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A Fourth Point about the Telephone Game?

June 2, 2009

Thanks to Dr. Goodacre for the ditto. Also, thanks to Dr. West and Dr. Gregory, who have added a fourth objection to my three objections to the idea of using the telephone game to teach the transmission of the gospel stories and teachings: people in the first century were less likely to intentionally change the traditions and they were more likely to be better at memorizing the traditions.

I’m not enough of a Bible scholar to argue much about 1st century Palestinian memorization practices, but I can at least make one caveat to these additions: they didn’t really have “traditions” to start with at the beginning. It seems that Dr. West and Dr. Gregory’s comments assume that traditions were there from the beginning.

I can’t believe that pericopes popped out of the air each day after Jesus gave a teaching. There had to have been a considerable gap between “did you hear the crazy shit Jesus said yesterday?” and a relatively stable storyline that begins with “Jesus spoke to them, saying ….”

I’m willing to believe that people in the first century were better at memorization than we are today, but they would need a relatively stable tradition before they could begin memorizing. I think it is unlikely that anyone would memorize an anecdote concerning what happened yesterday, last month, or even last year.

Again, let me note that this isn’t intended as a rebuttal of Dr. West or Dr. Gregory’s points—more as just a caveat.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2009 4:35 pm

    I appreciate your link to my blog. One correction: I don’t have a PhD :( but I plan to work on one!

    I agree, the traditions didn’t pop out of thin air in the form we have them as seen in the synoptics. They had to develop and form orally until the point that they were preserved in written form. If they were produced based on real events, that quickly permits a tradition to form, and then those traditions, however many there were, could be utilized (rearranged, altered, etc.) for specific purposes.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 3, 2009 8:30 pm

    Hi James; sorry I was confused about your doctoral status! Thanks for commenting. You said:

    If they were produced based on real events, that quickly permits a tradition to form

    I’m not sure I follow this part; how does the reality or fictionality of the event have a bearing on how fast stories becomes codified? Is there empirical research to back up this sort of claim?

  3. June 3, 2009 11:39 pm

    In my mind, if an event occurs, then people may start talking about the event. The basis of the talk would be what happened, but people can recall it to mind differently, with variation, alterations, etc. This can happen so fast that it is as if the traditions pop out of thin air. I brought up this line of thought because you said that you would have a hard time believing that the traditions could suddenly come from nowhere. No, the traditions weren’t there from the start. They had to develop. But the traditions could appear suddenly, because the events that they were based upon occurred suddenly. And I agree that the memorization process would have to occur regarding well formed traditions. But then we have to consider the weight of testimony and how that transmitted.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 4, 2009 9:42 am

    Hmmm. I see what you’re saying. I’m not sure I fully agree or have that much faith in the way people remember.

    I’ll just make one comment about it: I’m not sure Jesus’ actions would constitute an “event.” Let me take Freud’s theory of trauma to compare. Freud never thought there was one traumatic event that could cause trauma—there were always two events together. Here’s a really hackneyed example: say a kid, age 6, sees her mother having sex with the mailman. Because the kid is 6, she doesn’t understand what is going on. But once she reaches puberty and learns about sex, she realizes what her mother did, what a hypocrite her mother is, etc. For Freud, the trauma is produced out of these two events: seeing the sex act and the realization (years later) what it was.

    So, here’s my thought: according to the literature from the first century, there were lots of people going around healing people, interpreting the Jewish law, giving sermons, claiming to be prophets or messiahs, etc. Basically, this was humdrum stuff. So I’m not sure that much of what Jesus said would constitute a real “event” until after stories circulated that he was killed. If this is right, then there is still a big gap between the “event” and when the event took on significance and had to be recalled from memory.

    This obviously isn’t a knock-down argument against what you’re suggesting (I can think of one or two gaps in it), but I think there’s something to it.

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