Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

I am currently reading in Rafael Rodríguez’s Structuring early Christian memory (London: T & T Clark, 2009). I don’t intend to write a formal review because I really am trying to complete a chapter of my thesis and make a good start on the next in the next week and a half, and much of the book has little relevance to these two chapters. I am, however, enthusiastic about his section on oral transmission – the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Performance, Structure, Meaning and Text’. I also found the previous chapter on social memory useful and interesting, but that’s not what I want to reflect on.

Rafael reminds us that the oral traditions on which the written gospels are based were not verbatim reproductions of previous performances and that the written gospels are neither verbatim dictations of an oral performance of the Jesus tradition nor notes to enable the reproduction of a verbatim re-performance. He says:

When we approach the gospels as primarily related to that hypothetical, abstract construct (the Jesus tradition) and conceive their interrelationships not as editions or redactions of one another but as interdependent, embodied expressions of that abstract tradition, we effect a critical paradigmatic shift that challenges both the methods and the results of previous analyses. The written gospel traditions are not ‘formally bounded, complete items’ (John Miles Foley, 1995. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.: xi); they refer to and incorporate the abstract Jesus tradition they instantiate, and they must be read accordingly. The gospels do not refer primarily or exclusively to other ‘formally bounded, complete items’, that is, to other written gospels or sources.

We thus find ourselves reading our texts not primarily in reference to other extant texts, which have a concrete, tangible existence, but in reference to a hypothetical construct: the abstract, untextualizable Jesus tradition. (p 90)

If we do this:

we begin to perceive the problem inherent in the scholarship that establishes one expression of the Jesus tradition (e. g., Mark or Q) as the standard against which other expressions are read simply on the basis that Mark or Q is the ‘earliest’ gospel or is ‘closest to the historical Jesus’…The texts of the gospels … for all their similarities and differences, reference the same traditional corpus, though in different ways, for different purposes, and, often, to different ends. (p 91)

This makes a great deal of sense to me. It is quite clear that there are sections of the synoptics where the level of verbatim correspondence indicates that there is a textual relationship between the two/three texts, but the fact that an author clearly had access to a written version of another gospel does not necessarily mean that he decided to alter the sections where it is different simply for his own theological purposes. Rather, it might well have differed from the version of the oral tradition with which he (and his community) was (were) familiar so that he felt the need to correct it – and this leads to the reception of the texts.

Rafael says:

New Testament research needs to broaden its focus from the texts’ composition to consider the texts’ reception. Both the evangelists and their audiences would have been familiar with and participants in oral performances of the Jesus tradition. Once the texts of the gospels were committed to writing, is it really likely that those texts represented radical departures from the oral tradition that preceded and continued to develop alongside them? We cannot presume that our texts preserve records of single performances, such that ‘gospel composition’ becomes transcription; still less can we continue to presume that our gospels are the ‘Markan’, ‘Matthean’, or ‘Lukan’ version of the tradition. Rather, our texts were written in the context of oral performances of the Jesus tradition and would have been received by their audiences as performances that, though transformed into written texts, preserved extra-textual references to the Jesus tradition as a whole. (pp 97-7)

In other words, a written text that was provided to a community that knew the oral tradition would not have been well received if its author tried to do a radical reshaping of the tradition, although they were highly unlikely to have objected to somewhat different wording of the stories as long as the punchline was correct.

In looking at the issue of reception, Rafael talks about the fact that the audiences of the oral transmission were familiar with the contexts in which the stories were told – something that is potentially lost once the text is written down and sent away. He suggests that the beginnings of the gospels might well provide cues to the context and how the author intended it to be read (ie in which ‘performance area’ it belonged), picking up on work by Loveday Alexander in this area (see pp 107-9). This certainly makes sense to me, and is the approach I am taking to the Thomas sayings. I think that the fact that the author tells us at the beginning that these are secret sayings and that anyone who finds the meaning of them will not taste death affects how the sayings are read.

One section, however, interests me because I see it differently. Early in the chapter, Rafael says:

Kelber emphasizes performance as the moment of composition: ‘transmission and composition converge in oral performance. Although the speaker used traditional materials, she or he was composing while speaking . . . The idea was not to reproduce what was said previously, but to (re)compose so as to affect the present circumstance.’ (Kelber 1995 ‘Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space’. Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature. Semeia 65. Ed J. Dewey. Atlanta: Scholars Press: 150, citing Lord 1960 The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 5, 101; emphasis added). But why does Kelber oppose ‘reproduc[ing] what was said previously’ with ‘affect[ing] the present’? This opposition is not only unnecessary, it jars against Kelber’s helpful recognition of ‘traditional materials’ in oral performance. (p 83)

To me, Kelber’s statement makes a great deal of sense in terms of what I know of the art of story-telling and also some of the psychological research on human memory and story-telling.  When skilled story-tellers tell a story, they take their outline and recast it in ways that they think will be most effective to achieve the effect the want to evoke from their current audience. They do not tell stories just because they can, but to achieve a particular effect or result. In other words, they tell stories to affect the present circumstance of their hearers. The desired effect might be as simple as to lift the mood of the audience by making them laugh, but it is more likely to be to promote thought about a particular issue as well. They will modify their language and choose which details to emphasize and which to minimize on the basis of the likely interests of the current audience. When I preach on one of the farming parables in a rural setting, I will often re-tell the parable with some added invitations to the audience to picture themselves in the situation, so I will encourage the grain farmers to think about the contrast between their use of huge headers and combine harvesters in contrast to the hand sowing and reaping practised in Jesus’ times; and I will talk in detail about the likely species of weed in the parable of the man who sowed good seed. I think that this is probably the kind of affecting of the present circumstance that Kelber had in mind and I don’t see it as jarring against his recognition of traditional materials in oral performance.

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3 thoughts on “Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels

  1. Pingback: Rodríguez on oral tradition and our understanding of the gospels | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Thanks for this post, Judy. You are contributing to my learning about the elements of oral tradition (e.g., performance, reception) in gospel research. I’m looking forward to Rodriguez’s new book, ‘Oral Tradition and the New Testament’ (Jan. 30, 2014) [already available at Amazon.com], considerably cheaper than his title you are discussing above. The comment above made me aware of ChristianBookBarn.com, which referred me to a bibliogragraphy on social memory at The Jesus Blog (Jan. 18, 2013).

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