H Kenneth Bailey

What has been missing in all this has been a sufficiently close parallel to the oral traditioning which presumably was the initial mode of and vehicle for the Jesus

170. Foley, Immanent Art chs. 1 and 2 (particularly 6-13 and 42-45; quotations from 7 and 40-41). The argument is developed in Singer of Tales in Performance chs. 1-3.

171. Foley, Immanent Art 44, 47-48. He can even argue that the responsibility of the 'reader' of an oral traditional text is 'to attempt to become as far as possible the audience implied by that text . . .' (54-55).

172. A central thesis of Singerof Tales in Performance 28. See also Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, on 'Performance': 'The tale must be well known to the public if the performance is to be a success for the audience must not be overly preoccupied with the task of trying to follow painstakingly what is being told in order to enjoy the tale. They must already know the tale so that they can enjoy the rendering of its various episodes, appreciate the innovations, and anticipate the thrills still to come. So every performance is new, but every performance presupposes something old: the tale itself (35).

173. Horsley and Draper, Whoever 160-74.

174. Horsley and Draper, Whoever 181-94.

tradition. As Kelber himself noted,175 however helpful the lessons learned from the study of Homeric epics and Yugoslavian sagas, we cannot simply assume that they provide the pattern for oral transmission of Jesus tradition within the thirty or so years between Jesus and the first written Gospel. The nearest we have to fill the gap are the anecdotal essays by Kenneth Bailey in which he has reflected on more than thirty years experience of Middle East village life.176 These villages have retained their identity over many generations, so that, arguably, their oral culture is as close as we will ever be able to find to the village culture of firstcentury Galilee. Bailey puts forward the idea of 'informal controlled tradition', to distinguish it from the models used by both Bultmann ('informal, uncontrolled tradition') and Gerhardsson ('formal controlled tradition'). In informal controlled tradition the story can be retold in the setting of a gathering of the village by any member of the village present, but usually the elders, and the community itself exercises the 'control'.177

Bailey characterizes the types of material thus preserved under various headings. (1) Pithy proverbs; he describes 'a community that can create (over the centuries) and sustain in current usage up to 6,000 wisdom sayings'. (2) Story riddles; 'in that story the hero is presented with an unsolvable problem and comes up with a wise answer'. (3) Poetry, both classical and popular. (4) Parable or story; 'Once there was a rich man who . . .', or 'a priest who . . .', and so on. (5) Well-told accounts of the important figures in the history of the village or community; 'if there is a central figure critical to the history of the village, stories of this central figure will abound'.178

Particularly valuable are Bailey's notes on how the community controlled its tradition. He distinguishes different levels of control, (i) No flexibility — po

175. Kelber, Oral 78-79.

176. K. E. Bailey, 'Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels', Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) 34-54; also 'Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels', ExpT 106 (1995) 363-67. I describe these as anecdotal, but will note several points at which Vansina's ethno-historical researches in Africa (Oral Tradition as History and his earlier Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965]) bear out Bailey's findings. Terence Mournet refers me also to I. Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1992). Wright is one of very few scholars to have taken note of Bailey's work (Jesus 133-37).

177. Bailey, 'Informal' 35-40; 'Oral Tradition' 364. Bailey had already made the point in his Poet and Peasant: 'Not only is the life of such [Middle Eastern] peasants remarkably archaic but their intellectual life is in the form of poems and stories preserved from the past. Men gather nightly in the village for what is called "haflat samar" (social gathering for samar), which is cognate with the Hebrew shamar, "to preserve". They are gathering to preserve the intellectual life of their community by the recitation of poems and the retelling of stories

178. Bailey, 'Informal' 41-42; 'Oral Tradition' 365.

ems and proverbs.179 (ii) Some flexibility — parables and recollections of people and events important to the identity of the community. 'Here there is flexibility and control. The central threads of the story cannot be changed, but flexibility in detail is allowed', (iii) Total flexibility—jokes and casual news. 'The material is irrelevant to the identity of the community and is not judged wise or valuable'}m

In the haflat the community exercises control over the recitation.

These poems, proverbs and stories form their identity. The right telling of these stories is critical for that identity. If someone tells the story "wrong", the reciter is corrected by a chorus of voices. Some stories may be new. But the stories that matter are the accounts known by all. The occasion is informal but the recitation is

He illustrates more recent tradition by retelling stories about John Hogg, the primary founder of the new Egyptian evangelical community in the nineteenth century. These were orally transmitted and sustained stories which had been drawn on for Dr Hogg's biography (published in 1914) and which were still being retold in almost the same way when Bailey dipped into the tradition in


He also tells two stories from his own experience.183 One concerns a fatal accident that took place at a village wedding, where it was customary to fire hundreds of rifle rounds into the air in celebration. On his way (back) to the village Bailey heard the story from several people, including the boatman taking him

179. The same observation is made by Vansina, Oral Tradition as History 48-49.

180. Bailey, 'Informal' 42-45 (his emphasis).

181. Bailey, 'Oral Tradition' 365; 'Stories critical for the community's identity can be repeated in public only by those deemed worthy to repeat them' (364). Vansina also notes that the more important a tradition to a community's identity, the greater the control likely to be exercised over its recitation and transmission {Oral Tradition 31-39) and concludes, 'Various methods of transmission may be used, some of which are capable of ensuring that the proto-testimony does not alter much in the course of transmission' (46; see also 78, 199). 'Communication of oral tradition is part of the process of establishing collective representations' (Oral Tradition as History 124; see also 41-42, 96-100).

182. Bailey, 'Informal' 45-47; 'Oral Tradition' 366. To be noted is the fact that 'community' here does not equate to 'individual village', since the evangelical community would be scattered over many villages. Bailey's claims regarding the stability of the stories told about Hogg have been seriously challenged, particularly by T. Weeden in group/crosstalk2/message/8301 and /8730. In personal correspondence Bailey has expressed his regret at some overstatement in regard to the Hogg traditions, but insists that his hypothesis is based primarily on his own experience of the haflat samar. Weeden's further critique of Bailey's anecdotes and their significance misses much of Bailey's point, is unduly censorious, and weakens Bailey's case hardly at all.

183. Bailey, 'Informal' 48-50.

across the Nile, a boy on the far bank, and other villagers including the village mayor. Each retelling included different details, but the climax of the story was almost word for word:

Hanna [the bridegroom's friend] fired the gun. The gun did not go off. He lowered the gun. The gun fired [passive form]. The bullet passed through the stomach of Butrus [the bridegroom]. He died. He did not cry out, 'O my father', nor 'O my mother' (meaning he died instantly without crying out). When the police came we told them, 'A camel stepped on him'.

The point was that the community had quickly determined that the death was an accident and the story had been crystallized to make this clear ('The gun fired', not 'He fired the gun'). By the time Bailey heard it (a week after the event) the story had been given its definitive shape.185

His other story is of his own experience of preaching. Often he would a story new to the community. As soon as the story was finished the congregation would enact 'a form of oral shorthand'.

The elder on the front row would shout across the church to a friend in a loud voice, 'Did you hear what the preacher said? He said . . .' and then would come a line or two of the story including the punch line. People all across the church instinctively turned to their neighbours and repeated the central thrust of the story twice and thrice to each other. They wanted to retell the story that week across the village and they had to learn it on the spot.

184. The police accepted the community's version ('A camel stepped on him'), not because they did not know what had happened but because they accepted the community's judgment that the shooting was an accident. Vansina cites a case from his field research in the Congo where a group testimony was rehearsed beforehand so that there would be no disagreement when the testimony was given in public (Oral Tradition 28) — that is, a tradition preserved by a group and under corporate control. The point is taken up by E. L. Abel, 'The Psychology of Memory and Rumor Transmission and Their Bearing on Theories of Oral Transmission in Early Christianity', JR 51 (1971) 270-81 (here 276).

185. Bailey notes that he had first heard the story some thirty years earlier, but the central core was 'still indelibly fixed' in his mind because it was so firmly implanted in his memory that first week ('Informal' 49). If I may add my own pennyworth, I met Kenneth Bailey in 1976, when he told me the same two stories. They made such an impression on me that I have retold them several times during the intervening years. When I eventually came across the article cited (in I was fascinated to note that my own retelling had maintained the outline and the key features of the core elements, although in my retelling the supporting details had been reshaped. This oral transmission covered more than twenty years, after a single hearing of the stories, by one who normally forgets a good joke almost as soon as he has heard it! Martin Hengel gives two personal reminiscences where the 'oral tradition' stretches back over 55 and more than 150 years (Studies in the Gospel of Mark 109-10).

The hypothesis which Bailey offers on the basis of his reflections on these experiences is that informal, controlled oral tradition is the best explanation for the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition. Up until the upheaval of the first Jewish revolt (66-73) informal controlled oral tradition would have been able to function in the villages of Palestine. But even then, anyone twenty years and older in the 60s could have been 'an authentic reciter of that tradition'.186

To say it again, Bailey's essay is anecdotal and not the result of scientific research.187 Even so, the character of oral tradition which it illustrates accords well with the findings of other investigations of oral tradition and is evidently far closer to the sort of oral traditioning which must be posited for the Jesus tradition than the studies on which Kelber has been able to draw. Bailey's experience also confirms that the previous paradigms offered by Bultmann and Gerhardsson are inadequate for our own understanding of the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition. In particular, the paradigm of literary editing is confirmed as wholly inappropriate: in oral tradition one telling of a story is in no sense an editing of a previous telling; rather, each telling starts with the same subject and theme, but the retellings are different; each telling is a performance of the tradition itself, not of the first, or third, or twenty-third 'edition' of the tradition. Our expectation, accordingly, should be of the oral transmission of Jesus tradition as a sequence of retellings, each starting from the same storehouse of communally remembered events and teaching, and each weaving the common stock together in different patterns for different contexts.

Of special interest is the degree to which Bailey's thesis both informs and refines the general recognition among students of the subject that oral tradition is typically flexible, with constant themes, recognizable versions of the same story, some word-for-word repetition, and both fixed and variable formulaic elements depending on the context of the performance. What he adds is significant; in particular the recognition of the likelihood that (1) a community would be concerned enough to exercise some control over its traditions; (2) the degree of control exercised would vary both in regard to form and in regard to the relative importance of the tradition for its own identity; and (3) the element in the story regarded as its core or key to its meaning would be its most firmly fixed ele-ment.188

186. Bailey, 'Informal' 50; similarly 'Oral Tradition' 367.

187. T. M. Derico hopes to carry out more scientifically controlled fieldwork (On the Selection of Oral-Traditional Data: Methodological Prolegomena for the Construction of a New Model of Early Christian Oral Tradition [St. Andrews MPhil, 2001], though the advent of television into the village communities of the Middle East may mean that the generations-old pattern of oral tradition is already being lost beyond recall.

188. Cf. Lord's examples of songs with a 'more or less stable core' (The Singer Resumes the Tale [Ithaca: Cornell University, 1995] 44, 47, 61-62).

The crucial question, of course, is whether such an understanding of oral tradition provides an explanatory model for the Jesus tradition, and in particular, whether we can find the marks of such 'informal, controlled oral tradition' in the Synoptic tradition itself. I believe it does and think we can.

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