Monday, December 08, 2008

Problems with studying memory in antiquity

On The Forbidden Gospels blog, April DeConick follows up her earlier post (discussed here, More SBL Dating Discussions) with a fresh post entitled SBL Memories 3: Become More Scientific. The first half of the post appears to be aimed at a kind of fundamentalist view according to which Jesus' words were recorded with verbatim accuracy in the Gospels, a view in which (of course) I have no stake or interest, so I will pass over it. About half-way in to the post, though, April turns to the section of my paper on the "missing middle" in Thomasine parallels with the Synoptics, drawing special attention to Thomas 57, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. April's disagreement with me here is based in part on a critique of an imagined model that I do not work with and which I regard as untenable:
What is the evidence that writers who have a literary document in front of them from which they are copying ever leave out the middle because they are rushed? Just based on logic, I would think that literary copying would be otherwise. That the copyist would be more careful to preserve the material he is using, that he is working slowly, that he can stop and go back and double check, and that he can erase and correct. Such is not the case, however, when an author is relying on human memory, when he cannot double check a written source.
Few writers who think that Thomas is familiar with the Synoptics are using a model of scribal copying, whereby the author of Thomas has a literary document in front of him. (Perrin may be an exception here, but see my comments on his work). The way I imagine the process is of familiarity with the Synoptics by means of memory through regular reading aloud (by himself or others).

April goes on to make several interesting observations about studying memory, and it is here that the real interest in the post lies. I will withhold any lengthy discussion until I have had the chance to read April's new article on the topic (I have the book in which it appears on order), but I will make a comment about the classic she mentions, F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Social Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995; original ed., 1932). Bartlett's fascinating experiments with memory bear on the topic, not least given that one of his examples (72-3) features a "missing middle" similar to the one I have been illustrating in Thomas. It is worth mentioning that Bartlett was testing his subjects' memory of a written text. He gave his subjects a text called "The War of the Ghosts" and asked them to read the text a couple of times, and then he tested them for recall of the piece after selected periods of time, with interesting results, including a good example of an individual retelling the story without its middle section (in his first retelling, 20 hours after his reading of the text). I might claim that this coheres with my own view on Thomas's knowledge of the Synoptics, but alas, I have to confess that I can't help thinking that it does not recreate anything like the conditions that may be in view in antiquity, with communal texts read aloud by the literate to the community over a period of time, not a single unfamiliar text read by a modern individual and then recalled. Given my curmudgeonly scepticism on the transference of such studies to investigations into memory in antiquity, I am loathe to make anything of Bartlett's studies for our studies of issues like Thomas's familiarity with the Synoptics, even though they would help me, but I will concede one important point. Analysis of the way that moderns attempt to recall texts can at least stimulate our reflections on antiquity, even if that reflection ends up being about contrast more than comparison.


James F. McGrath said...

It might be possible to detect exposure to repeated readings/hearings of a particular written source, but presumably it will in most cases be impossible to distinguish between an instance of having heard a story orally and having heard a story read from a text on a limited number of occasions, perhaps spread over a longer period of time.

Presumably, however, both could be true, and the presence in a text of details that are unlikely to have been created by the author for any obvious reason are likely to have come from some earlier variation on the story that the author encountered.

Anonymous said...

It's odd that DeConick would continue to attribute to you the view of Thomas working with a written source in front of him, when you explicitly distanced yourself from that view at SBL. Perhaps this is an example of the selectivity of memory.

Anonymous said...

I hope this is not off the subject. There was an interesting article in the latest Scientific American on the mind's ability to selectively filter out "obvious" details. Magicians use this all the time to achieve their illusions.

The article had several links, and one of them led me to a remarkable demonstration of this effect. There is a 90-second magic trick called "The Color Changing Card Trick" which is shown twice--the second time explains how the illusion works.

The trick is on YouTube here:

What you will see is that a mind focused on one thing can be utterly oblivious to other "obvious" things. It's quite a long stretch, but I can't help thinking that the effect shown in the video might have some application to the type of selective memory you are discussing here.

Frank McCoy said...

Mt 13:24-30 might be Matthew's version of Th 57, with Matthew making major changes, including expansions, to this source so that it is transformed into a parable reflecting Matthean interests and having Matthean language.
For example, while Th 57 ends by relating how the weeds will be pulled up and burned, Mt 13:24-30 ends by not just relating how the weeds will be pulled up and burned but by also by relating what will happen to the wheat.

I suggest that this is an expansion of Th 57 by Matthew as part of his program to make major changes to it so that the parable would reflect his interests and language. Note that the ending of Mt 13:30 (i.e., "katakausai auta ton de siton synagaget eis ten apotheken mou.") appears to be largely based on Mt 3:12b, "synazei ton siton autou eis ten apotheken to de axyron katakausei...". So, it appears, Matthew expanded and re-worded the end of Th 57 so that the end of the parable would reflect the Matthean interests and language earlier expressed by himself in Mt 3:12.

Again, let us look at Mt 13:27-28a, “And, having approached, the *slaves (douloi)* of the *housemaster (oikodespotou)* said to him, ‘*Master (Kurie)*, did you not sow good seed in your field? Then, from where have the weeds come?’ And he said to them, ‘An enemy man did this.’”

Here, I suggest, Matthew greatly expands Th 57, with he creating a cast of characters based on Mt 10:25, “It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher and for the *slave (doulos)* to be like his *master (Kurios)*. If they called the *housemaster (oikodespoten)* Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” As a result, in Mt 13:27-28a, the sower of the good seed, who is the housemaster and Lord, is Jesus (and, so, is also the Son of Man) and his slaves are his disciples and the enemy man is Beelzebul—the Evil One.

Why, then, in Mt 13:37-39, despite Matthew telling us that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus) and that the enemy is the Evil One, does he omit telling us that the slaves are the disciples of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus)?

The proposed explanation: Matthew based Mt 13:24-30 on Th 57. One of the changes he made was to change the vague “them” of Th 57.3 into a specific group, i.e., the slaves of man who sowed the good seed. However, when writing 13:37-39, he forgot that he changed the "them" as a specific group (i.e., the slaves of the man who sowed the good seed) and, so, inadvertently omitted telling us that these slaves represent the disciples of the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus).

Nor is this the only apparent slip in memory that Matthew makes. One of the changes he made to the parable, in order to make the parable reflect Matthean language, was to change “the Kingdom of the Father” in Th 57.1 to “the Kingdom of the Heavens” in Mt 13:24. However, when writing Mt 13:43, Matthew forgot making this change and, so, wrote a phrase (i.e., the Kingdom of their Father) rather similar to the Thomasine original of “the Kingdom of the Father”.

Above all, when examining the relationship between Mt 13:24-30 and Mt 57, we need to take into account Matthew's love of triads. Dale C. Allison, Jr. (The Jesus Tradition in Q, p. 69) states, "The first serious difficulty with Betz's rejection of the Matthean origin of the SM is that one of its key compositional techniques, the arrangement of materials into triads, must be regarded as typical of Matthew."

Soon thereafter (pp. 70-71), he states:

Chaper 13 shows us yet again the same technique. The author, after largely following Mark up to 13:23, thereafter goes his own way; as soon as he does, there are three consecutive parables of growth: 13:24-30, 31-32, 33. Each is introduced by this formula:
13:24 allen parabolen paretheken autois legwn + hwmoiwthe he basileia twn ouranwn + dative
13:31 allen parabolen paretheken autois legwn + homoia estin he basileia twn ouranwn + dative
13:33 allen parabolen elalesen autois + homoia estin he basileia twn ouranwn + dative
The key point is that these three parables are not just parables of growth. Rather, they are also parables found in Th: for (1) Mt 13:24-30 has a parallel in Th 57, Mt 13:31-32 has a parallel in Th 20 and Mt 13:33 has a parallel in Th 96.
So, I suggest this scenario:
1. Matthew decides to use Mk 4:1-20 as the basis for Mt 13:1-23

2. Matthew decides to redistribute Mk 4:21-25-- with Mk 4:21 to Mt 5:15, Mk 4:22 to Mt 10:26, Mk 4:24b to Mt 7:2b and Mk 4:25 to Mt 13:12

3. Matthew decides to omit Mk 4:26-9.
4. Matthew comes to Mk 4:30-32. He notes that it it is a parable of growth and that it has a parallel in Th 20. So, because it pleased him to create triads, he decides to create a triad of parables of growth out of three parables he found in Th:
4a. Matthew creates Mt 13:24-30 as the first parable of the Thomasine triad, the Thomasaine parable being Th 57. He makes major changes to it so that it comes to reflect his language and perspectives
4b. Matthew creates Mt 13:31-32 as the second parable of the Thomasine triad, the Thomasine parable being Th 20. However, for the wording of Mt 13:31-32, he opted to base it more on Mk 3:30-32 than on Th 20
4c. Matthew creates Mt 13:33 as the third parable of the Thomasine triad, the Thomasine parable being Th 96
5. Matthew creates Mt 13-34-35, with 13:34 based on Mk 4:33-34 and, in a typically Matthean move, Mt 13:35 being a claim that what Jesus does in Mt 13:34 fulfills prophecy.
6. Mt freely creates Mt 13:36-43 as his explanation of the the parable found in Mt 13:24-30. In this explanation, he forgets that he changed "the Kingdom of the Father" in Th 57 to "the Kingdom of the Heavens" in Mt 13:24. He also forgets that he changed the vague unidentified "them" of Th 57 to a specific group of people.
In support of this scenario, there is another triad of parables in Mt 13:44-50. Allison (p. 71) states, "Mt 13:24-33 is then followed by a small interpretive discourse, 13:34-43, which is in turn succeeded by a second triadic grouping: 13:44, 45-46, 47-50. Once again there are three parables, and once again they all have similar introductions:
13:44 homoia estin he basileia twn ouranwn + dative
13:45 palin homoia estin he basileia twn ouranwn + dative
13:47 palin homoia estin he basileia twn ouranwn + dative.
The link between these three is all the closer as the formula in the second and third parables is prefaced by palin. The author is counting as clearly as possible: homoia estin, palin homoia estin, palin homoia estin: one, two, three."
Here, the criteria for selecting these three parables cannot be that they are parables of growth. Rather, it appears, the criteria for selecting these three parables is that each is found in Th: for Mt 13:44 has a parallel in Th 109, Mt 13:45-46 has a parallel in Th 76 and Mt 13:47-48 has a parallel.
So, it appears, Matthew, having found it pleasing to create a Thomasine parable triad in Mt 13:24-33, decides to create another Thomasine parable triad in Mt 13:44-48--with his version of Th 109 in Mt 13:44, his version of Th 76 in Mt 13:45-46 and his version of Th 8 in Mt 13:47-48 and with he altering each so that it reflects his own language and interests.
It also pleased Matthew, I suggest, to create Thomasine triads of a different sort by adding middle sections to selected Thomasine passages--thereby creating Matthean passages with a triadic structure of a beginning, an added middle and an end.
For example, let us take Mt 7:3-5 and Th 26. Here, I suggest, Matthew adds this middle to his version of Th 26, "Or how will you say to your brother, "Let me take out the speck from your eye"?-- and, behold, the beam in your eye?": thereby creating a triadic structure for Mt 7:3-5 of a beginning, an added middle and an end.
The same triadic structure, I suggest, is present in Mt 13:24-26: with it based on Th 57 and having an added middle with a cast of characters based on Mt 10:25--thereby creating a triadic structure for it of a beginning, an added middle and an end.

Anonymous said...

In case you weren't already aware of it, perhaps this forthcoming collection will be of interest to you all who are working with the oral transmission of texts in the ancient Mediterranean:

Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. Ed. William Johnson and Holt Parker. Oxford University Press. January 2009.

See also William Johnson's pathbreaking article on the sociology of reading in Roman society in the American Journal of Philology, 2000.

Matt Page said...

FWIW I'm currently copying up someone else's written document (that I was not previously familiar with) and I just skipped a couple of lines of text, by mistaking one use of the word "infrastructure" for another.