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.

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Memory in real life

In the wake of the SBL session on Memory and the Historical Jesus, a number of people have been posting about this issue, including Chris Keith – with a number of people including Jens Schröter getting involved on the Jesus Blog, and Michael Kok and others here and here. Unfortunately, the Jesus Blog comments have currently disappeared. I hope they can get them back again, because there were some really interesting contributions in them.

I am proposing to do some posts over the next little while to try to draw some links between psychological memory research and the work being done in the area of social memory. This first is more to set the scene than to address the links.

The question at issue in the SBL session seems to have been whether or not we can access the historical Jesus through the gospels, but I think that it is probably better to ask how much about the historical Jesus we can know through the gospels, assuming we are prepared to accept that there was an historical Jesus. As I believe I have said elsewhere, Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) provides the best coverage on the psychological literature about memory as it applies to the gospels that I have so far read, but I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws. If you want a shorter version or can’t get hold of the book, my article:  “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97) and his response: “Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 131, no. 3 (2012): 529-46), are a good place to start.

McIver picks up on some research done in Canada which indicates that about 80% of what eyewitnesses remember of an event is accurate and says 80% is a lot  so we can be confident that the gospels are pretty reliable at the level of gist. He also cites research that indicates that when eyewitness testimony is inaccurate, the mistakes are things that are likely to have happened, rather than wild fabrications. I suppose this is helpful when confronted with people who suggest that the miracle stories are wild fabrications, but not if what you are looking for is a way to track Jesus’ actual words. It seems to me, though, that far more of the controversies within the church stem from people wanting to treat particular parts of the gospels as Jesus’ actual words and having problems with what appear to be accounts of the same events that vary on the level of fine detail than come from arguments about whether or not he really performed miracles.

If we have to accept that not every word is accurate, we want to be able to tell which bits are most likely to be inaccurate. The problem is that in order to be able to predict that, we need to have a very good knowledge not only of the social and cultural conditions at the time, but also quite a lot about the interests and life experience of the authors, and we just don’t have that knowledge.

Very few of us have eidetic, or photographic, memory. We tend to concentrate on the things that interest us or are important to us, and other details tend to be forgotten, but when we want to tell someone else about our experiences, if the telling of the story needs particular details in order to hang together well,  our minds will helpfully fill in lost ones with things that we know from past experience are likely to have happened. This isn’t a conscious action and it certainly isn’t an attempt to mislead the hearer and usually it’s harmless and undetectable because it’s only filling in tiny gaps with what the person telling the story’s unconscious thinks are irrelevant details – whether something happened on a Monday or a Tuesday, what coloured clothing they were wearing etc.

As memory fails with age, we are likely to substitute more details from what psychologists call schemas – information about what we normally do in particular situations. Things like our normal Monday routine, the route we normally take to the shops etc provide us with schemas. When something goes wrong with our neural processes, the gaps get bigger and the substitutions from schemas more pronounced until they become abnormal and the medical profession call them confabulations. Since my mother had her second stroke, there are significant gaps her memory and she often confabulates. My brothers and I can frequently pick up the confabulations faster than can the staff in the aged care facility where she lives, because when she tells them things that might conceivably have happened in the life of someone of her age and life experience they can only take them on face value. My brothers and I often know either that what she is describing simply didn’t happen or happened in an entirely different context. She isn’t trying to deceive anyone. She genuinely believes what she is telling us and it is believable. It’s just not true.

My brothers and I have special knowledge of my mother’s interests, experience and circumstances which make it much easier for us to separate truth from confabulation in our mother’s stories. The facility staff don’t. When it comes to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, readers in the twenty-first century don’t even have the same level of ‘insider knowledge’ as the facility staff do of my mother. Our chances of being able to work out which believable details of the gospel accounts are accurate and which are not are very, very slim, even when we are pretty sure that some of them simply cannot be correct.