Milman Parry and Oral Transmission of the Gospels

This afternoon I went to the library to borrow a copy of the collection of Milman Parry’s work that appears in The Making of Homeric Verse and the librarian who checked it out for me commented that it was a fairly hefty book on a topic about which arguably little could be known. He also wanted to know if I thought it had anything to do with the material I’m working on (which he knows to be the Gospel of Thomas).

When I said that it was one of the classics on oral transmission and that the gospels are thought to have been transmitted orally for years before they were written down, he said “Well, yes, but Homeric verse is poetry and surely there are significant differences between the kinds of things you’d use to flesh out the story line in poetry and prose?” This is something that had also occurred to me and is part of the reason for my failure to read Parry before this, despite my interest in oral transmission.

That and the fact that Parry is on reserve in our library which means that during term time you have to compete against undergrads for access and can only take it out of the library overnight. During the holidays, however, you can liberate it from the library after 4 pm on Friday and not have to have it back until 9 am on Monday because the library is closed on the weekend. There are occasional advantages to the reduction in library services when the undergrads are away!

So, this weekend I plan to read Parry, or at least some of it, and try to decide for myself how much of his work on oral transmission of Homeric poetry has any direct application to the oral transmission of the gospels. Of course, seeing I’m also leading worship on Sunday morning and don’t have it fully prepared yet, I may need to borrow Parry again next weekend. Fortunately, normal library hours don’t resume until 18 February. I don’t imagine I’ll come up with any earth-shattering insights, but I will have read it, which, as noted in my last post and James’ response, is the important thing. 🙂


7 thoughts on “Milman Parry and Oral Transmission of the Gospels

  1. Perry is worth having read. I believe his work was originally an M.A. thesis; he later further developed it for his Ph.D. As I recall some of his field work for comparative material was from 20th c European (was it in the former Yugoslavia? or Finnland?–it’s been a long time since I read it) oral tradition.

    There are obviously stock epithets and other line fillers for filling out a line of hexameter poetry:
    dios odysseus; polyphloisboia thalassa; zeus hypsibrematos

    I don’t know if we have anything comparable in the gospels. There are the things noticed in form criticism: stock elements in a healing pericope for example (including sometimes the exact words spoken in Aramaic–I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that we have talitha koumi in the gospel and Peter would have said Tabitha koumi in Acts–although the latter is preserved in Greek).

    I book I haven’t yet read, but probably worth looking at is Jeffrey Tigay’s Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism–it relates more to Heb Bible and ANE studies–but it might be worth comparing because in much ANE literature, esp Gilgamesh we have a “clay trail” of various written editions, but also the assumption that there must have been some parallel oral transmission.

  2. I didn’t get very far into Parry last weekend. I will have to borrow the book again this weekend, but my understanding is that he did his field work in Turkey and Albert Lord (Singer of Tales) was the one who worked in Yugoslavia.

    I need to try not to get too far side-tracked from my text into oral transmission and eyewitness accounts, both of which fascinate me, but Tigay sounds worth looking at. Thanks.

  3. I hope that this is better late than never: there’s a helpful overview of oral literary studies at Harvard at

    I’m interested a bit in the Parry/Lord studies as well. I read the major works about ten years ago, but I’m coming back to them in response to their misuse (in my opinion) in support of the oral traditions “response” to the synoptic problem.

  4. Judy,

    Sorry I didn’t answer your email, but, yes, the content of the website I mentioned is identical (verbatim) with that which you refer to.

    Are you aware of Lord’s attempt to address the synoptic problem directly? I’m at work at the moment, so I can’t give the exact reference, but he was invited, in the 1970’s (I think), to a conference on the synoptic problem, at which he applied his ideas to the gospels.

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