Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Contemporary Memory Experiments and Jesus Traditions

April DeConick makes two fresh contributions to the ongoing discussion of the use of contemporary studies on memory and their use in shedding light on antiquity, human memory is THE factor and I was surprised too. I have been waiting for the book in which her article appears to arrive at Duke before adding another comment in this discussion, hence the gap since my last contribution on this topic.

The new article is April DeConick, "Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus" in Tom Thatcher (ed.), Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond The Oral and Written Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008): 135-80. The article is similar in several respects to the earlier piece Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll: "Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem," JBL 121 (2002): 667-87 though it improves on that one in avoiding some of its logical errors (for which see John Poirier, "Memory, Written Sources and the Synoptic Problem: A Response to Robert K. McIver and Marie Carroll", JBL 123/2 (2004): 315–322) and in the extent of its realization that "the synoptic problem is mainly a problem of literary dependence" (178-9). McIver and Carroll appeared strangely lukewarm on this issue (especially 683; cf. Poirier 316), though in the end they list several passages that they regard as establishing some kind of literary dependence. DeConick* adds several more (179), though she does not reflect on the fact that the passages she gives are different in nature on her preferred (Two-Source) Theory, direct borrowing (Matt // Mark and Mark // Luke) versus mutual dependence on a third document (Matt // Luke double tradition), an issue that is important because of the high verbatim agreement in these passages (cf. Poirier 317; cf. my blog post on the degree of verbatim agreement in Q).

But the discussion of the Synoptic Problem is peripheral in DeConick's article, where the main focus is on pre-Synoptic traditions, and in particular the question of how memory might have functioned in the transmission of those traditions. So is it possible for experiments with contemporary students' memories to shed light on the memories of the bearers of early Christian traditions about Jesus? I am sceptical about the experiments for the following reasons:

(1) The difficulties of transferring the data. Like McIver and Carroll, DeConick is sanguine about her ability to transfer the results from the experiments to the ancient world. In the conclusion to her article (entitled "What does it all mean?"), for example, the new experimental data is used in order to refute Rudolf Bultmann -- "In this case, the data says that Rudolf Bultmann's form-critical theory about orality was incorrect because his assumptions were wrong" (177). I admire this confidence, but I do not share it. The ways in which the memories of contemporary students are formed and trained are so different from the ways in which the ancients' memories were formed and trained that we simply cannot read off the results from one onto the other. We do not do it when we conceptualize ancient compositional practices and we should avoid it too when we conceptualize ancient memory.

(2) The difficulties of setting up the experiments. There is a related problem. It is not just that we have direct access to the modern mind and only indirect access to the ancient mind through the literary deposits, but it is also that we don't know how to replicate the conditions in which the ancients in general or the evangelists in particular worked. In one of their experiments, McIver and Carroll provided financial incentives for their subjects to repeat a joke word for word (674) and DeConick directed those in her experiments to repeat the materials "as accurately as possible" (142-3). But how far and in what way does this replicate the way in which early Christian tradents worked? Were they attempting to remember and retell what they heard "as accurately as possible", whatever we might mean by that?

(3). The text-based nature of the experiments. DeConick's experiments appear to work with a very text-based model. As far as I can tell from the descriptions of the set up of the experiments (e.g. 142-3), specific, fixed texts were always involved. The students either listened to the text on a tape, or they read it. Unless one thinks that early Christian tradents were at all times performing from a fixed text, what we are dealing with here is therefore quite different from early Christian tradition. Our best guess about the transmission of tradition in the pre-Synoptic period is that the process was a dynamic one in which material was communicated, not read aloud. It is important, in other words, to distinguish between memory of communicated tradition and memory of a text that has been read aloud.

(4). The use of unfamiliar material. DeConick's experiments used texts that would be unfamiliar to the students, a version of Thomas 75, a version of Thomas 97 and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas 10.1-2. The choice of these texts is understandable -- DeConick wishes to avoid contamination from previous memory (143). The difficulty with these choices, though, is that it sets up an experiment in which the students are immediately operating at a distance from the material that is being conveyed to them. In the transmission of early Christian traditions, this experience may have obtained at least once for every hearer, but that one off experience would be replaced subsequently by repeated hearings of the same, now increasingly familiar material. DeConick rightly discusses both short term memory and long term memory, but does not discuss the progress from unfamiliarity to familiarity, in interaction, repetition and creative re-interpretation. In other words, the students' brief exposure to unfamiliar texts is unlikely to replicate the early Christian tradents' encounters with the traditions they subsequently carried.

(5) Composition and creativity. The experiments' focus on memory, and the instruction to the students to attempt to engage in accurate reproduction, means that there is no room to factor in parallels to the creative, compositional work of the evangelists and, for that matter, of the tradents before them. The same difficulty obtains in McIver and Carroll's article -- distance from the source text is measured largely in terms of memory distortion with little attention to attempting to replicate the evangelists' own creativity. (See further Poirier, especially 318 and 322).

Lest I appear too sceptical, too harsh on what are, after all, innovative and interesting studies, let me finish with a positive word. The ancient historian's constant battle is the attempt to understand and describe a world that is so very different from ours. One of the weapons in that battle is the well chosen, contemporary analogy. Sometimes, in our bid to describe and analyze what is distant, we need good analogies. The experimental data on contemporary students' memories might well provide the kind of analogies that aid our attempts to do ancient history. They can help us to craft good questions, to make clear contrasts and to remind us where our evidence of the ancient world is wanting. It is important, though, to remind ourselves that contemporary analogies are always partial, often limited and sometimes misleading.

* I am employing what I take to be academic convention in talking about April DeConick's published work using her surname, where the emerging blogging convention is to use first names when talking about blog posts. I mention this lest anyone thinks that I have developed some unwelcome frostiness!


Anonymous said...

I read and love both your and DeConick's blogs, but I think I'm with you on this one.

Jim Deardorff said...

It's good that you reminded us of the high verbatim agreement between the double-tradition passages and also in an early portion of Mark//Luke. Any synoptic hypothesis that omits consideration of this is doomed.