Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 10

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by Neil Godfrey

(P.S. on chapter 9: another interesting thing I learned in the previous chapter was that the notion of “translating” a text among some ancients was nothing like our concept. Josephus says he was going to make a translation of the Hebrew scriptures, no more or less, but of course he does do much more and less in his complete retelling of them. That point pretty much allows anyone to interpret Papias’s claim of Matthew being a translation from an original Aramaic as meaning anything.)

10. Models of Oral Tradition

Bauckham attempts in this chapter to place the eyewitnesses within the context of the scholarly models of the processes of transmission of gospel traditions. Since the dominant model remains that of form criticism Bauckham critiques this at some length. In sum this hypothesizes that traditions were mutated or originated according to the needs of local communities and projected back to the time of Jesus to lend them authority. He then discusses Gerhardsson‘s “Scandinavian alternative” to form criticism — that those passing on the traditions did so by memorizing their teaching. Changes were minimal. For an introduction to the issues debated about these theories this is a succinctly informative chapter.

Bauckham next brings in Kenneth Bailey’s three-fold model, part of which has been influential on N.T. Wright and James Dunn. Bailey posits three kinds of tradition transmission models that can be seen in different contexts in today’s Middle East. These are an “informal uncontrolled” tradition which can be compared with the freely changing form-critical type of transmission (e.g. rumours flying), the “formal controlled” tradition which parallels Gerhardsson’s authoritative memorization method (e.g. learning lengthy passages of the Qu’ran), and the informal controlled tradition. The latter is found in the haflat samar, a “story-telling” evening still found in contemporary Middle Eastern villages, with social rankings and group rules determining who recites particular stories or poems. Bauckham notes that Dunn finds this latter model persuasive in explaining the transmission of Jesus story traditions but such a model would not appear to allow room for official eyewitnesses — especially those not native to the group — to exercise control of the shaping of the tradition. Bauckham must find a model that will allow the Jerusalem based Twelve to exercise control over the shaping of the traditions within the context of such models. Bauckham concludes with a hopeful quote from Dunn in which he expresses no difficulty in merging the controls of community tradition on storytelling with allowing individual eyewitnesses some power to control the way the traditions are shaped. How this is done, Bauckham concludes, will be his discussion in the next two chapters.

I would be interested in seeing cases where someone has put down in writing the stories they hear in their communities in any of the above models of transmission. I would like to study the style of such writings and compare them with the style of each of our canonical gospels. When I read Mark I see a quite sophisticated “ordered” work of literature and have difficulty imagining it came from anywhere but the creative mind of the author. Stories told about the healings are nuanced adaptations of earlier stories found in the Elijah-Elishah cycle of the “Old Testament” literature. Bauckham lists a page of demonstrations of Mark’s sophisticated or well ordered storytelling (p.230). It is the model of oral transmissions and of the gospel being composed by stringing the oral stories together like a string of pearls that requires the Mark to be seen as a rambling series of crudely linked stories. But as my notes on literary critic Frank Kermode’s Genesis of Secrecy bring out, Mark is a master of subtlety. The Greek is colloquial and unsophisticated, but the sophistication of the story as literature suggests that this “primitive” Greek is also intentional (an anti-epic?) — fitting for an author who seeks to convey irony and paradox at every turn.

Bauckham speaks of an eyewitness like Jairus sitting down and telling his story over the years among his fellow-villagers. But the story of Jairus in Mark is not from the perspective of an eyewitness reporter but from the perspective of an all-knowing creative narrator. The story narrated tells the reader of the inner thoughts of characters, and even past histories that the eyewitness could not be expected to have known, and on such information the story develops. Mind-reading is not how eyewitnesses speak of their objective experiences but it is how authors create their characters.

And where have the Twelve gone by now? They were so renowned that all their names had to be recorded, we were earlier told. But it seems that only Matthew and Peter and John have had any role so far in the discussion, and two of them, we learn, had their efforts undermined by scribes or editors. This fact is surely support for the hypothesis that the Twelve were originally conceived as an authoritative base for a the faction of Christianity that was attempting to tie the new faith to the Jewish traditions and scriptures and as a “new” and fulfilling outgrowth of them — not as long-time guarantors of certain story traditions.

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