Jesus the Oral Performer: Questioning an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Henaut credits Crossan for his fascinating interpretation of Jesus writing in the dust.

All four canonical gospels . . . supply us with the general picture of Jesus as speaker of authoritative and often disturbing words, and not as reader, writer, or head of a school tradition. Insofar as he is featured as a prophetic speaker and eschatological teacher, moving from one place to another, surrounded by listeners and engaged in debate, the gospels will have retained a genuine aspect of the oral performer. His message and his person are inextricably tied to the spoken word, not to texts. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 18)

Werner Kelber’s views aroused a “scholarly sensation” when they were published in the 1980s but Barry Henaut, in undertaking his doctoral dissertation a decade later, found them to be based on an error. 

Kelber had argued that the words of Jesus that were carried on through oral tradition before the gospels came to be written were memorized because they made such a powerful impression (“on friend and foe alike”) when first spoken.

It could be said that the impact Jesus made on friends and foes alike was to no small degree due to his choice and implementation of the oral medium. Spoken words breathe life, drawing their strength from sound. They carry a sense of presence, intensity, and instantaneousness that writing fails to convey. . . . Moreover, sounded words emanate from one person and resonate in another, moving along the flow and ebb of human life. They address hearers directly and engage them personally in a manner unattainable by the written medium. One can well imagine Jesus’ words interacting with people and their lives, and enacting presence amidst hearers. . . .

The beginnings of what came to be the Christian tradition undoubtedly go back to Jesus’ own speaking. He sought out people because he had something to say, and part of what he said and did will already have been passed on during his lifetime. (Kelber, pp. 18-20)

The rhetoric troubles Henaut:

Kelber’s portrait is strikingly romantic, given his awareness of the variability within orality and his thesis that no tradition can be claimed as original. (Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels, p. 69)

In my previous post when discussing parables I referred to Kelber’s argument that each oral performance is a new and original event involving an unrepeatable dynamic between audience and speaker. Kelber takes this view of the uniqueness of each oral performance from the studies of Parry and Lord on Yugoslav bards.

If, for example, Jesus spoke a saying more than once, the first utterance did not produce “the original,” not was the second one a “variant” thereof, because each moment of speech is wondrously fresh and new. The concepts of original form and variants have no validity in oral life, nor does the one of ipsissima vox, if by that one means the authentic version over against secondary ones. (Kelber, p. 30)

But there is a more serious flaw yet:

If we are to talk of the historical Jesus in a meaningful way, it is imperative that we first establish a core of authentic material. Kelber has proceeded differently. (Henaut, p. 69)

Henaut points out that what Kelber has done is to begin with the setting of oral storytellers in Bosnia (drawn from the studies of oral cultures by Parry and Lord) and applied this to Jesus.

But problems quickly emerge. Jesus the oral performer — if we are to proceed from the evidence of Parry and Lord — must be viewed as no different from any other oral performer. While distinctions are to be made between Moses, Diogenes, Hillel, Honi the Circle Drawer and Avdo Mededović, how are we to make these distinctions in the absence of concrete evidence? All of them performed in the oral medium; Jesus is not distinctive. 

What is the source of Kelber’s image of Jesus?

The vividness of Kelber’s account and its ability to ‘bring to life’ Jesus before the reader’s eyes lies in the literary background of the Gospels. Jesus, we are told, moves from one place to another and immediately we see him embark into the boat with the command, ‘Let us cross over to the other side’ (Mk 4.35). He is ‘surrounded by listeners and engaged in debate’ and immediately we think of Mark’s pressing crowds and hostile scribes and Pharisees. He has a tremendous impact on friend and foe alike and we hear the wondrous praise ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom given to him? (Mk 6.2) and remember that ‘he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes’ (Mk 1.22).

Indeed, ‘[o]ne can well imagine Jesus’ words interacting with people and their lives, and enacting presence amidst hearers.’

And that is precisely the problem, one can draw up a similar such portrait of Paul the oral performer from the narrative in Acts. Contemporary scholarship (and exegesis of Paul’s letters) warn us against this assumption. (Henaut, pp. 69-70)

Kelber’s influence is still with New Testament scholars. Few scholars today believe that anyone can recover the exact original words of Jesus. Crossan will speak of the “aphoristic core” of Jesus’ parable message or of the “essential structure” that Jesus delivered. Scholars widely accept that each oral delivery is a new performance and that the original tone and method of speech are necessarily lost in the written gospel. (The exceptions like as Maurice Casey who believed he could recover the very exact Aramaic words used by Jesus in specific occasions are few.)

Not that Kelber applied the Parry and Lord model in toto to pre-gospel oral tradition. Avdo Mededović was reputed to be able to memorize epic poems the length of Homer’s Iliad but that was the recollection of verse inherited from generations of bards. Such verses — and tricks of performance — are built from many mnemonic devices: repetition, stock phrases, alliteration, rhythm, and so forth. The Gospel of Mark (understood to be the earliest of the written gospels) is quite different: it is prose narrative making its appearance while oral retellings are supposedly quite young and far from standardized.

Kelber accordingly makes this key point:

Textuality came early to the tradition, and it is not intrinsically implausible that Mark imposed his writing authority upon an unorganized oral lore. (Kelber, p. 79)

The gospel narrative consists of small units that Kelber believes originated as “self-contained oral units of communication.” That these small units have long been used as discrete blocks in Church worship and instruction makes it clear to Kelber that they surely were capable of beginning as parts of the constellation of oral traditions.

Kelber (and most scholars since) have stopped short of exploring the full significance of the difference between epic poetry and narrative prose and what this should imply for our understanding of what appear to be the signs of orality in the written gospel. We’ll explore Henaut’s study on this question further.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Jesus the Oral Performer: Questioning an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels”

  1. Hi Neil

    Because I think Mark is writing allegory about a pre-existent celestial being, I don’t think any of Jesus’s phrases are oral, however, Mark did make use of cycles, three-peats, chiasma, etc; is there any crossover between the literary devices Mark employs and some of the more poetic oral devices used at the time? Do you think what Mark writes is more consistent with his borrowings from Homer, etc? What do you think are the chances of him employing oral recitation in now lost stories?


    1. I will address this in depth in future posts but the short answer that since ancient literature was itself an oral medium in that it was written to be read and heard aloud it stands to reason that the written word employed the same patterns as are found in orality. Even modern literary works that are not primarily meant for the ear are found to be structured around the characteristics we associate with orality — the three-peats as you put it, the alliteration, the cycles.

      This post is actually part of a much longer ongoing series and I think in past posts I have made some reference to this point (e.g. http://vridar.org/2014/04/05/oral-tradition-taken-for-granted-continued/ where I may have included some more discussion around this. But I will certainly be covering it in more depth in future.

      I don’t see Mark copying the oral features of Homer in the same way he draws upon some of his scenarios. The features often pointed to as signs of oral origin in the gospel are also found widely in ancient literature. They cannot of themselves be used as evidence either way — they are a feature of both forms of communication.

      1. I love much of Michael T’s commentary and the way he has pulled so many strands together (including a minor contribution of my own) I have to confess I have had difficulty with the complexity of his chiastic thesis. I don’t know if any author of antiquity ever wrote an entire book with such a consciously woven scaffolding. I find it very difficult to imagine any writer doing so and when one looks carefully at some of the chiastic points one might begin to question how strong some of them really are. Some of them seem to be at too high a level of abstraction to be certain matches. That’s the one point of Michael’s I have not been able to easily accept, unfortunately. But I know other scholars such as Maryanne Tolbert have also argued for grand chiasmic schemes for Mark. That adds a further difficulty to my mind since it seems to point to the subjectivity with which they can be identified when taken to that level.

        Whitney Shiner, by the way, in “Proclaiming the Gospel”, suggested that the reason for clumps of chiastic patterns was to aid memory. The comparison is made to architecture — gable panels of temples would have symmetrical relief sculptures like the pattern of chiasms. The one reciting could visualize such a pattern for the text to help with recall.

  2. I had remembered something about the studies of oral storytellers as applied to the Iliad and thought of it as a (perhaps rare) example of an “orality theory” done right: it produced concrete results; it explained specific bits of Iliad text that had confused earlier scholars. Even if the Iliad’s “orality theory” eventually is overthrown or revised (I’m not up on the Iliad anymore, but I’m vaguely aware that there has been some strong push against the status quo there recently) it will have at least pushed the scholarship of that text forward in useful ways.

    Turning to the NT, though, I’m not seeing orality producing anything like the results that it had on Iliad studies. Orality in the NT tends to be something that is asserted but which fails to provide any predictions, explanations and other useful things.

      1. Thanks for the link, Neil. I had not seen that post before. Very helpful. Just tonight, I re-read Thompson’s take on the story of Moses, and it struck me that the story of Moses in Exodus was a reaction to an older tradition (that transmitted by Hecataeus of Abdera, for example), not a rewriting/redaction/interpolation of that tradition.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading