In the last installment, we covered oral tradition. As I look over the post now, I see that I missed several opportunities to add the adjective, “rich.” Biblical scholars love to write the words “rich oral tradition.” How, you may ask, do they know such details about something based mostly on conjecture? Watch out! If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll earn yourself demerits for skepticism.
Bart Ehrman naturally considers it important to expound upon the rich oral tradition™ behind the gospels, because it connects the historical Jesus to the written New Testament. Serious scholars would probably also care about how the evangelists assembled that material. They would ask themselves what the authors intended. Did they think they were writing biographies, histories, hagiographies, novels, or what? Were authors of the gospels even conscious of what they were doing; did they have a plan?
What is a gospel?
An actual historian would most likely start with the written work first, and work back from there. He or she would want to determine the type of document we’re dealing with — i.e., the genre of the gospels. We’ve covered this topic many times on Vridar, including my series about how the consensus changed dramatically over the past century.
As we learned previously, the form critics cared about genre, too. Rudolf Bultmann called it the first task of form criticism. Until we confirm that the gospel of Mark is not a story about Jesus, but a collection of stories about Jesus, we have no solid grounds for dividing the book into individual pericopae (that supposedly came from distinct oral streams).
Oddly enough, the scholar credited as the father of Formgeschichte, Hermann Gunkel, never used the word. Rather, he focused on the Gattung or genre of the literature in the Old Testament. He well understood the need to identify the book of Genesis as a large collection of individual traditions assembled under the guiding hand of gifted redactors. He accepted the prevailing Graf-Wellhausen theory that the Pentateuch is composed of four main separate, written sources: J, E, D, and P. But he also argued that the individual source documents reflect much older oral tradition.
Are the gospels written “memories”?
However, in Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman sidesteps the entire issue, preferring instead to treat the gospels as memories. At least in the case of their readers, the gospels certainly became memories. But he does not provide any sustained credible argument that the gospel stories had been actual memories of their communities, let alone give us any reason to believe that such memories go back to real events that occurred in the life of Jesus.
He introduces his discussion of the canonical gospels not by telling us they are biographies, histories, or whatever. Skipping over the unpleasant task of trying to place the gospels in their literary setting, he simply asserts they are writings that contain memories. Ehrman explains:
For the rest of this chapter and the next I will apply these insights to the memories of Jesus in the early church. I cannot delve into every memory in every Christian community—that would take an entire book, or even series of books. I have instead chosen, first, to discuss, at relative length, the distinctive recollections of Jesus found in three of our early Christian texts, the Gospels of Mark, John, and Thomas. I will then undertake a much shorter assessment of collective memories in a range of other early Christian writings, to give a fuller sense of the kaleidoscopic images of Jesus in early Christian memory. All of these books were produced at different times and in different communities, each of which had its own history and circumstances. As a result, each of these writings remembers Jesus in distinctive ways. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 226, emphasis mine)
[Note: Neil has astutely pointed out that you can replace almost any occurrence of the noun “memory” with “tradition” in these chapters and you wouldn’t notice any difference. It makes you wonder whether Bart’s dabbling in memory theory has had any actual effect on his understanding of the NT.]
Of course, we have Ehrman on record elsewhere on the question of gospel genre. He considers them a particular variety of βιος (bios). “Even the gospel of John?” you may ask. Yes, even John.
Despite its wide-ranging differences from the Synoptics, the Gospel of John clearly belongs in the same Greco-Roman genre. It too would be perceived by an ancient reader as a biography of a religious leader: it is a prose narrative that portrays an individual’s life within a chronological framework, focusing on his inspired teachings and miraculous deeds and leading up to his death and divine vindication. (Ehrman, 2004, p. 155, emphasis mine)
Sifting the gospels
Ehrman believes that the gospel writers tried to preserve the memories of Jesus and that the communities sought to ensure the stories they had been telling (in the rich oral tradition) would not fade away. Now at the same time, he knows that some of the stories are fiction. So he sees the historian’s task as separating the wheat from the chaff.
How do we recognize invention? When confronted with an implausible story, Ehrman is willing to entertain the possibility that it didn’t really happen. Sometimes, he reasons, we should recognize them as allegories that point to a deeper truth. For example, he argues that the two-stage healing of the blind man with spit prefigures the next pericope.
That this story is meant to be a symbolic account of people who do not see well, but eventually come to see, is clear from its narrative context. In the very next story Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. They tell him that some say he is John the Baptist come back to life; others the great prophet Elijah; and yet others one of the prophets. He then asks who they themselves think he is. Peter responds: “You are the messiah” ([Mark] 8:27–30). (Ehrman, 2016, p. 232, emphasis mine)
He treats the Barabbas story in similar fashion. Ehrman asks rhetorically where such an unbelievable story comes from. He explains that the evangelists blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus, and so the Barabbas story shows Pilate as a merciful governor who tries to let an innocent man free. But “the Jews” will have nothing of it.
In Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the name Bar-abbas literally means “son of the father.” And so, in a very poignant way, the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of “son of the father” the Jewish people preferred. Do they prefer the one who is a political insurgent, who believed that the solution to Israel’s problems was a violent overthrow of the ruling authorities? Or do they prefer the loving “Son of the Father” who was willing to give his life for others? In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 156)
Ehrman calls this story a “distorted memory.” By what criteria does he reach this conclusion? First, it isn’t plausible. We have no evidence that any Roman governor let a prisoner free on a local holiday. And from what other contemporary sources tell us, Pilate would gladly have killed the both of them, along with anyone who dared to complain about it.
Second, the narrative has obvious allegorical roots. By that I mean: The story doesn’t come off as a historical event laden with symbolic overtones. On the contrary, we can clearly identify it as an allegory masquerading as history.
Negative and positive historical criteria
If we can identify a story as fiction because it conflicts with known historical facts, defies common sense, or breaks the laws of physics, and because it has clear symbolic intent, then how do we identify a story as probably true? What tools can we use to separate the historical wheat from the allegorical chaff? In this book, Ehrman appeals to “gist memory.” Unexpectedly, he cites the research of Jan Vansina, of oral tradition fame. He writes:
From his experience, Vansina found very much the same attitude toward keeping a tradition “the same” as Parry, Lord, and Goody: “It happens that the same persons with regard to the same series of events will tell two different, even contradictory stories.” [Vansina, 1985, p. 65] Even so, as with these other researchers, Vansina found that despite enormous differences and even discrepant accounts, the “gist” of a report is often retained in the various retellings. He did note, however, that this was not always the case. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 176, emphasis mine)
I find it odd that Ehrman would use this quotation to try to bolster his argument about the gospels containing gist memory that we can trust. First of all, we should note that the context of Vansina’s sentence comes from his overall discussion on “Testimony and Text.” In it, he carefully lays out his understanding of the relationships among oral traditions, oral performances, verbal testimony, and text.
You might think that text captures the performance and represents a snapshot of oral tradition. Hence, if we have multiple attestation of oral tradition, we can (as so many NT scholars tell us) reconstruct actual history through the clever use of literary criteria. But Vansina warns:
Ideally, a testimony could be thought of as referring to a single tradition, but in practice nothing is less certain. The informant may have heard several traditions which he conflates, making a single testimony of them. . . . Apart from comparisons with other testimonies, there is no ready means to find out whether a testimony derives from one tradition only or from several. So the link between a testimony and a tradition is indirect. It is not one-to-one at all.
It is best to treat the statements of different witnesses as different, even when they have the same referent and seem to derive their information from the same tradition, for the reasons given above. We know of tradition only through the prism of personality. (Vansina, 1985, p. 65, emphasis mine)
Even if we were certain that the gospels reflect oral tradition, we do not have direct access to that tradition. Consider as well that Vansina had spoken directly with living storytellers, while we must rely on written texts. What Vansina saw through a prism we see through a glass, darkly.
Gist the facts, ma’am
As I said above, I find it odd that Ehrman would quote Vansina and claim that “the ‘gist’ of a report is often retained in the various retellings,” because in the same paragraph Vansina gives a concrete illustration of two different, contradictory stories. Once again, here’s the quotation Ehrman used followed by Vansina’s example.
It happens that the same persons with regard to the same series of events will tell two different, even contradictory stories. This could be found in Rwanda in 1958-60 when informants explained how the two different castes, Tutsi and Hutu, came into being. In the one story, Kanyarwanda had several sons, including Gatutsi and Gahutu, who were ancestors of the Tutsi and Hutu and therefore brothers. According to the other, Kigwa, the first Tutsi, fell from the sky on an earth inhabited by Hutu. Informants knowing both stories never combined them; they always chose one as true and the other as false. (Vansina, 1985, p. 65)
In this case, we have no consistent “‘gist’ of a report . . . retained in the various retellings.” Instead, we have two separate stories. At first glance we might discount the second and accept the first as more likely. After all, people don’t fall from the sky and found social groups. But if we dig just a bit deeper, we find that Kanyarwanda is a legendary figure in East African lore. So we have two disparate stories with no common ground. And gist memory would hardly matter, since both traditions refer to people who never existed and events that never happened.
Genre and plausibility
And here is where genre can help. Vansina did not imagine he was listening to biographies or histories. These traditions explained their origins, but the storytellers used them to substantiate the legitimacy of whichever side they were on. Knowing the genre and the intent leads us to a better understanding of the stories.
Consider, for a moment, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, a subject we’ve considered many times on Vridar. I’ve argued that it’s a symbolic miracle story. As Origen put it in his commentary on John, the gospel writer “borrowed the form of an actual occurrence” to make a theological point. The genre of the story should be obvious once we consider its implausibility.
Ehrman reaches the same conclusion with respect to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Roman soldiers would have been stationed around the city. How can we believe that this wild celebration of their future conqueror would not make them sit up, take notice, and act accordingly? If the throngs were really proclaiming Jesus as the coming messiah in his glorious and heralded entry into the city, how is it that he was not arrested on the spot and taken out of the way, precisely to prevent some kind of riot or mob uprising? I find it completely implausible. I think this must be a distorted memory. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 146, emphasis mine)
Yet, when it comes to a similarly implausible event — violence at the Temple, right in the heart of the city — Ehrman calls it a “gist memory” that probably happened. Of course, he thinks it didn’t happen exactly the way the evangelists tell us. If it had, the authorities would have detained or even killed Jesus right then and there. But surely he “must have” done something. At this point Ehrman waves his hands and calls it an “enacted parable” (citing E. P. Sanders).
Scholars often maintain that this attack on the Temple—if that’s how it is to be understood—makes best sense within the context of Jesus’s broader message, that destruction was soon to arrive with the coming of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, and that those who would be destroyed would not only be the enemies of Israel (the Romans) but also many people within Israel itself (the priests and those who sided with them). If this view is correct, then possibly the disturbance in the Temple was meant as a kind of “enacted parable,” where Jesus was acting out a kind of physical demonstration of his message, that a full-scale destruction was soon to come. [see: E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism]
If so, then, as I earlier indicated, it makes sense that there is a gist memory here that is historically right, that Jesus did make some kind of disturbance in the Temple that led to his opposition by the Jewish authorities, eventuating in his death. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 149, emphasis mine)
E. P. Sanders put it this way:
It is reasonable to think that Jesus (and conceivably some of his followers, although none are mentioned) overturned some tables as a demonstrative action. It would appear that the action was not substantial enough even to interfere with the daily routine; for if it had been he would surely have been arrested on the spot. Thus those who saw it, and those who heard about it, would have known that it was a gesture intended to make a point rather than to have a concrete result; that is, they would have seen the action as symbolic. (Sanders, 1985, p. 70)
It’s all very “reasonable.” It “makes sense.” It “surely” must have happened that way. Well, that’s the way Ed and Bart tell it. But make no mistake: Both Ehrman and Sanders are describing a story that no gospel writer ever told — a Goldilocks event in which Jesus on the one hand did just exactly enough to be noticed, but on the other, did exactly not enough to get in trouble.
Those of us outside NT Studies who stand with our noses pressed up against the glass see this sort of selective plausibility in the service of historicity, and we wonder why anybody takes it seriously.
So, what is a gospel?
I’ll ask again: What is the genre of the gospels? Let’s also ask the related question: What is the intent of a gospel? Answering the second question might help us with the first. Julius Wellhausen put it quite well in Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (Introduction to the First Three Gospels, 1905) when he described the gospel of Mark:
Of chronology there is not a trace. Nowhere is there a fixed datum. To be sure, there is a geographical orientation, and as a rule the situation is specified, although often in indefinite terms: a house, a mountain, some solitary place. But the topographical connection of the event, the itinerary, leaves almost as much to be desired as the chronological; seldom if at all is there any indication of a transition in a change of scene. The separate units are often presented in lively fashion, without irrelevant or merely rhetorical means, but they usually stand side by side like anecdotes, rari nantes in gurgite vasto [“solitary swimmers in a vast whirlpool”]. They are inadequate as material for a life of Jesus. . . . Mark does not write de vita et moribus Jesu [“about the life and conduct of Jesus”]. He has no intention of making Jesus’ person manifest, or even intelligible. For him it has been absorbed in Jesus’ divine vocation. He wishes to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ. (Wellhausen, 1905, pp. 51-52, translated in Kümmel, 1972, p. 283, emphasis mine)
That last sentence is the key. Modern NT scholars want to categorize Mark as a biography, but Mark clearly intended to prove Jesus’ messiahship. This primary goal overshadowed all else. And that’s why we can read a story in John’s gospel like the turning of the water into wine and not be deluded into calling it a distorted collective memory of a historical event. The author of the Fourth Gospel is telling an allegorical story that explains the reception and meaning of Jesus’ ministry; he is not relating a distorted memory.
Even if we acknowledge that in some respects the gospels look like biographical material, they also have several salient, core features that make them radically different from other ancient biographies, especially Greco-Roman biographies. And because we know their authors’ basic intention, we spend our time more fruitfully interpreting the symbolic stories rather than pretending we’ve found historical needles in allegorical haystacks.
What’s odd about the gospels?
On the subject of unusual, common features of the gospels, I can’t say enough good things about Matthew Ferguson’s series on ancient biographies. If you haven’t already done so, you should bookmark his Κέλσος blog. In a post entitled “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” Ferguson gives a fairly comprehensive list of features that differentiate the gospels from biographies. Vridar readers may recall that I provided a similar list that same year (2013), but Ferguson’s is even better.
What is missing from the gospels that we would find in writings by historians and biographers of the time? Ferguson notes the following:
1. Discussion of methodology and sources.
2. Internally addressed and analyzed contradictions among traditions.
3. Authorial presence in the narrative.
4. [A presumed high] education level of the audience.
5. Hagiography versus biography. [Greek and Roman authors criticized their subjects.]
6. Signposts about authorial speculation.
7. Independence versus interdependence. [Evangelists copied one another.]
8. Miracles at the fringe versus the core of the narrative.
9. Important characters and events do not disappear from the narrative.
Ferguson provides a refreshing counterbalance to the view that many of today’s NT scholars cling to. For example, Ehrman writes:
This question of how people in antiquity would understand a book should itself give us pause. While it may be true that the Gospels differ from modern genres like biography, they may not have differed from ancient genres. In fact, scholars of ancient literature have found significant parallels between the Gospels and several ancient genres. Some of these investigations have plausibly suggested that the Gospels are best seen as a kind of Greco-Roman (as opposed to modern) biography. (Ehrman, 2004, p. 62, emphasis mine)
He even speculates that, “An ancient reader would have recognized the [gospel of Matthew] as a kind of Greco-Roman biography, and so would have entertained certain expectations about what to find in it.” (Ehrman, 2004, p. 93) I have serious doubts about that. But even if people did think they were reading some sort of biography, they would have to admit it was unlike any other biography they had read before. “What kind of title is ‘According to Mark‘?” they might ask (unless they were reading a copy before it acquired its title). “Who is the author? What are his sources?”
I think ancient readers would more likely have categorized a gospel as some kind of religious text with a legendary god-man in the starring role. On the other hand, given the simple language and the presumed low education level of the intended audience, they might have thought they were reading a popular novel.
What is like a gospel?
John Meagher may have thought he was being ironic when he wrote: “There is nothing like a gospel except another gospel.” (Meagher, 1983, p. 205) He was, after all, mounting a searching critical blitz against the idea the gospels were sui generis.
But in a very real sense, that statement is true. Our imaginary ancient reader would have thought, after reading his or her first gospel, “Well, that was strange.” And upon reading the second, “That was also strange, and very much like the first.”
In fact, if you look at the list of unusual characteristics Ferguson noted above, the gospels look exceptionally odd among other contemporary literary works. But within the group of the four canonical gospels, they’re right at home. Even two gospels as seemingly different as Mark and John share many common features. In fact, I will argue that some of those shared features, when considered together, strongly indicate John knew the gospel of Mark.
♦ Shared genre
As we have shown above, nothing is quite like a gospel other than another gospel. Most importantly, the authors intend to prove to you, the reader, that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. They prove it by telling stories about wonders and miracles. Moreover, they want to explain the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and what it means to the world — to you. We should consider it unlikely that both Mark and John would independently invent the genre of the gospels.
♦ Shared stories told in the same order
- Both Mark and John tell  the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-45/John 6:1-14), followed by  Jesus retreating alone to a mountain (Mark 6:46/John 6:15), followed by  Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:47-52/John 6:16-21).
- Both Mark and John insert the story of Jesus being questioned by the Jewish authorities within the story of Peter’s betrayal. (See Mark 14:53-72 and John 18:12-27.)
We must rate the likelihood of John accidentally putting these pericopae together in the same order as Mark, especially the way in which he copied the Markan sandwich in the second example, as very low. It is far more likely that he is following Mark at these points.
♦ Shared narrative structure
- Both Mark and John, after starting with a brief poetic introduction (Mark quoting Isaiah, John writing a kind of hymn to the Logos), begin their narratives with the figure of John the Baptist. They end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. John tacks on a few resurrection appearance stories.
- Neither Mark nor John narrates the actual resurrection of Jesus. We know Mark is not reluctant to tell stories that no human witnessed. Consider his account, albeit brief, of the temptation in the wilderness. And we know that John was willing to narrate a resurrection in some detail. Think of Lazarus coming forth from his tomb, stinking, with his hands and feet bound. Yet Mark and John stop the narration at the burial and restart it with the women visiting the tomb.
The typical biography starts with the circumstances of the subject’s birth (parents, home town, etc.) and ends with his or her death. With Jesus, we have a supposed afterlife that includes optional stories like appearances to disciples, instruction to the Twelve, and ascension into heaven. But significantly, Mark and John chose to start with John the Baptist.
It is unlikely that the author of John (1) independently created the gospel genre, (2) independently decided to start his narrative with the Baptizer, (3) independently decided to tell certain pericopae in the same order, and (4) independently decided not to narrate the actual resurrection of Jesus. I consider it more likely that John had read Mark’s gospel and set about changing the parts he believed needed correcting.
No independent attestation?
If John knew Mark, then we lose one of our very few independent sources of Jesus’ life that isn’t an academic reconstruction. Recall that the arguments of criteriology require multiple independent attestation.
In what circumstances, then, could the criterion [of independent attestation] work? Some examples can help to clarify the matter: . . . Stories in which John the Baptist encounters Jesus at the beginning of his ministry can be found in Mark, in Q (where John’s preaching is expounded), and in John. Why did all three sources, independently of one another, begin Jesus’ ministry with his association with John the Baptist? Possibly because it really did start this way. (Ehrman, 1999, p. 90-91)
Without the gospel of John as an independent witness, we’re left with Q (along with, allegedly, M and L), but Q doesn’t even have a passion narrative. Paul provides a tiny bit of tradition about Jesus, but how much of it we can trust is open to debate. If John was correcting Mark, and if Mark Goodacre is correct in saying that Q does not represent an ancient document attested independently by Matthew and Luke, where does that leave us? How would it change the game? A serious reappraisal of gospel genre could lead to some startling results.
As we saw in this post, Ehrman thinks that many of the stories in the gospels are distorted memories. In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the subject of memory distortion and how Bart Ehrman understands it.
Ehrman, Bart D.
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Oxford University Press, 1999
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2004
Kümmel, Werner Georg
The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, SCM Press, 2012
Meagher, John C.
“A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches” in Colloquy on New Testament Studies: A Time for Reappraisal and Fresh Approaches, ed. Bruce Corley and John C. Hurd, 1983
Sanders, E. P.
Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1985
Oral Tradition as History, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985
Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (Introduction to the First Three Gospels), Georg Reimer, 1905
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