Joseph Fitzmyer’s Stages of Tradition
In my essay, “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey” (Widowfield 2021), I mentioned a few core ideas that I’ve been meaning to expand upon here. My recent reading of Richard Carrier’s review, in which he said my brief article “should be required reading for anyone keen to evaluate these kinds of arguments” (Carrier 2022, p. 190) has spurred me to write again.
Back in 1979 when he was engaging with Géza Vermes over the Son of Man Problem, Joseph Fitzmyer remarked his interlocutor’s analysis completely ignored any notion of historical stages in the gospel tradition. Specifically, when did “the Son of Man” enter the early Christian lexicon? This question has special interest for those of us who think the evangelists considered it to be some sort of title. However, Fitzmyer noted that the “distinction in the levels of the gospel tradition . . . [was] strangely lacking in Vermes’ discussion of the whole matter.” (Fitzmyer 1979, p. 65)
Did the early Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Christians introduce the term? Or did the gospel-writers create it? Or did Jesus himself use it? For Fitzmyer, these historical levels arose naturally from the foundations of form criticism. He explains:
The “three stages of tradition” (tria tempora traditionis) have often been called by other names, and this may be a bit confusing at first. However, the different terminology merely brings out other aspects of the problem, and in some cases it is due to the historical development of the Form-Critical debate itself. Some writers speak of the three levels of comprehension according to which the Gospel text is to be understood; others speak of the three contexts of Gospel material. In the latter case the expression is a development of the original idea of the Sitz im Leben of the German Form Critics. (Fitzmyer 1964, pp. 391-392)
Fitzmyer reminds us that for the pioneers of Formgeschichte, the term Sitz im Leben referred implicitly to the Sitz im Leben der Kirche. In other words, scholars like Dibelius conceived of “situations in the life of the church” as the primary incubator of the Christian tradition. However, as form criticism matured, later scholars spoke of situations in the actual life of Jesus and, finally, in the act of collection the extant tradition and creation of the written gospels. Here, somewhat abbreviated and reformatted, are Fitzmyer’s three levels:
(1) Sitz im Leben der Kirche, “a setting in the life of the Church.” [The original Sitz im Leben]
(2) Sitz im Leben Jesu, the vital context in the ministry of Jesus in which the saying or event might have had its origin in some form or other.
(3) Sitz im Evangelium, the Gospel context of the saying or event related.
(Fitzmyer 1964, p. 392)
While all three are important concepts, we have more accessibility to the third. That is to say, although all are inferred, the Sitz im Evangelium is more accessible. Or to put it another way, we can make more reasonable inferences about what the author of Mark intended than what Jesus may have said or what the early church may have manufactured. The other two Sitze depend upon a great deal of imagination and tenuous conjecture. That, at least, is how I would put it; I won’t presume to speak for Fitzmyer.
Granted that questions about the vital context in the early Church or in Jesus’ ministry might be legitimate and instructive, nevertheless in the long run the important thing is the Sitz im Evangelium, the Gospel context of the saying or event related. How did the Evangelist make use of the traditional material that he had received? Despite the names that one might prefer for these three stages and the nuances that such differences in terminology might suggest, they are all in the long run saying the same thing: to understand what the inspired, canonical Gospels tell us about the life and teaching of Jesus, one has to make an important threefold distinction. (Fitzmyer 1964, p. 392, emphasis mine)
You may have noticed from reading my posts that one of my pet peeves is the tendency for scholars to take arguments on the narrative level and magically try to convert them into historical proofs. Narrative logic can at best imply historical plausibility. But linguistic and narrative arguments are poor substitutes for historical arguments. All too often while reading a scholar’s suggestion about what Jesus may have thought or intended, it is unclear whether he or she is talking about the “story Jesus,” the “evangelist’s conception of Jesus,” or the “historical Jesus.” In some cases one suspects this blurring of the lines is intentional, as they argue that an event that could have happened must have happened.
Similarly, many scholars have a bad habit of not taking the stages of tradition seriously. For example, Maurice Casey argued not only that many events in the canonical gospels “really happened,” but that the evangelists were presenting transcribed eyewitness accounts. Not even Fitzmyer, a pious Catholic priest, would venture that far. In recounting Paragraph VII of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Instruction of the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” Fitzmyer wrote:
The first few statements of the paragraph are documented with references to the NT. The rest of it is a speculative reconstruction, slightly idyllic, but undoubtedly expressing what is essentially to be recalled about this first stage of the tradition.
It is the stage of the ipsissima verba Iesu, and for Christians it has always seemed to be the stage of the greatest importance. What Christ Himself really said would seem to be more important than what the early Church passed on as His teaching or what the Evangelists report as His sayings. And yet, it is noteworthy that the Biblical Commission [of which Fitzmyer was a member] does not insist in any way that what we have in the Gospels is a record of this first stage of the tradition. (Fitzmyer 1964, p. 393, emphasis mine)
Only a hopelessly naive apologist or a terribly confused scholar would argue otherwise.
Carrier, Richard C., “Book Review: Varieties of Jesus Mythicism, Edited by John Loftus and Robert M. Price,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2022, pp. 171-192
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “The Biblical Commission’s Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels.” Theological Studies 25.3 (1964), pp. 386-408.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., “Another View of the ‘Son of Man’ Debate,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol 4 (1979), p. 58-68.
Widowfield, Timothy A., “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey,” in Varieties Of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? by Robert W Loftus and Robert M. Price, 2021, pp. 374-449 (Kindle Edition)
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