an apology and explanation

Hi everyone.

Those of you who are following this blog will no doubt have received a notification of a post about Rafael Rodriguez’s latest book. I managed to publish it before it was finished and now WordPress has lost half the text.  I will work on it later this evening and hope to have a sensible version available asap.  :-(

Update

The completed version is now available below. :-)

Rodríguez: Oral Tradition and the New Testament

Media of Oral Tradition and the New TestamentSo, here is the completed version of the post which appeared earlier in very unfinished form:

Between putting information about the parable of the banquet into the relevant chapter of my thesis, I have been reading Rafael Rodríguez’s Oral tradition and the New Testament: a guide for the perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). This book is very new, as you can see from the publication date, and is part of the Bloomsbury series about which they say:

Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers can find especially challenging. Concentrating specifically on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.

I think that Rafael has succeeded in meeting this brief. In less than 150 pages (counting the endnotes) he has provided a glossary of the terms commonly used in the area (‘The what of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the contribution of the important thinkers (‘The who of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the usual model for understanding oral tradition in NT studies, together with a critique of it and a proposal for a better one (‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’) and four examples of the application of the model in NT texts (‘The why oral tradition and NT studies’). The four examples he uses are the relationship between the Synoptics, the prologue from Gospel according to John, Paul’s use of Moses, and ascribing Christ as king in Revelation.

For me, the most important part of the book is chapter 4 – ‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’ in which he outlines the most visible approach to the question of oral tradition and the NT – that which is based on Werner Kelber’s early work together with that of Joanna Dewey and Pieter Botha and others – critiques it and proposes a different model. The usual approach, which he calls the morphological approach, postulates that orality has certain identifiable characteristics and that once a researcher finds these s/he can safely assume that they are evidence of residual oral tradition. The characteristics are based on Walter Ong’s list of nine psychodynamics of orality, but, as Rafael points out, many of these characteristics are also characteristics of good written communication.  He argues, following John Miles Foley, that we need to shift our focus from what an oral-derived text looks like to how an oral-derived text generates meaning and that traditional verbal art exists in a range of different forms from Oral Performance, which was composed orally, performed orally and received aurally to Written Oral Poems which were composed, performed and received in written form. If I understand him correctly, he is not arguing that the characteristics of oral-derived text should be completely ignored, just that they should not take centre stage.  This approach, which he refers to as the contextual approach, requires us to view

the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed and were written by authors, recited by lectors (and/or oral performers), and received by audiences (and/or readers). A contextual approach to oral tradition and the NT fundamentally changes the questions media critics ask and the issues involved in answering those questions. (p 72)

The other parts of the book are also interesting and valuable. He doesn’t just summarize the contributions of the various players – he also highlights strengths and weaknesses in their work, and I found myself agreeing with his assessments. In the process of reading this chapter, I met one or two people whose work I have not read and found that there are one or two things that ‘everybody knows’ about orality that are not actually true – for example, that all reading in antiquity was reading aloud!! I found the fact that there were four different examples of applications of the method helpful, because each required a somewhat different approach. I now need to think about how it might apply to my work with Gos Thom. What I have noticed in the parable of the banquet is that the way that Thomas tells it seems much more like something that is designed to be remembered and retold orally than are either Luke or Matthew’s versions. It reminds me quite a bit of the Three Little Pigs, where the words of the pigs and the wolf are stable and the sequence of events is stable, but the narrative that surrounds the pigs’ and the wolf’s activity is left to the creative imagination of individual storytellers. The words of the host’s servant are stable and the response of the invitees is set in a stable format, except for the second invitation, which suggests to me editing by another person later and also that the original author of this version of the parable was interested in having it easily remembered by an oral tradent – but perhaps I am stuck in the morphological model. :-)

The thing that I found most problematic is not a content issue, but a formatting one, and one I need to learn to live with if I want to buy relatively cheap books: I hate endnotes! I never know which chapter I’m reading without thumbing back to the beginning of it, so finding the relevant note in the back of the book is tedious. Other than that, I thought that some of the definitions in the glossary were unnecessarily complex – but the fact that some readers would not be happy with all the definitions was something that Rafael expected. I am familiar with the words biosphere and homeostasis from my previous studies in the sciences and I did not think that they were used particularly differently in the field of oral tradition, but I found that I needed to read them through several times in order to make sure that I was right.

This is a book that I am glad that I bought. It provides a good overview of the field and helped me to put together some things that have been roaming free in my mind for some time, as well as showing me some new and interesting things. And it wasn’t as peripheral to my current chapter as I had feared, so reading it could count as working on my thesis. :-)

More on memory and orality

James McGrath over at Exploring our Matrix has commented on my previous post.

He says:

The main point I would make in response is that, without writing being involved, the entire notion of a precise verbatim repetition of a story is meaningless. It may be that with some sayings, plays on words were central, and thus we can be fairly certain that such details were preserved (e.g. straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel). But unlike a book read over and over to a child, a story which Jesus composed and told more than once would be subject to the same limitations of memory to reproduce material verbatim that would subsequently affect the retelling by others. Anyone who has written something – even a poem or song in which melody, meter, rhyme, and other features aid recollection – will know that having written something yourself is not a guarantee that you will remember it.

I agree entirely that verbatim reproduction is generally meaningless in oral societies, although there is apparently evidence that some religious rituals are deliberately remembered verbatim and of course, as the late Birger Gerhardsson pointed out, rabbis were trained to remember scripture verbatim. In fact, I think that it was the news of his death which is being reported around the blogosphere that reminded me that I am not as pessimistic as I might sound about our having access to Jesus’ content, even if not his actual words. I read Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity; with, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Eric J. Sharpe (trans). Grand Rapids, Mich. & Livinia, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. &  Dove Booksellers, 1998) soon after Ong’s Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. (New Accents. London and New York: Methuen, 1982) when I was still a research masters candidate and both made me think. I haven’t ended up agreeing with Gerhardsson, but his work has definitely shaped my thinking in a positive way. I also read Jacob Neusner’s preface and was struck by how easy it is to forget the power of our words on people when you are caught up in enthusiasm for disagreeing with their arguments. I always try to disagree politely and thoughtfully, but looking back on my blog posts, I suspect that I don’t always succeed. :-(

To return to James’ point and the reason for this post:

I think that what may have been coming across in this discussion is that all memory is distorted so we have no hope of knowing anything that Jesus said. I want to reiterate that I don’t think we have any hope of proving that anything recorded in the gospels is something that Jesus actually said and I don’t think that we can come up with any particularly water-tight guidelines for working out what is most likely to be things that Jesus said because we don’t know enough about the people who wrote the gospels or their circumstances. I do think, however, that there are some things that we know about oral transmission and human memory that swing the pendulum back towards confidence in our material at the level of content. Robert McIver’s work with the psychological data provides some helpful insights although I think he seriously overstate the case that can be made from his research. What I was talking about in my previous post is, I think, another positive factor.

I agree that having composed something doesn’t mean that you will remember it word for word. I do think, however, that when a person has composed a story to illustrate a particular point, s/he is much more likely to reproduce the significant points accurately than is someone who has just heard it. I also think that when you are retelling your own story, you are more likely to use similar wording for subsequent retellings than is someone else who is retelling it from your ‘original’ because you talk like you and they don’t. I therefore think that Jesus is likely to have retold reasonably close versions of his parables, so the disciples would have heard essentially the same thing several times.

I also think it is likely that the disciples who travelled with him regularly would have discussed them amongst themselves, which would also have facilitated a more accurate recall of something that had been reinforced a number of times. While the process of recalling in a group can tend to ‘sanitise’ the memory of an event, trying to cast the tellers in a more positive light, it can also result in a larger number of more accurate details being recalled than happens when an individual tries to remember something.

Both these things would increase the likelihood of accurate memory of Jesus’ version, whereas a lot of the discussion (particularly from me) has been stressing the forces that move memory away from Jesus’ versions. We also need to remember that, as Rafael reminds us, whatever the details of his life were, Jesus of Nazareth must have made a significant impact on those he encountered. After all, his followers were prepared to be killed in horrific manners by the Romans rather than recant their faith. This suggests to me that there must have been situations where flashbulb/personal event memory kicked in. These are events that are so significant that the person remembering them can produce very vivid and persistent details – including visual, auditory, olfactory images or bodily sensations associated with the event (see McIver’s account of work by David Pillemer in ch 3 of Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels. Atlanta: SBL, 2011).  We also have evidence that in oral societies, once material is established as part of the community heritage, the community tends to take responsibility for ensuring that it is transmitted correctly. Although Bailey’s work (eg “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” The Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991): 34-54) has been criticised by some as being anecdotal rather than involving proper controlled experiments, I cannot see how you can do controlled experiments in this kind of area and the observational data that he provides is informative.

So, no, I don’t think we need to give up and go home. :-)

Update

Do go back to Exploring our Matrix and read James McGrath’s response to this post. I agree entirely.

Oops!

A week or two ago, I got bored with the look of my blog and changed it, but did it in a hurry and failed to notice that the new template didn’t actually include a sidebar for widgets. I think they are all back now, although I am not particularly happy with the look of it and will try to find time to change this in the not too distant future. The blogroll also needs work.

Preparing material for review and publication

As you may have noticed, I haven’t blogged for a long time. This is because last year I was what a colleague terms ‘underemployed’ – ie the church ran out of money to fund my chaplaincy position and I worked in a range of short term casual research positions whilst looking for something I want to commit to for an extended period. Most of the research I did was related to previous qualifications and I simply didn’t have the mental space to think about the Gospel of Thomas. Three months ago, I started a new chaplaincy position and now am almost at the stage where I can concentrate on something other than learning the lie of the land. Last year, although I made minimal progress on my research, I learned and was reminded about useful things.

I have been editing theses/dissertations for quite a few years, and in the latter part of my undermployment, I was paid to check whether the revised versions of papers submitted as peer reviewed articles for a conference proceedings had satisfactorily addressed the reviewers’ comments and then to edit them for inclusion in a book. This was an eye-opening experience, not the least because by no means all the authors of problematic manuscripts were students!!

It does not matter how brilliant your argument material is, if it is presented with poor formatting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax or general written expression, it is less likely to make a favourable impression.  As a result, I offer the following for students who are preparing articles/papers for peer review and theses/dissertations for examination:

  1. Even if the style guide being used by the publication is, IYNSHO, an abomination unto the Lord (like APA 5 or 6), you still have to follow it if you want to see your paper in print. If you are submitting for a conference and they are desperate for papers, the organisers/editors might send your paper out for review in the wrong format, but they will not reformat it for you for publication and in particular they will not transform your beloved footnote referencing system into in-text references or vice versa. Or even transform your Harvard references into APA. This is at least partly because your paper in its current format does not contain the information they need to do this quickly and they certainly don’t have the time to go looking for it. I would recommend putting all your references into a good bibliographic software program (eg Endnote or Zotero) because you can change referencing styles quickly, easily and far more accurately than you can manually.
  2. Having a PhD, even in Education, does not guarantee that a person has a good grasp of grammar, syntax, punctuation or general good written expression – just that they know a lot about a particular area. It is also not your supervisor’s/advisor’s role to proofread and edit your work, unless his/her name is going on the paper. Even then, s/he may not have good proofreading skills. Thus, the fact that s/he has read it and said it is OK does not mean that it is ready for publication, just that it contains no major errors or idiocies.
  3. If you are enrolled in a good educational institution, they will provide guides on spelling, punctuation and common grammatical mistakes. Read them. If anything in them surprises you, check your manuscript to see that what you have written complies with the information in the guide. If you are writing in English, pay particular attention to how you should use (and not use) “however”, “which” and “that”, commas and apostrophes. If you are writing in another language, there will be equivalent common mistakes.
  4. Note particularly that usage varies between different English speaking countries. If the publication wants you to use American spelling, it will also want you to comply with American grammatical and syntactical conventions. If you did not grow up in the US, this means that some of the things you were taught at school will be considered wrong.  One of my friends did her PhD in the US and she said that for the first six months, she would submit written work to her advisor who would want her to change the grammar and syntax from what she believed to be correct to incorrect usage. It was only when she got a US style manual to replace her Australian one that she realised that she was being asked to change from correct Australian English to correct US and things settled down. If the publication uses British conventions, you are fairly safe if you grew up in Australia and New Zealand (although there are some differences), but if you grew up with US conventions, you will be asked to do things that you were taught were incorrect.
  5. If you grew up in a country that uses English as the lingua franca although it is no-one’s first language, there will be some conventions of usage that are not considered correct in the standard English used by any publications outside your home country, and some vocabulary that has been adopted from the traditional language(s) of your country which will need either to be translated into standard English or explained. This is why Word allows you to select from such a wide variety of versions of English. A proofreader from outside your home country will be able to point these out to you, or you can select the desired version of English from the Word menu, but the latter is not without risks.
  6. Be very careful about using a thesaurus to provide variety in your text if you are not writing in a language in which you are very fluent – you may select an option that is wrong in the context in which you are using it even though it is listed as a synonym.
  7. If you are writing in a language in which you are not extremely proficient, you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language to proofread your document. Correction: you should try to find someone who speaks it as their first language and has a good track record of writing academic papers in it. If the student in the next room to yours offers to proofread for you, it would be good to find out, tactfully if possible, whether s/he gets consistently high grades or merely passes. If the latter, then your grasp of the grammatical rules of the language is probably better than hers/his.
  8. Remember that the way you speak a particular language or use it to write emails is not necessarily appropriate for publication in an academic forum. Unless you are transcribing the content of an interview, you should avoid colloquialisms and contractions. As one of my early supervisors said, “you can’t use ‘gut feeling’ in an academic paper, even if you have put it in inverted commas”. The academy is currently undergoing a shift in opinion about how appropriate it is to use the first person (ie “I”, “me”, “my”) and active rather than passive voice (“I have shown that” or “the author has shown that” rather than “it has been shown that”). Read material written the last 5 years to get a feel for what is being done in your language and your field. If you are preparing something for a journal, read recent editions of the journal you are targetting. Talk about it with your supervisor/advisor.
  9. The previous point reminds me that one of the differences in convention between British-based and US-based punctuation is how you use single and double inverted commas (quotation marks). I have switched between the two so often now that I can no longer remember which belongs where and I always check the style manual for the publication.
  10. While it is probably wise to remove the bibliographic software codes from your manuscript before you send it off for review (so that there is no risk of the file throwing a hissy fit on another computer and transforming all your citations into field codes eg #239, rather than the author and publication details) you should only do this as the last step, after making sure that you have saved a copy of the file with the codes still intact.

Because this is now a very long post, I will put the points about dealing with reviewers’ comments in another post.

Farewell R McLachlan Wilson

Ealier this week, Jim Davila posted news of the death of Robert (Robin) McLachlan Wilson as the result of a massive stroke that he’d suffered in the previous week. He was ninety-four years old and it appears that until the stroke, he was still active – publishing his last book just before he turned 90.

He was one of the earlier scholars who wrote on GosThom. I have three items by him (other than two book reviews) in my collection:

Wilson, Robert McLachlan (1960a), Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (London: Mowbray).

— (1960b), ‘Thomas and the Growth of the Gospels.’, Harvard Theological Review, 53 (10), 231-50.

— (1960c), ‘Thomas and the Synoptic Gospels’, Expository Times, 72 (11), 36-39.

He wrote lucidly and coherently and I enjoyed reading his work. Rest in Peace

An overview of Perrin’s “Thomas, the Other Gospel”

I recognise that I have started to talk about Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas, the Other Gospel (SPCK, 2007)in a rather piecemeal fashion, which gives a very skewed idea of his subject matter. Since I probably wouldn’t appreciate it if someone did that with my writing, I offer an overview, which probably should have been done first.

The book, which is aimed at what one might call an “educated lay audience” rather than specialists, is in two parts. In the first, he looks at what has been said about GosThom in books by three US scholars, noting what he finds helpful and what he disagrees with. The books are Stephen J Patterson’s The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Polebridge Press, 1993), in a chapter entitled “The Thomas Community on the Move”; Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief (Random House, 2003) in “The Thomas Community on the Run”; and April DeConick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (T&T Clark, 2005).

From his reading of these works, he generates six questions, two arising from each book, to which he adds a seventh and in the second part of the book he uses these questions as a framework for addressing what, in his opinion, should be said about GosThom.

The questions he addresses are:

  1. What accounts for the strange sequence of sayings in Thomas? Why do they occur in the order that they do? (Patterson)
  2. How might we explain the ascetical elements in Thomas? What socio-religious movement or movements might account for this renunciation of the world? (Patterson)
  3. Why is Thomas so interested in creational themes, that is, in protology? (Pagels)
  4. Why is the Gospel of Thomas according to Thomas? Why not some other apostle? Furthermore, what does this gospel say about the other apostles and why does it say what it does? (Pagels)
  5. What accounts for the disparate substance of the sayings ? (DeConick)
  6. Why are all these sayings connected with Jesus, when Jesus most certainly did not say at least some of the things attributed to him? (DeConick)
  7. Is there a single setting which can be hyopthesized behind Thomas that answers the above six questions in  a stroke? (Perrin) (p 75)

The answer Perrin offers to his question 7 is yes – he believes that the six questions can be answered if one considers that GosThom orginated in late second century Edessa, where it was originally composed in Syriac and later translated into Greek. He argues that the underlying source is Tatian’s Diatessaron, rather than individual Greek gospels, and that it echoes Tatian’s eschatology and asceticism and that it was composed at one time.

In these things he goes against the mainstream of more contemporary US scholarship which is tending to agree that it was composed in stages, the first one being much earlier than late second century. Most agree to a Syrian origin, but some suggest Greek as the original language. It is interesting that Perrin’s argument for an Edessan origin for Thomas is based on his argument for a Syriac original which is supported by Barbara Ehlers’ (‘Kann das Thomasevangelium aus Edessa Stammen?’, 1970, Novum Testamentum, 12 (3), 284-317) arguments against an Edessan origin that most people there spoke Syriac almost exclusively, so it would have been highly unlikely that a gospel composed in Greek would have originated there!

I agree with Perrin’s assessment that the Jesus in GosThom is a much less Jewish Jesus than is the one that appears in the canon and that the picture it presents is at odds with what we have seen there. This is hardly surprising since the gospel was condemned with enthusiasm by the Church Fathers. I am not so sure about some of his other conclusions.

Is Coptic easier to learn than Latin?

This is one of the strings that got someone to this blog yesterday. I must admit that I only did a term of Latin at school and then tested my friend on her Latin in the train on the way to school for five years, so I am by no means as familiar with Latin as I am with Coptic. I think, though, that I can safely say that Coptic is harder to learn than Latin (assuming English is your first language). It has a different alphabet, more tenses and is more inflected than Latin. OTOH, once you have learned a second language, the next one is not as difficult. It probably also depends on your motivation. If you have a reason for learning a language other than “the curriculum says I must”, then it’s easier to stay motivated.

How they got here

Every so often, when looking at your blog stats, you find a search string that makes absolutely no sense. Yesterday someone got here using:

archive photos of vluyn

Vluyn appears to be a town in Germany just north of Düsseldorf, or at least Neukirchen-Vluyn is. As far as I am aware, I have never mentioned it in this blog until now. I wonder if mentioning it will increase my hit rate? :-)

Blog tidying

Earlier this week, I came looking for a link that I wanted  and discovered that I had somehow managed to remove my blogroll from the site design. I’ve just re-instated it, removed a couple of links to places that no longer exist, subdivided it and added links to a few of the blogs that I read regularly that don’t have anything specifically to do with my research. I hope to add a few more as time goes on, but right now I need to get back to fun things like the weekend cleaning and writing a job application. :-)