Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cautionary Note 2: DeConick on Orality and Literacy

Yesterday, I posted a caution about the misrepresentation of my work in Nicholas Perrin's new book, Thomas, The Other Gospel. I have already been asked why I think Perrin has done this. I do not know. It may be an honest misreading of my work. I remember a scholar-friend a long time ago telling me that her worst fear in publication was that her work who be misunderstood by others. I never really understood this fear on a personal level until I read Perrin's chapter.

So my comments here have nothing to do with reviewing his book. I leave that to the journals. My purpose in my next three or four posts is to clear up his errors about my position before they become assumed into the secondary literature.

My first post will deal with my understanding of orality and literacy, which has been misunderstood by Perrin.

Perrin (p. 62) states that I understand the composition of the Gospel of Thomas entirely in terms of orality, leaving no room for written sources to enter the text especially at later dates. These are his words, not mine, and there is no citation. I write entirely the opposite (Recovering p. 64):

"The agglutinative process through which the Gospel of Thomas evolved was a process within the oral registry. The traditions were not mainly developed by a redactor with a pen in hand. Rather, oral and written traditions which they collected were gathered and adapted mainly in the process of the oral performance and recreation of the words of Jesus over the entire life of the community."

Perrin (p. 63): "Our author's [DeConick's] position that the earliest post-Easter community had little more use for scrolls than they did for doorstops in the end seems to rely rather heavily on unsubstantiated and largely theoretical assumptions." This is Perrin's hyperbole, his own language, and his own conclusion which he attributes to me without citation. This is exactly the opposite the position I lay out in Recovering, where I describe the ancient Christian world in terms of a rhetorical culture, one engaged in writing but priviledged by an oral consciousness (Recovering, pp. 24-37). I write (pp. 31-32):

"The writing down of traditions in cultures dominated by orality is of enormous significance because it marks either the point of loss of the 'communicative memory,' the 'eyewitness' or 'living' memory, through the death of the actual people involved in the formation and emergence of the group, or a moment of historical crisis or upheaval. Under these conditions, communities relying heavily on oral consciousness are confronted with the potential loss of their memories. So they will turn to writing as a way to ensure the survival of the traditions and to provide meaning to their past, reconnecting with it amidst drastically changing historical circumstances...In the formative years of early Christianity, there was great fluidity between oral performances and texts so that traditions moved in and out of these contexts while always being subject to the effects of oral consciousness...The model we should be operating from is that of an oral-literatecontinuum where there is a great interaction between orality and literacy."

Perrin (p. 65): "according to DeConick, the Thomas community orally perpetuated its memory of Jesus for a century or so" but no citation. This is not my position which is clearly laid out several times in Recovering. So I will state it again. Thomas began as a written Kernel, a notebook of speeches. This text was used by orators to preach and instruct, and so it moved into the oral environment where it was adapted each time it was performed. It was a text that moved in and out of oral and written environments. I write (pp. 62-63):

"We can imagine that the developing traditions were rescribed at crucial moments in the history of the community when members feared the loss of their traditions or when pressure within the group demanded significant reinterpretation." This process lasted for 60 to 70 years.

Perrin (p. 59) misappropriates a quotation from Recovering (p. 57). In reference to Papias and Luke, I suggest that the Christians were more confident relying on their own memories than copying written sources because they could ask questions of the witnesses (such as we do today in a court of law). Perrin says that I mean by this that Christians who never came within a hundred feet of Jesus were oblivious to the weight of eyewitness testimony (Perrin, pp. 59-60). These are not my words, nor are they my meaning. What I write is that Papias and Luke knew other written sources, but make a point that they prefer oral testimony from people they know for veracity's sake.

Perrin (p. 61): DeConick has reduced "the Jesus tradition into catechetical speeches" and this "necessitates the assumption that those who preserved Jesus' memory, while duly impressed with at least some of his words, found nothing about his life or actions worth remembering. And if it is really the case that the memory of Jesus was preserved only in speeches, if remains for DeConick to explain why the Thomas community only preserved the words of Jesus but the canonical gospel writers attributed to Jesus both words and actions." Perrin offers no citation to my work, This not a position I ever entertain let alone maintain. Recovering is an investigation of the Gospel of Thomas, which suggests that this text started as a speech collection. I never state that the early Christians were only interested in the sayings of Jesus. In fact, I think that the narrative tradition is just as early, and this is one of the reasons in my methodology chapter that I include a discussion of the referential horizon (pp. 8-10). The sayings, when orated, would have evoked a bigger story or narrative complex for the audience.

Perrin (p. 61): "She [DeConick] does not clarify how and why such speeches eventually gave rise to the narrative gospels." I cannot clarify something that I do not address in my book. Recovering is not a book about how speech gospels became narrative gospels. It is a book attempting to understand a particular case - the compositional history of the Gospel of Thomas. For what it might be worth, in fact, I don't think that speech gospels turned into narrative gospels at all. I think that speech gospels rose alongside oral narrative cycles, cycles that evidently led to Mark. Speech gospels like the Kernel or Q later were incorporated into the narrative gospels, as is the case with Matthew and Luke. But the speech gospel did not generate the narrative gospel as Perrin leads his readers to think is my position.

Tomorrow I will post on my position about the historical Jesus.


Eric Rowe said...

I agree that the quotations you provide from his book do distort what your own book says, and that his lack of citations to back up his claims is bad work. And you have every right to clear up the matter as you are doing.

I would, however, say that, just based on the quotations you have provided, his distortion of your position is not "the exact opposite" of what you have written yourself, as you claim. It's a caricature of your position, but not the opposite of it. It appears that you view the early transmission of the material in GT as PRIMARILY oral, whereas Perrin attributes to you the belief that the transmission was EXCLUSIVELY oral, which is wrong, to be sure, but not as wide of the mark as I hear you saying.

Geoff Hudson said...

How do we know that the writer of Gospel of Thomas didn't know more about the narrative aspects of the prophet's life, but chose to ignore them, or even deleted them?

Where is there any precedent in Judaism for the so-called sayings tradition? It would seem none in the form that is attributed to Jesus. In Judaism the kind of words attributed to Jesus in the so-called sayings would have been scripture or the words of God, as written by a prophet.

In attributing sayings to Jesus, were the gospel writers simply jumping on what had become a popular Jesus bandwagon? I am doubting the validity of all this vague orality stuff, certainly in what would have been any kernal material. We have been misled by all the form critics for years about the validity of Jesus sayings traditions. I don't believe in the Jesus sayings traditions as kernal material any more, especially so after realising that each 'Jesus said' in the Gospel of Thomas is an obvious interpolation.