The Tradition

Few if any today assume that the written sources take the reader back directly to the Jesus who worked and taught in Galilee three or more decades earlier. But equally, few if any doubt that behind the written sources there was earlier tradi-tion.1 The question is whether this earlier tradition fully or only partially bridges the period between Jesus and our present sources. Form criticism provided a partial answer, but, as we saw, its early thrust seems to have been redirected into an unending debate about And the quest for new sources seems to be falling into the old trap of thinking in terms only of written sources. But what of the earlier tradition? As David Du Toit observes, there are both 'a complete lack of consensus on one of the most fundamental questions of the whole enterprise, namely on the question of the process of transmission of the Jesus traditions', and an 'urgent need to develop a comprehensive theory of the process of transmission of tradition in early Christianity' In fact, however, there are a perspective on the Jesus tradition which has only recently been properly recognized, and a rich potential in a fresh understanding of the Jesus tradition as orally transmitted which has hardly begun to be fully tapped. In this chapter I want to take the first steps towards developing a theory of transmission which would meet the need indicated by Du Toit.

1, Since I make considerable use of this term ('tradition'), I should define how I am using it. Expressed in very general terms, 'tradition' denotes both content and mode of transmission: the content is typically beliefs and customs which are regarded as stemming from the past and which have become authoritative; the mode is informal, typically word of mouth. At one end of its spectrum of usage 'tradition' has to be distinguished from individual memory, though it could be described as corporate memory giving identity to the group which thus remembers. At the other end it has to be distinguished from formal rules and written law, though its being written down need not change its character, initially at any rate.

2. Du Toit, 'Redefining Jesus' 123-24.

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