Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

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) —


[6] And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

[7] But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judaea,

[8] And from Jerusalem, and from Idumaea, and from beyond Jordan; and they about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they had heard what great things he did, came unto him.

[9] And he spake to his disciples, that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him.

[10] For he had healed many; insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him, as many as had plagues.

[11] And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God.

[12] And he straitly charged them that they should not make him known.

[13] And he goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto him whom he would: and they came unto him.

[14] And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach,

[15] And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils:

[16] And Simon he surnamed Peter;

[17] And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:

[18] And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite,

[19] And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house.

[20] And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.

[21] And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.

[22] And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.

[23] And he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan?

[24] And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

[25] And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

[26] And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end.

[27] No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.

[28] Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:

[29] But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation:

[30] Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.

[31] There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.

[32] And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.

[33] And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

[34] And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

[35] For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.


[1] And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land.

[2] And he taught them many things by parables

The argument is that 3:9 makes sense at 4:1 and is “incongruous” in its present location. Therefore, we can conclude that here we have evidence of a story unit that existed prior to the Gospel and that had been “corrupted” by the evangelist.

Henaut, however, directs us to think through why the evangelist would have wanted to move that verse to an earlier location (from 4:1 to 3:9). Then, having asked that question, he asks us to consider another: If the evangelist did have a need to place the verse in its present location for whatever reason, then he would have had that need whether he was working with an earlier oral tradition or was creating the story himself from scratch.

If “Mark” wanted that passage there at “3:9”, then why not simply assume that that’s how he decided to write the story out of whole cloth? Why add complexity to the “problem” by assuming that “Mark” inherited a differently worded story from oral tradition and that he then decided to relocate certain parts of it for his own reasons? Is it not simpler to think that he created the passage and placed it where he did from his own whim from the start? Why introduce all the oral tradition extras where the verse was somewhere else and had to be relocated to serve “Mark’s” literary purpose?

The whole procedure rests on an assumption of incongruity in Mark’s text which can only be resolved by relocation. But this does not seriously explore the implications of Mark’s motives behind his ‘relocation’. The verse’s present location shows that Mark needed it at 3:9 — might not these same needs have motivated the redactional creation of the verse without any prior tradition? Written traditions do not, necessarily, have oral predecessors. (p. 30)

Fixed Forms and Unliterary Character

Bultmann believed that primitive literature — both oral and written — makes use of more or less fixed forms. These fixed forms follow their own laws of style and are the same for both oral and early written literature. By studying the forms of written units in this “primitive” Gospel literature, and given that the same rules applied to oral forms of these units, Bultmann established “laws of transmission” that “uncovered” the earlier oral forms of the story or saying.

(Form criticism is no longer as popular among New Testament scholars as it used to be. I wonder if there may still be room for form criticism in exploring the history of texts, but that discussion will have to wait for another day.)

Henaut points to three assumptions in this argument:

  1. Both written and oral literature are essentially a single category;
  2. An emphasis on fixed forms (with the implication that literature originates in these ‘pure forms’);
  3. An emphasis on ‘laws of style’.

It is the first assumption that is the basis for arguing that there are “laws of transmission” that can lead scholars back to an earlier oral form of a passage. The earliest written narrative was said to be “unliterary” and little more than a slight adaptation of an oral saying. The evangelists are considered to be mere compilers rather than creative authors.

For Henaut, however,

Recent studies do not support these assumptions.* Further, as W. Kelber argues, we can no longer equate the hermeneutics of speaking with writing. Noting such theorists as A.B. Lord and W.J. Ong, Kelber states that contemporary ‘theorists of orality appear virtually unanimous in emphasizing the linguistic integrity of the difference between spoken versus written words’. Hence, the ‘writing performance of Mark is subject to laws different from those that regulate pre-Markan oral drives’. Oral and written traditions thus operate on different principles. (pp. 31-32, my bolded emphasis)

* E. Best (1985, 1965); T.A. Burkill (1956, 1956-57, 1972); W.H. Kelber (1976); H.-D. Kulgge (1968); W. Marxsen (1969); R.H. Stein (1968)

Stability and Point of Origin

Since Bultmann viewed oral tradition as a relatively stable medium, it followed that one could see whether a literary unit was expressed in a “pure form” or if it had been tampered with slightly, and if so, it should be possible to determine the relative age of the literary unit.

Against this view Kelber has shown that oral traditions are capable of change: they can be expanded or abridged. Words and details can be changed in the course of oral transmission however much the “form” itself remains intact. Stock features of a tale can be interchanged, the order varied, and motifs introduced from other materials.

In order to determine the relative age of a story unit, Bultmann believed that if we could see how Matthew and Luke modified Mark’s and Q’s passages, then we could extrapolate that process (since the laws of this early “unliterary” written stage were the same as for oral literature) and discover a point of origin in the oral medium.

Henaut questions again whether there are such laws of oral transmission that can be determined from the written texts and projected back into an oral period.

And more:

There is also the unargued assumption that redactional techniques seen in Matthew and Luke need not be viewed as individual tendencies nor as written redactional actions: rather, Butlmann proposes to apply the same processes to the oral period. (p. 33)

While I do not think that the Gospel of Mark is “great literature”, I do notice a growing number of scholars publishing on all of the literary qualities of the canonical gospels and arguing, through comparisons with the literature of the wider society of that day, that they are far more literary than form-critics have often taken them to be.

Sitz im Leben and Orality

It is the situation in the community’s life (or Sitz im Leben) that is said to determine a particular form of literature. These community situations are the means of classifying those different forms.

Bultmann’s first form was the gospel “miracle story”. A typical example is Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. He noted that these narratives closely resembled those of Lucian of Samosata.

A second form was the short narrative setting for a saying, the apophthegm (the name of the Greek narratives of a similar structure) or pronouncement stories. The same form is found in Jewish literature, but in those cases the hero’s saying is usually given as a counter-question or a brief parable — as when a pagan philosopher or emperor attacks a Rabbi over some Jewish teaching, and the Rabbi responds with counter-question.

Examples of such Jewish-like apophthegms are Mark 2:19; 3:24-26. According to Bultmann, one

may safely infer that these narratives have almost all been formulated in a Jewish environment [its Sitz im Leben] and do not belong to the later Hellenistic period of development.

By contrast the Greek apophthegm characteristically begins with a formula like “When he was asked by” or “One when he observed how”.

So we see once again the model of material originating in a “pure form” and that this may “degenerate” over time through the transmission process. All units that are of the same form are understood to have the same Sitz im Leben — that is, they come from similar social settings and points of origin.

Thus an apophthegm (or what Dibelius called a “paradigm”) will be judged as coming from the relatively early period of transmission — when the stories originated among the Christ followers of the Jewish environment.

What problems does Henaut see with any of this?

Firstly, both forms — miracle stories and apophthegms that we find in the gospels — can be found in the literature that pre-dates the Gospels. So there is no reason to assume that the early church would express itself exclusively through pronouncement stories to pass on Jesus traditions.

Moreover, students of folklore, Helmaut remarks, do not emphasize these sorts of “laws of transmission” that Bultmann infers. Besides, Luke’s special material such as the Good Samaritan parable consists of extended pronouncement stories — so Henaut concludes that mere form does not guarantee an oral history phase of the tale.

A question I myself would like to ask is why a Jewish rabbinic form of a story in the gospels necessarily suggests an early oral origin given that we know rabbinic Judaism was a distinctly post 70 ce phenomenon. I know the literary traditions are supposed to reflect the sayings of an earlier period, but that doesn’t provide a conclusive answer.

Double Attestation and Orality

Especially interesting is Bultmann’s analysis of material found in both the Gospel of Mark and also (independently) in Q and how he uses this comparison to reconstruct detailed and complex stages of oral transmission.

In the following table I have bolded the matching passages between Mark and Q. The passages in red are the ones Bultmann said formed the original core (oral) saying. (The bolded black font might have been included here but I wonder if a typo in Henaut’s book led to this passage being overlooked.)

The passages in purple are judged to be a later addition to the red core material. This was added during the oral phase.

But before that purple section, there one strand of the oral tradition also added two more sayings — those in green. These oral additions were unknown to Mark, even though he was aware of the later purple passages.

Mark 3:22-30


Q 11:14-23
`He hath Beelzeboul,’ and — `By the ruler of the demons he doth cast out the demons.’ 14 And he was casting forth a demon, and it was dumb, and it came to pass, the demon having gone forth, the dumb man spake, and the multitudes wondered,
23 And, having called them near, in similes he said to them, `How is the Adversary able to cast out the Adversary? 15 and certain of them said, `By Beelzeboul, ruler of the demons, he doth cast forth the demons;’
24 and if a kingdom against itself be divided, that kingdom cannot be made to stand; 17 And he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, `Every kingdom having been divided against itself is desolated;
25 and if a house against itself be divided, that house cannot be made to stand; and house against house doth fall;
26 and if the Adversary did rise against himself, and hath been divided, he cannot be made to stand, but hath an end. 18 and if also the Adversary against himself was divided, how shall his kingdom be made to stand? for ye say, by Beelzeboul is my casting forth the demons.
27 `No one is able the vessels of the strong man — having entered into his house — to spoil, if first he may not bind the strong man, and then his house he will spoil. 19 `But if I by Beelzeboul cast forth the demons — your sons, by whom do they cast forth? because of this your judges they shall be;
28 `Verily I say to you, that all the sins shall be forgiven to the sons of men, and evil speakings with which they might speak evil, 20 but if by the finger of God I cast forth the demons, then come unawares upon you did the reign of God.
29 but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness — to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment;’ 21 `When the strong man armed may keep his hall, in peace are his goods;
30 because they said, `He hath an unclean spirit.’ 22 but when the stronger than he, having come upon [him], may overcome him, his whole-armour he doth take away in which he had trusted, and his spoils he distributeth;

So Bultmann is able to reconstruct a history of the oral phase in some detail: first the red passages, then two new passages (in green) were added, and finally the purple phrases were added.

All of this development preceded any of it being set down in a written gospel.

This reconstructs a highly active oral phase and encourages the belief that this phase of the tradition can be discovered with a good degree of certainty and detail. (p. 35)

Bultmann proceeds on the assumption that each sentence itself amounts to an individual saying with its own prior history of transmission.

If this be true, it is strange that none of them can be found in a different context in any of the early Christian sources.

The green passages missing from Mark pose a problem of their own. Should they be assigned to a later edition (redaction) of Q?

But Henaut draws particular attention to the sequence of sayings common to both Mark and Q. Note that we have here five items falling into the same sequence (and Mark is not supposed to have known Q: his material is from oral sayings).

Yet there is no logical necessity for such an order in the material. If Mark and Q truly inherited separate oral traditions, the agreement in the order of this core material is remarkable! In other words, this unit’s oral history prior to Mark and Q is far more difficult to ascertain than Bultmann acknowledges, and the core tradition in Mark and Q may actually share a literary relationship. (p. 36, my bolded emphasis)

I had expected to finish Bultmann’s view of oral tradition according to Henaut’s critique in this post, but it has stretched out far longer than I anticipated. Will save the rest for another time.

English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann
Rudolf Bultmann (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)”

  1. ” Why add complexity to the “problem” by assuming that “Mark” inherited a differently worded story from oral tradition and that he then decided to relocate certain parts of it for his own reasons? Is it not simpler to think that he created the passage and placed it where he did from his own whim from the start?”

    This passage reminds me of a perennial meme that comes up in discussing the origins of christianity – that Occam’s Razor’ would favor an historical Jesus because it’s supposedly simpler to assume there was such a man, then assume there was an oral tradition, then the authors went to work. As is pointed out – why add two more epicycles to the system that can function very well without them?

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