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Jesus in Oral Memory: 

The Initial Stages of the Jesus Tradition


By James D. G. Dunn

University of Durham


1.  Oral Tradition

Anyone who wishes to take part in what has become familiarly known as ‘the quest of the historical Jesus’ can only hope to do so with any effect though the Jesus tradition.   ‘Jesus tradition’ is shorthand for the material used by the Gospel writers, particularly (for reasons we don’t need to go into here) the Synoptic Gospels – that is, stories about Jesus, teachings attributed to Jesus.   Does that tradition give us access to the ‘historical Jesus’?[1]   Immediate access, or only at some remove?   Does it tell us what Jesus actually did and said, or only what pious reverence attributed to him?   In the attempt to answer such questions, all agree, the evidence of the Jesus tradition itself has to be decisive.   The history of the quest has been the history of the investigation of the character and value of the Jesus tradition, its sources, its forms, its redaction - in a word, its tradition-history.

However, it soon becomes apparent that there has been a huge and persisting gap in the analysis of that evidence.   I refer to the repeated failure to take seriously the fact that in the initial stages of the traditioning process the tradition must have been oral tradition.   In consequence there has also been the failure to investigate the character of the tradition in its oral phase, and to ask what its orality must have meant for the transmission of that material.   I do not say that the subject has not been raised during the period covered by the various quests of the ‘historical Jesus’.   But unfortunately, when it has been raised, the issue has usually been sidetracked into other questions and its significance for our understanding of the tradition history of the Jesus tradition lost to sight.


1.1  J. G. Herder.   Within the history of the quest J. G. Herder (1744-1803) is usually given the credit for first raising the issue.   Herder was unhappy with Lessing’s idea that behind the Synoptic Gospels lay an original Aramaic gospel of the Nazarenes:  ‘Neither apostolic nor church history knows of any such Primal Gospel’.   What did lie behind them was indeed a ‘common Gospel’, but it was an oral gospel.[2]   Herder’s description of this material foreshadows later treatments, not least his description of the orally transmitted material as ‘an oral saga’.


In the case of a free, oral narrative, not everything is equally untrammeled.   Sentences, long sayings, parables are more likely to retain the same form of expression than minor details of the narrative;  transitional material and connecting formulae the narrator himself supplies.   . . .   The common Gospel consisted of individual units, narratives, parables, sayings, pericopes.   This is evident from the very appearance of the Gospels and from the different order of this or that parable or saga. . . . The fact that it consists of such parts vouches for the truth of the Gospel, for people such as most of the apostles were, more easily recall a saying, a parable, an apothegm that they had found striking than connected discourses.[3]


Unfortunately these potentially fruitful insights were absorbed into and lost to sight in the quest for sources of the Synoptic Gospels which became the dominant concern of 19th century Gospels research.[4]


1.2  Rudolf Bultmann.   It was not until the rise of form-criticism early in the 20th century that the question of the earliest Jesus tradition’s oral character re-emerged.   In his Preface to the 1962 publication of one of his essays on form criticism, Bultmann began with a summary definition:  ‘The purpose of Form Criticism is to study the history of the oral tradition behind the gospels’.[5]   And in his summary description of how oral tradition was transmitted he made an observation similar to that of Herder:  ‘Whenever narratives pass from mouth to mouth the central point of the narrative and general structure are well preserved;  but in the incidental details change takes place . . .’.[6]   Unfortunately, once again, the possibilities of working fruitfully with a realistic conceptualisation of oral tradition and how it functioned were more or less strangled at birth by several assumptions which distorted Bultmann’s reconstruction of the oral traditioning processes.   

Two in particular are worth noting.   (1) Bultmann focused on the forms and assumed that certain ‘laws of style’ determined the transmission of the forms.   These laws, apparently drawn from some acquaintance with studies in folklore elsewhere,[7] included the further assumptions of a ‘pure’ form,[8] of a natural progression in the course of transmission from purity and simplicity towards greater complexity,[9] and of a development in the tradition determined by form rather than content.[10]   (2) More significant was Bultmann’s assumption of a literary model to explain the process of transmission.   This becomes most evident in his conceptualisation of the whole tradition about Jesus as ‘composed of a series of layers’.[11]   The imagined process is one where each layer is laid or builds upon another.   Bultmann made such play with it because, apart from anything else, he was confident that he could strip off later (Hellenistic) layers to expose the earlier (Palestinian) layers.[12]   The image itself, however, is drawn from the literary process of editing, where each successive edition (layer) is an edited version (for Bultmann, an elaborated and expanded version) of the previous edition (layer).   But is such a conceptualisation really appropriate to a process of oral retellings of traditional material?   Bultmann never really addressed the question, despite its obvious relevance.

Here then, we have to speak of form criticism’s missed opportunity.   The main body of discussion following Bultmann stayed with the literary model and the focus shifted more to the communities which shaped the tradition or to the easier question of its later shaping in redaction criticism.[13]   There were two main exceptions.   One is the too little regarded attempt by C. F. D. Moule to highlight the vitality of the form history process in the life of the churches, ‘to place in their setting in life and thought the processes which led up to the writing of early Christian books’.[14]   His concern, however, was primarily to explain the genesis of Christian literature, and not with the character and processes of oral tradition, though some of his observations are entirely relevant to our inquiry.[15]


1.3  Birger Gerhardsson.   The other was the protest by Harald Riesenfeld and his pupil Birger Gerhardsson that Bultmann had indeed ignored the most obvious precedents for the transmission of tradition in Palestine.   Riesenfeld noted that the technical terms used for transmission of rabbinic tradition underlie the Greek terms used in the NT for the same process (paralambanein and paradidonai) and deduced that the early Christian traditioning process, like the rabbinic, was a ‘rigidly controlled transmission’ of words and deeds of Jesus, ‘memorized and recited as holy word’.   The idea of a community shaped tradition was too inaccurate.   Rather we must think of tradition derived directly from Jesus and transmitted by authorised teachers ‘in a far more rigid and fixed form’.[16]  

Gerhardsson developed Riesenfeld’s central claim by a careful study of rabbinic tradition transmission, as the nearest parallel for the Palestinian Jesus tradition, and reinforced his teacher’s main claim.[17]   Unlike the form critics, Gerhardsson recognized the need to investigate the actual techniques of oral transmission.   The key word, he confirmed, is ‘memorization’,[18] memorization by means of constant repetition, the basic technique of all education then and since (in fact, until only recently in the West).[19]   In Rabbinic Judaism the pupil had the duty ‘to maintain his teacher’s exact words’, as the basis for any subsequent comment(ary) of his own.[20]   Principally on the basis of the importance of ‘the word of the Lord’ in earliest Christianity, as attested by Luke and Paul, Gerhardsson went on to deduce that Jesus ‘must have made his disciples learn certain sayings off by heart;  if he taught, he must have required his disciples to memorize’;  ‘his sayings must have been accorded even greater authority and sanctity than that accorded by the Rabbis’ disciples to the words of their teachers’.   Consequently, when the Evangelists edited their Gospels they were able to work ‘on a basis of a fixed, distinct tradition from, and about, Jesus’.[21]  

Unfortunately these contributions were largely dismissed, in large part because the appeal to rabbinic precedent was deemed (unfairly) to be anachronistic.[22]   More to the point, unlike the rabbinic tradition, the Gospel tradition does not depict Jesus teaching by repetition.[23]   And more important for present purposes, the claims of both Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson seem to envisage a far more rigid and fixed tradition than could explain the obvious disparities between the same tradition as used by the Evangelists.[24]   Even allowing for the importance of teachers and tradition in the earliest churches,[25] the process envisaged is evidently too controlled and formal to explain the divergencies in the tradition as it has come down to us.[26]   The possibility of finding the key to the tradition-history from Jesus to the Synoptics in the processes of oral transmission had once again eluded scholarship.


1.4  Werner Kelber.   To Werner Kelber is due the credit for being the first NT scholar to take seriously the distinctive character of oral tradition as illuminated by a sequence of studies from classicists, folklorists and social anthropologists.[27]   Characteristics include ‘mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence’, ‘heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in thematic settings, . . . in proverbs’.   Typical of oral performances were variations on what nevertheless were recognizable versions of the same story, with some more or less word for word repetition in places, both fixed and flexible formulaic elements, and so on.[28]   Kelber drew attention to similar features which had already been observed in the Jesus tradition:  ‘the extraordinary degree to which sayings of Jesus have kept faith with heavily patterned speech forms, abounding in alliteration, paronomasia, appositional equivalence, proverbial and aphoristic diction, contrasts and antitheses, synonymous, antithetical, synthetic, and tautologic parallelism and the like’, miracle stories ‘typecast in a fashion that lends itself to habitual, not verbatim, memorization’.[29]   And in his description of oral transmission he fully acknowledges his indebtedness to earlier studies.   ‘Oral thinking consists in formal patterns from the start’;  ‘formulaic stability’ and ‘compositional variability’ go hand in hand - ‘“this mid-state between fixed and free”’.[30]   Oral transmission ‘exhibits “an insistent, conservative urge for preservation” of essential information, while it borders on carelessness in its predisposition to abandon features that are not met with social approval’.[31]   ‘Variability and stability, conservatism and creativity, evanescence and unpredictability all mark the pattern of oral transmission’ - the ‘oral principle of “variation within the same”’.[32]

The chief thrust of Kelber’s book, however, is to build on the distinction between oral and written, between oral performance and literary transmission, which he draws from Walter Ong in particular.   The distinction is important, not least since it requires modern literary scholars to make a conscious effort to extricate their historical envisaging of the oral transmission of tradition from the mind-set and assumptions of long-term literacy.[33]   Equally important is the immediacy of an oral communication in contrast to written, the direct and personal engagement of speaker and auditor not possible in writing, what Kelber call(s) the ‘oral synthesis’.[34]   This is partly what I have in mind when I talk of the ‘impact’ made by Jesus on his disciples.   The contrast can be overplayed:  for example, the recognition that in the ancient world documents were written to be heard, that is, read out and listened to rather than read, is commonplace in all these disciplines;[35]  the fact that letters can be a fairly effective substitute for personal absence has become important in recent study of Paul’s letters;[36]  and the encounter with its written version can be as creative as a hearing of the original speech, indeed, in reader-response criticism each reading of a text is like a fresh performance of it.[37]   Even so, for anyone who has experienced a (for them) first performance a great musical work, like Beethoven’s Ninth or Verdi’s Requiem, the difference between hearing in the electric atmosphere of the live performance and hearing the recorded version played later at home (let alone simply reading the score) is unmistakeable.[38]

There are other important observations made by Kelber.   He takes up the key observation of Albert Lord[39] in warning against the ideal of ‘original form’;  ‘each oral performance is an irreducibly unique creation’;  if Jesus said something more than once there is no ‘original’.[40]   This is true, although the impact made by each retelling by Jesus on those who heard and retained the teaching should be distinguished from the effect of their own reteaching on others.   Kelber also rightly notes that oral retelling of Jesus’ words will already have begun during Jesus’ lifetime;  the Bultmannian thesis of a tradition which only began to be transmitted after Easter is highly questionable.[41]   Moreover, in Kelber’s work, very noticeably, narratives, the retold stories about Jesus, re-emerge into prominence from the marginalisation imposed upon them by the almost exclusive focus of scholarly interest on the sayings of Jesus.[42]   Not least of importance, given Kelber’s developed thesis, is his recognition that Mark (his main focus in the Gospels) retains many of the indices of orality - for example, its ‘activist syntax’ and colloquial Greek, its use of the storyteller’s ‘three’, and its many redundancies and repetitions;  ‘Mark may be treating an oral story in order for it to remain functional for the ear more than for the eye’.[43]   Mark’s Gospel may be frozen orality,[44] but it is frozen orality.[45]

Unfortunately, Kelber pushes his thesis about Mark marking a major transition from oral to written far too hard and seriously diminishes its overall value.   The first step in his thesis development is that the written Gospel disrupts the ‘oral synthesis’;  it ‘arises not from orality per se, but out of the debris of deconstructed orality’;  it indicates ‘alienation from the oral apparatus’;  it ‘accomplishes the death of living words for the purpose of inaugurating the life of textuality’.[46]   The transition is overdramatized:  it is widely recognized that in a predominantly oral culture, oral versions of a tradition would continue after it had been transcribed and that knowledge of the written version would usually be in an oral medium.[47]   At the same time, it is true that only with a written text can we begin to speak of an editing process, such as Bultmann envisaged;  prior to that, in repeated oral performances the dynamics are different, more of the order of ‘theme and variations’ than Gerhardsson’s ‘memorization’.[48]   This is why talk of ‘sources’, appropriate in considering the origin of a written text, can be inappropriate with oral tradition.   It is also why, I may add, even talk of ‘oral transmission’ can mislead such discussions, since it envisages oral performance as intended primarily to transmit (transfer) rather than, say, to celebrate tradition.[49]

However, Kelber pushes on to argue that Mark’s textualizing of the tradition amounts to an ‘indictment of oral process and authorities’, an ‘emancipation from oral norms’, an objection to ‘the oral metaphysics of presence’.   Thus Mark repudiates the first disciples, Jesus’ family and ongoing prophetic activity, as oral authorities to be discredited;  the first disciples are ‘effectively eliminated as apostolic representatives of the risen Lord’.[50]   Paul is called in as apostle of orality and set over against Mark’s Gospel as written text, with the classic gospel/law antithesis reworked as an antithesis between oral gospel and written law, spirit and (written) letter, ‘under the law’ as under textuality.[51]   In all this a different christology is at stake:  the passion narrative as a literary phenomenon implies a distanciation from an oral christology;  Q, with its ‘fundamentally oral disposition’ and inclusion of prophetic utterances, maintains the living voice of Jesus, whereas Mark elevates ‘the earthly Jesus at the price of silencing the living Lord’ by ‘relegating all sayings to the former while silencing the voice of the latter’.[52]

Here is a thesis too quickly gone to seed.   To find Paul as apostle of orality lumped with Q is a refreshing change.   But Paul himself would almost certainly have been baffled by the thrust of such an argument.   As one who in his preaching vividly and openly portrayed Christ as crucified (Gal. 3.1), and who both preached the kerygma of the first witnesses (1 Cor. 15.1-11) and depended on the Spirit’s inspiration for the effect of his preaching of the  crucified Christ (1 Cor. 2.4-5), Paul would certainly not have recognized such distinctions.   Kelber forgets not only the continuity between oral and first writing (as initially written orality), which he had earlier acknowledged, but he ignores the points made above, that in an age of high illiteracy documents were written to be heard and that a reading can also be likened to a performance.   In claiming that, in contrast to Mark’s Gospel, ‘Q effects a direct address to present hearers’[53] he ignores the fact that Q is generally regarded as a written source.   He also forgets the living character of tradition, that written as well as oral tradition can effect a re-presentation (making present again) of ancient teaching and events,[54] particularly in liturgy, as in Paul’s recollection of Jesus’ words in regard to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.23-26).   Regrettably then, once again, the potential significance of recognizing the distinct character of the oral traditioning process in the case of the Jesus tradition has been subverted by another agenda and lost to sight.


1.5  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 tradition.   As Kelber himself noted,[55] 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 is the essay by Kenneth Bailey in which he has reflected on more than thirty years experience of Middle East village life.[56]   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 first century Galilee.   Bailey puts forward the idea of ‘informal controlled tradition’, to distinguish it both from the models used by 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’.[57]  

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 the 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’.[58]

Particularly valuable are Bailey’s notes on how the community controlled its tradition.   He distinguishes different levels of control.   (i) No flexibility - poems and proverbs.   (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’.[59]

He illustrates more recent tradition by retelling stories about John Hogg, the primary founder of the new Egyptian Evangelical community in the 19th 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 1955-65.[60]  

He also tells two stories from his own experience.[61]   One concerns a fatal accident that took place at a village wedding, at which 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 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’).[62]   By the time Bailey heard it (a week after the event) the story had been given its definitive shape.[63]   His other story is of his own experience of preaching.   Often he would tell 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 or thrice to each other.   They wanted to retell the story that week across the village and they had to learn it on the spot.


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’.[64]  

All this 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:  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 twentythird ‘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 element.[65]

The key question, of course, is whether we can find the marks of such ‘informal, controlled oral tradition’ in the Synoptic tradition itself.



2.  The Synoptic tradition as oral tradition - narratives

We certainly do not know enough about oral traditioning in the ancient world to draw from that knowledge clear guidelines for our understanding of how the Jesus tradition was passed down in its oral stage.   Any inquiry on this subject is bound to turn to the Jesus tradition itself to ask whether there is sufficient evidence of oral transmission and what the tradition itself tells us about the traditioning process.   We need to bear in mind, of course, that the only evidence we have is already literary (the Synoptic Gospels), and therefore also the possibility that the mode of transmission has been altered.   On the other hand, Kelber readily acknowledges the oral character of much of Mark’s material, and the boundaries between oral Q and written Q seem to be rather fluid, as we shall see.   We shall therefore focus on Mark and Q material in the next two sections (##2, 3).

For convenience we will look first at the narrative traditions.   Here at least we do not have the problem of deciding whether such traditions came from Jesus (as we inevitably ask in respect of sayings attributed to Jesus).   At best such traditions derive from those who were with Jesus and who witnessed things he did and said.


2.1  The conversion of Saul.   The first example comes not from the Synoptics themselves, but from Luke’s second volume, Acts.   All that is necessary for the example to be relevant for an inquiry into Jesus tradition is the assumption that Luke handled such a tradition in Acts in the same way that he handled traditions in his Gospel.[66]   The value of the example is threefold.   (i) The three accounts (Acts 9.1-22;  22.1-21;  26.9-23) all come from a single author (Luke);  so we avoid some of the unknowns operative when two or three different authors deal with the same episode;  there is no need to hypothesize different sources.   (ii) They are manifestly all accounts of the same event (Saul’s conversion);  so the harmoniser’s hypothesis of different episodes to explain differences between parallel accounts is not open to us.   (iii) And yet they are strikingly different in their detail;  so if the same author can tell the same story in such different ways, it must tell us much about his own attitude to re-telling traditional material, and possibly about the early Christian traditioning process more generally.[67]

When we examine the three accounts more closely there quickly becomes evident a striking parallel to the patterns of oral tradition observed above (##1.4-5).   There are several constants:  the chief character – Saul;  the setting – a journey to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus;  the circumstances – a (bright) light from heaven, Saul fallen to the ground, Saul’s companions;  the heavenly voice.   But beyond that the details vary considerably.   Did Saul’s companions all fall to the ground (26.14), or only Saul himself (9.4, 7)?   Did they hear the voice of Jesus (9.7), or not (22.9)?   Saul’s blindness, so prominent in chs. 9 and 22, is not mentioned in ch. 26.   Likewise, Ananias has considerable prominence in chs. 9 and 22, but is nowhere mentioned in ch. 26.   The other constant, the commission to go to the Gentiles, comes once to Saul directly on the road (26.16-18), once through Ananias (9.15-17), and once later in Jerusalem (22.16-18).   Most striking of all is the fact that what was evidently accounted the core of the story, the exchange between Saul and the exalted Jesus, is word for word, after which each telling of the story goes its own distinctive way:




9.3  As he was travelling and approaching Damascus,




suddenly a light from heaven

                                        flashed around him. 

4  He fell to the earth


and heard a voice saying to him,

                                          “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? 

                    5  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came,  

        “I am Jesus,                   

whom you are persecuting.






              6  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do”.

22.6   ‘While I was travelling and approaching Damascus,


                                  about noon


a great light from heaven suddenly                       shone about me. 

7  I fell to the ground


and heard a voice saying to me,

                                          Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 

                  8  I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth  whom you are persecuting”.  9  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  10  I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do”.


26.12                ‘I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests,  13  when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions.  14  When we had all fallen to the earth,       I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”  15  I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord said,         

        I am Jesus                      

whom you are persecuting. 






          16  But get up and stand on your feet;  . . .”.

Here, then, we have an excellent example of  the oral principle of ‘variation within the same’, and specifically of Bailey’s finding that the key point in the story will be held constant, while the supporting details can vary according to the circumstances.   In this case in particular, the second account is clearly angled to bring out Saul’s Jewish identity (22.3, 17;  also Ananias – 22.12), and the account of the heavenly commission delayed for dramatic effect (22.17-21);  whereas the third account functions as part of Paul’s defence by implying that Paul’s commission was part of Israel’s commission (26.18, 23 with echoes of Isa. 42.6, 17 and 49.6).   In short, what becomes evident here is the fact that Luke was himself a good story-teller, and that his retelling the story of Paul’s conversion is a good example not simply of use of oral tradition in a written work, but of the oral traditioning process itself.


2.2  The centurion’s servant.   Within the Gospel tradition itself, one of the most intriguing episodes is the one recorded in Matt. 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10 (with a likely parallel in John 4.46b-54).   The first point of interest is that the pericope is usually credited to Q, despite it being a narrative, and despite there being no parallel to such an episode being included within other sayings Gospels.[68]   But why should a pericope be attributed to the document Q[69] simply because it belongs to the non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke (‘q’)?[70]   Did Matthew and Luke have no common (oral) tradition other than Q?   That hardly seems likely as an a priori.   In fact, the logic behind the Q hypothesis is that the degree of closeness between Matthew and Luke (‘q’) can only be explained by postulating a common written source (Q).   Whereas the divergence between Matthew and Luke in the first half of the story is substantial, to put it no more strongly.   Of course, it is possible to argue, as most do, that Matthew or Luke, or both, have heavily edited the Q version;  but when ‘q’ properly speaking covers only part of the pericope, the argument for the existence of Q at this point becomes very slippery.

Is common oral tradition a more plausible hypothesis?   Let us not assume that Matthew’s and Luke’s only source for such non-Markan Jesus tradition was a written document (Q).   When we then examine the matter more closely the oral tradition hypothesis does indeed seem to make better sense.


Matt. 8

Luke 7


                            5   When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him  6  and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.”  7  And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 







8  The centurion answered, “Lord,                   I am  not  fit  to  have  you  come  under  my  roof;


                              but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.  9  For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’. and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’. and the slave does it.”  10  When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and                   said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one  in Israel have I found such faith.  11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,  12  while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13  And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

   1   After Jesus  had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.  2  A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  3  When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.  4  When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him,  5  for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  6  And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not fit to have you come under my roof;         7  therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.   But          speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it.”  9  When Jesus heard this   he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 




                      Luke 13.28-29



10  When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health


The episode is clearly the same:  it is the story of the healing at a distance of the seriously ill servant of a centurion who lived in Capernaum.   Within that framework we find the same striking features:  (i) a core of the story where the agreement is almost word for word (Matt. 8.8-10/Luke 7.6-9);  (ii) details which vary on either side of the core, to such an extent that the two versions seem to contradict each other (in Matthew the centurion comes to plead with Jesus personally;  in Luke he makes a point of not coming).  

Evidently the exchange between Jesus and the centurion made a considerable impression on the disciples of Jesus:  the combination of humility and confidence in Jesus on the part of such a figure, and Jesus’ surprise at its strength would have been striking enough.[71]   Equally noticeable is the way in which Matthew and Luke have both taken the story in their own way:  Matthew emphasizes the theme of the centurion’s faith, by inserting the saying (Matt. 8.11-12) which Luke records in Luke 13.28-29 (the centurion as precedent for Gentile faith),[72] and by rounding off his telling with a further commendation by Jesus of the centurion’s faith (Matt. 8.13);  Luke emphasizes the theme of the centurion’s worthiness, by having the elders testify of his worthiness (axios) (7.4-5) in counterpoise to the centurion’s expression of unworthiness (exiwsa) (7.7a).   Nor should we ignore the fact that both Matthew and Luke draw their different emphases from the same core – faith (Matt. 8.10), worthiness/fitness (hikanos) (Luke 7.6).

Here I would suggest is a fine example of oral traditioning, or if it is preferred, of Evangelists writing the story in oral mode.[73]   The story was no doubt one which belonged to several communities’ store of Jesus tradition.   The story’s point hangs entirely on the central exchange between Jesus and the centurion;  that is maintained with care and accuracy.   We may deduce that the story was important for these communities’ identity, not least for their own sense of respect for and openness to Gentiles.

What, however, about John 4.46-54?  


46   Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum.  47  When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.  48  Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”.  49  The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies”.  50  Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live”. The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.  51  As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive.  52  So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him”.  53  The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live”. So he himself believed, along with his whole household.


Agreement in no less than eleven points of detail is probably enough to substantiate the conclusion that this story of the healing at a distance of the seriously ill servant of a person of rank in Capernaum is another version (more distant echo?) of the same episode that we find in Matt. 8/Luke 7.[74]   Particularly noticeable, however, are the facts that the official is not (no longer) identified as a Gentile and that the Matthean/Lukan core is not (no longer) there.   On the other hand, the key emphasis on the person’s faith is present, and Jesus’ response to that faith (despite some initial hesitation);  John strengthens the theme and uses it to develop his own warning against a faith based merely on miracle (John 4.48).[75]

What to make of this in terms of early Christian oral transmission?   The simplest answer is that two versions of the same episode diverged in the course of various retellings.   It could be that the idea of the official as a Gentile centurion was introduced in the course of the retelling.[76]   Alternatively, and if anything more probable, it could be that in the second (Johannine) stream of tradition the identity of the official as a Gentile was seen as a subsidiary detail to the main emphasis on his faith, and so was neglected in the retellings.   Either way, the differences are so great that the hypothesis of literary dependence becomes highly improbable;[77]  on the contrary, the two versions (Matt/Luke and John) provide good evidence of stories of Jesus being kept alive in oral tradition.[78]   And either way we can see something of both the retentiveness of the oral traditioning process and its flexibility in allowing traditions to be adapted to bring out differing emphases.


2.3  Markan narratives.   There is no need to re-run the standard arguments for Markan priority (Mark as the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels)[79] or to give examples of where Synoptic analysis points to the firm conclusion of Matthean and Lukan dependency on Mark.   In other cases, however, the variation in detail is such that the straightforward hypothesis of literary dependence on Mark becomes very strained.   Consider the following narratives:  the stilling of the storm (Mark 4.35-41/Matt. 8.23-27/Luke 8.22-25);  the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30/Matt. 15.21-28);  the dispute about greatness (Mark 9.33-37/Matt. 18.1-5/Luke 9.46-48);  and the widow’s mite (Mark 12.41-44/Luke 21.1-4).






a) The stilling of the storm:


Matt. 8

Mark 4

Luke 8




23   And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 


                                           24  A great storm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves;

     but he was asleep. 

                           25  And they went and woke him up, saying,  

        “Lord, save us!                      

We are perishing!  26  And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea;

                                               and there was a dead calm. 



27  The men were amazed, saying,

“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?

35   On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side”.  36  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.  37  A great stormwind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being filled.  38  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 


                                         39  He got up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Be quiet! Silence!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 

40  He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”  41  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another,   

          “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?



                22   One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake”.  So they put out,  23  and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A stormwind swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling up, and they were in danger.  24  They went to him and woke him up, shouting,

      “Master, Master,                

we are perishing!”


                                             And he got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves;

                                they ceased, and there was a      calm. 

25  He said to them,

                      “Where is your faith?”

They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another,

“Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”


Here again we have the characteristic features of different retellings of a single story about Jesus.   The key points remain constant:  Jesus with his disciples in a boat (on the lake);  a great storm and Jesus asleep (differently described);  the disciples rouse Jesus, he rebukes the wind and sea and a calm results;  Jesus questions the disciples’ lack of faith and they express wonder.   The key lines are clearly:  ‘he got up and rebuked the wind(s), and there was a calm’;  ‘who is this that even the wind(s) obey him?’[80]   Round this core the story could be told and retold, the details varied in accordance with the context of retelling and with any particular angle the story teller wished to bring out.[81]

Once again it is quite possible to argue for a purely literary connection – Matthew and Luke drawing upon and editing Mark’s (for them) original.   The problem with the purely literary hypothesis is that most of the differences are so inconsequential.   Why, for example, as literary editors would it be necessary for them to vary the description of the storm and the danger of the boat being swamped (each uses different verbs)?   It is surely more plausible to deduce that Matthew and Luke knew their own (oral) versions of the story and drew on them primarily or as well.   Alternatively, it could be that they followed Mark in oral mode, as we might say;  that is, they did not slavishly copy Mark (as they did elsewhere), but having taken the point of Mark’s story they retold it as a storyteller would, retaining the constant points which gave the story its identity, and building round the core to bring out their own distinctive emphases.


b) The Syrophoenician woman:


Matt. 15

Mark 7

21   Jesus left that place and went off to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”.  23  But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us”.  24  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  25  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me”.  26  He answered,                                                       It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.  27  She said,                        Certainly, lord, for also the dogs              eat from the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. 

28  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”.

And her daughter was healed from that hour.

24   From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,  25  but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  26  Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 


                                                                     27  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.  28  But she answered him, “Certainly, lord, and the dogs under the table eat from the crumbs of the children”.                               

29  So he said to her, “For saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter”.  30  So she went to her home, and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


The picture here is very similar.   The story is again clearly same:  an event which took place in the district of Tyre;  a non-Israelite woman with a demon possessed daughter;  healing at a distance.   Most striking is the fact that the two versions share almost no word in common apart from the core section (underlined).   The core of the story is manifestly the exchange between Jesus and the woman, held constant, more or less verbatim (Mark 7.27-28/Matt. 15.26-27).   Apart from that the retelling is completely variable:  in particular, Mark emphasizes the woman’s Gentile identity, while Matthew both plays up the resulting tension and the woman’s faith.   As with the story of the centurion’s servant above, the fact that the healing was successful is almost an afterthought in every telling.  

Here too the same feature is evident as in the stilling of the storm:  the variation between the two versions is such that the hypothesis of literary dependence becomes very implausible.   A connection at the level of oral retelling is much the more probable.   Either Matthew knew the story through oral tradition and drew directly from that tradition, or he himself retold Mark’s story as a storyteller would.   We should note that it would be misleading to say that Matthew knew a different version of the story.[82]   For that would be to slip back into the idiom of literary editions, as though each retelling of the story was a fresh ‘edition’ of the story;  whereas the reality with which we are confronted is more like spontaneously different variations (retellings) on a theme (the identifiable theme and core).


c) The dispute about greatness:


Matt. 18

Mark 9

Luke 9






1   At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greater in the kingdom of heaven?” 



         2  He called a little child, and put it among them, 

                        3  and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  4  Whoever  humbles himself like this little child is greater in the kingdom of heaven.  5  And whoever welcomes one

such little child in my name welcomes me”.

33   Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was  greater.  35  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”.  36  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 







37  Whoever welcomes one of such little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”.






46   An argument arose among them as to who of them was greater. 



47  But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 

                       48  and said to them,







Whoever welcomes

this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes

the one who sent me; for he who is lesser among all of you, that one is great”.


The basic picture is the same as before.   The constants are clear:  the disciples’ dispute about who was greater;  Jesus’ rebuke by drawing a little child into the company;  and the core saying which climaxes the story.   Each retelling elaborates the basic outline in the Evanglist’s own way (Mark 9.35;  Matt. 18.3-4;  Luke 9.48c).   Matthew and Luke were able also to use the fuller tradition of Jesus’ speaking about ‘the one who sent me’ (Matt. 18.37b/Luke 9.48b).   And here again the degree of verbal interdependence tells against literary interdependence, whereas the mix of constancy and flexibility indicates an oral mode of performance.[83]











d) The widow’s pence:


Mark 12

Luke 21

41   He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  42  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  43  Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  44  For all        have contributed out of their abundance;                    but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, her entire life”.

                                                                21:1   He looked up and saw rich people putting into the treasury their gifts;                                2  he also saw a needy widow putting in two small copper coins. 

                                   3  He said, “Of a truth I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 

4  for all those have contributed out of their abundance for the gifts, but she out of her poverty has put in all the life she had”.


The episode is brief, being almost entirely taken up with the identifying details (the contrast between the rich people’s giving and the two small copper coins of the poor widow) and Jesus’ observation which evidently made the episode so memorable (and therefore retained close to word for word).   With such a brief pericope the scope for explanation in terms of Luke’s editing of Mark is stronger.   But even so, the flexibility of detail in the build-up to the climactic saying bespeaks more of oral than literary tradition.


2.4  Results.   Other examples could be offered.[84]   None of this is intended to deny that Matthew and Luke knew Mark as such and were able to draw on his version of the tradition at a literary level and often did so;  in terms of written sources, the case for Markan priority remains overwhelmingly the most probable.   Nor have I any wish to deny that Matthew and Luke regularly edited their Markan Vorlage.   Sometimes by substantial abbreviation.[85]   Sometimes by adding material to make a better[86] or a further point.[87]   Sometimes to clarify or avoid misunderstandings.[88]   At the same time, however, it would be improper to ignore the fact that in a good number of cases, illustrated above, the more natural explanation for the evidence is not Matthew’s or Luke’s literary dependence on Mark, but rather their own knowledge of oral retellings of the same stories (or, alternatively, their own oral retelling of the Markan stories).   We really must free ourselves from the assumption that variations between parallel accounts can only be explained in terms of literary redaction.   After all, it can hardly be assumed that the first time Matthew and Luke heard many of these stories was when they first came across Mark’s Gospel.   The claim that there were churches in the mainstream(s) represented by Matthew and Luke who did not know any Jesus tradition until they received Mark (or Q) as documents simply beggars belief and merely exemplifies the blinkered perspective imposed by the literary paradigm.   To repeat:  the assumption, almost innate to those trained within western culture, that the Synoptic traditions have to be analysed in terms of a linear sequence of literary editions, where each successive version is an editing of its predecessor, simply distorts critical perception and skews the resultant analysis.   The transmission of the narrative tradition has too many oral features to be ignored.

The more appropriate conclusions are twofold.   (1) The variations between the different versions of same story in the tradition do not indicate a cavalier attitude to or lack of historical interest in the events narrated.   In almost every case examined or cited above it is clearly the same story which is being retold.   Rather, the variations exemplify the character of oral retelling.[89]   In such oral transmission the concern to remember Jesus is clear from the key elements which give the tradition its stable identity.   And the vitality of the tradition is indicated by the performance variants.   These were not traditions carried around in a casket like some sacred relic of the increasingly distant past, their elements long rigid by textual rigor mortis;  but neither were they the free creation of teachers or prophets with some theological axe to grind;  rather they were the lifeblood of the communities in which they were told and retold.   What Jesus did was important to these communities for their own continuing identity.[90]  

(2) In the material documented above the differences introduced by the Evangelists, whether as oral diversity or as literary editing, are consistently in the character of abbreviation and omission, clarification and explanation, elaboration and extension of motif.   The developments often reflect the deeper faith and insight of Easter;  that is true.   But they do not appear to constitute any radical change in substance or character or thrust of the story told.[91]   Of course, we have only sampled the Jesus tradition to a limited extent, and further checks are necessary.   But at least we can say that thus far developments in the Jesus tradition were consistent with the earliest traditions of the remembered Jesus.



3.  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 we should not forget that Jesus was known as a teacher,[92] and was so regarded by his disciples,[93] and that the disciples understood themselves as just that, ‘disciples’ = ‘learners’ (mathetai).   Even that reminder should be sufficient to indicate that the recollection of Jesus’ teaching would have been 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 letter writers were able to exploit when they incorporated allusions to Jesus’ teaching in their own paraenesis.[94]   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 and find at least some confirmation in the oral traditioning processes envisaged by Bailey.


3.1  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. [95]   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.[96]   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)[97] and rhythm (four-beat, three-beat, kina metre) characteristic of Hebrew poetry.[98]   And Matthew Black noted many examples of alliteration, assonance and paranomasia.[99]   This is all the stuff of oral tradition, as we noted above (#1.4).   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.[100]  

Such evidence should be given more weight than has usually been the case.   Of course, 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.[101]

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.   Within the Jesus tradition two passages immediately call for attention.



3.2  The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6.7-15/Luke 11.1-4).


Matt. 6

Luke 11

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 done,  on earth as it is in heaven.  11  Give us today our daily bread.   12  And forgive us our debts,  as we    also   have forgiven     our debtors.     

     13  And do not bring us to the time of trial,  but rescue us from the evil one.   14  For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”






11:1   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.  

                                                                3  Give us each day our daily bread.   4  And forgive us our sins,  for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”


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).[102]   Why then the variation, particularly within the prayer itself?   Here again the curse of the literary paradigm lies heavy on discussion at this point.   To think that this tradition was known only because it appeared in writing in a Q document!   Whereas, much the more obvious explanation is that this was a tradition maintained in the living liturgy of community worship (as the first person plural 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.[103]   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).[104]   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 prayer (‘each day’).[105]   That the liturgical development/modification 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.[106]   It is not without relevance to note that such liturgical variation within what is manifestly the same prayer continues to this day.   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.[107]   Christians were recognizable among themselves, as well as to others, as those who said ‘Father’ or ‘Our Father’ to God,[108] whereas the typical prayer of Jewish worship had more liturgical gravitas.[109]   Moreover, both versions of the tradition attribute the prayer explicitly to Jesus, and report the prayer as explicitly given to his disciples by Jesus.[110]   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 Jesus[111] and/or emerged only later from some unknown disciple.[112]   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.


3.3  The last supper.   The obvious second example is the record of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, which evidently became a matter of regular liturgical celebration (1 Cor. 11.23-26).   The tradition here is fourfold.


Matt. 26

Mark 14

26   While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, giving it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body”.  27  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;                   28  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29  I tell you, from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father.”

22   While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them,                  and said, “Take; this is my body”.  23  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.  24  He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out on behalf of many.                         25  Truly I tell you, no more will  I  drink  of  the  fruit  of   the   vine  until  that day when I drink it new            in the kingdom of God.”





Luke 22

1 Cor. 11

17  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "Take this and divide it among yourselves;  18  for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." 

19  Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."  20  Also the cup likewise after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.



23   For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed

         took a loaf of bread,  24  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and                          

said, "This is my body which is         for you.                Do this in remembrance of me."  25 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."  26  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.


The tradition has been preserved in two clearly distinct forms, one in Mark and Matthew (A), the other in Luke and Paul (B).   In A Jesus ‘blesses’ the bread;  in B he ‘gives thanks’.   B adds to the word over the bread, ‘which is (given) for you.  Do this in remembrance of me’.   Over the cup A has ‘This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out (for) many’;  whereas B has ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’.   This variation is most obviously to be explained in terms neither of literary dependence, nor of one or other more easily retrojected into Aramaic,[113] but in terms of two slightly variant liturgical practices.   For example, the fact that in the A version the words over the bread and the wine are set in parallel (‘This is my body;  this is my blood’) probably indicates a liturgical shaping to bring out the parallelism.   Whereas the B version maintains the framework of a meal, with the bread word presumably said at the beginning (in accordance with the normal pattern of the Jewish meal) and the cup bringing the meal to a close (‘after supper’).   In A the modification puts the focus more directly on the wine/blood, whereas in B the focus is more on the cup.[114]

Here again it would be somewhat farcical to assume that this tradition was known to the various writers only as written tradition and only by hearing it read occasionally from some written source.   The more obvious explanation, once again, is that these words were familiar within many/most early Christian communities because they used them in their regular celebrations of the Lord’s Supper: this was living oral tradition before and after it was ever written down in semi-formal or formal documentation.   Here too it was a matter of fundamental tradition, the sort of tradition which Paul took care to pass on to his newly formed churches (1 Cor. 11.23),[115] the sort of tradition which gave these churches their identity and by the performance of which they affirmed their identity (cf. again 1 Cor. 10.21).   It was tradition remembered as begun by Jesus himself, and remembered thus from as early as we can tell.[116]

It is, of course, a fair question as to whether in the earliest form Jesus was remembered as celebrating a Passover meal or instituting a ritual to be repeated.   On the latter issue, the A version does not in fact say so;  and the call for or assumption of repetition is a distinctive feature both of B, and of the elaboration in 1 Cor. 11.25b-26.   Moreover the evidence of redaction is apparent elsewhere.[117]   Nevertheless the characteristics of oral tradition remain clear:  a concern to maintain the key elements of the words used by Jesus as carefully as necessary, with a flexibility (including elaboration) which in this case no doubt reflects the developing liturgical practices of different churches.


3.4  Sermon on the Mount/Plain.   A curious feature of the Sermon on the Mount tradition is the variableness in the closeness between the Matthew and Lukan versions.   In what we might call (for the sake of convenience) the third quarter of Matthew’s Sermon, the degree of closeness is such that the passages qualify as good evidence for the existence of a Q document.[118]   But in the other three-quarters the verbal parallel is much less close, so much so as to leave a considerable question as to whether there is evidence of any literary dependence.[119]   In most cases much the more plausible explanation is of two orally varied versions of the same tradition.   As before, the evidence does not determine whether one or other (or both) has simply drawn directly from the living oral tradition known to them, or whether one or other has borrowed in oral mode from the Q document.   Either way the evidence is more of oral dependence than of literary dependence.   Consider the following examples.


















Matt. 5.13

Luke 14.34-35

13   You are the salt of the earth; but if       salt has lost its taste, how can it be restored? It is no longer good for anything,                                but is thrown out to be trampled under foot

                         34   Salt is good; but if even salt has lost its taste, how can it be seasoned?  35  It is fit neither for the earth nor for the manure heap; they throw it out.


Matt. 5.25-26

Luke 12.57-59


           25  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way (to court) with him,                                          lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,                      and you will be thrown in prison.  26  Truly I tell you, you will never get out from there until you have paid back the last penny.

57   And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?  58  Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way (to court) make an effort to settle with him,  lest you be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.  59         I tell you, you will never get out from there until you have paid back the very last halfpenny.


Matt. 5.39b-42

Luke 6.29-30

But whoever hits you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also;  40  and to the one who wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also;  41  and whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him a second.  42  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.

29  To the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer 

      the other also; and from the one who

      takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic also. 

                                            30  Give to everyone who asks you; and from the one who takes what is yours, do not ask for them back.


Matt. 7.13-14

Luke 13.24

13                  Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  14  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

24  Strive to enter through the narrow door;


           for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.


In each case two features are evident:  the teaching is the same in substance;  the main emphases are carried by key words or phrases (salt, lost its taste, thrown out;  accuser, [danger of being] thrown in prison, ‘I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid back the last [half]penny’;[120]  cheek, other, cloak/tunic also, ‘Give to him who asks you’;[121]  ‘Enter through the narrow gate’);  otherwise the detail is quite diverse.   It is hard to imagine such sayings being simply copied from the same document.   The alternative suggestion that there were several editions of Q (Matthew copying from one, Luke from another) smacks of desperation, since the suggestion undermines the arguments for the existence of a Q document in the first place.   Similarly with the suggestion that Matthew was free in his editing of Q (= Luke) or vice-versa.[122]   Here once again the literary paradigm will simply not serve.   These are all teachings remembered as teachings of Jesus in the way that oral tradition preserves such teaching, with the character and emphasis of the saying retained through stable words and phrases, but the point elaborated in ways the re-teller judged appropriate to the occasion.


3.5  Other Q/q tradition.   The picture is little different for traditions shared by Matthew and Luke elsewhere in the record of Jesus’ teaching.   Once again there are passages where the wording is so close that a literary dependence is the most obvious explanation.[123]   But once again, too, there are parallel passages which simply cry out to be explained in terms of the flexibility of oral tradition.


Matt. 10.34-38

Luke 12.51-53;  14.26-27

            34   Do not think that I came to bring peace to the earth; I came not to bring peace, but a sword. 


                                      35  For I came to set a man against his father, 

and a daughter against her mother,

                                             and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;            36  and a man’s foes will be members of his own household.

37  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 

                                     38  and he who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.

12.51  Do you consider that I am here to give peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  52  From now on five in one household will be divided;  three against two and two against three  53  they will be divided, father against son  and son against father, mother against daughter  and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.


14.26  Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, cannot be my disciple.  27  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.


Matt. 18.15, 21-22

Luke 17.3-4

                            15   If your brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when you and he are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother”. 

21   Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  22  Jesus said to him, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”.

     3  Be on your guard! If your brother sins,    

       rebuke him,

      and if he repents,         forgive him.


                                                              4  And if the someone sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive him.

















Matt. 22.1-14

Luke 14.16-24


1   Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2  The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.                                                  3  He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,

but they would not come.  4  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet’.  5  But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm,

                                                     another to his business, 


6  while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 


7  The king was angered. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8  Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9  Go therefore into the streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

10  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad;


so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 



11  But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12  and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13  Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.  14  For many are called, but few are chosen.”

15   One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  16  Then Jesus  said to him, “A certain person gave a great dinner and invited many.  17  At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for it is now ready’.  18  But they all alike began to make excuses.





                            The first said to him, ‘I have bought a farm, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets’.  19  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets’.  20  Another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come’.  21  So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry


    and said to his slave,

                                                                          ‘Go out at once into the roads and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’.  22  And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room’. 23  Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be full.  24  For I tell you,  none of those who were invited will taste my dinner’.”


In each of the above cases we clearly have the same theme.   But the agreement and overlap in wording between the Matthean/Lukan parallels is so modest, even minimal, that it becomes implausible to argue that the one was derived from the other or from a single common source at the literary level.   The hypothesis that Matthew and Luke drew directly from Q (= Luke?)[124] simply does not make enough sense of the data.   Whereas the similarity of theme and point being made fits well with the flexibility and adaptability of oral retelling.[125]   In each case the Evangelist seems to have expressed and/or elaborated the common theme in his own way: 

Matt. 10.37-38 (worthiness), Luke 14.26-27 (discipleship); 

Matt. 18.15, 21-22 (church discipline); 

Matt. 22.7, 11-14 (destruction of Jerusalem;  lack of wedding robe),

Luke 14.21-22, 23 (church’s twofold mission).  

But such retellings are well within the parameters of orally passed on teaching.[126]   We can conclude without strain that Jesus was remembered as warning about the challenge of discipleship and the family divisions which would likely ensue, as encouraging generous and uncalculating forgiveness, and as telling a story (or several stories) about a feast whose guests refused to come (the variation in reasons given is typical of story telling) and who were replaced by people from the streets.[127]


3.6  Results.   To sum up, our findings in regard to the traditions of Jesus’ teaching accord well with those regarding the narrative traditions.   I have no wish to deny the existence of a Q document, any more than to deny the priority of Mark.   But again and again in the case of Q/q material we are confronted with traditions within different Synoptics which are clearly related (the same basic teaching), and which were evidently remembered and valued as teaching of Jesus.   At the same time, in the cases examined above the relation is not obviously literary, each version derived by editing some literary predecessor.   The relation is more obviously to be conceived as happening at the oral level.   That could mean that these traditions were known to the Evangelists not in a literary form, but in the living tradition of liturgy or communal celebration of the remembered Jesus.   Or it could mean that they knew the tradition from Q, but regarded Q as a form of oral retelling, so that their own retelling retained the oral characteristics of the traditioning process.   The two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it can hardly be denied that the consequences for the definition of the scope and content of the Q document are considerable.   It is important that future Q research should take such considerations on board.

As with the narrative tradition, the sample of teaching tradition examined above seems to confirm the implications drawn from the oral character of its formulation.   (1) There was teaching of Jesus which had made such an impact on his first hearers that it was recalled, its key emphases crystallized in the overall theme and/or in particular words and phrases, which remained constant in the process of rehearsing and passing on that teaching in disciple gatherings and churches.   All of the teaching reviewed would have been important to their identity as disciples and communities of disciples and for the character of their shared life.   Such teaching would no doubt have been treasured and meditated upon in the communal gatherings, much as Bailey suggested.  

(2) The variations in the reteaching indicate a readiness to group material differently, to adapt or develop it, and to draw further lessons from it, consistent with the tradition of initial impact made by Jesus himself and in the light of the developing circumstances of the churches which treasured the teaching.   Once again the point is that the tradition was living tradition, celebrated in the communal gatherings of the earliest churches.   There was no concern to recall all the precise words of Jesus; in many cases the precise circumstances in which the teaching was given were irrelevant to its continuing value.   But neither is there any indication in the material reviewed that these were sayings interjected into the tradition by prophets or free (literary) creation, or that the development of particular teachings subverted their original impact.[128]   These were remembered as teaching given by Jesus while he was still with them, and treasured both as such and because of its continuing importance for their own community life and witness.



4.  Oral transmission.

In the light of the above we can begin to sketch in the likely process of traditioning in the case of the Jesus tradition.[129]  


4.1  In the beginning, already during Jesus’ own ministry, as soon as disciples began to gather round him, we can envisage initial impressions and memories being shared among the group.   ‘Do you remember how/what he said when he . . .?’ must have been a question often asked as the embryonic community began to feel and express its distinctiveness.   No doubt in similar ways their village communities had celebrated their identity and history in regular, even nightly gatherings.   And as soon as the disciples of Jesus began to perceive themselves as (a) distinctive group(s) we may assume that the same impulse characteristic of oral and village culture would have asserted itself.   As Jesus’ immediate group moved around Galilee, encountering potential and then resident groups of disciple or sympathisers in various villages, the natural impulse would be the same.   We should assume, of course, that Jesus was giving fresh teaching (as well as repeat teaching) all the while.   But in more reflective gatherings, or when Jesus was absent, the impulse to tell again what had made the greatest impact on them would presumably reassert itself.

Three features of this initial stage of the process are worth noting.   First, if Bailey’s anecdotal accounts bring us closer than any other to the oral culture of Galilee in the second quarter of the first century CE, then we may assume that the traditioning process began with the initiating word and/or act of Jesus.   That is to say, the impact made by Jesus would not be something which was only put into traditional form (days, months or years) later.   The impact would include the formation of the tradition to recall what had made that impact;  in making its impact the impacting word or event became the tradition of that word or event.   The stimulus of some word/story, the excitement (wonder, surprise) of some event would be expressed in the initial shared reaction;  the structure, the identifying elements and the key words (core or climax) would be put into oral form in the immediate recognition of the significance of what had been said or happened.   Thus established more or less immediately, these features would then be the constants, the stable themes which successive retellings could elaborate, round which different performances could build their variations, as judged appropriate in the different circumstances.   Subsequently we may imagine a group of disciples meeting and requesting, for example, to hear again about the centurion of Capernaum, or about the widow and the treasury, or what it was that Jesus said about the tunic and the cloak, or about who is greater, or about the brother who sins.   In response to which a senior disciple would tell again the appropriate story or teaching in whatever variant words and detail he judged appropriate for the occasion, with sufficient corporate memory ready to protest if one of the key elements was missed out or varied too much.   All this is wholly consistent with the character of the data reviewed above.

It also follows, second, that those accustomed to the prevalent individualism of contemporary culture (and faith) need to make a conscious effort to appreciate that the impact made by Jesus in the beginning was not a series of disparate reactions of independent individuals.[130]   Were that so we might well wonder how any commonality of tradition could emerge as individuals began to share their memories, perhaps only after a lengthy period;  post-modern pluralism would have been rampant from the first!   But tradition-forming is a communal process, not least because such tradition is often constitutive of the community as community.   As it was a shared experience of the impact made by Jesus which first drew individuals into discipleship, so it was the formulation of these impacts in shared words which no doubt helped bond them together as a community of disciples.  

At the same time, we should not ignore an important corollary.   The character of the tradition as shared memory means that in many instances we do not know precisely what it was that Jesus did or said.   What we have in the Jesus tradition is the consistent and coherent features of the shared impact made by his deeds and words, not the objective deeds and words of Jesus as such.   What we have are examples of oral retelling of that shared tradition, retellings which evince the flexibility and elaboration of oral performances.   There is surely a Jesus who made such impact, the remembered Jesus, but not an original pure form, not a single original impact to which the historian has to reach back in each case.   The remembered Jesus may be a synthesis of the several impacts made on and disciple responses made by Jesus’ earliest witnesses, but the synthesis was already firm in the first flowering of the tradition.

Thirdly, it follows also and is perhaps worth repeating that the traditioning process should not be conceived of as initially casual and only taken seriously by the first disciples in the post-Easter situation.   As just implied, community formation was already at an embryonic stage from the first call of Jesus’ immediate circle of disciples;  ‘formative tradition’ would have had an indispensable part in that process.[131]   In addition, if indeed Jesus did send out his disciples as an extension of his own mission (Mark 6.7-13 pars.),[132] what would they have said when they preached?   The implication of the text is clear, and the inference from the fact of a shared mission hard to avoid, that their preaching would have at least included teaching which Jesus had given them.   Also that Jesus would have taught them what to say – not in a verbatim mode, but in a mode which would convey the disciple-effecting impact which they themselves had experienced.   One way or another, we may be confident that a good deal at least of the retellings of Jesus tradition now in the Synoptic Gospels were already beginning to take shape in any early pre-Easter preaching of the first disciples. [133]

Did Easter and the transition from Galilean village to Hellenistic city, from Aramaic to Greek not make any difference, then?   Yes, of course.   Easter shaped the perspective within which this first tradition was remembered.   The transition from village to city shaped the tradition for changing circumstances.   The transition from Aramaic to Greek (already implied by the description of ‘Hellenists’ = ‘Greek-speakers’ in Acts 6.1) would introduce the shifts in nuance which any translation involves.[134]   But the oral Jesus tradition itself provided the continuity, the living link back to the ministry of Jesus, and it was no doubt treasured for that very reason;  the very character of the tradition, retaining as it does so many of its Galilean village[135] and pre-Easter themes,[136] not to mention its Aramaic resonances (#3.1), makes that point clear enough.   Here we may learn from post-modernism’s emphasis on both the reader and the tradition.   If it is indeed the case that the hearer fills in the ‘gaps in signification’ from the tradition, that an audience interprets a particular performance from their shared knowledge,[137] then we can be fairly confident that the Jesus tradition was an essential part of that shared knowledge, enabling the hearers in church gatherings to ‘plug in’ to particular performances of the oral tradition and to exercise some control over its development.  


4.2  Tradition sequences.   Another questionable assumption which has dominated the discussion since the early form-critics is that in the initial stage of the traditioning process the tradition consisted of individual units.[138]   That may indeed have been the case for the very beginning of the process, and the Gospel of Thomas gives it some credibility for the continuing tradition.   But there is also good evidence of sayings being grouped and stories linked from what may have been a very early stage of the transmission process – even, in some cases, that Jesus may have taught in connected sequences which have been preserved.   To group similar teachings and episodes would be an obvious mnemonic and didactic device for both teachers and taught, storytellers and regular hearers, more or less from the beginning.   We may think, for example, of the sequence of beatitudes brought together in oral tradition or Q (Matt. 5.3, 4, 6, 11, 12/Luke 6.20b, 21b, 21a, 22, 23), and elaborated differently by Matthew and Luke (Matt. 5.3-12, Luke 6.20b-26).   Or the sequence of mini-parables (the wedding guests, new and old cloth, new and old wineskins) in Mark 2.18-22 (followed by Matt. 9.14-17 and Luke5.33-39).   Or Jesus’ responses to would-be disciples (Matt. 8.18-22/Luke 9.57-62).   Or the sequence of teaching on the cost of discipleship and danger of loss (Mark 8.34-38;  again followed by Matt. 16.24-27 and Luke 9.23-26), where Q/oral tradition has also preserved the sayings separately.[139]   Similarly with the sequence of sayings about light and judgment in Mark 4.21-25 (followed by Luke 8.16-18), with equivalents scattered in Q and the Gospel of Thomas.[140]

A particularly interesting example of traditional material being grouped because of the inner connectedness of the traditions are the sequences of Jesus’ teaching related to his exorcisms.












Finger/Spirit of God

Strong man

He who has ears

Unforgivable sin

Return of unclean spirit

Matt. 12.24-26

Matt. 12.27-28

Matt. 12.29

Matt. 12.30

Matt. 12.31-32

Matt. 12.43-45

Luke 11.15-18

Luke 11.19-20

Luke 11.21-22

Luke 11.23

Luke 12.10

Luke 11.24-26


Here are two sets of sayings, one with three sayings (Mark), the other with five sayings (Q/Luke), of which only two overlap in that sequence.   Both the groupings and their diversity typify the process of oral transmission.[141]  

Even more fascinating, but almost impossible to set out in tabular form, is the tradition of the sending out of the disciples on mission, where it is evident from Mark 6.7-13 and the parallels in Matt. 9.37-10.1, 7-16, Luke 9.1-6 and Luke 10.1-12 that there were at least two variations, one used by Mark and another oral (Q?) version.   The variations make it probable that the material was used and re-used, probably beginning with Jesus’ own instructions for mission, but developed and elaborated in terms of subsequent experience of early Christian mission.[142]

As for Q itself, the current growth in Q studies shows amazing confidence in handling a text whose scope and content will always be a matter of argument and hypothesis.   How in particular is one to distinguish redaction from (initial) composition?[143]   If a redactor was not troubled by the presence of aporiae and tensions in his final text, would an initial compositor of Q have felt any different?[144]   How can one both argue for the coherence and unity of Q (as proof of its existence), and at the same time argue that internal tensions indicate disunity, without the one argument throwing the other into question? Textual tensions are no proof of redactional layers (what author ever succeeded in removing all tensions from his/her final product, or attempted to do so?).   The point can be pushed further by arguing that Q was itself composed as a sequence of discourses.[145]   And the composition of Mark itself can be understood as setting in appropriate sequence a number of groupings already familiar in the oral traditioning process:[146]




24 hours in the ministry of Jesus

Jesus in controversy (in Galilee)

Parables of Jesus

Miracles of Jesus round the lake

Marriage, children, and discipleship

Jesus in controversy (in Jerusalem)

The little apocalypse

The passion narrative

Mark 1.21-38

Mark 2.1-3.6

Mark 4.2-33

Mark 4.35-5.43; 6.32-52

Mark 10.2-31

Mark 12.13-37

Mark 13.1-32

Mark 14.1-15.47


Of course most of this is unavoidably speculative;  even more so if we were to guess at whether and how passages like Mark 4.2-33 (parables of Jesus) and Mark 13.1-32 (the little apocalypse) grew by a process of aggregation from earlier, smaller groupings.   The point is that we should not assume that such compositional procedures came into the process only at a later stage of the process or only when the tradition was written down.


4.3  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 set out the playing field by conceiving of the Jesus tradition as ‘composed of a series of layers’.[147]   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 tell, where research proceeds by digging down through the historical layers.[148]   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 was 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.   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 in turn 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 retelling.   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.[149]

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 lop-sided findings of the neo-Liberal questers.   Rather it points a clear middle way between a model of parrot-like memorization 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.


4.4  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 (#1.4):  Jesus tradition did not cease to circulate in oral form simply because it had been written down;  and hearings of a Gospel being read would be part of the oral/aural transmission, to be retold in further circles of orality.[150]   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 pericopes 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 - that is, the recognition that the tradition took various forms because the forms reflected the way the tradition was 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 Synoptics 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.   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 to the other assumption which has become debilitatingly pervasive:  that each document belongs to and represents the views of only one community, and that the tensions within and between 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 20th 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.[151]   The assumption is that Q, for example, somehow defines its community:  it is a ‘Q community’ in the sense that the Q material is its only Jesus tradition;  it holds to this material in distinction from (defiance of?) other communities who are similarly defined by their document (the logic would be to suppose a ‘passion narrative’ community, a miracles-source community, and then a Mark community, etc.).[152]   But the assumption must cover also the streams of tradition which entered into the Gospels.   The implication, 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 aretologies (divine man), and so on. [153]

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’.[154]   The claim may be too exaggerated (for all Christians?), though we should not discount the likelihood that Evangelists wrote out of their more local experience primarily with a view to a much larger circles of churches, in Syria-Cilicia, 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.[155]  

The point here, however, 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.[156]   This ties in with what we would anyway have expected:  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 importance (Gal. 1.22;  1 Thess. 2.14;  2 Cor. 1.16).   In short, the suggestion 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 too much uncritical credence in scholarly discussions on the Gospels and ought to have been dismissed a lot sooner.



5.  In summary

We began by noting the widespread recognition among specialists in orality of the character of oral transmission, as a mix of constant themes and flexibility, of fixed and variable elements in oral retelling.   But we also noted that such insights had hardly begun to be exploited adequately in the treatment of Jesus tradition as oral tradition.   However, Bailey’s observations, drawn from his experience of oral traditioning processes in Middle Eastern village life, have highlighted points of potential importance, particularly on the rationale which, in the cases in point, determined the distinction between the more fixed elements and constant themes on the one hand, and the flexible and variable elements on the other.   Where stories or teaching was important for the community’s identity and life there would be a concern to maintain the core or key features, however varied other details (less important to the story’s or teaching’s point) in successive retellings.

Our own examination, (##2-3), of the Jesus tradition itself confirmed the relevance of the oral paradigm and the danger of assuming (consciously or otherwise) the literary paradigm.   The findings did not call into serious question the priority of Mark or the existence of a document Q.   But in each of the examples marshalled the degree of variation between clearly parallel traditions, and the inconsequential character of so much of the variations, should hardly have encouraged an explanation in terms of literary dependence (on Mark or Q) or of literary editing.   Whereas, the combination of stability and flexibility positively cried out to be recognized as typically oral in character.   That probably implies in at least some cases that the variation was due to knowledge and use of the same tradition in oral mode, as part of the community tradition familiar to Matthew and Luke.   And even if a pericope was derived from Mark or Q, the retelling by Matthew or Luke is itself better described as in oral mode, maintaining the character of an oral retelling more than of a literary editing.

In both cases (narratives and teachings) we also noted (1) a concern to remember the things Jesus had done and said.   The discipleship and embryonic communities which had been formed and shaped by the impact of Jesus’ life and message would naturally have celebrated that tradition as central to their own identity as disciples and churches.   We noted also (2) that the memories consisted in stories and teachings whose own identity was focused in particular themes and/or particular words and phrases – usually those said by Jesus himself.   And (3) that the variations and developments were not linear or cumulative in character, but the variations of oral performance.   The material examined indicated neither concern to preserve some kind of literalistic historicity of detail, nor any readiness to flood the tradition with Jewish wisdom or prophetic utterance.

Finally (#4), we have observed that the pattern of the oral traditioning process was probably established more or less from the beginning (before the first Easter) and was probably maintained in character through to (and beyond) the writing of the tradition down.   The first impact (sequence of impacts) made by Jesus resulted in the formation of tradition, which was itself formative and constitutive of community/church through Easter and beyond Galilee, and which was preserved and celebrated through regular performance (whether in communal or specifically liturgical gatherings), or reviewed for apologetic or catechetical purposes.   In other words, what we today are confronted with in the Gospels is not the top layer (last edition) of a series of increasingly impenetrable layers, but the living tradition of Christian celebration which takes us with surprising immediacy to the heart of the first memories of Jesus.

On the basis of all this we can begin to build a portrayal of the remembered Jesus, of the impact made by his words and deeds on the first disciples as that impact was ‘translated’ into oral tradition and as it was passed down in oral performance within the earliest circles of disciples and the churches, to be enshrined in due course in the written Synoptic tradition.  


[1] I use the term ‘historical Jesus’, mindful of the fact that it can be misleading, since it properly denotes the historians’ Jesus, Jesus as ‘reconstructed’(!) by the methods of historical research, but is regularly used to denote the man himself who walked and talked in the hills and villages of Galilee in the late 20s and/or early 30s of the common era.

[2] I draw on W. G. Kümmel’s abstract, despite his somewhat misleading decription (The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems [1970; Nashville: Abingdon, 1972/London: SCM, 1973] 79-82).

[3] Extracts from J. G. Herder, Collected Works (ed. B. Suphan) Vol. XIX, in Kümmel, New Testament 81-2.   B. Reicke, The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) 11-12, makes special mention of J. C. L. Gieseler, Historisch-kritischer Versuch über die Entstehung und die frühesten Schicksale der schriftlichen Evangelien (Leipzig: Englemann, 1818).

[4] Kümmel’s own treatment represents the same priorities.

[5] ‘The Study of the Synoptic Gospels’, Form Criticism (with K. Kundsin, 1934; New York: Harper Torchbook, 1962) 1.

[6] ‘The New Approach to the Synoptic Problem’ (1926), Existence and Faith (London: Collins, Fontana, 1964) 39-62 (here 47).

[7] R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921, 21931;  ET Oxford: Blackwell, 1963) 6-7;  though note the criticism of E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (SNTSMS 9; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1969) 18 n.4.

[8] ‘The “pure form” (reinen Gattung) represents a mixture of linguistic and history of language categories, which is to be assigned to an out of date conception of language development’ (eine Vermischung linguistischer und sprachhistorischer Kategorien . . . die einer heute überholten Auffassung der Sprachentwicklung zuzuweisen ist) (J. Schröter, Erinnerung an Jesu Worte: Studien zur Rezeption der Logienüberlieferung in Markus, Q und Thomas [WMANT 76; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1997] 59; also 141-2).

[9] But see Sanders’ critique in Tendencies, in summary:  ‘There are no hard and fast laws of the development of the Synoptic tradition.   On all counts the tradition developed in opposite directions.   It became both longer and shorter, both more and less detailed, and both more and less Semitic. . . .’ (272).

[10] See e.g. his assertions in ‘New Approach’ 45-7 and ‘Study’ 29, and the fuller analysis of History and critique of the assumption by W. H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 2-8.  

[11] R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Scribners, 1935) 12-13.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The most successful and influential was H. Conzelmann, Die Mitte der Zeit (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1953, 21957, 51964;  ET The Theology of St. Luke (London: Faber & Faber, 1961).

[14] C. F. D. Moule The Birth of the New Testament (London: A. & C. Black, 1962, 31981) 3.

[15] See particularly his recognition that Papias (Eusebius, HE 3.39.15) conceived of Peter retelling the teaching of Jesus ‘“pros tas chreias, with reference to the needs” (i.e. as occasion demanded, as need arose)’ (Birth 108, 120-1);  his observation on ‘the more fluid interchange of forms (in worship), such that snatches of prayer and hymnody flow in an out of the texture of pastoral exhortation’ (270) also parallels the recognition among folklorists on the fluidity of oral performances (below #1.4).

[16] H. Riesenfeld, ‘The Gospel Tradition and Its Beginning’ (1957), The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 1-29 (here 16, 26, 24).

[17] B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Lund: Gleerup, 1961);  refined in a succession of further publications:  Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Lund: Gleerup, 1964);  The Origins of the Gospel Traditions (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979);  The Gospel Tradition (Lund: Gleerup, 1986);  ‘Illuminating the Kingdom: Narrative Meshalim in the Synoptic Gospels’, in H. Wansbrough,ed., Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition (JSNTS 64; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1991) 266-309.

[18] E.g., ‘The general attitude was that words and items of knowledge must be memorized:  tantum scimus, quantum memoria tenemus’ [we only know as much as we retain in our memory] (Memory 124).

[19] ‘Cicero’s saying was applied to its fullest extent in Rabbinic Judaism:  repetitio est mater studiorum.   Knowledge is gained by repetition, passed on by repetition, kept alive by repetition.   A Rabbi’s life is one continual repetition’ (Memory 168).

[20] Gerhardsson, Memory 130-6 (here 133);  also chs. 9-10.

[21] Gerhardsson, Memory 328, 332, 335;  similarly Origins 19-20, 72-3;  Gospel 39-42.   R. Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer (WUNT 2.7; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1981) also emphasizes the role of learning by heart (Auswendiglernen) in Jesus’ teaching (Jesus 365-7, 440-53;  also ‘Jesus as Preacher and Teacher’ in Wansbrough ed., Jesus 185-210 (here 203-4). 

[22] Cf. J. Neusner’s apology for his earlier review in his Foreword to the recent reprint of Memory and Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[23] Kelber, Oral 14.

[24] Schröter, Erinnerung 29-30.   Gerhardsson did not examine the Synoptic tradition itself in Memory, though he went a considerable way towards filling the gap twenty-five years later in his Gospel.

[25] See e.g. my ‘Can the Third Quest Hope to Succeed?’, in B. Chilton & C. A. Evans, eds., Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 31-48 (here 37-8).

[26] Gerhardsson can speak of ‘a logos fixed by the college of Apostles’, with reference to the tradition of 1 Cor. 15.3ff. (Memory 297).

[27] The earlier contribution by the Seminar on ‘Oral Traditional Literature and the Gospels’ passed largely unnoticed, mainly, I suppose, because it functioned in service of the theme for the overall Colloquy on The Relationships Among the Gospels (ed. W. O. Walker; San Antonio: Trinity University, 1978) 31-122.   L. E. Keck reviews earlier work and summarizes the Seminar’s discussion (‘Oral Traditional Literature and the Gospels: The Seminar’, Relationships 103-22).

[28] W. J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982; London: Routledge, 1988) 33-6, 57-68.   The work of A. B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1978) has been seminal (here especially chap. 5).   Note also R. Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1977) chap. 3, especially 73-87;  also 90-109.   See also A. B. Lord, ‘The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature’, in Walker, Relationships 33-91 (here 37-8, 63-4, 87-9);  and the overview by D. E. Aune, ‘Prolegomena to the Study of Oral Tradition in the Hellenistic World’, in Wansbrough, ed., Jesus 59-106 (with bibliography).

[29] Kelber, Oral 27;  see also 50-1.

[30] Kelber, Oral 27-8;  quoting B. Peabody, The Winged Word: A Study in the Technique of Ancient Greek Oral Composition as Seen Principally through Hesiod’s Works and Days (Albany: State University of New York, 1975) 96.

[31] Kelber, Oral 29-30;  quoting Lord, Singer 120.   Lord also characterises the change from oral to literary composition as the change ‘from stability of essential story, which is the goal of oral tradition, to stability of text, of the exact words of the story’ (Singer 138).

[32] Kelber, Oral 33, 54;  quoting E. A. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1963) 92, 147, 184, passim.

[33] Ong begins by noting:  ‘We – readers of books such as this – are so literate that it is very difficult for us to conceive of an oral universe of communication or thought except as a variation of a literate universe’ (Orality 2, my emphasis).   As noted above, Bultmann did not avoid this mistake.

[34] Kelber, Oral 19, referring to W. J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale University, 1967; paperback Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1981) 111-38.

[35] See further P. J. Achtemeier, ‘Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity’, JBL 109 (1990) 3-27;  R. A. Horsley & J. A. Draper, Whoever Hears Youi Hears Me: Prophets, Performance, and Tradition in Q (Harrisburg, PA: TPI, 1999) 132-4, 144-5, in dependence on R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992).

[36] Influential here has been R. W. Funk, ‘The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance’, in W. R. Farmer, et al, eds., Christian History and Interpretation, FS J. Knox (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1967) 249-68.

[37] The idea is developed by Frances Young, The Art of Performance: Towards a Theology of Holy Scripture (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1990).         

[38] ‘The reader is absent from the writing of the book, the writer is absent from its reading’ (Kelber, Oral 92, quoting P. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning [Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1976] 35).

[39] Lord, Singer: ‘In a sense each performance is “an” original, if not “the” original.   The truth of the matter is that our concept of “the original”, of “the song”, simply makes no sense in oral tradition’ (100-1).

[40] Kelber, Oral 29;  also 59, 62.   Finnegan also glosses Lord:  ‘There is no correct text, no idea that one version is more “authentic” than another: each performance is a unique and original creation with its own validity’ (Oral Poetry 65).   She credits Lord with bringing this point home most convincingly (79), though by way of critique she points out that memorization also plays a part (79, 86).

[41] Kelber, Oral 20-1, citing appositely the demonstration by H. Schürmann of sayings on kingdom, repentance, judgment, love of enemy, eschatological preparedness, etc., which show no trace of post-Easter influence (‘Die vorösterlichen Anfänge der Logientradition: Versuch eines formgeschichtlichen Zugangs zum Leben Jesu’, in H. Ristow & K. Matthiae, eds., Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatische Christus [Berlin: Evangelische, 1962] 342-70).

[42] Kelber, Oral ch. 2.   Unfortunately the over-evaluation of the sayings source Q and the Gospel of Thomas in the neo-Liberal quest of the Jesus Seminar and J.D.Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) has continued to direct attention away from the importance of stories told about Jesus.

[43] Kelber, Oral 65-8.

[44] Kelber, Oral 91, 94.

[45] The oral character of Mark’s narrative has since been strongly emphasized by T. P. Haverly, Oral Traditional Literature and the Composition of Mark’s Gospel (Edinburgh PhD, 1983), and especially by J. Dewey, ‘Oral Methods of Structuring Narrative in Mark’, Interpretation 43 (1989) 32-44;  ‘The Gospel of Mark as an Oral-Aural Event: Implications for Interpretation’, in E. S. Malbon & E. V. McKnight, eds., The New Literary Criticism and the New Testament (JNSTS 109; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1994) 145-63.   Note also Lord’s earlier evaluation of ‘The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature’ (Walker, Relationships 58-84 [particularly 79-80, 82], 90-91).   The conclusion of the Symposium on Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition (ed. H. Wansbrough) can cut both ways:  ‘We have been unable to deduce or derive any marks which distinguish clearly between an oral and a written transmission process.   Each can show a similar degree of fixity and variability’ (12).   Cf. Schröter, Erinnerung 55, 60.

[46] Kelber, Oral 91-6, 130-1, 184-5 (quotations from 95, 98, 131).

[47] See e.g. Ø. Andersen, ‘Oral Tradition’, in Wansbrough, ed., Jesus 17-58 (here 43-53).

[48] The more serious danger in writing down a tradition, as Lord observed, is ‘when the singer believes that they (the written versions) are the way in which the song should be presented’ (Singer 79).

[49] For this reason I often use the inelegant verbal noun formation ‘traditioning’ to indicate a process of which ‘transmission’ per se may be only a part.

[50] Kelber, Oral 96-105, 129 (quotations from 98, 99-100, 129).

[51] Kelber, Oral 141-51, 151-68.

[52] Kelber, Oral 185-99, 199-207 (quotations from 201, 207).

[53] Kelber, Oral 201.

[54] Deut. 6.20-25: ‘we were Pharoah’s slaves . . . and the Lord brought us out of Egypt . . .’.

[55] Kelber, Oral 78-9.

[56] K. E. Bailey, ‘Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels’, Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) 34-54;  reprinted in Themelios 20.2 (1995) 4-11 (double column pages).

[57] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 4-5.

[58] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 6-7.

[59] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 7-8.

[60] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 8-9.   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.

[61] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 9-10.

[62] 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.

[63] Bailey notes that he had first heard the story 28 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’ 9-10).   If I may add my own pennyworth.   I met Kenneth Bailey in 1976 or 1977, when he told me the same two stories.   They made such an impression on me that I retold them several times during the intervening years.   When I eventually came across the article cited (in 1998) 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!

[64] Bailey, ‘Informal’ 10.

 [65] Cf. Lord’s examples of songs with a ‘more or less stable core’ (The Singer Resumes the Tale [Ithaca: Cornell University, 1995] 44, 47, 61-2).

[66] The three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts are occasionally treated synoptically (e.g. C. W. Hedrick, ‘Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts’, JBL 100 [1981] 415-32;  C. K. Barrett, Acts 1-14 [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994] 439-45), but their value as examples of the way oral tradition functioned has thus far not really been appreciated.

[67] The passages are thus a good example of Lord’s observation that even from the same singer, stability from one performance to another is likely to lie not at the word for word level of the text, but at the levels of theme and story pattern (Singer chap. 5).   Similarly Finnegan:  ‘that variability is not just a feature of lengthy oral transmission through time and space but is inherent both in different renderings of one literary piece within the same group and period and even in texts by the same person delivered at no great interval in time.   In such cases, memorisation of basic themes or plots is involved, but a generalised explanation of the oral poetry in terms of particular texts exactly memorised does not easily fit the abundant variability demonstrated in tape-recorded (as well as dictated) texts’ (Oral Poetry 57).

[68] The point is simply assumed, e.g., by Bultmann, History 39, and R. J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels (HarperSanFrancisco: Polebridge, 1994) 262-3.

[69] To avoid the confusion which has been endemic in discussion of Q, I use ‘q’ for the actual material common to Matthew and Luke, and ‘Q’ for the hypothesized document from which q was drawn.   The working assumption that Q = q is one of the major weaknesses in all Q research.

[70] The most weighty consideration is that Matthew and Luke both agree in positioning the episode after the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (A. Harnack, The Sayings of Jesus [London: Williams & Norgate, 1908] 74;  D. Lührmann, Die Redaktion der Logienquelle [WMANT 33; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1969] 57).   Is that sufficient?

[71] Contrast R. W. Funk, et al., The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan: Polebridge, 1993):  ‘Since the words ascribed to Jesus vary, and since there is nothing distinctive about them, we must assume they were created by story-tellers’ (300).   But the argument is self-defeating:  would story-tellers create such unmemorable words?

[72] Funk’s discussion is quite confused as to whether Matt. 8.11-12 could have existed separately from Matthew’s narrative context (Five Gospels 160) despite the recognition that its ‘Q’ parallel (Luke 13.28-29) need not presuppose a Gentile mission (348);  whereas J. S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) argues that the ‘tendentious development of the healing story into an apology for Gentile inclusion occurred already in the oral stage’ prior to Q (120).

[73] Contrast the meticulous analysis of D. Catchpole, The Quest for Q (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993) ch. 10, which assumes the literary paradigm throughout and evokes the picture of Matthew and Luke carefully editing an original Q more or less word by word.

[74] See further C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1963) 188-95;  J. D. G. Dunn, ‘John and the Oral Gospel Tradition’, in Wansbrough, ed., Jesus 351-79 (here 359-63).

[75] For John’s theology of different levels of faith, see e.g. R. E. Brown, John (AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 2 vols. 1966) 530-1.   Dodd saw the contrast as between the Synoptics’ interest in the remarkable faith of a Gentile, whereas ‘in John the central interest lies in the life-giving power of the word of Christ’ (Historical Tradition 194).   Crossan, however, overstates the contrast between the two versions (Matt/Luke and John) when he talks of the story being pulled in ‘two contradictory directions’ (Historical Jesus 327).

[76] Since Herod’s army was modelled on the Roman pattern, the ‘centurion’ of the Synoptic account could conceivably have been a Jew.

[77] Pace F. Neirynck, ‘John 4.46-54: Signs Source and/or Synoptic Gospels’, Evangelica II (Leuven: Leuven University, 1991) 679-88, who assumes that only redaction of literary sources can be invoked to explain the differences.

[78] Cf. E. Haenchen, Johannesevangelium (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1980) 260-1, summarizing his treatment in ‘Johanneische Probleme’, Gott und Mensch (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1965) 82-90.

[79] This remains the large consensus view among NT specialists, despite the continuing protests of a vocal minority.

[80] It is widely recognized that the story is structured on the pattern of the story of Jonah, with the key lines distinctive to bring out the point, How much greater than Jonah is here;  see e.g. W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison, Matthew 8-18 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) 70.

[81] In particular Matthew’s retelling emphasizes the themes of discipleship/following (akolouthein – 8.19, 22, 23) and of ‘little faith’ (oligopistos/ia), distinctive to Matthew (8.26;  cf. 6.30;  14.31;  16.8;  17.20).

[82] Characteristic of discussion dominated by the literary paradigm is the assumption that variations between the two versions can be explained only in terms of conflation of sources;  see e.g. V. Taylor, Mark (London: Macmillan, 1952) 347.

[83] Here again Taylor’s discussion in terms of ‘fragments loosely connected at 35 and 36’ and ‘fragmentary stories’ (Mark 403-4) betrays the assumption that there must have been an original story or original stories of which only fragments remain, and thus also his failure to appreciate the character of oral tradition.

[84] The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1.29-31/Matt. 8.14-15/Luke 4.38-39);  the cleansing of the leper (Mark 1.40-45/Matt. 8.1-4/Luke 5.12-16);  Jesus’ true family (Mark 3.31-35/Matt. 12.46-50/Luke 8.19-21);  precedence among the disciples (Mark 10.35-45 = Matt. 20.20-28;  but Luke 20.24-27);  the healing of the blind man/men (Mark 10.46-52/Matt. 20.29-34/Luke 18.35-43).   Why do the lists of the twelve close disciples of Jesus vary as they do (Mark 3.16-19/Matt. 10.2-4/Luke 6.13-16)?   Presumably because in the process of oral transmission confusion had arisen over the names of one or two of the least significant members of the group.   The sequence of Mark 12.1-37/Matt. 21.33-46, 22.15-46/Luke 20.9-44 could be orally related, but the extent and consistency of verbal link suggests a primarily literary dependence of Matthew and Luke on Matthew.   The constancy of verbal link between the three accounts of the feeding of the five thousand likewise probably indicates an editing rather than a retelling process (Mark 6.32-44/Matt. 14.13-21/Luke 9.10-17);  but John’s version (John 6.1-15), where almost the sole verbal links are the numbers (cost, loaves and fishes, participants, baskets of fragments), surely indicates oral retelling.   The character of the sequel (Mark 6.45-52/Matt. 14.22-33/John 6.16-21) points clearly in the same direction.   And though Matthew’s dependence on Mark for the passion narrative is clear, the alternative version used by Luke may well indicate a tradition passed down orally independent of the Mark/Matthean (literary) version.

[85] The linked stories of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5.1-20/Matt. 8.28-34/Luke 8.26-39) and Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5.21-43/Matt. 9.18-26/Luke 8.40-56) look like examples of heavy abbreviation of Markan redundancy, especially by Matthew.   Similarly with Matthew’s treatment of the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6.17-29/Matt. 14.3-12), and with Matthew’s and Luke’s treatment of the healing of the epileptic boy (Mark 9.14-29/Matt. 17.14-21/Luke 9.37-43).   Lord notes that performances of often very different lengths is a mark of oral tradition (Singer of Tales 109-17).

[86] E.g. Matt. 12.5-7, 11-12a adds precedents more apposite to the two cases of Sabbath controversy than were provided in Mark 2.23-28 and 3.1-5 (Matt. 12.1-8 and 9-14);  cf. Luke 13.10-17.

[87] E.g. the Matthean additions to explain why Jesus accepted baptism from the Baptist (Matt. 3.14-15), and in his presentation of Peter as the representative disciple (Matt. 14.28-31;  16.17-19);  the Lukan addition of a second mission (of the seventy[-two]) in Luke 10.1-12, presumably to foreshadow the Gentile mission (cf. 14.23 below).

[88] Cf. e.g. Mark 6.3a, 5a with Matt. 13.55a, 58;  Mark 10.17-18 with Matt. 19.16-17.   In both cases Matthew’s respect for the Markan wording is clear, even when he changed it presumably to prevent any unwelcome implication (see my The Evidence of Jesus [London: SCM, 1985] 18-22).   See further J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae: Contributions to the Study of the Synoptic Problem (Oxford: Clarendon, 1898, 21909) 117-25.

[89] It should be noted that this deduction from the tradition itself coheres with Papias’ account both of Peter’s preaching and of Mark’s composition:  that Peter gave/adapted (epoieito - could we say performed) his teaching with a view to the needs (pros tas chreias - that is, presumably, of the audiences), but not as making an orderly account (suntaxin) of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark did no wrong in thus writing down some things (enia) as he recalled them’ (Eusebius, HE 3.39.15).

[90] 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.

[91] 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.

[92] Mark 5.35/Luke 8.49;  Mark 9.17/Luke 9.38;  Mark 10.17/Matt. 19.16/Luke 18.18;  Mark 10.20;  Mark 12.14, 19, 32/Matt. 22.16, 24, 36/Luke 20.21, 28, 39;  Matt. 8.19;  9.11;  12.38;  17.24;  Luke 7.40;  10.25;  11.45;  12.13;  19.39.   It should be recalled that Jesus seems also to have been remembered as ‘a teacher of people’ by Josephus (Ant. 18.63).

[93] Mark 4.38;  9.38;  10.35;  13.1/Luke 21.7;  Mark 14.14/Matt. 26.18/Luke 22.11;  though it is noticeable that Matthew and Luke seem to have avoided the term (for the most part) on the lips of the disciples, presumably as not being sufficiently exalted.

[94] See further my The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 185-95.

[95] This is by no means to deny that Jesus knew at least some Greek (in what language did any exchange between a Gentile[?] centurion and Jesus, or between Jesus and Pilate take place?), or even that he may have spoken in Greek on occasions.   Meier’s discussion of the subject is quite sufficient for our purposes (Marginal Jew 1.255-68, 287-300).   On the question of penetration of the Greek language into first century Israel see especially M. Hengel, The ‘Hellenization’ of Judaea in the First Century after Christ (London: SCM, 1989);  S. E. Porter, ‘Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee’, in Chilton & Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus 123-54.   I see no reason to depart from the huge consensus which continues to maintain that Jesus gave at least the great bulk of his teaching in Aramaic;  see particularly J. A. Fitzmyer, ‘The Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D.’, A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays  (Missoula, Montana: Scholars, 1979) 29-56;  also ‘The Study of the Aramaic Background of the New Testament’ in the same volume 1-27 (here 6-10);  to whom Meier acknowledges his debt.   Porter argues that possibly seven of Jesus’ conversations took place in Greek - Matt. 8.5-13;  John 4.4-26;  Mark 2.13-14;  7.25-30;  12.13-17;  8.27-30;  15.2-5, each, apart from John 4, with parallels (The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research [JSNTS 191; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000] 157-63).

[96] Note the warning of M. Casey, ‘The Original Aramaic Form of Jesus’ Interpretation of the Cup’, JTS 41 (1990) 1-12, particularly 11-12.

[97] Riesner estimates ‘about 80 per cent of the separate saying units are formulated in some kind of parallelismus membrorum’ (‘Jesus as Preacher and Teacher’ 202).

[98] C. F. Burney, The Poetry of our Lord (Oxford: Clarendon, 1925).          

[99] M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Oxford: Clarendon, 31967) 160-85;  though note Fitzmyer’s strictures (Wandering Aramean 16-17).   See also Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer 392-404.

[100] J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology.  Vol. One: The Proclamation of Jesus (1971;  ET London: SCM, 1971) 3-29.

[101] R. W. Funk, Honest To Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco: Polebridge, 1996) talks of Jesus’ ‘voice print’, including antithesis, synonymous parallelism, reversal, paradox and others more distinctive to Funk’s own approach (144-5, 149-58).

[102] As B. H. Streeter observed in his The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924) 277-8.

[103] This possibility is widely acknowledged;  cf. e.g. U. Luz, Matthäus 1-7 (EKK; Zürich: Benziger/Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1985) 334;  Crossan, Historical Jesus 293;  J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 357-8;  H. D. Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia: Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 370.   In Didache 8.3 it is commended that the prayer be said three times a day (a good Jewish practice).

[104] Orthodoxy still celebrates the liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil of Caesarea. 

[105] See further Jeremias, Proclamation 195-6.

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

[107] Jeremias, Proclamation 196-7.

[108] The references in Rom. 8.15-16 and Gal. 4.6 confirm that Paul understood the ‘Abba’ prayer as distinctive of Christians.

[109] For example, the benediction over the meal begins, ‘Blessed art thou, Lord our God, king of the universe’.

[110] It goes back into good Aramaic;  see e.g. Jeremias, Proclamation 196;  W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988) 593.

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

[112] Crossan, Historical Jesus 294.

[113] J. A. Fitzmyer notes that both forms can be retrojected into contemporary Aramaic ‘with almost equal ease and problems’ (Luke [AB 28A, two vols;  New York: Doubleday, 1981, 1985] 1394-5);  see again Casey, ‘Original Aramaic Form’.

[114] See further my Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (London: SCM, 1977, 21990) 165-7, and those cited there in n. 23.

[115] The fact that Paul ascribes the tradition to ‘the Lord’ (1 Cor. 11.23) should not be taken to indicate a revelation given to Paul after his conversion (as particularly most recently H. Maccoby, ‘Paul and the Eucharist’, NTS 37 [1991] 247-67).   The language is the language of tradition (‘I received’ – parelabon;  ‘I handed on to you’ – paredwka), and ‘the Lord’ from whom Paul received it is ‘the Lord Jesus (who) on the night in which he was betrayed took bread . . .’ (11.23).   See further the still valuable discussion of O. Cullmann, ‘The Tradition’, The Early Church: Historical and Theological Studies (London: SCM, 1956) 59-75, who notes inter alia that 1 Cor. 7.10 also refers the tradition of Jesus’ teaching on divorce to ‘the Lord’ (‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord . . .’) (68).

[116] The silence of Didache 9 (‘concerning the Eucharist’) as to any ‘words of institution’ need not imply that Didache reflects an earlier stage (than Mark or 1 Cor. 11) in the liturgical development (as Crossan, Historical Jesus 360-7 argues).   It could well be that Didache assumes the traditional core and attests simply the addition of thanksgiving (eucharistein) prayers deemed appropriate in a more liturgically solemnized act (as also Didache 10).   John’s Gospel says nothing of a last supper, but reflects knowledge of bread and wine words in John 6.52-58.   For a recent brief discussion and review (with bibliography) see W. D. Davies & D. C. Allison, Matthew 19-28 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997) 465-9.

[117] Particularly Matthew’s addition of the phrase ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt. 26.28), the very phrase he seems deliberately to have omitted in 3.2 (cf. Mark 1.4/Luke 3.3).

[118] Matt. 6.22-23/Luke 11.34-36;  Matt. 6.24/Luke 16.13;  Matt. 6.25-34/Luke 12.22-32;  Matt. 7.1-2/Luke 6.37a, 38b;  Matt. 7.3-5/Luke 6.41-42;  Matt. 7.7-11/Luke 11.9-13;  Matt. 7.12/Luke 6.31.

[119] Despite which, most discussions simply assume redactional use of Q;  see e.g. Fitzmyer, Luke, and Davies & Allison, Matthew, ad loc.   Streeter recognized the likelihood of ‘oral tradition in more than one form’, but argues that differences have to be explained by Matthew’s ‘conflation’ of Q and M – that is, by literary editing (Four Gospels 251-3).

[120] Didache 1.5 makes use of this last saying:  ‘he will not get out from there, until he has paid back the last penny’.

[121] Didache 1.4-5 may well reflect knowledge of Matthew’s version.   In the Gospel of Thomas the saying has been formulated with a slightly different thrust:  ‘If you have money, do not lend it at interest, but give it to someone from whom you will not get it back’ (GTh 95).

[122] E.g. the reconstructions of Q by A. Polag, Fragmenta Q: Textheft zur Logienquelle (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1979), seem to assume that sometimes Luke, sometimes Matthew has preserved Q;  as a result he both masks the disparity between the two versions and still leaves it a puzzle why either or both diverged from the written text of Q.   E.g., in the first case, on the usual literary redactional principles, it is more likely that Luke 14.34a echoes Mark 9.50a than that Luke = Q.

[123] Matt. 8.19b-22/Luke 9.57b-60a;  Matt. 11.7-11, 16-19/Luke 7.24-28, 31-35;  Matt. 11.25-27/Luke 10.21-22;  Matt. 12.43-45/Luke 11.24-26;  Matt. 23.37-39/Luke 13.34-35;  Matt. 24.45-51/Luke 12.42-46.

[124] See again e.g. Fitzmyer, Luke, and Davies & Allison, Matthew, ad loc.;  Catchpole, Quest 323-4.

[125] The Gospel of Thomas has variant traditions of the first and last of the three examples above (Matt. 10.34-36/Luke 12.51-53/GTh 16; Matt. 37-38/Luke 14.26-27/GTh 55, 101 [but with typical Thomas embellishment];  Matt. 22.1-14/Luke 14.16-24/GTh 64);  Mark 8.34 also knows a variant version of Matt. 10.38/Luke 14.27/GTh 55.2b, which Matt. 16.24 and Luke 9.23 follow.   Whereas in the second example Didache again seems to know Matthew (Did. 15.3;  Matt. 18.15-35), as probably does the Gospel of the Nazarenes 15 (Matt. 18.21-22).

[126] Cf. Gerhardsson, ‘Illuminating the Kingdom’, who concludes that the differences between the parables (narrative meshalim) demonstrate ‘deliberate alterations of rather firm texts’ (291-8), though the assumption of the literary paradigm should also be noted.

[127] The judgments rendered by the Jesus Seminar on these passages well illustrate the highly dubious criteria and tendentious reasoning by which they reached their conclusions, including:  a rather naive idea of consistency (Matt. 10.34-36 seems to ‘contradict’ Jesus’ teaching on unqualified love);  Jesus was less likely to echo scripture than the Christian community (reason unexplained);  use made of material indicates its originating purpose (Luke 17.3-4 as the reflection of ‘a more mature community than is likely to have been the case with Jesus’ followers during his lifetime’);  the fallacy of ‘the original form’ (the rationale of the procrustean bed of the literary paradigm) (Funk, Five Gospels 174, 216-7, 362, 234-5).   But to discuss ‘authenticity’ by reference simply to such considerations as precise wording, tensions with other sayings and appropriateness to later contexts, totally fails to consider the implications of oral transmission:  a saying, like a story, could retain its identity by constancy of theme and particular words or phrases, while at the same time being adapted and reapplied to developing situations in the ongoing life of the earliest churches.

[128] Draper also argues that the thesis of some of Jesus’ sayings ‘created entirely de novo . . . conflicts with the processes of oral transmission.   Such entirely innovative “words of the Risen Jesus” are inherently unlikely’ (Horsley & Draper, Whoever 183).   Horsley however assumes that prophets would have been responsible for the celebration of the tradition (Whoever 300-10) without enquiring what the role of teachers might have been.

[129] B. W. Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 (JSNTS 82; Sheffield: JSOT, 1993) is tendentiously concerned to argue the virtual impossibility of recovering any oral tradition behind the Gospels:  all differences, no matter how great, can be explained in terms of literary redaction;  and oral tradition was wholly fluid and contingent on the particularities of each performance.   But his conception of the oral tradition process is questionable – as though it was a matter of recovering a history of tradition through a set of sequential performances (e.g. 118;  here we see the problem in talking of ‘oral transmission’ – above $$$);  and he gives too little thought to what the stabilities of oral remembrances of Jesus might be as distinct from those in the epics and sagas studied by Parry and Lord.

[130] Cf. Horsley’s scathing critique of Liberalism’s focus on the individual and of B. L. Mack’s The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) (Horsley & Draper, Whoever 15-22).   Crossan also seems to think of oral tradition solely in terms of individuals recollecting - J. D. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 49-93.

[131] Cf. the picture which P. S. Alexander, ‘Orality in Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism at the Turn of the Eras’, in Wansbrough, ed., Jesus 159-84, adduces for the disciple-circle round a rabbi in the early tannaitic period forming a small, quasi-religious community, eating communally and with a common purse, being taught by him (166-7), a picture which may not be as anachronistic as might at first appear (182-4).

[132] A strong body of opinion regarding Q sees the earliest stage of its collection/composition (Q1?) as intended to provide guidance for itinerant missionaries on the pattern of Jesus’ own mission;  similarly Schürmann, ‘vorösterlichen Anfänge’.

[133] The point has been argued by E. E. Ellis on several occasions, most recently in ‘The Historical Jesus and the Gospels’, in J. Ådna et al., eds., Evangelium - Schriftauslegung - Kirche, P. Stuhlmacher FS (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1997) 94-106, reprinted in his Christ and the Future in New Testament History (SuppNovT 97; Leiden: Brill, 2000) 3-19;  also The Making of the New Testament Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 20-27;  but he weakens his case by unnecessarily questioning whether there was an initial oral stage of transmission (Christ 13-14), and argues for ‘at least some written transmission from the beginning’ (Making 24), that is, already during Jesus’ ministry (Christ 15-16;  Making 32, 352).  Similarly A. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (BS 69; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000) argues that notes may well have been made by one or more of the literate among Jesus’ hearers which could have served as sources for Mark (223-9);  though he also observes that Paul shows no awareness of any written records of Jesus’ mission (211).   Ellis’s conception of oral transmission is very restricted to a choice between ‘folkloric origin’ and the ‘controlled and cultivated process’ of the rabbinic schools (Christ 14-15;  cf. Millard, Reading and Writing 185-92);  and neither seems to be aware of Bailey’s contribution.   Millard’s belief that ‘literacy was widespread in Palestinian Judaism’ (22) is challenged by counter opinions that literacy was low in Roman Palestine, perhaps only 3% (W. V.Harris, Ancient Literacy [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1989];   M. Bar-Ilan, ‘Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries CE’, in S. Fishbane & S. Schoenfeld, Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992] 46-61).

[134] It is not necessary to assume that the ‘Hellenists’ only emerged after Easter;  there may have been Greek-speaking disciples during Jesus’ Galilean and Jerusalem missions (cf. Mark 7.26;  John 12.20-22), and traditions already being transposed into Greek.

[135] A repeated emphasis of Horsley & Draper, Whoever.

[136] See again Schürmann, ‘vorösterlichen Anfänge’ (above n. 40).

[137] Horsley and Draper both draw on the work of J. M. Foley, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991), also The Singer of Tales in Performance (Bloomington: Indiana Univesity, 1995) on this point (Whoever 161-4, 182;  Foley draws in turn on the literary theory of W. Iser and H. R. Jauss), and make much of the importance of ‘metonymic referencing’ (elements which evoke a whole theme within the tradition), again in dependence on Foley (Whoever, index ‘metonymic referencing’).

[138] Kloppenborg, following in the train of successive form-critical analyses, perceives the composition process as ‘the juxtaposition of originally independent units’ (Formation 98).   Funk assumes that ‘the imprint of orality’ is evident only in ‘short, provocative, memorable, oft-repeated phrases, sentences, and stories’ – ‘a sixth pillar of modern gospel scholarship’ (Five Gospels 4);  ‘only sayings that were short, pithy, and memorable were likely to survive’ (Honest 40).   This assumption predetermines that ‘the Jesus whom historians seek’ will only be found in such brief sayings and stories.   He lists 101 words (and deeds) judged to be ‘authentic’ in his Honest 326-35.

[139] Matt. 10.38/Luke 14.27;  Matt. 10.39/Luke 17.33; Matt. 10.33/Luke 12.9.

[140] Matt. 5.15/Luke 11.33/GTh 33.2;  Matt. 10.26/Luke 12.2/GTh 5.2, 6.4;  Matt. 7.2/Luke 6.38b;  Matt. 25.29/Luke 19.26/GTh 41.

[141] The fact that the Gospel of Thomas has a parallel only to Mark 3.27/Matt. 12.29 (not Luke 11.21-22 = Q?) (GTh 35) would be consistent with GTh’s de-eschatologizing tendencies.

[142] Does the fact that Thomas has only two disjoint parallels (GTh 14.2/Luke 10.8-9;  GTh 73/Matt.9.37-38/Luke 10.2) imply a fading of a compulsion to mission?

[143] Note particularly the severe criticisms at this point of  C. M. Tuckett, Q and the History of Early Christianity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996) 52-82.

[144] In H. Koester’s view the apocalyptic material ‘conflicts’ with the emphasis of the wisdom and prophetic material (Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development [London: SCM/Philadelphia: TPI, 1990] 135).   Kloppenborg speaks of ‘aporiae created by redactional activity’, or of a group of sayings ‘modified by the insertion of a secondary expansion or commentary . . .’ (Formation 97, 99);  but that simply begs the question, as Kloppenborg seems to realise (Formation 99).

[145] Horsley in Horsley & Draper, Whoever 23-4, 61-2, 83-93, 148.   This is in effect an extension of a strong trend to recognize ‘complexes of logia’ or ‘collections of aphoristic sayings’ behind Q (D. Zeller, Die weisheitlichen Mahnsprüche bei den Synoptikern [Forschung zur Bibel 17; Würzburg: Echter, 1977];  R. A. Piper, Wisdom in the Q-tradition: The Aphoristic Teaching of Jesus [SNTSMS 61; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989];  similarly Kloppenborg, Formation).

[146] Cf. particularly, H. W. Kuhn, Ältere Sammlungen im Markusevangelium (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1971).   Worthy of note is Lord’s observation that ‘Oral traditional composers think in terms of blocks and series of blocks of tradition’ (‘Gospels’ in Walker, ed., Relationship 59).

[147] Bultmann, Jesus 12-13.

[148] As again by Crossan in his talk of ‘scientific stratigraphy’ (Historical Jesus xxviii, xxxi-xxxii).   Funk also envisages ‘the historical Jesus’ being ‘uncovered by historical excavation’ (Five Gospels 3).

[149] I 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 the Gospel of Thomas no longer held within the original gravity field.

[150] This point was already being made by H. Koester in his first monograph – Synoptische Überlieferung bei den apostolischen Vätern (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1957).

[151] R. Bauckham, ‘For Whom Were the Gospels Written?’, in R. Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), provides a number of examples (13-22).   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.

[152] Kloppenborg, Formation 25;  ‘Q represents a theologically autonomous sphere of Christian theology’ (27), ‘a discrete group in which Q functioned as the central theological expression’ (39).   Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels:  ‘Both documents (Gospel of Thomas and Q) presuppose that Jesus’ significance lay in his words, and in his words alone’ (86 my emphasis).

[153] Cf. particularly Koester, ‘One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels’;  also ‘The Structure and Criteria of Early Christian Beliefs’, in Robinson & Koester, Trajectories 205-31; Lührmann, Redaktion 95-6;  Mack, Myth 83-97.   Koester’s reflections on ‘The Historical Jesus and the Historical Situation of the Quest: An Epilogue’, in Chilton & Evans, eds., Studying the Historical Jesus 535-45, indicates 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 means 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 seems 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 Cor. 1-4 requires more than a rhetorical and socio-political understanding of that wisdom;  Q wisdom was soteriological rather than paraenetic.

[154] Bauckham, ‘For Whom?’ 1.

[155] 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).

[156] 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).