2012-11-21

The assumption of orality behind written texts

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by Neil Godfrey

Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest: Continue reading “The assumption of orality behind written texts”


2012-11-07

Thomas Brodie’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Brodie has an epilogue in his latest book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, in which he responds to Bart Ehrman’s purported attempt to address the arguments of mythicists, Did Jesus Exist? (I say “purported” because although Ehrman has vehemently denied the charge, he has never, to my knowledge, addressed the actual evidence that he did not himself even read the books by Doherty and Wells that he critiqued. But Brodie is a kinder reviewer than I am.)

Brodie summarizes the three parts to Ehrman’s book and then responds. A summary of his summaries follows. It dwells mostly on Ehrman’s argument about oral traditions since Brodie (as I have posted recently) is particularly critical of the way biblical scholars “uncritically” rely upon oral tradition to make their reconstructions of Christian origins work.

Part 1: The Evidence for Jesus’ Historical Existence

Ehrman’s argument is that all Gospels, canonical and noncanonical, all testify to an historical Jesus, and they are all so varied, each with its own unique material (despite some undoubted borrowing from Mark), that they have to be considered to be relaying to readers independent witnesses of this historical Jesus.

Examination of the Gospels further “indicates that they all used many diverse written sources, sources now lost to us. . . .” — known as Q, M, L, a Signs Source, a Discourse Source, a core version of Thomas, etc. All of these “sources” also speak of Jesus as an historical person. It is also clear that they are independent of one another, so they can all be considered independent witnesses. It is thus inconceivable that they all derive from a single source. They must all ultimately derive from various witnesses to the historical Jesus.

Further, some scholars date Q to the 50s, 20 years after Jesus’ death. And others have “mounted strenuous arguments that” — and one recent study “makes a strong . . . literary . . . argument that” — sources underlying Peter and Thomas date even earlier than 50 CE.

And behind all of these very early (now lost) written sources were oral traditions that dated much earlier. Evidence of oral traditions:

  • revised form criticism that assumes oral traditions were the core of written sources
  • we have no way of explaining the written sources unless we assume oral tradition was behind them
  • Aramaic traces in the Gospels indicates that their sources were originally Aramaic oral sayings

These oral traditions were old. For example, we “know” Paul persecuted the Christians before his conversion. How could he have persecuted Christians if they did not exist? And how could they exist unless they knew orally transmitted reports about Jesus? (Brodie is a kind reviewer. He does not embarrass Ehrman by pointing out the raw logical fallacies in these arguments.)

Brodie notes Ehrman’s insistence upon the importance of oral tradition in the case for Jesus’ historicity:

The role of oral tradition as a basis for all our written sources about Jesus is not something minor; it ‘has significant implications for our quest to determine if Jesus actually lived’ (p. 85 of Did Jesus Exist?, p. 227 of Brodie’s Beyond the Quest)

Other NT sources, the letters of Paul and others, as well as the writings of Ignatius, 1 Clement, Papias — all, according to Ehrman — speak of Jesus as historical and they are all either independent of one another or demonstrably independent of the Gospels, so we can only conclude they acquired their knowledge of Jesus from oral tradition.

Besides — a key point —

the message of a crucified messiah is so countercultural for a Jew that it can only be explained by a historical event, in this case the crucifixion of someone the disciples had thought was the messiah. (p. 227)

Brodie aptly sums up Bart Ehrman’s case:

Overall then, the evidence shows a long line of sources, all independent — all with independent access to the oldest traditions — and all agreeing in diverse ways, that Jesus was historical. Such evidence is decisive. (p. 228) Continue reading “Thomas Brodie’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?”


2012-10-26

Oral Tradition Is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes Thomas Brodie’s critique of the role oral tradition has played in Biblical studies, especially with respect to accounting for the Gospel narratives about Jesus. It is taken from chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings.

Even if a hypothesis is unclear in its foundation, and even if in practice there are serious difficulties with getting it to work, perhaps in some way it is still the only apparent response to a real need. It is appropriate therefore to ask whether the hypothesis of oral tradition is necessary to New Testament studies. (p. 60)

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.Reasons for seeing Oral Tradition as Necessary. .Thomas Brodie’s responses.
“Gospel texts follow the rhythms of oral speech.” “Oral rhythms do not require reliance on oral tradition.
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“Oral rhythms are a quality of both oral communication and much writing, especially ancient writing.”
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“Someone sitting silently at a computer can compose oral rhythms with a view to being heard by the ear.”
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“The variations between the gospels correspond to the variations that occur in oral communication.” This looks plausible at first glance.
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But look closely at the differences between the gospels and one begins to see a very deliberate variation governed by a quite different and coherent theological strategy.
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Differences that arise through oral transmission alone are not like this; they are accidental and haphazard.
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Oral tradition fills the gap between the historical Jesus and the Gospels. “Oral tradition may or may not assure more historicity.
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“From a historical point of view, the ideal is that the evangelist is an eye-witness to the gospel events – thus needing no tradition whatever – or else speaks directly to such a witness.
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Interjecting an unpredictable chain of communication into a period of less than a lifetime has the effect not of promoting claims to historicity, but of dissipating them.”
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Besides, it is “not appropriate” (I would say it is “invalid”) that “a desire for a particular type of historical conclusion should predetermine the idea of how the gospels were composed.”
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If the idea of oral tradition is to stand, it must stand on its own inherent merits.
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“Oral tradition is embedded in the fabric of New Testament studies, in the prevailing paradigm, and, for the moment at least, there is no alternative paradigm to replace it.” “It is true that oral tradition has been embedded in the fabric of NT studies and is central to the prevailing paradigm. But that situation is changing rapidly.
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“The literary approach, despite its teething problems – its occasional obscurity, pretentiousness, and narrowness – is not an esoteric game.
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“Rather, the literary approach provides the context which, when developed, offers the best prospect for future research. It restores the writings to their role as literature, even sacred literature, and it does not exclude theology and historical investigation. On the contrary, it sets history and theology on a firmer footing.”
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The Gospels portray scenes of people speaking, often in the open air. It is a scene of oral simplicity.“Such simplicity corresponds with the simplicity suggested by oral tradition.” True, the gospels do depict scenes of simplicity far removed, most often, from the world of writing.
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“However, the fact that a scene is rustic need not mean that the artist who portrays it is rustic. A film, for instance, may portray rural life but be produced in the countryside by city dwellers using highly technical methods. Likewise, the simplicity portrayed in the gospels need not indicate the way the gospels were composed.”
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(The quotations are from pages 60 and 61 of The Birthing of the New Testament. Formatting is my own.) Continue reading “Oral Tradition Is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels”


2012-10-25

Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Brodie has shown that the theory that the Gospel narratives began as oral traditions is not founded on valid logical argument. Nonetheless, he recognizes that an idea that rests on little more than mere presumption “may still be useful as a working hypothesis.” So he proceeds to explore whether the theory of oral tradition works in New Testament studies. What follows is from Brodie’s chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament — all posts archived here.

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First, here’s a chart of the arguments attempting to explain how oral tradition worked — as covered by Brodie. He covers many scholars in quick succession and it can be a bit numbing for someone wanting a quick blog read and who is unfamiliar with the topic to take it all in very easily. I use the many colourful images that have arise in the various attempts to explain how oral tradition is supposed to work:

Continue reading “Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable”


2012-10-24

Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester

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by Neil Godfrey

My last post in this series ended with Thomas Brodie’s question:

On what basis, then, is it possible to go on claiming oral tradition?

Brodie asked this after surveying how Hermann Gunkel’s paradigm of oral tradition came to dominate biblical, and especially New Testament, studies, while at the same time pointing out the logical fallacies and cultural prejudices that served as its foundation.

This post continues with Brodie’s responses to more recent arguments attempting to shore up the case that the Gospel narratives were preceded by their counterparts in oral traditions. They are taken from chapter 6 of his book The Birthing of the New Testament. (Before doing a post like this in the past I would often take time to read for myself the scholars being discussed so I could present their arguments independently and comment on, say, Brodie’s assessment of them. Unfortunately my circumstances at the moment do not permit that — otherwise I would never get to completing this post at all. So keep in mind that what follows are my presentations of Brodie’s summaries of the arguments of others.)

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W. H. Kelber

Brodie summarizes Kelber’s argument as it appears in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) as essentially saying

that ancient writing was particularly influenced by oral culture and rhythms (1992:30-31).

Brodie agrees. Ancient writing was so influenced. But he also notes that Kelber fails to take into account that all ancient writing “reflects the rhythms of oral speech.”

That does not prove that all authors depended on oral tradition; it simply means they wrote for the ear rather than the eye. (p. 55)

Recall in my previous post I paraphrased Brodie’s point here:

Ancient writing was largely governed by rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of speaking, also became the art of writing. Writing was geared to oral communication. It was composed for the ear.

In this sense all ancient literature is oral, including the Greco-Roman classics and the Bible. (p. 52)

All Kelber is identifying, then, are the signs that the gospels, like all ancient literature, are dependent upon orality with respect to their form and thought pattern. Continue reading “Oral Tradition is Unfounded: from Kelber to Koester”


2012-10-23

Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology

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by Tim Widowfield

Some like it in the pot, nine days old

Over the past several weeks, real life got in the way of blogging. I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say writing Java and Ruby all day turns my brain into so much porridge.

Oatmealraisins2
Oatmeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speaking of porridge, that reminds me of a story. Back in the late ’70s when I was attending language school at the Presidio of Monterey, I asked one of my instructors:

“Gospozha Kartsova, what does English sound like to a native Russian speaker?”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“It sounds like someone eating oatmeal.”

Through a lens, darkly

Humans in any culture tend to see things from their own perspective. Those of us in the English-speaking world perceive the world through an Anglo-American lens. Our news sources are based in the English-speaking world, produced by people who were raised and educated in the UK, the Commonwealth, or the US. It rarely crosses our minds that to someone in another culture, all of our self-righteous babbling might sound “like someone eating oatmeal.”

While I could easily take this thought-train down a geopolitical track, what concerns me at the moment is recent Biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world. For the past century and a half, when radically new methods for understanding the Bible emerged, they almost always arose first on the European continent, chiefly among German intellectuals.

Conversely, Anglo-American scholars have, for the most part, provided a traditional, conservative counterbalance. For the purposes of our discussion, it doesn’t matter which side is wrong or right; the point here is that in the English-speaking world, students as well as interested laymen have typically witnessed the rise of new methodologies through a porridge-smeared lens.

Learning Marxism from von Mises

Referring to English and American scholars simply as a countervailing force glosses over the open hostility frequently demonstrated by conservatives who viewed scholars like Bultmann as a threat to Christianity. And sadly, many of today’s Anglo-American scholars learned at the feet of these petulant pedagogues. They gained their understanding of form criticism and redaction criticism not from reading Bultmann, Dibelius, Marxsen et al., but by learning the accepted critique. They learned to debunk it before they could thunk it.

Continue reading “Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology”


2012-10-21

Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary

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by Neil Godfrey

As signalled in a comment on my recent post on the single authorship of Genesis to 2 Kings, I have decided it best to back-track a little before continuing that series and posting a little on how oral tradition came to be a ruling paradigm among Biblical scholars and why an increasing number of scholars, especially those who study the Gospels, are coming to question whether it has any place at all in the creation of the biblical stories. This post begins to cover Thomas L. Brodie’s chapter, “Oral Tradition: Wonderfully Plausible but Radically Problematic”, in The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of New Testament Writings.

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There was a time when the gospels were seen as the product of writing — of competent authors using some ancient form of pen and writing materials. It was presumed that the evangelists [i.e. gospel authors] had either been present at many of the events they described (like Matthew and John) or had received their information from authoritative sources (Mark from Peter, and Luke perhaps partly from Paul.) (p. 51, The Birthing of the New Testament, by Thomas L. Brodie)

Given that the time-gap between the events narrated and the gospels was at most fifty or sixty years, it was understood that eye-witness testimony in some form (oral or written) was available to even the latest of evangelists.

Hermann Gunkel

Enter Oral Tradition as the New Paradigm

Julius Wellhausen in 1876 made mention of oral tradition but it was Hermann Gunkel in his 1901 commentary on Genesis who

used it as a model and who thus introduced it to the center of biblical studies.

Gunkel went against the perceptions of those who had gone before by failing to see Genesis as artistic literature. Further, Gunkel implied that his model “could be applied to the life of Jesus.” (Brodie, p. 51)

In effect, he gave the twentieth century a new paradigm.

The Gospels become UNliterary

Soon the new idea of “form criticism” began to appear in New Testament studies. Wellhausen went beyond Gunkel’s implication and secured a central role for oral tradition in Jesus studies with his series of commentaries and introductions to the gospels 1905-1911. Bultmann summarized Wellhausen’s contribution:

The oldest tradition consisted almost entirely of small fragments . . . and did not present a continuous story of . . . Jesus. When these fragments were collected they were connected so as to form a continuous narrative. . . [Wellhausen] showed not only that they evangelists’ narratives . . . were secondary, but also that oral tradition was steadily producing more and more new sayings of Jesus. (Bultmann, 1926, quoted on p. 51 Birthing of the New Testament)

K. L. Schmidt introduced the model of the Gospel of Mark that has been widely embraced among scholars up to today and that has been discussed in recent posts reviewing Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

In 1919 he used Gunkel’s model to distinguish between Mark’s framework, which Schmidt reckoned came from the evangelist, and Mark’s various units, which Schmidt assigned to oral tradition . . . Continue reading “Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary”


2012-10-11

What Makes a Good Bible Story?

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr Eveline van der Steen

Let’s imagine that oral traditions among today’s bedouin Arabs may be able to guide us in understanding how oral traditions worked in the days when the Bible stories were being originally told. — But don’t misunderstand. The Bible stories, even if they were originally sourced from pre-literate oral tales, have been artfully constructed to convey theological messages. But even the pre-literate oral traditions among Arab tribes have been re-written (sometimes for modern film) in ways that bear little resemblance to the themes of the original. What I am trying to imagine here is the evidence for the original biblical tales and how they compare with what we know of

Let’s focus on one Bible story for exercise, the story of David, and compare its elements with what we know about story-telling among peoples with long traditions in the Middle East. Incidentally, let us ask how one can know if an oral tradition has any historical basis at all.

That’s what Eveline J. van der Steen did when she wrote “David as a Tribal Hero: Reshaping Oral Traditions”, a conference paper eventually published in Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (edited by Emanuel Pfoh). (I’ve added my own little asides reflecting on potential relevance for what we read in the Gospels.)

Arabs had and have a plethora of vernacular traditions: various forms of poetry, genealogies, epic legends and tribal histories. Oral traditions are a rich source of information, provided they are eventually written down and preserved. (p. 127)

And written down and preserved many have been since the 20th century when literacy pervaded a critical mass of the Arab world. Until then they relied entirely upon storytelling, citing and singing for their preservation.

One form of oral tradition that can be traced back to pre-Islamic times is the akhbar, “short stories, recounting the adventures and battles of the various bedouin tribes.” Again going back to pre-Islamic times story telling competitions were held among the various tribes.

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Features of the stories

  • Usually focused on one tribal hero
  • Eventually grew into tribal heroic cycles
  • Recited by professional storytellers
  • Recited in desert tents and coffeehouses of towns and villages
  • Told or chanted (often a mixture of both) in prose or rhyming prose, interspersed with poetry.

Every Arab knew parts of these stories: they were, and still are, part of the national culture. (p. 128)

Baybars was the Mamluk Sultan who fought Mongols, Persians and Crusaders. Abu Zayd was the hero in the Sirat Beni Hilal who led the exodus of the tribe from hunger-striken Arabia into the Maghreb in the 9th and 10th century. Antar was the black hero of the Beni Abs, in continual conflict with the Beni Fazara, and in love with Abla.

Nineteenth century Orientalist Edward Lane described how storytellers would come into coffee houses in Cairo, recite and/or chant their stories about tribal heroes, then — at an appropriate cliff-hanger moment — stop for the evening to ensure an audience for the next day.

That way a story session could last well over a year.

The storyteller would develop the story as he went along, borrowing from his repertoire of other stories and formulas, adapting the story to the audience and situation. So the audience itself played a critical part in the development of the story:

they expressed their approval or disapproval, and discussed the story with the narrator. In town the stories reflected life in the town, in bedouin camps the context would be the camp. Only the main storylines, and the heroes remained the same. (p. 128) Continue reading “What Makes a Good Bible Story?”


2012-02-09

Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

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by Neil Godfrey

On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.

Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.

Dr McGrath began his reply with:

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.

Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.

So to the main point:

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier Continue reading “Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods”


2012-01-26

Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm

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by Neil Godfrey

Hopi: Image via Wikipedia

Sorry about the sensationalist headline but, being a mortal, I couldn’t resist it this time. (I know one swallow doth not a summer make, but humour me till the rest turn up.)

I wish to thank Dr James McGrath, Clarence Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, for drawing my attention to a case study published by oral historian Jan Vansina in Oral Tradition as History (1985). (Note I used italics instead of quotation marks for the title this time so that there can be no doubt that I have actually read the book.) {for the uninitiated the link is to Dr McGrath’s post in which he points out that my earlier use of quotation marks for the title of the book is a “suspicious” indicator I had not read it}

Most students and many interested lay readers of New Testament scholarship know that there are two things that are generally accepted in the guild:

  1. the first gospel was composed roughly around 40 years after the death of Jesus
  2. the first gospel is more about a “Jesus of faith” than an historical Jesus since it is so riddled with mythological embellishments

In this post I show that a renowned oral historian publishes a case study that demonstrates the unlikelihood that mythological embellishments could possibly have been added to an “oral report” within 40 years of the event.

So what might the research of oral historians contribute to this critical NT and HJ discussion?

Keep in mind that an axiom of the historical Jesus scholarly guild is that the first Gospel — usually taken to be that of Mark, though some say Matthew, but for our purposes no matter which — is not to be taken as a straight historical record of the words and deeds of Jesus. It is filled, we are told (as if we needed to be reminded when we read of walking on water, talking to Being in heaven, predictions that the central character will descend from heaven in cataclysmic judgment, etc) with mythological embellishments. That is the very reason why, we are told, historical Jesus scholars cannot work like other historians but must assume the role of “detectives” and come up with additional criteria to convince the sceptics. Continue reading “Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm”


2012-01-18

Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment”

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by Neil Godfrey

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part ...
Oral performance of an epic poem.

Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!

I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:

Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]

You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.

This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.

But thank you for a stimulating exchange.

But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry-picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: Continue reading “Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment””


2010-03-28

The origin of the ‘Oral Tradition’ hypothesis

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Thompson has hit the nail on the head when he explains why “historians” of the Bible place so much emphasis on oral tradition. Oral tradition, of course, is not a fact. That it existed cannot be verified. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, or really more an assumption of necessity than a hypothesis. And the necessity is the trap that scholars have built for themselves by assuming — the great unquestionable assumption — that the gospels ultimately get their stories from some historical events and persons.

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus, we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for . . . . The problem with using the far from ideal gospels as sources for history has attracted great attention to oral tradition.

And the necessity for these oral traditions?

They could help, however, in bridging the considerable gap between the time in which the gospels were written and that earlier time in which they set Jesus.

Enter the Gospel of the Gaps

Before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, this oral source for the sayings common to Matthew and Luke (Q) was defined by the striking similarity of Jesus’ sayings in a fourth-century translation reawakened these old speculations about Q. . . . [This Gospel of Thomas was] corroborating evidence for an oral tradition of sayings [that] supported the hope that a comparison of Q with Thomas could help in distinguishing earlier from later sayings. If the sayings in Thomas are earlier than the gospels, scholars would be closer to identifying the earliest of them as Jesus’ own.

Meaning?

Necessity, once more, was the mother of invention. Even though the Greek original of the Gospel of Thomas could hardly have been earlier than the second century, the similarities of the sayings in Thomas to Q have seduced many. Thomas can fill the gap separating a historical Jesus from the earliest of the gospels and therefore it does.

Leaving Thompson aside for a moment, Nicholas Perrin’s book (sorry April DeConick), Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (link is to Google books) points to many word plays and various Syrian literary linking details that set the work apart as a literary, hardly an oral, creation.

The unlikely assumption (again)

This accepts the unlikely assumption that the sayings from Thomas were based on an oral tradition, rather than on the known gospels or on a tradition harmonizing them.

Thompson then alludes to Crossan’s and others’ efforts to distinguish the wisdom sayings from the apocalyptic ones. The idea of this distinction has been to identify the sayings of a wisdom ‘historical’ teacher from a later layer of apocalyptic sayings introduced subsequently by followers. Thompson rejects this distinction and argues (from a range of Jewish scriptures and other Middle Eastern sayings) that the apocalyptic and wisdom motifs as a rule went hand in hand throughout the centuries.

So why the conjuring up of oral tradition?

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. The projected function of the sayings of Q and Thomas as oral sayings is to link the gospels with their text’s heroic teacher.

What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?

If, instead of Q and the collections of sayings in Thomas, we were to consider actually existing Jewish collections and sayings, such as the proverbs of Solomon, the songs of David or the laws of Moses, would we also conclude that such sayings originated with the figure to which the Bible attributes them? . . . . Such collections tell us nothing about a historical Solomon, David or Moses — not even whether they existed.

There is much more, of course. I’ve just hit a few salient points for a quick read on a blog.

Thompson’s book does not attempt to cover all that needs to be covered. He makes it clear that his goal is to demonstrate, in response to the historical Jesus research of Schweitzer and Crossan, that the sayings of Jesus can potentially derive from a far deeper pool of known literature than “fictive texts like Q”.

Unfortunately his work lacks the detail required to settle the question. But it is a provocative starter. Hopefully he will publish more to begin to flesh out some of the possibilities in detail.

The above quotations are from chapter one of Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.

 


2009-05-07

The “oral tradition” myth of gospel origins

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman (BE) in Jesus, Interrupted, summarizes the standard view of how a long period of “oral tradition” preceded the writing of the first gospels. The Gospels of the New Testament, he writes,

were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything he taught, people who spoke a different language from his and lived in a different country from him. (p.144)

So how can they be considered reliable evidence of what Jesus did and said? BE answers:

The first step is to get a better handle on how the Gospel writers got their stories. . . . The short answer is that most Gospel writers received most of their information from the oral tradition, stories that had been in circulation about Jesus by word of mouth from the time he died until the time the Gospel writers wrote them down.

BE then explains that one thing the historian needs to understand is how the oral traditions about Jesus worked. Here is his take:

How did Christians convert people away from their (mainly) pagan religions to believe in only one God, the God of the Jews, and in Jesus, his son, who died to take away the sins of the world? The only way to convert people was to tell them stories about Jesus: what he said and did, and how he died and was raised from the dead. Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media. . . . This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories.

From Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman), p.146

There is nothing controversial in this outline. The scenario is outlined in many biblical studies texts. But the scenario does not offer readers who are wishing to inform themselves the background to their gospel sources a truly fair or just account. Indeed, as a synopsis of the pre-gospel era it is as ideological as the Acts of the Apostles or the Apostles Creed. First, we have a description of people converting to a single religion with the God of the Jews at its centre, by means of the spread of stories said to be about that God’s son who died to take away the sins of the world.

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