[Synoptic-L] Bailey's Theory of Oral Tradition: a Flawed Theory, Part II
What follows is the long-delayed, second part of my critique of Kenneth Bailey’s theory of informal controlled oral tradition. The first part of my critique, entitled, "Bailey's Theory of Oral Tradition: a Flawed Theory, Part I," I presented on Synoptic-L , September 9, 2001. This present essay-post is a corrected and slightly revised edition of the essay I posted on XTalk, December 24, 2001. That earlier edition of this essay contained errors (which are now corrected) due to the haste with which I had to finish it and get it to James D. G. Dunn. Dunn, an advocate of Bailey’s theory, asked me on December 17 in an e-mail if he might be able to see Part II (he had already seen Part I) of my critique of Bailey’s theory before December 31, in time for him to take it into consideration as he put finishing touches on the manuscript of his new book, _Jesus Remembered_.
It is with Mark Goodacre’s encouragement that I post this lengthy essay-post, Part II of my critique of Bailey’s theory. I have divided the essay into the following sections: I. Preface; II. Bailey’s Description of Informal Controlled Oral Tradition; III. Nine Anecdotes; IV. Conclusion. I look forward to and would appreciate any critical feedback any of you may wish to offer. I hope to publish my critique of Bailey’s theory and your constructive and critical response to it will be of great value to me as I consider publication.
Kenneth Bailey has proposed and developed a case for a unique methodology which he argues has governed the transmission of oral tradition in Middle East communities throughout their history. The name he gives this methodology is "informal controlled oral tradition." He has presented his case for this methodological theory in two articles, "Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,"_Asia Journal of Theology_ 5 (1991), 34-54 (henceforth cited below as _AJT_) and "Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels," _The Expository Times_ 106 (1995), 363-367 (henceforth cited below as _ET_).
According to Bailey, informal controlled oral tradition is the methodology which has been historically exercised in Middle East villages, from ancient to contemporary times, to ensure that the oral tradition indigenous to those respective villages is accurately preserved and faithfully transmitted from generation to generation. In his articles Bailey describes how the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition works, explains why it is efficaciously successful for the purpose of accurately preserving and faithfully transmitting oral tradition, and supplies a significant number of anecdotal, personal experiences in support of his theory. Bailey’s primary interest in this methodology--- which he claims to have personally observed being practiced in Middle East village settings--- lies in his conviction that it is the same methodology which the earliest Palestinian Christians practiced to ensure the accurate preservation and faithful transmittal of the orality of the Jesus tradition, from its inception via the firsthand accounts of the original eye and ear witnesses of Jesus’ ministry to its transmission among Palestinian Christians up to the outbreak of the Roman-Jewish war in 66 CE (cf., _AJT_, 34-38, 50; _ET_, 363f., 367).
Bailey’s advocacy of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition as the methodology that best fits the way the earliest Palestinian Christians’ transmission of the oral Jesus tradition has won the endorsement of a number of New Testament scholars. I cite two prominent examples. In a paper, "Jesus in Oral Memory: The Initial Stages of the Jesus Tradition," presented on J_D_G_DunnSeminar@yahoogroups.com, an online seminar with James D. G. Dunn, conducted under the auspices of X Talk, April 23-May 4, 2001, Dunn draws appreciatively upon Bailey’s theory for his own work on the transmission of the oral Jesus tradition. N. Thomas Wright is so persuaded by Bailey’s theory of informal controlled oral tradition that he effusively declares in his (_Jesus and the Victory of God_, 135f.): ". . . Bailey’s proposal has, to my mind, the smell of serious social history about it. . . . It enables us to explain, without as yet having recourse to complex theories either of synoptic relationships or of a freely expanding tradition, the way in which again and again the story comes out slightly differently, but the *sayings* [emphasis: Wright] remain more or less identical. . . . It enables us to understand how divergent traditions could arise, particularly in communities which, after the disaster of the two wars, found themselves free from the informal control of the original community and wished, for whatever reason, to take a different theological or practical line. It enables us, in other words, to understand the material before us, without invoking extra epicycles of unwarranted assumptions. These are great strengths. Until it is shown that the process Bailey envisages is historically impossible, I propose that it be taken as a working model. "
Despite James G. D. Dunn, N. Thomas Wright and others’ endorsement and advocacy of, and even dependency upon, the cogency and credibility of Bailey’s theory, in my examination of the evidence Bailey marshals for his theory in his two aforementioned articles ( _AJT_, 38-50; _ET_, 364-366) I have found that his theory is fatally flawed and finally collapses under its own unsustainable argumentation. In my Synoptic_L essay-post, "Bailey's Theory of Oral Tradition: a Flawed Theory, Part I," I focused my attention on Bailey’s misleading claim of support for his theory from one of his primary, and only extant, evidentiary sources. That one and only extant source Bailey offers in defense of his theory is Rena Hogg’s biography of her father, _A Master Builder on the Nile_ (1914). Rather than serving as a strong underpinning for his theory, a careful reading of Rena Hogg’s work actually reveals that Bailey, as I demonstrated in my essay, has not only misrepresented her in his defense but she turns out to be a formidable witness against him.
In the present essay, Part II of my critique of Bailey’s theory, I turn my attention to certain other anecdotal evidence Bailey provides for his theory, anecdotal evidence which, when closely examined, offers, in my judgment, virtually no persuasive support for his position and, in at least the case of two anecdotes, seriously undermines the argument he tries to make to substantiate the cogency of his theory. Before I turn my attention to these anecdotes, nine in number, I will briefly review the nature and function of informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey represents the methodology.
II. Bailey’s Description of Informal Controlled Oral Tradition
Bailey tells us that he discerned the practice of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition in the *haflat samar* (regular village gatherings devoted to the preservation of oral tradition integral to a village’s identity) of Middle Eastern villages (_AJT_, 39f.; cf., _ET_, 364). In a *haflat samar*, Bailey reports, there is a decided informal character as the assembled villagers rehearse the stories of their oral heritage integral to their own founding and continuing social identity. In the *haflat samar* there are no designated teachers or appointed storytellers. Rather, anyone can recite or share stories, proverbs, poems and community history, as long as he has grown up hearing them recited over and over again within the *haflat samar* (AJT_, 40). However, in such settings it is the community elders who tend to dominate (_ET_, 364; "[w]omen and young people can have their own *haflat samar*" [_AJT_, 40] ). All others serve as "the informal ‘students’ listening to elders pass on the tradition of the community" (_AJT_, 40).
As the stories are shared in these almost nightly meetings, it is of the highest importance that the stories be told correctly, for the right telling of these stories is critical to the preservation of the community’s identity. If someone tells the story ‘wrong’, the reciter is corrected by a chorus of voices. Therein lies the imposition of control on the community’s oral tradition, and, thus, both the informal and controlled character of a *haflat samar*. The setting for recitation is informal but the recitation itself is *controlled* [emphasis:TJW] (_ET_, 365; cf. also _AJT_, 42).
How tightly controlled the recitation is within these gatherings depends, as Bailey points out, on the oral material being recited. In the case of poems and proverbs, there can be no flexibility in how they are recited. In the case of parables and stories of events and historical people integral to the community’s self-identity, a measure of flexibility is permitted as long as certain fundamental elements are carefully preserved. "The central threads of the story cannot be changed, but the flexibility in detail is allowed" (_AJT_, 42). "Parables, entertaining stories and historical narratives can take on the individuality, interests and vocabulary of the reciter. As long as the main lines of the story are followed, the dramatic details can be expanded or summarized..." (_ET_, 366). "[B]asic scenes [can]not be changed, but the order [can] be reversed without triggering the community rejection mechanism. The basic flow of the story and its conclusion [has] to remain the same. The names [can]not be changed. The summary punch line [is] inviolable.... [T]he storyteller [has] a certain freedom to tell the story in his own way as long as the central thrust of the story [is] not changed" (_AJT_, 44). Such is the nature of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition which Bailey avers he discerned operating in Middle East villages in the forty years he lived and worked in the Middle East (_ET_, 363).
III. Nine Anecdotes
And now I turn to examine nine anecdotes in Bailey’s _AJT_ article, which in addition to his anecdotal accounts related to Rena Hogg’s book, Bailey claims support his theory. There are references or allusions to three anecdotes in his _ET_ article, which are also found in his _AJT_ article, and they will be noted in the text below. Other than these three, and aside from anecdotes related to anecdotes in Rena Hogg’s biography of her father, Bailey does not cite with specificity other anecdotes in support of his theory in his _ET_ article. The nine anecdotes from Bailey’s _AJT_ article, which I will examine below, are the most germane to the argument he mounts in support of his theory. I cite the nine, with the exception of one (#7, which appears last in Bailey’s sequencing of the nine anecdotes), in the order they appear in his _AJT_ article. Note: where emphases appear in what follows, the emphases are Bailey’s, unless otherwise noted.
(1) Bailey cites (_AJT_, 39) an occasion when "his Grace George Salibo, Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Mount Lebanon. . . described to me the tradition of the great St. Ephrem the Syrian." St. Ephrem, in order to combat the heresy of Bardaisan, a second-century CE poet who composed his heresy using the medium of Syriac hymns, produced orthodox hymns in the fourth century CE using the same meter. "So," Bailey informs us, "today at the ‘Atshani Syrian Orthodox seminary in Lebanon, the young students converse only in fourth century Syriac and . . . sing St. Ephrem’s hymns by the hour."
But what, I ask, does that information offer to assure us that from the fourth century to the twenty-first century the Syrian Orthodox church took steps to guard against any alteration of St. Ephrem’s hymns or the addition of pseudo-Ephrem hymns? In other words, how does that example vouch for the fact that the Syrian Orthodox church, without exception, practiced the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition throughout the course of its history, thereby accurately preserving its tradition, and thus, in so doing, confirm Bailey’s theory?
(2) Bailey reports (_AJT_, 40f.) being present in a *haflat samar* in the village of Kom al-Akhdar in southern Egypt, where he was querying a person about the traditions of the village. The person, "in his sixities," was responding to Bailey’s inquiries, when others in the *haflat samar* interrupted him and challenged his right to share the traditions of the village. Even though he had lived there for thirty-seven years, he was not entitled, according to the native villagers, to recite the oral traditions of the village.
What Bailey describes in this incident is not at all unique to the *haflat samar* of Middle East villages. For example, even today, in many small towns of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine in the northeastern section of the United States, persons who are not of native birth or, in some cases, whose ancestors as well are not of native birth are not considered to be "locals," even though they may have moved into the communities as babies and lived there for sixty or seventy years. Like the man in Bailey’s anecdote, such "transplants" in these small towns in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, would not in official or unofficial public gatherings be recognized as having "the right" to tell a stranger the traditions of those respective small towns.
(3) Bailey cites (_AJT_, 41; cf., _ET_, 365) the example of a seventeenth century "*zajali* Marionite monk [who] composed a complete history of the Marcionite church in *zajal*. His work was transmitted orally for two hundred years." Bailey describes a *zajali* as "a man with the skills required for the creation of"*zajal*, a "type of village verse." Bailey goes on to say, "Such men are in heavy demand at weddings and other festive occasions because of their ability to create stanzas *ab lib*. Two of them can respond to one another in *ab lib* verse, like masters of ceremonies trading toasts or jokes."
Again, I must ask: if one of the abilities these men are known for is ad libbing, how, then, are we to be sure that the *zajali* Marcionite monk who composed the history of the Marcionite church in *zajal* did not ab lib occasionally and, as a consequence, produce innovative, fictive incidents or interpretations of other incidents that deviate from the authentic and original oral tradition of the church? In order words, how can one be confident that a *zajali* is committed to the prescribed and restrictive canons of informal controlled oral tradition? Using a *zajali* as the witness for an accurate transmission of the oral tradition of the Marcionite church, in my judgment, is suspect because of his proclivity for ad libbing.
Furthermore, Bailey tells us (_AJT_, 52, n. 27) that he got his information about *zajal* from Wa’il Khayr, "a research scholar for the Middle East Council of Churches" through "a series of extended conversations during 1980-84." But Bailey does not indicate whether Wa’il Khayr spoke to the issue of informal controlled oral tradition or any methodology that a *zajali* might use to preserve the integrity of the oral tradition he recites in *zagal* verse. Because of these problematic issues, I fail to see how this anecdote effectively serves the cogency of Bailey’s theory.
(4) Bailey recounts (_AJT_, 42-44) a time when he was present in a *haflat samar* listening to a group conversation when someone interjected, "‘*Wafaa Shannun Tabaqa*’(Shann was pleased to accept Tabaqa)." Bailey "immediately sensed that this was the punch line of a story." So he asked what the punch line meant. With that, according to Bailey, "[t]he circle quickly sensed the formal nature of what was happening, and someone said, ‘Rev Dagher knows the story.’ "In fact," Bailey observes, "they all knew it, but the ranking patriarch was given the honor of telling the story to the newcomer."
Again, what Bailey describes is not unique to a Middle East village, I have experienced as a child family gatherings where a guest inquired about a story indigenous to the life of the family and those gathered have deferred to an elder in the family to tell the story that any of the other members of the family could have told.
(5) Bailey cites an occasion (_AJT_, 44; and cf., _ET_, 366) when, in his Beirut classroom, he tried an experiment in which he "dredged ... up from memory" the story of Shann accepting Tabaqa (see #4), which he had heard ten years, before and recited to his class of "village boys from Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The Egyptian had not heard it. The other four knew the story in all its details." They had never read the story but knew it as a traditional story. When Bailey asked them if he had told the story correctly, the answer was "yes." With that confirming response from his students, Bailey shares the analysis which followed: "We ... examined what must be present in the recitation for them to sense that I was telling it correctly. We produced a list. The proverb that appeared in the story had to be repeated verbatim. The three basic scenes could not be changed, but the order could be reversed without triggering the community rejection mechanism. The basic flow of the story and its conclusion had to remain the same. The names could not be changed. The summary punch line was inviolable. . . . . [T]he story teller had a certain freedom to tell the story in his own way as long as the central thrust of the story was not changed" (_AJT, 44).
Bailey apparently alludes to the same classroom incident in his _ET_ article (366) when he states the following: "I have often told well-known village stories to classes of middle-eastern theological college students. People from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine have usually heard the same stories. I have watched *the students instinctively form the controlling community* [emphasis: TJW] and together explain to me the acceptable boundaries for a given story."
What I find interesting is that, in his _ET_ allusion to the anecdote provided in detail in his _AJT_ article, Bailey states that "the students instinctively [formed] the controlling community," a detail that he does not share in his _AJT_ version. I would like to have had Bailey speak more fully about this instinctive response of students to turn a classroom into the setting of a controlling community. If that was the case, namely that the students did turn themselves into a controlling community, then that would lend support to Bailey’s theory.
But questions linger with respect to this classroom experiment. Did the students consciously turn themselves into a controlling community or did Bailey "read it" that way because of his interest in proving his point? What would an outside, impartial observer have concluded with respect to the students’ behavior? Further, to what extent in the design of the experiment, Bailey’s introduction of it and his inviting the students’ response to the story as it pertains to informal controlled oral tradition, did Bailey inadvertently lead the students to respond with answers that Bailey himself was seeking in order to prove his point?
I am not suggesting here that Bailey intentionally manipulated the experiment to his own benefit. I am only suggesting that there are too many unknowns about how the experiment was conducted to be able to know how to assess the reliability of its results. One way to test the reliability of Bailey’s experiment in producing the results he claims is to have trained, impartial social scientists run such an experiment on a number of such village people from a wide variety of village settings. That I think needs to be done before a definitive judgment can be made with respect to the conclusions Bailey has drawn from his Beirut classroom experiment.
What does strike me as a bit puzzling about Bailey’s experiment, however, is that, while Bailey turns to students to help him produce a list of required elements and prescribed canons that must be operative for a story to be correctly recited, according to the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition, he never makes any reference or allusion in either of his articles to turning to authoritative, *haflat samar* elders--- such as Rev. Ibrahim Dagher in whose presence Bagler seems to have been on a number of occasions (_AJT_, 42f., 47f.)--- to be instructed, or at least have his own observations confirmed, as to what controls, if any, are always operative in the *haflat samar* when the oral tradition integral to a community’s identity is recited. Why did Bailey not check out his intuitions about the methodology he discerned operating in each *haflat samar* with its elder authorities? And if he did, why does he not indicate that he did? It would certainly have strengthened the credibility of his theory if he had done so and if they, as a result, vouched for the accuracy of his discernment.
(6) Bailey reports (_AJT_, 45 and cf. 42) a story which Father Makhiel, of the village of Dayr Abu Hennis, told him twenty-five years before about the founding of the village. The history of the village, Bailey informs us, goes back to when Christian monks established a monastery--- perhaps as early as the fourth century CE or before--- on the edge of what was then the city of Antinopolis, a city built by the Romans in the second century CE. The monks of Dayr Abu Hennis became known for making baskets with three handles to represent the Trinity. It was their way of evangelizing their faith among the pagan inhabitants to whom they sold the baskets. Bailey states with regard to the story told to him by Father Makhiel: " The story is a simple historical recollection that survives from the fourth century. . . . To change the basic story line while telling that account in the village of Dayr Abu Hennis is unthinkable. If you persisted, I think you would be run out of the village. They have told it the same way for centuries."
But what evidence does Bailey have to substantiate his claim that the story’s authenticity is "assured?" How does he know that "the story was told the same way for centuries?" What evidence does he have to prove that? Note that it is Bailey, and not Father Makhiel, who declares that changing the "basic story line" of this story about the monks in the village "is unthinkable." It is Bailey, and not Father Makhiel, who adds the commentary that "you would be run out of the village," if you altered the basic story line of the account. Did Father Makhiel tell Bailey that incorrect reciting of the story was "unthinkable?" If he did, why did Bailey not quote Father Makhiel directly? If Father Makhiel did not state that to Bailey, then on what basis does Bailey make such a judgment? How do we know that Bailey is offering anything more than his own opinion on the matter? Did Bailey "check out" with Father Makhiel specificially whether the village was guided by the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey concludes? If Bailey did not "check it out," why did he not, in order to make sure what he concluded was correct?
Bailey offers us no interview with Father Makhiel with respect to the village’s methodology for transmitting its oral history from one generation to the next. Bailey has provided no independent verification that the village of Dayr Abu Hennis exercised informal controlled oral tradition throughout its history.
(7) Bailey recounts (_AJT_, 49f.; cf., _ET_, 366) a common experience he had while preaching to congregants in a village. In the course of preaching, when he told a new story, an elder would interrupt and ask the congregation if they heard what Bailey had just said and then the elder would repeat "a line or two of the story including the punch line." The people would then follow the lead of the elder and turn to people next to them and repeat "the central thrust of the story twice and thrice to each other. They wanted," Bailey explains, "to retell the story that week across the village and they had to learn it on the spot. The preacher was not *allowed* to continue until they had done so." Bailey then states: "Through such incidents it was possible to observe *informal controlled* oral tradition functioning at close range, and watch it solidify and orally record information for transmission" (50).
Unless I have missed something, I do not find anything in Bailey’s account here to support his claim that the congregation was exercising informal *controlled* oral tradition (emphasis: TJW) in the course of his preaching. That the members of the congregation were, according to Bailey’s account, engaging in an informal exercise to commit to memory Bailey’s story appears to be the case. Informal, yes. But controlled? Where is control being exercised in the way the story was being shared back and forth among members of the congregation? Did Bailey ever witnessed those stories being told again on later occasions to determine whether, in the continued retelling, elders or members of the congregation kept a check on how accurately Bailey’s stories were being retold? If there were such occasions when Bailey observed such control being exercised on the retelling of his stories, then there would be evidence of the community practicing the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition. But Bailey does not cite any such occasions.
All that I find Bailey describing in this incident is a process whereby the members of the community, with the assistance of the elder, engaged in committing the stories Bailey told to memory, so that, as Bailey explains, they could each "retell the story that week across the village and [thus] they had to learn it on the spot." I find nothing in what Bailey has described to suggest conclusively that either the elder or the members were testing one another to make sure that each got the story accurately committed to memory according to "the rubrics" of informal controlled oral tradition. And furthermore, were the stories Bailey told in the course of his preaching of such significance that the remembrance of them was integral to and indispensable for the preservation of the community’s identity, the very raison d’etre for the exercise of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition?
(8) Bailey tells (_AJT_, 47f.) of an episode in Beirut in 1967 when the Rev. Ibrahim Dagher, "the then official head of the protestants in Lebanon, and an authentic reciter of the *informal controlled* oral tradition of his community," recited at a public lecture a parable which Rev. Dagher related to the Palestinian-Lebanese conflict and the June 1966 war. The parable was about a camel trying to get inside a bedouin’s tent. Unexpectedly, when Dagher came to the conclusion and the punch line of the parable, he changed it. According to Bailey, "[e]veryone in the audience *thought* they knew how the story was going to end. They assumed that in the end the camel would drive the bedouin out of the tent." But in Dagher’s ending, "[w]hen the camel [at last] had his neck in the tent, he jerked his powerful neck upwards and struck the top of the tent with his head, and the tent collapsed on the bedouin and the camel." It was clear, Bailey states, that Dagher, in telling the parable, intended his audience to understand that the bedouin symbolized the Lebanese and the camel symbolized the Palestinians.
Bailey recalls the reaction of the audience to Dagher’s unexpected alteration of the parable’s conclusion, thus: "The *revisions* in the traditional story went off like a mental hand-grenade and Rev. Dagher’s main point was located in those *revisions* ." The meaning Dagher was communicating to his audience via his revised ending of the parable was, so Bailey explains (_AJT_, 48 ), the following, "We the Lebanese have welcomed our Palestinian brothers into Lebanon, but there is danger lest they break down the social and political structures of Lebanon and bring the whole country crashing down around our ears."
Bailey states (_AJT_, 48) that he has "recorded . . . at least ninety percent of Rev. Dagher’s *ipsissima verba* even though I heard the parable once 22 years ago." Bailey goes on to say that "the parable survived in protestant circles and was retold all across the Middle East. Indeed, in the summer of 1984 the parable was repeated to me intact in Bristol, England, by a witness who had heard it in Jordan in the late sixties. Such," Bailey declares, "is the strength of *informal controlled* oral tradition in the Middle East."
Unless I have missed something again, Bailey, from my perspective, has demonstrated quite the contrary. He has demonstrated that Dagher in revising the ending of the parable showed a disregard for one of the major canons of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey presents the methodology. Bailey declares, as was noted above, that, in the exercise of that methodology in storytelling, "the storyteller has a certain freedom to tell the story in his own way as long as the central thrust of the story [is] not changed." " [The] basic flow of the story and its conclusion [has] to remain the same. . . . The summary punch line [is] inviolable" (_AJT_, 44).
But that is precisely where Rev. Dagher failed. He failed to observe a principal canon of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey represents it. Dagher changed the thrust of the story. He changed the parable’s punch line, the "inviolable" [emphasis: TJW] punch line. Thus, Bailey’s Dagher-parable example in effect undercuts his own theory. Dagher changed "an old familiar story" (_AJT_, 48) and no one in the community exercised informal community control and challenged Dagher for doing so. Quite the contrary, Bailey states that, by altering the original parable, "the author gave what his fellow Lebanese deemed a "wise answer" [to their existential predicament] and thereby gave the community a good feeling about the rightness of following this particular leader [Rev. Dagher]" (_AJT_, 48). Rather than challenging Dagher for altering the parable, the community, on the basis of Dagher’s authority and wisdom, accepted the new version of the parable--- altered punch line and all--- into their lore of oral tradition.
In my judgment, contra Bailey, his Dagher-example, rather than supporting his theory, undermines it. Now, apparently, Bailey does not see it that way, for he introduces the Dagher-example (_AJT_, 47) as an illustration of how new material can be accepted and incorporated into oral tradition, without presumably violating the methodological canons of informal controlled oral tradition. But, as I see it, Dagher took an old familiar parable and altered its punch line to make it "work" for a new situation. There is no escaping the fact that Dagher’s alteration of that punch line is, in my view, a violation of the canon, according to Bailey, that prevents a punch line of a story from being altered when the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition is exercised. To treat the Dagher alteration of the parable’s punch line as an example of how new material can enter the tradition undermines the very foundation of Bailey’s theory. For then presumably any story from oral tradition could be altered and accepted into the oral tradition as new material, as long as it is introduced by a recognized authority, such as Rev. Dagher. If that be the case, then theoretically the canons of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition could be set aside whenever such an authority believes it is in the best interest of a community to do so. And what that leads to is informal *uncontrolled* oral tradition (emphasis: TJW).
(9) Bailey’s recounts (_AJT_, 48f.) the story of a wedding tragedy which occurred in 1958 in the village of Dayr al-Barsha, in southern Egypt. As Bailey tells this story, in the celebration which followed the wedding, Hanna, a friend of Burus, the groom, was joining others in firing rifles as a traditional part of the festivities. But Hanna’s rifle failed to fire, whereupon "[h]e lowered the gun and then the defective bullet fired [and] passed through the groom who was instantly killed" (_AJT_, 48). In order to protect the hapless Hanna from being charged with murder, the villagers told the police when they arrived that a "camel stepped on him [Burus]." Then in order to absolve Hanna from blame by Burus’ family, "the community decided together that this was an act of God" (_AJT_, 49). So henceforth, " as Bailey reports, "they told the story of the groom’s death in this way: "Hanna fired the gun. The gun did not go off. He lowered the gun. The gun fired (*durib-al-bundugiyya* [passive])" (_AJT_, 48). Thus, by telling the story using the passive verb ("The gun fired"), the intended spin given to the story was: "God fired the gun not Hanna" (_AJT_, 49).
Once again Bailey has used an anecdote to prove his case for informal controlled oral tradition and once again, from my perspective, his anecdote has become a witness against his theory. And once again, it is the issue of the alteration of the inviolate punch line. Only in the case of this anecdote the violation of this canon is compounded by the creation of two, radically different variations on the punch line. The first variation occurs in the police report.
In the reporting of the incident to the police, the witnesses of the event informed the police that Burus, the groom, had died from injury sustained when "a camel stepped on him." In reporting the cause of death as due to a camel, the accurate reporting of what actually happened was squelched. Thus, in my view, from the beginning the oral tradition of that historic episode was falsified and fictionalized in its transmission to the police. Bailey, speaking implicitly, if not explicitly, to this issue states (_AJT_, 49): "The police were told, ‘A camel stepped on him,’ meaning ‘We have settled this among ourselves and we don’t want any police interference in the internal affairs of our community.’ We note," Bailey explains, "in passing that no deception is intended or perpetrated (Middle Eastern peoples communicate *magnificently* using a very sophisticated double-talk). The police in this case knew *exactly* what had happened. *Unofficially* and privately all the details are given to them. But after the above community’s theological decision and the ensuing condensation of the story, the police can *officially* examine all five thousand people in the village and receive the same answer from all."
"Double-talk," or not, the official report to the police, in my view, is a falsified and fictive account of what actually happened in that tragic event. And when the police were asked by their supervisors about what happened, what account, I ask, did they give them? If it was the "official report," I submit, Bailey to the contrary, that already in the beginning oral tradition of the account, at least one version of it, incorporated a fictive spin on what actually happened.
What the community did in this fictionalized "official report," was, as I view it, to invoke in essence what Werner Kelber (_The Oral and Written Gospel_) identifies as "the rule of preventive censorship," a rule commonly exercised in a community, in which orality is the medium for transmitting tradition, to ensure that its oral tradition conforms to its "social identification" (Kelber: 24). Unlike textuality, orality is--- whether it be spontaneously evoked as an inspired speech-event or the recitation of stories new or old generated by and from events in a community’s lifeworld--- indispensably and inextricably coupled to the receptivity of hearers. That is there is an inherent symbiotic relationship between speaker and hearers in the linguistic phenomenon of orality, what Kelber (19) calls "oral synthesis." "What characterizes orality in distinction from textuality," Kelber (92) demarcates , "is its intimate association with social life. Oral words are ratified, censured, queried, and rejected in interactions with listeners’ interests and expectations. There is for the oral medium no escaping from accountability to hearers. This give-and-take between spoken words and audience pressures generates the homeostatic balance, a continuous process of adjustment of language to communal expectations, of social linguistic realities." Thus, the very survival of a speaker’s message is dependent upon the hearers’ receptive embrace of it (Kelber, 28). And in community contexts that receptivity, in particular, is dependent upon whether the message coheres with the community’s self understanding and its social identity, or as Kelber (24) labels it, its "social identification." So oral performance is always subject to the expectations and the existential needs of the community.
If oral material or a message evoked by oral performance stands in tension with the community’s own self-interests as formulated via its identity construct, if a bond is not created between the voice-event of the speaker and the minds and hearts of the receivers, the content of the orality will be rejected and die a death that is inherent to the phenomenology of orality. Unlike textuality which has a life of its own and can live beyond the censorship of a community (cf., Kelber, 15, 92, 114, 115)--- unless the community decides to burn the text or eradicate it through some other act of destruction--- orality, and stories, sayings and tradition spun by it, cannot survive unless it conforms to the expectations or needs or tolerance level of the community, and, subsequently, is given life through continued transmission by the community (Kelber, 28).
When an oral message does not cohere with a community’s social identification, when it exceeds the tolerance level of what the community deems acceptable to the integrity and for the preservation of its self-understanding, the community will invoke "the rule of preventive censorship." Preventive censorship works this way, as Kelber puts it (28f.): "If a message is alien to an audience, or a matter of indifference, or socially unacceptable, it will not be continued in the form in which it was spoken. It will either have to be altered, that is, adjusted to prevailing social expectations, or eliminated altogether. . . . The rule of preventive censorship, in the extreme, states that a tradition that cannot overcome the social threshold to communal reception is doomed to extinction." Consequently, Kelber observes, further: "Loss and discontinuity no less than growth and continuity dictate the realities of oral life." And that is the case, even if the message is an oral performance by a revered authority or teacher, such as Jesus was for his earliest followers and those who later became committed to his vision and way of life. "Not all the works of Jesus will have met with understanding, let alone full enthusiasm. There must have been a multitude of words, sayings, and stories that never appeared in our gospels" (Kelber, 28).
Likewise, with respect to the accurate reporting of historical events and experiences, the law of social identification takes valued precedence in an orality-based and orality-dependent communities over the value of faithful and accurate reporting of historical actuality, particularly when "conflictual" tension exists between a community’s identity and historical actuality. Even if the message or saying or reporting of an event in question is accurate with respect to historical actuality, but is alien to the ears of the community and socially unacceptable, it will be altered to cohere with the social identity of the community, and may even be eliminated or fictionalized beyond recognition of the authentic and original historical actuality in the interest of preserving the integrity of social identification and community self-understanding. Thus, as Kelber points out (71): "Stories and sayings are authenticated not by virtue of their historical reliability, but on the authority of the speaker and by the reception of the hearers. . . . [O]rality’s principal concern is not to preserve historical actuality, but to shape and break it into memorable, applicable speech."
To return to the tragic wedding episode, and drawing upon the insights of Kelber--- insights which he gathers from orality experts such as Milman Perry, Albert Lord, Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, Berkley Peabody, Ruth Finegan and Walter Ong (Kelber, 2)--- with respect to the controlling force exercised by social identification in a community’s assimilation of events in its orality lifeworld, it is clear that the community, in which the wedding tragedy occurred, invoked the rule of preventive censorship when it came to responding to police inquiries regarding how Burus died. The community did so in order to protect one of its own from arrest and prosecution for involuntary manslaughter or whatever.
I surmise that, when Burus was felled by a bullet from his friend’s gun, someone, perhaps many, present exclaimed in horror something to the effect, "Look! Burus has been shot by Hanna!" Or some such initial speech-event was evoked that spoke to the tragic and factual reality. But that initial, spontaneous voicing of the reality of the event, that initial speech-event, was immediately rejected by the community when the police arrived. Exercising preventive censorship on behalf of its social identification and the protection of one of its own from arrest and punishment, the community to a person, rejected the *historically authentic* version (emphasis: TJW) of the speech-event evoked by the incident and consciously and intentionally reported an entirely different version of the cause of death to the police. And thus, to put the issue sharply via Bailey’s own explanation--- with only slight word-change (indicated by bracketed text)--- of the results of the hermeneutical process the community engaged in: "after the . . . community’s [preventive censorship] decision and the ensuing [alteration of the ‘original, true account’], the police could officially examine all five thousand people in the village and receive the same answer from all: ‘a camel stepped on him.’" Applying the rule of preventive censorship to the extreme, the original historical actuality that Burus was killed by a bullet from Hanna’s gun was expunged from all subsequent accounts of what happened on that fateful day.
But, as I indicated above, the police "official" version of the groom’s cause of death is not the only version in which fiction has displaced fact and revisionist history has replaced "real" history. For the community, according to Bailey, and as I have noted above, concocted and sanctioned yet another punch line or conclusion for acceptable reciting of the story within the community. In that punch line to the story of the death of Burus, the community crafted its orality so that in all future retelling it would be clear that Burus died as a result of an act of God and not as the result of an act by his friend, Hanna. How did the community arrive at that fictive explanation of Burus’ death and what was the process it engaged in to arrive at that explanation? According to Bailey (_AJT_, 49), his "good friend Rev. Rifqi, the village pastor" provided the hermeneutic the village employed. "When a death like this occurs," Bailey reports, " the critical question becomes: is the family of the dead man going to blame the person who held the gun (in which case blood vengeance must be exacted and said person will be killed by the groom’s family), or has the grieving family accepted the tragedy as an act of God (in which case some payment will be made but the police will be told nothing and sent back to their provisional headquarters)? So, after about three days, the community decided together that this was an act of God. Thus the use of the Divine passive verb . . .[was employed to enable precisely that hermeneutical spin to be woven into the account of Burus’ death, namely], ‘The gun fired (passive).’ God fired the gun not Hanna."
Once again, as in the case with the creation of the "official" version of Burus’ death for the police, the community could not tolerate any recitation of Burus’ death within the community that contained an accurate account of who caused his death. So once again, for its own well-being, the community invoked the rule of preventive censorship and produced a version more acceptable to all its members. To avoid more blood shed in the village, as a result of retaliatory blood vengeance, apparently the villagers, probably its elders, convinced the family of Burus that his death was an act of God and not the fault of Hanna, his friend. Presumably, the family was persuaded to accept that interpretation, which then allowed the village to incorporate the interpretation into all future recitations of the tragic story of Burus’ death. Thus, then, and again, the community’s version of the climax to the shooting of Burus, the version, now cited in full, which Bailey says he first heard when he returned to the village after being away: "Hanna fired the gun. The gun did not go off. He lowered the gun. The gun fired (*durib-al-bundugiyya* [passive]). The bullet passed through the stomach of Burus. He died. He did not cry out, ‘O my father,’ nor ‘O my mother’ (meaning [according to Bailey], he died instantly without crying out). When the police came we told them, ‘A camel stepped on him.’" (_AJT_, 48).
The critical issue here is that in the telling about what originally happened in the shooting incident the facts have been changed (the gun/God fired at the groom and killed him rather than the friend of the groom lowered a gun which he was trying to fire and it inadvertently went off and killed the groom). Thus, in my judgment, Bailey’s submitting of this tragic wedding anecdote in support of his theory backfires on him, just as the anecdote featuring Dagher’s revised parable has. The wedding anecdote, what Bailey submitted as a witness in defense of his theory, has betrayed him and turned witness against his theory. For his entire theory, as I understand it, rests on the foundational principle that informal controlled oral tradition will ensure and assure the accurate preservation and faithful, unrelenting transmittal, without discontinuity or the corruption of essential elements, of a community’s authentic oral tradition over the course of its transmission, from its originating, historic moments of inception to its most recent recitation. That means, again as I understand his theory, that not only will *not* [emphasis: TJW] any corruption of the oral tradition occur in the course of its multiplicity of transmissions, but also, and most important, that the originating account of each event integral to the social identity of the community, its raison d’etre, is reported with at least reasonable representation of historical reality. But the Dayr al-Barsha community’s exercise of preventive censorship and its changing of the oral record to exculpate "the innocent" Hanna for the death of Burus undermines this fundamental underpinning of Bailey’s theory. And Bailey himself unwittingly acknowledges that fact when at the conclusion of his account of the tragic wedding episode he states the following: "[I]n roughly three days a summary of the *climax* of the event (with interpretation) was crystallized and was available on all the various sociological levels of the village" (_AJT_, 49), along with the secondary version for the police, namely the groom died because a "camel stepped on him" (_ AJT_, 48).
This acknowledgment is extremely damaging to the efficacy of Bailey’s theory. For, as I understand it, a community’s employment of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition is meant to ensure and assure that one can have a direct link from the most recent recitation of an oral-tradition story, for example, back to the original ear or eye witnesses’ accurate account of the factual actuality because that factual actuality has been faithfully preserved within that story in its multitudinous recitations throughout the history of the community. But, to the contrary, if a community also employs the rule of preventive censorship, as was the case with the community in the tragic wedding anecdote, then it has effectively caused a disconnect from the factual actuality of the past by squelching any reported semblance to that actuality and fictionalizing "history" to fit the community’s own, self-constructed social identity and to meet the demands for its own well-being. Of what value is Bailey’s theory for assuring the authentic preservation of a community’s oral tradition if such "disconnects" via preventive censorship are also permitted and operative in a community? With preventive censorship serving as the modus operandi for making sure that events and their reporting cohere with the community’s identity, you could, in the worst case scenario, have through all oral transmissions an accurate and faithful preservation of a community’s carefully constructed oral tradition of a revisionist, fictionalized history, a historical remembrance that reinforces the self-conceived identity of a community, but is in fact an oral tradition that in effect represents a "disconnect" from actual reality. And as long as that worst case scenario is potentially possible, the reliability of the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition--- if such a methodology actually exists as Bailey claims to have discerned--- for assuring the preservation of authentic and factually accurate oral tradition remains, in my view, suspect.
All of this has profound and disastrous ramifications for Bailey’s contention that (1) the earliest Palestinian Christians practiced informal controlled oral tradition and (2) the practice of that methodology by the earliest Palestinian Christians practically guarantees that the Synoptic oral tradition is an accurate and faithful representation of the words and deeds of Jesus. I think Werner Kelber has made the case for the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus, as is characteristic of illiterate people functioning according to and dependent upon the conventions of orality, as I have spelled out above, did in fact practice preventive censorship in transmitting their accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds. What passed through their filter of acceptability, according to their new-found social identity, was preserved as part of the oral tradition rehearsed within their communities and acclaimed outside of their communities. What stood in conflict with that social identity, and their self-understanding as Easter Christians, was either filtered out or reformulated according to their canons of acceptability as dictated by their social identity and self-understanding. What was lacking and was needed to reinforce their social identity and self-understanding or their evangelistic enterprise was fictively created and passed on as "gospel." That is indeed the nature of the purpose, character and function of orality in illiterate societies. Kelber (29f.) states essentially the same when he declares with respect to orality: "Taken as a whole, oral transmission shows many faces and inclinations. It exhibits ‘an insistent conservative urge for preservation" [here, Kelber quotes Alfred Lord, _Singer of Tales_, 120] of essential information, while it borders on carelessness in its predisposition to abandon features that are not met with social approval. On the other hand, it can show infinite flexibility in molding a message so as to make it compatible with social events. It can also exercise powers of innovation by attracting and creating fresh materials." And again: "Variability and stability, conservatism and creativity, evanescence and unpredictability all mark the pattern of oral transmission" (Kelber, 33).
Kelber’s description of orality and oral transmission, which he has drawn from the experts in the field of orality (listed above) corresponds also to the insights and conclusions of the widely respected work of James C. Scott (‘Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part I, ’ _Theory and Society_). Scott observes, with respect to folk or village religion (26f.): ‘Left to itself, it would appear that folk religion is inherently syncretist. The eclectic tendencies of the little tradition are to a large extent, the consequence of its oral culture. By their nature, oral traditions are *plastic* [emphasis: TJW]; they may be embroidered and transformed in accord with the needs of social groups and the vicissitudes of history. Since there is no original text to which reference can be made, the past may serve the present without any sense of heresy. . . . Moreover, folk syncretism seems to have an additive quality to it. Imported elements are incorporated to find their place among existing practices, many of which are residue of earlier borrowing. . . . [N]ew practices [are] adopted without replacing earlier patterns and ‘without rationalization of the accumulated and transformed elements’" [quoted material is material cited by Scott from McKim Marriott, "Little Communities in an Indigenous Civilization," _Village India: Studies in the Little Community_, 196]."
Kenneth Bailey does not indicate at any point in his two articles that he has consulted experts in orality to test out his insights with respect to what he discerned to be the practice of informal controlled oral tradition in Middle East villages. But it is clear to me that experts in the field of orality, upon whom Kelber is dependent for his insights, along with James Scott, understand and interpret the role and function of orality and oral transmission in illiterate culture very differently from the way Bailey does.
As a result of examining these nine anecdotes which Bailey cites to support his theory of informal controlled oral tradition, I am not convinced that Bailey has provided us, via these anecdotes, persuasive support for his thesis. In fact at least two of the anecdotes (#8 and 9#), in my judgment completely undermine his theory. In the case of the other seven anecdotes, there are serious weaknesses and methodological limitations associated with them that formidably challenges their credibility as supportive witnesses for Bailey’s theory. I list those weaknesses and methodological limitations, as well as the fatal flaws I have revealed in Bailey’s use of two anecdotes to support his theory, as follows.
1. Despite the fact that Bailey avers that he has discerned evidence of the practice of informal controlled oral tradition in the *haflat samar* of various Middle East communities with which he was associated in the course of the forty years he spent in the Middle East, surprisingly only two (# 2 and # 4 above) of the nine anecdotes he offers in support of his theory come directly from *haflat samar* experiences or settings, though he does imply that in his Beirut classroom a "controlling community" (a pseudo *haflat samar*?) was created by students when Bailey recited traditional village stories to them. In the case of the two anecdotes that are taken from *haflat samar* experiences, those anecdotal examples do not necessarily support the conclusion that the methodology of informal controlled oral tradition was being exercised. What happened in those instances, as I have pointed out, is not unique to Middle East villages.
2. In Bailey’s recounting of eight of the nine anecdotes, not once does Bailey provide independent, collaborative witness to vouch for the accuracy of his accounts of such anecdotes and the correctness of the insights regarding informal controlled oral tradition which he extrapolates from such anecdotal experiences. Only in his recounting of the Beirut classroom experience is there any direct engagement with others specifically with respect to the attributed function of informal controlled oral tradition in storytelling, and we only have Bailey’s account of that experience.
3. Aside from the Beirut classroom students, Bailey never makes any reference or allusion to having consulted with anyone else directly and specifically in regard to his theory of informal controlled oral tradition and how such a methodology, in his understanding, operates in a *haflat samar*. Most surprising of all is the fact that he does not seem to have consulted any of the recognized *haflat samar* authorities, such as Rev. Dagher, to confirm that the methodology he has discerned being practiced in *haflat samar* settings is in fact practiced and practiced according to the canons that Bailey posits.
4. There is an inherent, insurmountable methodological weakness in using the nine anecdotes to support his theory. That methodological weakness is the following. Oral witness used to substantiate the theory of informal controlled oral tradition cannot be subjected to any empirical test that would verify, short of written record, that the recitation of a story in one time corresponds closely, according to the canons of the methodology informal controlled oral tradition, to the telling of the same story at a more distant time of past history. Memory alone is suspect. For memory can be both faulty and deceptive, often playing tricks on us, with respect to its dependability for accuracy of recall of incidents in the past, as John Dominic Crossan has underscored and documented in his book, _The Birth of Christianity_ , 59-84. I have wondered if Bailey’s misrepresentation of Rena Hogg’s biography of her father, the only extant witness Bailey offers for his theory, may not be due to the fact that Bailey’s memory just betrayed him. His memory told him that Rena Hogg recounted the same stories about her father in 1910 that Bailey had heard in the 1950s and 60s (cf., Part I of my critique of Bailey’s theory which I posted to Synoptic_L). But his memory was wrong. Bailey, I surmise, trusted his memory when writing his articles rather than rereading Rena Hogg to confirm what he believed he remembered.
To pursue the issue of oral witness further: unfortunately, with respect to the orality of the past, we do not have the capability of doing an audio rewind, at least not prior to the technological age, to access and recover the way a story was recited in the past. Thus, any claim for accuracy of recall of any event or oral statement or message must always be treated with judicious caution and critical reservation, unless it can be conclusively substantiated by the collaboration of reliable, independent, and impartial witnesses. To make a convincing case for the historic exercise of informal controlled oral tradition in Middle East villages, one would have to set up a number of controlled studies by trained cultural anthropologists and experts in orality, applying rigorous social-scientific methodology, to test whether informal controlled oral tradition is and has been historically exercised in such villages as a modus operandi to preserve faithfully the integrity of their respective oral traditions. Without such, the theory of informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey presents it via the witness of personal anecdotes of oral memory, even if the contravening evidence I have cited were discounted, can only remain at best an unproven and unverifiable hypothesis.
5. Bailey’s theory of informal controlled oral tradition, as he discerned it being practiced in village *haflat samar* settings, bespeaks of an understanding of the phenomenology of orality (its characteristics and functions), operative in illiterate communities that does not correspond to the characteristics of orality (its developing oral tradition and its transmission) to what experts in the field of orality have reported from their studies. In particular, in contrast to Bailey the experts suggest that such illiterate communities, while exercising a certain conservative orientation toward their oral tradition, nevertheless, seem to also practice an informal uncontrolled orientation to the tradition in permitting it to evolve, attracting and importing disparate material, and creating new material as subsequent existential situations demand.
6. Two anecdotes, the Dagher-parable anecdote and the tragic wedding anecdote, completely sabotage, in my judgment, Bailey’s theory. For they are evidence of the fact that Middle East village communities did not always practice informal controlled oral tradition, as Bailey claims and must claim to make his theory viable. For unless there is a continuous and unrelenting exercise of informal controlled oral tradition throughout the entire history of a community, then the oral tradition of that community is subject to being corrupted in moments when there is a lapse in the exercise of the methodology. Once corrupted the integrity of the oral tradition is compromised and it can no longer be confidently considered to be historically authentic.
The two anecdotes, the Dagher-parable anecdote and the tragic wedding anecdote, are two clear examples of the fact that Middle East communities did not always practice informal controlled oral tradition, if it was, and continues to be, their regular practice to do so. The two anecdotes illustrate how a community will, when it needs to, revise and shape its oral tradition, even fabricate it--- as in the case of the tragic wedding anecdote--- in the interest of social identity, the existential needs of the community, its self-understanding and the demands of its well-being. That being the case, it is quite possible that some stories from a community’s oral tradition are told conservatively in the same way throughout all the transmissions of that oral tradition because those stories fit well the community’s "agenda." But, as just cited, it is also the case, as Kelber has noted and the Daghler-parable and tragic wedding anecdotes indicate, that a community will, when its needs to, revise old stories, create new ones and produce fictive accounts of historical events when they are required to serve the community’s purpose.
And it is at this point that Bailey’s theory fails in its ultimate purpose. As I noted in Part I of my critique, and at the outset of this essay, Bailey launched his thesis in his _AJT_ and _ET_ articles with the purpose of explaining how the Jesus oral tradition was accurately preserved and faithfully transmitted in the earliest Palestinian Christian communities up to the outbreak of the Roman-Jewish War in 66 CE. Bailey’s interest in doing so is to provide a methodological "transmissional" model to support C. H. Dodd’s contention and conviction that, even when all the vagaries associated with oral transmission are recognized and acknowledged, one can still be assured that there is in the corpus of sayings found in the Synoptic Gospels--- despite doubts which may emerge with regard to certain individual sayings--- a consistent and reliable representation of the authentic message of the historical Jesus (_AJT_, 37f.).
(Message over 64 KB, truncated)