10. Models of Oral Tradition
The purpose of this chapter and the next is to consider the implications of eyewitnesses who remained guarantors of their testimony from the time of Jesus to the time the Synoptic Gospels were written (the Gospel of John will be dealt with in later chapters). This chapter focuses on the three main models of oral tradition that have been used to understand how historical information was transmitted in the early church.
Form criticism is the first model that attempts to explain how the Jesus tradition was transmitted orally in the early church. In 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt noted that the short units (pericopes) in the Gospel of Mark are connected together on a rather artificial framework (i.e., not in chronological order) and that these units could have existed separately in the oral tradition. Form critics believe the units in the Synoptic Gospels are close to the oral forms that existed during the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition and that they were not necessarily linked together in the way they are in the Gospels. Of course form critics believe there are some exceptions to this general rule (e.g., the passion narrative). As noted in chapter 9, Papias also recognized a lack of chronological order in Mark.
Based on the compositional character and the content of the Gospel units, form critics assign each unit to a specific form (or genre). They believe the form was determined by the life settings (Sitz im Leben) of the church (e.g., preaching, worship, catechesis, apologetic) and each had a distinctive function. In this way form critics say that the gospel traditions tell us more about the life of the early church than the life of Jesus. This opened the door for positing that some units were created by the church for a specific function. But form critics also realize that understanding how a unit functioned in the early church does not mean the story was created in the early church; the unit could still be based in history.
Rudolf Bultmann used form criticism as a tool for tracing the origin and tradition history of the gospel units. He assumed that each tradition began as a pure form and that the deviations from the pure form in the Gospels allow us to trace the history of the tradition between its origin and its incorporation in the Gospels. He also believed in laws of tradition that effected all forms:
- He observed the changes “the Markan pericopes underwent when taken over by Matthew and Luke” and assumed “that the laws of this literary relationship were a mere continuation of those operative in the preceding oral transmission” (p. 245).
- He thought the Gospels were folktales and that the study of folktales would produce laws of tradition applicable to the gospel tradition. Like folk literature, he assumed the gospel traditions could be freely created and modified by the community for its own needs and that it was attributed to the community and not individuals.
- He thought the early Christians cared primarily about the risen and exalted Jesus who was in direct relationship with the Christian community through prophets. The words of the Christian prophets were often incorporated into the gospel traditions and came to be attributed to the pre-Easter Jesus in the Gospels because the early Christians had no historical consciousness such that they would care about a distinction between a pre- and post-Easter Jesus. For the same reason, he thought the communities gave no importance to eyewitnesses.
Understandbly, Bultmann was skeptical about the historical value of the gospel traditions.
Criticisms of Form Criticism
Bauckham finds form criticism to have serious problems:
- There is no reason to believe that traditions originated in a pure form as opposed to a mixed form.
- There is not a strict correlation between a form and a life setting. The same tradition can perform different functions in different life settings and a variety of forms can be used in same life setting.
- Jan Vansina’s work on oral tradition indicates that “historical information can be preserved even when it corresponds to no clear function of the community” (p. 246).
- E.P. Sanders’s work has shown there are no laws of tradition that operate consistently throughout the gospel tradition (both canonical and non-canonical).
- The notion that the gospel traditions are like folklore in the sense that they can be freely altered and created is questionable. The time span between Jesus and the Gospels is shorter than the time span studied by folklorists. The nature of the traditions are different and, based on the study of oral traditions in traditional societies, we know that different types of tradition are treated differently.
- Folklorists now recognize the role of authoritative individuals interacting with the community.
- Form critics derived their tradition history, in part, from their preconceived notions of how early Christianity developed and not solely from the gospel traditions.
- Form critics assumed that the gospel traditions were transmitted in only oral form for several decades.
- Form critics use a literary model for understanding the transmission of oral tradition. They conceived of gospel tradition as being composed of different layers, where each layer builds on the earlier layer. This image is drawn from the literary process of editing. But with oral tradition there is no linear development whereby one layer builds on another layer.
“There is no reason to believe that the oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann envisaged it” (p. 249).
The Scandinavian Alternative
In 1961 Birger Gerhardsson published Memory and Manuscript in which he argued that early Christianity passed on tradition using the same methods as rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic disciples were to memorize the words of their master’s teachings and so, Gerhardsson believed, the Twelve must have passed on Jesus’ teaching with much more accuracy than the form critics envisioned. Gerhardsson’s views have not been accepted primarily because (1) a model of memorization and the transmission of exact words does not explain the variation of the Jesus tradition found in the Gospels and (2) there is not enough evidence to support the notion that the Twelve controlled the tradition in the extensive way posited by Gerhardssson.
A Middle Way?
In 1991 Kenneth Bailey published an article entitled “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels” in Asia Journal of Theology. Bailey has extensive experience of Middle Eastern village life and has observed how oral tradition operates in these contexts. Bailey found three types of oral transmission. The first type he called informal uncontrolled tradition. This type of tradition can be changed and developed without limits (uncontrolled) and is not preserved or transmitted by any structure of identified individuals (informal). The second type he called informal controlled tradition. This type of tradition has no set teacher or set student, rather a community gathers to preserve the tradition. The flexibility allowed in reciting the tradition depends on the type of tradition. The third type he called formal controlled tradition. This type of tradition is passed on from a clearly identified teacher to a clearly identified student (formal) and is preserved intact (controlled).
Informal uncontrolled tradition is used for casual news of the day and information that is not valuable. This could hardly be how the Jesus tradition was thought of in the early Christian communities nor does it account for the stability in the Gospels. The rigid process of transmission found under the formal controlled model does not account for the variability in the Gospels. The variability and stability found in the Gospels fit with the informal controlled model.
Problems with the Threefold Typology
Bauckham finds a problem in Bailey’s threefold typology. He notes that Bailey’s typology is based on two factors: controlled/uncontrolled and formal/informal. He thinks there is a third factor: the balance of stability and flexibility. Bauckham does not find the threefold typology nuanced enough to accout for how the Jesus tradition was transmitted. In the next couple chapters he will attempt to determine if the early Christians controlled the tradition, how the early Christians controlled the tradition, and how the Gospels are related to the oral tradition.