Re: [XTalk] Underlying assumptions [was: Jesus the wonder worker]
- Bob Schacht wrote:
> You seem to write as one committed to the literary world as if it is thewrite
> only representation of reality: The world of the text is the world. I
> as an anthropologist, for whom written texts are only a portion ofreality,
> and a rather limited portion at that. We know from virtually every cultureshould
> on earth that stories are passed from one generation to another; why
> first century Galilee, Samaria and Judea be any different? Both authorialexpectations.
> creativity and oral tradition should be part of the fabric of our
>No argument with your last point, Bob. In fact, I would argue that it is not
even a matter of both/and. For authorial creativity must be recognized even
in oral tradition. As any close study of folklore will show, even the most
stable oral forms for preservation & transmission of information are not
immutable. Variations in detail, wording, etc. can occur in even proverbs &
poetry. Self-contained anecdotes allow for even more variation, as any form
critic who has compared the multiply attested parables, pronouncement &
miracle stories in the gospel tradition would readily concede. And the
longer the narration the greater the room for variation with each
Any tradition is vulnerable to mutation. And since the human ear is not an
infallible proof-reader any more than the human eye, many mutations in
traditional material are accepted & repeated for generations without any
consciousness on the part of those involved in the process of progressive
development of that tradition that they had introduced any substantive
changes. It is my job as an intellectual historian to note & track such
trajectories that continue to occur even after the tradition has been
reduced to a definitive fixed form in a text. For every time that text is
read aloud or copied it is open to mutation. Even silent reading of the same
text stimulates differing impressions & associations in the minds of
different individuals. That's why even the adoption of a scriptural canon &
creed did not & could not put an end to doctrinal disputes among those who
firmly believed that they were defending the same tradition.
The human mind is not a xerox machine but rather a voracious vacuum that
sweeps up information from everywhere & spews it out in combinations & forms
that are seldom *exactly identical* to the forms in which it was received.
In dealing with oral tradition it is difficult, if not impossible, to
determine exactly where any particular element came from or exactly when it
was introduced into the trajectory of mouth to ear communication. For no
human being can prove that s/he has heard & repeated exactly what another
(or even oneself) has previously said, even though one may be absolutely
convinced that one is passing on information unchanged.
Only when information has been committed to writing can one begin to trace a
tradition to any certain point. Given the demonstrable variation of
basically the same narrative material in extant texts, the further one
retrojects the contents of that text into an unverifiable trajectory of oral
tradition the more tenuous one's tracking & interpretation of the evidence
Admittedly texts preserve only a small segment of even human reality. But,
for better or worse, texts constitute one of the few segments that can be
traced with much precision & certainty. Texts make critical historiography
possible, because they can be compared & analyzed at a level of fine detail
that is unmatched in any other type of artifact or in any oral performance.
But the "world of the text" is most certainly not "the world" of the
historical critic. Nor should the critical historian regard any text as "the
only (or even the best) representation of reality." On the contrary,
critically trained historians should recognize what others often ignore:
that every text describes the world as its author wants readers to see it &
that there is often a gap between the world described by any author &
That is precisely why critical scholars distinguish the images of Jesus in
the gospels from each other & from HJ *tel qu'il etait.* It is recognition
of that fog-filled gap between the evangelists' narratives & the actual
events involving HJ that prevents me, as a historian weaned on Collingwood's
critique of positivism's confusion of narrative with event, from ascribing
to "tradition" material that can be reliably tracked only as far as Mark (or
any other source). *If* there is internal or external evidence that any
element of the Markan narrative probably antedates its composition, I am
more than happy to try to track & reconstruct the traditional *Vorlage.*
(Witness: a career devoted to analyzing the evidence for HJ, Q & SG -- all
of which require meticulous reconstruction of a historical stratum behind
extant texts). As a matter of fact, in the case of many pericopes in Mark
including elements of a core PN, I am convinced that a pre-Markan
"tradition" can be demonstrated. I have even argued in print for the
historicity of some material in Mark (and Q). What I'm not prepared to do,
however, is to postulate, in an uncritical leap of faith, a pre-Markan
"tradition" that extends all the way back to HJ & accurately reflects the
details of historical events in which he was involved. For I know too many
historically dubious details in Mark & other gospels to be able to do this.
Bob S. continued:
> Why not demand theI hope I made clear above that I am not arguing against the concept of oral
> same standard of demonstration for authorial creation as for oral
> tradition? There seems to be on this list almost an aversion to fair
> consideration of oral tradition in virtually any form when dealing with NT
> texts (but not, interestingly, in your discussion of the preservation of
> Galilean traditions following Tiglath Pileser's conquest.)
tradition in general (as my arguments for the plausibility of the
preservation of ancient Israelite oral traditions for generations show).
Rather, my objection is to appealing to an undocumentable "tradition" to
retroject the *details* of a narrative text into the events of an earlier
time & space. (I never argued that ancient Israelite traditions were
transmitted unchanged to NT times; nor would I even suggest that any
possible echo of Israelite tradition in the gospels accurately preserved the
details of ancient events). I personally have no aversion to a truly "fair
consideration of oral tradition...when dealing with NT materials"
*providing* that includes a really circumspect analysis of the dynamics &
epistemological limitations of the process of preserving & communicating
information orally. Historically, however, appeals to oral tradition have
been a convenient tool for religious apologetics that has been too often
invoked anachronistically in various religious traditions to present later
innovations as ancient historical data (e.g., the rabbinic claim that their
oral Torah was delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the doctrine of the
immaculate conception, the hadith about Muhammed's heavenly journey, etc.).
This type of appeal has no place in modern critical historical scholarship,
where -- as Theissen argued in the passage I cited in my post last night --
*everything* needs to be evaluated in relationship to the sources.
> I would like a review of the rules of evidence for distinguishingauthorial
> creativity from oral tradition in our earliest sources, that doesn't stackFair enough. While a full review would demand more time & thought than I
> the deck against oral tradition.
can spare right now, how about this:
1. Authorial creativity is likely where the vocabulary, syntax, motifs &
general worldview are characteristic of the author of the text in question &
not of other early Xn sources (e.g., messianic secret in Mark, fulfillment
of Torah & prophets in Matt, light/dark dualism of 4G).
2. Prior oral tradition is probable in pericopes that preserve
(a) identifiable oral formulae (parables, aphorisms, pronouncement stories
(b) material attested in multiple sources that are probably independent,
(c) material that does *not* fit well in the general framework of the text
in which it is preserved &
(d) information that the author of that text tries to correct, explain away
or otherwise qualify.
3. Any other material that is *not* easily distinguishable from the
characteristic theses & style of a given text *may* be derived from earlier
oral tradition but cannot be reliably traced to such.
Color the third category gray.
> I think our assumptions inthem.
> this regard are important, and I thank you for drawing our attention to
>You're welcome. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to correct any
misimpression that I categorically rule out the possiblity of oral tradition
in the formation of gospel materials.
Mahlon H. Smith
Department of Religion
New Brunswick NJ 08901
Synoptic Gospels Primer
Into His Own: Perspective on the World of Jesus