Verbatim Memory, Orality, and the Historical Jesus

Judy Redman has been offering a wonderful series on memory and the historical Jesus. In the most recent post, part 4, Judy wrote the following about verbatim memory:

In addition, having been quite pessimistic about our ability to prove the authenticity of any Jesus tradition or to have the actual words of Jesus, both here and on Michael Kok’s blog, I want to note a counter-argument. Anyone who has read to a small, preliterate child will recognise the speed with which they are able to learn by heart the text of a favourite book. Any attempt to alter the words or skip pages is met with loud protests and some will also offer to ‘read’ the book to you, sitting down and leafing through the pages, turning at the right time whilst reciting the words for you. I suspect that some of Jesus’ teachings were produced often enough so the disciples who travelled around with him got to know them pretty much by heart. I still think that the time-lapse between when Jesus taught and the gospels were written down, combined with the vagaries of both individual and social memory mitigates against our being able to prove that the gospels contain Jesus’ actual words, but I don’t think that what we have is necessarily a long way removed from them.

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.

On a related note, the sad news that Birger Gerhardsson passed away has been circulating, including on The Jesus Blog. Gerhardsson’s work focused on rabbinic teaching using memorization, and so is also obviously relevant to this subject. The Eerdmans Blog lists a number of other scholars who passed away this year.

See too Mike Kok’s several recent posts on topics such as whether social memory has replaced form and redaction criticism.


Finally, let me share share a video that Gavin at Otagosh shared a while back, presenting four views on the historical Jesus:

YouTube Preview Image

Richard Carrier at SBL
Infinite Religious Diversity in Infinite Combinations
Marcus Borg 1942-2015
Giant Leaps
  • Mike K.

    Thanks James for the links here (and on Facebook). I should clarify that the second link (has social memory replaced form and redaction criticism) was over a year ago when I was just starting to read about social memory and trying to get a handle on it from those better informed than I.

    • James F. McGrath

      Yes, it was a suggested post of interest on the bottom of the one Judy linked to, and it seemed worth mentioning – it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that I read it!

  • Judy Redman

    Gah. It looks as though this has lost my comment because I wasn’t logged in (and I can’t log in with my WordPress account). Let’s try again.

    James, I agree entirely that verbatim reproduction is generally meaningless in oral societies, although there is apparently some evidence that some religious rituals are deliberately remembered verbatim. And yes, I know 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 therefore think that Jesus is likely to have retold much closer versions of his parable than would members of one of his audiences. 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.

    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.

  • Preston Garrison

    I remember from somewhere (sloppiness of memory on display) that some pre-literate cultures resisted the introduction of writing systems exactly because they thought it would erode the discipline of memorizing. If true, it indicates that at least some cultures worked consciously at accurate “recording” of tradition by memory.

    • Keen Reader

      Or they could have resisted the introduction of writing as this sets stories in stone i.e. makes it no longer possible to improve (change) them orally!

  • Ian

    The problem with these kind of questions is that they avoid tackling head on the key question for historicity: why should we assume that the early Christian communities tried to preserve the verbatim words and detailed events of Jesus? There’s this tacit assumption that the community would want to pass on and preserve the accurate history. But this seems totally at odds with how religious human nature works. Religious folks want to pass on their *faith* as a rule, and will spin facts in whatever way they think passes on their faith.

    We see no theology of authenticity until late in the NT texts. The gospels seem at least partially motivated by recovering authenticity, but we see either massive diversity (way, way beyond differences in sayings) or direct literary dependency. What evidence is there that there was a theology of preservation of authentic sayings of Jesus/

    I have this same problem with the angst over using the telephone game as an example. The debate seems to always focus on whether the telephone game is more or less authentic than a genuine oral transmission. Rather than the important question of whether the transmitters would have been primarily theologically motivated, rather than historically. I see no reason to think the latter. So the idea that this is at all well modelled by analogous processes with a concern for accuracy seems to merely beg the question.

    • James F. McGrath

      I have certainly encountered, even been, the sort of person who would make the strongest possible case based on his own faith convictions, even when it meant coming up with ad hoc problematic answers to what I would later see to be well-grounded challenges. But your caricature doesn’t fit the stance that I had, which was one that viewed the Bible and ultimately God and Jesus as authoritative. And so my stance was not one that would simply rewrite those sources to suit me. The concern may not have been a historical one in the academic sense, but for that very reason it was perhaps closer to the stance of the early disciples. To suggest that religious believers are typically people who have no authorities other than themselves and no concern for truth doesn’t mesh with my own experience, and sounds more like the polemical caricature of those whose own stance is different than a fair description.

      • Ian

        But in that period you had a specific and explicit theology of the authority and inerrancy of scripture. So of course there was an anchor there to a specific set of texts for you.

        When I was in that place, others’ accounts of their experiences with God did not have the authority of scripture. While I wouldn’t have consciously lied about them, I did not have a commitment to their authority of those experiences over my own experiences, or the experiences of others. And I would choose and tell the stories in ways I thought would serve my religious needs, pretty much exclusively.

        This is, in fact, what I found around healing testimonies, which was part of the catalyst for me leaving my faith. After researching, and following up a bunch of healing stories, I found virtually no element of the stories, as originally told, were correct. The disease, the biography of the sufferer, the details of the prayer, the degree of the recovery, all were basically invented through sequences of retelling. I have seen that faithful people, believing they were doing their best to pass on the good news of God, could in a few steps basically invent an entire series of events that never happened. These are folks who are not trying to lie. They would all claim to be honoring the truth and wanting the share the reality of what had occurred. And there are folks who come along later, doing ‘research’ on the stories to put them into books for the faithful to buy. But none of this makes any dent in whether they are true.

        So the real question is not how accurate *could* it be, but what evidence do we have that the early church attempted to enforce any particular standard of accuracy from the outset. I suggest we have very little. And the frankly absurd claims throughout the gospels seem to back that up. What transmission there was was theological, and quite open to the most outre invention. You cannot strip the miraculous from the texts at this point and ask about the accuracy of the orality of the remainder. Not without being nakedly biased, surely.

        And without that, such discussion might put an upper bound on accuracy, but would affect neither the lower-bound, nor the expected accuracy. So it is no more helpful than knowing the land-speed record helps you estimate how fast my Citroen MPV goes.

        • James F. McGrath

          I think that Jesus himself was an authority for the earliest Christians, and I think that is relevant as a potential anchor in reality for this religious movement. And we can see, for instance, where there is rewriting of a story or saying in an attempt to safeguard the reputation of Jesus – and thus can discern the historically probable reality behind their attempts at spin.

          Your mention of stories about healings is a helpful one too. We definitely get the impression in the sources that such stories are shuffled and reworked in order to serve whatever point a particular author wished to make.

          And so I think that all of your points show why historians think that they can discern some genuine historical information in the sources, as well as being extremely skeptical of much of it.

          • Ian

            Hmmm… I’ve implied myself into somewhere I didn’t want to go.

            I’m not talking about the historic criticism of the gospels. I do think you can read them against themselves and uncover things that are likely to be true. I may tend towards minimalism, but I’m pretty happy with the scholarly consensus on historicity of details.

            I’m talking specifically about whether arguments to the possibility of accurate orality are helpful. I simply don’t see how they can be, without a better argument for why this particular set of transmission should be at the accurate end of the scale.

            The evidence from the NT, as you point out, and from the phenomenology of religion, is that our presumption should be that oral transmission of significant new religious events operates *well* below optimum accuracy, and tends to be unapologetically theological.

            So at that stage, what does it benefit us to know that oral history can be accurate? It is merely innuendo, intending to lead to the logic that the gospel accounts *might* be accurate, because accuracy is possible.

            • James F. McGrath

              I think that knowing that oral communication can be impressively accurate in rare instances, completely fabricated in many others, and often between the extremes, simply reminds us that orality is no magic bullet that either safeguards accuracy or makes historical investigation impossible. But it does remind us that we should not hope for a kind of accuracy that was not only impossible but practically meaningless in the case of purely oral communication.

              • Ian

                I agree, but isn’t that the opposite point being made above?

                I understood the example of the child to be a suggestion that, if even children can get impressive accuracy in oral transmission, then we shouldn’t be pessimistic about the accuracy of the material about Jesus.

                Which is precisely the question begging I initially responded to.

                • James F. McGrath

                  I may have been responding to you under the assumption that it was I that you thought to be begging the question!

                  My point in response to Judy’s was that children can have good verbatim recall when there is a written text that is being read to them. Without the possibility of verbatim repetition that written texts provide, the possibility of such precise memorization is eliminated.

                  That doesn’t mean that one cannot tell the same story over and over again. It just means that it will not be verbatim.

                  • Ian

                    I need to be clearer who I am disagreeing with!

                    I disagreed with your response only to the extent that, it doesn’t strike me as very pertinent how accurate optimal oral transmission is, unless one can give good reasons to suggest that early Christian tradition should be considered at all accurate. It doesn’t matter if the land speed record is 600-and-something-mph, or 700-and-something, if what I’m interested in, is the top speed of a Nissan Compact.

                    So not your actual point. I’m just more keen to reject the premise of the question.

                    • Gary

                      “unless one can give good reasons to suggest that early Christian tradition should be considered at all accurate”…I agree. Seems to me that the data set used, either considered oral or written, were extremely biased by the church fathers, and their selection of the “correct” texts to used, and the rest burned. Gospel of Thomas, oral sayings of Jesus. Gospel of Philip, and one of my favorites, Secret Book of John. All written by literate people. Apparently believed by a group of people, maybe large, maybe small. The early writers about Jesus seemed to me to be so diverse, you can’t draw too many conclusions about the true sayings of Jesus. Unless you buy into the “pre-selected” texts of the church fathers. And reject the others. So saying that certain sayings of Jesus are accurate, based upon consistency of the sayings in the bible, is a rather circular argument, in my opinion.

                    • Andrew Dowling

                      “The early writers about Jesus seemed to me to be so diverse, you can’t draw too many conclusions about the true sayings of Jesus”

                      I’d disagree. If you focus on the earlier texts (Canonical Gospels, Thomas, Hebrew Gospels, Didache, Gos of Peter, James) there is tons of overlap despite some significant differences in theological outlook. I think it’s extremely difficult to piece together the stories of what Jesus “did” from a historical perspective but it’s certainly possible to put together a historically probable list of Jesus sayings/teachings.

                    • Gary

                      I agree with some points. The vast amount of sayings, writings about, and interest in Jesus by ancients clearly indicate that a person, Jesus existed. Specific sayings, and their reliability, I am not so sure of. Gospel of Thomas, 22, you will make it into the kingdom, when “you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female”. :-). Although I find the concept interesting. Other quotes too many to list.

                    • Andrew Dowling

                      That’s why it’s helpful to look at multiple attestation, criteria of dissimilarity etc.

                    • Gary

                      Multiple attestations are the one that are biased. Most are not independent. And most exist because the church fathers preserved them. And destroyed ones not fitting their profile.

                    • Andrew Dowling

                      That argument doesn’t make much sense. I’m talking about first century documents from a wide variety of theological camps, written well (in the the opinion of mainstream scholarship) before the “Church” was even an established institution.

                    • Ian

                      Have you read Chris Keith’s “Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity”? His argument fed my biases very well, so I found myself heartily agreeing with his pessimism about criteria as a way of determining authenticity.

                      More seriously, I’m fairly easily convinced on textual grounds that some of the sayings are early, and likely to be authentic. i think arguments for their authenticity made to the accuracy of orality are worthless though.

                    • Andrew Dowling

                      I haven’t read that but have read other material from him and LeDonne. Some interesting work/insights and some of it I concur with, but I find much of their strawman arguments and “postmodern” analysis of how stored and shared memories interact with the Gospel record unconvincing.

                      Despite the Jesus Seminar’s silly red/purple/grey outlines, I think almost all historical Jesus scholars (including the prominent members of the JS like Crossan and Borg) understand the influence of perception, time, and other influences on oral transmission. But looking at things like multiple attestation can still assist when speaking about probabilities in historical reconstruction.

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