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The good Jewish student was not to lose a drop from the cistern of the master’s teaching. Right up to this day, the best Jewish student is the one who can recite the rabbinic tradition verbatim on issue after issue. (For a contemporary novel illustrating this phenomenon, read The Chosen, by Chaim Potok.) No one was encouraged to play fast and loose with the formal tradition. You were not allowed creative freedom. You were expected to recite word for word. You would be immediately corrected if a single word was wrong.
This careful, exact memorizing also applied to the more informal tradition involving things that were important to community life or stories about the foundation of the community. Feats of memory continue in the Middle East today. Kenneth Bailey lived in the Middle East for sixty years, for part of that time teaching at a university in Beirut. He points out that memory is still vital to Middle Eastern culture and community life. Even the illiterate peasant knows by heart thousands of lines of proverbs and poetry. For amusement a large number of participants sometimes sit in a circle. The game begins when the first person recites two lines of poetry. The next person has to use the last letter of the last line as the first letter for two other lines of poetry, and so on. Bailey has seen the game played many times, even by those who cannot read, with the challenge traveling several cycles around the circle (of ten to fifteen people) before anyone is stumped or misquotes. If you make even the smallest mistake, you are out, and everyone knows when you have made a mistake.
Some youth leaders tried to bring the American game of “telephone” to the Middle East, but it did not work. In this game a short message is given to the first person, who then whispers that message into the ear of the next person, and so on around the circle. The results are often funny, because the message comes out garbled at the other end. In the Middle East, however, the message came back exactly the same. The kids could not see the fun in the game, because they were trained to hear carefully and repeat exactly.
Many Muslims are encouraged to memorize the Qur’an in Arabic. A translation or paraphrase will not do. It has to be an exact repetition. One of the terrorists from September 11, 2001, was said to have memorized the whole Qur’an. Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke said that he once met a man in Israel who had memorized the whole Old Testament in Hebrew. Waltke tested the man on his knowledge and considered his claim to be credible. But then Waltke was surprised to learn that the man was . . . an atheist.
Informal tradition or stories especially about the beginnings of a community are viewed with great respect and care. To illustrate this point Bailey mentioned a book written about a century ago on the founding of a Christian church in a Middle Eastern community. When he went to visit that community and asked about the founding of the church, the stories he heard matched those in the book, even down to the quotations. The remarkable accuracy was not because the people had read the book, but because the tradition had been passed along with scrupulous care. This mentality was true then (during Jesus’ day) as it is now.
If the formal tradition of a teacher is passed on verbatim and the informal stories, especially about the founding of community life, are passed on with extreme care, how do we account for the invention of fictional stories about a person named Jesus being touted as true, with no attendant protest, shock, and outrage? It might have happened in some other time or place, but not in Israel and the Middle East. Ken Bailey gave a lecture where he explored these themes of memory (then and now) as over against the critical theories. He closed the lecture by saying, “The Gospels are authentic.”
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