Category Archives: Oral Tradition


2016-06-12

The Motiveless Behavior of Fairy-Tale Characters

by Tim Widowfield
A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In true stories, as well as most conventional fiction, when characters move about, do things, say things, and interact with one another or with their environments, they operate logically. That is, we understand their motivations. The chicken crosses the road not simply to get to the other side, but because she wanted something over there.

Motiveless motion

On the other hand, characters in fairy tales operate differently. They don’t act like real people. In their book, Social Memory: New Perspectives on the Past, James Fentress and Chris Wickham explain that within folk tales (of which fairy tales are a subset), everything follows convention — the setting, the plot, the characters — all of it must follow the formula. And so people do things that in real life would raise serious questions. However, in their fairy-tale setting, we suspend disbelief.

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, the mother does not ask how and why she has become pregnant, nor how or why she is to die in giving birth. Similarly, there is no particular reason why Ann-Marie gathers her brother’s bones and buries them under the juniper tree; she just does so. The father is given no personality at all; he merely serves to accomplish the thematic business of eating the ‘beast’.

This motivelessness is typical. The behaviour of fairy-tale characters is governed by a set of themes which specifies the way in which a particular series of actions must be performed, and it is this thematic logic, rather than a character’s psychology, that is frequently behind the character’s action. Even though there is nothing in the story that gives Ann-Marie reason to know this, she must bury her brother’s bones at the foot of the tree that marks his mother’s grave because this is the way the particular narrative motif works. Unless the bones of the slaughtered beast are gathered in its ‘skin’ and placed beside its mother, it cannot be resuscitated. (Fentriss and Wickham, 1992, p. 65, emphasis mine)

Essentially, in these stories people serve functional purposes. As the authors put it, they are “embodied functions.” In fact we would be committing a categorical mistake if we focused on their psychological motivations. It’s much the same in the stories we read in the gospels. Consider the tale of the disciples walking through the wheat fields, deciding on the spur of the moment to eat some of the grain. read more »


2014-12-30

Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions

by Neil Godfrey

jesus_disciples_iconIt’s easier for me to address these thoughts posted as a comment to my previous post with a new post here.

I’ll try to take a crack at it. I’m not saying I agree with all of the following, but I think it’s essentially how we got here.

How we got here (i.e. to the conclusion that oral tradition is the necessary and best explanation for the source material of the Gospels) or how we rationalize our assumption? The Gospels-Acts narrative itself leads us to expect an oral tradition between Jesus and the gospels — we are led to picture evangelist and apostolic activity as well as ordinary church members spreading the word — so I suspect oral tradition is a default assumption.

Now it is important, of course, to find evidence in the support of any hypothesis like this and your following list reminds me of several of the supporting arguments used to support it.

But without wanting to sound like a nefarious “hyper-sceptic” it is also my understanding that good method requires us to seriously evaluate counter-evidence, too. How does one raise this question without sounding like some nihilistic anti-god anti-Christ atheist who hates Christianity and everything that is good and decent in the world, all sound critical biblical scholarship and wants to see every religion wiped off the face of the earth?

I am an atheist but like Tamas Pataki I don’t know if eliminating religion would really make the world a better place any more than eradicating all insect pests would really be in humanity’s best interests. Moreover, I can’t imagine how establishing that there really were oral traditions between a Jesus event and the written gospels would make the slightest difference to me personally. I would want to learn and know more about them if we had some basis for establishing their existence.

I will omit the “must’ve” argument that tries to explain away the decades between the historical Jesus and the first gospel. Since scholars assume the HJ and they concede that the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses much later and in a different language, they conclude that the traditions “must’ve” floated around, passed on orally for many years. That’s a circular argument at best. At worst, it’s a deus ex machina that rescues the gospels from their suspicious circumstances.

Yep, that’s the nagging doubt that obliges one to raise the question (without being a “hyper-sceptic”.) read more »


2014-12-29

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 »


2014-11-30

The Memory Mavens, Part 2: A Case Study at Ellis Island

by Tim Widowfield

Legends that stick

Some myths have extraordinary staying power. Because modern media causes us to believe we’re witnesses to real events, we often reject good evidence that disproves what we think we saw and heard personally. I grew up thinking that the embarrassing mistakes Kermit Schaefer presented on his record albums were completely authentic. We all rolled on the floor laughing as we listened to cuts from Pardon My Blooper, but what my family and I didn’t know was that if Schaefer couldn’t obtain the actual recordings, he’d pay actors to recreate them.

“Goodnight, little friends, goodnight.”

Lots of people still think they know Uncle Don referred to his audience as “little bastards” over an open microphone. Even after you tell them that Schaefer forged the recording (with no warnings on the record, by the way), and even after you show them evidence that it never happened, they’re just so sure of their memories, they can’t quite believe it.

There’s something about hearing it on the radio or on a recording, or seeing it on television or in a movie that makes us complicit in the social memory of an event. We don’t think of the event as something “out there” in the past, but rather something we’re part of. In a sense, the event is part of us. So, for example, even a fictional story like The Godfather can become part of the fabric of our memory, especially the cultural memories of place and time: namely, the United States in the early 20th century.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Half of a stereo card) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“They changed our name.”

In The Godfather II, we learn that Vito Corleone’s real surname is Andolini, but that the workers processing immigrants at Ellis Island mistook his home town for his last name and made Andolini his middle name. In the public’s mind these sorts of mistakes went on all the time. Sometimes, it turns out, they just bungled the transcription, and people had to live with their new, misspelled names. Worse than that, sometimes, perhaps many times, those faceless bureaucrats would force immigrants who had strange names to change them to something that sounded more “American.”

Yet, despite the widespread belief in such events, it’s all a myth. In fact, in the novel Vito Corleone deliberately changed his own name. And in real life, we know immigrants were not given new names at Ellis Island. The workers who processed immigrants simply took the names from the ship manifests (usually compiled at the port of embarkation) and transcribed them. They had no authority to modify what they found on the manifests, and they would not have had any incentive to do so.

Nor were they confused by the foreign languages of the incoming passengers. Most of them could speak and read those languages (Italian, German, Polish, etc.), or they could rely on translators standing nearby to help them.

Family memories

This social memory of Ellis Island as a place where heartless government administrators arbitrarily Americanized people’s names corresponds to the family memories of many next-generation ethnic Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Czechs, etc., who learned early on that their name in the Old Country was one thing, but upon arrival, “They changed our name.” Sometimes the new name began with the same letter, but was Anglicized. Or sometimes it was simply translated. So, perhaps Wallechinsky became Wallace or Schmidt became Smith.

read more »


2014-11-27

The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

by Tim Widowfield
Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

read more »


2014-09-26

Is the Gospel of Mark’s Syntax Evidence of Oral Tradition?

by Neil Godfrey

I’m posting here just one more detail from Barry Henaut’s disagreement with Werner Kelber’s argument that our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, originated as an attempt to capture stories that came to the author via oral traditions. After this we will dive more deeply into the question of oral traditions being the source of the canonical narratives. All posts in this series are archived here.

Connectives

Kelber confidently assures us that there can be little doubt that oral heritage lies behind the short stories that are stitched together in the first thirteen chapters of Mark to give us a life of Jesus.

The many stories are linked together by stereotypical connective devices: 

  • pleonastic archesthai [=began] with infinitive verbs, preferably of action (2.23; 6.7; 11:15, etc. [=’began to make their way’; ‘began to send forth’; ‘began to cast out’]) and speaking (1:45; 8:31; 14:69; etc. [=’began to proclaim’; ‘began to teach’; ‘began to say’]),
  • the adverbial euthys and kai euthys (1:29; 3:6; 6:54; etc. [=’immediately’, ‘and immediately’]),
  • the iterative palin and kai palin [=’again’, ‘and again’], preferably with verbs of movement (2:1; 7:31; 14:40; etc.) and speaking (4:1; 10:1, 10; etc.),
  • the formulaic kai ginetai or kai egeneto [=’and it came to pass’] (1:9; 2:15, 23; etc.), and abundant use of paratactic kai [=’and’] (9:2; 11:20; 15:42; etc.).

These connectives are for the most part derived from the oral repertoire of the gospel’s primary building blocks. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 65, formatting and bolding mine in all quotes)

These connectives serve to link the different stories into a chronological sequence and build a sense of urgency as the narrative proceeds. read more »


2014-09-25

Jesus the Oral Performer: Questioning an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey
jesusWriting

Henaut credits Crossan for his fascinating interpretation of Jesus writing in the dust.

All four canonical gospels . . . supply us with the general picture of Jesus as speaker of authoritative and often disturbing words, and not as reader, writer, or head of a school tradition. Insofar as he is featured as a prophetic speaker and eschatological teacher, moving from one place to another, surrounded by listeners and engaged in debate, the gospels will have retained a genuine aspect of the oral performer. His message and his person are inextricably tied to the spoken word, not to texts. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 18)

Werner Kelber’s views aroused a “scholarly sensation” when they were published in the 1980s but Barry Henaut, in undertaking his doctoral dissertation a decade later, found them to be based on an error. 

Kelber had argued that the words of Jesus that were carried on through oral tradition before the gospels came to be written were memorized because they made such a powerful impression (“on friend and foe alike”) when first spoken.

It could be said that the impact Jesus made on friends and foes alike was to no small degree due to his choice and implementation of the oral medium. Spoken words breathe life, drawing their strength from sound. They carry a sense of presence, intensity, and instantaneousness that writing fails to convey. . . . Moreover, sounded words emanate from one person and resonate in another, moving along the flow and ebb of human life. They address hearers directly and engage them personally in a manner unattainable by the written medium. One can well imagine Jesus’ words interacting with people and their lives, and enacting presence amidst hearers. . . .

The beginnings of what came to be the Christian tradition undoubtedly go back to Jesus’ own speaking. He sought out people because he had something to say, and part of what he said and did will already have been passed on during his lifetime. (Kelber, pp. 18-20)

The rhetoric troubles Henaut: read more »


2014-09-21

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)

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I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. read more »


2014-04-07

Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

by Tim Widowfield
An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...

“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
read more »


2014-04-06

Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1This post continues with the series on Barry W. Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels, a critique of the assumption that oral traditions lie behind the gospel narratives. I have added to Henaut’s case more extensive quotations from works he is criticizing so we can have a better appreciation of both sides of the question.

Oral Clustering and Literary Texts

Kelber argues (rightly) that a hallmark of oral style is the clustering of genres, the sort of thing we can see in the Gospel of Mark where we have clusters of miracle stories together (2.1-3.6), clusters of parables (4.1-37), apophthegmatic controversy stories (11.27-12.37) and logoi (sayings) (13.1-37).

This sounds logical enough, and Kelber points to studies by W. J. Ong, E. Havelock and A. B. Lord (links are to the relevant works online or information about the works) to establish his point that oral communicators tend to group similar types of material for easier recall.

But such oral grouping of sayings brings with it a casualty when an author attempts to put it all in writing. An easy flowing chronological tale is easily lost. This is what lies behind the monotonous use of “and” (kai) in Mark as tale after tale is strung together with little carefully arranged narrative structure (so argues Kelber). It also explains

  • the preference in the text for direct speech;
  • the dominance of the historical present;
  • the lack of ‘artistically reflected prose’;
  • the incomplete characterization of Jesus;
  • the way the narrative is little more than a simple series of events;
  • the preference for the concrete over the abstract.

Kelber classifies the various stories in the Gospel of Mark into Heroic Tales, Polarization Stories and Didactic Stories. The distinctive patterns in each of these types, and the way these types are clustered together, he argues, testifies to them being derived from oral sources.

read more »


2014-04-05

Oral Tradition Taken for Granted (continued)

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1Let’s continue with this series that I left hanging nearly a year ago now. . . .

We’re looking at the way oral tradition has been assumed to lie behind many of the Gospel narratives about Jesus and at the arguments that have been marshaled to support that assumption. We are basing these posts upon the published version of a the doctoral thesis by Barry W. Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4.

The last post in the series finished with:

To the one who has ears, Hear!

Ancient literature was mostly written to be read aloud for the ear.

Rabbis apparently even opposed silent reading since hearing the sounds of the words was thought to aid memory and guard against distortions of meaning.

But this raises a problem for the models of faithful oral transmission.

If ancient literature was primarily a medium for the ear, and the authors of this literature constructed their texts to appeal to the ear, then how can we be sure that what they are writing is the original word that has come down to them? Or what hope have we of knowing that at no point of the oral transmission did someone change the original words to make the idea more palatable to the ear?

We move on now to Henaut’s discussion of another landmark scholar in the field of oral vis à vis textual gospel studies, Werner Kelber. Kelber raised serious questions about the models that had been proposed by Bultmann and Gerhardsson who were discussed in the earlier posts. (Bultmann and Gerhardsson had argued that sayings of Jesus had a particular Sitz im Leben (each saying had its own particular social setting) and that communities were repositories of oral traditions and safeguarding their long-term consistency. read more »


2014-02-17

What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

by Tim Widowfield
What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

Social-Scientific Criticism

In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:

Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)

Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:

The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)

Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:

The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)

Useful but misused

I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.

However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:

read more »


2013-08-31

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 1 (“We need a gentle funeral”)

by Neil Godfrey

brodie2.

Chapter 12

The Funeral: ‘Oral Tradition’ And Its World

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Chapter 12 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Thomas Brodie addresses the problems Brodie came to see with oral tradition as an explanation for Gospel sources.

I have covered Brodie’s arguments on oral tradition in depth here (see Two Core Problems with the four links there), and have yet to do more posts on the detailed work of Barry Henaut. So this post will survey primarily what led Brodie to raise the questions he did.

I recently posted on Robert Alter’s description of literary artistry in Genesis. It was Robert Alter, in the same book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, whom Brodie credits with “waking him up”. Alter was reading an attempt by Robert Culley to demonstrate that the variations in the Hebrew Biblical narratives might be understood through the variants that appear in oral storytelling among peoples of West Indies and Africa. On the contrary, however, Alter noticed that Culley’s presentation of the Hebrew narrative variants were not at all random as the oral tradition thesis would predict. No, when in Genesis we read what seems to be the same narrative being told several times about different people, or even about the same person in different circumstances. What we are reading are predictable type-scenes, not unlike some of the repetitions we read in Homer that adhere to fixed patterns (though in Homer the conventions applied more to rituals of daily existence while in the Bible they are applied to crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes.)

Walter-ong

Walter Ong

I grinned when I read that Brodie even went out of his way to meet personally Walter Ong, a scholar who published much on orality, because in my own early days of wanting to understand what lay behind the New Testament I myself traveled especially to dig out and copy many articles on orality by Ong.

What Brodie learned was that

even writing, for most of its history, resonated with orality. All ancient writing, until the eighteenth century, reflected orality or oral rhythms; it was aural, geared to the ear, to being heard — unlike modern writing, geared primarily to the eye. Virgil’s epic was highly crafted and a distillation of earlier literature, but it was saturated with orality; it was geared to oral communication , to being heard, and in fact it was being read aloud in Augustus’s imperial court before it was complete. But such orality was still not oral tradition, not oral transmission, it was simply a quality of ancient writing. (pp. 115-116)

“Studying non-literate tribes did not help”

How does one deduce from a piece of writing that it is based on oral transmission? Studies have been made into variations of oral transmission among non-literate tribes and into the variations that have arisen through rabbinic methods of memorization. The fact is (as Fitzmyer published in relation to the rabbinic variants) that these variations are not the sorts of variants we find in the Gospels. They do not account for the Gospel data.

“Gunkel’s influence has been massive”

read more »


2013-06-16

Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition

by Neil Godfrey

How did the Gospel authors learn about Jesus? They are generally thought to have only begun writing forty years after the death of Jesus — from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple around the conclusion of the Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73 CE. Historical Jesus scholars have (reasonably) assumed that that gap of forty years was filled mostly by followers of Jesus, and followers of those followers, passing on the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. With this chain of “oral tradition” securing the events of Jesus to the gospels we can have some confidence that what we read in Mark, Matthew, Luke (and some would say even John) has some real connection to what historically happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the time of the governorship of Pilate.

However, scholars need more than assumption. They need evidence. So how can one have evidence of the contents of conversations that people relayed by word of mouth to each other many generations ago? The answer is in the way the words came together in the earliest gospel narratives.

  • Do they betray traces of the way people naturally speak compared with the way they write more formal or literary prose?
  • Are the gospels themselves, or at least the supposed earliest gospel, Mark, quite “unliterary” and clearly a crude compilation of oral reports?
  • By comparing the other gospels with Mark can scholars see patterns of how stories were modified and extrapolate back to how they must have changed during the oral transmission process?

Can modern historians (e.g. Jan Vansina) who specialize in oral histories of African peoples help us out here? What about scholars who study the oral transmission of epic tales told among the Balkan peoples? Does research into the psychology of memory help us out? Can we combine these studies with new philosophical approaches to the nature of history and “evidence” to write a valid history of Jesus?

Much work has been done by New Testament scholars exploring all of the above pathways in their efforts to arrive at what Jesus “probably” or “plausibly” did and said. Through such processes many scholars have concluded that the parables of Jesus are the most “certainly” indicative of Jesus’ original teachings.

Meanwhile, Doctor Doubting Thomas is kept waiting outside.

Several scholars have published studies that argue the gospel narratives are based upon other literary stories, especially others found in the Old Testament. Some have even challenged those arguments that claimed to have found evidence of orality in the gospels. One of these, Barry W. Henaut, has argued that even the parables of Jesus as told in the oldest gospel, Mark, are more certainly derived not from oral tradition but are indeed literary creations of the author.

In Oral Tradition and the Gospels Henaut has investigated the arguments that the narratives and saying of Jesus in the gospels are derived from oral tradition and found them to be all based on questionable assumptions. A closer look actually indicates that the same evidence is more validly a sign that the gospel writings are indeed literary creations and not attempts to document or edit oral reports.

The previous post in this series concluded with questioning the arguments of Bultmann and form critics that presupposed “oral tradition” as the source of Gospel narratives about Jesus.

This post looks critically at the oral tradition arguments of one of the more significant critiques of form criticism, the “Memory and Manuscript” school of Harald Riesenfeld (English translation) and his pupil Birger Gerhardsson. These Swedish scholars looked to the processes of transmission apparent within rabbinic Judaism as the model for oral transmission of the words and sayings of Jesus.

Since there were indications that the Jewish rabbis passed on certain teachings by means of oral tradition until these were put in writing around 200 CE (the Mishnah), was it fair to suggest that the teachings of Jesus were passed on in a similar way by his disciples?

Yes, if the portrayal of the apostles in Acts 6:2 is reliable. There the apostles are said to be primarily responsible for preaching and teaching. And the earliest messages they are depicted as giving are outlines of the life of Jesus.

Besides, Paul’s letters can be read as if they are alluding indirectly to the sayings of Jesus. Scholars have read them as if they assume a knowledge of the teachings and deeds of Jesus that must have been passed on by oral tradition. And does not Paul speak of doctrines being “received”? What else can this mean other than oral transmission?

Harald Riesenfeld

Harald Riesenfeld

The rabbis, Riesenfeld pointed out, likewise orally transmitted teachings. They did so within a controlled process, however. A leading rabbi had the supervisory function of this transmission. The words passed on and remembered were rigidly controlled. Pupils who were invited to share this privilege were especially approved. Pearls were not entrusted to any old swine who snorted an interest. The whole process was formally controlled by rabbinic supervisors and pupils who had proven themselves reliable to ensure that not “one iota of the tradition” would be lost.

This was surely the model behind the apostolic teaching in Acts 6:2 and that formed the background to Paul’s letters.

Hence the Gospel tradition was not shaped by an unlimited and anonymous multitude, but transmitted by an exactly defined group within the community. (Riesenfeld, Gospel Tradition, p. 16)

We have seen the resurgence of a similar model of oral tradition behind the Gospels more recently with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. (That link is to my own posts addressing Bauckham’s book.)

Jan Vansina strikes again read more »