C Not Layers but Performances

One of the most important conclusions to emerge from this review of the oral character of so much of the Jesus tradition, and of the likely processes of oral transmission, is that the perspective which has dominated the study of the history of Synoptic tradition is simply wrong-headed. Bultmann laid out the playing field by conceiving of the Jesus tradition as 'composed of a series of layers'.301 The consequence of this literary paradigm was that each retelling of episodes or parts of the Jesus tradition was bound to be conceived on the analogy of an editor editing a literary text. Each retelling was like a new (edited) edition. And so the impression of each retelling as another layer superimposed upon earlier layers became almost inescapable, especially when the literary imagery was integrated with the archaeological image of the ancient where research proceeds by digging down through the historical layers.302 The consequence has been widespread disillusion at the prospect of ever being able successfully to strip off the successive layers of editing to leave some primary layer exposed clearly to view. Equally inevitable from such a perspective were the suspicion and scepticism met by any bold enough to claim that they had been successful in their literary archaeology and had actually uncovered a large area of Jesus' bedrock teaching.

But the imagery is simply inappropriate.303 An oral retelling of a tradition is not at all like a new literary edition. It has not worked on or from a previous retelling. How could it? The previous retelling was not 'there' as a text to be consulted. And in the retelling the retold tradition did not come into existence as a kind of artefact, to be examined as by an editor and re-edited for the next retell

301. Bultmann, Jesus 12-13.

302. As again by Crossan in his talk of 'scientific stratigraphy' (Historical Jesus xxviii, xxxi-xxxii). See also above chapter 6 n. 95. Bruce Chilton made an earlier protest against this 'literary fallacy' — The Temple of Jesus: His Sacrificial Program within a Cultural History of Sacrifice (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1992) 114-15, 120, referring to his Profiles of a Rabbi: Synoptic Opportunities in Reading about Jesus (BJS 177; Atlanta: Scholars, 1989).

303. Cf. Liebenberg: 'Although it is true that all one has to work with are the canonical and non-canonical gospel texts, it remains methodologically unsound to work with a theory of the gospel tradition which gives pride of place to these texts, when it is known that they came into being in a predominantly oral milieu, and more significantly, that the first twenty to thirty years after the life of Jesus the stories and aphorisms attributed to him were transmitted and performed orally' {Language 518).

ing. In oral transmission a tradition is performed, not edited. And as we have seen, performance includes both elements of stability and elements of variability — stability of subject and theme, of key details or core exchanges, variability in the supporting details and the particular emphases to be drawn out. That is a very different perspective. And it allows, indeed requires, rather different conclusions. These include the likelihood that the stabilities of the tradition were sufficiently maintained and the variabilities of the retellings subject to sufficient control for the substance of the tradition, and often actual words of Jesus which made the first tradition-forming impact, to continue as integral parts of the living tradition, for at least as long as it took for the Synoptic tradition to be written down. In other words, whereas the concept of literary layers implies increasing remoteness from an 'original', 'pure', or 'authentic' layer, the concept of performance allows a directness, even an immediacy of interaction, with a living theme and core even when variously embroidered in various retellings.304

The concept of oral transmission, as illustrated from the Synoptic tradition itself, therefore, does not encourage either the scepticism which has come to afflict the 'quest of the historical Jesus' or the lopsided findings of the questers. Rather it points a clear middle way between a model of memorization by rote on the one hand and any impression of oral transmission as a series of evanescent reminiscences of some or several retellings on the other. It encourages neither those who are content with nothing short of the historicity of every detail and word of the text nor those who can see and hear nothing other than the faith of the early churches. It encourages us rather to see and hear the Synoptic tradition as the repertoire of the early churches when they recalled the Jesus who had called their first leaders and predecessors to discipleship and celebrated again the powerful impact of his life and teaching.

d. Oral Tradition to Written Gospel

We need not follow the course of oral transmission beyond the transition from oral tradition to written Gospel. The significance of that transition can be exaggerated, as we noted above in reviewing the work of Kelber (§8.3f): Jesus tradi-

have struggled to find a suitable image to replace that of 'layers' (edited editions), and played with the model of forms somewhat like space satellites circling round the remembered Jesus, with the forms of the 60s and 70s not necessarily further from Jesus than those of the 40s and 50s. The image is not very good, but it can be elaborated to depict John's Gospel as on a higher orbit, or to include the possibility of forms drifting out of the gravity of the remembered Jesus or being caught by a countervailing gravity. The earlier image of a trajectory could be fitted to this also — e.g., Q material on a trajectory leading to a Gospel of Thomas no longer held within the original gravity field.

tion did not cease to circulate in oral form simply because it had been written down; hearings of a Gospel being read would be part of the oral/aural transmission, to be retold in further circles of the written text was still fluid, still living tradition.306 But there are two other aspects, misleading impressions or unexamined assumptions, which have encouraged false perspectives on the subject and which should be highlighted here.

One is the impression that the oral Jesus tradition was like two (or several) narrow streams which were wholly absorbed into the written Gospels through their sources. So much of the focus in Gospel research has been on the question of sources for the Gospels that it has been natural, I suppose, for oral tradition to be conceived simply as source material for the Gospels, without any real attempt being made to conceptualize what oral communities were like and how the oral tradition functioned prior to and independently of written collections and Gospels. As already noted, some narrative criticism and some discussions of Synoptic pe-ricopes at times almost seem to assume that when a copy of Mark or Matthew or Luke was initially received by any church, that was the first time the church had heard the Jesus tradition contained therein. But this is to ignore or forget one of the key insights of form criticism in the beginning, namely the recognition that the tradition took various forms because the forms reflected the way the tradition was being used in the first churches. In fact, it is almost self-evident that the Synoptists proceeded by gathering and ordering Jesus tradition which had already been in circulation, that is, had already been well enough known to various churches, for at least some years if not decades. Where else did the Evangelists find the tradition? Stored up, unused, in an old box at the back of some teacher's house? Stored up, unrehearsed, in the failing memory of an old apostle? Hardly! On the contrary, it is much more likely that when the Synoptic Gospels were first received by various churches, these churches already possessed (in communal oral memory or in written form) their own versions of much of the material. They would be able to compare the Evangelist's version of much of the tradition with their own versions. This conclusion ties in well with the considerations adduced above (§8.1). And as we have seen above, the divergences between different versions of the Synoptic tradition imply a lively and flexible oral tradition known to the Evangelists and presumably also to the churches with which they were associated.

This line of thought links in with the other assumption which has become debilitatingly pervasive: that each document belongs to and represents the views

305. As Koester was already pointing out in his first monograph (Synoptische Überlieferung).

306. See particularly D. C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1997), whose warning against searching for an original text mirrors the warning of specialists in oral tradition against searching for an original form.

of only one community, and that the tensions within and among documents indicate rival camps and already different Christianities. The assumption derives again from the first insights of form criticism: that the forms of the tradition reflect the interests of the churches which used them. This was reinforced by the sociological perspective of the final quarter of the twentieth century: literature as the expression not so much of a single mind as of a social context. But these insights have been narrowed (and distorted) in a quite extraordinary way, to claim in effect that each text was written by and for a particular community — a Q community, a Mark community, a Matthean community, and so on.-'07 I have already challenged this assumption with regard to Q and by implication for the Gospels generally. But the assumption covers also the streams of tradition which entered into the Gospels. The assumption, in other words, is of differing and conflicting streams of tradition more or less from the first, celebrating in effect different Jesuses — a prophetic and/or apocalyptic Jesus, Jesus the wisdom teacher, the Jesus of aretalogies (divine man), and so on.308

307. R. Bauckham, 'For Whom Were the Gospels Written?', in R. Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking theGospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), provides a number of examples He suspects that 'those who no longer think it possible to use the Gospels to reconstruct the historical Jesus compensate for this loss by using them to reconstruct the communities that produced the Gospels' (20). See also S. C. Barton's strictures in the same volume ('Can We Identify the Gospel Audiences?', Gospels for All 173-94) on the use of 'community' and on our ability to identify beyond generalizations the social context in which the Gospels were written.

308. Cf. particularly Koester, 'One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels'; also 'The Structure and Criteria of Early Christian Beliefs', in Robinson and Koester, Trajectories 205-31; Lührmann, Redaktion 95-96; Mack, Myth 83-97. Koester's reflections on 'The Historical Jesus and the Historical Situation of the Quest: An Epilogue', in Chilton and Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus 535-45, exemplifies how dubious the reasoning has become: (1) 'The history of Christian beginnings demonstrates that it was most effective to establish and to nurture the community of the new age without any recourse to the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth' ('Historical Jesus' 535, my emphasis). Assumption: 'the community of the new age' did not know or value any Jesus tradition. (2) 'There were followers of Jesus, who were not included in the circle of those churches for which the central ritual and the story of Jesus' suffering and death was the unifying principle. Instead, they believed that their salvation was mediated through the words of wisdom that Jesus had spoken. In the Synoptic Sayings Source a community appears that had combined this belief in Jesus with the expectation of his return as the Son of Man' ('Historical Jesus' 537). Assumptions: one document per church; silence regarding means ignorance of or opposition to; differing emphases are irreconcilable in a single document. (3) Some of those addressed in 1 Corinthians seem to have understood Jesus' sayings 'as the saving message of a great wisdom teacher'; the earliest compositional strata of Q seem to have understood 'Jesus' words of wisdom as a revelation providing life and freedom' ('Historical Jesus' 540). Assumptions: Corinthian 'wisdom' was based on Jesus' teaching, and implies a Christology; 1 Corinthians 1—4 requires more than a rhetorical and socio-political understanding of that wisdom; Q wisdom was soteriological rather than paraenetic.

Richard Bauckham has recently challenged this assumption with regard to the written Gospels. His counter-thesis is that 'the Gospels were written for general circulation around the churches and so envisaged a very general Christian audience. Their implied readership is not specific but indefinite: any and every Christian community in the late first-century Roman Empire'.309 The claim may be stated in an exaggerated form (for all Christians?), but we should not discount the likelihood that Evangelists wrote out of their more local experience primarily with a view to a much larger circle of churches, in for example.

And Bauckham needs to give more weight to the likelihood that particular communities were the Evangelist's source for Jesus tradition, as distinct from communities as the Evangelist's target in writing his Gospel. But he is justified in dismissing the idea that the Evangelist would have written his Gospel for the community in which he lived.310 And he rightly challenges any suggestion that the tradition-stock available to any one Evangelist was limited to his own community or circle of churches.311

The point here is that Bauckham is certainly correct to highlight the evidence that the first churches were by no means as isolated from one another and at odds with one another as has been so often assumed. If Paul's letters (and Acts) are any guide, the first churches consisted rather of 'a network of communities in constant communication', linked by messengers, letters, and visits by leading figures in the new movement.312 This ties in with what was noted above: that church founding included the initial communication of foundation tradition and that Paul could assume common tradition, including knowledge of Jesus tradition, even in a church which he had never previously visited (Rome). And though there were indeed severe tensions between Paul and the Jerusalem leadership, Paul still regarded the lines of continuity between the churches in Judea and those of the Gentile mission as a matter of first In short, the sug gestion that there were churches who knew only one stream of tradition — Jesus only as a miracle worker, or only as a wisdom teacher, etc. — has been given far

310. Bauckham, 'For Whom?' 28-30; 'Why should he go to the considerable trouble of writing a Gospel for a community to which he was regularly preaching?' (29).

In private correspondence.

312. Bauckham, 'For Whom?' 30-44; also M. B. Thompson, 'The Holy Internet: Communication between Churches in the First Christian Generation', in Bauckham, ed., Gospels 49-70. Bauckham justifiably asks, 'Why do scholars so readily assume that the author of a Gospel would be someone who had spent all his Christian life attached to the same Christian community?' (36). Bauckham's thesis has now been criticized by D. C. Sim, "The Gospels for All Christians? A Response to Richard Bauckham', JSNT84 (2001) 3-27.1 will address this debate in volume 2.

too much uncritical credence in scholarly discussions on the Gospels and ought to have been dismissed a lot sooner.

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