Category Archives: Brodie: Birthing New Testament


How do we know the stories of Jesus were preserved by oral tradition before the Gospels?

by Neil Godfrey

dykstra1One book I enjoyed reading this year was Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. (The link is to an earlier post of mine on this title.) I see the book has been promoted on the Bible and Interpretation site, too. Tom Dykstra begins with a discussion of Mark’s sources and purpose referring to about half a dozen books that were still fresh in my mind from recent reading and introducing me to as many more that by and large I followed up subsequently. His third chapter is titled The Chimera of Oral Tradition.

“Oral Tradition” is a term one soon learns to take for granted when reading any scholarly work that attempts to explore the possible sources used by the authors of the gospels. If one wants to pursue this concept further one will soon enough find interdisciplinary studies drawing upon the works of anthropologists, oral historians — names like Ong, Vansina, Foley, Dundes, Kelber will soon become familiar. There is no shortage of information about “how oral tradition works” but none of it directly explains how we know the gospel authors (evangelists) drew upon it.

(There are arguments that certain structures in the gospels are paralleled in oral recitations but these arguments are off-set by even more detailed and supported demonstrations that the same structures are found in literary works, too. They are not unique to oral story-telling.)

This becomes all the more frustrating as one continues to read widely and learns that there are numerous studies that easily demonstrate that the evangelists drew upon certain other written literature for some of their episodes. It is very difficult to deny that the account of Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead owes nothing to the similar narrative of Elisha raising a young boy from death.

Numerous commentaries suggest that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was emulating the story of the ancient Law being presented to Israel through Moses on the mountain when he composed the Sermon on the Mount. One scholar even published an entire book arguing for numerous links between the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel and Moses — clearly leading us to acknowledge that the evangelist was consciously drawing upon the story of Moses to write his gospel.

So how do we reconcile these studies with the claim that oral traditions were the gospel sources? read more »


How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

by Neil Godfrey

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.


Original images at: (centre) (right)

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. read more »


Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians

by Neil Godfrey

jerpaulM. Weinfeld can argue for OT books from Joshua to 2 Kings were produced by a Deuteronomic school, K. Stendhal can argue that the Gospel of Matthew was produced by a school “of St Matthew”, (and I’ll be posting again on reasons to believe “Luke” was part of “a school”), ditto for the Johannine writings, and Philip Davies can argue that the prophetic books of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Micah, and the rest) were produced by scribal schools who wrote in dialogue with one another, so why can we not imagine the possibility that the letters of Paul, all of them, were also produced by a school (or schools) rather than a single individual, whether that individual was attributed the name of Paul in honesty or duplicity.

It’s just a thought-experiment. I am willing to take it up because I think that the argument that Paul really wrote certain letters because they reflect a certain personality and loose way of thinking are naive and circular. Not that I reject the historicity of Paul. I don’t. But I don’t “believe” in his historicity, either. I simply don’t know. I find a lot of merit in Roger Parvus’s argument that the name Paul was attributed to hide the identity of an earlier first century author of several of the letters. I can acknowledge Earl Doherty’s argument against the letters being composed in the second century by Marcionites. Then again, Bruno Bauer who disputed the historicity of Paul was no dim-wit, either. Moreover, I am always conscious of Patricia Rosenmeyer’s study of ancient letter writing that demonstrated that the most realistic touches in letters are not necessarily signs of authenticity. And many if not most scholars, it seems, are quite willing to admit that at least some of the letters written in Paul’s name belong to a Pauline school of some sort. So I’m open to the question of the provenance of the letters attributed to Paul.

But probably every commentator on Paul’s letter to the Galatians I have read has gone along with the assumption that that letter’s expressions of frustration, anger, hostility are sure signs of a personal author’s personality quaking through the pages. Clearly none of them read Rosenmeyer, but let’s leave her work on epistolary fictions aside for now. Let’s look instead at an observation Thomas Brodie has made in Birthing of the New Testament.

That’s the kind of man Paul was

Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, once said he liked to rattle people’s cages, because seeing someone rattled helps you meet the real person. So when Paul suddenly becomes angry in Galatians and calls the people stupid (literally, ‘mind-less’, without nous, a-noetas, Gal. 3:1) you feel this is the real thing. And when he repeats it a little later the effect is even stronger: ‘Are you so stupid?’ (Gal. 3.3). OK, so that’s the kind Paul was. (p. 141, Beyond the Quest)

That’s the verdict of most of us who have read Galatians. But Brodie then introduces a challenge.

He suggests that if we look more closely at Galatians, and then cast our minds back over what we have read in the Old Testament books, in particular Jeremiah, and take a fresh look at that book — in particular in the Septuagint or Greek version, we will see something very similar. Jeremiah also calls the people mindless, then repeats the accusation for intensified effect (Jer. 5.21, 23).

Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah.

Jeremiah in Galatians read more »


Oral Tradition is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes Thomas Brodie’s critique of the role oral tradition has played in Biblical studies, especially with respect to accounting for the Gospel narratives about Jesus. It is taken from chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings.

Even if a hypothesis is unclear in its foundation, and even if in practice there are serious difficulties with getting it to work, perhaps in some way it is still the only apparent response to a real need. It is appropriate therefore to ask whether the hypothesis of oral tradition is necessary to New Testament studies. (p. 60)


.Reasons for seeing Oral Tradition as Necessary. .Thomas Brodie’s responses.
“Gospel texts follow the rhythms of oral speech.” “Oral rhythms do not require reliance on oral tradition.
“Oral rhythms are a quality of both oral communication and much writing, especially ancient writing.”
“Someone sitting silently at a computer can compose oral rhythms with a view to being heard by the ear.”
“The variations between the gospels correspond to the variations that occur in oral communication.” This looks plausible at first glance.
But look closely at the differences between the gospels and one begins to see a very deliberate variation governed by a quite different and coherent theological strategy.
Differences that arise through oral transmission alone are not like this; they are accidental and haphazard.
Oral tradition fills the gap between the historical Jesus and the Gospels. “Oral tradition may or may not assure more historicity.
“From a historical point of view, the ideal is that the evangelist is an eye-witness to the gospel events – thus needing no tradition whatever – or else speaks directly to such a witness.
Interjecting an unpredictable chain of communication into a period of less than a lifetime has the effect not of promoting claims to historicity, but of dissipating them.”
Besides, it is “not appropriate” (I would say it is “invalid”) that “a desire for a particular type of historical conclusion should predetermine the idea of how the gospels were composed.”
If the idea of oral tradition is to stand, it must stand on its own inherent merits.
“Oral tradition is embedded in the fabric of New Testament studies, in the prevailing paradigm, and, for the moment at least, there is no alternative paradigm to replace it.” “It is true that oral tradition has been embedded in the fabric of NT studies and is central to the prevailing paradigm. But that situation is changing rapidly.
“The literary approach, despite its teething problems – its occasional obscurity, pretentiousness, and narrowness – is not an esoteric game.
“Rather, the literary approach provides the context which, when developed, offers the best prospect for future research. It restores the writings to their role as literature, even sacred literature, and it does not exclude theology and historical investigation. On the contrary, it sets history and theology on a firmer footing.”
The Gospels portray scenes of people speaking, often in the open air. It is a scene of oral simplicity.“Such simplicity corresponds with the simplicity suggested by oral tradition.” True, the gospels do depict scenes of simplicity far removed, most often, from the world of writing.
“However, the fact that a scene is rustic need not mean that the artist who portrays it is rustic. A film, for instance, may portray rural life but be produced in the countryside by city dwellers using highly technical methods. Likewise, the simplicity portrayed in the gospels need not indicate the way the gospels were composed.”

(The quotations are from pages 60 and 61 of The Birthing of the New Testament. Formatting is my own.) read more »


Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable

by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Brodie has shown that the theory that the Gospel narratives began as oral traditions is not founded on valid logical argument. Nonetheless, he recognizes that an idea that rests on little more than mere presumption “may still be useful as a working hypothesis.” So he proceeds to explore whether the theory of oral tradition works in New Testament studies. What follows is from Brodie’s chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament — all posts archived here.


First, here’s a chart of the arguments attempting to explain how oral tradition worked — as covered by Brodie. He covers many scholars in quick succession and it can be a bit numbing for someone wanting a quick blog read and who is unfamiliar with the topic to take it all in very easily. I use the many colourful images that have arise in the various attempts to explain how oral tradition is supposed to work:

read more »


Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester

by Neil Godfrey

My last post in this series ended with Thomas Brodie’s question:

On what basis, then, is it possible to go on claiming oral tradition?

Brodie asked this after surveying how Hermann Gunkel’s paradigm of oral tradition came to dominate biblical, and especially New Testament, studies, while at the same time pointing out the logical fallacies and cultural prejudices that served as its foundation.

This post continues with Brodie’s responses to more recent arguments attempting to shore up the case that the Gospel narratives were preceded by their counterparts in oral traditions. They are taken from chapter 6 of his book The Birthing of the New Testament. (Before doing a post like this in the past I would often take time to read for myself the scholars being discussed so I could present their arguments independently and comment on, say, Brodie’s assessment of them. Unfortunately my circumstances at the moment do not permit that — otherwise I would never get to completing this post at all. So keep in mind that what follows are my presentations of Brodie’s summaries of the arguments of others.)


W. H. Kelber

Brodie summarizes Kelber’s argument as it appears in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) as essentially saying

that ancient writing was particularly influenced by oral culture and rhythms (1992:30-31).

Brodie agrees. Ancient writing was so influenced. But he also notes that Kelber fails to take into account that all ancient writing “reflects the rhythms of oral speech.”

That does not prove that all authors depended on oral tradition; it simply means they wrote for the ear rather than the eye. (p. 55)

Recall in my previous post I paraphrased Brodie’s point here:

Ancient writing was largely governed by rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of speaking, also became the art of writing. Writing was geared to oral communication. It was composed for the ear.

In this sense all ancient literature is oral, including the Greco-Roman classics and the Bible. (p. 52)

All Kelber is identifying, then, are the signs that the gospels, like all ancient literature, are dependent upon orality with respect to their form and thought pattern. read more »


Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary

by Neil Godfrey

As signalled in a comment on my recent post on the single authorship of Genesis to 2 Kings, I have decided it best to back-track a little before continuing that series and posting a little on how oral tradition came to be a ruling paradigm among Biblical scholars and why an increasing number of scholars, especially those who study the Gospels, are coming to question whether it has any place at all in the creation of the biblical stories. This post begins to cover Thomas L. Brodie’s chapter, “Oral Tradition: Wonderfully Plausible but Radically Problematic”, in The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of New Testament Writings.


There was a time when the gospels were seen as the product of writing — of competent authors using some ancient form of pen and writing materials. It was presumed that the evangelists [i.e. gospel authors] had either been present at many of the events they described (like Matthew and John) or had received their information from authoritative sources (Mark from Peter, and Luke perhaps partly from Paul.) (p. 51, The Birthing of the New Testament, by Thomas L. Brodie)

Given that the time-gap between the events narrated and the gospels was at most fifty or sixty years, it was understood that eye-witness testimony in some form (oral or written) was available to even the latest of evangelists.

Hermann Gunkel

Enter Oral Tradition as the New Paradigm

Julius Wellhausen in 1876 made mention of oral tradition but it was Hermann Gunkel in his 1901 commentary on Genesis who

used it as a model and who thus introduced it to the center of biblical studies.

Gunkel went against the perceptions of those who had gone before by failing to see Genesis as artistic literature. Further, Gunkel implied that his model “could be applied to the life of Jesus.” (Brodie, p. 51)

In effect, he gave the twentieth century a new paradigm.

The Gospels become UNliterary

Soon the new idea of “form criticism” began to appear in New Testament studies. Wellhausen went beyond Gunkel’s implication and secured a central role for oral tradition in Jesus studies with his series of commentaries and introductions to the gospels 1905-1911. Bultmann summarized Wellhausen’s contribution:

The oldest tradition consisted almost entirely of small fragments . . . and did not present a continuous story of . . . Jesus. When these fragments were collected they were connected so as to form a continuous narrative. . . [Wellhausen] showed not only that they evangelists’ narratives . . . were secondary, but also that oral tradition was steadily producing more and more new sayings of Jesus. (Bultmann, 1926, quoted on p. 51 Birthing of the New Testament)

K. L. Schmidt introduced the model of the Gospel of Mark that has been widely embraced among scholars up to today and that has been discussed in recent posts reviewing Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

In 1919 he used Gunkel’s model to distinguish between Mark’s framework, which Schmidt reckoned came from the evangelist, and Mark’s various units, which Schmidt assigned to oral tradition . . . read more »