Sunday, February 08, 2009

What is the shelf life of oral tradition?

In the earliest church, information about Jesus was first passed down by word of mouth. What was the time-span between the events and when they were written? The first written information we have about the life of Jesus -- probably the information in the letters of Paul -- was written 20, 30, or even 35 years after Jesus was gone. The earliest gospel that we have may have been written 35 to 45 years after the fact, and the latest Gospel that the church generally accepts was written 60 - 70 years after the fact. Later, in the 100's A.D., we still find information being passed down by word of mouth about the events of Jesus' life. What is the shelf life of this information? For how long is it reliable?

I would like to begin with the first time of which I'm sure that information passed along about Jesus as "oral tradition" is plainly incorrect. In Irenaeus' writing Against Heresies we have a tradition passed along that Jesus' ministry lasted over 10 years -- closer to 20 -- and that he died close to the age 50 (Against Heresies II:22). This is given on the basis of oral tradition. Irenaeus wrote about 150 years after the events in question. At this distance in time, the oral traditions available to Irenaeus about the events of Jesus' life are no longer reliable.

We should be careful to note that the passage of time alone is not the problem, nor is Irenaeus as an author. He also examines information from written sources with much sounder results. In the same section in which Irenaeus takes oral tradition for the untenable idea that Jesus' ministry lasted nearly 20 years until the age 50, he also reviews the written record from the Gospel of John and shows that Jesus' ministry did in fact last more than one year. From the text, he is able to show that Jesus' ministry probably spanned three or four years based on how many separate occasions Passover is recorded. However, Irenaeus is not yet to the point of acknowledging that the written material in his hand has now become more reliable than oral tradition of the events of 150 years in the past.

Shelf life or half-life?

Some of the material that I have reviewed suggests that the key question is not only how many years have passed, but also how many degrees of separation are involved. For example, I can reliably pass along information of things that happened 30 years ago; my mother can reliably pass along information of things that happened 50 or more years ago. My grandparents, who died just a few years ago, could still pass along reliable information of things that happened 70 years ago based on their own personal experience. The key then is not how many years have passed, at least not directly. The key is whether we're dealing with firsthand knowledge, second hand knowledge, third hand knowledge, or knowledge even further removed from the original memories.

From what I have seen and what I have read, I expect the pattern of reliability is comparable to half-life. "Half-life" describes the pattern of decay of radiation: over a certain amount of time, half the strength or potency of the material is gone, and when that length of time passes again, half again of what is left will be gone, and so on. This is a rough comparison that there is not a steady rate of decrease, but that the largest decrease in the quality of word-of-mouth information happens within the first few generations. During the first generation, word of mouth -- that is, hearing personally from someone with direct knowledge -- is the best available form of knowledge. As the generations pass, that kind of direct knowledge is simply no longer available by word of mouth. The more generations the word-of-mouth information is passed along, the less reliable it becomes unless there is some sort of safeguard for preserving it. Like a broadcast signal, the further removed we are from the source, the lower the quality of the signal. Each passing generation sees the loss of certain parts of the memory; unless recorded in permanent form, still more pieces of the memory will be lost with time.

When it comes to the reliability of the oral traditions about the life of Jesus, I am willing to trust first generation and second-generation information, but not information further removed from the source than that. In the case of Irenaeus' mistaken oral traditions, we see that at the time he wrote, the generation of those with firsthand and second-hand information had died decades previously.

I decided from two separate lines of argument -- both from my own family history and from a review of the quality of information passed along by oral tradition about Jesus' ministry during the second century -- that firsthand information was of course the best, but the retelling by someone who heard that firsthand account still contained much useful and reliable information. Anything beyond that -- anything three or more steps removed from the original event -- had too much fading to be useful or reliable at any practical level. Oral tradition may last longer in oral cultures, but to the best of my knowledge the majority of Church writers of the late 100's A.D. were not from oral cultures.

Interestingly, Eusebius records something similar in the History:
But when the sacred band of the apostles had in various ways reached the end of their life, and the generation of those privileged to listen with their own ears to the divine wisdom had passed on, then godless error began to take shape ... (History III.32)
The apostles had the confidence and certainty of direct knowledge; their hearers in turn had direct knowledge of what the apostles had said. But when knowledge becomes more indirect than that, the quality of information degrades. We have then also Eusebius' observation that knowledge at two degrees of separation is still reasonably reliable, but that three degrees of separation is past the useful shelf life of oral tradition.

Some would note that there are cultures which have better methods of preserving oral traditions. This is likely enough, but not directly related to my current point since the Christian writers of the mid to late 100's A.D. do not seem to have been from such a culture. The point remains that in this case, the expiration date on oral tradition about Jesus comes with the dying out of the second generation of Christians, those who had themselves known people who had known Jesus. It would be interesting to see if living among a community of people who shared the same memories would help preserve the quality of those memories from fading. In the first generation, the best information is arguably the word of mouth information from those who knew directly. But as we turn from the second generation to the third generation after an event, the best information is preserved not by word-of-mouth, but in writing.


ahswan said...

I'm curious, have you read either Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" or Ben Witherington's posts on Sacred Texts in an Oral Culture?

When you say, "Irenaeus is not yet to the point of acknowledging that the written material in his hand has now become more reliable than oral tradition of the events of 150 years in the past," doesn't this imply that Irenaeus still lived in a primarily oral culture?

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm familiar with Witherington but Bauckham is still on my to-read list.

Here's my take: there are oral cultures and then there are oral cultures. I think any argument you make about Irenaeus could still be made about modern America -- we like the first-hand information from those who remembered, but that doesn't quite put us on a par with truly oral cultures. Let me give an example to clarify the difference.

For example, if you have ever read a primarily oral culture (for example, Arabia in the era of Mohammed), most things were passed on by recitation, and there was emphasis on reciting verbatim. Also, primarily oral cultures will tell you, step by step, the pedigree of the information they received. In both the Hadiths attributed to Mohammed and in the Talmud we see oral information passed down along with information on "this person told this person, that person told the other person". Later scholars have evaluated traditions based on how reliable the transmitters were.

Oral cultures also have specific vocabulary they use about a properly transmitted oral tradition. You see this kind of language in Paul, "What I received I passed on to you ..." followed by something rather formulaic and arranged in a way that lends itself to memorization.

Irenaeus' "oral tradition" at that point is 1) unnamed, 2) not by recitation, 3) lacking the language that indicates he understands how oral tradition can be passed along unchanged with particular controls.

So Irenaeus lives in a culture in which first-hand information is respected, and (I think a main point here) the church has come to think of itself as having its orthodoxy resting on having heard the information directly from eyewitnesses. This is what Irenaeus wants to emphasize. But this (part of the argument I'm developing over a series of posts) is the juncture in Christian history when the church gradually becomes less "the place where memory is recited by those with living memory" and becomes increasingly "the place where the records are read by those who had lived in earlier generations."

Irenaeus lives in a culture which remembers that living memory, but is coming to rely on writing as the means of transmitting information.

I'd be glad for any things you wanted to mention on the subject; always glad to vet my ideas against someone interested.

Take care & God bless

Tony-Allen said...

That's pretty funny about St Irenaeus, I never knew he believed that. I went to Against Heresies and read the original source; ironically he bases it off scripture too, when the Jews say to Jesus "You are not yet fifty years old" (John 8:57), and reasons that this would be a silly thing to say to a 30-year old (kinda like if someone told me, a 25-year old, "You're not yet 40!").

The quote from Eusebius is actually a quote from Hegesippus, and says in full:

"But when the sacred college of apostles had suffered death in various forms, and the generation of those that had been deemed worthy to hear the inspired wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers, who, because none of the apostles was still living, attempted henceforth, with a bold face, to proclaim, in opposition to the preaching of the truth, the ‘knowledge which is falsely so-called.’"

It seems to be more about heretics than oral tradition itself. Eusebius quotes Hegesippus again in IV. 22, when he goes into more detail about who these corrupt men were. Among them he lists the Valentinians, Marcionists and Judaizing sects. It seems therefore more of an attack against efforts outside the authority of the first two generations than it is against oral tradition.

Weekend Fisher said...

Yep, caveat lector, that's for sure.

The reason I attributed that one thought to Eusebius rather than Hegesippus is because of the paraphrase he employs. If you compare that to later when Eusebius actually quotes the passage from Hegesippus directly, there is just enough difference between what Hegesippus said and what Eusebius took away from it that I wanted to give that thought "past the 2nd generation" to Eusebius, since it's explicit in what Eusebius said but it wasn't quite that in what Hegesippus said. (Kind of like when Irenaeus reads someone saying "You're not yet 50" he put the thought 'almost 50' to the people who said "not yet 50", but it seems to have just come from his own interpretation.)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

I just realized in my last post I used "it seems" over and over again. Jeez Louis. Sorry about that!

Weekend Fisher said...

It seems that I missed it.

Take care & God bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Ironically, it's things that I considered footnoting (but then thought, "hey, it's a blog; do people want that level of technicality?") -- that you guys are noticing. :)

Mental note: next time just include the footnotes. The people who aren't detail-minded can just skip them.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

I'm on the verge of giving up on footnoting, with only a few extreme exceptions. At least on blogger I know that it's really buggy, where if you use the code that links the footnote to the bottom of the page you have to publish the post IMMEDIATELY after you put the codes in, otherwise it'll link to your draft page and people reading your blog won't be able to get any where. If you just use the unlinked footnote (like I did recently on my Deification of the Devil post) it starts footnoting EVERYTHING!

Unless you know a way around all this. I'd really be interested in knowing any simpler codes to use that can avoid these problems.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I don't want to say anything against blogger 'cause it's free. I'll mention that my footnoting work has been a manual process, and leave it there. I'd be very glad to see better footnoting and better table support in enhancements to blogger. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

I might actually send a friendly e-mail to the blogger staff about that. It would be a healthy addition, given there are a growing number of bloggers who realize quoting your source is important :)

Martin LaBar said...

This is good work.

Footnoting in Blogger certainly isn't automatic, but there are ways, such as notes in parentheses, or using asterisks, two asterisks, and other symbols.

Martin LaBar said...

P. S. Isn't it possible that God helped to preserve certain oral traditions, beyond what would have been normally likely in a particular culture. I'm thinking of the Old Testament, in particular, but there may have been revelations of Christ to non-Jewish cultures, that were passed on within these groups. I've heard stories of such things. (I can't provide any footnotes.)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thanks for commenting.

I think most questions beginning "Isn't it possible" would have to be answered "Yes". That's not the same as my being convinced it happened like that ... ;)

You seem to be a C.S. Lewis fan. There are instances where he's arguing for a kind of native/intuitive understanding of what Christ must be like, as found in certain classical Greek/Roman authors. He made an interesting case not so much for preservation of memory but (if you'll pardon my cribbing a term from another field) objective reasons driving demonstrated convergence.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

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