Friday, March 20, 2015

Oral v. Written

One can easily get into an argument about the "real words" of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's been pointed out to me that Dom Crossan noted that, if Jesus spoke Aramaic, we don't have any of his original words, as the gospels were written in Greek.  I got into something of a discussion at Religious Dispatches over whether Jesus is a "myth" or not, simply because we have known for at least 150 years that the Gospels were not written by the disciples of Jesus transcribing his words as he walked through Galilee (the idea that they did is a response to Biblical scholarship, not something reversed by Biblical scholarship.  The new standard among on-line atheists is to assume Christian fundamentalism as the default, reveal that stance as untenable, and declare Christianity "dead" as a result.  Non-fundamentalist Christians, in this "analysis," are not "real" Christians to begin with, so they are disposed of before the axe falls.).  The confusion about what we "know" Jesus said is one that arises in part from an insistence on fundamentalism as the only "correct" religious posture, but also from the privilege we accord written over oral cultures.

Let me back up a second:  we "know" what Jesus said as surely as we "know" what Socrates said.  Right away someone will say "yes, but we don't treat the words of Socrates as the "word of God."  Well, except that, as Whitehead noted, all of Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato (and that includes Aristotle).  And the adherence to "what Jesus said" by fundamentalists is still just an interpretation of what they think Jesus meant, which is not superior to any other reading.  What one Christian thinks is the "word of God" is not followed blindly by other Christians.  Most of us still think in terms of dualism, of "mind" v. "body," even if we don't know the term "dualism" or recognize it's grounding in Phaedo.  We might disagree with Socrates' argument there (if we know it), but we still accept the basic dualism of it.  It's very hard for us not to.  But does that mean we are following Socrates blindly?  In a sense, it does; and even if we say we don't, what difference does it make to our understanding and our behavior?

Back to the distinction between "written" and "oral:"  it's a distinction that occupied French philosophers for some time, especially the early work of Jacques Derrida.  That's a long and complicated argument, and I don't want to wade into it if I don't have to.  Fortunately, I don't, because I have an object lesson in "written" v. "oral" right here.

Leonard Cohen wrote the song they are singing.  In the third verse, he rewrites the song, changing a word from the written version.  Now, which version is correct?  The written version, or the version performed here by the author of the song?  Is one superior to the other, more "authentic," more "true"?

This is an old phenomenon noted by folklorists and anthropologists when they found still extant examples of oral culture and recorded them for posterity.  Poets working as Homer did, or the poet of "Beowulf," reciting a long poem without referring to a written text.  When the scholars recorded these performances, they noted slight variations from performance to performance; changes in the wording, small but notable when the recordings were compared, even when the ears of people used to a literate culture heard the remnants of a much older oral culture.  When they asked the poets about these changes, the poets denied any change at all.  The scholars were used to a literate society, where the text is set in stone by being printed.  Any change from the original must be noted, to guarantee transmission of the "original" text.  But for these poets the "original text" was the story, not each individual word; it was the whole, not any one atomized part.  And which was more "authentic", especially in the version of a poem that hadn't been reduced to print long, long ago?

Cohen's performed version here is not the performed version on Judy Collins' "Wildflowers" album; nor is it the text she included in her "Judy Collins Songbook."  Cohen has altered it, but did he do so because of a lapse of memory, or because he liked this wording better during that performance?  And which one is "correct"?  And why?

And most importantly:  why would it matter to us?  Is it the word that matters?  Or the meaning?  And of course, how do we know that apart from the words?  But if we focus too exclusively on the words, do we lose the meaning?  And if we don't pay attention to the words, how do we ever get the meaning?

Or is it just a cool song, no matter what?


  1. Rupert Sheldrake said that when he was reading his book, Science Set Free, as they were making the talking book version of it, the recording editor stopped him once and said they had to do it again because what Sheldrake had said into the microphone wasn't what he said in the written text. He said as he was reading it he wished he'd said it differently so he changed it. The editor said it had to be the way it was in the written book, though when he asked why she didn't really have an answer.

    I doubt Jesus made the important points he did just once in the years of his public ministry, I'm always repeating the same stuff in different ways on my blog and none of it's as important as "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" or "that which you do for the least of your brethren yo do unto me". When I read that verse at my mother's funeral, I changed it to how she said it to me as a child. The priest might have noticed but he didn't say anything.

    I still think we probably have more of Jesus's actual substance than we do Socrates because we do have more than one credible source of his teachings. While I listen to the passages from John used in this years lenten readings, even with my misgivings about John, I think there is authenticity in the central teachings. No one is going to convince me that anyone but a genuine prophet would have come up with those, especially the very difficult ones.

  2. I used to tell the same jokes in the same order in classes all the time, to the point that I would stop and say, "have I told you this one before, or was that last week/semester?" Yet I'm sure I varied the particulars every time.

  3. "The new standard among on-line atheists is to assume Christian fundamentalism as the default, reveal that stance as untenable, and declare Christianity "dead" as a result. Non-fundamentalist Christians, in this "analysis," are not "real" Christians to begin with, so they are disposed of before the axe falls."

    Argh, I HATE this! And when you point out the Fundamentalism, and Biblical Literalism are *no older than* the 19th century, they switch to some instrumentalist definition of "Real Christianity": "All I've heard of/the only one that has political impact, is Fundamentalism, ergo, it MUST be the True one. You 'Christian liberals' are politically impotent {to me}, so all THINKING people are right to ignore you."

    Basically, "my mind's made up, Christianity = Fundamentalism, so don't confuse me w/ the facts." Tell me again how anti-theism isn't just another form of fundamentalism?

  4. JCF--I've had fundies tell me I'm not a "real" Christian because I don't believe as they do. Now atheists tell me I'm actually an atheist and just won't admit it, because I'm not a fundie. Only fundies are "real" Christians, according to either group.

    Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about either of them.

  5. On tonight's "60 Minutes" puff piece on Neil DeGrasse Tyson, he told an (ecstatic) audience, "Science is true whether you believe it or not!"

    "_______ is true whether you believe it or not!": if it could be affirmed by Pat Robertson, ISIS and every ideologue/kook/conspiracy theorist out there, maybe that's a hint that one shouldn't (at very least) proclaim that?

    God save me from ALL certitudes...