Can Mid-Eastern oral societies be proficient at faithfully preserving their history?

  • Our question

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    Has it been possible for Middle-Eastern oral cultures, now and stretching back into the ancient past, to be able to collectively preserve and transmit their history across generations in a very proficient and controlled way that bodes well for it's integrity? Rather than material being irredeemably distorted as it gets passed down by worth of mouth, was the social memory of the group more collective, such that a community memory is born which ends up being relatively reliable across time?

“Yes, after all…
  • In general, oral folk can pass down faithfully

    It is not irregular for oral societies in general, not just in the Middle-East, to be able to pass down their sacred history and related memories and sayings faithfully.1

    • Examples abound. [Forthcoming]
    1. Jan Vansina: “Various methods of transmission may be used, some of which are capable of ensuring that the proto-testimony des not alter much in the course of transmission.” [Oral Tradition as History (University of Wisconsin, 1985), 46.]
      Robert McIver: “Radical change that is inconsistent with reality is almost never found in collective memories.” [Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (2011, Society of Biblical Literature), 187.]
      Craig Keener: “Some cultures do orally pass on some core information for generations, maintaining accuracy in the points transmitted.” [“Weighing Weeden’s Critique,” JGRChJ 13 (2017): 49.]
  • Information is normally lost over time, not added

    The idea here is that, in oral retellings over time, fieldwork suggests the stories more tend to lose information and grow less vivid. [Forthcoming]

  • Oral cultures had memories fine-tuned for the task

    Individuals in the Mediterranean (or Greco-Roman) world tend to be very proficient at remembering.

    Elaboration on these arguments are forthcoming:

    • Greco-Romans were proficient rememberers.
    • Jews were proficient rememberers.
    • Early Christians were proficient remembers.
    • Early professions yield folk with astounding memories.
    • Oral societies are relatively information starved.
  • 1st hand specialists testify that they can

    Some very experienced field-workers can testify to the incredible memory capacities of oral communities. For example, here one scholar comments on the work of Bailey and King:

    For example...

    • Craig Keener: “Diane King, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky specializing in traditional Middle Eastern oral tradition, observed to me [on 14 March 2017] that Bailey was at his best when describing ethnographically what he saw around him; that is what ethnographers are supposed to do. … Professor King notes her own quarter-century of experience with oral memory in Kurdistan, receiving essentially the same information throughout that period. She notes that informants at the earliest stage of recounting sometimes omit reference to key details that are widely known.” [“Weighing Weeden’s Critique,” JGRChJ 13 (2017): 45.]
  • Oral cultures oft passed down history in a controlled way

    Over and above simply passing down their history carelessly, perhaps among individuals, members of oral cultures rather took a collective approach in remember that tended to involve several quality-controlling mechanisms.

    • Oral rehearsals were common.
    • Oral rehearsals were interrupted if errors were made.
    • Oral rehearsals put a lot of pressure on the performer.
    • More forthcoming.