It seems, however, that there is no official set of criteria – or have I missed something?

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.