Tag Archives: Jan Vansina

The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

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Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

Jan Vansina

Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

Awhile back our favorite historicist doctor posted a comment on his own blog:

One can see a similar mythicist combination of insult and failure to comprehend those with whom they disagree at the blog Vridar. Seriously, it is as though I had never written anything about [Jan] Vansina and oral tradition here on this blog, never mind in scholarly publications! (Dr. James F. McGrath, 16 June 2013)

He links his “insult and failure to comprehend” remark to Neil’s post, “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition.” Where’s the insult? Probably this:

[I]t quickly became evident that [Dr. McGrath] had not read or understood Vansina’s works, but had himself appeared to quote-mine a single passage, out of context, to lend “support” to a point he was making in one of his articles. My own reading of Vansina and my attempts to point out to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair what he had failed to notice in Vansina’s work were disdainfully and peremptorily dismissed. The Doctor continues to play the part of the Emperor with no clothes by foolishly and ignorantly asserting that Vansina’s works support the a model of oral transmission that they in fact contradict. (Neil Godfrey, 16 June 2013)

Islands in the stream?

McGrath’s comment from the 16th ends with a reference to his essay in a scholarly work, “Written Islands in the Oral Stream: Gospel and Oral Traditions.” Indeed, we should note that McGrath’s essay is the first piece in the book (see the link McGrath kindly provided).

In the interest of completeness and fair play, here’s exactly what McGrath wrote in a scholarly publication concerning Vansina:

Particularly important in conjunction with this topic is Vansina’s observation that official traditions tend to be preserved much more precisely over longer periods of time with a higher degree of accuracy than stories preserved by private individuals. [Vansina, Oral Traditions, pp. 85-86] On the other hand, official traditions are also far more likely to have been fabricated or at least falsified to reflect an official viewpoint. For this reason, the fact that a tradition can be demonstrated to have been passed on faithfully for several decades does not immediately indicate the historical reliability of the information. Indeed, it may in at least some instances suggest the opposite. (p. 9)

That’s absolutely correct. What we must stress here is that public, official oral tradition reflects the functions for which it is remembered and transmitted. Oral societies will often transmit such traditions faithfully over many years, but the actual story they tell may not be authentic. Where McGrath goes wrong is in the attempted specific application of Vansina’s work to NT studies.

Those studying oral traditions in contemporary oral cultures have likewise found principles well-known in historical criticism of the Bible to be readily applicable to their work. Vansina notes that it is sometimes possible to demonstrate the unlikelihood that a tradition has been falsified, for example ‘where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.’ [Vansina, p. 83] Vansina then defines a principle that is essentially the same as the criterion of embarrassment used by historians investigating the historical Jesus. The converse principle is also affirmed, namely that ‘facts which do not help to maintain the institution which transmits the tradition are often omitted or falsified.’ [Vansina, p. 84] (p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Readily applicable?

McGrath has correctly quoted Vansina, but he cannot have fully understood the broad implications of Vansina’s work, or else he would not have used the phrase “readily applicable to their work.” It is not. He also asserts that the criterion of embarrassment in NT studies is “essentially the same” as what Vansina had described. It is not.

[Note: Neil wrote an enlightening piece on this very subject about a year and a half ago. If you haven’t read it (like McGrath), you should: “Oral History does NOT support ‘criterion of embarrassment’“]

First, let’s state the obvious difference between the study of oral tradition and the study of the New Testament. Vansina talked to real people who were transmitting real oral history to him. That is, he met face to face with the people who were still telling stories. McGrath and his fellow scholars are reading written works whose authors may or may not have transcribed from oral sources. Does this matter? Of course it does.

Vansina writes (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology) :

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Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition

How did the Gospel authors learn about Jesus? They are generally thought to have only begun writing forty years after the death of Jesus — from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple around the conclusion of the Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73 CE. Historical Jesus scholars have (reasonably) assumed that that gap of forty years was filled mostly by followers of Jesus, and followers of those followers, passing on the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. With this chain of “oral tradition” securing the events of Jesus to the gospels we can have some confidence that what we read in Mark, Matthew, Luke (and some would say even John) has some real connection to what historically happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the time of the governorship of Pilate.

However, scholars need more than assumption. They need evidence. So how can one have evidence of the contents of conversations that people relayed by word of mouth to each other many generations ago? The answer is in the way the words came together in the earliest gospel narratives.

  • Do they betray traces of the way people naturally speak compared with the way they write more formal or literary prose?
  • Are the gospels themselves, or at least the supposed earliest gospel, Mark, quite “unliterary” and clearly a crude compilation of oral reports?
  • By comparing the other gospels with Mark can scholars see patterns of how stories were modified and extrapolate back to how they must have changed during the oral transmission process?

Can modern historians (e.g. Jan Vansina) who specialize in oral histories of African peoples help us out here? What about scholars who study the oral transmission of epic tales told among the Balkan peoples? Does research into the psychology of memory help us out? Can we combine these studies with new philosophical approaches to the nature of history and “evidence” to write a valid history of Jesus?

Much work has been done by New Testament scholars exploring all of the above pathways in their efforts to arrive at what Jesus “probably” or “plausibly” did and said. Through such processes many scholars have concluded that the parables of Jesus are the most “certainly” indicative of Jesus’ original teachings.

Meanwhile, Doctor Doubting Thomas is kept waiting outside.

Several scholars have published studies that argue the gospel narratives are based upon other literary stories, especially others found in the Old Testament. Some have even challenged those arguments that claimed to have found evidence of orality in the gospels. One of these, Barry W. Henaut, has argued that even the parables of Jesus as told in the oldest gospel, Mark, are more certainly derived not from oral tradition but are indeed literary creations of the author.

In Oral Tradition and the Gospels Henaut has investigated the arguments that the narratives and saying of Jesus in the gospels are derived from oral tradition and found them to be all based on questionable assumptions. A closer look actually indicates that the same evidence is more validly a sign that the gospel writings are indeed literary creations and not attempts to document or edit oral reports.

The previous post in this series concluded with questioning the arguments of Bultmann and form critics that presupposed “oral tradition” as the source of Gospel narratives about Jesus.

This post looks critically at the oral tradition arguments of one of the more significant critiques of form criticism, the “Memory and Manuscript” school of Harald Riesenfeld (English translation) and his pupil Birger Gerhardsson. These Swedish scholars looked to the processes of transmission apparent within rabbinic Judaism as the model for oral transmission of the words and sayings of Jesus.

Since there were indications that the Jewish rabbis passed on certain teachings by means of oral tradition until these were put in writing around 200 CE (the Mishnah), was it fair to suggest that the teachings of Jesus were passed on in a similar way by his disciples?

Yes, if the portrayal of the apostles in Acts 6:2 is reliable. There the apostles are said to be primarily responsible for preaching and teaching. And the earliest messages they are depicted as giving are outlines of the life of Jesus.

Besides, Paul’s letters can be read as if they are alluding indirectly to the sayings of Jesus. Scholars have read them as if they assume a knowledge of the teachings and deeds of Jesus that must have been passed on by oral tradition. And does not Paul speak of doctrines being “received”? What else can this mean other than oral transmission?

Harald Riesenfeld

Harald Riesenfeld

The rabbis, Riesenfeld pointed out, likewise orally transmitted teachings. They did so within a controlled process, however. A leading rabbi had the supervisory function of this transmission. The words passed on and remembered were rigidly controlled. Pupils who were invited to share this privilege were especially approved. Pearls were not entrusted to any old swine who snorted an interest. The whole process was formally controlled by rabbinic supervisors and pupils who had proven themselves reliable to ensure that not “one iota of the tradition” would be lost.

This was surely the model behind the apostolic teaching in Acts 6:2 and that formed the background to Paul’s letters.

Hence the Gospel tradition was not shaped by an unlimited and anonymous multitude, but transmitted by an exactly defined group within the community. (Riesenfeld, Gospel Tradition, p. 16)

We have seen the resurgence of a similar model of oral tradition behind the Gospels more recently with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. (That link is to my own posts addressing Bauckham’s book.)

Jan Vansina strikes again read more »

Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm


Hopi: Image via Wikipedia

Sorry about the sensationalist headline but, being a mortal, I couldn’t resist it this time. (I know one swallow doth not a summer make, but humour me till the rest turn up.)

I wish to thank Dr James McGrath, Clarence Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, for drawing my attention to a case study published by oral historian Jan Vansina in Oral Tradition as History (1985). (Note I used italics instead of quotation marks for the title this time so that there can be no doubt that I have actually read the book.) {for the uninitiated the link is to Dr McGrath’s post in which he points out that my earlier use of quotation marks for the title of the book is a “suspicious” indicator I had not read it}

Most students and many interested lay readers of New Testament scholarship know that there are two things that are generally accepted in the guild:

  1. the first gospel was composed roughly around 40 years after the death of Jesus
  2. the first gospel is more about a “Jesus of faith” than an historical Jesus since it is so riddled with mythological embellishments

In this post I show that a renowned oral historian publishes a case study that demonstrates the unlikelihood that mythological embellishments could possibly have been added to an “oral report” within 40 years of the event.

So what might the research of oral historians contribute to this critical NT and HJ discussion?

Keep in mind that an axiom of the historical Jesus scholarly guild is that the first Gospel — usually taken to be that of Mark, though some say Matthew, but for our purposes no matter which — is not to be taken as a straight historical record of the words and deeds of Jesus. It is filled, we are told (as if we needed to be reminded when we read of walking on water, talking to Being in heaven, predictions that the central character will descend from heaven in cataclysmic judgment, etc) with mythological embellishments. That is the very reason why, we are told, historical Jesus scholars cannot work like other historians but must assume the role of “detectives” and come up with additional criteria to convince the sceptics. read more »

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...

Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: read more »