Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

henautThis post continues on directly from Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1).

Barry W. Henaut is arguing that scholars have taken for granted the assumption that the Gospels drew upon oral traditions about Jesus, or sources like Q that drew upon oral traditions, for their narratives. This is not to say that Henaut argued against the historical Jesus. Not at all. I assume Henaut does not doubt the historicity of Jesus or that there were oral traditions circulating about him after his death. What he is arguing is something quite independent of (though not irrelevant to) the question of Jesus’ historicity.

He is arguing that the evidence that the Gospel narratives were derived creatively from other literary sources is stronger than the evidence that they were based on oral traditions that could be traced back to Jesus.

This post continues Henaut’s discussion of Bultmann’s view of oral tradition.

Double Attestation and Orality (continued)

Here is how Bultmann reconstructs the “Confession of Faith in Jesus” passage. Keep in mind that the saying in Mark is believed to be derived from a source that is quite independent of the one in Luke which is said to be derived from Q. What scholars/Bultmann have believed we are reading here is a double independent witness (Mark and Q) to the existence of an oral tradition about a saying of Jesus.

Because Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” in the third person it appears that he does not consider himself to be that Son of Man. But we know early Christians did believe he was the Son of Man. Therefore, it is argued, this saying derives from Jesus.

Mark 8:38


Q 12:8-9
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.


Later the Gospel of Matthew will change the saying so that Jesus says, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess” so that the words of Jesus are brought into line with Christian belief that Jesus was that Son of Man.

Henaut is uncomfortable with this argument:

Bultmann has again overstated his case in assigning this logion to Jesus. The phrases [I] and [the Son of Man] need not imply a distinction of person — they are more likely in synonymous parallelism with a change of wording. (p. 36)

We see similar arguments from a number of other scholars who interpret the “Son of Man” in this context not as a Christological title derived from the Book of Daniel, but an originally Aramaic idiomatic circumlocution for “a human/person/man”. The similarity lies in seeing understanding “I” and “son of man” as being an instance of synonymous parallelism. (I think this is adding further complexity to the argument by introducing layers of other constructs, including imagined historical scenarios and lines of communication through many decades before it was put in writing, to make the saying work. Far simpler, in my mind, to imagine the author drawing upon the literary antecedent of Daniel.)

We can even witness a contemporary illustration of how such parallelism works by looking at the sayings of a follower of Jesus that were left on this blog. Like Jesus, dbg speaks modestly of himself, David Gowler, in the third person. 🙂 

The Son of Man and the seven lampstands
The Son of Man and the seven lampstands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Above all, Henaut does not let us forget that the “confession of Jesus” was a prime theological concern for the early church — see 1 Corinthians 12:3 — and other scholars (e.g. H. Conzelmann) have argued that all of the Son of Man sayings originated in the post-resurrection church. So whether Jesus was historical or not, the sayings make a lot of sense as being attributed only to a Jesus who was believed to have risen from the dead.

That is, mere double (independent) attestation is not a secure argument for a saying going back to the historical Jesus.

Sayings Based on Hebrew Scriptures or Proverbs

Given the “vast cultural heritage available to the church” how can we sift through what might have been said by Jesus and what might have been borrowed from other sources by the authors of the Gospels?

Take the sayings of Jesus that are about arguments over the Hebrew Scriptures.

Bultmann believes these are sayings that originated in the “post-resurrectional theological debates of the primitive community”. He places them in the early Aramaic-speaking phase of the church.

Henaut’s response:

  • Paul’s letters also inform us that there was much debate even in the Hellenistic churches over the meaning of the Torah.
  • The Hebrew Bible or Septuagint was available to the authors of the Gospels (or the authors of their written sources) so such material need not have had an oral history at all.

There are also sayings of other teachers and wisdom figures that have been given to Jesus. Bultmann limits these to Jewish and Oriental sources.

Example: Matthew 6:24 (Q 16:13): No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Compare the “Oriental saying”: No one can carry two melons in one hand.

And Mark 4:21 Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? Compare You don’t beat a drum under a rug.


  • Matthew 6:34b sufficient for the day [is] the evil of it.
  • Matthew 12:34b out of the abundance of the heart doth the mouth speak.
  • Matthew 24:28 wherever the carcase may be, there shall the eagles be gathered together.
  • Luke 12:2, 3 there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known; because whatever in the darkness ye said, in the light shall be heard: and what to the ear ye spake in the inner-chambers, shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops.


Interestingly, Bultmann limits these sayings to Jewish and Oriental sources. . . . There are so many analogies in the rabbinic literature that on may say “Not one of the ethical precepts of Jesus was, or needed to be, entirely unique”, quoting G. Kettle, The Problems of Palestinian Judaism and Primitive Christianity (1926).

Perhaps Jesus did say some of these, perhaps he was quoting proverbs already well known, perhaps the church attributed some of them to Jesus. Bultmann admits all possibilities. Either way, such sayings are the least significant for any reconstruction of the historical Jesus, as Henaut remarks.

He also says that Bultmann “underestimates the number of such instances”. Such material was part of the wider background of the church and the gospel authors as well as of Jesus. It is impossible to know what, if any, such sayings originated with Jesus himself.

Prophetic and Apocalyptic Sayings


  • Q 6:20-21 Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  • Q 7:22b-23 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
  • Q 10:23-24 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
  • Q 12:8-9 And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

Henaut quotes Bultmann’s conclusion about prophetic and apocalyptic sayings like these:

This material likely contains authentic Jesus sayings since they ‘are obviously not typical products of apocalyptic fancy, but original utterances of a prophetic personality’. Hence, one ‘may with perfect right recognize among them authentic words of Jesus‘. (p. 39, quoting Bultmann’s ‘The Study of the Synoptic Gospels’ in Form Criticism: A New Method of New Testament Research (ed. and trans F. C. Grant: repr. New York: Harper, 1962 [New York, Willett, Clark & Company, 1934]), pp. 56-57)

Such reasoning (at least to my way of reading literature) is naïve. One sees here the power of the “holy text” even over a scholar as liberal as Bultmann. A child does not read a fairy tale with the assumption that an “originally sounding utterance” must necessarily be attributed to the character in the real world beyond that story. But “holy writ” is not read like that. Even scholars, including atheist biblical scholars, still seem to “suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication” when they read this text. (See Fantasy and Religion where this proclivity is discussed and explained.)

The argument is circular: the narrative is assumed to be in significant ways a record of oral tradition traceable back to the historical Jesus; the historicity of Jesus and the oral tradition is said to be certain because of the evidence of the existing gospel narrative.

But let’s get back to Henaut’s own critique:

But not all such sayings are authentic. Rev. 3:20 and 16:15 prove that prophets spoke in Jesus’ name. It is probable that some of the prophetic sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels originated in this fashion.

By attributing these sayings to Jesus, Bultmann has given them a history as oral tradition. He has also invoked the criterion of dissimilarity by arguing that these sayings are not typical of apocalyptic fancy but rather bear the stamp of an original prophetic personality. The ‘uniqueness’ of Jesus argument bears closer scrutiny. To what extent is this a theological presupposition of Bultmann which creates as much evidence as it uncovers? (p. 39)

So Henaut examines the above sayings in order:

  • Q 6:20-21 The beatitude form of this saying is not unique to Jesus, nor is concern for the poor and hungry. Such form and content are equally at home in the theological world of Q, Matthew, Luke and Thomas.
  • Q 10:23-24 These sayings surely cannot precede the resurrection:
    • The eyes that see are in direct contrast to those eyes from whom Jesus’ sonship is hidden (compare Luke 10:21). Therefore what the eyes are seeing is the divine proof of Jesus as the Son of God.
    • (This is also an apocalyptic theme of Q — the later layer of Q said to be added when the Q community responded to the rejection of their message.)
    • The solemn “For I tell you” phrase also bears a post-resurrectional stamp.
    • The theme of “prophets and kings” is also a “well-attested Q literary and theological motif” (Q 10:13-16; 7:18-35; 13:34-35; 14:16-24).
  • Q 7:22b-23 The proofs offered here are the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5 and Isaiah 61:1. They are the messianic signs of the new age. As such they must be seen as post-resurrectional sayings.
    • Given the christological overtones, the apologetical motif regarding the superiority of Jesus to John, and the double fulfilment of scripture in Jesus’ ministry (Q 722 = Isa. 35.5; Q 7.27 – Mal. 3.1) it is impossible to ascribe this text to the ministry of Jesus. (p. 40)

Even as post-resurrectional sayings they could, theoretically, still have an oral origin in the church. But Henaut sees them fitting so snugly into Q’s literary and theological themes that they surely deserve to be viewed just as easily as Q literary creations.

Evaluation of Form Criticism

The lasting contribution of form criticism is what it has contributed to our understanding of Gospel origins:

  • the tradition is shaped by its context, whether social, theological or literary
  • the first critical tools were advanced to separate later from earlier layers of tradition
  • attention was drawn to the cultural parallels to the synoptic tradition’s material . . . .

But Bultmann’s use of these form-critical tools has been sometimes problematic.

The assumptions of evolutionary growth and continuity between oral and written traditions are inadequately supported.

Similarly, the unproven assumption that the mere form of a unit is a precise clue to its point of origin and age can no longer be accepted. (Recall the previous post where we saw that the miracle and pronouncement stories were well-known and could easily have been employed by the evangelists themselves.)

Underlying a great deal of the form critic’s analysis has also been a too ready assumption of an oral bed-rock to the traditions. (Recall the previous post where we note that more recent scholarship has shown us that the evangelists were more adept as literary composers and far more than mere compilers of traditions.)

The concept of the Sitz im Leben likewise argues in an evolutionary manner: the social setting of missionary preaching and exhortation, which is believed to underlie a number of forms, is in turn used to establish the probability of the material having originated in the oral phase. In this regard the argument is circular. (p. 41)

To be continued. Next post will deal with scholarly assumptions of oral tradition since Bultmann. . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)”

  1. Last week I conducted a “dialogue” on FB with a couple of evangelical Christians on this topic. They were absolutely impervious to any of this sort of argument re oral transmission. There was a rock solid wall and my waves crashed against it. As far as they were concerned, all the gospels were carefully transmitted from their Palestinian origins to the gospel writers. Eventually I just grew tired of the whole thing. I would refer them to your excellent posts on the topic, but frankly it would be pointless. But thanks for your efforts, I for one appreciate it.

    1. You might be interested in the explanation for this imperviousness (perverseness?) that is found in “In Gods We Trust” as outlined in an earlier post here, Fantasy and Religion.

      These sorts of arguments attempting to reference the scholarship are of little interest to most believers. Occasionally believers post here but they are generally trying to witness Christ against posts like this and rarely stay. Unfortunately a good many biblical scholars are likewise only interested in such arguments to the extent that they can be manipulated to support their faith, too.

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