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[HJMatMeth] Jokes as a model for stability of oral tradition

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  • Jim Crutchfield
    I would like to ask Professor Crossan whether he or others have considered jokes as a possible model for studying the stability of form and content in oral
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 11, 2000
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      I would like to ask Professor Crossan whether he or others have
      considered jokes as a possible model for studying the stability of form
      and content in oral tradition, and, if so, what conclusions he has
      drawn in that regard.

      It seems to me that jokes are the closest analogue we have for the
      sayings of Jesus as passed down through oral tradition. Like the
      parables, jokes are brief sayings whose specific details may vary, but
      whose variability is limited by the requirements of the form. While
      parable rarely have clear punch lines, yet their effectiveness may be
      said similarly to depend on the preservation of certain necessary
      elements.

      Moreover, people tend to object when a joke-teller changes even
      incidental details of a familiar joke. Even though a new version may be
      just as funny as the old, somebody among the hearers is quite likely to
      say, "Well, I heard it like this:" and proceed to tell the traditional,
      normative version.

      We know from old joke books that some jokes have been passed down
      virtually unchanged through several centuries. Although these jokes are
      written down and republished from time to time, I suspect that these
      "scribal" versions are not strongly influential in preventing changes in
      jokes. I think the form itself imposes a certain conservatism, which is
      reinforced by the natural conservatism of the audience: people like to
      hear a joke told a certain way.

      Now certainly Jesus's parables are far more subtle than most jokes, and
      clearly they have been modified by various retellers to serve new
      purposes (such as moralising, mystical allegory, etc.); and so the
      inherent pressure to preserve the basic form & content seem to be less.
      Yet I can't help thinking that jokes are evidence that an oral tradition
      might well have preserved the original content of Jesus's sayings rather
      more reliably than the evidence of traditional poetry and storytelling
      (analyzed to great effect in _The Birth of Christianity_) has led Prof.
      Crossan to conclude.

      --
      Best wishes,

      James D. Crutchfield, B.A., J.D., R.S.V.P.
      New York City
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