Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Rest in Peace Aleksandr

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was as inspirational, then as annoying as any prophet can be. There's no way he was right on everything, but when he attacks you, you need to listen to him, even if you don't agree. And a small episode from his life has implications for historical first-century studies. This is from his obituary in the New York Times, via the Freakonomics blog:

At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

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I mention this because of the debates about oral tradition, and how accurate the gospels could be about something that had taken place decades before. Well, if some device was available to organize the stories in the people's minds, like the bread or beads, they could do a large amount even if they were brought up in the 20th century. In older times when you'd rely on this kind of memory more, I'll bet you could do away with the physical bread/bead reminder and just remember the stories. Not to mention, look at Mark's gospel: short stories a few sentences long, like beads on a string. Then the gospel writer would be putting the stories into a whole, but the stories could be accurate, down to the very words. So oral tradition could preserve Jesus' words accurately for a long time. It's not like a game of "Telephone" if the words are important to the people passing them on.

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