One of the more informative biblioblogs that I generally appreciate is Michael Kok’s The Jesus Memoirs: The History and Reception of the New Testament. Lately Michael Kok has been posting “course materials” setting out in easy-to-read summaries the basics of the various New Testament books. I have been unable to keep up with all of them as they are posted but they look like good reference materials to refer to as needed. I like the way Michael shares his learning online.
One of his more recent posts is The Synoptic Gospels: Oral Sources in which he lists “evidence for the oral tradition”. The list is an interesting illustration of what appears to me to be the conventional wisdom that has been taken for granted by much of the scholarly guild. It would be wrong to read too much into the wordings of brief notes or summaries of key points, but I would like to set out what I see as serious fundamental gaps in the conventional wisdom. So on the understanding that Michael Kok’s post is only a summary of points, here is my own summary of questions I think his points leave hanging.
The first piece of “evidence for the oral tradition” behind the gospels:
- It was an oral culture with low literacy rates; even the written Gospels were primarily heard by their audiences in an oral performance
This is not evidence that the gospels drew on oral traditions as sources for their narrative and sayings contents. The same background information applies to all or certainly most literature of the day.
- A plausible explanation for some of the variations in detail in the Triple or Double Tradition and for the doublets in the Synoptic Gospels
A plausible explanation for data is, in fact, a hypothesis that seeks to explain the data and not itself evidence for how the gospels were sourced. Other plausible explanations are able to compete.
- A plausible explanation for some material in the Gospels of John and Thomas that is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels if these are judged to be literarily independent
- The many predecessors in Luke 1:1-4
Luke 1:1-4 does not clearly refer to oral traditions. It appears to more plausibly refer to written sources. John N. Collins, furthermore, published an article some years ago that throws into question the traditional interpretation of this passage and I would very much like to see its arguments addressed in detail. I have written about the Collins article twice before: once in 2012 and again a year later.
- Not enough books to cover Jesus’s deeds in John 21:24
This passage is clearly a rhetorical narrative device and can scarcely be taken as strong evidence for a historical situation, especially in a narrative that speaks seriously of the dead being raised, a man walking on water, etc. But even if there were zillions of stories being told about Jesus we have to admit that that is not the same thing as their being “oral traditions” from which an author might draw his story. On the contrary, it sounds as if the number and variations of stories about Jesus are so numerous as to defy any “tradition” that can be documented.
- Christian writings (e.g., New Testament Epistles, Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical Gospels) that may independently attest to sayings or traditions appearing in the New Testament Gospels
Yes, they may. But again, that is not evidence for oral traditions as sources for the gospels.
- The agrapha or “non-written” sayings of Jesus that are unparalleled in the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Acts 20:35)
Again, in order to interpret these sayings as evidence for oral tradition sources of the gospels is in fact to beg the question. We are assuming the oral source tradition in order to interpret the data as a support for the oral source tradition.
- The preference for the viva voce or “living voice” (Papias, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4)
Again, this preference among the “Fathers” is not evidence that the gospels derived their sources from oral tradition.
For arguments that criticize the assumption of oral tradition as a source for the gospels (because the above points are indications, I believe, of question-begging assumptions of oral tradition rather than “evidence for” oral tradition sources of the gospels, see, in addition to the posts on John N. Collins’ article linked above:
An unfinished series of posts on Barry Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4
and my posts on Thomas Brodie’s arguments:
- Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary
- Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester
- Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable
- Oral Tradition is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels