Baker Academic

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)

After such a long hiatus—it has been over a month since I reviewed Chapter 4 of Jesus before the Gospels—I've finally been able to return to Ehrman's discussion of memory, tradition, and the historical Jesus. You'll recall that Chapter 4 addressed the topic, "Distorted Memories and the Death of Jesus." Chapter 5 ("Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus"; pp. 179–226) provides a similar discussion, though now focusing primarily on the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' teaching and, secondarily, on his reputation as a miracle worker. Once again, it will be important to recall that Ehrman uses the term distorted memories to refer to "incorrect recollections" (p. 302 n.3); a "distorted" or "false" memory—Ehrman uses the terms synonymously—"involves a memory that is wrong" (p. 19).

Ehrman begins the chapter with a brief mention of Alexandre Luria’s study of a man he calls “S,” a man who seemed incapable of forgetting anything, and the debilitating consequences of his condition. However, Ehrman quickly leaves “S” behind to consider the question, “Are memories stronger in oral cultures?” (pp. 181–93).
Here Ehrman engages the comparative and anthropological research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, Jack Goody, Jan Vansina, and David Rubin; these are all seminal works in the study of tradition, oral tradition, oral history, and memory. (Readers may recall that I vigorously criticized Ehrman in my review of Chapter 1 for not addressing works like these in a chapter whose title signals a consideration of “Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions.” I’m glad to see some discussion of these authors here.) Ehrman turns to these works to discover whether they substantiate the claim one often hears that non- or pre-literate cultures “have better memories, since, after all, they have to remember more simply to get by” (p. 182). Ehrman immediately presents his answer (“The consensus among both anthropologists and culture historians, in fact, is quite the opposite of what we might assume about oral cultures”) and spends the next eleven pages substantiating that answer. As he presents it, “The thesis of this chapter is that traditions in oral cultures do not remain the same over time, but change rapidly, repeatedly, and extensively” (p. 183). We will return to Ehrman’s treatment of the anthropological scholarship below.

When Ehrman turns to discuss “gist memories of the life of Jesus” (pp. 193–226), he begins with a list facts of whose reliability historians can be relatively confident (p. 194). These facts Ehrman refers to as “gist memories,” and from them he draws “a fair outline of information about the man Jesus himself during his public life” (p. 195). But can we go further than these facts? The rest of the chapter identifies distorted memories of Jesus’ teachings (pp. 195–211) and his deeds (pp. 211–26). Ehrman turns to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) to show how historians might detect contradictions and implausible claims in the traditions of Jesus’ teaching (recall Ehrman’s two criteria of authenticity, introduced on pp. 151–52). In this instance, discrepancies between Matthew and the other Synoptic Gospels, the implausibility of verbatim recall over five decades, and contradictions (in the beatitudes, in Jesus’ teaching on divorce, etc.) all suggest that Matthew’s Sermon is a “distorted memory” (in Ehrman’s sense) of Jesus. He then identifies other distorted memories of Jesus’ teaching, from Matthew’s parables of the wedding feast and the wise and foolish virgins to John’s account of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. Ehrman continues to identify gist and distorted memories of Jesus’ deeds, focusing specifically on the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (pp. 211–14), his relationship to his disciples, both male and female (pp. 214–20), and finally his miracles (pp. 220–26).

We can level the same criticisms of this chapter that we have made of earlier chapters. First, Ehrman’s strong disjunction between distorted and accurate memories (the latter are now regularly referred to as “gist memories”) simply does not reflect the use of the technical term “distortion” in memory studies, nor does it recognize how distortions (interpretations) are themselves the vehicles that preserve the connection between the past and the present in memory (see my criticism of Ehrman’s discussion of John Dean and Ulrich Neisser). Second, his historical method, which relies on the identification of inconsistencies and implausibilities, is simplistic and only continues the previous (and problematic) criteriological approach to the historical Jesus that has been fairly thoroughly discredited (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds]; see also Constructing Jesus [Dale Allison]). In other words, it is difficult to see how Ehrman’s engagement with memory studies has changed his approach to the historical Jesus, other than that now he uses the language of memory throughout.

But we should return to Ehrman’s discussion of the comparative anthropological work on tradition and oral performance. Perhaps the simplest flaw in Ehrman’s discussion to point out is the implausible claim (citing Jan Vansina) that, “when testimonies are recited frequently, because of the vagaries inherent in the oral mode of transmission, they change more often than when recited only on occasion” (p. 191; my emphasis). I haven’t consulted Vansina’s book (it’s been years since I read it), but I doubt that Ehrman has drawn an appropriate conclusion from it. He does quote Vansina (“Every time a tradition is recited the testimony may be a variant version”; p. 191, see Vansina, Oral Tradition, 43), but this does not mean that more frequent repetition equals more rapid and extensive alteration. Besides, Ehrman himself doesn’t operate from this principle; he regularly implies that the problem with assuming the Gospels’ historical accuracy lies in the chronological distance between the events they claim to narrate and when they were written, using imagery designed to lead the reader to think of a gap between event and narration without intervening narrations. For example, “Suppose you were asked to recall a conversation, word for word, that you had this time last year. Could you get it exactly right? Suppose you tried it with a speech that you heard once, say, twenty years ago. Or suppose you tried it with a sermon you heard fifty years ago. Would you remember the exact words?” (p. 197). The implausibility of the Gospels’ accuracy, for Ehrman, is based not on the frequent repetition of the material they preserve between Jesus and when they were written; it is akin, rather, to trying to recall the ipsissima verba (“word for word . . . exactly right . . . the exact words”) of “a speech that you heard once.” If Ehrman had dealt seriously with the communal recurrence of the Jesus tradition in the years between Jesus and the Gospels, he might have recognized that inscribing Jesus’ teachings and deeds in tradition was one mechanism for providing for the persistence of the Jesus tradition through time, such that it was recognizable as the Jesus tradition despite its observable flexibility and malleability.

A similar problem exists in Ehrman’s treatment of the idea of a tradition’s multiformity: he recognizes that, “in oral performance, there is actually no such thing as the ‘original’ version of a story, or poem, or saying” (pp. 185–86), but he does not incorporate that insight into his scholarship, as he is still attempting the “extremely difficult” task of “separat[ing] out the elements that have been added or altered to an ‘original testimony’ (to use Vansina’s term) from the gist that represents an ‘accurate memory’ of the past” (p. 193). This problem, however, actually gets us to the fatal flaw, in my view, of Ehrman’s use of the anthropological scholarship. That problem is: Ehrman conceives of a tradition’s malleability and variability through time as a movement away from an accurate original, as distortions of what had once been clear. For example, “Whoever performs the tradition alters it in light of his own interests, his sense of what the audience wants to hear, the amount of time he has to tell or sing it, and numerous other factors” (p. 186). As a result, each performance of the tradition is severed from earlier performances, and the group that enacts, performs, and transmit that tradition loses any connection with its sense of history, of identification with members of previous generations. Indeed, in this view, one wonders why we should use the word tradition at all, since each version or performance lacks any causal or normative connection with earlier versions.

But this is not a helpful reading of the scholarship. To focus on only one stream of that scholarship, Albert Lord’s pioneering work, The Singer of Tales, did indeed struggle with appreciating what was traditional about tales composed in oral performance. But in that struggle, Lord nevertheless recognized that, alongside all the factors that endow a tradition with its flexibility and variance, was a causal, normative connection with previous performances. Lord emphasizes that the “oral” phenomena that have caught his interest are, at every turn, traditional:
The singer of tales is at once the tradition and an individual creator. His manner of composition differs from that used by a writer in that the oral poet makes no conscious effort to break the traditional phrases and incidents; he is forced by the rapidity of composition in performance to use these traditional elements. . . . His art consists not so much in learning through repetition the time-worn formulas as in the ability to compose and recompose the phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established by the basic formulas. He is not a conscious iconoclast, but a traditional creative artist. (Lord, Singer of Tales, 4, 5; see also pp. 220–21)
Ehrman is right when he reacts to exaggerated claims that one sometimes finds regarding the stability and/or the reliability of oral tradition. Not only are oral traditions flexible, changeable, malleable, but they also often seem to work with a different notion of stability and invariance than we do. But even this should not be exaggerated. Multiform traditions are perfectly capable of preserving a group's sense of cohesion with and belonging to the past that constitutes them. Perhaps the most helpful scholar for readers interested in an updated, even seminal study of the Parry-Lord approach to oral tradition is John Miles Foley (whether his 1991 book, Immanent Art, his 1995 volume, The Singer of Tales in Performance, or perhaps most helpful for the new reader, his 2002 primer, How to Read an Oral Poem). My own book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (T&T Clark, 2014), is intended as an introduction to Foley's work for students of the New Testament.

When Ehrman describes the fixity of written tradition, he says, “An ‘accurate’ preservation of a tale, a poem, a saying, for most of us, is one that does not vary from its earlier iteration. The reason we think that way is that we have ways of checking to see whether it is the same tradition” (p. 185). This is not quite right. My favorite example, from our own uber- or hyper-literate culture, of a stable but variable “tradition” is the Eagles’ version of “Hotel California” on their 1994 album, Hell Freezes Over. The original was released in February, 1977, and has since become an iconic song not just embodying The Eagles' art but even that era of rock 'n roll. But the 1994 acoustic version is very different. In fact, the audience in the live session in the video above didn't even realize they were listening to "Hotel California" for the first ninety seconds of the song! Even so, the 1994 live version clearly is the same song as the 1977 studio release, and in fact its value as a performance is a combination of both its reproduction of the song we know from the 1970s and its innovative sound and sequence. None of this refutes Ehrman's point that, in our familiarity with print-based exact reproduction, we are used to "preservation . . . that does not vary from its earlier iteration." It is only a plea to remember that even we, with our so-called "print mentality," can accommodate the preservation of tradition alongside and even through innovative variation.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)


  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Raphael, you reference Ehrman’s authenticity criteria (151-152), and note that his definition of “distorted memory” is “wrong memory.” Going to those pages, I find the following two criteria mentioned: (1) “…when different gospels tell different versions…sometimes the differences are stark enough…that it is clear that they both, or all, can’t be true to what actually happened.” (2) "On the other hand…some descriptions of past events are simply implausible… they too would appear to represent distorted memories."

    I note that there is no attempt to say that different or even implausible memories can be treated as cooperative phenomena that point in a helpful direction.

    Relatedly, I have just finished Dr. Le Donne’s Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? (2011). In there, he speaks of the phenomenon of “counter memories,” citing as an example the memories of what Jesus said about destroying the temple. He writes, “Please do not miss the beautiful irony here: It is when the editors of these stories disagree the most that we can most confidently postulate historical memory! The fact that the memories of Jesus were refracted (bent in different directions) is the very fact that allows the historian to postulate the historical event. Like a telescope lens which bends light so that an invisible object can be approximately seen, refracted memories of Jesus allow us to tell the story of the historical Jesus.” (130-131)

    I love Anthony’s replacement of ‘distortion” with the word ‘refraction.’ It is a neutral term, in some way additive and/or subtractive, and never “wrong,” but simply and justly interpretive, bending a memory anywhere from 1 through 360 degrees. Of course, I hope that Dr. Le Donne will reply if I have distorted his position in any way.

    1. Gene Stecker,

      Yes, you went to the right place. I am a bit surprised—and actually doubly surprised—at Ehrman's criteriological approach to historical Jesus work. I'm surprised, first, because that approach is quickly being recognized as outdated and ill-founded (it was already under suspicion prior to the publication of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity in 2012). But, secondly, I'm surprised because his criteriological approach is so simplistic. He mentions only these two criteria (disagreement between the sources; general implausibility), and he doesn't discuss at all how these two criteria are to be applied. Perhaps this is a function of his intended audience, but I would think writing for a popular audience makes it more—not less—imperative to explain such things.

      I've not read Anthony's popular-level book (sshhh!! don't tell him), but I have read his Historiographical Jesus (Baylor University Press, 2009), and the discussion is much the same there. And I think he's exactly right: The plurality of memory helps vivify (rather than obscure) the potentials for memory that others found in their commemorations of Jesus. I don't necessarily like Anthony's use of "refraction" instead of "distortion," though he does it for exactly the right reasons.

      Thanks for reading!!

  2. I read Milman Perry's obituary (on the Internet) which apparently appeared in the Harvard Crimson Dec 4, 1935:

    "Milman Parry, assistant professor Greek and Latin, died in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon as a result of an accidental shooting...
    Parry, visiting his mother-in-law in Los Angeles, was unpacking a suitcase in his hotel bedroom when a revolver mixed in with his clothing went off, mortally wounding him.
    His wife, who was in the next room, immediately summoned an ambulance, but he died before reaching the hospital."

    This account sounds suspicious to me. My immediate thoughts were: this could be a covered up suicide (or worse). Does anyone have any further information about this strange and tragic death?

  3. One issue -- when Ehrman talks about memory at all in this book, you have to discern whether it is "episodic" -- i.e., actual event memory -- or "semantic" -- i.e., memory of something one has learned about an event second or third hand. So even when he talks about distorted memories you need to ask which ones -- distorted episodic memory or distorted semantic memory? After making this distinction early on, Ehrman buries it and combines them and refers to them both simply as "memories." This, I think, is a key to the .... distortions in the book.