A Refreshingly Self-Aware Point of View on the Study of Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

While scratching and poking around in new and old resources to try to piece together something of the development of scholarly views on the existence of pre-Christian interpretations of the “suffering servant” I came across a reference to a 1940s work that seemed in some respects as relevant today as way back then, at least apart from a few oddities such as Manson’s appreciation of “the Oriental memory”.

I have changed the layout of the section that first caught my eye and for the benefit of readers who are dashing through with no time to read every word I have highlighted key passages that struck me as refreshingly self-aware and honest. What I think would be a useful follow up exercise would be to take each key assumption and pause to reflect on how we might reasonably expect each one to appear in the evidence, both of Gospels and Epistles. One example: Manson speaks of the acknowledgment of persons with special gifts such as prophecy. One wonders if one could expect to read of anyone at any time with a particularly special gift of having seen and heard Jesus in the flesh. One wonders, too, what might be the result if we combined some of the assumptions and try to think through where those combinations might lead. For example, we have the deep reverence for the memory of Jesus in the flesh but we also have a willingness to find his life in the Old Testament. How likely is it that such communities would have allowed OT passages to have trumped what they knew of Jesus in real life? Would not the latter be the guide and moderator of the former? (I recall my own time in a religious cult where we found our leader in prophetic passages of the Bible. We always found ways to identify relevant biblical passages in the light of what we knew of our leader. Never the other way around.

Anyway, here ’tis:


What was the character of the early oral tradition? To what extent did it embody, to what extent has it refracted the historical lineaments of Jesus of Nazareth? We assume, to begin with, that such a tradition existed, that certain sayings of Jesus and certain stories reporting acts or incidents in his life were current in the Church from the earliest days, together with some summary of the Passion history. This, indeed, cannot be taken absolutely for granted, since the modern school of Form-Criticism makes a point of denying it, though on grounds which seem to the present writer neither adequate nor in accordance with probability. According to Form-Criticism the tradition incorporated in our Gospels is, for the most part, a late product, and a product of the Church’s mind at that, which came into existence at a time when an objective record of the history of Jesus was no longer possible. Its contents represent a distillation from the life of the Church, from its preaching, its debates with Jewish opponents, its ethic, its catechetical activities, its theology, and its cultus. Its Messianic categories are an attempt, necessarily inadequate, to state in terms comprehensible to itself the essential mystery of the personality of Jesus, and are not to be ascribed to him. For the moment, however, we assume that something like an objective tradition of words and acts of Jesus was in existence from the first days, and ask what would be the fortunes of such a tradition at a time when, not yet committed to a fixed form in writing, its contents formed part of the instruction given by apostles and other missionaries in an age of expanding activity and of intense spiritual and intellectual awakening. Obviously the answer to the question how far the tradition has preserved, how far it has refracted the image of Jesus of Nazareth will depend to some extent on the laws governing the transmission of the material in the practical service of the community during this period.

Here, as stabilizing factors making for the preservation of the objective character of whatever real tradition existed, we shall recognize,

on the one hand, the reverence which the first community would feel for the words and institutions of Jesus or what were reported to it as such, and,

on the other hand, the remarkable tenacity of the Oriental memory.

To these two principles may be added the presence in the community of eyewitnesses and others who claimed to speak from personal knowledge of the words and deeds of Jesus.

All these factors would make for a maximum accuracy and fidelity wherever it was a question of simply transmitting things which had been “received.”

Over against these factors, however, we shall have to allow for the undoubted operation of other factors connected not with the simple transmission of the material but with its application and adaptation for practical and missionary purposes. Was it possible for the terms of the tradition to remain unaffected when we consider such facts as the following:

  1. that the community had in its hands the Old Testament which bore striking testimony in advance to the Lord’s Messiah from the cradle (cf. Isa. vii. 14) to the grave (cf. Isa. liii. 7-9);

2. that there were prophets in the Church claiming to speak by inspiration of Jesus, and leaving their words in the memory of the hearers:

3. that there were controversial purposes to which the debate with Jews or with the followers of John the Baptist or with the civil authorities compelled the teaching and the acts of Jesus to be daily put;

4. that there were practical situations to which preachers had continually to apply the commandments or example of Jesus, thus giving their texts an ever-changing point;

5. that there were’ events which as seeming to fulfil predictions of Jesus could not but react on the traditional form of these predictions?

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to base an estimate of the possibilities of the situation purely on general or preconceived grounds, though Form-Criticism itself is not without sin in this matter. Form-Criticism has its own preconceived idea of a “constructive” principle governing the formation of the tradition. That is to say, Form-Criticism assumes the existence in the early Christian community-life of typical situations or activities which constituted the matrix of the “form” of the various elements in the tradition. It would seem better, however, at this stage to discard all assumptions of an a priori kind, and to concentrate attention on the nearest-lying objective evidence for the growth of the tradition, in this case the evidence — indirect in a sense — of the developmental processes which come to light in the literary redaction of the Gospels.

(Manson, 39-42)

Manson, William. 1946. Jesus the Messiah: The Synoptic Tradition of the Revelation of God in Christ: with Special Reference to Form-Criticism. Cunningham Lectures 36. Philadelphia, Pa.: The Westminster Press.

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2 thoughts on “A Refreshingly Self-Aware Point of View on the Study of Christian Origins”


    What was the character of the early oral tradition? To what extent did it embody, to what extent has it refracted the historical lineaments of Jesus of Nazareth? We assume, to begin with, that such a tradition existed, that certain sayings of Jesus and certain stories reporting acts or incidents in his life were current in the Church from the earliest days, together with some summary of the Passion history …

    Citing Thomas Brodie in The Birthing of the New Testament…’, Tom Dykstra in Mark, Canonizer of Paul (2012) does a very thorough job of criticising propositions and arguments for oral tradition being behind the Gospels, to the point of negating the concept, eg. –

    Werner Kelber and Albert Lord argue that the gospels are influenced by oral culture and rhythms and that “some of the patterns of oral literature also occur in biblical texts such as the gospels.” But nearly all ancient literature bears evidence of oral forms, and this does not automatically mean the content had to come from oral tradition. Such patterns are evidence that the form of the text was influenced by oral culture, not that the content originated from oral tradition. Also, first-century religious texts such as the gospels were written for oral performance, and so oral speech patterns are to be expected. Indeed, making a text sound like oral speech is itself a literary convention …

    As Brodie cautions, [key passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:3] most likely do not refer to what modern scholars mean by the term oral tradition:

    … when Paul invokes tradition going back to the Lord, one cannot be sure whether this call is an appeal to a historical tradition related to Jesus and a community, or whether, as his language suggests, he is using and adapting the general Jewish idea about tradition going back to Moses and God. Paul’s language is itself general; he gives no details about the source and workings of the tradition.

    [Paul]does not explicitly say that he received the tradition orally.

    Dykstra notes the Paul records almost nothing of Jesus’ life and sayings, despite having met ‘the Pillars’, and passages in the Pauline epistles insist on Paul’s absolute authority as an apostle personally commissioned by the Lord to preach the gospel and to determine for others what that gospel is and isn’t.

  2. Raced through? Surely not, your posts (and Tim’s) are to be savoured like a good malt :-). The only people who race through deliberately are those looking for the wrong end of the stick or Bart Erhman’s “research students”.

    Back on topic. What is “Oriental memory”, aside from something that could be taken for casual racism and dismissed with uproar in today’s climate? Our memories today, increasingly everywhere and not just in the “Developed World” or “West, are off-loaded onto electronic storage outside our heads. Before that they were offloaded to books. Before literacy became more than a thing for the leisured classes or clerics, EVERYONE EVERYWHERE would probably be using their memories in much the same way; the memory of orality rather than literacy. This “Oriental memory” Mason speaks of is an artefact of our culture attaining widespread literacy before most others and forgetting, ironically, how we used to do things. To expand on MrHorse’s point, at the time Mason was writing, the Parry/Lord studies of epic poets in contemporary Yugoslavia were already making clear oral memory lay at the very root, Homer, of “Western” culture.

    Today of course we find that the OT was invented several centuries after the bulk of of it was claimed to be written and millenia after much of of what it claimed to be reporting. No differently than with Homer and Troy, the Jericho of reality bears little resemblance other than geographically with the Jericho of Jewish epic.

    It is good to see Mason writing “we assume that something like an objective tradition…”. Would that the majority of contemporary NT “scholarship” take that aboard; rather than making asses of themselves if not you and me! However, since the Reformation and being able to read the NT in our own languages, it should have been as plain as the nose on your face that the bulk of the time Paul is writing of what he got from “The Lord”, he was writing of his DIRECT communications from Jesus Christ and, by extention, so were the Apostles before him. What Mason wrote could apply whether the “traditions” arose from the words of a real person or visionary experience and both could be modulated in the same way by the previous biblical and extra-biblical tradition. It seems we haven’t totally gotten away from orality; we would still rather believe what we are told than what we can read for ourselves.

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