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.