Tag Archives: Oral Tradition

Should a Historian Test a Memory Against an “Original”?

Catching up with blogs I found myself wanting to comment on one a couple of weeks old, Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and Biblical Studies but don’t have access to the comments there. The misunderstanding wearyingly continues and repeats . . . .

I was surprised by [Hector Avalos’s] 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.

Point one: Avalos did not say that memory needs to be checked against an uninterpreted and undistorted original. For a start, it is impossible to perceive and comprehend anything without interpretation. So the author of this post (let’s keep it impersonal) has missed the point Avalos was making by setting up a pseudo-contradiction.

The whole point: Unless there is some sort of original (an original that we, as observers, can see through our interpreting and distorting craniums, and an original that was itself documented by interpreting and distorting sculptors or scribes) then we have to ask how we can know if what we are encountering is indeed a memory (distorting and interpreting anew as it may be) of anything past at all, or if it is a fantasy, a “memory” that we like to think is about something that happened but in fact may really be about an event fabricated from whole-cloth.

I know biblical scholars say they have the tools of criteriology (e.g. criterion of embarrassment) to determine if a “memory” is a “real memory” of some past event, however distorted and reinterpreted it may be. But my reading of ancient historians indicates to me that biblical scholars stand alone with that tool-kit.

(Yes, some “memory theorists” in biblical studies do not allow for the use of those criteria, but those scholars have even less methodological justification for deciding whether or not a narrative is indeed a “memory” as distinct from a literary composition without any “oral-tradition heritage”.)

The end of the post links to articles published in science journals that supposedly support the blog author’s perspective, but they don’t. Example: in New Scientist is an article, Edge of Memory: Distrusting oral tradition may make us more ignorant. It’s about aboriginal oral traditions that may (i.e. may) be relating the events of rapidly rising sea levels thousands of years ago. We posted about it some years ago here. Now on what grounds do the anthropologists suspect that certain stories told by the Australian Aboriginals may be passing on genuine memories? Through criteria such as “multiple attestation” or “embarrassment”? No. By checking the stories against “the original”. We have geological evidence of the rapid rise of sea levels. Yes, and that evidence, the data, is made meaningful to us for particular purposes through “interpretation”. We don’t have a perfectly clear vision of exactly what happened in all detail so our interpretation of the data in some sense will “distort” the event, but we have enough information to be able to speak of “an original”.

And it is because we can check stories against an “original” that we can infer they can be traced back to that “original event” and are not as totally fabricated as, say, other myths like a frog swallowing up all the water in surrounding lakes and rivers or a human turning into a bird.

But I have written about this so often now. Apologies for the repetition. Perhaps someone might like to try to spread the word so the fallacy does not repeat so often on other blogsites.

Postscript:

Yes, there are indeed times when all we have is a report that is removed from the time and place of “an original”. On whether to trust some aspect of such a report brings us to the need to make a judgment that is based on the provenance of the report and its record (or its provenance’s record) of proven (tested) reliability in other matters.

 

“Jesus Did Not Compose the Lord’s Prayer”

We read the Bible and see that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “the Lord’s Prayer” and we naturally think, “So, that’s what Jesus did and that’s how the prayer got started.” How could anyone devise complicated theories to arrive at any other viewpoint?

But here’s a catch.

If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. Jesus did not commit his teaching to writing because he believed that his disciples were, like St. Paul’s, his epistle written in fleshy tables of the heart, and that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth. To teach something by heart is the same in principle as to write it down, and there is no statement in the gospels that Jesus ever taught his disciples by heart any other thing than the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus might have made an exception in favour of a single prayer, but there is no very obvious reason why he should so have done.

Goulder, 32

Trust scholars to make things complicated. But this one is just getting started. I’ll paraphrase.

If Jesus taught the Prayer then we can assume that the Twelve knew it by heart, and surely they taught their converts to learn it by heart, too. After all, this is the only thing Jesus told them to learn by heart, so they surely did so. Peter, James, John supervised the church in Jerusalem; Barnabas was their disciple in Jerusalem and apostle in Antioch. Paul, who worked with Barnabas, taught the same message, he insists, as the other apostles. At what point would variant versions of the prayer (as we have in two gospels) have arisen? Surely one of the apostles would have stepped in to fix things if he ever heard of the teaching being corrupted.

Matthew and Luke document different versions of the prayer but Mark, generally believed to be the earliest gospel, didn’t mention it. Strange, especially if it were the only thing, and presumably, therefore, the most important thing, that Jesus wanted them to learn to repeat. The absence of the Prayer in Mark becomes more problematic when we notice that three times Mark comes close to writing prayers that have distinct echoes of the Lord’s Prayer. So surely he could not have simply forgotten to mention Jesus’ teaching on this point. (In Mark 11:25-26 Jesus tells his disciples to forgive others when they pray or God won’t forgive them; in Mark 14:36 Jesus prays to his Father to remove a trial or temptation or test from him, and he then adds “thy will be done”.)

Since Luke’s version of the Prayer is shorter it is widely held that his version is the original. The reasoning is that liturgical scripts tend to expand over time. There are semantic and stylistic arguments to indicate that Matthew’s Prayer contains characteristic Matthean language and that Luke’s version contains characteristic Lucan language. It would appear to follow that each derived their versions of the Prayer from different sources. Matthew is thought to have taken his from Q (the “lost sayings source that is thought to have been known to both Matthew and Luke) and Luke to have taken his from his special or unique material, L. Both Q and L are then presumed to have derived from Jesus’ original teaching in Aramaic. But Q and L appear to be so different in places that they cannot have come from the same single source. So this scholarly theory gets into murky unknowns.

Nonetheless, Luke’s shorter version suggests that Matthew has expanded on an original prayer. Luke is at least evidence that Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer was unknown to him. Matthew has evidently expanded on an original idea.

But here is the coup de grâce:

The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. Are we truly to believe that any Christian had the effrontery to elaborate and improve the one piece of liturgy composed by the Lord himself, or that any church would have accepted his amendments, when the Prayer had been part of every Christian’s catechism, and had been used (on a conservative estimate) for forty-five years? To what purpose have credal scholars laboured to show how rapidly the newly composed creeds were accepted and reverenced verbatim in the fourth century? The assumption is incredible, and would never have been made but for a simple fallacy over the doxology. If, the argument runs, the scribes who added the doxology, and different versions of the doxology, to the Matthaean Prayer were at liberty to improve the Paternoster, and the author of the Didache likewise, why should not the same licence be accorded to the evangelist? It is not for the first time that reverence for tradition has inspired false argument. A sound argument must run : it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.

Goulder, 34 (my bolding)

I’ll be following up a question that has arisen on social media: How could Luke have possibly known Matthew’s gospel and revised it when we see what an inferior job he made of transcribing the Lord’s Prayer? There are several good reasons to believe Luke’s shorter version is in response to Matthew’s.

Matthew 6:9-13 Luke 11:2-4
9 “‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
2 “‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”


Goulder, M. D. 1963. “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer.” The Journal of Theological Studies XIV (1): 32–45. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/XIV.1.32.


 

Alan Kirk: Misremembering Bultmann and Wrede

Alan Kirk

In a recent post, Neil cited a paper by Dr. Alan Kirk called “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” While Kirk does an adequate job of explaining the current state of play in memory theory, I couldn’t help but notice yet again some misunderstandings in the ways Memory Mavens remember German critical scholarship in general and form criticism in particular. I’ve been putting off this dismally inevitable task, but the time has come to offer some corrections and commentary.

Pale Residues

First, Kirk takes a swipe at William Wrede. He writes:

. . . Wrede’s bifurcation of Markan tradition into surviving elements of empirical history on the one hand and Easter-engendered dogma on the other, with the latter occluding the former, was precursor to the form critics’ model. Of a “historical view of the real life of Jesus,” wrote Wrede, only “pale residues” survive. (Kirk 2011, p. 809-810, emphasis mine)

Kirk argues that the form critics, taking their cue from Wrede, believed memory and personal eye-witness recollections were synonymous and that the Jesus traditions which effectively buried those recollections were something entirely different.

While memory traces of this sort lay at the origins of the tradition, they were a residuum, largely inert with respect to developments in the tradition itself. The salient image was of so-called authentic memories of Jesus coming to be buried under multiple layers of “tradition.” Tradition, in other words, had little to do with memory. (Kirk 2011, p. 809)

How does Kirk’s analysis square with what Wrede actually said? Kirk’s wording may lead the casual reader to infer from the first citation above that Wrede was referring to the general state of Mark’s sources or, to put in another way, the overall character of the various streams of oral and written tradition available to the author of Mark.

But that would be wrong. read more »

The Study of the Historical Jesus Depends On . . . . .

The study of the historical Jesus depends on reconstructing oral tradition and honoring it with the same dignity we give the text.

That’s from David Galston’s, The 19th Century and Us, on the Westar Institute’s Biblical and Theological Reflections Blog.

Those words point to an even more fundamental dependency: The study of the historical Jesus depends on the assumption of oral tradition being the source of the gospel narratives.

Vridar posts addressing that assumption are archived here.

Do we have evidence of oral traditions as sources for the gospels?

One of the more informative biblioblogs that I generally appreciate is Michael Kok’s The Jesus Memoirs: The History and Reception of the New Testament. Lately Michael Kok has been posting “course materials” setting out in easy-to-read summaries the basics of the various New Testament books. I have been unable to keep up with all of them as they are posted but they look like good reference materials to refer to as needed. I like the way Michael shares his learning online.

One of his more recent posts is The Synoptic Gospels: Oral Sources in which he lists “evidence for the oral tradition”. The list is an interesting illustration of what appears to me to be the conventional wisdom that has been taken for granted by much of the scholarly guild. It would be wrong to read too much into the wordings of brief notes or summaries of key points, but I would like to set out what I see as serious fundamental gaps in the conventional wisdom. So on the understanding that Michael Kok’s post is only a summary of points, here is my own summary of questions I think his points leave hanging.

The first piece of “evidence for the oral tradition” behind the gospels:

  • It was an oral culture with low literacy rates; even the written Gospels were primarily heard by their audiences in an oral performance

This is not evidence that the gospels drew on oral traditions as sources for their narrative and sayings contents. The same background information applies to all or certainly most literature of the day.

  • A plausible explanation for some of the variations in detail in the Triple or Double Tradition and for the doublets in the Synoptic Gospels

A plausible explanation for data is, in fact, a hypothesis that seeks to explain the data and not itself evidence for how the gospels were sourced. Other plausible explanations are able to compete.

  • A plausible explanation for some material in the Gospels of John and Thomas that is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels if these are judged to be literarily independent

As above.

  • The many predecessors in Luke 1:1-4

Luke 1:1-4 does not clearly refer to oral traditions. It appears to more plausibly refer to written sources. John N. Collins, furthermore, published an article some years ago that throws into question the traditional interpretation of this passage and I would very much like to see its arguments addressed in detail. I have written about the Collins article twice before: once in 2012 and again a year later.

  • Not enough books to cover Jesus’s deeds in John 21:24

This passage is clearly a rhetorical narrative device and can scarcely be taken as strong evidence for a historical situation, especially in a narrative that speaks seriously of the dead being raised, a man walking on water, etc. But even if there were zillions of stories being told about Jesus we have to admit that that is not the same thing as their being “oral traditions” from which an author might draw his story. On the contrary, it sounds as if the number and variations of stories about Jesus are so numerous as to defy any “tradition” that can be documented.

  • Christian writings (e.g., New Testament Epistles, Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical Gospels) that may independently attest to sayings or traditions appearing in the New Testament Gospels

Yes, they may. But again, that is not evidence for oral traditions as sources for the gospels.

  • The agrapha or “non-written” sayings of Jesus that are unparalleled in the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Acts 20:35)

Again, in order to interpret these sayings as evidence for oral tradition sources of the gospels is in fact to beg the question. We are assuming the oral source tradition in order to interpret the data as a support for the oral source tradition.

Again, this preference among the “Fathers” is not evidence that the gospels derived their sources from oral tradition.

For arguments that criticize the assumption of oral tradition as a source for the gospels (because the above points are indications, I believe, of question-begging assumptions of oral tradition rather than “evidence for” oral tradition sources of the gospels, see, in addition to the posts on John N. Collins’ article linked above:

An unfinished series of posts on Barry Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4

and my posts on Thomas Brodie’s arguments:

 

 

 

The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...
A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In true stories, as well as most conventional fiction, when characters move about, do things, say things, and interact with one another or with their environments, they operate logically. That is, we understand their motivations. The chicken crosses the road not simply to get to the other side, but because she wanted something over there.

Motiveless motion

On the other hand, characters in fairy tales operate differently. They don’t act like real people. In their book, Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, James Fentress and Chris Wickham explain that within folk tales (of which fairy tales are a subset), everything follows convention — the setting, the plot, the characters — all of it must follow the formula. And so people do things that in real life would raise serious questions. However, in their fairy-tale setting, we suspend disbelief.

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, the mother does not ask how and why she has become pregnant, nor how or why she is to die in giving birth. Similarly, there is no particular reason why Ann-Marie gathers her brother’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree; she just does so. The father is given no personality at all; he merely serves to accomplish the thematic business of eating the ‘beast’.

This motivelessness is typical. The behaviour of fairy-tale characters is governed by a set of themes which specifies the way in which a particular series of actions must be performed, and it is this thematic logic, rather than a character’s psychology, that is frequently behind the character’s action. Even though there is nothing in the story that gives Ann-Marie reason to know this, she must bury her brother’s bones at the foot of the tree that marks his mother’s grave because this is the way the particular narrative motif works. Unless the bones of the slaughtered beast are gathered in its ‘skin’ and placed beside its mother, it cannot be resuscitated. (Fentriss and Wickham, 1992, p. 65, emphasis mine)

Essentially, in these stories people serve functional purposes. As the authors put it, they are “embodied functions.” In fact we would be committing a categorical mistake if we focused on their psychological motivations. It’s much the same in the stories we read in the gospels. Consider the tale of the disciples walking through the wheat fields, deciding on the spur of the moment to eat some of the grain. read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”

Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.

♦ The context of transmission

Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:

[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.

In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.

Ehrman appears to understand that context quite well. For example, he writes: read more »

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

280px-Palm_Valley_NT
Palm Valley — Wikipedia

How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?

Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?

Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.

It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.

Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.

The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.

Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed.

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said. read more »

Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions

jesus_disciples_iconIt’s easier for me to address these thoughts posted as a comment to my previous post with a new post here.

I’ll try to take a crack at it. I’m not saying I agree with all of the following, but I think it’s essentially how we got here.

How we got here (i.e. to the conclusion that oral tradition is the necessary and best explanation for the source material of the Gospels) or how we rationalize our assumption? The Gospels-Acts narrative itself leads us to expect an oral tradition between Jesus and the gospels — we are led to picture evangelist and apostolic activity as well as ordinary church members spreading the word — so I suspect oral tradition is a default assumption.

Now it is important, of course, to find evidence in the support of any hypothesis like this and your following list reminds me of several of the supporting arguments used to support it.

But without wanting to sound like a nefarious “hyper-sceptic” it is also my understanding that good method requires us to seriously evaluate counter-evidence, too. How does one raise this question without sounding like some nihilistic anti-god anti-Christ atheist who hates Christianity and everything that is good and decent in the world, all sound critical biblical scholarship and wants to see every religion wiped off the face of the earth?

I am an atheist but like Tamas Pataki I don’t know if eliminating religion would really make the world a better place any more than eradicating all insect pests would really be in humanity’s best interests. Moreover, I can’t imagine how establishing that there really were oral traditions between a Jesus event and the written gospels would make the slightest difference to me personally. I would want to learn and know more about them if we had some basis for establishing their existence.

I will omit the “must’ve” argument that tries to explain away the decades between the historical Jesus and the first gospel. Since scholars assume the HJ and they concede that the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses much later and in a different language, they conclude that the traditions “must’ve” floated around, passed on orally for many years. That’s a circular argument at best. At worst, it’s a deus ex machina that rescues the gospels from their suspicious circumstances.

Yep, that’s the nagging doubt that obliges one to raise the question (without being a “hyper-sceptic”.) read more »

How do we know the stories of Jesus were preserved by oral tradition before the Gospels?

dykstra1One book I enjoyed reading this year was Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. (The link is to an earlier post of mine on this title.) I see the book has been promoted on the Bible and Interpretation site, too. Tom Dykstra begins with a discussion of Mark’s sources and purpose referring to about half a dozen books that were still fresh in my mind from recent reading and introducing me to as many more that by and large I followed up subsequently. His third chapter is titled The Chimera of Oral Tradition.

“Oral Tradition” is a term one soon learns to take for granted when reading any scholarly work that attempts to explore the possible sources used by the authors of the gospels. If one wants to pursue this concept further one will soon enough find interdisciplinary studies drawing upon the works of anthropologists, oral historians — names like Ong, Vansina, Foley, Dundes, Kelber will soon become familiar. There is no shortage of information about “how oral tradition works” but none of it directly explains how we know the gospel authors (evangelists) drew upon it.

(There are arguments that certain structures in the gospels are paralleled in oral recitations but these arguments are off-set by even more detailed and supported demonstrations that the same structures are found in literary works, too. They are not unique to oral story-telling.)

This becomes all the more frustrating as one continues to read widely and learns that there are numerous studies that easily demonstrate that the evangelists drew upon certain other written literature for some of their episodes. It is very difficult to deny that the account of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead owes nothing to the similar narrative of Elisha raising a young boy from death.

Numerous commentaries suggest that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was emulating the story of the ancient Law being presented to Israel through Moses on the mountain when he composed the Sermon on the Mount. One scholar even published an entire book arguing for numerous links between the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel and Moses — clearly leading us to acknowledge that the evangelist was consciously drawing upon the story of Moses to write his gospel.

So how do we reconcile these studies with the claim that oral traditions were the gospel sources? read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island

Legends that stick

Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.

“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”

Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.

There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...
Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Half of a stereo card) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“They changed our name.”

In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”

Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.

Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.

Family memories

This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.

read more »

Is the Gospel of Mark’s Syntax Evidence of Oral Tradition?

I’m posting here just one more detail from Barry Henaut’s disagreement with Werner Kelber’s argument that our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, originated as an attempt to capture stories that came to the author via oral traditions. After this we will dive more deeply into the question of oral traditions being the source of the canonical narratives. All posts in this series are archived here.

Connectives

Kelber confidently assures us that there can be little doubt that oral heritage lies behind the short stories that are stitched together in the first thirteen chapters of Mark to give us a life of Jesus.

The many stories are linked together by stereotypical connective devices: 

  • pleonastic archesthai [=began] with infinitive verbs, preferably of action (2.23; 6.7; 11:15, etc. [=’began to make their way’; ‘began to send forth’; ‘began to cast out’]) and speaking (1:45; 8:31; 14:69; etc. [=’began to proclaim’; ‘began to teach’; ‘began to say’]),
  • the adverbial euthys and kai euthys (1:29; 3:6; 6:54; etc. [=’immediately’, ‘and immediately’]),
  • the iterative palin and kai palin [=’again’, ‘and again’], preferably with verbs of movement (2:1; 7:31; 14:40; etc.) and speaking (4:1; 10:1, 10; etc.),
  • the formulaic kai ginetai or kai egeneto [=’and it came to pass’] (1:9; 2:15, 23; etc.), and abundant use of paratactic kai [=’and’] (9:2; 11:20; 15:42; etc.).

These connectives are for the most part derived from the oral repertoire of the gospel’s primary building blocks. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 65, formatting and bolding mine in all quotes)

These connectives serve to link the different stories into a chronological sequence and build a sense of urgency as the narrative proceeds. read more »

Jesus the Oral Performer: Questioning an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels

jesusWriting
Henaut credits Crossan for his fascinating interpretation of Jesus writing in the dust.

All four canonical gospels . . . supply us with the general picture of Jesus as speaker of authoritative and often disturbing words, and not as reader, writer, or head of a school tradition. Insofar as he is featured as a prophetic speaker and eschatological teacher, moving from one place to another, surrounded by listeners and engaged in debate, the gospels will have retained a genuine aspect of the oral performer. His message and his person are inextricably tied to the spoken word, not to texts. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 18)

Werner Kelber’s views aroused a “scholarly sensation” when they were published in the 1980s but Barry Henaut, in undertaking his doctoral dissertation a decade later, found them to be based on an error. 

Kelber had argued that the words of Jesus that were carried on through oral tradition before the gospels came to be written were memorized because they made such a powerful impression (“on friend and foe alike”) when first spoken.

It could be said that the impact Jesus made on friends and foes alike was to no small degree due to his choice and implementation of the oral medium. Spoken words breathe life, drawing their strength from sound. They carry a sense of presence, intensity, and instantaneousness that writing fails to convey. . . . Moreover, sounded words emanate from one person and resonate in another, moving along the flow and ebb of human life. They address hearers directly and engage them personally in a manner unattainable by the written medium. One can well imagine Jesus’ words interacting with people and their lives, and enacting presence amidst hearers. . . .

The beginnings of what came to be the Christian tradition undoubtedly go back to Jesus’ own speaking. He sought out people because he had something to say, and part of what he said and did will already have been passed on during his lifetime. (Kelber, pp. 18-20)

The rhetoric troubles Henaut: read more »

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)

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I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. read more »