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This article relates Oral Transmission as a possible solution to the Synoptic Problem in New Testament scholarship. Many current theories attempt to link the three synoptic gospels together through a common textual tradition. Unfortunately, many problems arise when linking these three texts together. This has lead many scholars to theorize a fourth document from which several of the synoptic writers drew upon independently of each other. (Most famous in modern scholarship being the Q document) The Oral Transmission theories step away from this model, proposing instead that this common, shared tradition was transmitted orally rather than through a lost document.



While the Q source document is the most popular theory for a ‘lost source’ document, it is by no means the first of its kind. As early as the 18th century, biblical scholars had proposed the presence of a lost document, in their case it was an Aramaic Gospel of the Nazarenes.[1] J.G. Herder opposed this concept, arguing that there was no direct evidence for a primal gospel in the early church traditions. Herder agreed that there was a source common between some of the gospel writers, but thought it was more likely to be a ‘common Gospel’ of oral traditions. Herder surmised that in oral transmission, small details might be modified or lost while longer expressions and sayings would remain intact; satisfying why gospel writers agree perfectly in some phrases but not in every word.[2]

For much of the 19th century, scholarship was concentrated on finding possible common sources for the synoptic writers and consequently, theories of oral transmission went unexamined until the rise of textual criticism in the 20th century. In the 1950's, Rudolf Bultmann mirrored the observations of Herder when he noted that central structures and narratives survive intact during oral transmission, arguing that a common oral source was indeed a possibility. Bultmann looked at orally transmitted folklore as a basis to ascertain the validity of an orally transmitted common gospel source. Bultmann reasoned that an oral tradition would follow certain rules of form that would allow for a consistency in the phasing while still making room for progressive additions to the work.[3]

While several scholars continued to develop Bultmann’s work, the theory saw its next big leap with the work of Birger Gerhardsson. Gerhardsson stepped beyond the form and style criticisms to examine the actual methods of transmission. Starting with an examination of early Christianity’s earliest cultural relatives, Gerhardsson looked at the oral traditions of first century Jewish communities. By the first century CE, Jewish communities already had a very strong oral tradition through rabbinic teaching. A system of verbatim memorization was a common teaching tool in these communities, with teachers requiring their students to repeat lessons and parables back to them exactly before the meanings were revealed.[4] Gerhardsson argues that the historical Jesus was a member of this culture and these traditions and as such, would have required his followers to learn his teachings in the exact same manner. This gave weight to the idea that Oral Transmission, far from being an unreliable source of information, may have been a tool for preservation and stability of message. For the first time, it was quantifiably possible that there existed an oral Gospel.

After Gerhardsson, Werner Kelber made the next significant contributions to Oral Transmission theories. Kelber looked at the differences of transmission for both oral and written sources to determine what tropes and conventions belong to both. Kelber discovered that finding the differences in an ancient setting could prove difficult as the purpose for both works were closely linked. Unlike modern written works which are intended to be read in relative isolation, many ancient works were intended to be read in groups, orally. This had the effect of challenging the modern notion of written and oral works being completely separate in transmission and structure. An oral narrative could be transferred just as a written narrative with the expectation that a similar amount of change, edition and preservation would take place in relatively short lengths of transmission.[5]

In more modern times, scholars such as Kenneth Bailey have taken the stage arguing for Oral Transmission theories. Bailey breaks down modern oral traditions and orally transmitted material into several categories including proverbs, proverbs and accounts of important figures (also poetry and riddles). In addition to this, Bailey notes that within each category there are different levels of control from the highly flexible to the firm and unchanging. Bailey argues that oral tradition in first century Christian communities would not be altogether exempt from these same classifications. This variability in control over material would allow for some information to be highly flexible and prone to small detail changes over time, while other information would remain static as a result of strict community oversight.[6]

Development of Tradition

In his work regarding the traditions of Jesus, James Dunn notes that it is useful to examine the development of oral tradition in stages. The first stage can be defined as the initial relation of Jesus’ works and teachings in terms of their use among initial witnesses of the acts. Jesus’ immediate followers and students would relate to each other the various words and events and coming to a general consensus regarding their exact details. Drawing on the studies of Bailey, Dunn notes that there is no reason to believe this community operated any differently than other communities in that the information originated with Jesus and was distributed through the retelling of specific memories.[7] Being aware of the argument that many different accounts does not produce a unified tradition, Dunn points out that traditions are formed not by individuals, but by communities and as such, have the tendency to meter out discrepancies and leave only a cohesive vision. The inherent problem to this process is that once individuals begin to change or amalgamate their own versions, the truth of the incident is lost and only the story remains. In this way, the Jesus who is remembered even through the earliest stories of him may be a uniquely different Jesus from the one who actually existed. Regardless of the historical accuracy of these stories however, the stories that were related, once solidified in communal consensus, were solid traditions that would have shared form and wording with each other. Form critics recognize that traditions are passed down precisely because they are standardized, repeated and memorized.[8]

Dunn marks a second stage of development as being that of the retelling. Many scholars make the assumption that an oral retelling of stories, over time, tends to add layers of detail and information onto the work. Dunn argues that this does not fit with the method of transmission. While layers of edition exist as a valid textual criticism in written works, there is very little to support this in oral transmission. Upon hearing an oral work, the assumption is that the hearer will take the major points of the discussion into his memory but be remiss in the details causing him to add his own material to fill the gaps in the narrative. While this may be true on a colloquial level, it does not carry into the world of oral performance.[9] This is not to say that oral transmission is immune to the effects of such errors, only that there is no systematic method which can be attributed to the degradation of a message. To put this in modern terms, imagine the viewing of a play by William Shakespeare. The actors, the set pieces, the tone and rhythm that lines are delivered with, even the sexes of characters and portrayal of objects can vary wildly depending on the style and choices of the presenters. What does not change however, are the words which are used. While there are cases where acting companies will attempt to tell the story of King Lear in modern language or with a pared-down script, William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is always presented with an exact series of words, presented in the exact order, every time. The argument that this is solely derived from the printed material available for Shakespeare’s work is tenuous at best. The actors themselves use no scripts while on stage and are able to recite, with 100% accuracy, every word in its correct order. Should one actor sit with another and recite these lines repeatedly, the other actor would be able to accomplish the same feat; there is no requirement for printed words to make this possible. As stated before, there are differences in individual performances. Shakespeare used precious few stage directions and very little in the way of set instruction. In this way, the transmission of his stories can vary in the nuances, from traditional shows put on in the Globe Theatre to modern cinematic retellings with 20th century props and locations. When examining oral traditions, we must keep this element of performance in mind, that there are messages, words and events that will be recounted time and time again with unerring accuracy, but also smaller pieces of set-dressing and style that are more flexible to change.[10]

The final stage of development was, in Dunn’s estimation, the transition of an oral tradition into a written one. When the synoptic writers sat down to pen their versions of the life of Jesus, it is unlikely they did so in isolation. Various early Christian communities would each have shared strong and vibrant oral traditions with each other one the words and works of Jesus. It is often the case that synoptic scholars attempt to link one or more of the synoptic writers as synthesizers of earlier written traditions, based on common agreements between the texts. Ironically, all of the gospel writers, even the first, may have been synthesizers in their own way by combining the oral traditions of several communities. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any Christian of the time would not be familiar with some minor variations on stories they knew by heart through the performances of Gospel speakers of other communities. But these variations must be seen as only that, minor. As we have seen, the core of the messages would say the same while the order of the events or the individual set-dressings may vary, but only in ways controlled by the relative flexibility of the information. (That is to say, following Bailey’s method, there are levels of importance and therefore flexibility given to various pieces of information.) We can go further than this and assume that the same sort of communal consensus that took place immediately following the acts of Jesus, took place as the church communities as a whole shared their stories between each other. When transcription finally took place, this was not the end to the oral traditions of the time, but rather an augmentation of it. Memorization is a long process and the possession of written accounts would be valuable in these expanding communities. However a written gospel would represent only one performance of the oral material, and communities would likely desire for their own individual variances to be presented in tandem with it.[11]

Implications for the Synoptic Problem

Oral tradition is a common element in many solutions to the synoptic problems. Once a theory has been proposed there often appear cases where the theory fails to explain certain elements of the synoptic problem. (Indeed, were it the case that a theory had no troubles, there would be no synoptic problem) To this end, oral tradition is used to explain many of the minor agreements between the synoptic writers as well as a source of shared sayings between otherwise textually unrelated material. Some scholars propose that there was only an oral tradition which all three gospel writers worked from, others propose that one gospel has priority and that the other two modified this with the help of circulating oral traditions. For the purpose of this examination, we will look at theories which pose Markan priority in their timelines and look to integrate agreements between Matthew and Luke.

Using Mark as a primary text accessible by both the writers of Luke and Matthew solves a good many problems in terms of shared content between the three writers. It allows for so called special material to be added by individual writers, independent of each other and also for them to make differing selections of what to keep from Mark. The real problem arises when Luke and Matthew agree with each other about what not to keep from Mark, or more importantly, when they agree verbatim on what to add. One theory that has resulted from this problem was the creation of a hypothetical Q source document. Other theories are found within oral transmission. As we have discussed, Oral Transmission can be highly accurate in the transference of special data between generations, while maintaining some ability to be flexible and show variance. In part this helps to explain how Matthew and Luke are able to add, with such accuracy, specific phrases and sayings to their gospels that Mark does not contain, while still differing from each other in smaller matters of detail and setting. An example of this can be found in Matt 6, 24|| Luke 16, 13, where the phrase does not exist in Mark, yet exists almost verbatim in the other two. The phrase is almost exact, but not perfectly. Those who see the link between Matthew and Luke as a lost document will tend to see that the words of the actual phrase are almost perfect copies, but often leave out the fact that Luke adds special material to the end of the saying. While this sort of addition is common to both Luke and Matthew, the question arises regarding why Luke added something but not Matthew. If there was a document that both Matthew and Luke used, was this addition part of that document or simply something special to Luke, and if it was special to Luke, why did he add it?

Theories around oral tradition have less of a problem solving this discrepancy. For oral tradition, it is obvious that the phrase itself was the controlled portion of information, given to very little flexibility, while the setting and context that follows the phrase are highly flexible parts of the performance. Matthew and Luke, having access to oral traditions independently would be exposed to the same rigidly related core pieces of dialogue, but variant flexible details. As mentioned, there are also minor agreements that Luke and Matthew make against Mark. An example of this, found in the parable of the man with the withered hand, comes near the end of the parable. Both Luke and Matthew use a single, specific conjunction to complete their stories and relay the fury of Jesus’ opposition, where Mark uses none. Why, if both writers were copying from Mark and another common source, would they both choose the same conjunctive word? Again, proponents of the document based theories would argue that both writers would read the conjunction in their ‘lost’ source and make the editorial choice to disagree with Mark. This solution is problematic however; because neither writer concludes his parable with anything nearing the same phrasing and both writers differ from Mark. In the case of an oral tradition the solution is much simpler. Both writers would be familiar with the parable ending in a conjunction, this form of the sentence would be locked into their mindset and may very well have seemed impossible to do with out. To help examine this point we will again turn to oral presentations in our modern time. Assume for a second that you were presented with a new copy of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Turning to what is perhaps the most famous of all lines within the play, you read the phrase: “To be, not to be, that is the question.” Undoubtedly the error here has stirred you. The modern reader, being so intimately familiar with that small phrase will instantly know to add the missing grammatical structure to the phrase and edit it to read: “To be or not to be.” The oral tradition you have been exposed to has perfectly transmitted this information to you and caused you to make the edition almost innately. Following this example, if you were asked to write out the lines that follow, there would be a greater deviance in the accuracy between individuals; the rest of soliloquy, though the very finest of writing, is subsidiary to the control of the important first phrase, the remainder is flexible to the common tradition. (It is worth noting that this is merely an exemplar of a principal, the average person’s knowledge of Shakespeare cannot begin to compare with the knowledge gospel writers had of their variant gospel performances.)

Several scholars have attempted to postulate that there is no need for any connection between the three synoptic writers. They argue that all three, independent of each other, were exposed to variant oral traditions which in turn contained all of the common connections and variants in themselves. Eta Linnemann argues just this in her book Is There A Synoptic Problem? Rethinking the Literary Dependence of the First Three Gospels. While an independent formation of these gospels may be technically possible, it is unlikely given the high degree of communication evidenced throughout early Christian communities. Once one gospel was written down, it would have travelled with some speed among other communities, meaning that the only way for the writers to be unaware of the others is if one or more were writing at the exact same time.[12]


  1. ^ Dunn, James. Christianity in the Making Vol. 1: Jesus Remembered. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. 2003 p.191
  2. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.193
  3. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.194
  4. ^ Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript. Uppsala Press, Copenhagen. 1961 p.325
  5. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.200
  6. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.205
  7. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.239
  8. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.244
  9. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p.248
  10. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p. 249
  11. ^ Dunn, James (2003) p. 252
  12. ^ Kelber, Werner. The Oral-Scribal-Memorial Arts of Communication in Early Christianity. Baylor University Press, Waco. 2008 p.245

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