What Living In Romania Taught Me About The New Testament

Here's another repost from the early days of my blog:

I love the surprised look on people’s faces when I tell them that I didn’t really understand the New Testament until I lived in Romania.

Romania was part of the Roman Empire at one point, but even had this not been the case, it still would be part of that region stretching along the Eastern Mediterranian, up into the Balkans, over into Turkey and North Africa and other places as well, which share a number of key cultural values in common, such as their honor-shame values systems, the importance of relationships (especially of blood) in all transactions, and many other features. It is cultures such as these that are used by social scientists seeking to understand the related values system of this part of the world in ancient times, including authors such as Bruce Malina and Kenneth Bailey who have sought to apply insights from the study of these cultures directly to issues of New Testament interpretation. No amount of time spent reading such books can substitute for time spent in relevant cultures; on the other hand, Americans and Western Europeans who spend time in such cultures will benefit greatly from these books. Indeed, on more than one occasion I lent Malina’s book Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea to colleagues from the U.S., England and Wales, suggesting that it could just as easily have been entitled Windows on the World of Romania.

Let me offer just a few examples, including one that relates to my current research. First, I recall vividly a visit by Anthony Thiselton to the campus where I taught in Romania. He had recently published his commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians and spoke about those in Corinth who said “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos”. Thiselton emphasized that this was not merely party politics as we understand it nowadays, but the Roman patronage system. There were a very small number of individuals who had intrinsic power and status, and then others would gain influence by association with such individuals as retainers, like a vine climbing on a tree. It only took a few moments to realize that this was precisely what I had witnessed in the politics of the school I taught at. There were a couple of individuals who had their own churches where they were pastors and had PhDs. Then there were other individuals who associated with them, lacking the degrees and the status of senior pastor, but who became influential through the association. It was illuminating, and if I had had Thiselton’s commentary (or heard his talk) earlier, I might have better understood what was going on around me.

I also found myself wondering about the language of ‘brothers’ in the New Testament. In an American context, we tend to think of such language as egalitarian, and indeed there are uses in the New Testament that might lead one to that very conclusion. Yet in Romania, ‘brother’ can indicate distance and respect rather than intimacy. This raises the question of whether it is more likely that modern Romanians, with very similar cultural values to those reflected in the New Testament, failed to rise to the challenge of the Bible’s counter-cultural teachings, or whether they have indeed understood it and practiced it in the way the early Christians probably did, and it is the Americans and others who have failed to see that the seemingly egalitarian language did not in fact obliterate social differences. I still haven’t made up my mind on this particular question, but without this cross-cultural experience, I never would have asked it.

Finally (for this entry, at any rate), I have recently been reading about oral history and rumor transmission. On a recent visit to Romanian relatives in Canada, one of them told me how Tim Hortons coffee had been laced with tobacco to make it more addictive. I immediately spotted it as an unreliable rumor (it had all the signs), as a quick search at Snopes confirmed for me today. Romania is a remarkable place when it comes to rumors – perhaps it was the lack of reliable news during the communist era, but the rumor mills seem to work as effectively and as rapidly as ever, in the present as in the past.

An important question that needs to be asked by anyone working on the historical study of Jesus is whether our information constitutes anything other than rumor, or more strictly speaking “legend” (which may be defined as rumor that persists for longer periods – just as we speak of “urban legends” for persistent rumors today). Those seeking a more mundane occurrence behind the miracle stories have long suspected that stories such as that about Jesus walking on the could have arised through a misunderstanding of a story about him walking beside the sea (since it is the same preposition in Greek). The version of the story in John chapter 6 lends plausibility to this – the focus there is on the rapid end of the storm and arrival at the other side once they have seen Jesus. But as in all cases of rumor transmission, while it can be asserted that there is often a historical core, studies show clearly that any original piece of reliable information gets obliterated in the transmission process, or at least obscured so badly as to be unrecognizable. The point, in the end, is that rumors circulate and we cannot know what basis, however slim, there may have been in history, or what it may have looked like.

One may think of the allusion in the Book of Revelation to the return of Nero from the dead, the beast whose “deadly wound was healed”. Roman authors from this period show just how widely such rumors were believed, and the chaos that ensued. While even today news reporting, official bulletins, television and the internet do not always succeed in stemming the tide of rumors, imagine in the situation in the ancient world where no such ‘reliable’ sources existed. If at least one New Testament author believed the Nero rumors, why would we expect them to not also provide us similarly rumor-based information elsewhere?

Realizing how unreliable the information that circulates among the populace is – whether the subject is science, politics, religion or coffee – makes me very concerned about the reliability of the New Testament’s information – perhaps moreso than any historical critical investigation could. Nevertheless, books such as Allport & Postman’s Psychology of Rumor, Vansina’s Oral Tradition As History, and DiFonzo’s Rumor Psychology: Social And Organizational Approaches, all confirm that oral reporting can at times be verified, but can often obscure the truth rather than inform us about it. One of my current research projects is to identify instances of texts reflecting oral transmission of a common saying and to seek to apply the insiguts of the aforementioned studies, as well as my own experiences.

For Christian faith, questions such as these are profoundly disturbing. It is easy to imagine how a misunderstanding could generate a story such as that of Jesus’ empty tomb. The practice of secondary burial was a distinctively Jewish one, and it is possible to imagine how a Gentile Christian pilgrim visiting Jerusalem could have misunderstood about this and sparked off the rumor that eventually became the empty tomb story found in Mark. This is not to suggest that Christian faith in the resurrection was based only on a rumor – Paul had such faith based on visionary and other experiences, and he doesn’t mention the empty tomb, and so the rumor – if there was a rumor – might have arisen later. My point is simply that it seems impossible to ever be certain, using the tools of historical study, that something like this scenario (misunderstanding leading to rumor) did not occur. As so often, historical study’s most troubling questions for religious believers do not relate to its disproving of things they hold dear, but of its inability to prove those things that are, for many Christians, of central importance – the resurrection and other stories of the miraculous being a case in point.

 

  • Just Sayin’

    Interesting post. The reliability of oral transmission seems to be a sort of urban myth going around in evangelical circles.

    What should the interested amateur read about oral transmission and both biblical Testaments?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      James Dunn has been focusing on this recently. For the broader historical context, Jan Vansina’s work is still important. Robert McIver’s work on memory and the Synoptic problem is also interesting, as is the older work by Allport and Postman on The Psychology of Rumor.

      http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/060359P.front.pdf

      • Just Sayin’

        Thank you!

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’d also be interested in James’s recommendation for the best source on oral culture and the transmission of stories for the laymen. Frankly what I know are from cultural anthropology courses back in college (and what I remember acutely from those days leaves much to be desired) and references made by NT scholars, but who never really go into the nuts and bolts of it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I mentioned a few sources above. Basically, oral tradition does nothing magical to transmission. Whether texts or oral tales are involved, we can witness radical rewriting or the preservation of the gist of a story for millennia.

  • Bob

    I also found myself wondering about the language of ‘brothers’ in the New Testament. In an American context, we tend to think of such language as egalitarian, and indeed there are uses in the New Testament that might lead one to that very conclusion. Yet in Romania, ‘brother’ can indicate distance and respect rather than intimacy.

    Interesting. Maybe distance and respect was what Paul was referring to.

  • Abel Avram

    As a Romanian I can tell that the use of “Brother X” to denote respect is a mixture of the desire to show respect to someone combined with the desire to follow Jesus’ teaching that we are just brothers, and we should not address someone with Teacher/Rabbi. Many are also using “Pastor X” instead of Brother X when a pastor is involved, the pastor having a special status in most churches.

    I personally consider that brother was used in the New Testament as an egalitarian type of addressing because all Christians are children of God, and consequently brothers. Calling another person “brother” is acknowledging he is a child of God as you are, the greatest of all positions. It’s about family, about belonging together. Its origins are in the spiritual reality. (As a side note, the status of child of God totally excels anything else, including Pastor, PhD, Dr. etc.)

    When it comes to believing rumors, I am baffled by the appetite for rumors that my nation has. I don’t think it has so much to do with communism. I think this goes back through centuries, way back. We are at the edge of the Western world, or you could say at the edge of the Eastern one. I think Romanians share some of the spirit of the Easterners (Middle East, India, Central Asia, etc.), and rumors are strong there too. It’s an old way of spreading news and information.

    The Western world, especially the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians have strongly developed the “individual”, and such form of communications (rumors) are much weaker there. They choose the info they want to believe, they don’t go with the flow. They don’t necessarily choose the correct one, but the choose based on their wits or what they like to believe, rather than what everybody else says. Either of these approaches has its good and bad parts. My position is that we should stay in the Truth not in gossip nor in our own made up truth.

    I think it is quite incorrect to see Jesus’ walk on water as walking by the water based on the possibility that the meaning was distorted when the story was retold. Mathew, Peter (Gospel of Mark) and John were in the boat when Jesus came on water. They did not misinterpret the story, and they did not get it second hand. They lived the whole thing. This seems to me as the attempt of liberal Christianity which is crippled when it comes to believe the supernatural. I wonder why they call themselves Christians. All about Christ is supernatural: His birth, His call, His work, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, Him being with us today. Why is it hard to believe that He could overcome the laws of physics if He’s the one who made them?

  • guest

    What exactly was the rumour about Nero?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That he either had not died or had returned/would return from the dead.


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