Category Archives: Oral Tradition


Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)

by Neil Godfrey

henautThis post continues on directly from Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1).

Barry W. Henaut is arguing that scholars have taken for granted the assumption that the Gospels drew upon oral traditions about Jesus, or sources like Q that drew upon oral traditions, for their narratives. This is not to say that Henaut argued against the historical Jesus. Not at all. I assume Henaut does not doubt the historicity of Jesus or that there were oral traditions circulating about him after his death. What he is arguing is something quite independent of (though not irrelevant to) the question of Jesus’ historicity.

He is arguing that the evidence that the Gospel narratives were derived creatively from other literary sources is stronger than the evidence that they were based on oral traditions that could be traced back to Jesus.

This post continues Henaut’s discussion of Bultmann’s view of oral tradition.

Double Attestation and Orality (continued)

Here is how Bultmann reconstructs the “Confession of Faith in Jesus” passage. Keep in mind that the saying in Mark is believed to be derived from a source that is quite independent of the one in Luke which is said to be derived from Q. What scholars/Bultmann have believed we are reading here is a double independent witness (Mark and Q) to the existence of an oral tradition about a saying of Jesus.

Because Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” in the third person it appears that he does not consider himself to be that Son of Man. But we know early Christians did believe he was the Son of Man. Therefore, it is argued, this saying derives from Jesus.

Mark 8:38

Q 12:8-9
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

Later the Gospel of Matthew will change the saying so that Jesus says, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess” so that the words of Jesus are brought into line with Christian belief that Jesus was that Son of Man.

Henaut is uncomfortable with this argument:

Bultmann has again overstated his case in assigning this logion to Jesus. The phrases [I] and [the Son of Man] need not imply a distinction of person — they are more likely in synonymous parallelism with a change of wording. (p. 36)

We see similar arguments from a number of other scholars who interpret the “Son of Man” in this context not as a Christological title derived from the Book of Daniel, but an originally Aramaic idiomatic circumlocution for “a human/person/man”. The similarity lies in seeing understanding “I” and “son of man” as being an instance of synonymous parallelism. (I think this is adding further complexity to the argument by introducing layers of other constructs, including imagined historical scenarios and lines of communication through many decades before it was put in writing, to make the saying work. Far simpler, in my mind, to imagine the author drawing upon the literary antecedent of Daniel.)

We can even witness a contemporary illustration of how such parallelism works by looking at the sayings of a follower of Jesus that were left on this blog. Like Jesus, dbg speaks modestly of himself, David Gowler, in the third person. 🙂  read more »


Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)

by Neil Godfrey

henautThat the stories and sayings of Jesus were circulating by word of mouth before the Gospels were written is generally a “fact” taken for granted today among New Testament scholars. That the first Gospel was “made up” the way other fanciful tales of miracle-working heroes were fabricated seems to be a contraband thought in mainstream New Testament studies. I recently posted an outline of Barry Henaut’s introduction to his argument that questions this assumption. Here I continue with his critique of the assumption that there must have been an oral tradition of an historical Jesus’ sayings and actions preceding the Gospels. (Caveat: By no means am I suggesting Henaut did not believe in the historical Jesus. I assume he did.)

Henaut begins with Rudolf Bultmann‘s view of oral tradition. Bultmann was one of the major influential figures in early twentieth century New Testament studies.

The Connecting Geographic Links

Bultmann believed that stories about originally consisted of disparate and brief units of anecdotes that were relayed orally.

I have never been quite sure why this proposition seems to have been so widely accepted. Surely eye-witnesses to any one event involving Jesus that was renowned enough to have found its way into a miracle story would have led to somewhat lengthy accounts of the persons and circumstances involved. Not tales so brief that their essence could be captured in a few verses.

Besides, if Jesus had followers, surely we might expect that there would have been lengthier reports of his life involving several events and moments of sayings and that the first gospel authors would have had more than tiny three-verse units to piece together.

But maybe that’s just me. Let’s continue.

The first evangelist (author of the first Gospel) was responsible for stitching these units together into a single narrative. He did so by means of introducing connecting lines referring to specific times and places. That is, the original oral story units had lost connection with their chronological place in relation to other events, and even to specific geographical locations. So the gospel-author constructed the gospel narrative out of these little blocks of stories and sayings by creatively setting them into chronological setting and sequence, and even locating them in certain places — towns, wildernesses, houses, etc.

So what does all of that mean?

It means that Bultmann believed that most of the time and place references in the gospels were “redactional” — that is, they were added by the evangelists writing the gospels. They were not part of the original oral narratives about Jesus.

Why did Bultmann believe this?

Henaut says that this belief was possible because he took two assumptions for granted:

  1. Before the gospels were written there was a period of oral tradition;
  2. During the oral phase the various traditions circulated as separate units.

But there were exceptions. For example, when Bultmann found a geographic reference in a Gospel in a location that seemed to make little literary sense and where it was not used to connect story units, he would relocate the verse to another place where it did make more sense. That is, he would argue that an apparent incongruity in the text as we have it could be explained as a distortion or corruption of an earlier oral tradition where the verse was in a different place where it did make perfect sense.

This may be getting confusing, so here’s the case study used by Henaut. Mark 3:9 (Jesus tells his disciples to prepare a boat for him) is said to be incongruous in its current location and really belongs just prior to Mark 4:1 (Jesus is in the boat teaching the crowds) —83 read more »


The Problem of Oral Tradition and the Gospels: Barry Henaut’s introduction

by Neil Godfrey

henautBarry W. Henaut argues that the scholarly belief that “an extensive oral tradition existed behind the Gospels” has been essentially taken for granted rather than argued. In Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 Henaut introduces his study with reference to what even secular historians claim they can “know” about Jesus. Historian Michael Grant in Jesus, an historian’s review of the Gospels acknowledges the “certain fact” that Jesus taught his followers to love God and love their neighbours:

[A]mong the host of Commandments Jesus singled out two as supreme, Love of God and of our neighbour. This pairing of the two ordinances in absolute priority over all other injunctions occurs elsewhere in Jewish thought after the [Hebrew Bible] and may not, therefore, be Jesus’ original invention. But the stress he laid on it was unprecedentedly vivid.

Henaut recognizes immediately that the secular historian is merely following outdated theologians in order to argue for the historical certainty of this little datum about Jesus:

What could be more Christ-like than the Golden Rule? The forcefulness of this aphorism, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, for many captures the essence of Jesus. Michael Grant seems to be engaged, not so much in the historian’s craft, but rather in stating the obvious.

But times change. A dozen years later the Jesus Seminar would overwhelmingly deem the Golden Rule an inauthentic saying.

In light of the extensive literary parallels from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism there is no way of knowing whether Jesus ever uttered this aphorism. The early Christian community had access to a variety of sources for this sentiment and may have ascribed it to Jesus at any time prior to the Gospels. What initially looked self-evident now becomes a victim of what Van A. Harvey calls the morality of historical knowledge. Grant’s presentation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The vivid presentation of Jesus in the Gospel narrative, which Grant recognizes to be a secondary composition, nevertheless has formed the basis of his reconstruction.

Grant has filtered the Gospels through the hermeneutics of C.H. Dodd and J. Jeremias, a method that is now outdated. (p. 13, my bolding)

Henaut continues. This is not just a problem for the Golden Rule. It is a paradigm for the problem with the assumption that oral tradition lies behind the Gospels in every other way, too.

What would it mean if we did allow that the Golden Rule or love of neighbour really was taught by Jesus? What would this tell us about his teaching? After all, we find the same teaching in the curricula of:

  • Tobit
  • Isocrates
  • Aristotle
  • Epictetus
  • Thomas Hobbes
    • Whatsover you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them.
  • Benedict de Spinoza
  • John Locke
  • Immanuel Kant
  • John Stuart Mill
    • To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

Was Jesus more like a first-century Aristotle, Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill?

What’s worse, the Golden Rule can scarcely be found among any two of its many different exponents in exactly the same wording. Differences of wording have been attributed to faulty memories struggling to pass on oral traditions. Does oral tradition account for the differences in wording among the above?

Is not literary transmission meant to enable fixed forms of a saying through the generations? If so, why are there so many variant forms of the saying? Had Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant and Mill never encountered the saying in literature before?

Henaut’s book is a revised edition of his doctoral dissertation that was accepted at the University of Toronto in 1991. In it he argues what probably many of us have half-guessed at some time or other — that it is impossible to ascribe any saying to any particular individual, including Jesus, of a pre-textual era.

The very “communal, anonymous and changeable nature of [the oral] medium makes it impossible to trace a tradition’s history through this [oral] transmission.


It is impossible to exclude some kind of literary relationship among . . . various strands of [Jesus sayings] tradition despite the fact that most scholars believe them to be independent.

Ascribing any saying to Jesus is exactly like ascribing to him the Golden Rule. Such reconstructions arise more from the assumptions of the exegete and an uncritical adoption of the post-resurrectional Gospel narratives than from an informed knowledge of the oral medium. (p. 15)

Why we ASSUME the Gospels drew upon oral tradition read more »


What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

by Neil Godfrey
Witnesses of the Resurrection

Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

The most solid argument I have read about what the word in Luke 1:2 translated as “eyewitnesses” actually means is by John N. Collins: see the post What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? Collins presents a cogent argument that the word really means officials who have the responsibility for the writings/library of the community: it is their job to assess and preserve the authenticity of the documents entrusted to them — they are “specially authorized guarantors of the traditions.”

But in this post I am backtracking and working from the assumption that the word does convey the idea of one who sees firsthand some event. What I am saying here is this: What if the word really did express the idea of a witness? What does such a witness mean for Luke?

Norman Perrin answered this question nearly forty years ago in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.

Firstly, Perrin begins by reminding modern readers that they must leave behind their modern conceptions and make an effort to enter the world of the biblical authors. Get out of your heads any modern notion of what the word “eyewitness” means to us today who are familiar with the concept from our newspaper reports and court proceedings:

If we resolutely ban from our minds . . . what a modern writer would mean by an ‘eyewitness’ and ask ourselves what Luke meant by the expression . . . . (p. 27)

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: read more »


Why did Paul need to write letters?

by Neil Godfrey

Another provocative (and thought-provoking) Carr-ism, this one recently posted as a comment on Questioning Paul’s Letters. . . .

But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence.

Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.

But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.

And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Comment by Steven Carr — 2013/03/20 @ 7:53 am


The assumption of orality behind written texts

by Neil Godfrey

Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest: 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 »


Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology

by Tim Widowfield

Some like it in the pot, nine days old

Over the past several weeks, real life got in the way of blogging. I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say writing Java and Ruby all day turns my brain into so much porridge.


Oatmeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speaking of porridge, that reminds me of a story. Back in the late ’70s when I was attending language school at the Presidio of Monterey, I asked one of my instructors:

“Gospozha Kartsova, what does English sound like to a native Russian speaker?”



“It sounds like someone eating oatmeal.”

Through a lens, darkly

Humans in any culture tend to see things from their own perspective. Those of us in the English-speaking world perceive the world through an Anglo-American lens. Our news sources are based in the English-speaking world, produced by people who were raised and educated in the UK, the Commonwealth, or the US. It rarely crosses our minds that to someone in another culture, all of our self-righteous babbling might sound “like someone eating oatmeal.”

While I could easily take this thought-train down a geopolitical track, what concerns me at the moment is recent Biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world. For the past century and a half, when radically new methods for understanding the Bible emerged, they almost always arose first on the European continent, chiefly among German intellectuals.

Conversely, Anglo-American scholars have, for the most part, provided a traditional, conservative counterbalance. For the purposes of our discussion, it doesn’t matter which side is wrong or right; the point here is that in the English-speaking world, students as well as interested laymen have typically witnessed the rise of new methodologies through a porridge-smeared lens.

Learning Marxism from von Mises

Referring to English and American scholars simply as a countervailing force glosses over the open hostility frequently demonstrated by conservatives who viewed scholars like Bultmann as a threat to Christianity. And sadly, many of today’s Anglo-American scholars learned at the feet of these petulant pedagogues. They gained their understanding of form criticism and redaction criticism not from reading Bultmann, Dibelius, Marxsen et al., but by learning the accepted critique. They learned to debunk it before they could thunk it.

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 »


Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

by Neil Godfrey
A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...

Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: read more »


The origin of the ‘Oral Tradition’ hypothesis

by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Thompson has hit the nail on the head when he explains why “historians” of the Bible place so much emphasis on oral tradition. Oral tradition, of course, is not a fact. That it existed cannot be verified. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, or really more an assumption of necessity than a hypothesis. And the necessity is the trap that scholars have built for themselves by assuming — the great unquestionable assumption — that the gospels ultimately get their stories from some historical events and persons.

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus, we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for . . . . The problem with using the far from ideal gospels as sources for history has attracted great attention to oral tradition.

And the necessity for these oral traditions?

They could help, however, in bridging the considerable gap between the time in which the gospels were written and that earlier time in which they set Jesus.

Enter the Gospel of the Gaps

Before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, this oral source for the sayings common to Matthew and Luke (Q) was defined by the striking similarity of Jesus’ sayings in a fourth-century translation reawakened these old speculations about Q. . . . [This Gospel of Thomas was] corroborating evidence for an oral tradition of sayings [that] supported the hope that a comparison of Q with Thomas could help in distinguishing earlier from later sayings. If the sayings in Thomas are earlier than the gospels, scholars would be closer to identifying the earliest of them as Jesus’ own.


Necessity, once more, was the mother of invention. Even though the Greek original of the Gospel of Thomas could hardly have been earlier than the second century, the similarities of the sayings in Thomas to Q have seduced many. Thomas can fill the gap separating a historical Jesus from the earliest of the gospels and therefore it does.

Leaving Thompson aside for a moment, Nicholas Perrin’s book (sorry April DeConick), Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (link is to Google books) points to many word plays and various Syrian literary linking details that set the work apart as a literary, hardly an oral, creation.

The unlikely assumption (again)

This accepts the unlikely assumption that the sayings from Thomas were based on an oral tradition, rather than on the known gospels or on a tradition harmonizing them.

Thompson then alludes to Crossan’s and others’ efforts to distinguish the wisdom sayings from the apocalyptic ones. The idea of this distinction has been to identify the sayings of a wisdom ‘historical’ teacher from a later layer of apocalyptic sayings introduced subsequently by followers. Thompson rejects this distinction and argues (from a range of Jewish scriptures and other Middle Eastern sayings) that the apocalyptic and wisdom motifs as a rule went hand in hand throughout the centuries.

So why the conjuring up of oral tradition?

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. The projected function of the sayings of Q and Thomas as oral sayings is to link the gospels with their text’s heroic teacher.

What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?

If, instead of Q and the collections of sayings in Thomas, we were to consider actually existing Jewish collections and sayings, such as the proverbs of Solomon, the songs of David or the laws of Moses, would we also conclude that such sayings originated with the figure to which the Bible attributes them? . . . . Such collections tell us nothing about a historical Solomon, David or Moses — not even whether they existed.

There is much more, of course. I’ve just hit a few salient points for a quick read on a blog.

Thompson’s book does not attempt to cover all that needs to be covered. He makes it clear that his goal is to demonstrate, in response to the historical Jesus research of Schweitzer and Crossan, that the sayings of Jesus can potentially derive from a far deeper pool of known literature than “fictive texts like Q”.

Unfortunately his work lacks the detail required to settle the question. But it is a provocative starter. Hopefully he will publish more to begin to flesh out some of the possibilities in detail.

The above quotations are from chapter one of Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.



The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,

were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)

So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.

BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:

How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.

From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146

There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.

Problems: read more »