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

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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 . . .

M. Dibelius (1919) and R. Bultmann (1921) added their weight to the paradigm of oral tradition, . . .

And so a new idea of the gospels emerged: they are not really literature, not the work of literary people. At one point Bultmann described the gospels, or at least the Synoptics, as ‘unliterary’. (my emphasis)

Brodie emphasizes that the role allotted to oral tradition to the study of the gospels is largely a twentieth century innovation. I gather from Brodie’s historical outline of the scholarship that this view of the gospels was not the result of literary analysis of the gospels themselves with conclusions seeking an explanation, but it was a view imposed upon the gospels by the model itself.

Contrasting perceptions of the literary qualities of the Biblical literature

Brodie earlier addresses emerging scholarly views arguing for sophisticated literary qualities of the biblical literature. He included a lengthy extract from André Chouraqui (1975) who had spent decades translating the Bible into French. How is it possible that Gunkel and Chouraqui, reading the same literature, could come to such opposing views? Chouraqui:

What were the writing techniques of the inspired authors of Israel? I believe that we have scarcely begun to glimpse them. This art corresponded to a science which was very rigorous, traditional. . . . an art of symphonic composition where each word, each letter, has connections which continue through the entire account; [there is] even a kind of arithmetic of words. It is known in the neighbouring civilizations. . . writing sometimes constituted a veritable cryptogram. . . As far as the Hebrews are concerned, the techniques of expression have not yet been fully deciphered. [The biblical writers] had a writing art to which we do not now have the keys. The structure of the language is extraordinarily wrought, even to the detail of the letters. . . There are internal harmonies between words, even between letters; there are stunning balances (équilibres bouleversants). A biblical text was ‘assembled’ with the same exactitude, the same precision, as is used today in assembling the elements of a computer or a missile.

This brings to mind (though not mentioned by Brodie) M. J. J. Menken’s Numerical Literary Techniques in John: the Fourth Evangelists Use of Numbers and Syllables — indicating that Chouraqui’s observations extend into the New Testament literature as well.

So we have two views of biblical literature that could hardly be any more distant from each other.

Oral Tradition as Unfounded

All writing to some extent owes something to oral communication.

  1. Phrases used in daily speech inevitably find their way into written words.

  2. 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)

  1. A third level of oral dependency is what scholars mean when they speak of oral tradition underlying the Gospel and other biblical accounts. This refers to the basic message, the central story itself being derived from oral communications. Brodie points to Virgil’s epic of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. This epic was written for the ear; it was to be read aloud. But the story itself derived from the written texts of Homer.

The Aeneid illustrates the place of orality as a medium or means of expression, as opposed to the content of the story being expressed.

When Gunkel speaks of oral literature he clearly means that Genesis is oral literature in the sense that its content, its stories, were derived from oral traditions. Not only is Genesis dependent upon oral tradition for its form but also for its content.

Oral Tradition as understood before Gunkel

“Before 1900 there had been two pivotal ideas about oral tradition . . . .” — one belonged to Jewish tradition and the other to anthropological studies:

Jewish tradition:.
Judaism developed the myth that God gave Moses the Oral Law, the “memorized Torah”, that existed alongside the written law. This “Moses-based oral tradition” was written down as the Mishnah around 200 CE.Philo, the Gospels and Josephus indicate that this myth was known in the first century.


Anthopologists in the 18th and 19th centuries studied primitive non-literate societies and the ways they collected stories they had orally transmitted.

These studies continued into the 20th century, especially in the works such as those of M. Parry and A. B. Lord.

We can understand the Jews wanting to invest their oral law, and then the Mishnah, with the authority of the myth that it was spoken by God to Moses. But why did Gunkel, when faced with the same text as Chouraqui, start talking about primitive, pre-literate communities?

Communities replace authors

Gunkel framed the question of the nature of Genesis as a choice between history and saga. Clearly Genesis was not history, he observed, so it must be saga.

Saga is oral tradition. So Genesis is also derived from oral tradition. History is a sophisticated accomplishment of cultured peoples. Sagas are found among uncultured non-literate societies. We can thus imagine the Genesis tales arising from primitive, non-literate peoples.

The Genesis episodes are brief. So we must further picture storytellers meeting the limited mental capacities of his uncultured communities. So Genesis consists of lots of short episodes that had been told in primitive communities and that were stitched together by an editor to create the longer book.

So on page forty of his commentary on Genesis Gunkel began talking about “the foundational role of oral tradition. And behind the oral tradition were, not authors, but communities.” (p. 55)

Gunkel’s Genesis community ‘not only . . . rearrange[s] . . . the material . . . but the reader is constantly aware of the way in which the ‘mature Western European’ presents the naïve attitude of the ‘childish Oriental’ towards nature . . . God, etc.’ (Nielsen 1954:11).

Given such an attitude, it becomes more understandable how, even when faced with a superb writing, magnificently crafted, Gunkel’s imagination jumped to something naïve or simple. (pp. 52, 53, my emphasis and formatting)

At a stroke, biblical writers, as real writers, had been virtually eliminated. Gunkel had created an atmosphere in which it would become easy to accept that Mark was clumsy and that John’s gospel was isolated, confused, and open to rearrangement. (p. 55, The Birthing of the New Testament)

Finding room to forgive Gunkel

The Book of Genesis is “encyclopedic and antiquarian.” It epitomizes the world’s history and legends, “even back to the days when there were giants on the earth.” Amidst such a mass of data it was “easy to find some data which seemed to correspond in some way to oral literature.”

And given a choice between an historian sitting at his office desk and a storyteller, how could he possibly opt for the former?

The false dilemma

Of course we can see today that the choice between history and saga was a false one. Gunkel lacked awareness of the nature of ancient historiography and anachronistically set what moderns understand as history against saga.

Recovery of authors

The second half of the twentieth century saw the first efforts to recover the concept of authorship of biblical literature.

  1. The first step was redaction criticism. This raised the Gospel authors above the status of mere collectors of stories. They were given an enhanced creative role in the way they brought these stories together.
  2. Second came modern literary criticism. Despite the danger of this injecting modern ideas into ancient works, it did open up insights to the artistry of biblical works.
  3. Finally there emerged an emphasis on ancient rhetoric — a more appropriate means of accessing the nature of the Gospels and other books of the Bible. Scholars are discovering more and more how the Bible’s literature accords with ancient principles of rhetoric, so that it is becoming clearer that its authors were “genuine writers, namely literary artists”.

Many New Testament scholars have now reached the conclusion that the gospels are fine writings. While moving ahead, the paradigm is coming full circle. The idea of ‘genuine literature’ has returned and, as it does, Gunkel’s invoking of ‘oral processes’, unclear from the beginning, now looks even more inappropriate. (p. 55)

Brodie asks:

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

The arguments for and against will be the subject of the next post in this series.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

17 thoughts on “Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary”

  1. Brodie has a rather extreme thesis that probably will not be widely accepted by the scholarly community.

    Because? For one thing, the (admitted) sophistication of the present day, and even relatively early written texts, can be adequately explained by the sophistication of later editors, and translators.

    It is simply not at all necessary for the first moments of the Jesus movement or legend to have been very complicated – for a sophisticated gospel or two to eventually emerge. THe beginnings could have been QUITE simple; as in oral folk rumors. The sophistication appeared in later editiors.

    While indeed, the text as we have it today seems to reflect this dual folk/elite source. Containing both 1) quite simple folk tales of giant supernatural miracles, 2) alternativing with a far more suble, clerical/literate attempt to spiritualize, metaphoricalize, qualify those promises.

    1. You apparently overlooked the part where we find the literary sophistication at the level of the original texts, not the translated ones, and also that the arguments are against the place of oral traditions. What your comment indicates is just how hard it is for people to think differently once they are so used to an idea.

      1. Well, the problem here is what ARE the original texts? And what did they originally say? We don’t actually have many physical texts that were written from the earliest days.

        By c. 150 AD or so, we are hearing references to a gospel of Matthew, or Mark, or John; but what were they really, actually, exactly like in their early verisions? Were they exactly like what we have today? By most accounts, we don’t fully know; the earliest actual physical examples of NT writing that we have, are first say, a tiny, tiny fragment of the Gospel of John, from c. 150 AD. We don’t really know what the first larger texts said; not from actual texts. While later external references to the texts, at times do not refer to many now-important texts at all. And references to similar ones to what we have, are still too sparce to allow us to find a strict correlation, word for word, to what we have today, and what was referred to in say c. 150. what we have is a rough correlation only. Then too, given the propularity of book-burnings in the religious world? It is quite possible that any variant or embarrassing texts, were hidden or destroyed.

        So the problem here is this: what WERE the original texts really like? It seems quite possible that they were significantly different from the rather sophisticated versions and translations that we had after say, the Great Redaction (of 180 AD?).

        I agree that there were many quite literate, sophisticated persons around, particularly in the Greek-speaking world, as early as 350 BC; as witnessed by Plato’s Dialogues. Including to a degree, Philo, “Jesus'” slightly-older contemporary from Egypt. And no doubt, their writings had a large effect; perhaps even creating the Jesus legend in fact, as Carrier hypothesized. But few people understanding Philo or Platonism, even to this very day. So that any such high-level, sophisticated work, would have been succeeded by popular misunderstandings and confusions. Which would have likely been also integrated into any early collection of stories about “Jesus” or a greal local “lord.”

        1. Lost one of your replies in which you said you are relying on what you read in my posts. If you see something in my posts that does not sound right or does not sound like the sort of thing any scholar worth her salt would argue then it would be more appropriate to ask me if the scholars I am reading are really making what you see as such ignorant arguments. Ask a question before you shoot.

          Rylands P52 (topic of your other comment) is irrelevant, by the way.

  2. Hermann Gunkel’s ideas owe a lot to the ideologies of Romantic nationalism. He believes that saga, legend, oral poetry are a natural expression of the whole people:

    “Between the poet who first conceived them and the time when they were fixed for transmission to posterity a long period elapsed, and in this period the legends were repeated from generation to generation and passed through many hands. Yet however faithfully such legends are transmitted, they are inevitably altered in the course of the centuries. And thus they finally become the common product of the people…Moreover, for the very reason that the legend is the product of the whole people, it is the expression of the people’s mind.”

    See The Legends of Genesis, page 40 http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/log/

    He contrasts made sophisticated histories with naïve oral productions of the folk, expressing the soul of the folk. Such ideas developed during the nation building of 19th century Europe when imagined communities had to be provided with ancient roots in culture.

    But against Gunkel’s false dichotomy we can put the following facts:

    1. first that the most history like of classic writings also have a vision interwined with myth and destiny.
    2. Next that oral poetry (Icelandic is an example) are among the most sophisticated of writings, in form and content, and are tied to the richest, most aristocratic part of society.
    3. Finally that oral poetry and literate history interacted – the Nibelunglied for example draws on hundreds of years of written texts,in Northern Italy and Southern Germany in which Latinate histories and alliterative poems draw on each other, with freedom to change the narratives, and the nationalities of the protagonists wildly.

    I doubt that any oral traditions can be trusted to give the authentic beliefs of the folk, rather they are creative works done for the joy of creation by fine craftsmen, and for a reward from a particular patron.

    1. Well put. It was also the era of the flourishing of “Orientalism”, that infamous two-edged perception (probably an extension of the “noble savage”).

      Your first point against Gunkel’s false dichotomy ties in with modern studies of ancient rhetoric demonstrating the nature of ancient historiographies such as those of Herodotus. I’ve been itching to post on this for a long time now.

  3. Neil, I have reworked Gunkel’s Wikipedia page quite a bit. All but the “achievement” section. Any sources or ideas for that section would be appreciated. Look at the External links at the bottom!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading