Monday, January 08, 2018

Performance variants

Bart Erhman pretentiously instructs people to read the Gospels horizontally as well as vertically. Don't just read through one Gospel at a time, but compare them side-by-side.

Of course, that's hardly a novel approach. There are published Gospel harmonies that do just that. 

For Erhman, this exposes discrepancies between the Gospels. Some scholars explain these "discrepancies" by appeal to redaction criticism. 

In this interview, Andy Bannister discusses the oral nature of the Koran. Around the 30-36 min. mark he describes the nature of "performance variants," and then applies that to the Gospels. These are not redactional variants, but reflect the living voice of Christ:  

Piggybacking on his argument, I'd like to make an additional point. It's common for scholars to remark that since Jesus was an itinerate preacher, we'd expect him to repeat himself at different times and places. And by the same token, we'd expect performance variants. There'd be minor verbal changes as he adapted his message to a particular audience at a particular time and place. Different synonyms. Adding a word here, subtracting a word there. Even when talking about the same thing or retelling the same story, speakers naturally reword things. Spontaneous variations. 

Yet there's a related, but neglected consideration. We shouldn't expect performance variants to confined to the same speech at a different time and place, but to the same speech at the same time and place.

It's generally acknowledged that the speeches, sermons, and dialogues in the Gospels and Acts are condensed. One stereotypical difference between the spoken word and the written word is that speech is a redundant medium. 

That parallels the difference between readers and listeners. A reader can process the material at his own pace whereas a listener hears what is said at the speaker's pace. Likewise, if a reader doesn't follow a sentence the first time he sees it, he can stop, go back, and reread it. 

By contrast, a listener can't pause the speaker. If an idea is spoken only once, it may get past the listener too fast to register.  If a listener doesn't understand a statement, and he puzzles over what it means, he can't simultaneously pay attention to the rest of what the speaker says. For the speaker just keeps on talking. 

As a result, a skillful speaker will repeat himself in the same speech to make it easier for listeners to process the message. He may repeat some phrases verbatim as well as paraphrasing the same idea. 

It's likely that Jesus expressed the same idea in different words in the course of the same discourse. The original discourse probably had performance variations. Not just wording things differently when he spoke to a different audience at a different time and place, but to the same audience at the same time and place.

If two or more people jotted down in journals what they heard Jesus say, they could, in principle, quote him verbatim, yet there'd still be verbal variations in their respective excerpts because they're quoting different parts of the same discourse. Where Jesus uses similar words to express the same idea. So there's no presumption that synoptic variants are redactional variants rather than performance variants. 

That doesn't rule out redaction in some cases. But we shouldn't default to that. 

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