The Synoptic Tradition as Oral Tradition Teachings

I choose the term 'teachings' rather than 'sayings', since the latter is too casual. It allows, possibly even fosters the impression of serendipity — sayings of Jesus casually overheard and casually recalled, as one today might recall impressions of one's school or college days in a class reunion thirty years later. But as we have already noted (§8.1b), Jesus was known as a teacher, and the disciples understood themselves as just that, 'disciples' = 'learners' (mathetai). The recollection of Jesus' teaching was altogether a more serious enterprise from the start. Moreover, if I am right, the earliest communities of Jesus' disciples would have wanted to retain such teaching, as part of their own foundation tradition and self-identification, a fact which Paul and other early Christian letter writers were able to exploit when they incorporated allusions to Jesus' teaching in their own paraenesis (§8.1e). We need not assume a formal process of memorization, such as Gerhardsson envisaged. But a concern to learn what the master had taught, and to exercise some control over the degree of variations acceptable in the passing on of that teaching, can both be assumed on a priori grounds (§8.2) and find at least some confirmation in the oral traditioning processes envisaged by Bailey.

It is probably significant that the two traditions of the same event which diverge most markedly are those relating to the death of Judas (Matt. 27.3-10; Acts 1.15-20); in comparison with the death of Jesus, the fate of Judas was of little historical concern.

219. It is more likely that Matt. 10.5 (restriction of the disciples' mission to Israel) recalls Jesus' own instruction than that Jesus was known to commend a Gentile mission and Matt. 10.5 emerged as a prophetic protest within the Judean churches; in fact, Jesus' commendation of Gentile mission is at best an inference to be drawn from certain episodes in the tradition. See further below §13.7.

a. Aramaic Tradition

We may start by recalling that the tradition as it has come down to us has already been translated once, from Aramaic to Greek. Here is another curious blind spot in most work on Jesus' teaching, in all phases of the 'quest for the historical Jesus'. I refer to the repeated failure to ask about the Aramaic form which Jesus' teaching presumably took.220 Without such inquiry any assertions about earliest forms of the teaching tradition are bound to be suspect in some measure. Not that such a criterion (Can this saying be retrojected back into Aramaic?) should be applied woodenly; translation aimed to achieve dynamic equivalence could easily produce a Greek idiom quite different from the nearest Aramaic equivalent.221 What is of more immediate importance for us here are the important observations by Aramaic experts with regard to the character of the teaching tradition. All have noted that the tradition, even in its Greek state, bears several marks of oral transmission in Aramaic. Already in 1925 C. F. Burney had drawn attention to the various kinds of parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic)222 and rhythm (four-beat, three-beat, kina metre) characteristic of Hebrew poetry.223 And Matthew Black noted many examples of alliteration, assonance, and paronomasia.224 This is all the stuff of oral tradition, as we noted above (§8.3f). Joachim Jeremias climaxed a lifetime's scholarship by summarising the indications that many of the words appearing in Jesus' teaching had an Aramaic origin, and that the speech involved had many characteristic features, including 'divine passive', as well as the features already noted by Burney and Black.225

221. Note the warning of M. Casey, 'The Original Aramaic Form ofJesus' Interpretation of the Cup', JTS 41 (1990) 1-12, particularly 11-12; repeated in Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel (SNTSMS 102; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1998) 241. G. Schwarz, 'UndJesus sprach': Untersuchungen zur aramäischen Urgestalt der Worte Jesu (BWANT 118; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 21987) is vulnerable to criticism at this point.

222. Riesner estimates 'about 80 per cent of the separate saying units are formulated in some kind ofparallelismus membrorum' ('Jesus as Preacher and Teacher' 202).

223. C. F. Burney, The Poetry ofOur Lord (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925); see also Manson, Teaching 50-56.

224. M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Oxford: Clarendon, 31967) 160-85; though note J. A. Fitzmyer's strictures (The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament', A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays [Missoula: Scholars, 1979] 1-27 [here 16-17]). See also Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer 392-404.

225. Jeremias, Proclamation 3-29. Still valuable is the classic study by G. Dalman, Die Worte Jesu mit Berücksichtigung des nachkanonischen jüdischen Schriftums und der aramäischen Sprache (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1898); ET The Words ofJesus Considered in the Light of Post-Biblical Jewish Writings and the Aramaic Language (Edinburgh: Clark, 1902).

This evidence should be given more weight than has usually been the case. Of course, such features are common to written as well as oral tradition. And an Aramaic phase may only be evidence of an early (post-Easter) stage of transmission when the tradition was still circulating in Aramaic. But if the tradition is consistently marked by particular stylistic features, as the Aramaic specialists conclude, then it has to be judged more likely that these are the characteristics of one person, rather than that the multitude of Aramaic oral tradents had the same characteristics. The possibility that we can still hear what Jeremias called 'the ipsissima vox' (as distinct from the ipsissima verba) of Jesus coming through the tradition should be brought back into play more seriously than it has in the thirty years since Jeremias last wrote on the subject.226

As with the narrative tradition, so with the teaching tradition, various examples are readily forthcoming. We begin with two examples from within earliest Christianity's liturgical tradition. In this case the studies in orality have confirmed what might anyway have been guessed: that tradition functioning as 'sacred words' within a cult or liturgy is generally more conservative in character; the transmission (if that is the best term) is in the nature of sacred repetition in celebration and affirmation of a community's identity-forming tradition.

b. The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6.7-15/Luke 11.1-4)

Matt. 6.7-15

Luke 11.1-4

7 "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 Pray then in this way: Our Father who are in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be

1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples". 2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father. hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our

3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our

debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of

sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of

but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses".


226. Funk talks of Jesus' 'voice print', including antithesis, synonymous parallelism, reversal, paradox, and others more distinctive to Funk's own standpoint (Honest 144-45, 149-58).

What is the explanation for such variation? It would be odd indeed if Matthew and Luke derived this tradition from a common written source (Q).227 Why then the variation, particularly within the prayer itself? Here again the curse of the literary paradigm lies heavy on discussion at this point: the assumption that this tradition was known only because it appeared in writing in a Q document!228 The much more obvious explanation is that this was a tradition maintained in the living liturgy of community worship (as the first person plural strongly suggests). Almost certainly, the early Christian disciples did not know this tradition only because they had heard it in some reading from a written document. They knew it because they prayed it, possibly on a daily basis.229 In this case, in addition to the curse of the literary paradigm, the fact that so many academic discussions on material like this take place in isolation from a living tradition of regular worship, probably highlights another blind spot for many questers.

The point is that liturgical usage both conserves and adapts (slowly).230 As Jeremias argued, the most likely explanation for the two versions of the Lord's Prayer is two slightly diverging patterns of liturgical prayer, both versions showing signs of liturgical adaptation: in Matthew the more reverential address and an opening phrase more readily said in congregational unison, and the additions at the end of each half of the prayer to elaborate the brevity and possibly clarify the petition to which the addition has been made; in Luke particularly the modification for daily

227. As Streeter observed {Four Gospels 277-78).

228. Typical is the opinion of D. E. Oakman, 'The Lord's Prayer in Social Perspective', in Chilton and Evans, eds., Authenticating the Words of Jesus 137-86, that 'the differences in form are best acounted for by differing scribal traditions and interests' (151-52). For a full documentation of the difference of opinions on whether the Prayer was in Q see S. Carruth and A. Garsky, Documenta Q: Q ll:2b-4 (Leuven: Peeters, 1996) 19-33.

229. The likelihood of a primarily oral rather than literary transmission is however quite widely recognized, particularly when Did. 8.2 is included in the discussion; it is 'most unlikely that a Christian writer would have to copy from any written source in order to quote the Lord's Prayer' (Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels 16); cf. also Luz, Matthäus 1.334; Crossan, Historical Jesus 293; J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 357-58. H. D. Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia: Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 370-71: 'It is characteristic of liturgical material in general that textual fixation occurs at a later stage in the transmission of these texts, while in the oral stage variability within limits is the rule. These characteristics also apply to the Lord's Prayer. The three recensions, therefore, represent variations of the prayer in the oral tradition. . . . (T)here was never only one original written Lord's Prayer. . . . (T)he oral tradition continued to exert an influence on the written text of the New Testament well into later times' (370). In Didache 8.3 it is commended that the prayer be said three times a day (a good Jewish practice). For the relevance ofRom. 8.15 and Gal. 4.6 see below chapter 14 n. 36 and § 16.2b.

230. Ritual formulae tend to be more fixed (Vansina, Oral Tradition 146-47). Orthodoxy still celebrates the liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil of Caesarea.

prayer ('each day').231 That the process of liturgical continued is indicated by the later addition of the final doxology ('for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever, amen') to Matthew's version.232 It is not without relevance to note that such liturgical variation within what is manifestly the same prayer continues to this day. For example, in Scotland pray-ers tend to say 'debts', in England 'trespasses'. And contemporary versions jostle with traditional versions in most modern service books. Since liturgy is in effect the most like to oral tradition in modern western communities (regular worshippers rarely need to 'follow the order' in the book) the parallel has some force.

One other point worth noting is that both introductions (Matt. 6.9a; Luke 11.1 -2a) confirm what was again likely anyway: that this prayer functioned as an identity marker for the first disciples.233 Christians were recognizable among themselves, as well as to others, as those who said 'Father' or 'Our Father' to God, whereas the typical prayer of Jewish worship had more liturgical gravitas.234 Moreover, both versions of the tradition attribute the prayer explicitly to Jesus and report the prayer as explicitly given to his disciples by Jesus.235 That no doubt was why the prayer was so cherished and repeated. It would be unjustifiably sceptical to conclude despite all this that the prayer was compiled from individual petitions used by Jesus236 and/or emerged only later from some unknown disciple.237 Its place in the early tradition indicates rather the influence of some widely and highly regarded person; among whom Jesus himself is the most obvious candidate for the speculator.238

231. See further Jeremias, Prayers ofJesus 89-94; also Proclamation 195-96. Fitzmyer, though agreeing with much of Jeremias' case, thinks the Matthean variations are Matthean redaction (Luke 897); but the hypothesis of liturgical development rather than of unilateral literary redaction makes better sense.

232. Text-critical data in B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971, corrected 1975) 16-17. Did. 8.2-3 indicates an intermediate phase when the doxology was only 'Yours is the power and the glory for ever'.

233. Jeremias, Proclamation 196-97.

234. For example, the benediction before the meal begins, 'Blessed art thou, Lord our God, king of the universe'. G. Vermes, The Religion ofJesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1993), observes that 'the customary Jewish prayer terminology, "Lord, King of the universe", is nowhere associated with Jesus' (136). See further §14.2b and §14.3d.

235. It goes back into good Aramaic; see Jeremias, Proclamation 196; Fitzmyer, Luke 901; Davies and Allison, Matthew 1.593.

236. Funk, Five Gospels 148-50; the discussion is vitiated by the assumption of literary dependence.

237. Crossan, Historical Jesus 294.

238. 'Had it been usual to put prayers in the mouth of Jesus, we would have had more Jesus prayers than just this one, which indeed is not specifically a Christian prayer' (Ludemann, Jesus 147); similarly Meier, Marginal Jew 2.294; Becker, Jesus 265-67.

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