Thursday, June 23, 2005

Rasheed Wallace and the Synoptic Problem

The always stimulating Language Log provides more grist at this post. Mark Liberman is interested there in possible collocations in English, but his post interested me as an example of the problem of written transmission of oral sources. The quotes in the following are taken from that post, but are put to a different use.

Rasheed Wallace, the great forward for the Detroit Pistons, arguably let his team down in Game 5 of the NBA Finals when he left his counterpart on the Spurs, Robert Horry, unguarded to make the winning 3-pointer. After Game 6, which Rasheed helped his team win, he was asked in the pool press conference what made the difference between his Game 5 and Game 6 performances. These are the reported replies:

New York Times: "I just made a bonehead play the other night," said Wallace, who finished with 16 points. "I had to put it behind me, it was over with and I had to come to play tonight."

Philadelphia Inquirer: "Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, I just had to put it behind me," Wallace said.

Houston Chronicle: "I did a bonehead play the other night," he said. "I had to put it behind me. It was over with. It was no pressure. I don't feel pressure. I had to do the things I needed to do."

Toronto Sun: "I did a bonehead play the other night (leaving the Spurs' Robert Horry open for the winning shot in Game 5), but I had to put it behind me," Wallace said.

Obviously the same utterance is being reported, but the words are slightly different. Everyone has the phrase "bonehead play," but only the Times says he "made" it, not "did" it. The Times also says he "just" made the play, while the Inquirer says he "just" put it behind him. The Chronicle and the Sun don't have "just" at all. The Inquirer puts the bonehead play in a subordinate clause ("even though..."), while the others don't. The Chronicle has a sequence the others don't, about "pressure." The papers also differ on what Rasheed felt he "had to" do. The Times has two things he had to do: put it behind him, and come to play. The Inquirer and the Sun just have the first one, while the Chronicle agrees he had to do two things, but they are put it behind him, and "do the things I needed to do."

Now all these guys were listening to the same press conference and, I assume, were taking notes by hand. If they recorded the utterance, they still had to write/type it out by hand. Even so, they were unable to agree on the ipsissima verba Rasheedi, although, arguably, one can hear in their stories the ipsissima vox Rasheedi.

As it happens, there is a transcript of the press conference, and we have the verbatim utterance of Rasheed:
Just went at it as another good game. Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, had to put it behind me. It was over with, just came out and had to play tonight.
Now compare the "real" thing with the reports. The Times and Inquirer writers did hear "just" (twice), but inserted it at the wrong places. The Inquirer was right about the subordinate clause. The Times and the Chronicle were right about the two "had to"'s, but were wrong about the second one: he "had to play," not "had to come to play" (Times) or "do the things I needed to do" (Chronicle — what was this guy smoking?). None of them reproduce the introductory remark about "another good game." The Sun and the Inquirer abridge the whole utterance. And he "did" the play, not "made" it.

All of these differences — revision, reordering, abridgement, etc. — are paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels. What interests me is that the results from this little real-life sample are not unlike the results gained elsewhere from studies of oral transmission and written transmission, especially the very interesting article by Robert McIver and Marie Carroll in JBL 121 (see below). They performed experiments to test the reliability of oral transmission and written transmission, but they didn't test the reliability of written notes on an oral utterance. I've always thought it was highly possible that the first auditors of Jesus (or of the apostles, if that makes you more comfortable) took notes, a perfectly normal thing to do in antiquity. But — if the "Rasheed test" is typical — even that does not guarantee any kind of verbatim record. As for me, I'm satisfied with the ipsissima vox. (Note to self: also relevant for comparison of Targumim.)

In conclusion, I'll give another example from the same Language Log post. In this case, we don't have a transcript, so you'll have to use your critical faculties to decide which is closest to the "living voice." The speaker is A. J. Feeley, backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. A. J., are you going to reward your offensive line by taking them out to dinner? The Synoptic response:

"On my salary, I'll take them out to Wendy's for a cheeseburger," Feeley said. "Make it a limit of one." (Philadelphia Inquirer)

"With my salary, I'll take 'em out to Wendy's for a cheeseburger," Feeley said, flashing his perfect smile for the cameras. "And they get limited to one...the Happy Meal." (New York Daily News)

"With my salary," he said, "I can take them all out to Wendy's for dinner. Limit them each to one cheeseburger." (New York Times)

My guess is that the "Markan" redaction is found in the Daily News. It's all there, the vernacular language ("take 'em"), the personal detail (the smile), and the vivid lifestyle reference (the Happy Meal). The "Matthean" redaction is the Inquirer, which abridges the statement, omits the smile and the Happy Meal, and cleans up the language. The New York Times is the "Lukan" representative, who also leaves out the smile and the Happy Meal, eliminates all traces of colloquialism ("I can take them all out" for "I'll take 'em out"), and introduces a reference to "dinner," moving "cheeseburger" to the end of the pericope.

Who says sports and scholarship don't mix?

BIBLIOGRAPHY: R. McIver and M. Carroll, "Experiments to Develop Criteria for Determining the Existence of Written Sources, and Their Potential Implications for the Synoptic Problem," Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (2002): 667-687.

UPDATE (6/24): Mark Liberman responds and includes a more exact transcript of the Rasheed pericope.


Ken said...

So, Ed... all these sources are likely independent of one another, right? That is, the Times did not use the Inquirer? So, do you believe the synoptics are independent gospels?

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

This is great. Interesting too that certain stylistic features of the ipsissima vox were supressed--the omission of the personal pronoun. Once again scribal correction takes precedence...

Tyler F. Williams said...

Of course, Ed, your analogy breaks down because the synoptics exhibit a literary relationship based on the Greek text (assuming Jesus wasn't speaking Greek). Your comparison, however, is a great example of how eyewitnesses may subsequently record and report an event.

EMC said...

Thanks to you all for your comments. Ken & Tyler: One point of McIver and Carroll's article is to suggest that the assumption of literary relationships works well only for some, not all, passages of the Synoptics; for others, the assumption of oral transmission (or interference of oral source with a written source) is more reasonable. Redaction criticism is not the only game in town. We have to assume a long period of Gospel formation when both oral and written sources were in circulation, with perturbations in each due to reciprocal influence.

Ken said...

So, do you have a theory? Do you accept the traditional Q hypothesis or any of the variations on it? Or, do you believe that the oral sources and perhaps some other order of priority better explains the inconsistencies that Q is meant to explain?

Deon said...

One thing to consider, too, which I learned as a reporter: editors (who never observe the story/interview) invariably make up their own minds about what happened and edit stories accordingly. For instance, the reporter may have accurately written "Even though I did a bonehead play the other night, had to put it behind me" for the Inquirer, and the editor added the "I" (or truncated the quote and moved the "just") because he felt like it. In fact, based on my own experience, the Chronicle reporter could have written "'I did a bonehead play the other night,' he said. 'I had to put it behind me.' Wallace said that game 5 was over, and he didn't feel pressure going into game 6. There was no pressure. He just had to do the things he needed to do." Then the editor decided that the reporter's comment was something Wallace could have said and stuck it in quotes. Like a bad game of telephone.

EMC said...

Deon, good point; I didn't take the editor into account (which adds more confusion!).

Deon said...

In fairness, I should add that once, covering a city commission meeting, I and a reporter from a rival newspaper, heard very similar but not, ahem, quite identical quotes from one of the commissioners.