January 18, 2018

Episodic Tradition

NT scholars often seem to use "oral tradition" and "tradition" interchangeably, but "oral tradition" denotes verbal content explicitly whereas "tradition" can be located in the collective memory of the social group - i.e., "tradition" is "social memory". That is, "tradition" carries on among the group members before and after any explicit verbal discourse takes place. As Rafael Rodriguez aptly says, we must differentiate between "tradition" itself and specific "instantiations" of that tradition.

But here's what I'm wondering...

If "instantiations" are either spoken or writen, instantiations take verbal form. This raises two questions: (1) Can instantiations be non-verbal? And, for my focus today, (2) Is "tradition" always verbal?

Cognitive Psychology has long distinguished between "Verbal Memory" and "Episodic Memory" because - as we've all experienced - sometimes we remember "episodic" content (e.g., human activity) by recalling bits and pieces of images, rather than words. When I tell you, "I met my wife in Hartsfield International Airport," or, "I miss the trees in Georgia," or, "I was hit broadside by a pickup truck in North Carolina," my mind isn't necessarily replaying those words. That is, I *might* be repeating my own words as I remember saying them to others on past occasions; however, my mind can also reconstruct the image(s) from each event by "recalling bits and pieces of long term episodic memory". This means I can recollect a set of image fragments, and then verbalize that visual information afresh for my listeners... *OR* I can recollect a bit of my own past narration, and then repeat those words (or reproduce similar words). In either case my audience receives a verbal discourse, but the words may come together differently, depending on whether I'm accessing "verbal memory" or "episodic memory".

Back to Gospel studies. If the first century "Jesus Tradition" was a living, dynamic, ongoing, and social-group-based memory phenomenon... then it most likely was not exclusively verbal. Some bits and pieces of Jesus tradition - in the minds of the tradents - may have been primarily episodic. While composing his Gospel, the writer of Matthew may perhaps have used verbal memory to recall that Jesus said "Blessed are the meek" but perhaps used episodic memory to recall the story he'd heard about Jesus walking on water.

Of course, having recalled episodically, Matthew could still check his materials to see how Mark rendered that story in Greek... so there's no guarantee episodic remembering would be reflected in some particular instantiation of any particular tradition. Therefore, I'm not necessarily proposing that "Episodic Tradition" could apply to work on the Synoptic Problem, although one never knows. FWIW, I do dearly hope someone in that field will read up on "Situation Models"and "Sentence Memory", in addition to "Episodic Memory". ((**TL;DR: Rather than remembering sentences or paragraphs verbatim, people often remember the gist of a sentence, or their own mental representation ("Mental Models" or "Situation Models") which they had previously formed while receiving the discourse originally.**)) I haven't looked, and I don't plan to, but I suspect some instances of redaction might be explained by the variability of episodic memory, and a later writer was just using his own mental image to "correct" the earlier text. Just a hunch. Moving on...

My own interest remains narrative representation - which happens cognitively as well as textually - and I will continue exploring these ideas (occasionally) in my ongoing series on Time in Memory.

Today's question is simply: How did the earliest Christians maintain and pass on stories and information about Jesus?

By recognizing that Jesus Traditions (in between instantiations) were fluid, adaptable, and somewhat stable but prone to variations -- and hopefully also underscoring the obvious point that not all Jesus Tradition was Oral Tradition -- my only conclusion today is that we must give more thought to the ways different types of content were remembered (and/or passed on) differently.

Perhaps some traditions were primarily episodic, rather than verbal, when existing as Memory, in-between instantiations. Perhaps we should think of "Oral Tradition" as "Verbal Tradition" in contradistinction with "Episodic Tradition".

Perhaps we need to "alter the default setting" of Gospel Studies yet again...

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