Oral Transmission in Judaism and Christianity: A Case for Memorization

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Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Citing articles via Google Scholar. By Siegfried Wenzel. By Harry O. Edited by Scott C. Who does the talking is determined by who is there. At the same time, there are parameters. Only those within the community who have grown up hearing the stories have the right to recite them in public gatherings of the village.

A Response to Paul Foster with Further Comments for Future Discussion

I can recall vividly, in the village of Kom al-Akhdar in the south of Egypt, asking a particular person about the village traditions. He was in his sixties and seemed to be an appropriate person to ask. He offered a few remarks and was soon interrupted by others around the circle who said,. Poor fellow - he didn't understand, he was an outsider - only thirty-seven years - surely not long enough to be allowed to recite the village traditions in public.

Memory and Remembering in Oral History - Oxford Handbooks

What, then, are the types of material preserved in this informal, yet controlled, oral tradition? The first are short pithy proverbs. Professor Hezkial of Assiut College in the south of Egypt has collected over 2, Of particular interest to our topic is the word 'Current'. We are here observing a community that can create over the centuries and sustain in current usage up to 6, wisdom sayings. Other cultures express their cultural values visibly in buildings and monuments. One of the major ways Middle Eastern peoples express their values is through the creating and preserving of wisdom sayings that are rich and satisfying to them and to anyone who is privileged to participate in that same language and culture.

Indeed, our own culture has within it some such wisdom material floating in oral form, such as 'a stitch in time saves nine'. But Middle Eastern society as we have noted preserves orally thousands of such wisdom sayings. The second type of material is story riddles. These are not riddles in the Western sense of a riddle, where the questioner puts a brain-twister to the listener. Rather, in the story the hero is presented with an unsolvable problem and comes up with a wise answer, like Solomon with the one baby and the two mothers. The account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery Jn.

A third literary form is poetry. In Lebanon and Palestine the poems are of two distinct types. First are the classical poems that are recited from known authors. This material is now mostly published. The poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia was preserved for hundreds of years in oral form and finally committed to writing.

The Oral Tradition

The material has some syllable counts and some end rhymes but the feature that is most prominent is a distinctive repetitive tune used for recitation. A zajali a man with the skills required for the creation of this type of village verse is a famous man. His verse will be recited all across the district in which he lives. Such men are in heavy demand at weddings and other festive occasions because of their ability to create stanzas ad lib.

Two of them can respond to one another in ad lib verse like masters of ceremonies trading toasts or jokes. In the seventeenth century a zajali Maronite monk composed a complete history of the Maronite church in zajal. His work was transmitted orally for over years. Fourth is the parable or story. These begin, 'Once there was a rich man who They are told like stories anywhere both to instruct and to entertain.

Fifth are well-told accounts of the important figures in the history of the village or community. These are often told in the present tense, irrespective of their age.

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For example, in the cliffs behind the village of Dayr Abu Hinnis, in the south of Egypt, there are Middle Kingdom cave-stone quarries that were inhabited by Christians during the times of Roman persecution. Local Christian villagers tell visitors, 'When the Romans came, we escaped to the mountains and our men sneaked down to the river at night to get water.

I know that they are telling stories from the fourth century and before. They know the account only as the ziman from long ago. If there is a central figure critical to the history of the village, stories of this central figure will abound. These stories are local and can be heard only in the village that considers these recollections important for its identity.

This brings us to examine the controlled nature of this transmission. Nielsen records Gunkel's recollections of story-telling by the grandfather of the German home passing on German folk tales.


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  5. This is not the type of setting that we have observed. No-one will tell the grandfather that he is telling the story incorrectly. Rather we are discussing informal but controlled oral tradition. What then are the controls? Essentially, the controls are exercised by the community itself.

    Oral transmission in Judaism and Christianity: Chapter 9 and Epilogue (Tom Meyer).mp4

    The material is passed on in public in the formal setting of the haflat samar described above. The seated community exercises control over the recitation of the tradition. Three levels of flexibility can be observed. Two of the above-mentioned types of tradition fall into the first level, two into the second and one into the third.

    The first level allows for no flexibility - not even of a single word. Poems and proverbs fall into this category. If the reciter makes a mistake, he subjects himself to public correction, and thereby to public humiliation. As the present writer has observed over a period of thirty-seven years, Middle Eastern village culture is a shame-pride culture: that is, it is a culture in which the child is not told, 'That's wrong, Johnny' appealing to an abstract principle of right and wrong , but rather, 'Shame on you, Johnny', appealing to a sense of honour. If the reciter quotes a proverb with so much as one word out of place, he will be corrected by a chorus of voices.

    If the reciter is uncertain he will ask, 'How does that proverb go? The poetry has its own inner poetic structure to assure its preservation. This is true both of the classical poems and the village zajal poems. As in the case of the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, most of the poetry is so well known that no one dares recite it unless he is sure that he has the poem accurately memorized. The second level of flexibility allows for some individual interpretation of the tradition.

    Parables and recollections of historical people and events important to the identity of the community fall into this category.