Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

jesus_disciples_iconIt’s easier for me to address these thoughts posted as a comment to my previous post with a new post here.

I’ll try to take a crack at it. I’m not saying I agree with all of the following, but I think it’s essentially how we got here.

How we got here (i.e. to the conclusion that oral tradition is the necessary and best explanation for the source material of the Gospels) or how we rationalize our assumption? The Gospels-Acts narrative itself leads us to expect an oral tradition between Jesus and the gospels — we are led to picture evangelist and apostolic activity as well as ordinary church members spreading the word — so I suspect oral tradition is a default assumption.

Now it is important, of course, to find evidence in the support of any hypothesis like this and your following list reminds me of several of the supporting arguments used to support it.

But without wanting to sound like a nefarious “hyper-sceptic” it is also my understanding that good method requires us to seriously evaluate counter-evidence, too. How does one raise this question without sounding like some nihilistic anti-god anti-Christ atheist who hates Christianity and everything that is good and decent in the world, all sound critical biblical scholarship and wants to see every religion wiped off the face of the earth?

I am an atheist but like Tamas Pataki I don’t know if eliminating religion would really make the world a better place any more than eradicating all insect pests would really be in humanity’s best interests. Moreover, I can’t imagine how establishing that there really were oral traditions between a Jesus event and the written gospels would make the slightest difference to me personally. I would want to learn and know more about them if we had some basis for establishing their existence.

I will omit the “must’ve” argument that tries to explain away the decades between the historical Jesus and the first gospel. Since scholars assume the HJ and they concede that the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses much later and in a different language, they conclude that the traditions “must’ve” floated around, passed on orally for many years. That’s a circular argument at best. At worst, it’s a deus ex machina that rescues the gospels from their suspicious circumstances.

Yep, that’s the nagging doubt that obliges one to raise the question (without being a “hyper-sceptic”.)

What features about the gospels themselves might lead one to think they have roots in oral tradition?

First, the size of each individual story in, e.g., Mark is about the size of a typical nugget of folklore.

Yes, I have read this. (I think it goes back to Gunkel, yes? He was describing OT stories.) But I would also like to see a demonstration of the claim.

imagesThe sizes of each story, especially the gospel ones, do seem very small to me. Do folklore narrators sit down with wrapped audiences to tell them a twenty second story? Or do they tell a series of fifteen- to thirty-second stories? Or do scribes putting oral folk tales to pen and paper generally abbreviate them? Are the written notes just reminders of the main points of a longer story? If so, what does this explanation suggest for the different ways the evangelists modified each story?

Next, the nuggets or chunks normally tell about just one thing. True, sometimes Mark artfully inserts a chunk inside another chunk, but each chunk (typically) has a single point to make. That “one thing” that the nugget is trying to explain is often a quote from Jesus. Theoretically, these memorable words of Jesus remained alive by being carried within the story, which is just long enough to remember — sort of like an old fairy tale or a modern joke.

Have I jumped the gun with my initial questions? Okay, I can appreciate a twenty-second joke, but I don’t know of too many twenty-second stories that would work on children at bed-time. Am I missing something here? I suspect I am. But I’d like it spelled out rather than waste time with silly questions.

Another feature we notice is the fact that you could tell most of the stories before the passion in almost any order. Good luck trying to figure out time and place from Mark’s narrative. We get a story chunk, then an abrupt connecting word or phrase (e.g., “immediately”), another chunk, followed by yet another, with no topographical or chronological relevance. Their order apparently has nothing to do with character development or pushing the narrative forward. Mark added the stories to his framework, but there’s only the barest hint of any continuity.

Okay, I’m prepared to lay aside my thoughts of story-thematic development in Mark for the sake of giving this one a fair hearing. After all, it is the themes that the stories are used to express where we find possible structural development.


  • If oral traditions testify to a person’s career or experiences of eyewitnesses, would we not expect there to be some logical development of events/experiences over the course of a changing or developing life? If so, would we not expect to find some fundamental logical order in the narrative to reflect biographical experiences (of the hero or the eyewitnesses)?
    • I think of the Beatles becoming a big part of everyone’s life in the mid to late 60s. There are memories/moments that are evidence of the early stages of their careers and these contrast with different types of moments that followed from those (e.g. public performances/studio work; styles of music and fashions; pre- and post-Epstein and pre- and post-Yoko, etc.)
    • Or maybe if Jesus’ career really was only for one year then we would not have time to see such developments.
    • But would we not expect some marked differences between traditions from his early John the Baptist years and those after John’s execution when political powers apparently thought Jesus was now the new JB?
    • Would we not expect differences between the Jesus who was popular before rubbing religious leaders the wrong way and subsequently?
    • And so forth.
  • Wenceslas Hollar - Aesop
    Wenceslas Hollar – Aesop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    What do we do with the Life of Aesop? Lawrence Wills wrote an interesting little book comparing gospel genre with the Life of Aesop. Aesop, like Jesus, is said to perform all sorts of tricks and outsmarting hijinks in good gospel episodic fashion until the final drama that led to his death. Such episodic beads preceding a dramatic finale is standard story telling among ancient epics (e.g. Homer, Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes) and popular “erotic” novellas (e.g. Chariton, Longus, Xenophon of Ephesus). I don’t think it makes very much difference what order so many of these beads are strung together, either.

We learn almost nothing about the people who move about Jesus. (We learn next to nothing about the person of Jesus, for that matter.) The majority of the disciples are known only by their names. They appear and disappear. The pharisees, sadducees, and even “the crowd” show up abruptly and are just as quickly forgotten. Some scholars argue that this phenomenon shows that the stories have been “worn down” over time, retaining only their essential elements.

Do theories of oral tradition support this process? What do we make of other claims (and some evidence) that meaningful stories actually accrue flourishes and embellishments over time? If the stories were being “worn down” over time then do we not have a thesis that testifies to the declining relevance or interest in those stories?

If so, what would have inspired the desire to write gospels? Would we not expect the evangelists to dig a little deeper to locate some embellishments? Do the variants among the gospel stories reflect such an interest or do they reflect theological interests?

If the elements were “essential” would we expect them to appear in the pre-gospel literature such as the epistles?

Markedly different versions of the same pericope appear in different gospels. Most scholars will argue that some of these repeated stories are different tradition threads that stem from the same historical event. (I tend to argue the opposite — that, for example, John changes Mark deliberately or that Mark is “corrected by” Matthew, who is often copied by Luke.)

Yes, but you are an angry atheist warped mentally by a past fundamentalist background so what can we expect?

But seriously, these are surely testable alternatives. If we can locate consistent reasons for one evangelist changing the work of another then we have struck a blow against the variant oral tradition hypothesis.

Or maybe we could say that each oral trad variant was the preserve of a theologically distinct community. This leads us then to one of Richard Bauckham’s better (earlier) works, The Gospels for All Christians where he argues against such a community-provenance hypothesis.

Matthew and Luke, who both copied Mark, seem to be fully aware that the second gospel was composed of separate and separable chunks. They freely move those chunks into different positions within the overall story. They add their own chunks.

Because Mark appears to be assembled from many separate, mostly independent, free-floating stories, because each story is short enough to remember, and because the stories are free of non-essential details, form critics assumed they represent folktales. Now, at some point, after these folktales had been remembered, transmitted, and re-transmitted over time, people may have committed them to writing. That is, we may have had loose sheets of papyrus, each with a story or a saying of Jesus. (Consider, e.g., the Gospel of Thomas and how it was transmitted as collection of sayings.)

So, Mark may have gathered up some folktales from oral tradents, and others from written bits that others had been collecting. (He may have invented some on his own, too.)

In summary then, the components of Mark look like unrelated or at best semi-related folktales that Mark collected. Those folktales, like all folktales in any culture, have a certain size and shape. (They also conform to certain types.) And as in any predominantly oral culture, the folktales were probably passed on orally.

Notice I’ve said nothing about authenticity here. A story could have arisen from some prophecy of the risen Jesus, or it could have started as an allegorical tale that eventually turned into a false memory of Jesus. In any of these cases, the transmission unit and the process would remain the same.

Nothing for me to add, here. These paragraphs are drawing together the implications of the preceding arguments.

The questions I have raised along the way are the sorts of questions I would love to read about in the scholarly literature. I would love to see them addressed. I have encountered some works doing this but so far they are all on the side that argues for sources apart from oral tradition.

What I want to see — and here I need to put back on my old conservative believer hat and find all the arguments I can against those who would question the hoary tradition — are serious arguments challenging the literary borrowing/creative model.


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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Evidence for Pre-Gospel Oral Traditions and Related Questions”

  1. Mark as an amalgamation of folk tales with some of his own written to reference/pay homage to Paul, Homer and various OT writers. Perhaps you have addressed this, but what are the primary hypotheses as to why “Mark” would have written this? An exercise in creative writing? :0 What are the ideas of what points he was trying to make to whom and how would it help date that? What do you make of the idea that the “literal” writing was an exoteric telling of key points for low-level initiates and the esoteric meanings were reserved for higher level initiations leading to the hermetic-like uber-teaching that “the Kingdom of God is within you”?

    1. I wonder about the same question myself often enough. The answer that has, I think, dominated in come quarters originated with Rudolf Bultmann, was developed by Burton Mack and to some extent embraced by Earl Doherty. It argues that “Mark” was wanting to merge the Christ cult theology of Paul with the more prosaic teacher of Galilee traditions into the one story. (Doherty sees Mark fleshing out the Pauline teaching with midrashic creations of his own rather than inherited traditions.)

      To weave these different “traditions” into a single narrative he used the literary allusions you refer to.

      Tom Dykstra, if I recall correctly from my reading of Mark, Canonizer of Paul, has suggested Mark was trying to defend Paul’s gentile mission and the authority of Paul’s writings some years after the departure of Paul himself. Time had come for this defensive move to preserve what Paul had begun. So many of the Jesus stories and sayings actually reflect those of Paul.

      Karel Hanhart and Clarke Owens (both discussed here) believe Mark was written (Hanhart would say an earlier form of Mark was revised) to assist with new identity creation or support in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

      I like all of these suggestions — which is an easy way out of having to decide which one I prefer.

      All of them require an author to exercise some creativity in fitting a Jesus of faith into the theme and that would require using various “midrashic” techniques and drawing upon one’s literary background to accomplish the task.

      I also wonder (and I cannot recall at the moment where I have come across this idea) if the gospels were written to be accepted as “new scriptures” and this accounts for a number of their features that are reminiscent of OT texts. In that case “midrashic” re-writings from the OT would be expected.

      Michael Goulder argued the gospels were composed to be read as lectionaries throughout the year. The episodes match in order the readings of the Jewish lectionaries. Mark, however, would have covered readings for only a half-year.

      Anyone else reading this — Have I forgotten any extant explanations here?

      1. I also wonder (and I cannot recall at the moment where I have come across this idea) if the gospels were written to be accepted as “new scriptures” and this accounts for a number of their features that are reminiscent of OT texts.

        That’s the second half of Dykstra’s argument as I understand it.

        The genre is Scripture, the purpose is the legitimisation of the Gospel According to Paul by showing that his teaching goes right back to the Christ himself, bypassing the incompetent, uncomprehending disciples.

      2. Thanks!

        >I like all of these suggestions

        Are they mutually exclusive?

        Mark was written to be new scripture replacing the old, legitimizing the Gospel According to Paul, scolding the Jews for what had led to the destruction of the temple (the incompetent and uncomprehending Jews) and assisting with the creation of a new post-temple identity.

        Do you then consider the esoteric grimoire idea not supportable?

        1. Possible, but then I hear Richard Carrier reminding us that the more complex our hypothesis the more difficult it will be support.

          Not sure what you mean by “esoteric grimoire idea” — excuse my ignorance, sorry.

          1. On my way out of Xsanity I went through a period where I practised according to hermetic principles. A couple of the more seasoned practitioners believed that Jesus was a magus/master (now ascended) and that Mark specifically, was written for three levels of initiates. The exoteric/mundane would be the be nice to others wisdom for the masses (Neophyte). The next level being where one can through connection with “the divine” accomplished through prayer, etc., be spiritually born again – a type of enlightenment (Adept). The third, being the “Kingdom of God is within” where self is expanded to oneness and one can exhibit great wonders (Magus).

            I have not found anything online that talks about this in any depth. Perhaps there is a good reason.

            1. My own suspicion is that modern “spirit masters”(?) read their own or other philosophies into Mark and that there is no evidence in Mark itself or elsewhere to support their views.

              As for the possibility that our canonical Gospel of Mark was written for initiates as a gateway to more esoteric teachings that were part of ancient mystery systems — yes, very possible. I’d say very likely given that his narrative makes very little sense as a “realistic” narrative (so many implausibilities and contradictions and unexplained symbolic references and unrealistic details — I’ve written about this in more detail before). It was surely written at least in part for purposes now lost to us.

              But the external evidence for this is controversial so I don’t think we can take the point very far.

    2. My hypothesis is quite clear. Mark was written after the First Jewish-Roman War and destruction of the temple as a fictional allegory placing the blame for the war on the Jews.

      I’ve accounted for virtually every passage in the Gospel of Mark as either a literary allusion to the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) or letters of Paul.


      So, my explanation is simple:

      After the war, some follower of Paul who was a Jew that believed, like Paul, that the Jews should integrate with the Gentiles, wrote the story we call Mark, where he uses “Jesus” as a character to walk the reader through a series of events meant to portray the Jews as bad people who deserved the punishment they received from the Romans. I liken this to the story of Huckleberry Finn, with Jesus in place of Jim. Huck Finn was written shortly after the Civil War, and is sett in the pre-Civil War South and uses Jim (escaped slave) to portray the white Southerners as bad people who deserved the outcome of the Civil War that the audience knew they would receive.

      The writer of Mark used literary allusions to the story of Elijah to identify Jesus as “the greatest prophet of God”, and allusions to passages from the OT prophets about God bringing wrath on the Jews for their ungodly ways to drive home the message that the Jews had brought the war upon themselves and deserved what they got.

      The entire story is the invention of the author. There is no oral tradition at all.

  2. I have never been a religious theist myself (my background in early life was open-minded atheist/agnostic) but I don’t see any problems in those tiny “nuggets” having an origin in oral tradition.
    Or maybe they had been written down in a now lost source of such anecdotes about the “miracles” performed by a historical Jesus?
    The Jesus of Q1 is a tantric-mystic master (guru), not a mythical religious personality, but a spiritually developed giant who used his occult powers to demonstrate that he was the one master/guru as described in the Q1 sayings.
    I have personally known such a tantric-mystic master myself (in the flesh) and his use of such powers has led to all kinds of anecdotes in different biographies by disciples who witnessed what happened.

    Of course these witnesses do colour their experiences with their different personal viewpoints and ways of devotion for their master.
    However difficult it is to imagine how these anecdotes passed through stages before they arrived in Mark, it is much more difficult to imagine how the (very distorted) reflections of a tantric-mystic spiritual cult could have ever been imagined by religious christian scribes if there had not been such a cult in the first place.

    An atheist materialist will always dogmatically see miracle stories as proof of purely mythic imagination because he/she does not believe in ‘mind over matter’. I think in Mark these stories about the use of occult powers by Jesus are a mixture of what really happened and heavy editing to fit them in the christian mold. I don’t e.g. believe Jesus would have addressed large gatherings of people ‘who were thus convinced of his majesty’. Rather his instructions would have been to individuals or perhaps small groups of disciples who had been initiated into the spiritual practices that he taught.

    1. I don’t see any problems in those tiny “nuggets” having an origin in oral tradition.

      Noöne is “seeing a problem”. You’re engaging in the fallacy that just because something is possible, it is therefore also likely. In this case the hypothesis of oral tradition has been tested and found lacking. Literary creativity produces the same results on the one hand and on the other it turns out that oral traditions just don’t work like that.

      1. Yes, literary creativity, but based on memories of real historic events, no matter how these were transmitted. A christian writer would never make up that kind of Jesus. In fact the Jesus of Q1 and the first half of Mark fits poorly with the passion-type Jesus of the second half of Mark despite adjustments made by the author in the portrayal of the non-passion Jesus.

        1. Nonsense. You are making up all kinds of assumptions about what the author intended, thought, and would have wanted to write about.

          See my discussion here of the Gospel of Mark, which shows that the entire story is intricately tied together. The opening lines foreshadow the temple cleansing scene and the transfiguration, as well as the destruction of the temple during the war. (which had already happened when the writer was writing this story).


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