Perrin on catchwords (2)

John makes a number of points in the comments section of this post, which, again I have picked up and put into a separate post.  First, he says:

You were saying that:

From this he argues (p 94) that since Patterson says that gaps in catchwords = no intentional editing, no gaps in catchwords must necessarily mean that editing has taken place

(my emphasis).

Perrin does not argue that it “must necessarily mean” that, he simply says “the evidence suggests the conscious design of an editor”.

In fact, what Perrin says is:

Patterson considers the dilemma: catchwords could point in the direction either of editorial design or of more spontaneous oral traditioning.  He chooses the latter and he does so because he finds occasional gaps in catchwording, that is, he finds that some saying in Thomas are isolated. But if Thomas was written in Syriac and if, as at least my reconstruction suggests, a Syriac Thomas has no gaps at all, then by the same logic Patterson would have to agree that the evidence suggests the conscious design of an editor (my emphasis). (p 94)

The context of this statement is that Perrin is arguing that Thomas was originally written in Syriac and brought together in the one place at the one time.  By this stage of the book he is confident that he has provided sufficient proof  for a Syriac original that the onus is on others to show that this is not so and he begins this section by saying that “another inference almost ineluctably follows, namely that the Gospel of Thomas … was a carefully worked piece of literature, brought together at one place and at one time by an industirous Syriac-speaking editor” (p 93).  I agree that he doesn’t say quite as baldly as I suggested that the unbroken catchword connections in his Syriac retroversion must necessarily “prove” the work of an editor, but it seems to me that this is exactly the message that the reader is expected to take from this section.

John then says:

Also, when you say:

As I indicated earlier and as Patterson points out, catchwords were important tools for oral tradents who needed to be able to remember long pieces of oral text.

you fail to mention what he has to say exactly about that (it’s on the same page, in the next paragraph!). Here it is:

“A second reason for inferring editorial activity on the part of Thomas, as opposed to envisaging one who merely assembled stray oral traditions, is the complexity of catchword associations. […], a number of sayings have multiple catchword connections sprouting out in two directions at once”. Then he refers to Heim and Weeks, who argue about Proverbs, against the “aid for memory” explanation, based on the complexity of the catchwords (they argue that “the editor(s) wanted to create some kind of textual coherence”).

I have no problem, as I say here, with the notion that the complexity of the chain of catchwords in Perrin’s retroversion demonstrates some form of editorial work that was not done in the course of oral transmission. What I have difficulty with is the notion that this necessarily indicates that the editorial work happened all at once, rather than over time as the document moved between oral and written form.

And John says again:

You also say that:

It seems to me that the careful chain of catchwords and the rather random order rather better fits the notion of a corpus of sayings that was designed to be communicated orally

Perrin objects to your ” rather random order” comment. He says (p. 95):

“At points the Gospel of Thomas does follow the order of both the synoptics and the Diatessaron: Gos. Thom. 8-9, 32-33, 42/43-44, 47, 65-66, 68-69, 92-93 and 93-94.”

And he gives the example of GT 44-45, where part of Matthew fits and part of Luke fits, but a much better fit is the harmonization of Mat and Luke in the Diatessaron.

Further on the order (on p. 97), Perrin says the author was “much more concerned with thematic groupings and above all with linking sayings together by catchwords”.

I think that in these situations, Perrin is referring to the fact that where there are parallels in Thomas to the Synoptics and the Diatessaron, the order in which these parallels appear is the same as it is in the Synoptics and/or the Diatessaron. It is on this kind of evidence that he bases his contention that the Diatessaron is the primary source for Thomas. I have no argument with the fact that Thomas follows the order of the Synoptics/the Diatessaron at these points, but they don’t constitute a particularly large part of the text and this is not what I was referring to, when I talked about rather random order.

The section you quote from p 97 begins by saying that on the whole the author of Thomas has little interest in following the order of the sources, but is “much more concerned with thematic groupings and above all with linking sayings together by catchwords.” One of the oddities of Thomas is that there are a number of sayings which appear twice in slightly different form.

In addition, Thomas contains a number of parables of the Kingdom. All but two of them have synoptic parallels. They are:

Parable Thomas Mark Matthew Luke
The Seine-net Thos 8 – not a

Realm parable

Matt 13: 47-48
The Mustard Seed Thos 20 Mark 4: 30-32 Matt 13: 32-32 Luke 13:18-19
The Weeds among the Wheat Thos 57 Matt 13: 24-30
The Banquet Thos 64 – not a

Realm parable

Matt 22: 1-10 Luke 14: 16-24
The Pearl Thos 76 Matt 13: 45-46
The Leaven Thos 96 Matt 13:33
The Woman with the Jar of Meal Thos 97
The Assassin with the Sword Thos 98
The Lost Sheep Thos 107 Matt 18: 12-14 – not

a realm parable

Luke 15: 4-7 – not a Realm parable
The Treasure Thom 109 Matt 13: 44

As you can see, the only synoptic that is particularly concerned with parables of the Kingdom is Matthew, where all but one of the Kingdom parables appear in a block in chapter 13. The Thomasine Kingdom parables are spread out throughout the text, and if we were to add in the other sayings about the Kingdom, we would find an even broader scattering, which is hardly a thematic grouping.

I don’t think that Perrin’s thesis explains either of these things satsifactorily, for two reasons.

  1. It seems to me that if the author of Thomas was putting time and careful attention to developing something with literary coherence and using catchwords as part of that, s/he would not have repeated so many sayings with minor variations, especially if s/he were modelling her/his work on the Diatessaron in which Tatian set out to produce a harmonisation of the different versions of stories and sayings found in the various gospels.
  2. The concept of the Kingdom is introduced in S3, where we are told to be careful about people who try to tell us that the kingdom is in the sky or the sea, so it seems like a fairly important theme for the gospel. If the editor was really concerned about thematic groupings, I would imagine that this is one that would be grouped, rather than spread out. It is also quite clear that Thomas does not follow the Synoptic ordering for these parables – not only do they not appear in one block, they are also in a different order to that in which they appear in the Matthean block.

While I think that Perrin’s work provides quite good evidence that NHC II,2 is based on a Syriac original, I think the second part of his thesis – that it was written all at once using Tatian’s Diatessaron as its primary source –  is on shakier ground. I am also not quite sure what we do about the evidence we have from the POxy fragments that the sayings that we have in NHC II,2 were not always transmitted in the order in which they appear there (or in quite the same wording). It would be really nice if someone discovered a few more complete manuscripts, or even some more, slightly larger fragments. 🙂 In the meantime I don’t think that any of the theories put forward provides a complete, bulletproof explanation of its origins and I’m afraid I don’t have anything new and startling to offer, nor do I plan to have.

Catchwords and oral transmission

Mark Goodacre asks a question in the comments on my post on Perrin on catchwords that I started responding to and decided needed a post of its own:

I have often heard it said that catchwords may be signs of oral transmission, but is there any evidence for this? Or is it just what we imagine may be the case?

Lots of authors say this, but most don’t give concrete examples.

I’ve just been re-reading the chapter on formulae in Alfred Lord’s Singer of Songs and what he describes for the oral epic singers of Yugoslavia that he and Milman Parry studied is rather different to that of the catchwords in Perrin’s Syriac retroversion of GosThom. From early childhood the Yugoslav poets absorbed the rhythm patterns of the traditional epic poems and a whole lot of stock ways of describing things and in effect they re-compose their poems every time they perform them. As Patterson suggests and Perrin emphasises, their poems don’t have careful, consistent catchword linkages between each line, because they don’t memorise their epics – they put them together on the spot from a remembered story-line and a series of stock language patterns that fit the rhythms of their form. Lord doesn’t use the term “catchword” but there are words that link lines together, although it’s unclear exactly how much of the repetition is about linkage and how much it is because of the need to keep the rhythm patterns consistent – something that isn’t necessary in the transmission of prose.

I think, however, that Perrin is probably correct in saying that a consistent chain of catchwords, such as those in his Syriac retroversion, that link both to the saying behind and the saying ahead is not a mark of unbroken oral transmission from composition to transcription.  It would seem to me, as I think Perrin suggests, that catchwords that go both forward and backward from the saying in question must have been carefully crafted, rather than coming out of the more impromptu process described by Parry, Lord etc. It also seems to me, though, that this does not rule out the interaction between orality and literacy suggested by DeConick in ch 1 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (see eg p 32).

Jacob Neusner in The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70: The masters (1971) Brill, p 165, quotes Louis Finkelstein’s theory that catchwords were used by rabbis to remind them of how the oral Torah was remembered, suggesting that there may have even been a written record of the catchwords before the rest of the Torah was transcribed. The catchwords described by Perrin could have had this kind of function, but I haven’t followed up the reference.

I don’t have anything on the Greek rhetorical methods on my shelves, but this would be another place to look for methods used at the time for preparation of material for oral presentation. Young men were given lessons in how to speak with authority, which required preparation. Simply repeating a speech learned by heart wasn’t going to be convincing and as far as I am aware, there was no ancient Greek equivalent of the modern debater’s palm cards, but rehearsing a skeleton of your argument was, I believe, encouraged by teachers.

So, in answer to Mark’s question (which may have been rhetorical), I don’t have any definitive proof, just places to look when/if I have a bit of spare time. 🙂

Perrin on catchwords

After  a break to follow some distractions and another to earn some money, I am returning to things that struck me in reading Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel. As part of  his doctoral work, Perrin did a reconstruction/retroversion of GosThom in Syriac and first argued there for a Syriac original which is dependent on Tatian’s Diatessaron. He published this research as  Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship Between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002). During the course of this work, he identified 269 catchwords in Coptic Thomas, 263 in a reconstructed Greek version and 502 in his Syriac reconstruction.

I have no Syriac, so I won’t attempt to make any comment on that part of his work, although I would take issue with this comment:

While there is inevitably some guesswork in reconstructing the Syriac, thankfully I was able to make use of some controls. When Thomas parallelled the NT scriptures, I supplied the word-for-word equivalent of the oldest extant Syriac copy of those scriptures. (Other Gospel, 86)

It seems to me that this would only be a valid methodology in  passages where there is verbatim correspondence between Coptic Thomas and the Greek Canon. Except where we have the Oxyrhynchus passages, reconstructing the Greek text is not an exact science, and it seems to me that there are very few passages where Coptic Thomas is exactly the same as one of the Greek canonical gospels. Thus assuming that any hypothetical Syriac Thomas would be exactly the same as the Syriac canonical gospels seems problematic to me. I would see using a word-for-word equivalent of the Syriac scriptures as having more potential to introduce bias rather than control, but perhaps I have misunderstood what Perrin actually did? If he simply means that when translating, for example, the parable of the mustard seed, when faced with several possible Syriac words, he chose the one that appeared in the Syriac Scriptures, I have fewer concerns.

It would certainly seem that being able to nearly double the number of catchwords and create links that don’t exist between sayings in Coptic or Greek by translating back into Syriac provides some quite strong evidence for a Syriac original rather than a Greek one, even allowing for some bias in the retroversion.

The step that surprises me in Perrin’s argument about catchwords, however, is this:

First, the consistency of the catchword pattern indicates a literary as opposed to an oral background. Even for Bultmann, who was loath to attribute synoptic material to the editorial activity of the gospel writers, long chains of sayings indicated the presence of an editor who worked hard to put those saying together. (p 93, quoting Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition, New York, Harper and Row, 1963/1921, 322)

Unfortunately, I don’t have immediate access to Bultmann’s book, but it seems to me rather unlikely that he was comparing oral versus literary transmission when he said this. While catchwords can certainly be used as a literary device, they are also used by oral tradents as a means of remembering the ordering of complex oral material and if we are prepared to talk about “oral texts” then this kind of work is the oral equivalent of editing.

Perrin then quotes Stephen Patterson (The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, Sonoma, Polebridge Press, 1993, 102):

The significance of such a pattern in Thomas may be assessed variously. For example, an editor might have organized the collection in this way to facilitate its memorization. The utility of this for the street preacher, who would compose his or her speeches ad hoc in the busy colonnades of the agora, is obvious.  Alternatively, one could well imagine an editor assembling these sayings simply as he or she remembered them, cacthwords triggering the recollection of each new saying. In this case the catchwords will not have been part of any conscious design on the part of the editor, but simply the result of his or her own process of remembering. The occasional gaps where no catchwords are to be Found suggest the latter. (Italics added by Perrin)

From this he argues (p 94) that since Patterson says that gaps in catchwords = no intentional editing, no gaps in catchwords must necessarily mean that editing has taken place, so the fact that his Syriac retroversion has no gaps in catchword links means that Patterson must conclude that there has been editing. This may not be the case, because I think that the issue is more complex than this. I don’t think, however, that demonstrating that there has been intentional editing necessarily makes a watertight case for the document having been written all at one time by the person who transcribed the text.

As I indicated earlier and as Patterson points out, catchwords were important tools for oral tradents who needed to be able to remember long pieces of oral text. I think that this would have been particularly important for someone who was trying to memorize the material in GosThom because it doesn’t contain any narrative that would help the tradent to keep it in order in his or her mind. Most of the studies on oral transmission of long pieces of text are on narratives about the careers and mighty deeds of heroes, where there is a particular sequence of events that makes memorization easier. GosThom is simply a series of sayings of Jesus, so a chain of catchwords would have been particularly important if an oral tradent was to remember all of it. Thus, it seems to me that a careful chain of catchwords is just as likely to support the argument made by DeConick and others that GosThom moved in and out of oral transmission stages during the course of an extended composition as it does Perrin’s theory that the text was composed late and all at once. It seems to me that the careful chain of catchwords and the rather random order rather better fits the notion of a corpus of sayings that was designed to be communicated orally than it does the carefully crafted work of someone who was producing a written text. If an editor was going to go to all that trouble, why not also try to knock the sayings into a more logical order for the reader? If this is the case, then I think that Quispel’s theory of a shared source explains the commonalities between GosThom and the Diatessaron at least as well as does Perrin’s that GosThom is dependent on the Diatessaron, given the dating issues that Perrin points out on p 97.

In other words, I don’t think I’m convinced, but I am not prepared to be admant about it, either. 🙂

Consequences of multiple tellings of stories

Ben Byerly and Mark Goodacre have made comments on this post which have caused me to give some more thought to how the tradition might have been effected by the extreme likelihood that Jesus told at least some of his stories more than once. I think there are two issues.

1. Development of separate tracks

Mark, I think I can see two ways in which Jesus’ telling the same stories more than once might result in separate tracks of the tradition, but that might depend on exactly what you mean by that. And please note that this is a might, rather than a must. I am very much saying that when faced with parallels that have significant differences, these are options to explain how it came about. Much more work needs to be done on individual passages to decide which option or options are most likely.

  1. The scenario that makes sense to me is that Jesus had a number of stories that he used to illustrate particular points. Since he was clearly a charismatic teacher, I think it’s reasonable to assume that he might have used different illustrations for the same point in different circumstances. For example, the parables of the pearl and the treasure as they appear in the Synoptic tradition are both about selling everything you have in order to get something (the Kingdom) which is of much higher value.  The pearl would appeal to merchants, whereas the treasure would appeal to farmers. He might well have used either or both in particular circumstances, depending on who was in his audience. As I suggest here, the fact that he was likely to have used stories in different combinations, again depending on his audience, is likely to result in their being remembered in different combinations by different people. This would include both people who only heard Jesus once or twice and those who travelled with him all the time, because different people find different things memorable. It is therefore quite possible that one of the disciples might remember one combination because of something that happened on a particular day that didn’t interest another disciple.
  2. Jesus may have told the same basic story but with a different twist to illustrate a somewhat different point- so perhaps Matt 23:25-26 and Luke 11: 39b-41 (the bit about washing the inside of the cup) might have been told differently by Jesus. Again, different disciples would potentially remember different versions because of their own particular interestes.

On the other hand, Jesus may have used common themes to illustrate different points – so that what on the surface appear to be parallels are actually different stories. I think that GosThom 8 (the parable of the wise angler) and Matt 13: 47-48 (the parable of the net) come into this category. I think that they are simply two of the various fishing  stories in circulation at the time that illustrate quite different points. In Thomas, Jesus is pointing out that once people have found the meaning of Jesus’ sayings it will be easy to distinguish from the wrong ones, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is talking about the fact that not everyone who is part of the church will necessarily make it into the Kingdom.

2. Consequences of frequent hearing

Ben’s comment that the disciples would probably have heard some of Jesus’ stories often enough to have known them really well opens up a new stream of thinking about what might constitute incontravertible evidence of textual rather than oral transmission, and of reliability of transmission. I’m sure we’ve all seen partners and children who have heard favourite stories told so often that they can repeat them more or less verbatim. Children in particular are inclined to do so in unison with their parent’s (boring) story. Perhaps, therefore, it doesn’t matter that the disciples were not trained oral tradents. The repetition may have made up for this, and may have enabled them to keep the Jesus tradition reliably in their minds for much longer than would make sense if they had only heard it once or twice?

Dr Who as a test case for human memory?

I am not sure whether I am just verbose, but I started to respond to comments by Mark (Goodacre) and James (McGrath) to this post and it got very long, so I’ve moved it again.

Mark said:

McIver and Carroll appear to assume that the writing-up of a short-term memory of a single text in some way correlates to the evangelists’ use of oral traditions. What McIver and Carroll are comparing are different kinds of use of single-fixed text, not the difference between oral tradition and written text.

Indeed. I think their statistics are useful, but they’re application has problems.

And James replied:

I’ve tried to think of a situation or experiment that might allow for testing of a scenario more like that in early Christianity. Maybe we should get some volunteers to agree to watch Doctor Who, and try to remember what the Doctor says – without DVRing it and watching it again!

I know that James’ suggestion is presented as humour, but I think it is also a serious suggestion? I agree that we need to find a more “early Christianity” scenario, but it really is challenging, partly because we’re not absolutely sure what we’re trying to recreate.

I think there is no argument that Jesus’ audience didn’t take notes about what he said. I think it would be safe to say that it is almost certain that Jesus’ audiences discussed what they’d heard with co-witnesses and/or people who hadn’t been present. The discussion would reinforce memory, but could also change it. Both these things could be replicated with Dr Who (or Lost) audiences and we could argue that telling them that they would be required to remember what the Doctor says would help to correct for the fact that they will have memories that are less well trained for this kind of thing than were those of the early Christians.

What we don’t know about the people present is whether they just developed ways of remembering things or whether they had specific memory training. Even if they didn’t have specific training, I think that modern participants might need some, although I don’t know what.

What we can’t  easily replicate is Jesus’ effect on his hearers’ lives. Many of the people who heard him went because they thought he might have something helpful to say and it is almost certain that some of those who believed him changed how they thought and lived as a result. This would also have reinforced their memories in the longer term. Unfortunately, sane Dr Who fans are not likely to believe what he says and put it into practice in their lives. I’ve never seen Lost, but I suspect it is in the same category. Although I don’t have any evidence right at the moment, it seems logical that people are more likely to pay attention to (and therefore remember better) things that will affect their lives than to things that are just entertainment.

Maybe getting people who want to make a change in their lives for some reason to attend a talk given by a well-known expert and then tracking what they remembered might work better? As a long term member of a Human Research Ethics Committee, I am trying to work out how you might get ethics clearance for this kind of research, which would require some level of deception . . .

Speeches of Jesus (3) – human memory experiments

Again, I am  moving a comment up to a post of its own. Mark Goodacre says, referring to April DeConick, “Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus” in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond The Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008): 135-80 and Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll: “Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem,” JBL 121 (2002): 667-87:

I am not persuaded that we should use the 15 or 16 word string criterion of McIver and Carroll. This is something derived from experiments on contemporary students that included some flawed methods and dubious inferences (some comments on McIver and Carroll are included in a post on DeConick’s similar experiments,

[For some reason that I don’t understand, if you click on the link above, it takes you to an error message saying this page doesn’t exist, whereas if you copy the link and paste it into your browser, it finds the post quite happily. This problem is now fixed.]

Mark, as I indicated in my comment on the previous post, I also have reservations about applying research on 20th and 21st century undergraduates directly and uncritically to 1st century Christians because their memories have been trained so differently. I also agree that the fact that the students in April’s research were given stories that are not culturally familiar will have had an effect on how well they remembered. I therefore don’t think that you can take the statistics in her results and apply them to the 1st century, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to do this in what she terms a pilot study. I think that the kinds of transformations are, however, relevant and would bear further investigation in a population that is more like 1st century Christians.

Although I am using a very small sample size (3) and anecdotal evidence, my friends who are blind have far better memories than do I or my sighted friends because it used to be hugely more difficult for them to keep and access written records than it was for people who could write on paper with pencils and carry the notes around with them. I suspect that PDAs and talking text is going to change this, but I think that blind people in their 40s and 50s and older would be a better example of how memory works than are younger undergrads.

Also, at the beginning of her article, she talks about the Parable of the Lottery Ticket, which she gives to her classes. This is a culturally congruent story and it would be very interesting to see the statistics on it. I have also used this parable in my own classes and bible studies, but I get the participants to re-tell it the same day and even when I warn them that they are going to be asked to re-tell it, I only ever get accurate gist, not accurate detail and not terribly long verbatim strings. Their memories really are not terribly impressive.

All this, I think, makes McIver and Carrol’s data potentially an underestimate of the length of verbatim string needed for reasonable certainty that there is a textual rather than an oral relationship between two texts. OTOH, it is also likely that Jesus’ audience was paying closer attention to him than my students or April’s students were paying to us. Neither April nor I are demonstrable miracle workers, after all! Possibly what we needed to do was to say “pay careful attention – the material I am about to present will be examined”. 🙂

At the same time, I don’t think we are dealing with the kind of material that lends itself to incontravertible proof of how it was transmitted. I think we can probably say, along with the originality software, that any verbatim string of 8 words or more that are not aphorisms or stock phrases has the possibility of being copied from a written text, but that we need a much longer string of verbatim correspondence to be able to say with any certainty that this is so. We then need to look at the string in context and analyse the kinds of changes that the material around it has undergone in order to be a bit more certain about our judgements.

Speeches of Jesus (2)

Doug Chaplin over at Clayboy has responded to my previoius post on Speeches of Jesus, adding two cautions. My response to his response is also too long to go in the comments.  He says:

First, in the canonical gospels there are incidents which are quite differently narrated, such as the story of the woman who anoints Jesus. It is hard to tell whether this represents more than one similar incident or variations of one incident, although most scholars incline (as I do) to the latter view. The difference between variations of an incident – less likely to have happened on more than occasion – is a warning about assuming variations of a saying are simply owing to its having been uttered on more than occasion. A lot of variation is it would seem creative work in either the memory or the narration, and it may still be right to try an essay a judgement about which variant is most likely historical.

I, too, am inclined to believe that incidents like the story of the woman who annoints Jesus are variations on the same incident, rather than different ones. It seems highly unlikely that women made a habit of annointing Jesus with expensive perfume. 🙂

I would suggest that there is a third possibility for variations of this kind, though, and that is in the passing on of stories. Allport and Postman in The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947) provide some fascinating examples of what happens when a story is retold in what they termed “rumour chain”. They had one person look at a picture and describe it to someone else who could not see the picture. This person described it to a third and so on. The most famous of their scenarios was a picture of an African-American man in a suit and an Anglo-American man in overalls and carrying a half-open cut-throat razor. They are both standing in a subway carriage. In most cases, by the sixth retelling it is the African-American who is holding the razor and in some cases he is threatening the Anglo-American with it. In the same way that in proof-reading our own writing we tend to read what we expect to read, people tend to hear what they expect to hear.

It is possible that any two or all three of these sources of variation might have come into play to produce the variations in question.

I’d also like to draw more clearly the distinction between variations between the canonical gospels with respect to narratives and variations between the synoptics and Thomas with respect to how parallel sayings are grouped. When parallel sayings are grouped differently, I would tend to look first at the possibility that they were heard that way because Jesus used them on different occasions. In looking at variations in narrative and variations in detail, I would be more inclined to look at memory and transmission issues. I am also rather inclined to suggest that some of the variation that has been ascribed to redaction may be more likely to reflect the way in which particular events and sayings were remembered in the communities from which the texts came than to be an attempt of a redactor to influence the belief of the community.

Doug continues:

The second caution is that (and this is one of the points made early on in Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism which is not always given due attention) sayings are very hard to evaluate historically. When they are removed from narrative contexts as in Thomas, questions of historicity become almost impossible. Judging the historicity of any of Thomas’ variants depends, I think, on some prior judgments being made about the core of historical teaching material especially in the synoptics, and those judgements in turn depend in part on ones made about the contexts provided from events and narratives. Making historical judgments about Thomas is, I think, a necessarily derivative activity.

I agree. The whole issue of historicity is a really difficult one. I want to say that anything that is not obviously anachronistic or antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching should not be ruled out as ‘authentic Jesus tradition’* simply on the basis that we have no other record that Jesus said it. That is, I think that it is possible that GosThom contains more authentic Jesus tradition than is found in the canon. The problem with this, of course, is that working out what is not antithetical to Jesus’ known teaching involves assuming that teaching in the canon is authentic Jesus tradition, which means that we are, to some extent at least, bringing faith claims into the historical enterprise. This about as convincing as trying to use sections of the Bible to prove the existence of God – they are only convincing if you are prepared to believe that the Bible is an authoritative text, which requires a prior belief in the existence of God.

*I think we have no chance of reliably recovering Jesus’ actual words unless and until someone develops a functional time machine.

Speeches of Jesus & the Canon – Perrin on Thomas (2)

In the next chapter of Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel, I find myself surprised again, this time by a comment about April DeConick’s work. He says on p 61 that either she must develop a very complicated explanation of how the early church took “these Jesus speeches” and cut them up and recombined them or her position “virtually entails that the storyline preserved in Mark is entirely mythological”. I don’t see why this must be so.

It seems to me that although the canonical texts and GosThom are all called “gospels”, the canonical gospels serve a different purpose to GosThom.*

  • The canonical gospels are trying to do two things: to tell people what Jesus taught; and to show people that what he taught is worth paying attention to.  Thus, they need to give information about his life and his work as well as what he taught. They therefore present his teaching within a context that makes it obvious that Jesus was somewhat different to your run of the mill teacher of wisdom.
  • GosThom is only trying to do one of those things. It starts with the presumption that its readers believed that what Jesus taught was worth paying attention to. They didn’t need convincing – they just needed to know what he said. GosThom therefore only presents context when it is necessary to understand the teaching. It makes no suggestion that it attempts an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry, just a collection of the sayings of Jesus that need to be understood in order to escape death.

Accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the canon

It seems to me that a considerable amount of scholarship and general Christian interpretation of the New Testament assumes that Jesus only ever said anything once. Thus, if one author presents a saying in one context and another has it in a different one, one of them must be wrong, or at the very least, have engaged in some creative editing. This, in turn, leads to some quite creative explanations of apparent contradictions in the texts.

It would seem to me, though, that if Jesus went to place A where they were doing X (which was wrong) he would have taught against X there. If he visited place B where they were also doing X, he would have taught against it there as well. If they were doing X in places C, F and J, then he would have taught against it there as well. However, given that it is highly unlikely that he just had the one speech that he trotted out in each place, and that he tailored what he had to say to the circumstances, the teaching against X could have been “written up” in any one of five different contexts if a narrative that was presenting the highlights of Jesus’ teaching were being written. (None of the gospels purports to be an exhaustive account of Jesus’ ministry.) The saying against X might have stayed in the writer’s mind linked with any one of a number of other sayings, depending on whether s/he was remembering what happened at A, B, C, F or J. Mark’s sources and Thomas’ sources may have been remembering different occasions where Jesus taught particular things, linked with different sets of teachings. Thus, differing accounts of the same teaching with a slightly different “spin” in a different context might simply be totally accurate recalls of different occasions where Jesus was reacting to the different circumstances in which he found himself.

I think that total accuracy is rather unlikely and that some of the differences are explained by how human memory works (which I explain in detail in my JBL article), but that’s not particularly relevant here. What is relevant is that the early Church didn’t seem to have any problem with the differing accounts – they canonised all four gospels, after all.

Recording Jesus’ teachings as speeches

In a situation where you are not attempting to provide Jesus with credentials, but simply to record his teachings, the overall context in which he said them is not important, although sometimes the audience makes a difference, or what he was responding to.  As DeConick suggests on pp 65-6 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (London. T&T Clark. 2005), it may be that Jesus’ teachings on five different themes were put together as though they were speeches to enable them to be remembered more readily for oral performance (and to help the audience to remember them). If the content of the sayings were what was considered important, not their settings, then there is no problem about grouping them together so that teachings about a particular issue are together, and so that they build around a theme.

DeConick says on p 66 of Recovering:

When intense study is made of these discourse units, it appears that someone familiar with older sentences of Jesus has secondarily developed them into dialogues and elaborate question and answer units between Jesus and his disciples.

This has implications for the argument that the author of GosThom did not use one of the canonical gospels as a source because it would make no sense to take units that are put together and rip them apart and scatter them throughout another document. It might make sense if you were wanting to produce some kind of thematic overview of Jesus’ teachings. OTOH, it might also be that your source for Jesus’ teaching was the testimony of a different eyewitness who had been present when Jesus combined his teachings in a different way to address a different circumstance. It does not, however, require either a complex theory about how the early church cut up Jesus’ speeches or that the storyline in Mark is “entirely mythological”. The speeches are speeches of oral tradents, not speeches of Jesus.

An aside – the footnote from above

*I often read that GosThom is not really a gospel because it doesn’t have narrative, but it seems to me that modern scholars are the ones who have decided that the gospel genre/Gattung requires narrative. Euangelion simply means “good news” or “good message” and GosThom certainly contains that – it begins by telling us that whoever finds the meaning of the teachings in it will not die. I suspect that the people who wrote the texts that bear the title “euangelion” (or attached those titles to them) did not realise that there was a genre called “gospel” and that they had to obey rules in order to be able to use the title!

Oral transmission and human memory

One of the people who has been commenting around the blogosphere on posts about eyewitness testimony, human memory etc seems to have got the idea (without having read the relevant material) that some of us in the twenty-first century think that the people of first century Palestine were not as intelligent as us because they could not read. This is certainly not what I have been saying and not what any other scholar I’ve read has been saying, but I thought I might try to clarify, just for the blogosphere record.

I use written notes to remind me of things. I have an electronic diary that pops up little reminders that I am supposed to be on the other side of campus in 15 minutes, or at an appointment down town in half an hour, so I don’t have to keep my appointments for the day in my head. I have a shopping list on the fridge at home which I take with me when I go to the shops, so I don’t have to remember what I need to buy. Even if I forget to take the note off the fridge, I can often phone home from the supermarket and compare the contents of my shopping trolley with what a family member reads off to me from the list. My memory is therefore not especially well trained because it doesn’t have to be.

Nearly thirty years ago, when “talking text” was in its infancy, I had a friend who was blind. His memory was much better trained than mine because carrying notes around was more difficult for him. Notes written in Braille were much bigger and on much thicker, stiffer paper and producing them in the first place required access to a Brailler, which was much more awkward to carry around than a pen and scraps of blank paper and putting his list back into the Brailler to add things was not an easy task. In addition, if he put something down, he had to remember where he had left it because he couldn’t just look around to see where it was. He was also much better at recognising people by their voices than I was. Colours were not meaningful concepts for him, so he only remembered them if he needed to.  He knew the colour of his check-in baggage so he could describe it to the airport person who was collecting it for him when he flew anywhere alone, but could not choose appropriate colours for graphs in PowerPoint presentations when he started doing presentations at international conferences.  He had trained himself to use the information available to him in ways that made it easiest for him to function, just as I had. We had different information available, so we functioned differently.

I am therefore very much aware that we cannot assume that just because a hundred western undergraduate students in the twenty-first century can only remember X% of whatever they heard a week ago, illiterate people in first century Palestine would only have remembered X% of what they heard. I am quite sure that they would have remembered significantly more than X%, so I don’t think that we can directly transfer statistics from contemporary research on human memory back to the early Christians ie the quantitative parts of the research.

I do think, however, that we can transfer research about the factors that affect what people remember and forget, ie the qualitative parts of the research. For example, no matter how well trained someone’s memory is, s/he will still only remember the things s/he notices, and they will be the things that s/he finds interesting or considers important. The ways in which memory slips over time will still apply, although the rate of slippage will almost certainly be faster in the twenty-first century than in the first.

As you can see, this has absolutely nothing to do with any assessment of anyone’s intelligence.

Eyewitness Testimony and Psychology

Update 21 April

My article “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research” appears in the latest edition of Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 177-197. April DeConick mentions it in a very flattering way on her blog, the paper version arrived in my mailbox a week or more ago and today I received an email saying that is is now available for free to SBL members at the JBL website.

Richard Bauckham suggests in his 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that we can be significantly more confident than form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life and ministy. In response, I examine the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony and human memory, asking:

  • What light does psychological research shed on the extent to which information obtained from eyewitness accounts could be considered to be accurate information about the historical Jesus?
  • What consequences does this have for the way biblical scholarship might treat eyewitness accounts?

I was just about ready to submit the article for publication when the JSHJ and JSNT issues with critiques of the book and Bauckham’s responses to them were published, so it also takes into account the comments and Bauckham’s somewhat more nuanced expression of his position. I was relieved to discover when I read them that no-one had written “my” article. 🙂 I’m not going to put my conclusions up here because justifying them would take more space than one can reasonably put in a blog post and I’d rather have people critique what I actually wrote than what they think I might have written.

The article began as a paper for SBL Auckland in 2008. I ended up reading 80-90 papers and books to get my head around the psychological literature. An early version of the review of the psychological literature was read by one of the psychologists at UNE who has done significant work in eyewitness testimony and a near-to-final draft was read by a psychologist at University of Otago, so I’m confident that I haven’t done anything outrageous with the psychological evidence. I’ve found it very useful background for my doctoral research and also for the teaching on biblical criticism I have been doing  for the Earliest Christianity unit in my School over the past few weeks.

Like April, I am very pleased to see it in print at last and I’m grateful for her support and that of my two doctoral supervisors (advisers) Profs Lynda Garland (UNE) and Majella Franzmann (Otago) and my family during the production period.