The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 1

Lately my mind has been processing whether or not we need The Jesus Project (TJP). I am particularly worried that the people involved will do nothing more than maintain their positions as mythers or positivists and there will be nothing accomplished beyond a stalemate regarding Jesus' historicity - except a media blip that scholars yet again can't agree on anything, even Jesus' existence.

But this worry is not something I want to talk about today. I'll likely take it up in another post later on. I only mention it now because it is this concern that has fired me up today to think about the problem of the historical Jesus more generally. So what this post is about is the scholarly enterprise that TJP is a reaction to - the Jesus Seminar (TJS) and the numerous claims of books by scholars over at least a century and a half - that they have recovered "the" historical Jesus.

I also want to preface my comments by noting that the turning point for me - the THING if there was one THING - the moment when I KNEW I would become a biblical scholar - was when I was in my senior year in college and had just read Norman Perrin's fabulous book, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. I was walking across campus reflecting on the book, and I had been so inspired (one might even say liberated) by Perrin's words that I could see my own future as an academic very clearly for the first time in my life. I spent the next years gobbling up everything I could read from Bultmann to Jeremias to Vermes, fascinated with the quest for the historical Jesus. This was in the mid 80s, which marked the start of the Jesus Seminar and the industry of publishing portrait after portrait of historical Jesus. I had some qualms at the time that the authenticity of Jesus' sayings was tied to a democratic vote of colored marbles. But I understood the arguments and decisions that were being made by TJS because I understood the methodology which was standard fare for anyone studying bible. It wasn't so well-known to the public, but for academics the methods were quite traditional and acceptable in the Academy.

I have discovered something neat about my life since then - that I never stop growing and learning - that when I learn something new, it usually ends up affecting a number of other things that I thought I knew - and so this leads to new questions whose answers sometimes open up a can of worms, or lead to uncertainties, or re-orient my picture so that finally everything falls into place (which can be nice).

And so it has been. I defended my dissertation in December, 1993. Since then I have continued to learn, and I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt, as is the Jesus Seminar Jesus. This Jesus is nothing more than a constructed person who exists only in our imaginations. I say this not because I am a myther. In fact, I think that the myther position cannot be maintained, because parallels between Jesus' myth and other ancient myths tell us nothing about whether or not he lived as a real person. It only tells us that ancient people cast their memories of Jesus into mythological narratives and schema that were part of their culture and minds. Rather I say this because I have come to realize over the years that the methodology and the assumptions of the methodology that were used to construct Perrin's Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are bankrupt.

I'm not taking these in any special order because I'm thinking aloud here. So in this post let's look at multiple attestation of independent sources. For this criteria to work it assumes that if I find the "same" saying of Jesus in more than one source (that do not have literary connections), I can be more confident that the saying is early (because the two sources are picking it up from something prior to them, rather than the author of the source creating it himself). The conclusion is that this is a saying that we can more confidently trace to Jesus.

But is it? If we study ancient oral and rhetorical culture, if we study human memory, such a confidence fades quickly. And when we realize that, in addition, the Jesus traditions are being transmitted within a charismatic environment where the believers are convinced that the living Jesus still speaks to them through their own prophets (which was an established "office" in the early church that was occupied by both men and women), any confidence left vanishes.

I can imagine a situation in which a prophet only a few years after Jesus' death might address an audience out of the spirit saying, "And Jesus says to you today, 'Do not cast your pearls to the pigs." Did Jesus say it? I mean the historical Jesus? Or the living Jesus of the spirit? I don't know. And I imagine the audience didn't know. But let's say that there were a number of people in the audience who liked it, and so they happened to pass the saying on to their families and friends, and it became quite popular, finding its way into a couple of our earliest Christian sources as words of Jesus.

So what does multiple attestation in independent sources actually tell us?
  • that the saying was remembered as Jesus' by some early Christians,
  • that it was well-known and popular enough to find its way into more than one early Christian book,
  • that early preachers and missionaries found it useful enough to keep it in circulation,
  • that the saying existed in more than one version.
The latter point further suggests that it is impossible to get back to one originating structure or version of the saying from which the other versions are deviations. Furthermore, if the sayings have no literary dependence on each other, it is impossible to reconstruct a linear development that would suggest what the original structure might have been. Even more to the point is the fact that in oral transmission there really is no original version of the saying, but many originals each time it is performed.

Thus multiple independent attestation does not leave us confident that multiply-attested sayings more likely represent sayings that the historical Jesus originated than singly-attested sayings. Morever, multiple independent attestation works against any program that wishes to establish Jesus' actual words because, without direct literary dependence, it is impossible to reconstruct a single originating structure and identify deviant versions, let alone confidently trace them to the historical Jesus. Multiple independent attestation leaves Jesus' words multiform and fluid and smack dab in the middle of the early Christian experience (not necessarily the historical Jesus').

Tomorrow I will try to post my thoughts on a second criteria used by the Jesus Seminar to determine Jesus' words.

I was surprised too

As a follow-up to my post last night, I want to stress that I was very surprised by the results of my experimental exercises. I had been taught as a form critic and a source critic and a redaction critic in university. So these were my standards, and I thought that their conclusions were reasonable given our evidence. So I set up my experimental exercises with the expectation that I would see some distinction in the memory distortions that occurred in the different media modes of transmission (OO, OW, WO, WW).

When I didn't, it struck me hard how much our field makes up theories with little to no hard evidence to support them. And then we go about using those theories as our assumption base and creating more theories on top of them. The only thing that we go on is the seat of our pants, and any reasonable scenario appears arguable and convincing. We tell ourselves it is okay because we cannot recreate the ancient world to study, and continue along our merry way. At least this has been my own personal experience.

But what happens when we compare the results of our modern day experiments to the texts we have and we discover comparable memory distortions, when human memory appears to be the big factor? In this case, the position that needs to justify itself is the one that continues to plead that we don't have the ancient people to study.

I want to emphasize that my sample was small and only was a pilot exercise. More testing needs to be done. To do this, I really need to set up a lab at Rice, and to do this is going to require money and a big time commitment on my part. I still have an entire data set from my earlier experiment sitting on my shelf in which I tested for secondary orality. This data is waiting to be collated and analyzed, but I haven't been able to get around to it yet. In this case, I asked the subjects to memorize the mustard seed parable from Mark. On a set date, I tested them on their memory of the parable by asking them to record it. Then I asked them to listen to a different version of the mustard seed parable. I then asked them after a period of 45 minutes (so we would be dealing with long-term memory instead of immediate recall) to record the version that they had heard. I have no idea yet regarding the results, because I haven't had the time to do the data analysis yet.

These experiments taught me more than I can even convey in writing, but they required a level of organization and computation and rigor which was taxing for me. I got little else done that year which was frustrating since my real academic interest is intellectual history. At the moment, I am trying to handle the new Coptic codex which contains the Gospel of Judas, and so any return to this type of cognitive classroom is going to have to wait for me. But I encourage my colleagues to consult cognitive psychologists at their universities and begin their own testing. Be open to what might happen, and do not be afraid to share what you learn. The way to move the field forward is to try new things and see what we can see. If nothing happens of importance, oh well. But if we learn something, doors might open to us that otherwise would remain closed.

human memory is THE factor

I appreciate Mark Goodacre's response to my recent posts. But I must insist that experimentation makes a difference - a huge difference - in what we can and can't know, and what we can and can't argue. On this see the good post by N.T. Wrong (who seems to be consistently right - when will we know your ID?).

Take for example Professor Bartlett's experiments which were created not as laboratory experiments, but as real life tests of human memory. He asked subjects to read a story three times. Then at varying intervals he asked his subjects to write the story down. He noted specific alterations (what we call today memory distortions) to the materials. These alterations are specific and consistent. I found the same ones, and I did not have access to his experiments until after I had run my own and was writing up my analyses. This was another shock to my system.

What is fascinating is that originally I wanted to track the differences in media environments. So I had divided my subjects into five groups: oral-to-oral (OO=heard saying and orated reproduction); oral-to-written (OW=heard saying and wrote down reproduction); written-to-oral (WO=read saying and orated reproduction); written-to-written (WW=read saying and wrote down reproduction); and sources-retained (SR=read saying and wrote down reproduction but retained written "original"). In other words, I had four media environments in which composition and recall relied entirely on human memory, while one media environment allowed my subjects to consult a written source. I was confident that I would discover all sorts of differences in the first four mixed media reproductions and was ready to track them.

Much to my surprise, the differences in these four media environments were not present at all in long-term memory reproductions. In other words, in the four the media modes that relied on human memory for transmission, there was no difference in how the material looked after it was transmitted. The material underwent the same type of changes at the same rates. The differences occurred only when the written source was retained and the subjects could consult it.

In other words, from the reproductions themselves made by my subjects it was impossible to deduce whether the subject heard the saying or read the saying, wrote it down or orated it, as long as this was done from memory and not from consultation of a written source. The factor for distortion in transmission was NOT the media environment - it was dependence on human memory.

So how can we tell if the author of Thomas' parable of the Wheat and Tares was dependent on Matthew? If we are dealing with literary dependence through consultation of Matthew's text, we would expect either near verbatim reproduction or paraphrase according to the results of my experimental exercises - and we have neither of these. This is too complicated for me to go into here, so please have a read of my article and the results which I charted.

If the author of Thomas' parable was remembering Matthew's version, then the only way to know that it is Matthew's version and not some other is to detect a significant amount of Matthean development of the parable in Thomas' version. It becomes difficult at this point to detect exactly what is Matthew's development, since the concept of ONE originating parable cannot exist in an oral-rhetorical culture.

I REALLY caution all of us on this point, because I discovered in another experimental exercise that I didn't publish (yet?) that when you have twenty-five versions of a parable in front of you that all look similar, if you ask how these twenty-five versions came about, you are tempted to try to build a family-tree based on similarities in some versions. But what I'm finding is that people make the same adjustments to versions INDEPENDENTLY of each other, and these adjustments are due to the way in which our memories work, and cultural and linguistic phenomena within a given generation of people. So the twenty-five versions may be all independent versions with no relationship to each other except that all persons were present to hear a version orated (and in fact were in the case of my experimental exercise). I admit being quite shocked about this, and seeing form criticism fail miserably before my very eyes.

But if we examine the Thomasine parable carefully we see that we do not have significant commonalities with Matthean secondary developments (="rationalization" or "idiosyncrisies" as Bartlett would have phrased it). The verses that appear to me to reflect Matthew's theological interests - the dialogue of the enemy in vvs. 27-28 and the accumulated proverb in v. 30 - are not found in Thomas' version. But Thomas' version represents a condensed form of the parable, although it is impossible to conclude that this originating form is a memory of Matthew's version or some other version available to the person who composed Thomas' version (which still, based on studies of oral composition, has the characteristics of an orally-composed text).

SBL Memories 3: Become more scientific

I promised to expand on points 3 and 4 of my last post, which I would like to do today. Mainly I want to respond to the persistent comment that because we can't experiment with ancient people, we can't learn anything valuable and shouldn't bother experimenting or relying on modern psych literature.

Although it is certainly true that we do not have ancient people to use in our experiments, the conclusion that we can't learn anything valuable and shouldn't bother experimenting or relying on psych literature is not a justifiable conclusion. What it amounts to is an excuse to keep us all in the dark about the impact human memory had on the Jesus traditions and how materials were actually composed in a world in which literacy was so low that an oral consciousness even dominated the written word and scribal practices.

Why do we want to be kept in the dark? Because it allows us to conclude whatever we want to from our ancient sources, with no justification beyond that it might sound good to us? This way we can keep the red letter edition of our bibles and we can write assuredly who the historical Jesus was?

But the facts are these. The only way that we have the actual verbatim words of Jesus is if someone followed him around and recorded in writing immediately everything he said with 100% accuracy, and then this document was copied with no errors into other documents. Or if someone with a very good short term memory spoke immediately what he had heard to the next person who also had a very good short term memory and so forth until it was written down with 100% accuracy. Since neither of these processes are likely, we can forget the red letter editions, and we can forget knowing what he said verbatim or who the historical Jesus was beyond the broader strokes.

What about trained discipleship, where Jesus was the teacher teaching his disciples to memorize his words? For those who like this model, it must be kept in mind that such training, if it existed (which I seriously doubt in the case of the Jesus movement since this is nowhere found in our Christian sources) was not about verbatim memory. It was about remembering the central teaching and a few words, and reconstructing from memory the best one could. The ancient people knew that their memories, even trained, were not that accurate. This is why the rabbis had all kinds of magical spells to try to improve their memory of the Torah! Our notion of memorizing is based on our knowledge of literacy, where we have texts that we can read over and over and over again, test our memory of it for accuracy, and keep working on it like this until we get it into our long-term memories. But this is not the way of the ancient world, where most memory work had to be done orally with little to no reference to written words. What one can remember in this type of learning environment is very different from the literate "memorizing" we all think about today.

In order to know how this process worked and how it might have affected the composition of our texts, it is essential in my experience to experiment and to read in cognitive psychology which tells us how human memory operates and affects the transmission process. When we compare the results of this knowledge with what we see in our texts, it is really quite amazing what we can learn about the ancient people processes.

Let me give an example that I mentioned too in the SBL session. Professor Goodacre points out that on several occasions Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a given parable, making the ending almost unintelligible. He uses the Parable of the Wheat and Tares as a clear example of this. He concludes that this clumsiness comes from Thomas’ familiarity with the Synoptic stories, when he rushes to retell the familiar story, rather like someone who can’t tell a good joke, he rushes ahead to the punchline and leaves out the middle.

What is the evidence that writers who have a literary document in front of them from which they are copying ever leave out the middle because they are rushed? Just based on logic, I would think that literary copying would be otherwise. That the copyist would be more careful to preserve the material he is using, that he is working slowly, that he can stop and go back and double check, and that he can erase and correct. Such is not the case, however, when an author is relying on human memory, when he cannot double check a written source. Even more so for the author who is composing orally, when in fact he really is like a teller of jokes who forgets the middle to rush to the end, and who cannot stop and redo it, or erase what he has just said because he is speaking, not writing, as he composes. But this is just my logic, it is not based on any scientific data.

So what about scientific data? What experiments have been done that might help us? The subject of memory distortion is its own field of study within cognitive psychology, but most studies on errors of commission generally try to explain why memory distorts rather than how it distorts. Although there has been related work done in the field of cognitive psychology on the instability and stability of human memory, the only experiments conducted that might help with the questions we have about literary dependence is the work of McIver and Carroll (JBL 2002, Applied Cognitive Psychology 2004). So I went after a grant and set up my own pilot experimental exercises with the help of Professor Jean Pretz, a cognitive psychologist at Illinois Wesleyan University where I was a professor at that time. I have just published the results in Tom Thatcher’s volume, Jesus, the Voice, and the Text, "Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," so I refer you to that article for all the supporting data. I want to emphasize that the results are based on only forty-four subjects and my goal was only to run a short pilot – to test the waters and see if my results warranted further experimentation on a larger-scale that would be able to generate more-significant statistical data. Even though these findings should be tested further, the results are in line with the results of other studies conducted by psychologists who study human memory.

One of these relates directly to Professor Goodacre’s example. In my experimental exercises, I asked different groups of students to transmit proverbs, parables, and miracles stories in different media environments. I found that the traditions that relied on human memory for transmission suffered drastic condensation and remodeling, even to the point of becoming nonsense. The psychological experiments of Professor Bartlett in the 1930s proved this as well (Remembering, Cambridge, 1932). Whenever a person was asked to recount from memory a story, and it was written down, the narrative was denuded to an undecorated tale. Bartlett noticed that only the main points were left, the central motifs.

This is not to say that details weren’t added. They were, and when this happened, they usually were features more contemporary or idiosyncratic, representing the view, and as Bartlett called it, the rationalization of the tradent. Even so, moderate expansion was not the norm in any of the memory environments that I studied. But it was the norm for the words to be condensed into something more easy to recall.

Data from my own experimental exercises not only support Bartlett here, but further suggest that the lost of details happens mostly in the middle of the reproductions just as we see in Thomas 57. I might add further that the entire saying displays the characteristics of an orally transmitted parable. It commonalities with Matthew’s version amount to a few memory trigger words like “good seed”, “enemy came,” “pull out the wheat,” “harvest” and “burned.” Although the general message of the parable is maintained across the versions, the details and presentations are strikingly different. Thomas’ version has been abridged over the years of its oral performance to the point that the antecedent “them” has been lost. Matthew’s version has been expanded during its transmission so that it contains secondary features that appear to reflect the theological interests of Matthew, such as the dialogue about the “enemy” in vvs. 27 and 28 and the accumulated proverb in v. 30. Both versions suggest that each author received something older, yet exactly what that older version was is impossible to determine. The reason for this is that in the oral sphere we can have no single originating version from which we can create a family-tree of dependent versions.

Let me know if you want to hear more about this subject. I will gladly post on it. But this particular post is getting too long for a blog.

SBL Memories 2: Dating our sources

On Saturday afternoon, the new consultation on the Cross and Diversity in early Christianity held a session on dating sources. Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole gave key note papers. I responded to Goodacre and Stephen Patterson to Gathercole. The room was packed. People were hanging out the doorways, and people were even sitting behind me when I was speaking at the podium. Conclusion: the room was too small for a discussion that many wanted to be a part of.

My sense was that this was a panel that really brought out how divided the academy is in terms of method and assumptions. It showed me just how much we are in a time of transition, when the older models are being seriously questioned and yet we don't have anything better in place yet. I tried to emphasize three major shifts in the field that I think must be taken very seriously:

1. What are we to do with the extra-canonical materials? My approach is to understand three phases of writing among early Christians. I would place these documents in these phases, which means that there is substantial material to work with in the pre-70 CE period, informing us mostly about Jerusalem and Antiochean Christianity and the conflicts that were taking place. I am still not convinced that the provenance of Q is Galilee. It appears Antiochean to me:
First-level bearers of tradition. Pre-70 CE. The early missions when letter writing was important, as well as instruction manuals and catechisms of Jesus’ words. Here I would place Paul’s letters, the letter of James, the Didache, at least two versions of Quelle, and the early written book of Thomas that I call the Kernel Thomas.

Second-level creators of foundation stories. 70-100 CE. The death of the eyewitnesses and the destruction of the Temple prompted this generation of Christians to rewrite their memories and revise their received traditions. In this period, the synoptic gospels and John, Gospel of the Hebrews, Acts, deutro-Pauline letters, Revelation, P. Egerton 2 (?), Hebrews (?),

Third-level developers of formative theology and ecclesiology. 100-135 CE. This generation of writers was focused on formative theology, ecclesiology and interactions with other communities (whether peaceful or aggressive). 1 Clement, Johannine letters, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Pastoral Pauline letters, commentaries of Basilides (lost), writings of Valentinus (fragments), Shepherd of Hermas, writings of Marcion (lost), letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, Papias’ books (fragments), Hegesippus (fragments), Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Ebionites, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of Peter.
2. New developments in textual criticism and scribal practices are demonstrating that the eceletic text we call the critical edition is NOT a first century text, and is NOT what the early Christians wrote or were reading or hearing read. We have created a manuscript of the “Bible” which we treat as if it were a first-century document. The Nestle-Aland edition is not an ancient manuscript. Its committee readings to do represent any manuscript that ever existed in the ancient world. Yet our forefathers worked with this as our received critical text and made all sorts of theories about literary relationships between texts based on comparing Nestle-Aland readings internally and externally to other texts. And this approach continues today without even the slightest pause.

But honestly when we are dealing with issues of literary dependence and basing our conclusions on “same” words here and there, shouldn’t we be more than a little concerned that we don’t have much in terms of manuscripts prior to the third century? And those which we do have vary substantially, even versions of the same text.

This sort of variation is typical of rhetorical societies where scribal practices have developed out of oral consciousness. Add to this that we know the early Christians were quite comfortable altering texts to fit their needs, and complaining loudly about other Christians whom they thought were doing so too.

This suggests that we have two big hurdles: we don’t have the first-century texts, and we don’t have stable texts until relatively late, and some would argue, if ever. So for the future of literary dependence arguments to succeed, scholars are going to have to figure out how to take into account our vast manuscript tradition and what the existence of all these variants actually means in terms of ancient composition and transmission of documents.

3. We need to understand how ancient people actually composed their texts, how they operated within the rhetorical environment. What part does human memory play in this process? I will try to post separately an expansion on this issue.

4. We need to start testing our theories by setting up scientific experiments, or at the very least, reading cognitive psychology literature beyond a few college textbooks. Because human memory is a factor in the transmission of materials in rhetorical environments, it behooves us to know how the human memory works and how its effects might be reflected in the various versions of sayings of Jesus that we find in the literature. I'll try to post a separate post on this as well.

What is the relationship of the versions of the male-female saying of Jesus?

Richard has brought up in his comment to my last Apocryphote on the Gospel of the Egyptians the question what was the relationship of the versions to each other? The problem has traditionally been approached from source, form, and redaction critical methods. And it has essentially got us no closer to a good answer.

My approach to the problem is broader and based on the movement of traditions around early Christian communities. First, some version of this saying was an oral teaching that became a liturgical prayer at baptism long before it was written down. So we don't have any "originals" in terms of the originating version, but we have four "originals" in terms of the moment that they were written down. None of them appear to be literary copies of the other. So there is no literary dependence going on. In fact, what we see is a very "oral" consciousness here, with bits of different sayings that have twined together on different occasions and for different reasons.

Compare for instance saying 37 of the Gospel of Thomas which I have put up as the Apocryphote today. See how pieces of that saying are also in the Gospel of Egyptians version of the male-female saying? This is what happens when materials pass around in oral environments or environments where human memory is the operating mechanism (not literary copying). Pieces of sayings get confused because they become attached to other sayings in people's memories. So when they are recalled from memory, particularly orally where there is no opportunity to correct or revise, they become mixed up.

So what can we know about the transmission history of the male-female saying? Gal. 3 is our oldest version. It is liturgical, which means it is being used as part of the baptism ceremonies in Antioch and probably has been for a long time prior to Paul's arrival. The saying pops up in the accretions of the Gospel of Thomas in Syria in the late first century probably because it was being used in liturgy there too. The saying is known also in Alexandria to both Clement of Alexandria in the late second century and in the Gospel of the Egyptians from the early or mid-second century. And the saying is known to 2 Clement, a mid-second century Roman (?) homily written on for a baptismal service (?).

Tracking this as a tradition, what is the common denominator? It is an early liturgy that Paul knows was being used in Antioch where he learned it. My best critical guess is that this saying and the liturgy upon which it was based was from Jerusalem which had a mission to Antioch, Edessa (Gospel of Thomas), Alexandria (Gospel of the Egyptians), and Rome (2 Clement). So the saying and liturgy were well-distributed from an early time. I want to also note that Jerusalem sits on the road between Edessa and Alexandria. So there is a major connection in the early Christian traditions between Syrian and Alexandrian Christianity which develop quite independent of Rome for a couple of centuries.

Rhetorical Cultures and orality

Both Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson have posted today on rhetorical cultures. I wonder what they are studying this summer at Duke? I want to interact with a few of the points that they raise.

I really must emphasize again that secondary orality in our literate culture has nothing to do with orality in a rhetorical or transition culture. They are different beasts entirely. Dunn is not wrong to make the emphasis he does. Orality in our culture (=secondary orality) is completely dependent on literacy and the literate mind or consciousness. This is not the case in rhetorical cultures which are dependent on the oral mind.

Rhetorical cultures are not the same as literate cultures like ours. They are transitional cultures. They are cultures where almost everyone is illiterate, except for a minority. Even the minority who are literate, are not literate like we are literate. They have a different consciousness. They retain an oral consciousness. They handle written texts like they handle oral texts, and they handle writing like they do speaking. If you want a good example of what this means, I recommend reading Amin Sweeney, A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World. I posted a full BOOK NOTE HERE<<< on this last year, and discussed how this might help us to think through the Synoptic Problem.

The literate people in oral cultures do tend to end up the leaders, although this does not mean that all leaders were literate, or that all missionaries were literate. But it does mean that the people who were literate had more power, were seen as "magical," and they controlled the traditions for future generations.

"According to the scriptures" doesn't mean they were reading. Most of the time they were remembering what the scripture said - what they had heard read or recited to them, or what they may have read at some point.

What is secondary orality?

Mark Goodacre and Loren Rossen have each new posts about orality. Mark Goodacre mentions secondary orality, which is a matter of much confusion, mainly because scholars in our field, including myself, have been too free with its use.

Walter Ong coined the term "secondary orality." I wonder if it was indeed such a good idea because it tends to confuse the issue of orality in oral and oral-rhetorical cultures with verbal utterance in print cultures. He used the term secondary orality to discuss orality in print cultures where orality is completely dependent on print. It is the opposite of primary orality where orality is not dependent on print.

Ong understood orality in our culture to be completely dependent on literate mentality and modes of thinking. Electronically processed words are either dependent on written words (as in books on tape) or a script (as in radio or TV) or, in the case of talk shows, the electronic word becomes its own form of print that can be edited, replayed, resequenced, etc., just as we do with writing. This new age of "secondary orality" (Ong often put quotations marks around this phrase to indicate caution that it was not the same thing as orality) has some similarities with orality in that it draws in audiences to participate thus fostering a communal sense, it focuses on the present moment, and can even use formulas. BUT "it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well." Although we might see some of these common features, Ong writes, "It is not the old orality." For this discussion, see Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, chapter "Print, Space and Closure."

Now what, if anything, does secondary orality have to do with oral-rhetorical cultures like the one we study? Here things get even more confusing. Scholars, including myself, have used this word to refer to possible moments when we think we see preserved in a piece of literature orality that is dependent on another piece of literature. An example? A saying in one of the gospels that is not literarily dependent on another piece of literature (that is, it hasn't been copied from one text into the other). Rather the author may have heard the saying read and is writing that down, or some such scenario.

But is this really secondary orality? I have struggled with this for a couple of years now. And I will continue to struggle with it when I return next year to my orality-scribality experiments, and my study of human memory. For now I want to say that I don't think it is the same thing. And I wish we had never started using this term in this new way. What I think we have to do form now on is leave the term "secondary orality" to discuss the type of orality we enjoy today - one that is completely dependent on the literate word and electronic forms - an orality that is NOT the same as what we find in oral or oral-rhetorical cultures. This means that we need to create a new language to discuss the different forms of orality that we observe in oral-rhetorical cultures. This is a project again for our generation of scholars to sort out the best we can.

If you think we make too much of the difference between orality in the ancient world and verbal utterance ("secondary orality") in our literate culture, I invite you to try this exercise in class sometime. Ask your students to put away all their computers, their pencils, their pads of papers - everything. Nothing can be written down or recorded during or after. And you too. Don't bring anything to class, and don't use the chalkboard. And you can't check your notes or bible passages before you come to class! And just have a whole session - or better a whole week - where you just orate and your students just listen and discuss.

Observe what happens - how completely uncomfortable everyone is, and what they actually remember, and how they remember it. You might even try allowing one person to write and no one else. How would any of you view someone who could read and write? What kind of power would that person have? Then think about this in terms of the ancient world and the teaching of Jesus. And then the teaching of the churches. How did transmission of Jesus' sayings happen? What happened to the material during that process even when it was written down?

What is orality?

Mark Goodacre has a post about orality this week. He raises some issues that I wish to comment on. First, verbalizing things is not orality in the sense that we use it to indicate an oral or even rhetorical culture - neither of which we are. An oral culture is one where there is no writing. So everything transmitted is done so by human memory and voice. Think about what it would be like to have nothing written to store information, to refer back to, to help you or the next generation with the transmission of knowledge. It is daunting to those of us from a literate and information oriented world. Transition cultures, where writing is used to store bits of information by a very small percentage of the population, are still largely oral, in that the vast majority of people are still operating as completely oral transmitters.

Oral and transition cultures tend to transmit information that is more concrete (less or not abstract), accretive, formulaic, redundant, conservative, situational, additive. They do not have external sources of information, except in rare situations, to consult. If they do, they are less trusting of written materials and would rather talk to people about whatever it is that they want to know, because they know who is trustworthy and who is not, and because they can ask questions.

Analogies to pod casts and giving talks at conferences have absolutely nothing to do with oral culture or oral transmission in a oral culture. We are today totally operating from a literate mentality and consciousness which allows us to write things down, to remember them, to store them, to refer to them, to develop them, to memorize them verbatim, and so on. We trust external sources, the written word, things we can consult, and even in court when we have oral witnesses, we are all about documentary evidence and challenging the witnesses against written records of what happened or what they might have said on another occasion.

If you want to understand oral culture, read Walter Ong - everything or anything he wrote.

Why the Synoptic Problem can't be solved

Mark Goodacre has posted a link to the upcoming Oxford conference on the Synoptic Problem. There appears to me to be a great line up of scholars, and some very excellent papers. I am particularly happy to see that Alan Kirk is going to be there and shed some light on the issue of scribal practices and ancient composition. I am also pleased that Peter Head is going to carry on with the issues of textual criticism. Both of these areas represent, in my opinion, the future of synoptic studies.

Which takes me to the point of this blog post - that the Synoptic Problem is unresolvable. Whatever solution is posed will always be a hypothesis, and there will always be problems with it. Why? Because we don't have first century manuscripts of our gospels let alone autographs. And the transmission process of this material involved more than simple copying. It was creative reperformance and this means that it relied on human memory - whether we are talking about oral transmission or written.

To put it plainly, we have no idea what the Gospel of Mark actually said in the first century, or the Gospels of Luke or Matthew. We might act like we do. But the truth is we don't. Our manuscript tradition is at best 3rd century, and variable particularly by geographic locations. To be honest, I don't even know where Mark was written, although I can make a fairly educated guess. Textual criticism has created a wonderful eclectic Greek text for all of us to use. But it isn't what Mark wrote. It isn't what Matthew wrote. And it isn't what Luke wrote. How we should handle this fact as a guild has yet to be worked out with any satisfaction. I think we mostly ignore it because dealing with the manuscript tradition is, well, just too complicated.

But this we know. The early Christians, consciously and unconsciously were adjusting and even editing their gospels in this time period. One of the things that they were doing is harmonizing the stories. This isn't just the operation of scribes doing so deliberately. It is also the function of human memory which tends to recall things through what the mind already knows. So if a person knows a particular version of a story, and he or she learns a new version, the new version is going to be recast in light of the old.

At some point, I think it is going to be necessary for those people who work on the Synoptic Problem to deal with these two issues. By this I mean, not gloss over them, not give them lip service, but really face them and try to figure out what that means when we are trying to understand first century composition of our gospels. It is my sincere hope that whatever else comes out of the Oxford lineup, this will.

Top Ten Recommendations for Books on Biblical Orality-Scribality

Many of you have been writing to ask me for a reading list for studies in orality-scribality in biblical literature. So here are my top ten picks in alphabetical order:
  1. Samuel Byrskog, Story as History, History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
  2. David M. Carr. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  3. William A. Graham. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  4. Richard A. Horsley with Jonathan A. Draper. Whoever Hears YOU Hears Me: Prophets, Performance, and Tradition in Q. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
  5. Richard A. Horsley, Jonathan A. Draper, and John Miles Foley (eds.). Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006.
  6. Martin S. Jaffee. Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE–400 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  7. Werner Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
  8. Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency. WUNT 2:105, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.
  9. Susan Niditch. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature, Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
  10. D. C. Parker. The Living Text of the Gospels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

How did oral performances actually work?

David Hamilton has left a very intuitive comment on the last post, which I duplicate here:
I have been enjoying your comments on orality and have struggled, like many modern people, I think, to connect with that approach on a personal level. But I realized earlier this week that I have actually experienced the compositional interaction of text and oral performance in a deep personal way.

Before taking my current job, I was a technical trainer for 20 years. For the last 10 of those years, I trained people on Lotus Domino and used courseware provided by Lotus. But of course one cannot read course materials verbatim; that would be the worst kind of training approach. So I would follow the outline or at least keep it in mind, while I filled in the gaps with my own interpretation of the relevant knowledge. I became quite conscious that my teaching was very much a performance, including techniques for engaging the students on a personal level, using humor to keep the mood light, asking probing questions to inspire them to think, and making the material relevant to their (professional) lives.

I mention this because I suspect that we moderns, deeply embedded in the book world, have trouble relating to how orality and text can interact in performance. Yet if we think about it a little, probably most of us have experienced this in some way.

Composition in an Oral-Literate Culture and a Book Note: A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World (Amin Sweeney)

What does a book about contemporary literacy in Malay have to do with biblical studies? Quite a bit actually. As I continue to prepare my paper "Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," I find myself drawn to all kinds of studies on orality and literacy. Sweeney's book, A Full Hearing, is particularly interesting to me because it examines a society dominated by orality but encountering literacy. Fascinating is Chapter 9, "Oral Orientation in Written Composition," in which Sweeney describes the shape of Malay literature, a literature preserving orality. He writes on pp. 307-308:
"The introduction of print literacy - which brought with it the possibilities already realized in the 'donor' cultures - did not cause a clean break with the past. Even those highly literate in a Western language who rejected the old modes of expression found themselves in a battle with the past when they wrote in Malay, for the language brought with it the past, a past of radically oral manuscript culture...The introduction of print literacy did not cause an immediate change in the general state of mind. The natural tendency was to perceive the new in terms of familiar schemata. The result was that even the educated sector of the populace continued to favor a paratactic, formulaic, copious, repetitive, narrative, and concrete mode of expression. Such a mode was necessary for effective communication in an oral or aurally consuming society; in a print culture, it is not: what became redundant in print now strikes us as mere verbosity."
When we think about the oral-scribal culture of the ancient world, and the type of literature that we are dealing with by and large, we see a similar oral mode of expression dominating the writing. What our early Christian literature is, is literature produced within orality, often as a support for oral performance behaviors, including reading which was an oral-aural enterprise.

I am more and more convinced as I continue to immerse myself in these studies, that our old way of framing the Synoptic Problem (and the Thomas Problem) just is not correct. We don't seem to have a good enough handle on how the ancient peoples actually composed literature, and for what purposes. We must push head on in the direction of orality-scribality if we are ever to have a chance to work out these issues fully, and we must leave behind the cut-and-paste literary redaction model, which may work for our world of composition, but has little to do with oral consciousness and composition of works within that type of environment.

How Was the Gospel of Thomas Written?

There is an interesting discussion going on among the members of the Thomas Yahoo list. I am not a member of that list, so I am weighing in on the discussion here.

Why does the literary dependence appeal NOT work?

1. Thomas has general parallels with Synoptic material.
This assumes that the only place Thomas could have derived his version of the saying is from the canonical gospels.
2. Thomas contains parallels that have Synoptic "redactional traces."
This assumes that our sources (Quelle, Matthew, Luke, Mark) were fixed texts, and that they are the same copies that we have reconstructed as our eclectic Greek manuscript (NTG) from our late physical witnesses, none of which agree. This position does not allow for source variation and a lengthy complicated process of development of our sources, and scribing of our sources. Are we sure that the "redactional trace" is from Matthew or Luke? Or is it from a source(s) relied upon by Matthew or Luke? Or is it from an orator who reperformed the saying in light of his memory of a Synoptic version? Or is it from the hand of a later scribe harmonizing an older version of the saying to his memory of the Synoptic version?
3. The entire compositional process of a Thomasine author sitting down one day with canonical texts and cutting and pasting a word here and a word there into his own gospel of sayings does NOT fit what we know about ancient compositional practices.
On this point, the Academy is about 100 years behind in its understanding of ancient compositional practices. I still cannot believe that we are operating with unmodified Form and Redaction Criticism models of production, when they don't work beyond schoolhouse exercises. The ancient world was a rhetorical culture wholly dominated by an oral consciousness. Scholars in the Academy must start learning about orality from sociologists and anthropologists. The studies are there. But they do not jive with what biblical scholars in our field keep saying and want to keep saying. Read Professor Ong, read Professor Foley, read Professor Lord, read Professor Kelber. We must stop looking at the ancient people through our own literate lens.
4. The literary dependence appeal has never been able to account for the differences in the versions of Thomas' sayings and the Synoptics.
I mean this seriously. We have spent so much time looking for "same" words, have we really looked at the differences and tried to account for them? Has anyone noticed (other than me) that the exact verbal agreement, lengthy sequences of words, and secondary features shared between the Triple Tradition and the Quelle versions FAR exceeds anything we find paralleled between the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics?
Why does the independence appeal NOT work?

1. The Thomas sayings don't follow the same sequence as the sayings in the Synoptics.
Most of the time. There are a few clusters that are the same.
2. The Thomas parables are not allegorized like their Synoptic counterparts.
There is at least one parable that is allegorized and several more interpreted. There is plenty of secondary material in the Gospel of Thomas, old sayings rewritten in new interpretative contexts.
3. Thomas contains much material unparalleled in the Synoptics.
True, but so do Matthew and Luke - they contain material unparalleled in Mark their major source.
4. There is an absence of redactional activity traceable to Synoptic hands.
If you examine the sayings using traditional form and redactional analysis, there is evidence for Lukan dependence in 5/6, 31, 39, 45, and 79.
Where does this leave us?

I hope it dislodges us from continuing to argue for direct literary dependence OR complete independence. If we keep slogging away at these same appeals, we will keep answering them with the same objections, and we will stay in the box.

I suggest moving out of the box. What we should be doing is talking in terms of what kinds of dependence, and how we can distinguish these in our written sources.
  • Are we seeing an "original" independent multiform, an example of pre-Synoptic performance variants?
  • Are we seeing secondary orality, an example of an orator's memory influenced by his memory of the Synoptic tradition?
  • Are we seeing secondary scribal adaptation, an example of the influence of a scribe's memory on what he is either translating or copying?
  • Are we seeing direct literary dependence, an example of one author copying a text from another text?
I think that the only way we are going to find answers to these questions is to turn to interdisciplinary studies, particularly in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. And we have to start running controlled experiments on the subject ourselves. That is far afield of Thomas, I know, but if we don't do it, we will stay inside our comfortable box, and never really know.

Book Note: Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher, eds.)

I wish to draw attention to an edited volume that I think is dealing with an extremely important subject, but one that has been largely neglected in biblical studies - social memory theory, what I have come to call "communal memory" in my own writings. The book contains a very good introduction to social memory theory and a number of specific studies applying the theory to biblical and extra-biblical texts. Sociologists and anthropologists who have studied social memory for decades now have shown us that communities as well as individuals create and commemorate their pasts in terms of their present experiences and social realities - that no history is a record of what actually happened, but a reimagining of what the community wishes to remember happened. The articles in this book provide a significant challenge to many of the assumptions we have made as scholars in biblical studies, including the very items we have been discussing on this blog. What kind of history do our gospels relate? Why did the early Christian literature emerge? Ritual? Ethics? Can we ever know the historical Jesus?

Memory studies are highly significant, so much so that I think the field of biblical studies cannot move forward honestly without embracing this large body of social scientific research and making it part of our baseline operation. I plan to post soon a more comprehensive discussion of communal memory theory and its implications for our period and literature with a starting bibliography, highlighting significant research from social scientific journals and books. But for now, I recommend Memory, Tradition and Text as a quick plunge into this material and its application to biblical studies.

Is the Gospel of Thomas Dependent on the Synoptics?

Michael Grondin, the moderator of the Gospel of Thomas Yahoo list serve, has asked me to comment on the question of dependence of saying 79 on Luke. Professor Mark Goodacre has kindly provided the list serve with a paper that he has written on the subject. He is absolutely correct. If there is a case to be made for dependence, saying 79 is one of them. The others are sayings 5/6, 31, 39, 45, and 104. All are Lukan parallels. The arguments in all cases are based on the presence of words that some scholars regard as traditionally redactional, that is words that are thought to be from the Lukan hand. This has been recognized for some time, going back to the work by Professor Schürmann, "Das Thomasevangelium und das lukanische Sondergut," BZ (1963), and Professor Schrage, Das Verhältnis des Thomas-Evangeliums zur synoptischen Tradition (1964). Professor John Sieber, who makes a case for the independence of the Gospel of Thomas, allows for the possibility of dependence in these cases too in his often-quoted unpublished dissertation, A Redactional Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels with regard to the Question of the Sources of the Gospel According to Thomas (Claremont, 1966).

What these parallels mean exactly is the real story in my opinion. If you want these parallels to support a case for an either/or scenario - either Thomas is dependent or independent - you probably won't like what I have to say. I have a full discussion of this on pages 15-24 of The Original Gospel of Thomas In Translation, 2006. The issue is very complex, and suggests a little of both. I think the most likely scenario (that makes sense of all the evidence) is that as time went on, versions of the older, independent sayings came to be influenced by memories of the sayings in other gospels, particularly Luke. Also it is quite likely that there were later sayings added to the Gospel of Thomas as it developed as a text, accretions based on the gospels as I think may be the case with sayings 3 and 113 (//Luke 17:20-21). Was Luke a favorite gospel in eastern Syria? I had a private conversation with Professor Vernon Robbins at the SBL meeting in Washington, D.C., and he is working on this question right now. I am really looking forward to reading about his findings because, from what he told me, I think they will go a long way to help us sort this question out.

Another factor we have to take into consideration is that the ancient world functioned within the parameters of an oral consciousness. This means that written texts weren't actually read by all that many people. People would hear things and then rely on their memories in order to pass on the information that they had heard. So this suggests that issues like dependence and independence become very complicated. The notion that we have a fixed synoptic tradition at this time just cannot be supported by the evidence. The sources of these gospels (if not the gospels themselves) developed within an oral environment, so what we have traditionally earmarked "redactional traces" might instead be evidence of source variation. What if the Gospel of Thomas and Luke were familiar with certain locale variants of some of the sayings of Jesus and are preserving those independently? So we have to be cautious about the redactional argument.

The big question for me is how do we distinguish between independent oral variants, and variants influenced by secondary orality (where an old independent version is adapted to the memory of another version of the saying), and secondary scribal adaptation (where an old independent version is modified by a scribe to fit his memory of the saying in another gospel or liturgy), and direct literary dependence (where Thomas took it directly from another written gospel). If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. I have run a pilot experiment within a controlled environment to try and determine whether there are certain markers or indicators or patterns characteristic of different modes of transmission (from oral to oral; from oral to written; from written to oral; from written to written). This semester I've put together a team of my students to collate the data and hope to be writing the results this summer. The experiment was occasioned by my observation that the parallels between Thomas and the synoptics are far far less verbatim than those we find in the triple or double tradition in the synoptics (see the appendix, "Verbal Similarities Between Thomas and the Synoptics" in The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation, 2006). I'll report back on this as the data comes in.

So it's complicated, but I hope by moving the discussion away from an either/or literary dependence argument, we might actually make some progress on the problem.

Book Note: Performing the Gospel (Horsley, Draper, Foley)

Alan Kirk has written a very thorough review of Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark. It is an outstanding edited volume put together by Richard Horsley, Jonathan Draper and John Miles Foley for Werner Kelber. For those who want a quick introduction and submersion in oral consciousness (so vital for the study of our ancient texts), this is a good book to start the journey. I am already using Holly Hearon's contribution ("The Implications of Orality for Studies of the Biblical Text") in my 100-level Introduction to New Testament Studies course at Rice.

I would also like to draw attention to the candid contribution in Performing the Gospel by Jens Schröter, a German scholar who has written another very intense book that I highly recommend on the sayings tradition in the context of social memory studies (Erinnerung an Jesu Worte). His article is called "Jesus and the Canon: The Early Jesus Traditions in the Context of the Origins of the New Testament Canon." He argues quite convincingly that the early church understood the Jesus tradition from the beginning to be "a free and living tradition" which was augmented by an ongoing process of written versions of various gospels. There was "no fundamental difference" between oral and written tradition, but they represent analogous processes in which the living tradition was adapted to new contexts. The tradition was not oriented toward the preservation of original words of Jesus. He says that we must abandon the idea of a "fixed, authoritative form of the tradition." He also shows how the Jesus tradition became linked to "apostolic preaching" to give particular versions of the tradition authority. He takes very seriously the apocrypha for the study of Christian origins. His overview in this article hits many of the same points that I have written about as well, particularly in my first chapter of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas ("The 'New' Traditionsgeschichtliche Approach," especially pages 24-37). Thank you Jens for this fine contribution.