Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Can We Compare the Oral Tradition of the Gospels to a Children's Game?

How many times in the course of a conversation about the the Gospels have you heard someone bring up the illustration of the children’s game of telephone? The illustration is, of course, meant to undermine the credibility of the Gospel accounts.  Since they weren't written down right away they must be hopelessly entangled with a bunch of errors due to the countless times the stories went from one person to the next.  Consider this quote from Craig Blomberg in his essay “Orality and the Parables” in Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered:
“Bart Ehrman, in no less than an Oxford publication as recent as 2000 can still liken the transmission of synoptic tradition to the children’s game of telephone, in which a fairly detailed message is whispered into one child’s ear. They must then repeat what they think they heard in another quiet whisper to a second child, and the process continues throughout the room. Even with only a couple of dozen ‘tradents,’ the message becomes hopelessly garbled and usually hilarious by the time the last person repeats aloud what was whispered to them. But, of course, the first-century transmitters of the Gospel tradition were not children, were not whispering, had numerous checks and balances within the communities as they passed on the tradition, had countless reasons for valuing the tradition and its careful preservation highly, had authorized leaders who periodically traveled to ensure that the traditions were still being reported accurately, had living eyewitnesses to consult, and had the practice of taking notes for private reference on which to fall back. Most important of all, they came from cultures in which education was dominated by rote learning, in which prodigious feats of memorization were cultivated, and in which traditions deemed sacred or from greatly revered teachers were hardly treated with the cavalier attitude of a children’s party game. Those who have replicated this contemporary game among Middle Eastern students today have discovered that it does not work—people remember accurately what they are told and do not even understand the point of the exercise.” (84)
I don't want to give the impression that Dunn has argued this.  He certainly does not.  Indeed, Blomberg concludes his essay by saying he hopes "this short study has provided at least some quantificational support for Dunn's convictions."  (126)  Dunn's approach to the oral tradition, says Blomberg, "remains far more likely to approximate historical realities than those of Funk, the Jesus Seminar, and others."  (126) The above point is made against Ehrman in particular whom Blomberg says "may continue to make contrary claims, with sensationalizing titles for books, like Misquoting Jesus, but, if they do, it will be they who will be misrepresenting history and, specifically, the oral tradition of Jesus' life and teachings."  (127) 


Andrew said...

Really interesting post. Gotta love Craig Blomberg. Great writer.

Vinny said...

Blomberg's assertions strike me as little more than wishful thinking. Is there really any reason to believe that the transmission of these stories was subject to checks and balances within established communities? The stories were being transmitted by individuals from one community to another. New communities composed of individuals from diverse cultures were forming in response to the stories. The pagan religions had no tradition of authoritative texts or authoritative teachings. They consisted of ritual sacrifices to keep the gods happy. Where would pagan converts have acquired these prodigious memorization skills?

Craig Blomberg said...

They would have learned it in "grade school." Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were the closest thing to canonical Scriptures for Greeks. Almost all elementary school education for boys, and, unfortunately, almost always just for boys, was by rote memory. Many children committed to memory large portions of one or the other of these two epic poems and some memorized them all. So, no, Vinny, it's not just wishful thinking.

Louis said...

Thank you Dr. Blomberg for responding. I had planned a comment with the footnotes you provide in the paragraph I quoted (and you give several)but I don't think it will be necessary now.

Vinny said...

Dr. Blomberg,

Thank you for responding. However, isn't there a big difference between memorizing a text in school and remembering perfectly a story that that one has been told? Isn't it just as likely that the earliest pagan converts to Christianity were illiterate members of the slave and peasant classes rather than members of the privileged classes who had received formal educations?

When you say that the Iliad and Odyssey were the closest thing to canonical Scripture in Greek culture, aren't you implicitly conceding that the notion of canonical Scripture didn't actually exist in Greek culture? Even if there were early pagan converts who had received a formal education, what reason do we have to think that they would have associated the oral stories they heard about Jesus with the written texts they had memorized in grade school?