Doctor Who and the Jesus Tradition

There is an obvious way that Doctor Who could be related to the Jesus tradition: we just need someone with a TARDIS to go back and record what Jesus said and did, which we can then compare with the later Gospels.

Since that is not currently feasible, here’s plan B (which Judy Redman began to elaborate on her blog, based on a comment I left there). We can take a television show (LOST would work, too) and get people who are enormous fans to agree to watch an episode only once and then try to recall exactly what the Doctor said and did. If we get people who have never watched the show before, people who like it and people who love it to all do this, we can also see how the importance of the Doctor’s words and actions to an individual influence the accuracy of preservation.

The reason for doing this is not simply a desire to find a way to bring together Doctor Who and Biblical studies together for the sake of those who love both. There are few similar situations to that which would have existed in early Christianity, in which Jesus had disciples/students who would have made an effort to preserve his teaching, but would not have had the benefit of written notes in most if not all cases. And so checking the recall of the Doctor’s words and actions on Doctor Who (or the words of Jacob or another main character on LOST) might be the closest parallel we can study in our time.

Of course, Mark Goodacre will probably point out that unless the episode of Doctor Who they watch is voiced over in Koine and the viewers understand it fluently, then the situation will not provide a precise parallel or render accurate data on the number of words that can be recalled verbatim without the assistance of a text.

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  • Judy Redman

    We might not be able to get absolute correspondence, but it is probably possible to design something closer to what happened than has yet been done. But, as Ben reminded me, it may not be necessary to watch something only once – the disciples probably heard Jesus say the same thing a number of times. :-)

  • Rich Griese

    There is no external evidence for a historical Jesus, so this may be difficult. Jesus is most likely a literary creation created by the proto-orthodox ( the group that eventually won the initial battles of the variety of Christian ideas, and eventually became what we called orthodox, small o not big O) Christianity community as a result of their battles with marcion, Docetists, and other groups they were battling. The creation of a Jesus character helped them fight many groups that were all for the idea of a Christ or a redeemer figure, but saw this as a spirit creature or an idea. By creating a human Jesus the proto-orthodox group could win arguments with these other groups by pointing to a actual Jesus character.So even if we were able to send a person back in time, it would be like sending someone back in time to video tape Santa Claus, King Author, or other legendary characters that never actually existed by were created by our imagination.Cheers!RichGriese.NET

  • Anonymous

    I am glad Rich resolved the historical Jesus question. And only in two paragraphs!

  • Stephen C. Carlson

    How many word do you type into a search engine to find plagiarism? For me, it's usually much less than 18.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for commenting, and for posting on your blog about this!The one reason I don't think that watching the same episode more than once would be appropriate is that it would reproduce the events and words in precisely the same form. And since the same limits on human memory apply to the speaker and the hearer, it isn't clear that Jesus would have said the exact same words verbatim on each occasion. Presumably some words would have been identical, and the form may have become standardized somewhat in his repetition just as we imagine that repetition by his followers would have led to certain traditions taking on standard forms. But watching the same episode twice would have the same effect that using a written text would as an aid to memorization, which is why I suggested not allowing multiple viewings in the experiment.

  • James F. McGrath

    Stephen, that's true, although when we're investigating plagiarism we are not testing against a competing scenario involving oral traditions! :)And we detect plagiarism even if every 5th word is changed, since lengthy agreement demonstrates dependence every bit as much as one verbatim string of 18 words.

  • Stephen C. Carlson

    It's not clear to me what you mean by "lengthy agreement" but my take on the McIver and Carroll work is that they've only identified a sufficient, but not a necessary, criterion for copying. They've proposed a one-way test and it can't be used to find non-copying.

  • James F. McGrath

    Stephen, I'm glad you understood my meaning even though I didn't express it clearly. I agree with your understanding of McIver and Carroll's criterion. The example I had in mind was an "essay" in which the whole thing may follow the structure, content and wording of Wikipedia, and yet there may be no sngle string of 18 words in which at least one word has been altered.You'd think that with all our collective efforts to spot plagiarism, we'd have more publications on how to identify literary dependence than we do! :)

  • mikew1584

    For this experiment, could you interview congregations? I suppose a lot of Preachers either record or have written up their but not a lot of parishioners bother to listen to the records or take notes on Sunday. Obama obviously did not. Would it work to compare peoples recollections vs. the recorded material? It would be interesting to do this for a past preacher, one who hadn't preached for a decade or so.

  • Soozcat

    I'm sure you've considered this already, but what about the use of ancient mnemonic systems designed to improve recall? The art of memory is one such system, and I've heard suggestions that some similar method was used to keep long epic poems such as the Odyssey firmly in mind so they could be recalled for performance.Variations which exist within the Gospels suggest that the specific words of Jesus were not always remembered, but that the underlying concepts he taught were recalled very well by the Apostles.

  • Judy Redman

    Stephen, at my institution, all assignments that involve essays in English are put through TurnItIn originality software. The string length it uses to highlight potential plagiarism is much shorter than 18 words, but the process is by no means foolproof. I put a chapter of my thesis through it, and it suggested that I might have been citing a journal article in the field of business or management. The wording was, indeed, the same, but it was a fairly generic introductory phrasing and I hadn't even heard of the journal before. When my son was in his first year of computer science, one of his assignments was flagged because the wording of an answer (to a short-answer question) corresponded to something that had been published but which he hadn't read. He suggested to the tutor that there were only so many ways that one could actually answer the question correctly, and as a result of this kind of problem they stopped putting responses to short answer questions through the software.Shortish strings raise the possibility of copying, but because of the way that oral tradents work, using different combinations of stock phrases to enable them to remember and repeat stories, you need a much longer string (and particular content) to be able to be relatively certain that you have an incidence of copying from one text to another, rather than either co-incidence or oral transmission.

  • Stephen C. Carlson

    In U.S. copyright law, the strength of the literary similarity needs to find copying depends on the degree of access the accused infringer has to the work. So, we cannot really look at pure similarity without considering the historical context of the work. Of course, some levels of similarity are so striking we have to affirm copying or an astronomical coincidence.Your example, Judy, is a case where the genre of the alleged source material makes it unlikely that there had been access.I suspect that as long as scholars continue to disagree over such basic background assumptions as how vibrant texts circulated in early Christianity, it will continue to be difficult to achieve much agreement over these literary relationships. I can only hope that scholars make their assumptions explicit about the way texts functioned and circulated.For example, Burton Mack thinks both that there was a Q (which is premised on Matthew's and Luke's mutual ignorance) and that Luke was written about 50 years after Matthew. It just boggles the mind that the author of Luke would not known of one of the most popular gospels in early Christian a full half century after it was written. But that's what Mack's positions entail.As far as evidence of texts of Jesus's teaching circulating extensively, I think that the existence and its reasonable solutions (e.g. Markan priority) point in that direction. 2Tim 4:13 attests to the contemporary plausibility of Christian writings in circulation.Perhaps there were hermetically sealed communities with access only to oral tradition, and perhaps these communities produced their literature in a literary vacuum. But as for me, my understanding of the ease and extent of texts circulating in early Christianity would not lead me to demand extraordinary levels of proof before concluding that, yes, John, Thomas, Ignatius, Papias, etc. did know, e.g., the gospel according to Matthew.

  • James F. McGrath

    Soozcat, you make an important point, but I would add that (1) poetry and song have features that aid memorizations and recall which prose does not, and so we might need to make a distinction between poetic sayings of Jesus and narratives about him which lack such features; and (2) without a text to provide both assistance and verification, it seems as though it would at best be impossible to verify how closely one performance resembled another.

  • James F. McGrath

    Mike, my guess is that what preachers say nowadays is less important to most of their hearers than Jesus' teaching would have been to his followers. I could be wrong, but I thought a TV show might elicit more devotion and thus provide a closer comparison! :)