Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered

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by Neil Godfrey

henaut1This post continues with the series on Barry W. Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels, a critique of the assumption that oral traditions lie behind the gospel narratives. I have added to Henaut’s case more extensive quotations from works he is criticizing so we can have a better appreciation of both sides of the question.

Oral Clustering and Literary Texts

Kelber argues (rightly) that a hallmark of oral style is the clustering of genres, the sort of thing we can see in the Gospel of Mark where we have clusters of miracle stories together (2.1-3.6), clusters of parables (4.1-37), apophthegmatic controversy stories (11.27-12.37) and logoi (sayings) (13.1-37).

This sounds logical enough, and Kelber points to studies by W. J. Ong, E. Havelock and A. B. Lord (links are to the relevant works online or information about the works) to establish his point that oral communicators tend to group similar types of material for easier recall.

But such oral grouping of sayings brings with it a casualty when an author attempts to put it all in writing. An easy flowing chronological tale is easily lost. This is what lies behind the monotonous use of “and” (kai) in Mark as tale after tale is strung together with little carefully arranged narrative structure (so argues Kelber). It also explains

  • the preference in the text for direct speech;
  • the dominance of the historical present;
  • the lack of ‘artistically reflected prose’;
  • the incomplete characterization of Jesus;
  • the way the narrative is little more than a simple series of events;
  • the preference for the concrete over the abstract.

Kelber classifies the various stories in the Gospel of Mark into Heroic Tales, Polarization Stories and Didactic Stories. The distinctive patterns in each of these types, and the way these types are clustered together, he argues, testifies to them being derived from oral sources.

Heroic Stories — e.g. the ten healing stories (from page 46 of The Oral and the Written Gospel by Kelber)

  • Peter’s Mother-in-Law (1.29-31)
  • the Leper (1.40-45a)
  • the Paralytic (2.1-12)
  • the Man with a Withered Hand (3.1-6)
  • Jairus’s Daughter (5.21-24, 35-43)
  • the Woman with a Hemorrhage (5.25-34)
  • the Syrophoenician Woman (7.24-30)
  • the Deaf Mute (7.31-37)
  • the Blind Man of Bethsaida (8.22-26)
  • the Blind Bartimaeus (10.46-52)

These stories bear the following structures and substructures:

I Exposition of Healing

a) arrival of healer and sick person
b) staging of public forum (onlookers)
c) explication of sickness
d) request for help
e) public scorn or skepticism

II Performance of Healing

a) utterance of healing formula
b) healing gestures
c) statement of cure

III Confirmation of Healing

a) admiration/confirmation formula
b) dismissal of healed person
c) injunction of secrecy
d) propagation of healer’s fame

Polarization Stories — e.g. exoricisms (p. 52)

  • Synagogue of Capernaum (1.21-28)
  • Gerasene Demoniac (1.21-28)
  • Epileptic Boy (9.14-29)

Again we have a set of more or less predictable motifs:

I Confrontation

a) meeting of exorcist and possessed
b) the demon’s warding-off formula
c) the exorcist’s rebuke and silencing

II Expulsion

a) command to exit
b) demon’s violent exit

III Acclamation

a) choral formula
b) propagation of cure

Didactic Stories — e.g. controversy stories culminating in a memorable saying (pp. 55-56)

  • Table Fellowship with Sinners (2.15-17)
  • Issue of Fasting (2.18-19)
  • Plucking Corn on Sabbath (2.23-28)
  • Issue of Divorce (10.2-9)
  • Issue of Possessions (10.17-22)
  • Payment of Taxes (12.13-17)

These consist of two rounds of conversation:

a) mise en scène
b) raising of (provocative) question
c) protagonist’s counter-question
d) response by inquirer(s)
e) protagonist’s answer: memorable saying

Kelber does not see these narratives as originating in a particular Jewish or Hellenistic Sitz im Leben or culture. Rather, he argues they are products of “the oral medium and oral mentality.” They have taken the forms they do as a result of refinement by the requirements of oral performance.

Stock features and motifs may be combined, expanded, substituted or abridged in an endless series of variations during the oral phase, but they all originate there. (p. 62, Henaut)

A critical response

Barry Henaut is not so easily convinced, however. Of Kelber’s argument above, he writes

There is little thought given to the possibility that literary authors aware of these conventions would consciously incorporate, alter or otherwise vary them for theological and literary reasons entirely of their own. (p. 62)

Take the motif of the exorcist’s rebuke of the demon as one example. Is this necessarily a product of oral structuring? Rather, ever since W. Wrede many scholars have long recognized that this and other motifs “play a distinctive role in Mark’s own theological purposes.”

What about the way the various genres are clustered together? Do we read many of them in such groupings in the gospels because they came to the author that way through oral-transmission? Not according to the research of a number of other scholars. Robert Fortna, for example, believes the miracles in the Gospel of John derived from another literary signs source. Others similarly argue for literary sources for Mark’s controversy stories and parables. Matthew clearly used Mark as a literary source for his own miracle accounts.

There is no reason to deny the possibility that authors have grouped the material in clusters themselves for their own purposes or that they were using other written sources. Oral patterns are not necessarily the only or necessary explanations.

Kelber argued that the stories with such oral attributes could not be said to have come directly in their forms from Jewish or Hellenistic environments. But studies have shown that Kelber was mistaken on this point.

Firstly, rabbinic literature that presumably derived from earlier oral teachings has been shown to be quite different from the gospel stories with respect to “pronouncement stories”. In that Tannaitic literature the personality of the one who delivers the telling message is quite ignored. This, of course, is unlike the gospel counterparts where the person of Jesus is the central focus.

But there is other more positive evidence that such stories derived from literary influences as opposed to oral reports:

The case with Philo and Josephus is equally telling. In 16 out of 17 pronouncement stories, according to L. Greenspoon, Philo ‘seems to have taken into his text, with little or no modification, pronouncement stories that were circulating through the Greek world and that were also used by earlier, contemporary, and later writers’. Josephus relates only nine pronouncement stories, none of which are set ‘in any period prior to the tie of Persian domination’.

Hence, the biographical interests of Greek writers in philosophers, poets and politicians provide a much better background for the apophthegmatic interests of the early New Testament community in Jesus’. This evidence suggests that the pronouncement stories as we have them in the Gospels are strongly influenced by Hellenistic literary patterns and have their most natural point of origin within this specific milieu. (p. 63, my formatting and bolding)

Continuing. . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered”

  1. Mark is already so structured and formulaic — how does that square up with Casey and Crossley’s insistence that Mark started scribbling almost as soon as Jesus breathed his last?

    1. Interestingly, at least as far as I can tell, both Casey and Crossley ignore the literary character of Mark and interpret everything as a potential gateway to historical data. I think they would agree wholeheartedly with James McGrath’s blanket claim that literary analysis is irrelevant to the historian. Never mind the character of the documents, just squeeze them dry for historical data, seems to be the assumption.

      So when Jesus is portrayed as saying “Let the dead bury the dead” Crossley does not like the idea that Jesus should have said anything un-Jewish like that so he follows the fundamentalist approach of seeking to harmonize such a clear contradiction to other sayings of Jesus enjoining honour of parents. And the rationale is easy: simply read the gospels not as theological and literary tracts with Jesus being a mouthpiece of proverbial wisdom etc, but as full-historical portrayals. And because nowhere do we read that anyone around Jesus was shocked by Jesus’ statement, the scholar can conclude that Jesus delivered this saying in such a way that no Jew was shocked, and therefore it meant nothing more than one should set spiritual priorities higher than material ones. (“Jesus in the Age of Neoliberalism”, p. 124)

      That’s Crossley’s argument — which of course begs the question why anyone bothered to think Jesus was so special that anyone would imagine him to be raised from the dead.

      There is nothing formulaic or literary about the way Matthew and Luke present this saying in Crossley’s analysis. The scene is assumed to be historical through and through and what is not said tells the scholar all he needs to know in order to harmonize apparent contradictions. Literary artifice and structure is irrelevant to the historical quest in Crossley’s and Casey’s methods. The idea that the evangelist is the real speaker and he is addressing readers through the literary Jesus does not enter the analysis.

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