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.
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