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Can you remember what happened 30 years ago? - Mondays with Mounce

Categories Biblical Studies Bible Survey & Reference

What would you do if your child came over to your house, said he no longer believed the Bible, and renounced his faith? On top of that, he sent you a spreadsheet with hundreds of places in the Bible that he claims are factually erroneous or theologically absurd.

I had this very discussion with a good friend of mine just a few days ago. The spreadsheet lists an impressive number of problem passages, and one that will give me lots of topics to write about. Even though my upcoming book, Why I Trust the Bible (August), deals with many of his issues, there are others that need to be addressed.

I know that most of my Mondays with Mounce blogs to this point have been on Greek grammar, but I am going to start weaving in blogs that will help my friend, and hopefully many others, probably every other week. My other blog, Bible Study Greek (Translation Thursday), will continue to be just about Greek.

One of the common issues is the time gap between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels, 30 – 50 years. In my last blog I dismissed the comparison of this time period with the telephone game, but another part of the answer is the human ability to memorize and remember with precision.

Human being are capable of great mental feats. I have a friend who has memorized, word for word, both the English Bible (755,976 words) and the Greek Testament (138,213 words). We may be tempted to write this off as a rare exception, and yet we know that many ancient Greek children memorized the entire Iliad and Odyssey, ancient Greek works totaling around 200,000 words. We also know that many Jewish rabbis memorized the entire Hebrew Bible, which in our current Hebrew text is around 309,000 words; I am told the same is true for clerics (and, to some extent, children) memorizing the Qur’an. Far from the exception, this was the common expectation of a good education in an oral society.

Teacher repetition and student memorization were the primary tools of instruction. When I was teaching in the university, I recall asking the students to stop taking notes, to put their pens down (or, today, to close their computers), and to intentionally listen to what I was saying, processing the meaning and significance of what I was teaching them. I did this because students would quite often let the lecture go from their ears to their fingers, bypassing the brain (so to speak). They would not really “hear” or remember what I taught. Today, teachers have the additional distractions of texts, social media platforms, and emails—and when students are at home, the temptation to binge-watch TV shows.

None of this was a problem in Jewish oral culture. Jewish boys learned to read by reading the Hebrew Bible. Each student had to memorize a passage perfectly before he could discuss it in class. Jewish children heard the words of Scripture repeated in many contexts—school, synagogue, dinner discussions, festivals. They were expected to learn and remember what they were hearing. Since most of us reading this book belong to a non-oral culture, we need to realize that the human brain is capable of far more than what our non-oral society expects from it.

It’s difficult for those from non-oral cultures to understand and accept how different that culture is. But for those versed in the study of orality, the ability of the human brain to remember accurately is an accepted fact.

We today may have trouble remembering the events and discussions from three decades ago, but not so in Jesus’ day.

This blog is an extract from my upcoming book, Why I Trust the Bible, due out in August, 2021. You can pre-order the book here.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

The Bible and the Telephone Game - Mondays with Mounce
The Bible and the Telephone Game - Mondays with Mounce One common challenge made by skeptics of the Bible is that memory is faulty. It “leaks” and cannot be trusted over a lon...
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