Friday, July 25, 2014

(In)stability of Oral Tradition

I'm currently reading for my comprehensive exams that will take place in the Fall, and that means wading through a ton of books having to do with topics ranging from historical Jesus research, to Pauline theology, to the Synoptic Problem, critical introductions, NTT, history of interpretation, etc. etc. etc. Right now I'm working through a couple different books and one of them is Bart Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (5th ed.) and in chapter 5, he discusses the issue of the Jesus tradition (particularly oral) and writes the following (p. 70):

"No one knows for certain when Jesus died, but scholars agree that it was sometime around 30 C.E. In addition, most historians think that Mark was the first of our Gospels to be written, sometime between the mid-60s to early 70s. Matthew and Luke were probably produced some ten or fifteen years later, perhaps around 80 or 85. John was written perhaps ten years after that, in 90 or 95. These are necessarily rough estimates, but almost all scholars agree within a few years. Perhaps the most striking thing about these dates for the historian is the long interval between Jesus' death and the earliest accounts of his life. Our first written narratives of Jesus (i.e., the Gospels) appear to date from thirty-five to sixty-five years after the fact. This may not seem like a long time, but think about it in modern terms. For the shortest interval (the gap between Jesus and Mark), this would be like having the first written record of Richard Nixon's presidency appear today."

Now, most of this is fairly bland and nothing surprising from a critical standpoint, but what got me scratching my head are the last two sentences of this quotation. Why should I think about this in modern terms? Is the modern sociocultural milieu even remotely close to that of first century Palestine? Was Richard Nixon ever venerated as a miracle worker, exemplary moral figure, much less a divine being (and does that make a difference in how the memory of a person is transmitted?) I take his point that it is not as if some news reporter followed Jesus around and wrote everything down the minute he said them, but to use "modern terms" to highlight the apparent gap between the event and the written narrative seems rather unconvincing. I can't say I have read a whole lot on 'orality' in antiquity, but if my memory serves me right, plenty of scholars have already shown that our current paradigm in which events, memory, knowledge, etc. are passed down and how that occurred in the past are certainly not the same. I don't know if Ehrman is right or wrong entirely on this point, though he could nuance his argument without appealing to 'modern' sensitivities. Yes 5 years in modern terms is certainly a lot; these days not many can even recall with great clarity about events/people from 15 years ago (much less 50 years), but what I am wondering is if that was exactly the same in antiquity.

Monday, July 21, 2014

QOTD: Samuel Sandmel

"It can be set down as something destined to endure eternally that the usual Christian commentators will disparage Judaism and its supposed legalism, and Jewish scholars will reply, usually fruitlessly. I have addressed myself to this topic in three or four essays, and do not intend to pursue this any more beyond this one time, preferring to conclude that with those Christians who persist in deluding themselves about Jewish legalism, no academic communication is possible. The issue is not to bring these interpreters to love Judaism, but only to bring them to a responsible, elementary comprehension of it."

- Samuel Sandmel, The First Christian Century in Judaism and Christianity: Certainties and Uncertainties, 98n10