Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 6

My enthusiasm for this book has certainly shot up since the last chapter (as I mentioned previously). I don’t know a lot about the field of Gospels Scholarship, but I think I know enough to realize that I have in my hands a book that is fundamentally going to reshape the entire field. This is also the feedback I’ve heard from other sources as well so it is not just my amateur assessment. Very exciting!

In Chapter 10 Bauckham outlines the three major models of oral tradition that are generally advanced by various scholars in the field. He starts with Form Criticism, noting that “it is a curious fact that nearly all the contentions of the early form critics have by now been convincingly refuted, but the general picture of the process of oral transmission that the form critics pioneered still governs the way most New Testament scholars think.” (page 242). He goes on to describe the theory its history and major proponents, and then turns his attention to specific criticisms of form criticism. He spends a full three and a half pages outlining the many points of criticism that “effective demolish the whole edifice of tradition history erected on the basis of form criticism” (page 247) finally concluding that Gospels scholarship has rejected form criticism in the most quiet yet devastating manner possible, “by ignoring form criticism in its classical form.” (page 249)

A second model of oral tradition is proposed that is often seen as the polar opposite of form criticism. Whereas form criticism essentially posits that the early church had no real checks in place for the accuracy of the stories it told about Jesus (in fact, the stories were not necessarily considered to be historical in the first place) and thus the stories were wildly varied as they were passed down, the “Scandinavian Alternative” as Bauckham calls it proposes that the early church utilized methods and practices similar to rabbinic Judaism. This process would have produced the highest level of accuracy through the most careful transmission process possible. Bauckham describes the theory (proposed by Birger Gerhardsson) in sufficient detail and concludes that “most scholars were not convinced by Gerhardsson’s work…” (page 251).

Bauckham then turns to a most fascinating bit of research by “Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar who was worked for more than thirty years in the Middle East.” (page 252) The model of oral transmission described by Bailey has a lot going for it. First, real life examples of this model of transmission are provided. Bailey describes a “gathering of villagers in the evening for the telling of stories and the recitation of poetry.” (page 255) During these gatherings the elders will tell the stories and share the common wisdom of their village for the benefit of the youth in the crowd. This method is not nearly as rigid as that proposed by the Gerhardsson, nor anywhere near as wildly out of control as form criticism would propose. Yet this method is capable of maintaining a high degree of accuracy with respect to the stories and literature of the village. The degree of flexibility that is permitted depends on the genre of what is being recited.

In the case of proverbs and poems, verbatim reproduction is mandatory. A mistake of even a single word by the person reciting will be emphatically corrected by the listeners in general, and if the reciter hesitates he will be assisted by the group, drawing on their “collective memory.” By contrast, some flexibility is allowed in the case of parables and historical accounts of people and events, “important to the identity of the community.” (page 255-256)

Bauckham concludes that none of the categories of tradition is given unrestricted flexibility, there is always some kind of control of the content.

This concept accords well with the Gospels. As Bauckham observes, “the Gospels vary to some degree in the different versions but preserve key features and structures, including, frequently, a punch line that occurs with nearly verbatim equivalence in the several versions of the story.” (page 256)

To have a model of oral transmission that is vastly superior to the antiquated form criticism model, is backed by solid research which includes real life examples of said transmission in action, and explains both the similarities and difference between the Gospels is exciting to say the least! Especially when that model is known to have a high degree of control on the content of the transmission, not allowing for wild rewriting of the basic content, but insisting that key details and “punch lines” are kept intact.

This is all very encouraging as a general model of oral transmission for the New Testament church, but there is an added feature of the circumstances of the early church that is absent from the oral transmission model under consideration; the reality of eyewitnesses. This model has demonstrated that oral traditions can be faithfully passed down once the eyewitnesses are no longer on the scene; how much more faithfully can we expect the traditions to adhere to the events under consideration when one of the controls on their accuracy is one of the very eyewitnesses to the events? Bauckham turns his attention to this reality at the end of the chapter and, tying together some strands of reasoning and data he covered in previous chapters, makes a solid case for the influence of eyewitness reports in the writings of the Gospels.

In Chapter 11 Bauckham expands on the territory he wrested from form criticism in Chapter 10. He begins by addressing the fact that the apostle Paul uses very technical language with respect to the handing down and receiving of traditions and the fact that this was considered a somewhat formalized process. Paul was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus (as far as we know) so he had to rely on the testimony of those who were. In fact, he went out of his way to seek it. And Paul describes all of this, including the fact that the traditions he received and passed on to others have been kept pure by a somewhat formalized process of oral tradition maintenance. Further to a previous point, the details of what Paul describes in one place is sometimes very close to the details described in another place which strongly suggests, “Paul must be dependent either on a written text or, more likely, an oral text that has been quite closely memorized.” (page 267) Bauckham summarizes,

Paul cites the Jesus tradition, not a liturgical text, and so he provides perhaps our earliest evidence of narratives about Jesus transmitted in a way that involved, while not wholly verbatim reproduction, certainly a considerable degree of precise memorization. (page 268)

Bauckham goes on to make a case for the fact that Paul was careful to not merely pass on the traditions to an entire community, but Paul quite likely established teachers within each community who would be responsible for maintaining the traditions. A much fuller picture of oral tradition emerges from this chapter that stretches from the actions of Jesus right down to the individual communities that learned about them prior to the writing of the Gospels. Contra the form critics, this was no haphazard or politically motivated process that placed minimal emphasis on historical accuracy. As Bauckham summarizes well,

There is no doubt that oral societies generally and in particular the societies in which the early Christian movement developed had means of preserving traditions from more than minor changes in the course of transmission. (page 271)

After making this observation Bauckham explains why they would have bothered. Those cultures, not unlike our own, differentiated between historical tales and historical accounts. “Tales” were considered to be fiction while “accounts” were considered truthful. Significant variation could be found in tales, whereas with respect to accounts, “[V]ariability is much less pronounced. There is substantial commonality in plot, setting, personages, and even succession of episodes.” (page 272) Bauckham then drops another key bombshell against form criticism.

This distinction between tales and accounts refutes all claims that Gospels scholars, from the form critics onward, have made to the effect that early Christians, in the transmission of Jesus traditions, would not have made any distinction between the past time of the history of Jesus and their own present because oral societies and their traditions do not make such distinctions. This is untrue. (page 273)

Beyond merely making the claim, Bauckham (per usual) backs it up with specific evidence beyond what he had already provided. The significance of this observation is driven home by Bauckham with the claim, “[t]hat early Christians in fact had a genuine sense of the past as past and were concerned to preserve memories of the past history of Jesus.” (page 275) He goes on to cite evidence beginning with the works of others spanning back to 1974 and ending with various lines of evidence he provides for us. Then, to summarize, he observes that these conclusions, “[cohere] strongly with the general, though quite recent, acceptance in Gospels scholarship that, generically, the Gospels are biography … in the sense of ancient Greco-Roman biography.” (page 276)

Bauckham moves on to some reflections on the Jesus tradition as “isolated” from the Christian communities within which it was passed on, and he describes the role and process of memorization a little more thoroughly. He reminds us that, while we have excellent reasons to trust the overall reliability of memorization to transmit these oral traditions reliably, memory is sometimes faulty. He outlines a number of factors that would have led to variations in the Jesus tradition and reminds us that “[w]hile memorization accounts (in part) for the stability of the tradition, several other factors account for its variability.” (page 287) The process of oral transmission may have been excellent, but it was not perfect.

This chapter ends with a most fascinating prospect; that writing was used as a means of maintaining the accuracy of the oral traditions prior to the Gospels. Bauckham begins, “Whether Jesus traditions, before the writing of the Gospels, were transmitted not only orally but also in written form in notebooks, is a question Graham Stanton has recently said should certainly be reopened.” (page 287) Not only Stanton, but several other scholars are referenced in this section, collectively arguing that “the writing of Jesus traditions and the circulation of such written records among Jesus’ disciples could well have begun already during Jesus’ ministry” (page 287) and we can assume this “on the basis of the widespread presence of writing in Jewish Palestine at the time of Jesus.” (page 287) This is a serious possibility in large part because “[a]ny discussion of this issue must recognize that in the predominantly oral culture of the ancient world, including the early Christian movement, writing and orality were not alternatives but complementary.” (page 287) Apparently it was fairly common for people to possess their own private notebooks on which they would jot down key thoughts to aid them in their recollection of orally transmitted traditions. Paul presumably refers to precisely this kind of notebook in 2 Tim 4:13. These notes were not intended to replace oral transmission, but even in a culture that placed a very high emphasis on oral tradition private notebooks were deemed valuable as a means of keeping the oral traditions accurate.

All-in-all this is certainly a page turner. I never imagined a scholarly book could so readily keep me on the edge of my seat! I look forward to reading and reviewing subsequent chapters. Stay tuned.

About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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