Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and Biblical Studies

Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and Biblical Studies July 15, 2019

I wanted to post this brief response to something I read about memory for a long time, but I forgot…

On the one hand, I greatly appreciated this point made a while back by Hector Avalos when reviewing Bart Ehrman’s book: “In the end, we retain virtually the same list of historical claims deemed accurate by Ehrman before any emphasis on memory studies. Memory studies did not change anything on Ehrman’s list, and it is the standard tools of historical criticism that are behind all the judgments of accuracy in the list.”

On the other hand, I was surprised by his suggestion that memory is meaningless if we cannot check it against “the original.” That misses the whole point, in my opinion, which is precisely that historians do not have access to an uninterpreted and undistorted “original.” Whether the person writes about themselves or is written about by others, memory plays a role in selecting, interpreting, and distorting.

Ehrman and Avalos, as an agnostic and an atheist, both seem at times to veer in a direction that simply reacts in diametric opposition to the misuse of history by Christian fundamentalists, while still playing the same game, rather than challenging their approach at a deeper methodological level. In that game, to be sure, those who say we cannot know with certainty are right and those who say we can are wrong. But by this stage, that observation should be trivial, and scholars should be focused instead on exploring with nuance the things we can deduce within this framework of methods and assumptions, with the appropriate nuance and qualifications.

There has been a lot more about memory and related subjects in the news since I first drafted this post. Here are some highlights:

New Scientist had articles on distrusting oral tradition and how two people can recall an event so differentlyScientific American reported that eyewitness memory is more reliable than you think

Neither Less Than X nor More Than Y

When it comes to a question like “who wrote this song, would you trust memory or math?

A Songwriting Mystery Solved: Math Proves John Lennon Wrote ‘In My Life’

István Czachesz on “Cognitive Science and the New Testament”

Memory Studies Association

Cultural Memory in Late Antiquity

Review of Jesus Before the Gospels

Recap of the 2017 Christian Scholars Conference

Memory and oral tradition in the Talmud

Fake news has been around longer than you think

Not an authentic quote from Bonhoeffer

That movie doesn’t exist

False memory’s positive role in human thinking

The virtue of memory

The Satanic Panic and its impact on how we think

Misquoting Albert Schweitzer

Morton Smith and A “Secret Gospel of Mark”

New Scientist on memories and forgetting

What oral tradition is not: the game of telephone

What oral tradition is not: the game of telephone

“The Great Divide”: Orality and Texts

Almost finally, the deadline is well past for this call for papers (sorry for not sharing this sooner) but the conference may still be of interest – the deadline to register is today!

And now, for those who really do scroll all the way to the end, a couple of cartoons related to memory and forgetting, to reward you for the effort!

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  • John MacDonald

    It’s interesting that Hector Avalos has written that Doherty’s “The Jesus Puzzle” outlines a plausible theory for a completely mythical Jesus (Avalos, Hector 2007. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. p. 197). So, Avalos is definitely at the more skeptical end of the continuum of scholars.

    • Gary

      Checking his wiki page. I stumbled upon a rather jaw dropping study of his…
      “In Health Care and the Rise of Christianity (1999) Avalos outlined the thesis that Christianity began, in part, as a health care reform movement that sought to address the problems voiced by patients in the Greco-Roman world.”

      At first glance, this seems outlandish, and laughable. Maybe I’m wrong, but it looks like a progressive modern view of health care, reflected back to try and crowbar it into the Christianity someway. Laughable, because if you don’t believe in miracle cures by Paul and others, why would you think healthcare has anything to do with Christianity’s expansion. Maybe the welfare system, sharing food and resources. But healthcare? Sounds pretty crazy to me. But don’t have access to the paper.

      • John MacDonald

        Ehrman did an audio interview once that I heard where he was confronted with the issue that Avalos was a Jesus Agnostic, and Ehrman made the point that Avalos was an Old Testament expert, not a New Testament expert. I don’t know if that is still true, because Avalos published some books on the New Testament since that interview.

        • Gary

          I suppose he thought Paul had a MD degree.

  • rationalobservations?

    All speculation appears pointless unless someone can present authentic and original, first century originated evidence of the existence and adventures of “Jesus” that appear to originate in legends of 3rd century origin translated into bibles written by small teams of men in the late 4th century.
    The first prototype bibles (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) are both different in content from each other and significantly different in content from later written bibles including those in circulation today.

    Without authentic and original historical evidence – there appears to be nothing within christianity to believe?

    • I’m not sure what 3rd-4th century texts you’re talking about. Historians are working with the earliest Gospels and letters which date from an earlier time, before they became part of a compilation known as a Bible.

      • rationalobservations?

        Please name these “earliest Gospels and letters which date from an earlier time, before they became part of a compilation known as a Bible” and reveal the institution(s) in which they are conserved and available for study and authentication.

        The principle earliest texts that actually exist are the oldest 4th century fabricated bibles “Codex Sinaiticus” and “Codex Vaticanus”. there are a few other texts that date from the 3rd and 4th centuries but no mention of “Jesus” in any text, letter, official record, historical chronicle or even graffito.

        If you know of earlier texts you could make a name for yourself!

        Even the oldest (4th century founded) institution of christianity don’t know of anything you hint at:

        “Our documentary sources of knowledge about the origins of Christianity and its earliest development are chiefly the New Testament Scriptures, the authenticity of which we must, to a great extent, take for granted.”
        (Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. iii, p. 712)

        The Church makes extraordinary admissions about its New Testament. For example, when discussing the origin of those writings,

        “the most distinguished body of academic opinion ever assembled” (Catholic Encyclopedias, Preface) admits that the Gospels “do not go back to the first century of the Christian era”

        (Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, p. 137, pp. 655-6).

        This statement conflicts with priesthood assertions that the earliest Gospels were progressively written during the decades following the death of the Gospel Jesus Christ.

        In a remarkable aside, the Church further admits that,

        “the earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament], it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century AD”

        (Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., pp. 656-7).

        • Are you asking about obvious and well-known things like the fact that P46 is mainly in the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin, and 52 is in the John Rylands library in Manchester, or are you asking for something else? You seem to be unaware of things that are common knowledge and so I can’t help but wonder whether we might not be talking past one another.

          • rationalobservations?

            I am fully aware of the papyri you name and many (possibly all) that have been put forward of proof of a form of “christianity” that predates that established by Constantine in the 4th century and that some folk still point to papyri that is now dated to origination within the 3rd century can somehow validate prototype legends of “Jesus” that first appear in bibles written in the late 4th century or legends of “Jesus” that are merely set within the 1st century but of which no original, 1st century originated evidence has ever been discovered.

            For clarity: Yes, I am aware of many diverse and significantly different versions of bibles that have been fabricated by men since the 4th century and I am aware of the propaganda surrounding those bibles and the 3rd century texts that fail to validate them.

            I am observing that Sinaiticus is the oldest existing (extant) book form (codex) bible and that it is very significantly different in content from bibles in circulation today. Those are the fundamental and unchallenged facts.
            Yes; Sinaiticus appears to be an original bible alongside the different in content but also 4th century originated Codex Vaticanus that is smaller in size and both significantly different from Sinaiticus and from bibles in circulation today.
            No; I make no claims about the origin of these oldest extant bibles but point to the fact that those who claim that their own version of bible is infallible are ignorant of that bibles evolution and original content to the authors who wrote it.

            I have acknowledged the existence small and often semi-literate fragments of papyri that are claimed as being earlier prototype fragments of legends of “Jesus” but point out that some modern forensic scientists have questioned long standing non scientific christian’s claims about the date or origin of these fragments and also pointed to the oldest claimed fragment (Rylands P52) being claimed as mid 2nd century origination and that is hardly evidence of events claimed to have occured over 100 years earlier but of which not one single 1st century originated item of historical evidence exists or has even been referenced within actual 1st century texts.

            As for “Paul”?
            The facts are that there exist over 800 individual documents attributed to “Paul”. No two copies are completely identical.
            More than 85 percent of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were produced in the eleventh century or later.
            No authentic and original 1st century originated texts attributed to Paul exist just as no authentic and original, 1st century originated text that references or mentions “Jesus” exists.

            “…the earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament], it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century AD”

            (Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., pp. 656-7).

            It appears (from some scraps of information that survived the 1600 year long “cleansing” of all documentation that contradicted or confused the original 4th century founded christian doctrine) that much was destroyed regarding other (not “Jesus”) messianic cults and messiahs (like Simon Christ – Simon bar Kochbah) while other references to what where probably other messiahs have been claimed to be references to the otherwise unreported “Jesus”. I try to avoid all such speculation however and prefer to stick to the known and evidence supported facts alone as who knows what fantasies may have existed alongside those that appear in what may well be the first prototype book form 4th century bibles and the very different bibles that followed?

            Sinaiticus shows there have been thousands of alterations to today’s bible.
            Count Tischendorf listed 14,800 differences between Sinaiticus and the King James Bible, but I am not familiar with all he lists.

            From my own studies However:
            The order of content of Sinaiticus is different from later bibles and those in circulation today.
            There are two “extra” whole books within Sinaiticus that do not appear in later versions – The “Shepherd of Hermas” and, the “Epistle of Barnabas”.
            The Codex – and other early individual manuscripts from the 4th century – omit some mentions of ascension of Jesus into heaven, and key references to the Resurrection.
            Also totally missing is the story of the woman taken in adultery and about to be stoned – until Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (a Jewish sect), inviting anyone without sin to cast the first stone, also the last words attributed to “Jesus” on the cross do not appear in Sinaiticus

            There’s a pretty good list within the article linked to here:

            Papyrus P46?
            “Because P46 was discovered outside of its archaeological context (it was purchased from antiquities dealers in Egypt), there is no external evidence to help date the codex. Instead, scholars date this, like so many other papyri, using palaeography, the study of writing style. Since handwriting styles change steadily over time, it is possible to give a papyrus a rough date (accurate to within 50 years) by comparing its handwriting to that of other papyri. Using this method, scholars date P46 to the third century AD.”

            I have studied the assorted diverse and significantly different mythology of christianity via many versions of bibles for decades and diligently searched for tangible authentic and original historical evidence that supports any of that mythology without success.

            If you know of actual tangible historical evidence that is independent of the mythology and independent of the 1600 years of propaganda of the christian institutions that can be dated back to the 4th century but no earlier or the interpolated texts written by anonymous men and merely attributed to Josephus, Tacitus etc centuries after their deaths – I would be amazed to read it.

            I hope this clarifies things for you? It appears to be you who imagines that commonly presented myths and legends and 1600 years of propaganda are a proper and evidence based form for “common knowledge”. Common deception is far from evidence supported knowledge that still appears rare but is becoming better known all the time as the propaganda and influence of religious indoctrination declines.

          • You seem to be having a conversation with someone other than me. What is the relevance of this? Why the fixation on Constantine, Sinaiticus, and Tischendorf? Any chance you previously belonged to some sort of wacky KJV-only brand of Christianity?

          • rationalobservations?

            You appear to have no evidence of a pre 4th century origin of christianity and ignore all the points raised. That is your prerogative but is hardly conducive to any discussion or the validation of any case for the historicity of “Jesus” or 1st century foundation of christianity?

            I offer evidence bit am not “fixated” upon anything but debunking bunkum, revealing dishonesty and sifting through propaganda and real historical material in search of evidence.

            Your failed ad hominem is also noted. Why would you think that furthered your apparent non-argument?

            Do you have any evidence that contradicts anything that I have written? Or will you just ignore all that confounds you, delete my entries and run away as is your prerogative since this is your column. You will find you are unable to forget that which confounds you though..

          • What evidence confounds me? You aren’t addressing views that I hold, or talking to me in any obvious way. That’s why I said that you seem to have come here looking to engage with views that I don’t hold and probably very few of my regular readers are even interested in, except perhaps as a curiosity.

  • Kolia_M

    Thanks James for the post. Shame I missed the deadline for the conference looked quite fun. I think Bart Ehrman’s work on memory and the Gospels is really interesting. But from my perspective as a psychologist, I don’t think he really grasps the psychological data well enough. There are some studies he misinterprets. Other times, he selectively focuses on studies that fit his narrative but ignores other that don’t. I’ve given some examples here: