Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I was surprised too

As a follow-up to my post last night, I want to stress that I was very surprised by the results of my experimental exercises. I had been taught as a form critic and a source critic and a redaction critic in university. So these were my standards, and I thought that their conclusions were reasonable given our evidence. So I set up my experimental exercises with the expectation that I would see some distinction in the memory distortions that occurred in the different media modes of transmission (OO, OW, WO, WW).

When I didn't, it struck me hard how much our field makes up theories with little to no hard evidence to support them. And then we go about using those theories as our assumption base and creating more theories on top of them. The only thing that we go on is the seat of our pants, and any reasonable scenario appears arguable and convincing. We tell ourselves it is okay because we cannot recreate the ancient world to study, and continue along our merry way. At least this has been my own personal experience.

But what happens when we compare the results of our modern day experiments to the texts we have and we discover comparable memory distortions, when human memory appears to be the big factor? In this case, the position that needs to justify itself is the one that continues to plead that we don't have the ancient people to study.

I want to emphasize that my sample was small and only was a pilot exercise. More testing needs to be done. To do this, I really need to set up a lab at Rice, and to do this is going to require money and a big time commitment on my part. I still have an entire data set from my earlier experiment sitting on my shelf in which I tested for secondary orality. This data is waiting to be collated and analyzed, but I haven't been able to get around to it yet. In this case, I asked the subjects to memorize the mustard seed parable from Mark. On a set date, I tested them on their memory of the parable by asking them to record it. Then I asked them to listen to a different version of the mustard seed parable. I then asked them after a period of 45 minutes (so we would be dealing with long-term memory instead of immediate recall) to record the version that they had heard. I have no idea yet regarding the results, because I haven't had the time to do the data analysis yet.

These experiments taught me more than I can even convey in writing, but they required a level of organization and computation and rigor which was taxing for me. I got little else done that year which was frustrating since my real academic interest is intellectual history. At the moment, I am trying to handle the new Coptic codex which contains the Gospel of Judas, and so any return to this type of cognitive classroom is going to have to wait for me. But I encourage my colleagues to consult cognitive psychologists at their universities and begin their own testing. Be open to what might happen, and do not be afraid to share what you learn. The way to move the field forward is to try new things and see what we can see. If nothing happens of importance, oh well. But if we learn something, doors might open to us that otherwise would remain closed.


Pastor Bob said...

Dr. Deconick

Have you checked with you colleagues in the psych dept. as to how long it takes to move something from short term to long term memory? My completely unscholarly reaction is that 15 minutes is enough time to move something from immediate context to short term memory but not to long term memory. If you know different, of course, please ignore this post.

Frankly this is a subject that fascinates me because it deals with the whole contest between those who insist that the disciples memorized what Jesus said and those who say that memorization is not that simple.

I think you may be starting a whole new field of study and I'm not sure what to call it. Some kind of interdisciplinary study?

Thanks for this work.

Patrick G. McCullough said...

Hi April, I haven't read all the posts on this of late, so I'm kind of jumping in mid-stream. I'm wondering if these experiments take into account different capacities for memory in different cultures. I would suspect those from an oral culture would retain memory much better than your average American. I apologize if this point has already been addressed.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would happen if you repeated this experiment, but trained half the subjects in memorization techniques out of ancient rhetoric before they saw/heard the text (as discussed in Mary Carruther's The Book of Memory and others) and retained the rest as a control. I've always suspected that the literate authors of many early Christian texts had particularly well-trained, flexible memories by modern standards; the question for me is not so much whether they had some facility, but what form it took.

gdelassu said...

In this case, the position that needs to justify itself is the one that continues to plead that we don't have the ancient people to study.

This is fair enough, as far as it goes, but it seems to me that it is small work to turn this critique inside out: In the other case, the position that seeks to supplant the current paradigm blithely insists that it is not introducing more than one independent variable into the experiment by using modern test subjects instead of ancient test subjects.

I think that you are not really being fair to the other side of this argument. Their objection may be self-serving, but it is not merely self-serving.

Leon said...

You cannot compare human memory today to the way the ancients memorized. They lived in an oral culture as you recognize and that means they had techniques for memorizing (including using a tune to remember things better). A student today being tested for memory capacity does not have any of these techniques and certainly has not had practice with any techniques.

Also, many scholars seem to assume that Jesus told each parable once. And they also assume these parables were unique to him. Both are false assumptions. His audience would have heard most if not all these parables before from other teachers, and his closest students would have heard him tell these parables many times. Repetition makes for easier memorization. They also heard the parables in the context of a culture where the images in the parable were more meaningful to them than they are to us. A student memorizing them today is trying to remember details strange to our culture. But it all made perfect sense to the Jews of the 1st century, and therefore was more memorable (in many senses of the word).

But I do agree that scholars just make up their own theories without hard evidence and merely assume their conclusions. They do this with Judas, with Jewish leaders, with the Temple, and so much else. In fact, they often misrepresent their theories as facts so that no one will question what they are doing. E.g., Judas' betrayal is a theory, an interpretation, not a bit of data in the texts. Scholars still misrepresent this. This is not a field that encourages debate on this. Debate is rather suppressed. The hostility towards any other theories is enormous in this field. It would be unthinkable to behave this way in other fields but it is standard practice here. NT scholarship may be the only field where religion or theology dominates and is passed off as historical analysis.

Leon Zitzer