I would like to ask Professor Crossan whether he or others have
considered jokes as a possible model for studying the stability of form
and content in oral tradition, and, if so, what conclusions he has
drawn in that regard.
It seems to me that jokes are the closest analogue we have for the
sayings of Jesus as passed down through oral tradition. Like the
parables, jokes are brief sayings whose specific details may vary, but
whose variability is limited by the requirements of the form. While
parable rarely have clear punch lines, yet their effectiveness may be
said similarly to depend on the preservation of certain necessary
Moreover, people tend to object when a joke-teller changes even
incidental details of a familiar joke. Even though a new version may be
just as funny as the old, somebody among the hearers is quite likely to
say, "Well, I heard it like this:" and proceed to tell the traditional,
We know from old joke books that some jokes have been passed down
virtually unchanged through several centuries. Although these jokes are
written down and republished from time to time, I suspect that these
"scribal" versions are not strongly influential in preventing changes in
jokes. I think the form itself imposes a certain conservatism, which is
reinforced by the natural conservatism of the audience: people like to
hear a joke told a certain way.
Now certainly Jesus's parables are far more subtle than most jokes, and
clearly they have been modified by various retellers to serve new
purposes (such as moralising, mystical allegory, etc.); and so the
inherent pressure to preserve the basic form & content seem to be less.
Yet I can't help thinking that jokes are evidence that an oral tradition
might well have preserved the original content of Jesus's sayings rather
more reliably than the evidence of traditional poetry and storytelling
(analyzed to great effect in _The Birth of Christianity_) has led Prof.
Crossan to conclude.
James D. Crutchfield, B.A., J.D., R.S.V.P.
New York City