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Re: [XTalk] Underlying assumptions [was: Jesus the wonder worker]

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  • Mahlon H. Smith
    ... write ... reality, ... should ... expectations. ... No argument with your last point, Bob. In fact, I would argue that it is not even a matter of both/and.
    Message 1 of 7 , Feb 22, 2002
      Bob Schacht wrote:

      > You seem to write as one committed to the literary world as if it is the
      > only representation of reality: The world of the text is the world. I
      > as an anthropologist, for whom written texts are only a portion of
      > and a rather limited portion at that. We know from virtually every culture
      > on earth that stories are passed from one generation to another; why
      > first century Galilee, Samaria and Judea be any different? Both authorial
      > creativity and oral tradition should be part of the fabric of our

      No argument with your last point, Bob. In fact, I would argue that it is not
      even a matter of both/and. For authorial creativity must be recognized even
      in oral tradition. As any close study of folklore will show, even the most
      stable oral forms for preservation & transmission of information are not
      immutable. Variations in detail, wording, etc. can occur in even proverbs &
      poetry. Self-contained anecdotes allow for even more variation, as any form
      critic who has compared the multiply attested parables, pronouncement &
      miracle stories in the gospel tradition would readily concede. And the
      longer the narration the greater the room for variation with each

      Any tradition is vulnerable to mutation. And since the human ear is not an
      infallible proof-reader any more than the human eye, many mutations in
      traditional material are accepted & repeated for generations without any
      consciousness on the part of those involved in the process of progressive
      development of that tradition that they had introduced any substantive
      changes. It is my job as an intellectual historian to note & track such
      trajectories that continue to occur even after the tradition has been
      reduced to a definitive fixed form in a text. For every time that text is
      read aloud or copied it is open to mutation. Even silent reading of the same
      text stimulates differing impressions & associations in the minds of
      different individuals. That's why even the adoption of a scriptural canon &
      creed did not & could not put an end to doctrinal disputes among those who
      firmly believed that they were defending the same tradition.

      The human mind is not a xerox machine but rather a voracious vacuum that
      sweeps up information from everywhere & spews it out in combinations & forms
      that are seldom *exactly identical* to the forms in which it was received.
      In dealing with oral tradition it is difficult, if not impossible, to
      determine exactly where any particular element came from or exactly when it
      was introduced into the trajectory of mouth to ear communication. For no
      human being can prove that s/he has heard & repeated exactly what another
      (or even oneself) has previously said, even though one may be absolutely
      convinced that one is passing on information unchanged.

      Only when information has been committed to writing can one begin to trace a
      tradition to any certain point. Given the demonstrable variation of
      basically the same narrative material in extant texts, the further one
      retrojects the contents of that text into an unverifiable trajectory of oral
      tradition the more tenuous one's tracking & interpretation of the evidence

      Admittedly texts preserve only a small segment of even human reality. But,
      for better or worse, texts constitute one of the few segments that can be
      traced with much precision & certainty. Texts make critical historiography
      possible, because they can be compared & analyzed at a level of fine detail
      that is unmatched in any other type of artifact or in any oral performance.
      But the "world of the text" is most certainly not "the world" of the
      historical critic. Nor should the critical historian regard any text as "the
      only (or even the best) representation of reality." On the contrary,
      critically trained historians should recognize what others often ignore:
      that every text describes the world as its author wants readers to see it &
      that there is often a gap between the world described by any author &

      That is precisely why critical scholars distinguish the images of Jesus in
      the gospels from each other & from HJ *tel qu'il etait.* It is recognition
      of that fog-filled gap between the evangelists' narratives & the actual
      events involving HJ that prevents me, as a historian weaned on Collingwood's
      critique of positivism's confusion of narrative with event, from ascribing
      to "tradition" material that can be reliably tracked only as far as Mark (or
      any other source). *If* there is internal or external evidence that any
      element of the Markan narrative probably antedates its composition, I am
      more than happy to try to track & reconstruct the traditional *Vorlage.*
      (Witness: a career devoted to analyzing the evidence for HJ, Q & SG -- all
      of which require meticulous reconstruction of a historical stratum behind
      extant texts). As a matter of fact, in the case of many pericopes in Mark
      including elements of a core PN, I am convinced that a pre-Markan
      "tradition" can be demonstrated. I have even argued in print for the
      historicity of some material in Mark (and Q). What I'm not prepared to do,
      however, is to postulate, in an uncritical leap of faith, a pre-Markan
      "tradition" that extends all the way back to HJ & accurately reflects the
      details of historical events in which he was involved. For I know too many
      historically dubious details in Mark & other gospels to be able to do this.

      Bob S. continued:

      > Why not demand the
      > same standard of demonstration for authorial creation as for oral
      > tradition? There seems to be on this list almost an aversion to fair
      > consideration of oral tradition in virtually any form when dealing with NT
      > texts (but not, interestingly, in your discussion of the preservation of
      > Galilean traditions following Tiglath Pileser's conquest.)

      I hope I made clear above that I am not arguing against the concept of oral
      tradition in general (as my arguments for the plausibility of the
      preservation of ancient Israelite oral traditions for generations show).
      Rather, my objection is to appealing to an undocumentable "tradition" to
      retroject the *details* of a narrative text into the events of an earlier
      time & space. (I never argued that ancient Israelite traditions were
      transmitted unchanged to NT times; nor would I even suggest that any
      possible echo of Israelite tradition in the gospels accurately preserved the
      details of ancient events). I personally have no aversion to a truly "fair
      consideration of oral tradition...when dealing with NT materials"
      *providing* that includes a really circumspect analysis of the dynamics &
      epistemological limitations of the process of preserving & communicating
      information orally. Historically, however, appeals to oral tradition have
      been a convenient tool for religious apologetics that has been too often
      invoked anachronistically in various religious traditions to present later
      innovations as ancient historical data (e.g., the rabbinic claim that their
      oral Torah was delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the doctrine of the
      immaculate conception, the hadith about Muhammed's heavenly journey, etc.).
      This type of appeal has no place in modern critical historical scholarship,
      where -- as Theissen argued in the passage I cited in my post last night --
      *everything* needs to be evaluated in relationship to the sources.

      > I would like a review of the rules of evidence for distinguishing
      > creativity from oral tradition in our earliest sources, that doesn't stack
      > the deck against oral tradition.

      Fair enough. While a full review would demand more time & thought than I
      can spare right now, how about this:

      1. Authorial creativity is likely where the vocabulary, syntax, motifs &
      general worldview are characteristic of the author of the text in question &
      not of other early Xn sources (e.g., messianic secret in Mark, fulfillment
      of Torah & prophets in Matt, light/dark dualism of 4G).

      2. Prior oral tradition is probable in pericopes that preserve
      (a) identifiable oral formulae (parables, aphorisms, pronouncement stories
      (b) material attested in multiple sources that are probably independent,
      (c) material that does *not* fit well in the general framework of the text
      in which it is preserved &
      (d) information that the author of that text tries to correct, explain away
      or otherwise qualify.

      3. Any other material that is *not* easily distinguishable from the
      characteristic theses & style of a given text *may* be derived from earlier
      oral tradition but cannot be reliably traced to such.

      Color the third category gray.

      Bob concluded:

      > I think our assumptions in
      > this regard are important, and I thank you for drawing our attention to

      You're welcome. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to correct any
      misimpression that I categorically rule out the possiblity of oral tradition
      in the formation of gospel materials.



      Mahlon H. Smith
      Department of Religion
      Rutgers University
      New Brunswick NJ 08901


      Synoptic Gospels Primer

      Into His Own: Perspective on the World of Jesus
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