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N-Grams & Culturomics

February 22, 2011

Our current Giffords Lecturer (Prof. Peter Harrison, Oxford University) introduced us to Google N-Grams, which enables one to track the comparative frequency of a word or phrase in various corpora of books across time.  It’s a lot of fun to play with, and with the right kind of care in constructing a search can yield some useful results.

Here’s the URL:

And from that site there are links to further explanations and advice about how to use the “ngrams” facility more intelligently.

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  1. Mike Gantt permalink

    I am aware of the allusions in James, and it makes me all the more curious that the writer never quotes Jesus directly. [There is] the additional question of when, why, and how that interest shifted such that the four gospels came to be written, distributed, and venerated when the churches seemed to be getting along nicely with oral tradition for many years.
    Thanks again for your research. And for Hengel’s before you.

    • Two comments briefly (and this thread really isn’t germane to the posting to which it’s attached, so I’m not sure how broadly informative it is). First, one typically alludes to things that one expects readers/hearers already to know and so to be able to recognize. So, e.g., allusions to Jesus’ sayings in, e.g., James, likely = the author had such expectations. And that means that Jesus’ sayings were communicated to believers by means other than epistles or Gospel-books in these early years.
      The Gospels aren’t simply gatherings of sayings. They are primarily narratives, biographical-like accounts of Jesus, and thus a noteworthy development in early Christian literary history (see my discussion of “Jesus Books” in my own book, Lord Jesus Christ. They don’t represent some new interest in Jesus or his teachings, but a literary development focused on re-asserting the significance of the historic Jesus’ own ministry, connecting thereby the exalted/risen Jesus of early Christian devotion with the historic figure from Nazareth.

  2. Mike Gantt permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, thanks for the Google tip.

    By the way, has your research into early devotion to Jesus led you to any conclusions or observations regarding 1) the paucity of direct quotes of Jesus in the NT epistles, and 2) that what direct quotes there are come from the two writers (Paul and Luke) who had the least contact with Him in the days of His flesh?

    It fascinates me that that the apostles, especially those who had the most involvement in His earthly life, did not quote Him frequently in their writings. After all, they certainly quoted the OT – why not the Master they were proclaiming?

    • Er, to whom are you referring? We have no writings from the Twelve listed as Jesus’ closest followers in his own ministry. We have, of course, four large accounts (the four Gospels), which incorporate a large amount of teaching and narrative material, this material judged by critical scholars to derive from the pool of Jesus-tradition that circulated among early Jesus-followers during his ministry and thereafter. Note, e.g., the claim of the author of Luke-Acts (Luke 1:1-4) to have drawn upon previous efforts and the reports of various tradents of Jesus-tradition.
      Paul, of course, was not a follower of Jesus in his own ministry-time, but only came to be a Jesus-follower as a result of the powerful religious experience that he describes as “a revelation of God’s Son” (Gal. 1:13-15). His letters are mainly dealing with events/situations in the churches to which they’re sent, and aren’t intended to archive Jesus’ sayings.

      • Mike Gantt permalink

        1. From the Twelve do we not have Peter (1 Pet, 2 Pet) and John (1 Jn, 2 Jn, 3 Jn)?

        2. Jesus’ earthly brothers James and Jude each wrote a letter. James certainly alludes to much of Jesus’ teaching (esp. from the Sermon on the Mount) but it does not surprise that James is willing to allude to Jesus’ teaching but not quote it? They apparently weren’t following Jesus during His earthly ministry but would certainly have become aware of His sayings through the tradition passed on from the Twelve.

        3. Though Paul did not participate in Jesus’ earthly ministry, he does show a willingness to quote Jesus in order to appeal to settle an issue (e.g. 1 Cor 11) but that leads to the question of why he doesn’t do this more often.

        4. I’m well aware of the Jesus-tradition which became the source for the gospels, including the Luke 1:1-4 reference. My curiosity is about why practically none of this material (save a few cases in Acts and Paul) finds its way into the epistles. While I recognize that the epistles were not created to archive Jesus’ sayings (and the gospels were), does it not puzzle you that the writers of these epistles would not quote their Lord from time to time in communicating to His disciples – especially if they were trying to resolve issues in His churches?

        By the way, I have no “agenda” in asking you about this. I’m not seeking to make or refute some theological point. It just seems like a logical question to me.

      • The authorship of the NT epistles traditionally ascribed to Peter, John, James & Jude is not assured, and many NT scholars would hesitate to assign any of them to those figures. So, it’s not safe to make the comparison you make.
        It is interesting that sayings of Jesus aren’t cited more often, but there do appear to be more references and allusions than you may realize. E.g., the epistle of James is widely seen as alluding to various sayings that we have in the Gospels.
        Moreover, although Acts doesn’t appear to cite Jesus often, the same author has a large pool of Jesus-sayings in the first volume of his work, Luke. So this author obviously knew this large body of material; but it wasn’t a feature of his writing purposes in Acts to use/reuse this material.
        Finally, note that the early Jesus-followers seem to have had a high confidence in the continuing activity of the divine Spirit among them, in prophecy, etc., and didn’t feel that they had to rely totally on historical sayings of Jesus. It’s really the 18th century and thereafter that introduces the idea that everything must rest upon the teaching of the historical figure of Jesus. For the first believers, what mainly counted was that God had sent and then validated Jesus (by resurrection), their faith having a strong theo-centric basis.

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