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Lincoln’s Watch and Eyewitnesses

A fascinating news item has appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine. At first it may not be obvious how it connects to Christianity in Antiquity. But I think it does. It is about a watch owned by Abraham Lincoln. Here is the link to the full story, with a photo:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Lincolns-Pocket-Watch-Reveals-Long-Hidden-Message.html

So the deal is this, as described in the article

On April 13, 1861, Irish immigrant and watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, working for the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., was repairing President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, when he heard of the attack [on Fort Sumter). Forty-five years later, Dillon told the New York Times what he did that day.

“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.'”

Note that the watch maker himself revealed what he had inscribed on the interior of the watch, word for word.

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  1. Avatar
    ERHershman  October 26, 2012

    John Dominic Crossan has some interesting chapters on the subjects of memory and oral tradition in his book The Birth of Christianity. One study he cited was fascinating: it asked participants to relate their recollections of where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the Challenger disaster. Participants were interviewed twice: first immediately after the events, and then a few years later. In most cases, what the participants “remembered” during the second event was radically at odds with their initial statements, which were taken 24 hours after the event. And this was for an event which the participants said in their initial statements had been quite traumatic and distressing for them.

    Whatever else the strengths of weaknesses of the book might be, Crossan pretty much lays to rest the idea that we can appeal to “oral tradition” as a stable, reliable source for historical information about Jesus.

    I think this is an important issue to get clear on, because some conservative but well-respected scholars (I’m thinking especially N.T. Wright here) tend to throw around notions of “oral tradition” rather casually. For some reason I see a lot of people appeal to an obscure article by Kenneth Bailey based on experience in the Middle East which supposedly “proves” the existence of reliable, stable oral tradition over generations.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 26, 2012

    My earlier comment about not being sure that early Christians altered scripture to support their theological views is clearly wrong as you proved in “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.” So, post after post supports that about 90% (my guess) of the Gospels was made up. This occurred because of the following:
    1. Information got changed during oral transmission.
    2. Authors, and their sources, intentionally changed things to support their theological views.
    3. Authors, and their sources, using confirmation bias, unintentionally, and maybe unconsciously, emphasized that which fit their views.

    My brain understands this, but it is quite disillusioning and disappointing nevertheless. It’ s like discovering that football, rather than being a glorious sport, is really something that produces brain injuries.

  3. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  October 26, 2012

    Very interesting Bart, thanks

  4. Avatar
    Jacobus  October 26, 2012

    Prof. Ehrman, what about the devices ancient people used to remember something? I suspect that parallelism and chiasm (to name just two) were more “vehicles” to remember a saying or incident than it was used for poetry. At least the highly structured Ugaritic, Akkadian and even Hebrew poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures makes me suspicious. It is also interesting that the Gospel of Mark seems to be highly structured, or at least great parts thereof. Obviously the challenge lies in the fact that using memory devices one tends to change the so-called original message already, so that we have a filtered ‘reality.’ (Anyway, any reality is already filtered when put in words.)

    About the Dillon inscription, though foreign to me, I couldn’t help wondering how much he remembered and how much he changed to fit into a new social reality. I suspect that we all ‘lie’ or adjust reality as time goes on to fit new circumstances. I think that is part of what makes us human. Narrative counselling is based on the idea of storying and re-storying, adjusting your story to cope with the circumstances. This obviously has implications for the way we view history and even earliest Christianity. You get caught up in the fleeting moments of time that you can never go back to. Critical enquiry and reconstruction is one of the ways of going back to those moments, another way is faith. When it happens that these two ways clash… well then one has to make a choice and live with your conscience in the same way that Dillon could probably live with his conscience. Thank for the post.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      Yes, ancients who wanted to remember things could and did use mnemonic devices, especially if they were highly educated and taught how to do it, just as today there are competitions in memory among people who are phenomenal. That’s not to say that average people had any clue though.

      And yes, stories now — and in the past — certainly get changed drastically, not only becuase of faulty memory but because of the context within which they are being told.

  5. Avatar
    jimmo  October 26, 2012

    The claim he wrote “Slavery is dead” is a violation of contextual credibility. When the war started, Lincoln’s goal was the preservation of the Union and would still have kept slaverly if that would have kept the Union together. In his first inaugural adress (just a month prior) he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

    The myth that the civil war was about freeing the slaves was started much later, so a claim on the date of the attack on Fort Sumter about starting a war to end slavery or anything similar is not historically credible.

    Can you recommend a good book on oral history? I have been looking at the work of Jan Vansina (author of “Oral Tradition as History”) and I was wondering how applicable it would be to CIA.

  6. Avatar
    Dennis Steenbergen  October 26, 2012

    Occam’s razor at work.

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