Saturday, 23 June 2012

oral tradition and king solomon

There’s a sense in which the programme this morning reminded me in its form of Solomon and his decision to slice the baby in two, in order to discover who was the real mother.  Although I don’t think we discovered who was the real mother.  Our slicing was between minimalists and maximalists.

The last three weeks have had the subtext (on In Our Time) of scholarship about scholarship.  When we discussed Marco Polo, part of the discussion was – could we believe much of what he said and, indeed, had he said it?  When we discussed the Trojan War, similar problems of the authenticity of the written and the archaeological evidence came through.  And again this morning, the records about Solomon were written three or four hundred years after his death, at a time of ideological emphasis in Israel when, as Martin Palmer pointed out, they were determined to have the great man that they thought Solomon had been.

The maximalists rely quite strongly on the Scriptures, however late they were written.  The minimalists tend to point out the paucity of archaeological evidence.  One thing that was missing entirely was a consideration of oral evidence, although I don’t know how one gets at this.

The fact seems to be that in many of the greatest of the old civilisations – the Celts would be a fine example – oral evidence was the main source of historical, mythological and cultural continuity within a society.  It is galling, to say the least, that we have no access to this.  What I would contend is that although the Scriptures in the Old Testament in which Solomon was mentioned were written three or four hundred years after his death, it is not impossible that a strong and carefully schooled oral tradition (such as we know the Celts to have been), could have taken through the main points of that story, even over that long time.  Formal oral traditions prided themselves on their accuracy.  In fact, one of the reasons they would not have things written down was because they thought the written word could be so easily twisted and turned, whereas the spoken word, spoken by people who had been disciplined to learn accurately, was far more reliable.
- from Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time newsletter  of 7 June on the King Solomon episode