Tag Archives: Oral history

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) :

read more »

Ouch! My own beliefs undermined by my own historical principles!

A 19th century engraving showing Australian &q...

Image via Wikipedia

Well this is really quite embarrassing. I have never read more than snippets by a notorious right wing Australian historian, Keith Windschuttle, and those I have read have been mostly quotations found in the works of his critics, but I know I have been strongly opposed to whatever Windschuttle has written about the history of the clashes between white settlers in Australia and the land’s aboriginal peoples. Politically I have long been a bit of a lefty because it is my conviction that the left is on the side of humanity. Human rights and social justice causes — including of course those of Australian aboriginals — have as a rule been very close to my heart and my energies.

Historian Keith Windschuttle has long been publicly associated with that epitome of all that is opposed to anything leftish and against any idea that white Australians owe Australian aboriginals anything (least of all an apology), former Prime Minister John Howard.

So what am I to do when, in expanding my knowledge of the principles historians use with respect to oral history, I discover that all for which I have been arguing vis a vis the methods of historical Jesus scholars, is on the side of my political arch-nemesis Keith Windschuttle?

This smarts.

I have had to concede that historians who have buttressed my political views may very well have been lacking when it comes to specific details of the history of white and black relations in Australia. I am not conceding that the picture is, well, black and white (apologies for unintended pun) since the historical evidence is multifaceted and there are still details of Windschuttle’s arguments that I do question. But as far as his point about historical methodology and the use of oral history is concerned, I have to concede, ouch! that in this instance the politically right is methodologically right, too. Even my own beloved left can be wrong once or twice.

This experience serves to remind me how difficult it must be for nationalistic or ethnically-oriented Jews and any Christian with religiously grounded sympathies for Israel to accept the findings of modern archaeology and the “minimalists” that question the very historical existence of biblical Israel. Not to mention how hard it clearly is for believing Christians and committed historical Jesus scholars to accept the basic norms of historiography even when quoted and placed right beneath their noses.

Reading the debate about methodology is like reading a debate between myself and a historical Jesus scholar. If nothing else it reminds us that history is one of the most ideological of disciplines, and if so, surely biblical studies is the most ideological. No wonder postmodernist notions so easily white-ant both fields.

When oral history lacks any independent external corroboration

From “Doctored evidence and invented incidents in Aboriginal historiography” by Keith Windschuttle (Ouch! quoting KW really does hurt!! But I cannot deny that the criticism of KW’s words such as these do side-step entirely the supporting evidence he supplies for his arguments. And no, I am by no means saying I have now been converted to the Right, but facts is facts and valid argument is valid argument.) (My own emphases etc as always.) 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 »