Where did stories about Jesus originate?
3. Memory and the Oral Tradition, part 1
I’m writing this on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. I lived and worked here for a year almost 40 years ago and have returned to visit a few old haunts and stay with a friend, Carol, from back in those days. So much is how I remember it, some has changed and some I can’t remember at all.
Carol and I have met only once in the intervening years, 20 years ago, but we have kept in touch through letters and emails. We’ve been reminiscing a lot this week, telling stories from the time we worked together in the ‘80s, stories we’ve each told many times before. It’s been interesting to discover how much our memories of the same events differ.
We don’t always remember who else was present on a given occasion (were there 4 there or 6? Was K with us or was it V?); who said what; what they actually said and what order events occurred in (was that before this, or vice versa?)
This is before we add in the refinements we’ve each made to the stories over the years; the gaps in our memories we’ve filled in to allow the story to flow; the (different) parts we’ve omitted because they interrupt that flow or now seem irrelevant; the tidying up and restructuring of the tale to make it pithier; the refining of half-remembered dialogue to make it punchier and funnier; the changes in vocabulary (cheeky for fresh, pushchair for stroller)… and so on.
And all of this from eye-witnesses, Carol and me, who were both present and involved when the events in question took place almost 40 years later (which coincidentally is the time between the supposed events of Jesus life and Mark’s gospel.)
On occasion, I’ve heard someone else repeat one of my stories, and infuriatingly they never get it right. They change it to tell it their way; I want to say, and sometimes do, ‘that’s not how it happened. That’s not what she said.’ But that’s the trouble when stories are passed on. They’re out of the control of those who originated them. They take on a life of their own. They become unverifiable, even by their originators. They are changed further when still others take them over. And others and still others, like a giant, out-of-control game of Chinese whispers. In this way, stories evolve and are far beyond anyone’s control – beyond my control in terms of my Massachusetts memories. I couldn’t fact-check them even if I wanted to.
I’ll get to the point – though you can see it coming, can’t you – next time.