Monday, March 31, 2014

Higgledy Piggledy, Oral Tradition

Last week I read a new book by Rafael Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Bloomsbury, 2014), which I'd found when it was recommended and discussed recently by a blogger I found when I was writing about Morton Smith a few years ago.  From time to time I look in to see what she's writing about, and this new book sounded worth following up.  The university library had just gotten it in, and it turned out to be interesting and useful.  It brought me up to date on a topic I hadn't looked at much lately, and pointed me to some other books I'll want to read.  (Just what I need.)  It's concise, under 150 pages including references, and readable.  I can recommend it to anyone who's interested in this subject, especially if they've read about it or heard about it before.  But, of course, I have a quibble.

Here's the context.  It's virtually a cliche in New Testament scholarship that before the gospels were written, information about Jesus and his teachings was preserved by "oral tradition."  How this oral tradition worked, what forms it took, has always been disputed, though.  Before the historical study of the Bible began at the end of the eighteenth century, though, the (more or less) official position of the church was that the gospels were written either by Jesus' original followers (Matthew and John) or by people who'd worked with them (Mark, supposedly written by an associate of Simon Peter) or by an associate of Paul (Luke and Acts), though Paul didn't become a Christian until a few years after Jesus' death.  Since the authors of the gospels were either eyewitnesses or had accesses to eyewitnesses, they didn't really need "oral tradition": they worked from memory or from the reported memories of the apostles.  I hope to write more about this before long, so I won't go into too much detail here.

In the twentieth century, scholars came to agree that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, indeed not by the men who traditionally had been claimed as their authors.  For a while in the 1800s, very late dates for the gospels became fashionable in some circles, though the fashion reversed itself in the 1900s.  So how was the gospel material preserved and transmitted from those who'd known Jesus until it was eventually written down?  "Oral tradition" was the answer.  After the 1920s, the dominant approach in European and American scholarship was form criticism, developed by German scholars and widely adopted by their colleagues.  Form criticism attempted to understand how stories and sayings were affected by transmission -- how they changed, how they stayed the same -- and how they were used by the early churches.  Naturally there were many scholars who rejected this approach, because they saw no reason to abandon longstanding church tradition, but others were skeptical of the method itself.  When I was reading a lot of New Testament scholarship in the 1980s, I read some of the classics of form criticism and some of the later attacks on and defenses of it.  Some of the opponents seemed to believe that if they could demolish form criticism, the field could return to traditional approaches, but that's like believing that if you can demolish Darwinism, the creation myths of Genesis will be vindicated. One reason form criticism was invented was that traditional understandings of the gospels had failed: few scholars believed, for reasons having nothing to do with form criticism, that the gospels were direct eyewitness accounts of Jesus' career by his followers and their converts.  Yet "form criticism" remains a bugbear of biblical reactionaries to this day, a sort of symbol of everything they reject in modern approaches to the study of the Bible.

When I read Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008) a few years ago, it was the first serious scholarly book I'd read on this subject in quite a while.  Reading Bauckham's critique, it occurred to me that form criticism would have been based on outdated and largely discredited anthropological theories of pre-literate cultures anyway, and that it could surely be criticized because of that.  But although Bauckham made some valid points, he still accepted most of the historical-critical approach to the Bible, including many of its conclusions.  I wondered if some of the people who'd welcomed his book noticed, for example, that he didn't think the gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness. Whatever the failings of form criticism, abandoning it would not be much help to a conservative-fundamentalist case for the validity or reliability of the gospels.

So Rodríguez' book looked like a good way to begin bringing myself up to speed on whatever advances had been made in the study of oral tradition since the 1980s, and it is that.  I plan to read some of the writings he cites.  But the main advance seems to have been the development of what Rodríguez calls "media criticism" of the New Testament writings, which appears to have more to do with the use of those writings for worship and devotion rather than a better understanding of their history and composition.  As Rodríguez says, we have no access to the oral tradition that predated the writing of the gospels: attempts to reconstruct it as a source have not worked.  Scholars can do a bit more with written sources, but not very much since those written sources are mostly lost; the only exception is the gospel of Mark, which most New Testament scholars believe was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who rewrote it, cut, and added to it to produce their gospels.  Mark still exists as a separate work; other hypothetical sources like Q do not.

All this goes, I hope, to set the stage for the following passage from Oral Tradition and the New Testament, which baffles me for reasons I'll explain shortly.
A logical place to begin the history of contemporary media criticism is with Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson.  His dissertation, Memory and Manuscript (1961), was published at the zenith of form criticism’s influence, when the academic community was not ready to take seriously Gerhardsson’s critical challenges to form criticism.  Gerhardsson’s work would not be granted adequate consideration for at least two decades, and perhaps closer to four.  Perhaps most (in)famously, Morton Smith wrote an influential and dismissive review essay that described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as “impossible to conceive” (1963: 176). Two decades later, Werner Kelber (1983) would take Gerhardsson seriously, and 15 years after that, in 1998, Gerhardsson’s book would be republished, along with his follow-up essay, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (1964), and a penitent foreword by no less than esteemed Rabbinics scholar (and Morton Smith’s former student) Jacob Neusner.  Finally, in 2009, an edited volume of interdisciplinary essays would reassess the original significance of Gerhardsson’s work (Kelber and Byrskog 2009).  Today, Gerhardsson is widely recognized as a seminal figure in the history of research in early Christian oral tradition, a man literally decades ahead of his time [34].
I never got around to reading Memory and Manuscript, though I think I remember looking at Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity to see Gerhardsson's reply to Smith's criticism.  If I remember right, it was not an effective rebuttal, so I didn't feel it important to follow up by reading the books in their entirety.  I did hear about Neusner's recantation in the wake of the controversy over Smith and the longer gospel of Mark, and the blogger who alerted me to Rodríguez mentioned the republication of Gerhardsson's book and Neusner's "penitent foreword."  I did some digging and learned about the messy, bitter break between Neusner and Smith, which led to Neusner's repudiating most of his own earlier scholarship along with his teacher's.

What I didn't find was any refutation of Smith's critical review of Memory and Manuscript.  It originally appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, volume 82 (1963), 169-176, and was reprinted in a posthumous collection of Smith's articles.  It doesn't seem to be readily available online unless you have access to an academic library's resources.  Maybe there's something in the edited volume of interdisciplinary essays on Gerhardsson that Rodríguez mentions; it's in the university library here, but it's checked out so it may be a while before I can look at it.

I also recall seeing Gerhardsson's work cited favorably by numerous conservative academics and apologists I read, so I'm not sure how seriously to take Rodríguez' suggestion that Smith's "(in)famous" and "influential" review shut down consideration of Gerhardsson's thesis.  Maybe the review was influential because it made valid criticisms?  I'm especially inclined to think so because of what Rodríguez himself has to say about Gerhardsson's work.

Briefly, Smith argued that Gerhardsson based his argument on dubious assumptions: that Jesus made his disciples memorize his teachings as any rabbi of his day would have done according to the Talmud, and that the early church functioned like a rabbinical school.  Smith countered that the New Testament writings do not look anything like the rabbinical material, and that there is no evidence in the New Testament or early Christian history of such methods of preservation and transmission among the early Christians.
Even if we were to suppose the apostles witnesses to Jesus' legal teaching, there is no evidence of a class of memorizers to preserve their witness as the professional "repeaters" of rabbinic Judaism preserved the oral Torah.  And there is no appeal to chains of tradition.  Paul never says "Peter says that Jesus said," nor "I heard from James who heard from John who heard from Jesus."  Indeed, Paul is notorious for the rarity with which he even refers to Jesus' teaching [175].
Remember Rodríguez' claim that Smith "described Gerhardsson’s thesis as a whole as 'impossible to conceive'"?   It's in the final sentence of the review.  Here's the context:
In one of the few places where Paul does appeal to tradition, he lists, as the evidence on which his gospel was based, six stories of resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15.3ff).  One of these was Christ's appearance to him, the other five he seems to say he had "received."  Presumably they constituted the evidence for the primitive Christian kerygma as he knew it -- one might say, the most important part of the earliest known preaching of Christianity.  Yet of these five appearances, two or three have disappeared from the canonical tradition, except for passing references.  A second example, and even less explicable by Gerhardsson's postulates, is the loss of any reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law.  How a careful, rabbinic tradition should have produced, about this central rabbinical concern, the mess of contradictory scraps of evidence which the gospels preserve, it is impossible to conceive [176].
It seems to me that Rodríguez misrepresented Smith's statement.  It was not Gerhardsson's "thesis as a whole," that he called "impossible to conceive," but the failure of early Christian tradition to preserve a "reliable record of Jesus' attitude toward the Law."

Even more significant, Rodríguez himself is quite critical of Gerhardsson's thesis.  For example:
However, Gerhardsson goes too far when he argues, on the basis of both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, that the disciples -- specifically, The Twelve – formed a collegium, or authoritative school, that was responsible for forming, preserving, and transmitting the Jesus tradition (1961:244, 245-61)...

All of this rests on a highly speculative reading of a handful of texts, especially Acts 15 (see 249-61).  For example, he calls Acts 15.5ff “a description of a regular early Christian general session” (251, emphasis added), though nothing in Acts 15 (or elsewhere) suggests that it describes a regular or recurring kind of meeting.  Instead, Acts 15 seems to describe a special, ad hoc gathering of the Jerusalem church to settle a significant, persistent problem that was not typical for the early Christians.  Moreover, Paul’s letters provide authoritative doctrinal and pragmatic pronouncements to their audiences from Paul himself and not from Jerusalem.  This fact alone suggests that authority among the earliest Christians was not concentrated in a small group located in Jerusalem...

Gerhardsson’s conception of the oral Jesus tradition, then, is too rigid and inflexible, especially in that he assumes a fixed oral tradition that was more stable and unchanging than even the written Jesus tradition!  To be sure, Gerhardsson leaves room for the adaptation and creative application of the fixed Jesus tradition in earliest Christianity.  But the Jesus tradition as Gerhardsson has imagined it is nevertheless unreasonably and impractically stable, fixed, and memorized [35-6].
This is pretty close to Smith's critique, in my opinion, though it's framed differently.  It's easy to imagine a Gerhardsson partisan (Neusner, say) attacking Rodríguez for an infamous dismissal of the great scholar's work.  That wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, since Rodriguez does reject his "thesis as a whole," which assumes Jesus' early followers as a rabbinical academy.  Given Rodríguez' careless reading -- to put it as charitably as I can -- of Smith's conclusion, and the lack of any real refutation of Smith's criticisms, I'd say that Smith's review still has to be answered, or even seriously confronted.  (Smith's remarks about the resurrection tradition in 1 Corinthians were especially "influential" for me, and deserve more attention than they have received; if any serious scholar is in danger of being undervalued in New Testament studies, it's Morton Smith.)

This is not to dismiss the whole of Oral Tradition and the New Testament: there's a lot in it that seems good to me.  But the part I've discussed here is seriously weak, and casts a shadow over the rest.