2014-09-21

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)

.

I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. Continue reading “Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables”


2014-04-07

Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...
“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
Continue reading “Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?”


2014-04-06

Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1This post continues with the series on Barry W. Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels, a critique of the assumption that oral traditions lie behind the gospel narratives. I have added to Henaut’s case more extensive quotations from works he is criticizing so we can have a better appreciation of both sides of the question.

Oral Clustering and Literary Texts

Kelber argues (rightly) that a hallmark of oral style is the clustering of genres, the sort of thing we can see in the Gospel of Mark where we have clusters of miracle stories together (2.1-3.6), clusters of parables (4.1-37), apophthegmatic controversy stories (11.27-12.37) and logoi (sayings) (13.1-37).

This sounds logical enough, and Kelber points to studies by W. J. Ong, E. Havelock and A. B. Lord (links are to the relevant works online or information about the works) to establish his point that oral communicators tend to group similar types of material for easier recall.

But such oral grouping of sayings brings with it a casualty when an author attempts to put it all in writing. An easy flowing chronological tale is easily lost. This is what lies behind the monotonous use of “and” (kai) in Mark as tale after tale is strung together with little carefully arranged narrative structure (so argues Kelber). It also explains

  • the preference in the text for direct speech;
  • the dominance of the historical present;
  • the lack of ‘artistically reflected prose’;
  • the incomplete characterization of Jesus;
  • the way the narrative is little more than a simple series of events;
  • the preference for the concrete over the abstract.

Kelber classifies the various stories in the Gospel of Mark into Heroic Tales, Polarization Stories and Didactic Stories. The distinctive patterns in each of these types, and the way these types are clustered together, he argues, testifies to them being derived from oral sources.

Continue reading “Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered”


2014-04-05

Oral Tradition Taken for Granted (continued)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1Let’s continue with this series that I left hanging nearly a year ago now. . . .

We’re looking at the way oral tradition has been assumed to lie behind many of the Gospel narratives about Jesus and at the arguments that have been marshaled to support that assumption. We are basing these posts upon the published version of a the doctoral thesis by Barry W. Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4.

The last post in the series finished with:

To the one who has ears, Hear!

Ancient literature was mostly written to be read aloud for the ear.

Rabbis apparently even opposed silent reading since hearing the sounds of the words was thought to aid memory and guard against distortions of meaning.

But this raises a problem for the models of faithful oral transmission.

If ancient literature was primarily a medium for the ear, and the authors of this literature constructed their texts to appeal to the ear, then how can we be sure that what they are writing is the original word that has come down to them? Or what hope have we of knowing that at no point of the oral transmission did someone change the original words to make the idea more palatable to the ear?

We move on now to Henaut’s discussion of another landmark scholar in the field of oral vis à vis textual gospel studies, Werner Kelber. Kelber raised serious questions about the models that had been proposed by Bultmann and Gerhardsson who were discussed in the earlier posts. (Bultmann and Gerhardsson had argued that sayings of Jesus had a particular Sitz im Leben (each saying had its own particular social setting) and that communities were repositories of oral traditions and safeguarding their long-term consistency. Continue reading “Oral Tradition Taken for Granted (continued)”


2014-02-17

What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Social-Scientific Criticism

What Is Social-Scientific Criticism?

In an earlier post — Casey: Taking Context out of Context — we discussed the disturbing habit in NT scholarship of explaining away textual difficulties by playing the high-context card. For example, in What Is Social-Scientific Criticism? John H. Elliott of the Context Group writes:

Further, the New Testament, like the Old Testament and other writings of antiquity, consists of documents written in what anthropologists call a “high context” society where the communicators presume a broadly shared acquaintance with and knowledge of the social context of matters referred to in conversation or writing. Accordingly, it is presumed in such societies that contemporary readers will be able to “fill in the gaps” and “read between the lines.” (John H Elliott. Kindle Locations 125-128)

Similarly, Bruce Malina explains why Paul’s writings are often “misunderstood”:

The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a “high context” culture. People who communicate with each other in high context societies presume a broadly shared, generally well-understood knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. (Bruce J. Malina; John J. Pilch. Social-science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (p. 5). Kindle Edition.)

Hoping to explain away the messianic secret, David F. Watson says:

The necessity of protective secrecy was exacerbated in the ancient Mediterranean context by the “high-context” nature of the culture. A high-context culture is one in which people are deeply involved in the everyday activities of those around them and in which information is widely shared. . . . Within the high-context setting, secrecy would be an important and necessary means of protection. (Watson, Honor among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, p. 25)

Useful but misused

I want to be clear up front. I would never argue that social-scientific criticism is in itself a misguided approach, but I do wish to point out a few observations that indicate a pattern of misuse. We continually read that the people in Jesus’ and Paul’s time lived in a high-context culture, with little in the way of demonstration.

However, a scientific approach demands that scholars provide evidence for their assertions. Besides proving that NT writers lived in high-context cultures, scholars must also prove it follows that their writings will always reflect that high context. Because it is stated flatly as a “known fact,” we miss out on important points of the discussion. For example:

Continue reading “What the Context Group (and Casey) Missed”


2013-08-31

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 1 (“We need a gentle funeral”)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

brodie2.

Chapter 12

The Funeral: ‘Oral Tradition’ And Its World

.

Chapter 12 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus by Thomas Brodie addresses the problems Brodie came to see with oral tradition as an explanation for Gospel sources.

I have covered Brodie’s arguments on oral tradition in depth here (see Two Core Problems with the four links there), and have yet to do more posts on the detailed work of Barry Henaut. So this post will survey primarily what led Brodie to raise the questions he did.

I recently posted on Robert Alter’s description of literary artistry in Genesis. It was Robert Alter, in the same book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, whom Brodie credits with “waking him up”. Alter was reading an attempt by Robert Culley to demonstrate that the variations in the Hebrew Biblical narratives might be understood through the variants that appear in oral storytelling among peoples of West Indies and Africa. On the contrary, however, Alter noticed that Culley’s presentation of the Hebrew narrative variants were not at all random as the oral tradition thesis would predict. No, when in Genesis we read what seems to be the same narrative being told several times about different people, or even about the same person in different circumstances. What we are reading are predictable type-scenes, not unlike some of the repetitions we read in Homer that adhere to fixed patterns (though in Homer the conventions applied more to rituals of daily existence while in the Bible they are applied to crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes.)

Walter-ong
Walter Ong

I grinned when I read that Brodie even went out of his way to meet personally Walter Ong, a scholar who published much on orality, because in my own early days of wanting to understand what lay behind the New Testament I myself traveled especially to dig out and copy many articles on orality by Ong.

What Brodie learned was that

even writing, for most of its history, resonated with orality. All ancient writing, until the eighteenth century, reflected orality or oral rhythms; it was aural, geared to the ear, to being heard — unlike modern writing, geared primarily to the eye. Virgil’s epic was highly crafted and a distillation of earlier literature, but it was saturated with orality; it was geared to oral communication , to being heard, and in fact it was being read aloud in Augustus’s imperial court before it was complete. But such orality was still not oral tradition, not oral transmission, it was simply a quality of ancient writing. (pp. 115-116)

“Studying non-literate tribes did not help”

How does one deduce from a piece of writing that it is based on oral transmission? Studies have been made into variations of oral transmission among non-literate tribes and into the variations that have arisen through rabbinic methods of memorization. The fact is (as Fitzmyer published in relation to the rabbinic variants) that these variations are not the sorts of variants we find in the Gospels. They do not account for the Gospel data.

“Gunkel’s influence has been massive”

Continue reading “Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 1 (“We need a gentle funeral”)”


2013-07-28

Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Jan Vansina
Jan Vansina

Insults and a failure to comprehend

Awhile back our favorite historicist doctor posted a comment on his own blog:

One can see a similar mythicist combination of insult and failure to comprehend those with whom they disagree at the blog Vridar. Seriously, it is as though I had never written anything about [Jan] Vansina and oral tradition here on this blog, never mind in scholarly publications! (Dr. James F. McGrath, 16 June 2013)

He links his “insult and failure to comprehend” remark to Neil’s post, “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition.” Where’s the insult? Probably this:

[I]t quickly became evident that [Dr. McGrath] had not read or understood Vansina’s works, but had himself appeared to quote-mine a single passage, out of context, to lend “support” to a point he was making in one of his articles. My own reading of Vansina and my attempts to point out to the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair what he had failed to notice in Vansina’s work were disdainfully and peremptorily dismissed. The Doctor continues to play the part of the Emperor with no clothes by foolishly and ignorantly asserting that Vansina’s works support the a model of oral transmission that they in fact contradict. (Neil Godfrey, 16 June 2013)

Islands in the stream?

McGrath’s comment from the 16th ends with a reference to his essay in a scholarly work, “Written Islands in the Oral Stream: Gospel and Oral Traditions.” Indeed, we should note that McGrath’s essay is the first piece in the book (see the link McGrath kindly provided).

In the interest of completeness and fair play, here’s exactly what McGrath wrote in a scholarly publication concerning Vansina:

Particularly important in conjunction with this topic is Vansina’s observation that official traditions tend to be preserved much more precisely over longer periods of time with a higher degree of accuracy than stories preserved by private individuals. [Vansina, Oral Traditions, pp. 85-86] On the other hand, official traditions are also far more likely to have been fabricated or at least falsified to reflect an official viewpoint. For this reason, the fact that a tradition can be demonstrated to have been passed on faithfully for several decades does not immediately indicate the historical reliability of the information. Indeed, it may in at least some instances suggest the opposite. (p. 9)

That’s absolutely correct. What we must stress here is that public, official oral tradition reflects the functions for which it is remembered and transmitted. Oral societies will often transmit such traditions faithfully over many years, but the actual story they tell may not be authentic. Where McGrath goes wrong is in the attempted specific application of Vansina’s work to NT studies.

Those studying oral traditions in contemporary oral cultures have likewise found principles well-known in historical criticism of the Bible to be readily applicable to their work. Vansina notes that it is sometimes possible to demonstrate the unlikelihood that a tradition has been falsified, for example ‘where a tradition contains features which are not in accord with the purpose for which it is used.’ [Vansina, p. 83] Vansina then defines a principle that is essentially the same as the criterion of embarrassment used by historians investigating the historical Jesus. The converse principle is also affirmed, namely that ‘facts which do not help to maintain the institution which transmits the tradition are often omitted or falsified.’ [Vansina, p. 84] (p. 8, bold emphasis mine)

Readily applicable?

McGrath has correctly quoted Vansina, but he cannot have fully understood the broad implications of Vansina’s work, or else he would not have used the phrase “readily applicable to their work.” It is not. He also asserts that the criterion of embarrassment in NT studies is “essentially the same” as what Vansina had described. It is not.

[Note: Neil wrote an enlightening piece on this very subject about a year and a half ago. If you haven’t read it (like McGrath), you should: “Oral History does NOT support ‘criterion of embarrassment’“]

First, let’s state the obvious difference between the study of oral tradition and the study of the New Testament. Vansina talked to real people who were transmitting real oral history to him. That is, he met face to face with the people who were still telling stories. McGrath and his fellow scholars are reading written works whose authors may or may not have transcribed from oral sources. Does this matter? Of course it does.

Vansina writes (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology) :

Continue reading “Jan Vansina and the Criterion of Embarrassment”


2013-06-16

Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

How did the Gospel authors learn about Jesus? They are generally thought to have only begun writing forty years after the death of Jesus — from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple around the conclusion of the Jewish-Roman War of 66 to 73 CE. Historical Jesus scholars have (reasonably) assumed that that gap of forty years was filled mostly by followers of Jesus, and followers of those followers, passing on the stories of Jesus by word of mouth. With this chain of “oral tradition” securing the events of Jesus to the gospels we can have some confidence that what we read in Mark, Matthew, Luke (and some would say even John) has some real connection to what historically happened in Galilee and Jerusalem during the time of the governorship of Pilate.

However, scholars need more than assumption. They need evidence. So how can one have evidence of the contents of conversations that people relayed by word of mouth to each other many generations ago? The answer is in the way the words came together in the earliest gospel narratives.

  • Do they betray traces of the way people naturally speak compared with the way they write more formal or literary prose?
  • Are the gospels themselves, or at least the supposed earliest gospel, Mark, quite “unliterary” and clearly a crude compilation of oral reports?
  • By comparing the other gospels with Mark can scholars see patterns of how stories were modified and extrapolate back to how they must have changed during the oral transmission process?

Can modern historians (e.g. Jan Vansina) who specialize in oral histories of African peoples help us out here? What about scholars who study the oral transmission of epic tales told among the Balkan peoples? Does research into the psychology of memory help us out? Can we combine these studies with new philosophical approaches to the nature of history and “evidence” to write a valid history of Jesus?

Much work has been done by New Testament scholars exploring all of the above pathways in their efforts to arrive at what Jesus “probably” or “plausibly” did and said. Through such processes many scholars have concluded that the parables of Jesus are the most “certainly” indicative of Jesus’ original teachings.

Meanwhile, Doctor Doubting Thomas is kept waiting outside.

Several scholars have published studies that argue the gospel narratives are based upon other literary stories, especially others found in the Old Testament. Some have even challenged those arguments that claimed to have found evidence of orality in the gospels. One of these, Barry W. Henaut, has argued that even the parables of Jesus as told in the oldest gospel, Mark, are more certainly derived not from oral tradition but are indeed literary creations of the author.

In Oral Tradition and the Gospels Henaut has investigated the arguments that the narratives and saying of Jesus in the gospels are derived from oral tradition and found them to be all based on questionable assumptions. A closer look actually indicates that the same evidence is more validly a sign that the gospel writings are indeed literary creations and not attempts to document or edit oral reports.

The previous post in this series concluded with questioning the arguments of Bultmann and form critics that presupposed “oral tradition” as the source of Gospel narratives about Jesus.

This post looks critically at the oral tradition arguments of one of the more significant critiques of form criticism, the “Memory and Manuscript” school of Harald Riesenfeld and his pupil Birger Gerhardsson. These Swedish scholars looked to the processes of transmission apparent within rabbinic Judaism as the model for oral transmission of the words and sayings of Jesus.

Since there were indications that the Jewish rabbis passed on certain teachings by means of oral tradition until these were put in writing around 200 CE (the Mishnah), was it fair to suggest that the teachings of Jesus were passed on in a similar way by his disciples?

Yes, if the portrayal of the apostles in Acts 6:2 is reliable. There the apostles are said to be primarily responsible for preaching and teaching. And the earliest messages they are depicted as giving are outlines of the life of Jesus.

Besides, Paul’s letters can be read as if they are alluding indirectly to the sayings of Jesus. Scholars have read them as if they assume a knowledge of the teachings and deeds of Jesus that must have been passed on by oral tradition. And does not Paul speak of doctrines being “received”? What else can this mean other than oral transmission?

Harald Riesenfeld
Harald Riesenfeld

The rabbis, Riesenfeld pointed out, likewise orally transmitted teachings. They did so within a controlled process, however. A leading rabbi had the supervisory function of this transmission. The words passed on and remembered were rigidly controlled. Pupils who were invited to share this privilege were especially approved. Pearls were not entrusted to any old swine who snorted an interest. The whole process was formally controlled by rabbinic supervisors and pupils who had proven themselves reliable to ensure that not “one iota of the tradition” would be lost.

This was surely the model behind the apostolic teaching in Acts 6:2 and that formed the background to Paul’s letters.

Hence the Gospel tradition was not shaped by an unlimited and anonymous multitude, but transmitted by an exactly defined group within the community. (Riesenfeld, Gospel Tradition, p. 16)

We have seen the resurgence of a similar model of oral tradition behind the Gospels more recently with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. (That link is to my own posts addressing Bauckham’s book.)

Jan Vansina strikes again Continue reading “Rabbi Jesus and the Phantom Oral Tradition”


2013-06-10

Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

henautThis post continues on directly from Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1).

Barry W. Henaut is arguing that scholars have taken for granted the assumption that the Gospels drew upon oral traditions about Jesus, or sources like Q that drew upon oral traditions, for their narratives. This is not to say that Henaut argued against the historical Jesus. Not at all. I assume Henaut does not doubt the historicity of Jesus or that there were oral traditions circulating about him after his death. What he is arguing is something quite independent of (though not irrelevant to) the question of Jesus’ historicity.

He is arguing that the evidence that the Gospel narratives were derived creatively from other literary sources is stronger than the evidence that they were based on oral traditions that could be traced back to Jesus.

This post continues Henaut’s discussion of Bultmann’s view of oral tradition.

Double Attestation and Orality (continued)

Here is how Bultmann reconstructs the “Confession of Faith in Jesus” passage. Keep in mind that the saying in Mark is believed to be derived from a source that is quite independent of the one in Luke which is said to be derived from Q. What scholars/Bultmann have believed we are reading here is a double independent witness (Mark and Q) to the existence of an oral tradition about a saying of Jesus.

Because Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” in the third person it appears that he does not consider himself to be that Son of Man. But we know early Christians did believe he was the Son of Man. Therefore, it is argued, this saying derives from Jesus.

Mark 8:38

 

Q 12:8-9
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

 

Later the Gospel of Matthew will change the saying so that Jesus says, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess” so that the words of Jesus are brought into line with Christian belief that Jesus was that Son of Man.

Henaut is uncomfortable with this argument:

Bultmann has again overstated his case in assigning this logion to Jesus. The phrases [I] and [the Son of Man] need not imply a distinction of person — they are more likely in synonymous parallelism with a change of wording. (p. 36)

We see similar arguments from a number of other scholars who interpret the “Son of Man” in this context not as a Christological title derived from the Book of Daniel, but an originally Aramaic idiomatic circumlocution for “a human/person/man”. The similarity lies in seeing understanding “I” and “son of man” as being an instance of synonymous parallelism. (I think this is adding further complexity to the argument by introducing layers of other constructs, including imagined historical scenarios and lines of communication through many decades before it was put in writing, to make the saying work. Far simpler, in my mind, to imagine the author drawing upon the literary antecedent of Daniel.)

We can even witness a contemporary illustration of how such parallelism works by looking at the sayings of a follower of Jesus that were left on this blog. Like Jesus, dbg speaks modestly of himself, David Gowler, in the third person. 🙂  Continue reading “Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)”


2013-06-09

Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

henautThat the stories and sayings of Jesus were circulating by word of mouth before the Gospels were written is generally a “fact” taken for granted today among New Testament scholars. That the first Gospel was “made up” the way other fanciful tales of miracle-working heroes were fabricated seems to be a contraband thought in mainstream New Testament studies. I recently posted an outline of Barry Henaut’s introduction to his argument that questions this assumption. Here I continue with his critique of the assumption that there must have been an oral tradition of an historical Jesus’ sayings and actions preceding the Gospels. (Caveat: By no means am I suggesting Henaut did not believe in the historical Jesus. I assume he did.)

Henaut begins with Rudolf Bultmann‘s view of oral tradition. Bultmann was one of the major influential figures in early twentieth-century New Testament studies.

The Connecting Geographic Links

Bultmann believed that stories about originally consisted of disparate and brief units of anecdotes that were relayed orally.

I have never been quite sure why this proposition seems to have been so widely accepted. Surely eye-witnesses to any one event involving Jesus that was renowned enough to have found its way into a miracle story would have led to somewhat lengthy accounts of the persons and circumstances involved. Not tales so brief that their essence could be captured in a few verses.

Besides, if Jesus had followers, surely we might expect that there would have been lengthier reports of his life involving several events and moments of sayings and that the first gospel authors would have had more than tiny three-verse units to piece together.

But maybe that’s just me. Let’s continue.

The first evangelist (author of the first Gospel) was responsible for stitching these units together into a single narrative. He did so by means of introducing connecting lines referring to specific times and places. That is, the original oral story units had lost connection with their chronological place in relation to other events, and even to specific geographical locations. So the gospel-author constructed the gospel narrative out of these little blocks of stories and sayings by creatively setting them into chronological setting and sequence, and even locating them in certain places — towns, wildernesses, houses, etc.

So what does all of that mean?

It means that Bultmann believed that most of the time and place references in the gospels were “redactional” — that is, they were added by the evangelists writing the gospels. They were not part of the original oral narratives about Jesus.

Why did Bultmann believe this?

Henaut says that this belief was possible because he took two assumptions for granted:

  1. Before the gospels were written there was a period of oral tradition;
  2. During the oral phase the various traditions circulated as separate units.

But there were exceptions. For example, when Bultmann found a geographic reference in a Gospel in a location that seemed to make little literary sense and where it was not used to connect story units, he would relocate the verse to another place where it did make more sense. That is, he would argue that an apparent incongruity in the text as we have it could be explained as a distortion or corruption of an earlier oral tradition where the verse was in a different place where it did make perfect sense.

This may be getting confusing, so here’s the case study used by Henaut. Mark 3:9 (Jesus tells his disciples to prepare a boat for him) is said to be incongruous in its current location and really belongs just prior to Mark 4:1 (Jesus is in the boat teaching the crowds) —

Continue reading “Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)”


2013-06-03

The Problem of Oral Tradition and the Gospels: Barry Henaut’s introduction

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

henautBarry W. Henaut argues that the scholarly belief that “an extensive oral tradition existed behind the Gospels” has been essentially taken for granted rather than argued. In Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 Henaut introduces his study with reference to what even secular historians claim they can “know” about Jesus. Historian Michael Grant in Jesus, an historian’s review of the Gospels acknowledges the “certain fact” that Jesus taught his followers to love God and love their neighbours:

[A]mong the host of Commandments Jesus singled out two as supreme, Love of God and of our neighbour. This pairing of the two ordinances in absolute priority over all other injunctions occurs elsewhere in Jewish thought after the [Hebrew Bible] and may not, therefore, be Jesus’ original invention. But the stress he laid on it was unprecedentedly vivid.

Henaut recognizes immediately that the secular historian is merely following outdated theologians in order to argue for the historical certainty of this little datum about Jesus:

What could be more Christ-like than the Golden Rule? The forcefulness of this aphorism, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, for many captures the essence of Jesus. Michael Grant seems to be engaged, not so much in the historian’s craft, but rather in stating the obvious.

But times change. A dozen years later the Jesus Seminar would overwhelmingly deem the Golden Rule an inauthentic saying.

In light of the extensive literary parallels from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism there is no way of knowing whether Jesus ever uttered this aphorism. The early Christian community had access to a variety of sources for this sentiment and may have ascribed it to Jesus at any time prior to the Gospels. What initially looked self-evident now becomes a victim of what Van A. Harvey calls the morality of historical knowledge. Grant’s presentation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The vivid presentation of Jesus in the Gospel narrative, which Grant recognizes to be a secondary composition, nevertheless has formed the basis of his reconstruction.

Grant has filtered the Gospels through the hermeneutics of C.H. Dodd and J. Jeremias, a method that is now outdated. (p. 13, my bolding)

Henaut continues. This is not just a problem for the Golden Rule. It is a paradigm for the problem with the assumption that oral tradition lies behind the Gospels in every other way, too.

What would it mean if we did allow that the Golden Rule or love of neighbour really was taught by Jesus? What would this tell us about his teaching? After all, we find the same teaching in the curricula of:

  • Tobit
  • Isocrates
  • Aristotle
  • Epictetus
  • Thomas Hobbes
    • Whatsover you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them.
  • Benedict de Spinoza
  • John Locke
  • Immanuel Kant
  • John Stuart Mill
    • To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.

Was Jesus more like a first-century Aristotle, Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill?

What’s worse, the Golden Rule can scarcely be found among any two of its many different exponents in exactly the same wording. Differences of wording have been attributed to faulty memories struggling to pass on oral traditions. Does oral tradition account for the differences in wording among the above?

Is not literary transmission meant to enable fixed forms of a saying through the generations? If so, why are there so many variant forms of the saying? Had Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant and Mill never encountered the saying in literature before?

Henaut’s book is a revised edition of his doctoral dissertation that was accepted at the University of Toronto in 1991. In it he argues what probably many of us have half-guessed at some time or other — that it is impossible to ascribe any saying to any particular individual, including Jesus, of a pre-textual era.

The very “communal, anonymous and changeable nature of [the oral] medium makes it impossible to trace a tradition’s history through this [oral] transmission.

And,

It is impossible to exclude some kind of literary relationship among . . . various strands of [Jesus sayings] tradition despite the fact that most scholars believe them to be independent.

Ascribing any saying to Jesus is exactly like ascribing to him the Golden Rule. Such reconstructions arise more from the assumptions of the exegete and an uncritical adoption of the post-resurrectional Gospel narratives than from an informed knowledge of the oral medium. (p. 15)

Why we ASSUME the Gospels drew upon oral tradition Continue reading “The Problem of Oral Tradition and the Gospels: Barry Henaut’s introduction”


2013-04-04

What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Witnesses of the Resurrection
Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

The most solid argument I have read about what the word in Luke 1:2 translated as “eyewitnesses” actually means is by John N. Collins: see the post What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? Collins presents a cogent argument that the word really means officials who have the responsibility for the writings/library of the community: it is their job to assess and preserve the authenticity of the documents entrusted to them — they are “specially authorized guarantors of the traditions.”

But in this post I am backtracking and working from the assumption that the word does convey the idea of one who sees firsthand some event. What I am saying here is this: What if the word really did express the idea of a witness? What does such a witness mean for Luke?

Norman Perrin answered this question nearly forty years ago in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.

Firstly, Perrin begins by reminding modern readers that they must leave behind their modern conceptions and make an effort to enter the world of the biblical authors. Get out of your heads any modern notion of what the word “eyewitness” means to us today who are familiar with the concept from our newspaper reports and court proceedings:

If we resolutely ban from our minds . . . what a modern writer would mean by an ‘eyewitness’ and ask ourselves what Luke meant by the expression . . . . (p. 27)

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: Continue reading “What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke”


2013-03-20

Why did Paul need to write letters?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Another provocative (and thought-provoking) Carr-ism, this one recently posted as a comment on Questioning Paul’s Letters. . . .

But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence.

Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.

But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.

And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Comment by Steven Carr — 2013/03/20 @ 7:53 am


2013-01-23

Thomas L. Brodie: Two Core Problems with Historical Jesus Arguments

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

brodieBeyondNow seems an appropriate time to say something significant about Brodie’s arguments. I quote here sections from his now infamous book that The Irish Times reported as “caused quite a stir and some considerable upset”, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (I don’t know. From what I hear from the likes of lots of mythicist critics, Brodie should have attempted to publish his views in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal if he thought he could mount a serious argument. He would have been guaranteed a fair hearing then, wouldn’t he?)

I was expelled by my church for going public with critical questioning and giving others materials to help them do the same, so I think I understand a little of what Brodie is experiencing. It is a nice coincidence that we appear to have come to a conjunction of views on Gospel origins despite our divergent scholarly statuses.

In chapter 17 Brodie addresses the four-volume work by another Catholic priest, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. I select here two core criticisms by Brodie that resonate with me because

  • (1) they address what is fundamentally wrong with most books on the historical Jesus;
  • and (2) they have also been basic to many of my own discussions of the Gospels as historical sources.

Brodie writes, beginning page 156 (my formatting and bolding):

Marginal Jew has two key problems. First, like many other studies, it uses an unreal compass — oral tradition.

By relying unduly on form critics . . . it assumes that the Gospels are something that they are not, namely, that they reflect oral traditions that go back to Jesus, back to about the year 30 C.E. (Marginal Jew, I. 41). Continue reading “Thomas L. Brodie: Two Core Problems with Historical Jesus Arguments”