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                                    By Word of Mouth or Pen and Ink

by Philip Trower



        I don’t think anyone would deny that among the outstanding achievements of western civilisation is its historical scholarship.  Before the present ‘global age’, it had managed to recover in detail not only its own past but, in so far as it was possible, that of nearly every other nation on earth.


        The point was made in a remarkable book published in the early 1950s called The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.  The author, Nirad Chaudhuri was a gifted Bengali who had steeped himself in European historical and linguistic scholarship, and in the process had developed a deep love and admiration for it.  But why, he asks himself, had it happened in Europe not India?  Europeans and Indians were both  Indo-European by race.  There could be only one answer.  The heat of the Indo-Gangetic plain and its debilitating effects.  But for that, India surely would have rivalled Europe in historical scholarship. The book made quite a stir in England.  The author was invited to London where he was feted by the cultural establishment.  That the same did not happen in India is hardly surprising.  But that is neither here nor there.  


My reason for starting with this little anecdote is to establish the fact that my admiration for western historical scholarship and its related disciplines is no less than Chaudhuri’s, before going on to speak about what seem to me two short-comings which have developed over the course of time in the area of  biblical scholarship, particularly with the arrival of the critical method.


The first of these short-comings is the tendency to undervalue the ability of traditional societies to hand down information by word of mouth with any degree of accuracy over extended periods of time. With many scholars it seems to be almost a law that written records alone can be regarded as truly trustworthy and that only when the document in question was written at or near the time the events it records took place.


The second short-coming is the failure to take account of the fact that with information passed down by the very old to the very young it only needs three generations to cover a span of up to 250 years or more.


The evidence that traditional societies can memorize and hand on staggering amounts of verse whether or not containing historical facts is overwhelming.  There is the whole Homeric corpus which was probably not written down for centuries.  And today in India, we learn from the writer William Dalrymple, that there are still bards who can recite from memory vast tracts of the Mahabhurata, an epic longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined.  Another authority tells us of the blind boy singers employed by the Coptic Church who can sing the greater part of their liturgy from memory.  Even when I was a boy in the 1920s and ‘30s and learning poetry by heart was still ‘a must’, I remember people who could recite enough to fill an anthology.


Coming back to biblical studies, the Church, as we know, has given its blessing to sound use of the critical method, which has helped to throw light on many obscurities in Holy Scripture.  But as we equally well know, from the age of Strauss, Renan and Loisy onwards, the movement  has generated an ethos which has been responsible for countless casualties as far as faith or belief are concerned, and it seems to me that down-playing the reliability of oral tradition has been an important contributory cause.


I will now look at short-coming number two; insufficient attention to the span of time a mere three generations can cover when passing on information by word of mouth.  Or rather I am going to give two examples, one taken from history, the other from personal experience.


In his memoirs, the Russian ambassador to Paris in the mid 1870s, Maurice Paleologue,  was visiting the ex-Empress Eugenie at the hotel in the rue de Rivoli where the now republican government allowed her to stay every summer.  As he was shown into the room a very old lady was talking to the empress and he heard her say “as my husband said to Louis XIV….”  


How was this possible?  Louis XIV had died in 1715.  It was true nevertheless.  As a boy her husband had been a page to the king, then had inherited the title of duc de Richelieu,  and finally in extreme old age had married Eugenie’s visitor as his second wife.  Had there been a young boy in the room when she made her remark about her husband, let’s say a boy of 10, who had then lived into his 80s he could have told someone in 1945 or even later what Louis IV had said to his page sometime before 1715. In other words we have a span of  235 years covered by three people.


I will now give the example taken from my own life.


In 1929 when I was six,  I remember an old great-uncle singing a song about Noah’s ark to me and my siblings on the lawn of a house my grandparents had taken for the summer holidays. As a young man he had fought in the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858), the uprising against British rule in India which could have ended in British expulsion from the sub-continent nearly a century before we actually left of our own free will.


Unfortunately we didn’t see great-uncle Charlie very often and I have no memory of his ever having  told us anything about the mutiny.  But had he, I, now aged 93, could pass on what he had said in 1929 to one of my flock of great-nephews and great nieces.  Let us take a ten-year old.  We are now in 2016 and we will assume he is going to live into his 80s.  That takes us to 2086 or thereabouts when he can tell his contemporaries what we are assuming my great-uncle had told me about events he had experienced in the 1850s.


Let us also assume that these events included incidents which had never been recorded in writing.  The first person to do so, we will imagine, is my great-nephew in 2086.  Does that automatically mean that the stories can’t be true.


These is nothing obscure or mysterious about all this.  I am sure you can all work out  the transfer of similar oral traditions in your own families.  What matters, of course, is the light it can throw on the composition of the Gospels and their reliability.


Let us imagine a boy of ten who witnessed one of Our Lord’s miracles in A.D 32. (For the sake of simplicity, I am going to assume that Our Lord was born in the year zero.)  The boy lives till he is 80, that is to say A.D. 102 and describes what he saw to a grandchild or great-grandchild who lives on into the 170s or 180s or later.  By this time we are well into the age of  the 2nd generation of early Church Fathers.  St Ignatius of Antioch dies circa 110 A.D., Justin Martyr circa 165, St Irenaeus c.195.


The purpose of these observations is not to denigrate responsible historical or biblical scholarship, which as I said are one of the glories of western civilisation,  but to point out two kinds of possible imbalance generated by undervaluing the reliability of oral tradition, which in turn can generate an atmosphere of doubt and unbelief of a more general kind --- the kind that already pervaded New Testament studies when I was at school in the 1930s.  I can still visualise the class-room and the master who told us that when the disciples thought they saw Our Lord walking on the water he was actually walking on a sandbank just under the water. 




Copyright © Philip Trower 2016

Version: 1st October 2016

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