Oral Tradition Is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels

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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.)

So where does this leave us?

If the gospels’ picture of a simple, rustic scene does not itself necessarily arise from simple and rustic ways of communicating, how might we account for their origin?

Brodie identifies four factors that may offer plausible alternatives to oral tradition in the creation of this impression that the gospels originated in primitive, rustic, oral communities:

1. The Classic Ideal of the Pastoral

This ideal was represented in a whole genre of Greco-Roman literature of the era. Virgil, the leading poet of the era, gave it new prominence with his Eclogues.

In the era of the gospels there was “a nostalgia for the pastoral” in Israel’s tradition (Brown 1966:397) and the gospels may well be an adaptation of that ideal in the way they evoke that simplicity.

The classical tradition likewise idealized a certain simplicity of life, at least to some degree, as can be seen in its portrayal of Socrates. And note that L. C. A. Alexander shows that this Socratic image influenced the genre of Luke-Acts.

2. The Jewish Ideal of an Oral Tradition

Jewish tradition upheld oral communication and transmission ever since the days when God spoke to Moses. First-century Jews certainly accepted such a view of their history as an ideal. The New Testament picture (including 1 Corinthians) “may be an imitation or emulation of that ideal.”

3. Religion’s Ambivalence Towards Writing

Though religion uses writing, Brodie writes, it also understands that the world of books can become stagnant. I think here of Paul’s “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” and other statements among some of the early Church Fathers (e.g. Clement of Alexandria) affirming that the written word is a poor substitute for the spoken word. Writing is often said to contain the potential to become stagnant or a false god. The Word of God is said to stand above all writings. Books and papers can be sold for money for the poor.

4. Literary Models Closest to the Gospels

The Gospels constantly refer to the Old Testament narratives and these OT narratives generally evoke scenes of simplicity, along with implications that going beyond simplicity was morally dangerous. Elijah and Elisha, for example, lived out stories that were precursors to the tone and setting of those in the gospels — despite their background setting of wars. The geographic setting was even the same, from Syria to Jerusalem. Simplicity was combined with reminders of divinity in the tales of these two prophets, and Brodie sees them as providing a “partial precedent for the ethos of the gospels.”

Therefore —

The point of Brodie’s argument with these four factors is not that they necessarily went into the making of our gospels, but that it is possible to explain the gospels’ picture of simplicity by means other than calling upon oral tradition.

The oral tradition hypothesis is not necessary. (p. 62)


For most of the twentieth century, the theory of an oral tradition was present in biblical studies. Its newness is not a problem; and even the confusion (as in Gunkel) surrounding its foundation does not necessarily mean it has no value. But when a theory is unworkable and unnecessary, then it is no longer merely unhelpful; it is a real hindrance, a constant source of confusion concerning the origin and nature of the gospels.

It is time to adapt the role attributed to orality. Orality, including the atmosphere of oral transmission, does correspond to something within the gospels. But it has been taken out from them, and, like a genie released from its place, it tends to take control of the situation. The task now in discussing the New Testament is not to eliminate orality, but to restore it to its place, to see all its vitality not as something behind the text, but as something inside it (or, as others say, in front of it). If the concept of orality can be turned around in this way, then, instead of being a distraction from the gospels, orality can be a way of appreciating them more fully.

Brodie sounds like the consummate diplomat.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Oral Tradition Is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels”

  1. In fiction the implied narrator or collecter is a part of the story, demanding from us, but pro tempo, a willing suspension of disbelief.No-one needs to belief that Richardson’s Pamela or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein are based on real letters, that Kahil Gabran’s Prophet or Nietsche’s Zaruthastra are based on real prophecies,that Galileo’s or Percy Shelly’s dialogues are not between fictional characters, that Plato’s dialogues are not between people who never met,that the histories of Geoffrey de Monmouth and Saxo Grammaticus are not made up,that the pseudo archaic language of Coleridge ballads is not part of the fiction….
    The gospels, including parables and teachings. seem written for already existing movements, as pieces of creative writing. The implied source of the teaching is indeed a part of the fiction.

  2. I love ‘oral trad’.
    Its so convenient, so all fired easy to slip into an explanation when the more realistic alternatives are much less attractive to the mind set.
    A gospel story is extraordinarily similar to a story from an earlier source [eg Asklepian healing or Dionysian metamorphosis of water to a more tasty liquid, or feeding a gang seems a bit like feeding 1000s or …..].
    Lets not consider authorial plagiarism or inspiration from common literary themes – its……oral trad!!
    Problem solvered, and best of all its essentialy fail safe, unfalsifiable, because, hey, were you there to deny that someone saw JC do whatever, heard him say whatever and then passed it on, directly or indirectly, to Mark or Matthew or Billy or Fred [never Janet]?
    Thought not.
    So there!

  3. Re “If the gospels’ picture of a simple, rustic scene does not itself necessarily arise from simple and rustic ways of communicating, how might we account for their origin?”

    I wonder who the authors were. Were they “simplistic, rustic folk” writing in a simplistic, rustic manner (or rather dictating to a scribe all of that)? Or were they members of the elite? It seems that the written Hebrew Bible was largely a project of the elites (temple scribes, etc.). Those, apparently, were not written for widespread dissemination. So, were these NT documents written for widespread dissemination? If so, they would have to be read to the majority of the audience and so would have to be written to be spoken, etc. In other words, I wonder who the audience was. Surely the authors would use language suitable for their audience.

    Has anyone tackled these topics (authors/audience/intentions) seriously. If so I would like to read about those.

    Thanks for another wonderful post.

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