Oral Tradition vs Oral Performance
- Professor Dunn,
Like others, I thank you for taking the time to engage in this
seminar. For a long time I have been telling myself that I need to
become more familiar with the issues surrounding transmission of oral
information. This seminar has given me the excuse to start, and so I
However, there is something about your treatment of oral transmission
that has me baffled. Milmon Parry and Albert Lord, along with the vast
majority of oral critics outside of the biblical scene, were and are
concentrating on the transmission of oral epic. From a memorized theme
and through a process of creative expansion of points in the theme by
means of traditional formulae, the story is told anew each time.
However, we are dealing with the transmission of stories. Oral studies
of this sort may be applicable to some degree with regard to
transmission of stories *about* Jesus, but I have the uneasy feeling
that you are applying conclusions about oral epic transmission too
broadly outside of that genre.
John Miles Foley, in _Oral-Formularic Theory and Research_ (New York:
Garland, 1985), demands "as grounds for comparison among traditions
nothing less than the closest generic fit available, and, further,
calibrating any and all comparisons according to the comparability of
the genres examined. <...> More analysis needs to be done of the many
non-epic forms of different traditions, particularly where
well-collected and indisputably oral material exists on one side or
the other. We need to know how other genres work, to what degree they
conform to the laws of epic oral narrative and to what degree they
have their own distinctive dynamics." (pg. 69)
The phrase "well-collected" resonates with me, especially with regard
to the article by Kenneth Bailey in Asia Journal of Theology. Unable
to find a library with this journal (or its reprint in Themelios) not
enough detail is given in your article (or a summary of Bailey's
article I found on the web at
http://pw2.netcom.com/~matt1618/oraltrad.htm) to help me determine
whether subjective opinions about the traditions involved had been
allowed to interfere with his collection of traditions and their
subsequent analysis. I have not seen much indication of methodological
So, do you think we are really in a sound enough position,
methodologically, to apply Bailey's observations to the gospel
accounts? I am almost coming away with the feeling that you are more
concerned with absolving the gospel writers of a charge of generating
partisan propaganda, even if it means admitting they were not relaying
a true historical account due to the natural characteristics of an
oral transmission process.
Your first case study of J. G. Herder is interesting. Herder, as a
philosopher of history, was of the opinion that individual points of
historical detail can have the appearance of contradiction or
incoherence, but they are realities which are "not so much to be
explained as simply to be *explained away* by appeal to the presumed
harmonization of the parts in the whole over the long run." (Hayden
White, _Metahistory_, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1973, pg. 72,
emphasis in original). To Herder, "when properly understood, all the
evidence of disjunction and conflict displayed in the historical
record adds up to a drama of divine, human, and natural
*reconciliation* of the sort figured in the drama of redemption in the
Bible." (pg. 79, emphasis, again, is in original)
With all due respect, then, I have to ask: Do you have similar
feelings about the apparent contradictions of the gospels accounts, or
of their ultimate significance? Does Herder posses a greater,
philosophical, significance to you than merely being the first to
bring up the issue of "oral saga?"
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
- Dear Dave Hindley,
Apologies for the delay in replying - I had server problems for 48 hours
- but all seems OK now.
I don't recall the earlier question. If I missed it, my apologies.
'A desire to romantically emplot the historical record' - hmm! sounds
serious! Since I'm something of a romantic myself I may have to plead
somewhat guilty - if I fully understand the charge!
The main difference between Papias and me (if I may put it so) is that I
envisage an intermediate role for a community-driven traditioning process.
But that need not be a major difference, since one may imagine that Peter had
a formative influence on the shape and content of many of the traditions
involving him - as e.g. Vincent Taylor frequently surmised, and usually with
I'm not sufficiently familiar with Herder to follow up on your
As I've indicated in a number of responses now, my concern has always
been to make best sense of the character of the Synoptic tradition as we
still have it in our current Synopses. It just seems to me that a realistic
conception of the oral traditioning process helps considerably towards that
'best sense'. If my envisioning of that process a la Bailey is incurably
romantic, then so be it.
Thanks for coming back again.
"David C. Hindley" wrote:
> Professor Dunn,
> Back on the 27th I posted a question asking about the philosophical
> implications of the article under discussion, that to date has been
> missed (or skipped?).
> The paper contains a fair amount of rhetorical language, such
> as "Unfortunately ..." (numerous), "... obvious ...," "ignored the
> most obvious," "once again eluded scholarship," "Regrettably then,
> once again, the potential significance of ... has been subverted by
> another agenda and lost to sight," etc. (and these are just those in
> the first 8 pages!)
> There is also a striking similarity between your suggestions and
> Papias' statement, himself quoting the verbal account of "the
> presbyter," that "Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote
> down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in
> exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he
> neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I
> said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the
> necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a
> regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no
> mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one
> thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and
> not to put anything fictitious into the statements." [Eusebius,
> _H.E._ 3:39]
> You may not be claiming that the author of the second gospel was
> actually Mark, Peter's assistant, but you do seem to be asserting a
> very similar transmission process as described above. Is this
> coincidence, fortuitous, a vindication of tradition, or an
> explanation intended to set the minds of reasonable people at ease?
> To some of us who have a great deal of psychological resources
> invested in the historical method, this is a very important question.
> I thought the mention of Herder's almost offhand comment about oral
> saga explaining variations in the gospel accounts was more than
> coincidental. J. G. Herder had offered a solution to the conflict
> between scientific method and a metaphysical comprehansion of the
> world that permitted empirical investigation to live in harmony with
> a theological world view. However it is no accident, I think, that he
> is also considered the father of the Romanticist schools of history.
> Does oral traditioning (with regard to the gospels, at least) boil
> down to a desire to romantically emplot the historical record?
> Thanks again!
> Dave Hindley
> Cleveland, Ohio, USA
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