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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Henaut recognizes immediately that the secular historian is merely following outdated theologians in order to argue for the historical certainty of this little datum about Jesus:

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

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

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

Grant has filtered the Gospels through the hermeneutics of C.H. Dodd and J. Jeremias, a method that is now outdated.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Why we ASSUME the Gospels drew upon oral tradition

1. Universality of Oral Tradition

Firstly, there is the prevalence of oral speech in everyday life. In general conversation we ask others about the lives of those with whom we share an interest. It is easy to imagine early Christian communities doing the same with reference to Jesus.

Secondly, we all share a cultural oral heritage. We hear proverbs and fairy tales and other communal wisdom and folklore passed on from parents and grandparents, teachers and neighbours. Many of these do find their way into books, of course, but we would know many of them simply by participating in the oral culture around us.

Such experiences easily lead us to assume that oral reports were surely likewise a part of the material that the Gospel authors drew upon in crafting their narratives about Jesus.

2. Oral Tradition as an Apologetic

Early Christian sources also encourage the assumption that there must surely have been stories about Jesus circulating orally before anyone penned a Gospel.

So in Paul’s letters we read in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received . . . ”

The fact that Paul goes on to say that the news he received was of somebody returning to life after being dead does not worry every Biblical scholar. It is enough to find someone referring to a chain of presumed or argued oral transmission (the passage does not explicitly state that the communication was oral) for scholars to find reassurance that yes, of course, the gap of one or two (at least) generations from the supposed death of Jesus really was filled by people talking about what they or others had experienced with Jesus.

Then there is the prologue to the Gospel of Luke which, in the minds of most people, refers to the author judiciously selecting from the wide pool of oral memories circulating about Jesus. Voices pointing out the contrary on the basis of the original text (e.g. John N. Collins’ articles that trenchantly undermine “the eyewitness” thesis so widely prevailing today) seem to struggle to gain traction in the broader scholarly discussion.

Many scholars are even happy cite the fourth century historian Eusebius discussing a second century name, Papias, writing about his encounters with people who had heard from people who had known people who had heard of Jesus.

Even though it is quite obvious in each of these above cases that there is a distinctive apologetic interest in establishing the “oral tradition” as a reliable historical source of information, scholars are in large part quite open to embracing such “historical traditions” as authentic. They are, after all, the only explicit testimony that appears to support their assumption that surely there must have been people telling stories about Jesus of Galilee before the Gospels came to be written.

Introducing some questions

Henaut introduces his study by pointing to the contributions of synoptic studies that have been able to clearly establish literary relationships among the synoptic gospels.

Are verbal variations indicators of independent oral traditions?

Not necessarily.

Mark 4.21-23
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Here we see two translations of the same Greek text. There differences are distinctive. Yet we know that independent oral traditions do not account for these differences.

Henaut reminds us that if we are going to examine textual variations in the Gospels with a view to looking for signs of different oral traditions, we need to be aware at the same time of the extent to which translations of a common text can be so different.

Consider the way direct literary dependence works. I have covered this from the perspective of nonbiblical literature in other posts and pointed out well-known examples of the way authors would copy earlier texts without slavishly repeating their constructions or vocabulary. But we can see the same principle at work by comparing the ways Matthew and Luke copied Mark.

Matthew 8:16 Mark 1:32 Luke 4:40
Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης , ὅτε ἔδυ** ὁ ἥλιος Δύνοντος δὲ τοῦ ἡλίου
Evening moreover having come Evening moreover having come when went down the sun At the setting moreover of the sun
προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ ἔφερον πρὸς αὐτὸν πάντας τοὺς κακῶς ἅπαντες ὅσοι εἶχον ἀσθενοῦντας νόσοις ποικίλαις

ἤγαγον αὐτοὺς πρὸς αὐτόν
they brought to him they brought to him all who sick all as many as had [persons] sick with diseases various

brought them to him
δαιμονιζομένους πολλούς καὶ τοὺς δαιμονιζομένους
possessed with demons many and those possessed by demons

As we begin to read Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark, it appears from the first words that Matthew has chosen to remain faithful to Mark while Luke has changed his source. But then on reading further, we find that Luke is more consistent in certain details of Mark than is Matthew.

Mark 3:34b-35 Luke 8:21
Ἴδε, ἡ μήτηρ μου, καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί μου! ὃς [γὰρ] ἂν ποιήσῃ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, οὗτος ἀδελφός μου, καὶ ἀδελφὴ, καὶ μήτηρ ἐστίν. Μήτηρ μου καὶ ἀδελφοί μου, οὗτοί εἰσιν οἱ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ ἀκούοντες καὶ ποιοῦντες.
Behold the mother of me and the brothers of me for whoever indeed anyhow shall do the will of God he brother of me and sister and mother is mother of me and brothers of me those are who the word of God are hearing and doing.

In the table above we can see that Luke has changed more than any connecting words. He has changed the original saying itself.

If we did not know from the extensive agreements elsewhere between these two Gospels that we are dealing with a literary relationship, would we postulate such a relationship between these versions of the saying? If, for example, we were dealing with a parallel between Mark and Q, or Luke and Thomas, would not similar verbal differences be seen as proof of the versions’ independence? (p. 22)

This has major significance for the study of oral tradition. Oral tradition has been used to explain precisely these sorts of major variations (or redactions).

Scholars who firmly acknowledge the literary dependence of Matthew and Luke upon Mark nonetheless simultaneously write that “trifling” variations of wording are, when taken together and alongside a few significant changes, evidence that the authors of the later Gospels were influenced by various oral traditions. Henaut cites Sir John C. Hawkins and J. D. Crossan:

Such variant utilizations of the same or similar expressions in parallel passages may seem trifling when regarded separately, and some of them may be accidental; but on the whole, and when taken together with the more important instances on the preceding pages, they convey an impression of having arisen in the course of oral transmission, during which (as often happens) the sound of words adhered to the speaker’s mind more distinctly than the recollection of their original position and significance. (J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae. . . 2nd ed. 1909, p. 77)

Matthew and Luke, looking at specific aphoristic sayings in Mark and Q might well display oral sensibility and formulate it differently, not only because of theological or grammatical or stylistic reasons, but simply because of residual orality, residual reluctance to be bound finally and irrevocably to one ultimate foundation. (J. D. Crossan, In Fragments . . . 1983, pp. 40-41)

No doubt we can hypothetically imagine every slight difference of wording being the direct result of the author retaining a mental echo of an oral version of a saying. Among such examples Hawkins included in his list of variants that “add up” to “an impression of having arisen through orality”:

  • Mark 4:19 ἐπιθυμίαι εἰσπορευόμεναι, συμπνίγουσιν τὸν λόγον (other things come in and choke the word)
  • Luke 8:14 οὗτοί . . . πορευόμενοι συμπνίγονται. (these . . . going along are choked)
  • Mark 12:20 οὐκ ἀφῆκεν σπέρμα (left no seed)
  • Matthew 22:25 μὴ ἔχων σπέρμα. ἀφῆκεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ (having no seed, left his wife to his brother)

Henaut objects:

The methodological objection is clear: such a procedure undermines the known literary relationship among the texts. If oral tradition is admissible as an explanation in these instances then there is no stopping an infinite postulation of separate ‘oral traditions’ behind every variation in wording among the three synoptics. (p. 23)

The possibilities of variation between two versions are doubled when they are each based upon a common third source. It’s probably superfluous to quote the Greek parallel passages that illustrate Henaut’s point. The point is that we know differences in wording do not “automatically preclude a literary relationship between the two texts.”

Despite such differences, literary dependence can be established between two (or more) documents on the basis of overall agreement of wording, syntax and order. ‘Agreement in order’ may also occur in word order or in the order of the various sayings or narrative. (pp. 25-26)

Barry W. Henaut’s study

Henaut’s work, Oral Tradition and the Gospels, is a re-evaluation of what scholarship has come to “know” about “oral tradition” in early Christian literature, using Mark 4 in particular as a testing ground. Probably the primary reason scholars have been so concerned with oral tradition has been to establish “authentic” sayings or other information about the historical Jesus. Henaut examines the ability of criteria such as “distinctiveness” and “double attestation” to uncover “authentic” sayings of Jesus, and indeed, even our ability to discover an “oral layer” behind the text at all.

There are more recent publications addressing “authenticity” criteria and along the way I will no doubt be discussing those, too.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The Problem of Oral Tradition and the Gospels: Barry Henaut’s introduction”

  1. It seems to me unproblematic to assume that there was an oral tradition about Jesus, if Jesus existed. Lose the assumption of historicity, though, and we lose any justification for thinking there was an oral tradition. As an argument for historicity, the appeal to oral tradition is just begging the question.

    1. Whether or not Jesus existed, if we assume that Christian communities predated the first gospels then there definitely should have been some kind of an oral narrative about Jesus which predated the gospels. The big questions are what was that narrative, how much of it is reflected in the New Testament (and in the Christian apocrypha) and how much of it is based on reality. My answer to the last question is something along the lines of “very little/none at all”.

  2. I wonder what Crossan and Co. thought about 1 Thess. 4:9 – “We are taught by God to love one another.” If Paul (let alone some 2nd century forger, as some like to claim) did not even have the idea (whether authentically or not) that Jesus taught us to love one another (it didn’t have to be specifically the Golden Rule), then what was oral tradition doing? If none of those gospel-like sayings in the epistle of James and other writings were being attributed to Jesus, just exactly where was oral tradition operating? If not a single epistle writer could appeal to the traditions that Jesus performed miracles, made prophecies just like the ones early prophets like Paul were proclaiming, if no one in “Christ Jesus” circles remembered Judas, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Simon of Cyrene and assorted others who would have served the debates going on in epistolary circles, of what use was oral tradition? And why has modern scholarship completely ignored such indicators that oral tradition about the Jesus story simply didn’t exist in that whole dimension of early Christianity? (That question is rhetorical; we all know the answer.)

    1. ‘I wonder what Crossan and Co. thought about 1 Thess. 4:9 – “We are taught by God to love one another.” ‘

      They would probably say it was part of common tradition, a well known saying that had passed into the background, and was in common use.

      Or perhaps not, as anything remotely similar to what Jesus said is obviously sourced directly from Jesus, while people like Larry Hurtado pass off copying from Greek literature as simply the New Testament writers using common phrases in general use, and not at all sourced from Greek literature.

  3. Richard B. Hays in one sense attempts to answer the question “Do Paul’s writings testify to knowledge of a narrative about Jesus?” in The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:4 — 4:11. His argument is not about second-guessing what lay behind the words of Paul, but integrating the text with rhetorical theory and theory of narrative logic. He does justify Paul’s knowledge of a Jesus narrative behind his references to his theological functions of Jesus but it’s a narrative in which there is precious little overlap with the Gospel narrative details.

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