Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Memory and Figures of Speech

This year I actually attended more sessions at this SBL than I think I ever have.  Amidst a number of (mostly mind-numbing) presentations, one stood out, at least for my area of research.  The presenter was Dr. Robert K. McIver from Avondale College, and, aside from his great Aussie accent (or was it Kiwi? I can't tell the difference), his topic was fascinating. 

His primary thesis was that there are two types of memory: gist memory and verbatim memory.  He noted that if a person is asked to listen to a story or piece of information, and then later asked to repeat that information, the type of memory used is "gist" memory.  That is, a person can remember the gist of what was said, but rarely uses the same wording.  Yet, if the information comes in aphorisms, then the information is often remembered "verbatim," or at least fairly closely. 

McIver used two pools of data.  The first pool was the double tradition from the synoptic gospels.  He found that there was "gist" correlation between narrative material in Matthew and Luke, but "verbatim" or near verbatim correlation between the aphoristic material in the two gospels.  The second pool was some controlled experiments he did with his students in which he asked them to repeat information.  He found the same correlations: "gist" correlation with narrative material and "verbatim" correlation with aphoristic material. 

McIver was interested in looking at the composition of the gospels, specifically with possible oral tradition.  What interested me is the possible connection with the third chapter of my dissertation in which I argued that Luke used powerful and "memorable" figures of speech to communicate his role-reversing message.  What McIver referred to as aphorisms, I would argue can actually be classified more specifically as figures of speech.  I argued that where the Lukan Jesus' message was most likely to run counter to the Greco-Roman value systems, he embedded that message in easily memorable and memorizable figures of speech.  Placing this information in this form helped his message to take root in the minds of the audience.  McIver's work  bolsters my argument and I would love to pursue this work further. 

Robert K. McIver, Avondale College, "Oral Performance, Memory Capacity, and the Aphorisms of Jesus," SBL national Conference, Atlanta, GA, 11/21/2010. SBL Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section.

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