Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Measure of Our Minds

Last week I reviewed Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker’s novel of ideas purporting to challenge popular intellectual arguments for Christianity.

In general, I like “novels of ideas,” and am all for examination of what we believe, and why.

Codex Schoyen 2650 Matthew's gospel
Unfortunately, as I wrote last week, I found the plot of Cross Examined thin, and the intellectual discussion even thinner. So much so, I find myself returning to some of the arguments, amazed at the superficial treatment presented as unassailable wisdom.

One parlor trick in particular both amused and annoyed me.

Reclusive atheist Jim proposes an experiment to see if the oral tradition of the gospels can be considered reliable.

He asserts that the time between Christ’s crucifixion and the writing of the first gospel is twenty or thirty years, and suggests that he’ll tell his sometime adversary, sometime protégé Paul a story, and see how well it’s remembered a few minutes later.

The story he tells is a rough summary of the tale of Circe from the Odyssey. He offers a page or so of detail, discusses some other issues, then asks Paul to retell the story as precisely as he can.

Ah, scientific reason at its finest. Paul omits details, confuses parts of the story, and voila, as we knew, oral tradition is discredited. What a surprise.

These are fictional characters, so any semblance of science is fictional, at best.

But how many contemporary critics discredit oral tradition because they measure the possibility against their own modern minds, with comparisons as flimsy as Paul’s retelling of the Circe story?

I didn’t grow up in an oral culture, yet my own experience of memorization points to the absurdity of Seidensticker’s supposed experiment.

The mind is a muscle, able to do what it’s trained to do, and our current forms of education barely scratch the surface of the mind’s retentive power. Paul, the lab rat of the imagined experiment, was no scholar, had no real interest in the story, heard it roughly summarized exactly once.

Even as a kid, I could have pointed out the flaws in logic.

When I was nine or ten, I found myself drawn to poetry, and began memorizing poems for the sheer joy of the language.

I started small: 
“I’m nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too?” 
Soon, though, I had moved on to Longfellow: "The Wreck of the Hesperus", "The Village Blacksmith", "Paul Revere’s Ride". I started on "Hiawatha," then shifted to Poe. "The Raven" was my last thousand word poem.

My method was simple: tape the next stanza to the mirror in my bedroom and read it over while brushing my hair, or review it on my way down the hall to brush my teeth before bed.

Scripture caught my attention as well: in the few years of my memorization craze, I stashed away numerous psalms, chunks of James, my favorite chapters of John.

Then I started middle school, took up sports, joined some clubs, and my memorization abilities faded.

Now, decades later, I find it hard to keep even a few verses in my head.

What I know about memorization:
It’s easier to commit long things to memory after hearing them repeated.
It’s easier to memorize things you’ve chosen yourself, or things you care about.
The more one memorizes, the easier it gets.
How much can the human mind hold?

Here’s a recent post I stumbled on:   
In honor of the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Chabad-Lubavitch students across the globe studied an entire tractate of the Talmud and memorized its text.
The tractate, Bava Basra, which is currently being taught in Chabadyeshivas, consists of 352 pages.
Yehoshua Heshel Mishulovin, a student in Montreal, Canada, and the son of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Los Angeles, Calif., took on the additional challenge of memorizing the tractate's super-commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot.
So - 352 pages for an average student. Quite a bit more for one who excelled.
Nooma 008: Dust

Rob Bell has an interesting short video that talks about the rabbinic practice of memorization. As he points out, at the time of Christ, all Jewish boys from six to ten were expected to attend Bet Sefer (literally “house of the book”), where they would learn the Torah. As in  - memorize the Torah. That’s the first five books of Hebrew Scripture - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  79,847 Hebrew words (The words were counted, and numnber recorded, each time the text was copied, as one method of maintaining accuracy).

From ten to early adolescence, boys who showed promise would attend Bet Talmud (“house of learning”) where they would attempt to memorize the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures all the way to Malachi.

I remember as a teen reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, and the sense of awe I felt when I realized that, even in the twentieth century, Hasidic boys studying to become rabbis were expected to memorize not only the entirety of what I knew as the Old Testament, but also the rabbinic discussion about large portions of text.

The men who followed Jesus, while none were training to become rabbis, had been trained in memorization in ways we can’t begin to understand, and were part of a faith tradition that took words seriously.

As observant Jews, they would have said the Shema twice a day, morning and evening, from the time they were small. They would have been taught to remember words, to teach them to their children, to bind them to themselves. To write them on their homes.

According to the “form criticism” of the late 19th and early 20th century, the oral traditions of the early Christian church were not historically reliable, for the following reasons (repeated in part by Seidensticker in his novel):

  1. The early Christian movement was entirely illiterate and writing played no “regulative role” in the transmission of oral material about Jesus.
  2. Oral traditions aren’t capable of passing on extended narratives with any level of exactitude.
  3. Orally dominated communities have little interest in historical precision.
  4. Communities, not individuals, pass on oral traditions, without reference to individual eyewitnesses who could serve as safeguards of the accuracy.
I'll be honest: I find form criticism either deliberately deceptive or stunningly, frighteningly clueless. It's hard to read far in either New or Old Testament without encountering a fierce commitment to the value of words, deep loyalty to historical event, sharp warnings against falsifying the record.

Whatever the motivation for learning Torah and Talmud, the first Christians' motivation for remembering the stories of Jesus would have been greater: they’d seen something so life changing, so earth shattering, so completely new, they were willing to leave the comfort and safety of their homes, the familiar networks, the known world, to share the story they carried with them.

For every scholar who discounts the accuracy of those follower's stories, or the reliability of the form in which they were passed on, there are others who consider the New Testament writings as the most reliably transmitted of ancient texts.

Sir William Ramsey, Scottish archaeologist who began with a strong anti-Bible bias, spent fifteen years trying to discount the gospel of Luke, and concluded: "Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."

Much more recently, St. Andrew's scholar Richard Bauckman noted,

"Most history rests mostly on testimony. In other words, it entails believing what witnesses say. We can assess whether we think witnesses are trustworthy, and we may be able to check parts of what they say by other evidence. But in the end we have to trust them. . .
Now in the case of the Gospels, I think we have exactly the kind of testimony historians in the ancient world valued: the eyewitness testimony of inolved participants who could speak of the meaning of events they had experienced from the inside." 
Clark Pinnock, McMaster University, considering the reliability of historic sources, concluded:
"There exists no document from the ancient world, witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical teestimonies ... Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational bias." (Set Forth Your Case, 58).
Yes, we all have biases. Some irrational. Some more considered.

We have assumptions and experiences of our own that shape our understanding of the past, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future. Some scholars choose to doubt the holocaust. Some think slavery was a good thing for the slaves. We'll be debating global warming until every polar bear is gone and the arctic circle is an open ocean.

We have our own grids to test what's true - and our own ideas about how to decide what's possible.

As for me, I find the gospel narratives compelling.

I find the evidence for their veracity convincing.

I know no story of pre-modern time that has come to us with more force, or more authenticating detail.

Belief is still a matter of faith, a decision about whose testimony to trust.
But so is disbelief a matter of faith: faith in the smallness of our minds, the weakness of our memories, the narrowness of possibility.

I know which faith I choose.