Tag Archives: Rudolf Bultmann

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”

Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.

♦ The context of transmission

Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:

[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.

In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.

Ehrman appears to understand that context quite well. For example, he writes: read more »

What Do They Mean by “No Quest”?

Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazed and confused

As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.

This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”

Miffed scholars

Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.

Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?

A “No Quest” period?

First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:

[Schweitzer’s] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)

“Just not true”

Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (downloadable PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:

read more »

How Can We Know If the Jesus Narratives Are Memories Or Inventions? (Revised)

Anthony Le Donne has written a book that I find is both chock-full of many fascinating nuggets in the Gospel narratives and riddled with startling revelations (if only discerned between the lines) about the foundations of “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (This post does not address Le Donne’s main thesis. I have addressed core aspects of that in Searching for a Good Fantasy, though I would like to explore his thesis in more depth in a future post. Here I focus on Le Donne’s foundations for believing there was anything historical at all in the Gospels.) I say “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies in preference to “Historical Jesus” studies for several reasons, one of which is that the term “Historical Jesus” presumes that there was an “historical Jesus” to study.

Historical origins of the icon we call “Jesus”

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...Further, I believe the question of “the historical Jesus” is fundamentally an ideological or dogmatic expression. Its meaning derives from the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity — that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus. After two millennia of Christian heritage the concept of “Jesus” has come to transcend religiosity and become a cultural icon advocating hosts of idealistic aphorisms. The true question for the historian, then, ought to be concerned with how to explain the origin of Christianity. That includes explaining the origin of its Jesus. If the best explanation leads us to an historical Jesus, then, and only then, will we have a valid rationale for attempting to explore such a figure.

Bultmann’s test for insanity

Readers who find the above line of reasoning far too radical to swallow can find solace in Rudolf Bultmann’s words quoted by Anthony Le Donne:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. (Bultmann, Jesus, 13. Cited in Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus, p. 36)

Bultmann is surely being deliberately provocative here, since in his own day there were several very intelligent (and far from insane) scholarly persons (e.g. Georg Brandes, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, and several notable others) questioning the authenticity of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged. (Robert M. Price has, if I recall correctly, even suggested that Bultmann was cornered into making such “protesteth too much” denunciations because some readers were inferring the non-historicity of Jesus from his own studies.) Theologians have since found a place in George Orwell’s dark visions as the guardians of correct thought who declare insane (or misfits of some variety) any lesser life-forms who question the historicity of Jesus.

Soviet asylum for the insane, that is, for those who expressed incorrect doubts.

“Unfounded and not worthy of refutation”?

Now I could well understand someone saying that doubt as to whether Augustus Caesar really existed is “unfounded”. I would baulk at going so far as to saying it is “not worth refutation”, however. Surely any doubt is worth a valid refutation. Scholars don’t want to isolate themselves into exalted ivory towers out of touch with ordinary folk, do they? If ordinary folk are hearing rumours that Augustus Caesar did not exist, but was a conspiratorial invention of Latin school teachers or whatever, or if they are hearing Intelligent Design advocates arguing that evolution is not true, then I am sure scholars would be happy to open up and spill out all the evidence to reassure them otherwise. In the case of Augustus Caesar they could point to

  • primary evidence (real physical remains testifying to be from the actual time of that Caesar),
  • the secondary evidence of surviving historians whose claims are in varying degrees of validity supported by their record of verifiable identity and provenance,
  • the independently established genre of the above records and what this, on probabilities, indicates about the intent of the authors,
  • the clearly established independence of these sources from one another,
  • the overwhelming explanatory power of all of the above for the events that clearly followed.

Or let’s take a more lowly figure like Socrates who left no monumental evidence. We have relatively strong evidence for his historical existence as a real person, too:

  • Independent testimonies from people who appear to have known him personally (followers Plato, Xenophon) or at least knew of him in their generation (satirist Aristophanes),
  • and about whom we know enough to appreciate
    • their reasons for wanting to write about Socrates
    • and their ability to know anything about him,
  • and whose works/testimonies are in the form of genres not inconsistent with an interest in relaying historical realities.

The evidence for Socrates is far from iron-clad proof but it is enough satisfy most, even those of us who are mindful of the way genres can be turned inside-out in order to write a spoof or otherwise deliberately deceive readers. At the same time one can find reasonable grounds for at least asking if it is possible that Socrates was nothing more than a literary figure. So if doubts about the historical existence of the person Jesus are indeed “unfounded” as Bultmann said, what are the foundations for his existence?

How can we know?

The closest Anthony Le Donne comes to addressing that question directly is when he asks of Gospel narratives:

Does the story have an origin in perception or invention?

That is, are we reading in the Gospels stories that originated in the perceptions of certain eye-witnesses and that were filtered through other ideas, values, beliefs, biases of some of those witnesses, and that were then transmitted through others who also had their own filtering biases and interests? Or are we reading in the Gospels stories that an author or his source completely made up? read more »

The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Right for the wrong reasons

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil’s review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (10)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 10: How Matthew and Luke changed Mark

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew
(The evangelist prepares for the final cut.)
Jan de Beer (c.1530-1535)

Five months have passed since my previous post on The Messianic Secret. In the interim, I have focused on material related to the genre of the gospels, which has consumed most of my attention.

Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.

Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.

Reading Sanders and Goodacre (again) helped change my perspective on the problem. And as luck would have it, reading Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature as well as the later chapters of The Messianic Secret forced me to re-evaluate those thorny questions.

Synoptic questions

The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:

  1. Who copied whom?
  2. Who changed what?
  3. Why did they change it?

In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?

Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”

A primary question will then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.(p. 152)

He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)

In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.

read more »

Brodie’s Argument that Jesus Never Existed

I was sitting with Everard Johnston, Lecturer in scriptures and dogma, at his house in Picton Street, Port of Spain, discussing the manuscript. By then his young wife, June, had gone to bed, and amid the sounds of the tropical night we sipped rum and coke as I tried to explain the basic idea of rewriting.

I handed him page 128 on connections between 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament.

He took his time perusing it, then he put it down, muttering, ‘In the same order . . . the same order apart from minor modifications’.

We turned to the gospels, discussing the extent to which they too are a product of the rewriting. Suddenly he said, ‘So we’re back to Bultmann. We know nothing about Jesus.’

I paused a moment.

‘It’s worse than that’.

There was a silence.

Then he said, ‘He never existed’.

I nodded.

There was another silence, a long one, and then he nodded gently, ‘It makes sense’. 

(pp. 35-36 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, T. L. Brodie)

Brodie does not make an explicit connection in any of his earlier publications on the relationship between the literary origins of the New Testament writings and the question of the historicity of Jesus. Most of his earlier books explored the literary structures of the Gospels and some of the epistles. Brodie was especially struck by the way the Gospel authors not only seemed to borrow so heavily from the Old Testament but also appeared to be re-writing of so much of those Jewish scriptures. In 1980 an exchange with Joseph Fitzmyer led Brodie to broaden his scope by investigating the wider literary practices of the early Christian era and to see if such borrowing and re-writing was a known feature of the literary customs of the day. (Didn’t someone recently write a review claiming that Brodie never listened to advice?) read more »

Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition

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 »

Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)

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)

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 Genre of the Gospels: How the Consensus Changed (Part 9)

Part 9: “A searching critical blitz of the Schmidt hypothesis”

London Library after the Blitz

London Library after the Blitz

The previous post in this series began a critical analysis of an essay by John C. Meagher, delivered at the Colloquy on New Testament Studies back in 1980, before such well-known figures in the New Testament world as Charles H. Talbert, Vernon K. Robbins, and William R. Farmer. This post continues with Meagher’s “searching critical blitz”* of what most scholars believe is Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s hypothesis.

What Meagher got right

Some of Meagher’s criticisms of Schmidt’s views on the gospels were correct. Schmidt sometimes displayed far too much naive optimism when it came to the fidelity of the evangelists (and the tradents they followed) to the Jesus tradition. It is quite clear that each evangelist altered the tradition to fit specific theological views. Thus, Meagher was right in criticizing Schmidt for asserting that the gospels have a certain intrinsic reliability simply by virtue of their genesis as folk books. He summed up Schmidt’s views in Colloquoy on New Testament Studies:

The content of the gospels was brought to the brink of compilation by a transmissional tradition graced by “the fidelity to the material which characterizes all popular tradition” and it is this that assures its reliability — “that the people as community became bearer and creator of the tradition makes its content reliable.” (p. 207, quoting Schmidt in The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, emphasis mine)

While we may correctly view Schmidt’s comments as overly optimistic at times, we should also point out that at other times during his analysis in The Place of the Gospels, he is careful, rational, and properly skeptical.

What Meagher got wrong

However, on the whole, Meagher’s attack on the Schmidt hypothesis fails, because he — for whatever reason — was convinced that Schmidt believed that the gospels were utterly unique, and therefore any investigation into analogous works would be a waste of time because:

. . . the unprecedentedness is of the essence and that the possible analogues can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument. (Colloquy, p 213)

Here is the point at which Meagher went astray. He showed abundant familiarity with Schmidt’s work, as found in the German edition of The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature and in Twentieth-Century Theology in the Making (Harper, 1971). Meagher peppered his essay with footnotes and many quotes from both works. Hence it is all the more strange that he continually missed the clear evidence that Schmidt, in fact, did not think that “possible analogues [of the gospels] can only be misleading as an interpretive instrument.”

On the contrary, in Part Two of The Place of the Gospels, which spans 60 pages and examines 12 different literary examples as analogs to the gospels, Schmidt explained the purpose of the section in his introduction by affirming that “analogy is the only sensible and productive method.” (p. 27)

Meagher found Schmidt’s rejection of possible analogs (despite what Schmidt actually wrote) unwise and untenable. Moreover, it was unproductive. In other words, because scholars following Schmidt had thought the gospels were unique and that comparing them to other works would be fruitless, they had focused only on those four canonical books themselves. In Meagher’s words:

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John’s Wedding at Cana — Chronicle or Parable?

The Wedding at Cana (1820)

The Wedding at Cana (1820) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Gospel without Parables?

We all know the standard line: the synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus’ ministry heavily relied on parables, while the Fourth Gospel contains none. It’s a striking conundrum. However, for a long time now I’ve been considering the possibility that John is itself entirely a parable gospel.

That is to say, each pericope may stand primarily as an allegorical story, regardless of whether it is based on historical events. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine, for example, seems to contain so many obvious references — narrative points and objects that have direct theological allusions — that resemble the parables in the other gospels.

Rudolf Bultmann in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971, pp. 114-121) counsels us not to overstate the significance of the water as referring to baptism, blood, or the new covenant. On the other hand, F.F. Bruce writes:

Jesus’ action was, in C. S. Lewis’s terminology, a ‘miracle of the old creation’: the Creator who, year by year, turns water into wine, so to speak, by a natural process, on this occasion speeds up the process and attains the same end. But if it is a miracle of the old creation, it is a parable of the new creation. (p. 45, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, emphasis mine)

John as “Megaparable”

If Bultmann gave us a red light, Bruce at least changed that light to amber. Earlier this year in The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan changed it to full-on green. He subtitles chapter 10: “The Parable Gospel according to John,” writing:

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7-15 and physical eating in 4:31-38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine? (Kindle location 3748, bolding mine)

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Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology

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.

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Early Christ Myth Theorists on Paul’s and the Gospels’ Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6 continued.

When starting this post I had hoped it would complete my discussion of Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’. This was meant to address Price’s reasons for thinking that the gospel narratives of Jesus — or any stories of an earthly life of Jesus — first made their appearance well into the second century. I have sometimes argued the same, but Price does so from a quite different perspective (drawing on what we know of Marcion and early Marcionism) from anything I had considered.

Before getting into Price’s argument some background was necessary. Unfortunately or otherwise, that background turned into a substantial post of its own, so here it is now. Price’s arguments for a second century creation of the gospels will have to wait. This post continues Price’s comparative study of early mythicist views of the relationship between Paul’s letters and the narratives of Jesus found in the gospels. Regardless of the date of Paul’s letters, this has long been the foundation of the Christ Myth theory.

As I pointed out in the first post on this chapter, Price discusses the views of today’s pre-eminent mythicists, G. A. Wells and Earl Doherty, noting their preference for the orthodox view of the Pauline epistles. That is, that they are written by “the genuine” Paul and thus belong to the middle of the first century, well before the gospels were penned.

It is now necessary to look at the earlier arguments for sake of comparison, as Price does.


Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud accepted the genuineness of Pauline letters “at least in their shorter, Marcionite editions”.

He argued that Marcion penned 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians (known originally as Laodiceans) , but also that he wrote the first gospel — after the Bar Kochba revolt (133 c.e.) — and lived to see other gospels expand upon his.

Price sees here a potential acceptance of the possibility that one could write “Pauline” letters that contained no hint of an historical Jesus even though one was aware of a narrative of such a Jesus. But Price also concedes that in this case there was little opportunity for biographical references to Jesus to appear in a letters that were written in direct response to, or as commentaries upon, earlier letters (1 Thessalonians and Colossians.) read more »