Community as Author (part 1: reboot)

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My argument "Community as author" postulates that if we don;t know the individual authors of the gospels we can still look to the communities that produced the gospels as the authors because they contained not only the actual authors/redactors but many eye witnesses, to the events of Jesus' life. 

Luke Timothy Johnson says that scholar now think more in terms of communities producing Gospels rather than  si much in terms of individual authors, moreover, the communities rose up fast each with it's own set of witnesses:

L.T. Johnson (The Writtings of the New TestamentFortress Press 1986)

"Christianity was a movement of Social groups. The social setting for the tradition is intrinsic to the nature of the movement. Acts shows how rapidly the message spread across vast geographic areas. Within seven or eight years separate communities existed in Jerusalem,Judea, Sameria, and Syria. In 20 years there were communities in Cyprus and Asia Minor; after twenty five years communities flourished throughout Macedonia, Achia, possibly Dalmatia.Thirty years after Jesus as killed there was a Christian community in Rome."(117)

That involves a discussion of the role or oral tradition in the making of the gospels because it was oral tradition that persevered the testimony of the  eye witnesses in the gap between the events and the writing of the gospels. Modern liberal theology has given the name "form criticism" to this discussion.

Form criticism is a philosophy and methodology of Biblical criticism, "Criticism" in relation to the Bible does not mean talking about how bad the Bible is (too long and hard to understand) but refers to a means of analysis in a systematic sense. Form criticism seeks to analyze the historical development of the New Testament by understanding the forms in which the writing developed. The major scholars of that school were Rudolph Bultmann (1584-1976) and Martin Franz Dibelius (1883-1947). The from critics understood the Gospels as folk lore, their major paradigm for this view was the collection of German folk songs which were popular for intellectuals and poets in the 18th century.  They assumed the process was like that of European folklore. [1]

We can see the Folkloric model  is operative today.  In his discussion of oral tradition in the origins of Christianity Michael White speaks of the centrality of  "story telling."
Story telling was at the center of the beginnings of the Jesus movement. And I think we're right to call it the Jesus movement here because if we think of it as Christianity, that is, from the perspective of the kind of movement and institutional religion that it would become a few hundred years later, we will miss the flavor of those earliest years of the kind of crude and rough beginnings, the small enclaves trying to keep the memory alive, and more than that, trying to understand what this Jesus meant for them. That's really the function of the story's a way for them to articulate their understanding of Jesus. And in the process of story telling, when we recognize it as a living part of the development of the tradition, we're watching them define Jesus for themselves. At that moment we have caught an authentic and maybe one of the most historically significant parts of the development of Christianity.[2]
Yet White does not discount historical basis of the stories, He asserts that those aspects of the history that revitalized the movement would have been passed on. "It's rather clear from the way that the stories develop in the gospels that the Christians who are writing the gospels a generation after the death of Jesus are doing so from a stock of oral memory, that is, stories that had been passed down to probably by followers."[3]

Koester argues, however, that the historical memories are latter tropes, the latter generations reach back for the earlier memories while the first things to be enshrined  in oral traditions are doctrinal and related to the emotive aspects. 

Now what happens as an oral tradition arises about an historical event or an historical person is that, strangely enough, the first oral tradition is not an attempt to remember exactly what happened, but is rather a return into the symbols of the tradition that could explain an event. Therefore, one has to imagine that legend and myth and hymn and prayer are the vehicles in which oral traditions develop. The move into a formulated tradition that looks as if it was a description of the actual historical events is actually the end result of such a development. Only the later writer would bring a report about Jesus' suffering that has the semblance of the report of the actual events, one after another, that happened.[4]

His major example is the hymn on the Resurrected Christ In Philippians 2, Paul is reaching back to one of the earliest bits of church literary.[5] The  problem with such examples is that Paul was not trying to preserve or document the history of the community at that point he was using the hymn to make a rhetorical point. That proves nothing about the development of historical memory in oral tradition in the Gospels.The problem is that the development of for, criticism assumed a story telling mode; based European folklore. It doesn't even consider the way oral tradition was handled in ancinet Palestine. As Bauckham tells us: 
... The form critics at the beginning of the 20th century were working with probably the best models of oral tradition that were around at the time. But we now know a great deal more about oral tradition. They were reliant, mostly, on the way that folk tales were transmitted in European history. And of course, these are the kind of things that were passed down over centuries. It's a very different process, really, from the transmission of gospel traditions over a few decades in the New Testament period. Folk tales were also, by definition, fictional material, and people who passed on fictional material were often interested in creative development of it. They didn't feel bound to transmit material accurately. But we now know far more about oral tradition. We have studies of oral tradition from all societies all over the world, Africa and parts of Asia, and so forth, lots of data about how oral traditions work. And one of things we can say is… Actually, there is very little we can say about oral tradition in general.[6]
The first notion about oral tradition that needs to be discarded is the idea that it's like playing "the telephone game." Oral tradition is not wild rumors or randomly spread. It;s not like the so called "telephone game" because that game requires whispers and there are no  controls on what is said. There were most probably controls, because the Jews had a controlled version of oral tradition, through which the Torah was handed down.[7]

  This notion is basically alluded to by White: "So we have to imagine the followers of Jesus getting together around the dinner table probably and talking about their memories, maybe it was the memory of something he actually said once upon a time or maybe it was a glimpse of an image that they had of him."[8] What I am proposing is more formalist. The communal aspects of the early church often get remarked upon, the commune phrase, the communist phase of the gospel. The book of acts comments upon how that period played out: 

Acts 2:42-47 

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. 43 Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46 And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added those being saved to them.
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching," I have an image of Peter standing up among them and saying  today class we  are going to talk about Christian dating. Tomorrow we will cover voting Republican," It's very probable that memorizing some version of the account of the resurrection was part of  the Apostle's teachings. 
Stephen Neil wrote  "No one is likely to deny that a tradition that is being handed on by word of mouth is likely to undergo modification. This is bound to happen, unless the tradition has been rigidly formulated and has been learned with careful safeguard against the intrusion of error" Neil adds in a fn: "This is exactly the way in which the tradition was handed on among the JewsIt is precisely on this ground that Scandinavian scholar H. Risenfeld in an essay entitled 'The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings' (1957) has passed some rather severe strictures on the form cuticle method."[9]  
Oral tradition in first-century Judaism was not uncontrolled as was/is often assumed, based on comparisons with non-Jewish models. B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans  Authenticating the Activities of Jesus

...[T]he early form criticism tied the theory of oral transmission to the conjecture that Gospel traditions were mediated like folk traditions, being freely altered and even created ad hoc by various and sundry wandering charismatic jackleg preachers. This view, however, was rooted more in the eighteenth century romanticism of J. G. Herder than in an understanding of the handling of religious tradition in first-century Judaism. As O. Cullmann, B. Gerhardsson, H. Riesenfeld and R. Riesner have demonstrated, [22] the Judaism of the period treated such traditions very carefully, and the New Testament writers in numerous passages applied to apostolic traditions the same technical terminology found elsewhere in Judaism for 'delivering', 'receiving', 'learning', 'holding', 'keeping', and 'guarding', the traditioned 'teaching'. [23] In this way they both identified their traditions as 'holy word' and showed their concern for a careful and ordered transmission of it. The word and work of Jesus were an important albeit distinct part of these apostolic traditions. 

Luke used one of the same technical terms, speaking of eyewitnesses who 'delivered to us' the things contained in his Gospel and about which his patron Theophilus had been instructed. Similarly, the amanuenses or co-worker-secretaries who composed the Gospel of John speak of the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, 'who is witnessing concerning these things and who wrote these things', as an eyewitness and a member of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples.[24] In the same connection it is not insignificant that those to whom Jesus entrusted his teachings are not called 'preachers' but 'pupils' and 'apostles', semi-technical terms for those who represent and mediate the teachings and instructions of their mentor or principal.(corrosponding fn for Childton and evans")[10]

In his contribution to the Chilton book,  N.T. Wright says:

Communities that live in an oral culture tend to be story-telling communities. They sit around in long evenings telling and listening to stories--the same stories, over and over again. Such stories, especially when they are involved with memorable happenings that have determined in some way the existence and life of the particular group in question, acquire a fairly fixed form, down to precise phraseology (in narrative as well as in recorded speech), extremely early in their life--often within a day or so of the original incident taking place. They retain that form, and phraseology, as long as they are told. Each village and community has its recognized storytellers, the accredited bearers of its traditions; but the whole community knows the stories by heart, and if the teller varies them even slightly they will let him know in no uncertain terms. This matters quite a lot in cultures where, to this day, the desire to avoid 'shame' is a powerful motivation. 
"Such cultures do also repeat, and hence transmit, proverbs, and pithy sayings. Indeed, they tend to know far more proverbs than the orally starved modern Western world. But the circulation of such individual sayings is only the tip of the iceberg; the rest is narrative, narrative with embedded dialogue, heard, repeated again and again within minutes, hours and days of the original incident, and fixed in memories the like of which few in the modern Western world can imagine. The storyteller in such a culture has no license to invent or adapt at will. The less important the story, the more the entire community, in a process that is informal but very effective, will keep a close watch on the precise form and wording with which the story is told.[11]
Oral tradition is a carefully controlled process. The Jews understood how to learn the words of their teachers and preserve them just as they were spoken. All oral cultures understand how to control the process."No one is likely to deny that a tradition that is being handed on by word of mouth is likely to undergo modification. This is bound to happen, [12] Neil adds in a fn: IT is precisely on this ground that Scandinavian scholar in an essay entitled "The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings" (1957) has passed some rather severe strictures on the form critical method.[13] N. T. Wright, critiquing the Jesus Seminar's view of oral tradition as uncontrolled and informal based on some irrelevant research done in modern Western non-oral societies writes:"Against this whole line of thought we must set the serious study of genuinely oral traditions that has gone on in various quarters recently. [14]  Jerome Neyrey says,see also- Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, - See also John Pilch, Jerome Neyrey, and David deSilva. [15]

A great review of oral transmission within the gospels can be found in James D.G. Dunn's Jesus Remembered. p. 192-210 is a useful review of the progress from the form critics to now, and from 210ff he makes some proposals about the synoptics and oral narratives.

Personally, I find the work of Birger Gerhardsson quite well done and would recommend the relatively small book The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition for those interested in early Christian oral transmission. Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony is very interesting and has opened (or in other cases, reopened) discussions.

For anyone interested, I think journal articles are probably easier to obtain, some of which do not require database access:

from the Dunn article above: Abstract

The literary mindset (‘default setting’) of modern Western culture prevents those trained in that culture from recognizing that oral cultures operate differently. The classic solution to the Synoptic problem, and the chief alternatives, have envisaged the relationships between the Gospel traditions in almost exclusively literary terms. But the earliest phase of transmission of the Jesus tradition was without doubt predominantly by word of mouth. And recent studies of oral cultures provide several characteristic features of oral tradition. Much of the Synoptic tradition, even in its present form, reflects in particular the combination of stability and flexibility so characteristic of the performances of oral tradition. Re-envisaging the early transmission of the Jesus tradition therefore requires us to recognize that the literary paradigm (including a clearly delineated Q document) is too restrictive in the range of possible explanations it offers for the diverse/divergent character of Synoptic parallels. Variation in detail may simply attest the character of oral performance rather than constituting evidence of literary redaction.


[1] Richard Bauckham, "A  Critique  of Form Criticism of The Gospels." Third Millennium Ministries, website,  no date listed.
(accessed 2/2/18)
these guys have video to down load

Richard Bauckham (M.A., Ph.D. Cambridge; F.B.A.; F.R.S.E) is a widely published scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament.

[2] L. Michael White, "The Importance of Oral Tradition,"  Frontline:   Jesus to Christ. Originally an episode on a series on PBS, On line version published by oriignally puibloished 1998, online copywriter 2014. (accessed 11/10/18)

White is Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

[3] Ibid

[4] Helmutt Koester, Ibid,

Helmutt Koester (December 18, 1926-January 1, 2016) was:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School

[5] Ibid

[6] Richard Bauckham, "A Critique of Form Criticism of The Gospels." op cit

[7]Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2004. p lv

[8] Michael White, op cit.

[9] Stephen Neil, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1961, London: University of Oxford Press, 1964, 250. 

[10]B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans* (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus(NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998): 53-55.

Chilton and Evens foot notes:

22. O. Cullmann, "The Tradition," in Cullmann, The Early Church (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956) 55-99; B. Gerhardsson The Origins of the Gospel Traditions (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979); H. Riesenfeld The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 1-29; Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer.
23. Rom 6:17; 16:17; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Phil 4:9; Col 2:6-7; 2 Thess
24. John 19:35; 21:24-25; cf. 13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:1-10; 21:7, 21-23. Cf. J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976) 298-311. 25. On parallels with other rabbis and their disciples and other Jewish usage cf. Mark 2:18 = Luke 5:33; K.H. Rengstorf TDNT 1 (1964) 412-43;.TDNT 4 (1967) 431-55.

[11] N.T. Wright, "Five Gospels But No Gospel,"Authenticating the Activities of Jesus,Netherlands: Knoinklijke Brill ed. Bruce D. Chilton, Craig A. Evans, 1999, 112-113 

[12] Stephen Neil op cit 250

[13] Ibid

[14] NT Wright, op cit, 112-113

He also sights

H. Wansbrough (ed.), Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition (JSNTSup 64; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), referring to a large amount of earlier work; Bailey, "Informal Controlled Oral Tradition," 34-54. The following discussion depends on these and similar studies, and builds on Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 418-43; and idem, Jesus and the Victory of God, 133-37.

[15]  Jerome Neyrey, "Group Orientation." Handbook of Biblical Social Values  John Pilch and Bruce Malina.   2000, 94-97.