Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester

Creative Commons License

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

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.

But this is not to be confused with . . . dependence of central content. Kelber never shows that the gospels are indebted to oral tradition in a way that other ancient writings are not. (p. 55, my emphasis)


A. B. Lord

Lord, says Brodie, “endeavoured to show how some of the patterns of oral literature also occur in biblical texts, such as the gospels.”

Brodie’s response is that Lord “may be partly right, but that does not prove the case; to some degree similar patterns can be shared by diverse literatures. Another scholar who replied to Lord, C. H. Talbert, pointed out that the same patterns occur in literary biographies (1978: 94).

In other words, the patterns which Lord claims are oral, are in fact literary, and found in genuine literature. More of what Lord attributes to oral influence can be more fully accounted for by what R. Alter (1981: 51-52) calls ‘literary conventions’.

What about those small, strung-together episodes? Aren’t they a pointer to primitive pre-literary units?

No. We come here to another literary pattern, “the cult of the episode”, a phrase from G. Williams’ book on ancient Roman literature. Here Williams writes of one of the classic episodic pieces of literature:

The Metamorphosis of Ovid [died 17 BCE] was a model of the greatest influence for at least a century in many ways but especially in its exemplary structure. It consists of more or less disconnected episodes, which the poet with great wit and ingenuity, has welded into a perpetuum carmen . . .

As Brodie remarks, “the gospels are not poetry, but they are composite, and as a result are capable of absorbing diverse features of several genres. Ovid was the leading poet of Rome. It is a symptom of his stature that St Augustine, at a crucial moment, imitated him.”

Many of us are also aware of the influence of Homer’s Odyssey which is also predominantly episodic. Lawrence Wills has found much in common between the gospels and the very episodic Life of Aesop.

Christopher Bryan is called upon to underscore the point:

Bryan’s conclusion about Mark makes the necessary distinction: Mark, a bios, is pervasively oral (meant to be read aloud), but it is not oral literature (it is not the written form of a bios that had been composed orally) (Bryan 1994: 152-153).


B. Gerhardsson

So Thomas Brodie acknowledges the arguments in support of the notion that gospel stories were transmitted orally before they were written down. At the same time, he clearly finds them unpersuasive because their rationales are as readily explained by other models. So S. Gerhadsson has a straightforward argument, and Brodie cites it (I quote it in part) as this:

It is very striking that Jesus himself did not write. He was a man who spoke. He talked to people, he preached orally, taught orally . . . . The verbal tradition that Jesus himself initiated was oral.

As for the disciples, it is nowhere mentioned that they took notes or carried notebooks. . . .

Maurice Casey, and I think a few others too, have indeed surmised that Jesus’ disciples recorded his sayings as they traveled with him. But of course that is entirely self-serving surmise.

Brodie appropriately (in my view) responds:

This argument is clear. But Genesis 1 is equally clear that the world was made in seven days. One cannot reliably argue from the narrative to a historical fact. Gerhardsson’s argument presupposes that the gospels are of a specific nature — that they are essentially historical. What Gerhardsson’s argument proves is that — regardless of what happened historically — the picture painted in the gospels is one in which the method of communication is oral.

In other words, the conclusion is not about history but about a gospel picture, about literary art and its theological implications. The historical questions about Jesus and the gospels’ origins must be answered on other grounds. (p. 56)


The Jesus Seminar

Brodie acknowledges the advanced scholarly approach of The Jesus Seminar — that is, that the Jesus Seminar uses the very same kind of logic as Gerhardsson:

Jesus wrote nothing, as far as we know. We do not know for certain that Jesus could write, we are not even positive that he could read. . . . His followers were technically illiterate . . . .

Jesus taught his followers orally. . . . The gospels portray Jesus as one who speaks, not as one who writes.

Brodie can see the rights and wrongs here. (Independent scholars such as Maurice Casey are on record as expressing some mystification here. Brodie could have avoided this had he referred to the “American” Jesus Seminar — Casey et al have explained that the corporate body could refer to the British or UK Jesus Seminar unless this is spelled out. Let me assure Casey and Fisher et al that Brodie is referring to the international and internationally renowned Jesus Seminar headquartered in the U.S.) Brodie responds:

In a sense this is correct. The gospels do indeed portray Jesus as a speaker, not as a writer. Furthermore, the Seminar is admirable in its search for clear rules about trying to trace sayings to an oral period and in its use of modern anthropology to trace how oral tradition works. The problem is not with oral rules and modern anthropology, but with the relevance of such information to the gospels. (p. 56)

Brodie’s message is clear, and as far as I can see it is valid:

Words on a page, no matter what they say, do not of themselves constitute a particular kind of person. (p. 57)

Amen! And bring in the arguments I have presented on this blog over and over for some years now. Yes, written documents do come with authority, but the kind of authority they convey is related entirely to our knowledge of

  • their provenance (who wrote them, along with a real understanding of who that person really was),
  • and independent support for the contents of their narrative (that is, other documents or evidence that is clearly independent of the interests of the provenance of the document in question and give independent testimony of the reality of its narrative),
  • and their genre (which is not the final word, since difference genres can be mixed and certain genres can be mocked, satirized or fictionalized, but is nonetheless important insofar as if established as “genuine” it can point to the intent the author had in writing).

These three, but the greatest of these is independent support or external testimony or controls, despite the limitations of this factor.

Brodie rightly pinpoints the conceptual confusion besetting the Jesus Seminar here.

The Seminar confuses diverse levels of dependence on orality. It uses the difference between ancient oral culture and modern print culture — a real difference — to make a division between an oral Jesus and writing. But our evidence for Jesus is in writing, and no matter what portrait of Jesus that writing gives, one may not, logically, jump from the writing to the historical reality of an oral Jesus. Words on a page, no matter what they say, do not of themselves constitute a particular kind of person. (p. 57)

Only two ways to establish the reality of an oral Jesus

Thomas Brodie understands the situation precisely. There are only two ways by which one can claim that Jesus really was the “oral” person (thus implying his earliest followers were entirely oral).

  1. The first way is to argue for the gospel narratives themselves being essentially historical.
  2. The second way is to simply presuppose that Jesus was an “oral” person.

Which one of these does the Jesus Seminar opt for?

Well, the Jesus Seminar does not accept the historical reliability of the gospels. The gospels are entirely unpredictable in relation to their historicity, it asserts.

Its assertion that Jesus and his earliest followers were entirely oral is bald presupposition.


James D. G. Dunn

Dunn demonstrates the above perfectly. He pleads for acceptance of oral tradition but admits his case is based entirely upon presupposition.

We simply cannot escape from a presumption of orality for the first stage of the Jesus tradition.

So admitting his stance is pure presupposition, he continues to make his argument without any discussion of how ancient writers actually went about composing their texts. Rather, his main example of a text that he claims is shaped by oral tradition is, in Brodie’s words, “in fact heavily dependent on the text of the Elijah-Elisha narrative.” (p. 57)

That is, Luke 7:1-10, Matthew 8:1-13, John 4:46-54.


H. Koester

Koester’s argument for oral tradition took a different tack. Koester moved away for the gospels to establish his claim for oral tradition. It had nothing to do with the evidence in the gospels, he inferred, but everything to do with something not mentioned at all in the gospels — that is, communities.

Koester argued that Christianity constructed itself through ritual and story, and that implies the activity of communities. So when we come to Paul, we read in 1 Corinthians 11:23 that Paul received a tradition of something passed on orally.

The organization of the new communities was accomplished . . . by sayings . . . transmitted in the oral tradition . . . Writings that were later called ‘gospels’ came into existence as alternative forms of the continuing oral tradition. . . .

Brodie reads this and observes:

This is very plausible, but it is also quite unproven. (p. 57)

Koester’s argument for oral tradition rests squarely upon the assumptions of form-criticism. This assumption is that the beginning and the continuation of the earliest traditions were nested in “the early Christian community”. Everything that was “remembered from and about” Jesus was part of the “congenial life situation” of that community.

If you are starting to fall into synch with Brodie’s approach you will not be surprised to learn that Brodie concedes that Koester’s argument

fits some of the data — notably a particular reading of 1 Corinthians — and it privileges that reading at the expense of a whole world of evidence, especially literary evidence.

I Corinthians 11:23 – the difficulty

Here is the key part of that verse:

For I have received from (παρέλαβον ἀπὸ) our Lord that thing which I handed on (παρέδωκα) to you, that our Lord Yeshua, in that night in which he was betrayed, took bread . . . .

Paul’s language here is the technical language of tradition established in Judaism. (C. K. Barrett 1971: 264)

In other words, Paul’s language about a process of ‘handing on’ falls within the language of the broader Jewish claim to tradition, the tradition which Neusner identified as a myth (Neusner 1985: 1).

Brodie’s conclusion here is worth emphasizing. It is a point that many historicists have fallen flat over. They owe it to themselves and their profession to take time to listen to the logic and facts of the matter:

So when Paul invokes tradition going back to the Lord, one cannot be sure whether this call is an appeal to a historical tradition related to Jesus and a community, or whether, as his language suggests, he is using and adapting the general Jewish idea about tradition going back to Moses and God. Paul’s language is itself general; he gives no details about the source and workings of the tradition. (p. 57)

Some would argue that Paul must “obviously” mean that his sayings go back to Jesus. But note: Neirynck 1996 shows that 1 Corinthians relates very few sayings from the historical Jesus but many from Moses. Not only many, but there is a systematic dependence on the Pentateuch (as discussed in detail by Brodie in the same volume linked to Neirynck’s name above.)

Read Brodie’s words carefully. The essence of his argument is here, I think, and is easily missed unless one is willing to take care to think the one’s existing paradigm through:

As with Gerhardsson, what Koester’s reading of 1 Corinthians indicates is not something historical but something artistic and theological; not that Paul was historically within a line of historical tradition, but that 1 Corinthians paints such a picture, . . . . [grasp that! it’s the age old rule that self-testimony can never be relied upon alone!] . . . . a picture which, through the Jewishness of Paul’s terms, fits into a larger Jewish claim to mythical tradition. Whether, historically, Paul was or was not within a specific oral tradition must be decided on other grounds. (p. 58)

Koester actually weakens his own case for the community provenance of oral tradition when he goes on to argue that the Gospels themselves were the products of community-based oral tradition. If the Gospels are so suspect as historical narratives then how can we have confidence that a single passage in the epistles of Paul is historically accurate? Certainly the Gospels are artistic and rhetorical. But Brodie slips in the reminder (or “notice”, for those who are unfamiliar with the emerging scholarship) that there is growing evidence that the epistles are likewise artistic and rhetorical in the same sense as the Gospels.

In other words, the claim that Paul drew upon a specific oral tradition is ill-founded. The evidence is emerging that the New Testament literature is literary, artistic, rhetorical. It is therefore

not reasonable to use a questionable reading of one epistle as a basis for imposing a paradigm on New Testament literature as a whole.


Hear, then, the conclusion of the matter:

from Gunkel to Kelber to Koester, there are no reliable arguments for claiming that the gospels depend on oral tradition. (p. 58)

That’s only the “Unfounded” portion of Thomas Brodie’s argument. He has two more sections to argue that oral tradition as a paradigm for the origin of gospel stories is also unworkable and unnecessary. They are shorter than this two-part “unfounded” section of his chapter that I have concluded here. Next post in this series — why oral tradition is unworkable, and maybe also unnecessary in the same post.

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!

8 thoughts on “Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester”

  1. “Kelber never shows that the gospels are indebted to oral tradition in a way that other ancient writings are not. (p. 55, my emphasis)”

    In his masterpiece, “Mark’s Story of Jesus”, Kelber demonstrates and than some in simple and clear writing, that ‘Mark” is primarily a polemic against Peter and the Twelve. In the conclusion though he falls to Servantpieces. During his conclusion the El-e-font in the Tomb is, if “Mark” is primarily a rejection of the Twelve as witness to Jesus, than who/what was?

    He writes on Page 95, “Mark’s theological enterprise, the REJECTION OF TRADITION and the return to the origin,”.

    If “Mark” rejects tradition than what exactly was the basis of his story? Even worse, all subsequent Gospellers base their story on “Mark”. And they want to credit Peter and the Twelve! Someone, anyone McBuehler?


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