(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)
After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.
Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?
All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)
You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.
In a recent post, Neil cited a paper by Dr. Alan Kirk called “Memory Theory and Jesus Research.” While Kirk does an adequate job of explaining the current state of play in memory theory, I couldn’t help but notice yet again some misunderstandings in the ways Memory Mavens remember German critical scholarship in general and form criticism in particular. I’ve been putting off this dismally inevitable task, but the time has come to offer some corrections and commentary.
First, Kirk takes a swipe at William Wrede. He writes:
. . . Wrede’s bifurcation of Markan tradition into surviving elements of empirical history on the one hand and Easter-engendered dogma on the other, with the latter occluding the former, was precursor to the form critics’ model. Of a “historical view of the real life of Jesus,” wrote Wrede, only “pale residues” survive. (Kirk 2011, p. 809-810, emphasis mine)
Kirk argues that the form critics, taking their cue from Wrede, believed memory and personal eye-witness recollections were synonymous and that the Jesus traditions which effectively buried those recollections were something entirely different.
While memory traces of this sort lay at the origins of the tradition, they were a residuum, largely inert with respect to developments in the tradition itself. The salient image was of so-called authentic memories of Jesus coming to be buried under multiple layers of “tradition.” Tradition, in other words, had little to do with memory. (Kirk 2011, p. 809)
How does Kirk’s analysis square with what Wrede actually said? Kirk’s wording may lead the casual reader to infer from the first citation above that Wrede was referring to the general state of Mark’s sources or, to put in another way, the overall character of the various streams of oral and written tradition available to the author of Mark.
Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.
Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.
The fact that John’s pattern for writing a gospel — what the Germans refer to as Gattung — seems suspiciously similar to Mark’s pattern did not escape Charles H. Talbert’s notice. In What Is a Gospel? he wrote:
The heritage of the last generation’s research, as enshrined in the commentaries on the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd and Rudolf Bultmann, has supplied us with the working hypothesis that John and the Synoptics are independent of one another. James M. Robinson has seen that this hypothesis poses the problem of explaining how the same Gattung could emerge independently in two different trajectories, the synoptic and the Johannine.
If, as is usually supposed, Mark was the creator of the literary genre gospel and if John was independent of Mark, where did the fourth Evangelist get his pattern? (Talbert 1986, p. 9-10, bold emphasis mine)
The consensus among NT scholars for over a century has held that sayings of and stories about Jesus floated freely, first as oral history — kept alive through telling and retelling by his disciples — then as oral tradition, and finally as written gospels. But those first “gospels” were, so the reasoning goes, more or less freeform collections. Not until Mark did we at last see the first narrative gospel, which integrated the stories, sayings, and parables, laid out structurally as a journey along the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, with a tacked-on, pre-existing Passion Narrative.
[James M. Robinson] states that “the view that one distinctive Gattung Gospel emerged sui generis from the uniqueness of Christianity seems hardly tenable.” [Robinson (Trajectories) p. 235, 1971] The emergence of Mark and John independently points to the necessity for a reexamination of the question of the genre of the canonical gospels. (Talbert 1986, p. 10)
[Richard] Burridge and [Graham] Gould say Bultmann was correct in asserting that the Gospels do not look anything like modern biography. What Bultmann neglected to observe, however, is that neither do any other ancient biographies. Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer. (Licona 2016, p. 5, emphasis mine)
Is that true? Did Rudolf Bultmann really not know the differences between a modern biography and an ancient biography? Further, did he embarrass himself in public by confusing the two while no one until the late twentieth century dared to speak up? And finally, is it possible that Vizzini was smarter than the classical Greek philosophers?
If you’ve read a lot of modern scholarship, you might think that. Still, you may have a lingering, nagging suspicion that Bultmann might have known better. After all, students of his generation would have read Greek and Latin classics while attending the gymnasium. And it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a passing familiarity with the longstanding debates around historiography, and the fact that ancient authors of βίοι had far different goals in mind compared to modern biographers.Continue reading “Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference?”
I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)
An extremely slim volume
Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.
So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)
In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”
Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition
Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.
♦ The context of transmission
Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:
[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)
He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.
In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.
As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.
This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”
Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.
Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?
A “No Quest” period?
First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:
[Schweitzer’s] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)
Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)
“Just not true”
Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (link downloads the PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:
Anthony Le Donne has written a book that I find is both chock-full of many fascinating nuggets in the Gospel narratives and riddled with startling revelations (if only discerned between the lines) about the foundations of “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (This post does not address Le Donne’s main thesis. I have addressed core aspects of that in Searching for a Good Fantasy, though I would like to explore his thesis in more depth in a future post. Here I focus on Le Donne’s foundations for believing there was anything historical at all in the Gospels.) I say “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies in preference to “Historical Jesus” studies for several reasons, one of which is that the term “Historical Jesus” presumes that there was an “historical Jesus” to study.
Historical origins of the icon we call “Jesus”
Further, I believe the question of “the historical Jesus” is fundamentally an ideological or dogmatic expression. Its meaning derives from the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity — that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus. After two millennia of Christian heritage the concept of “Jesus” has come to transcend religiosity and become a cultural icon advocating hosts of idealistic aphorisms. The true question for the historian, then, ought to be concerned with how to explain the origin of Christianity. That includes explaining the origin of its Jesus. If the best explanation leads us to an historical Jesus, then, and only then, will we have a valid rationale for attempting to explore such a figure.
Bultmann’s test for insanity
Readers who find the above line of reasoning far too radical to swallow can find solace in Rudolf Bultmann’s words quoted by Anthony Le Donne:
Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. (Bultmann, Jesus, 13. Cited in Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus, p. 36)
Bultmann is surely being deliberately provocative here, since in his own day there were several very intelligent (and far from insane) scholarly persons (e.g. Georg Brandes, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, and several notable others) questioning the authenticity of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged. (Robert M. Price has, if I recall correctly, even suggested that Bultmann was cornered into making such “protesteth too much” denunciations because some readers were inferring the non-historicity of Jesus from his own studies.) Theologians have since found a place in George Orwell’s dark visions as the guardians of correct thought who declare insane (or misfits of some variety) any lesser life-forms who question the historicity of Jesus.
“Unfounded and not worthy of refutation”?
Now I could well understand someone saying that doubt as to whether Augustus Caesar really existed is “unfounded”. I would baulk at going so far as to say it is “not worth refutation”, however. Surely any doubt is worth a valid refutation. Scholars don’t want to isolate themselves into exalted ivory towers out of touch with ordinary folk, do they? If ordinary folk are hearing rumours that Augustus Caesar did not exist, but was a conspiratorial invention of Latin school teachers or whatever, or if they are hearing Intelligent Design advocates arguing that evolution is not true, then I am sure scholars would be happy to open up and spill out all the evidence to reassure them otherwise. In the case of Augustus Caesar, they could point to
primary evidence (real physical remains testifying to be from the actual time of that Caesar),
the secondary evidence of surviving historians whose claims are in varying degrees of validity supported by their record of verifiable identity and provenance,
the independently established genre of the above records and what this, on probabilities, indicates about the intent of the authors,
the clearly established independence of these sources from one another,
the overwhelming explanatory power of all of the above for the events that clearly followed.
Or let’s take a more lowly figure like Socrates who left no monumental evidence. We have relatively strong evidence for his historical existence as a real person, too:
Independent testimonies from people who appear to have known him personally (followers Plato, Xenophon) or at least knew of him in their generation (satirist Aristophanes),
and about whom we know enough to appreciate
their reasons for wanting to write about Socrates
and their ability to know anything about him,
and whose works/testimonies are in the form of genres not inconsistent with an interest in relaying historical realities.
The evidence for Socrates is far from iron-clad proof but it is enough satisfy most, even those of us who are mindful of the way genres can be turned inside-out in order to write a spoof or otherwise deliberately deceive readers. At the same time, one can find reasonable grounds for at least asking if it is possible that Socrates was nothing more than a literary figure. So if doubts about the historical existence of the person Jesus are indeed “unfounded” as Bultmann said, what are the foundations for his existence?
How can we know?
The closest Anthony Le Donne comes to addressing that question directly is when he asks of Gospel narratives:
Does the story have an origin in perception or invention?
That is, are we reading in the Gospels stories that originated in the perceptions of certain eye-witnesses and that were filtered through other ideas, values, beliefs, biases of some of those witnesses, and that were then transmitted through others who also had their own filtering biases and interests? Or are we reading in the Gospels stories that an author or his source completely made up? Continue reading “How Can We Know If the Jesus Narratives Are Memories Or Inventions? (Revised)”
A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.
I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.
He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.
As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s aMarxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”
I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.”
This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.
What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.
Five months have passed since my previous post on The Messianic Secret. In the interim, I have focused on material related to the genre of the gospels, which has consumed most of my attention.
Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.
Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.
The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:
Who copied whom?
Who changed what?
Why did they change it?
In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?
Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”
A primary questionwill then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.” (p. 152)
He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)
In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.
I was sitting with Everard Johnston, Lecturer in scriptures and dogma, at his house in Picton Street, Port of Spain, discussing the manuscript. By then his young wife, June, had gone to bed, and amid the sounds of the tropical night we sipped rum and coke as I tried to explain the basic idea of rewriting.
I handed him page 128 on connections between 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament.
He took his time perusing it, then he put it down, muttering, ‘In the same order . . . the same order apart from minor modifications’.
We turned to the gospels, discussing the extent to which they too are a product of the rewriting. Suddenly he said, ‘So we’re back to Bultmann. We know nothing about Jesus.’
I paused a moment.
‘It’s worse than that’.
There was a silence.
Then he said, ‘He never existed’.
There was another silence, a long one, and then he nodded gently, ‘It makes sense’.
Brodie does not make an explicit connection in any of his earlier publications on the relationship between the literary origins of the New Testament writings and the question of the historicity of Jesus. Most of his earlier books explored the literary structures of the Gospels and some of the epistles. Brodie was especially struck by the way the Gospel authors not only seemed to borrow so heavily from the Old Testament but also appeared to be re-writing of so much of those Jewish scriptures. In 1980 an exchange with Joseph Fitzmyer led Brodie to broaden his scope by investigating the wider literary practices of the early Christian era and to see if such borrowing and re-writing was a known feature of the literary customs of the day. (Didn’t someone recently write a review claiming that Brodie never listened to advice?) Continue reading “Brodie’s Argument that Jesus Never Existed”
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?
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)
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.
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.)
That 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:
Before the gospels were written there was a period of oral tradition;
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) —