Rodríguez: Oral Tradition and the New Testament

Media of Oral Tradition and the New TestamentSo, here is the completed version of the post which appeared earlier in very unfinished form:

Between putting information about the parable of the banquet into the relevant chapter of my thesis, I have been reading Rafael Rodríguez’s Oral tradition and the New Testament: a guide for the perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). This book is very new, as you can see from the publication date, and is part of the Bloomsbury series about which they say:

Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers can find especially challenging. Concentrating specifically on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.

I think that Rafael has succeeded in meeting this brief. In less than 150 pages (counting the endnotes) he has provided a glossary of the terms commonly used in the area (‘The what of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the contribution of the important thinkers (‘The who of oral tradition and NT studies’), an overview of the usual model for understanding oral tradition in NT studies, together with a critique of it and a proposal for a better one (‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’) and four examples of the application of the model in NT texts (‘The why oral tradition and NT studies’). The four examples he uses are the relationship between the Synoptics, the prologue from Gospel according to John, Paul’s use of Moses, and ascribing Christ as king in Revelation.

For me, the most important part of the book is chapter 4 – ‘The how of oral tradition and NT studies’ in which he outlines the most visible approach to the question of oral tradition and the NT – that which is based on Werner Kelber’s early work together with that of Joanna Dewey and Pieter Botha and others – critiques it and proposes a different model. The usual approach, which he calls the morphological approach, postulates that orality has certain identifiable characteristics and that once a researcher finds these s/he can safely assume that they are evidence of residual oral tradition. The characteristics are based on Walter Ong’s list of nine psychodynamics of orality, but, as Rafael points out, many of these characteristics are also characteristics of good written communication.  He argues, following John Miles Foley, that we need to shift our focus from what an oral-derived text looks like to how an oral-derived text generates meaning and that traditional verbal art exists in a range of different forms from Oral Performance, which was composed orally, performed orally and received aurally to Written Oral Poems which were composed, performed and received in written form. If I understand him correctly, he is not arguing that the characteristics of oral-derived text should be completely ignored, just that they should not take centre stage.  This approach, which he refers to as the contextual approach, requires us to view

the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed and were written by authors, recited by lectors (and/or oral performers), and received by audiences (and/or readers). A contextual approach to oral tradition and the NT fundamentally changes the questions media critics ask and the issues involved in answering those questions. (p 72)

The other parts of the book are also interesting and valuable. He doesn’t just summarize the contributions of the various players – he also highlights strengths and weaknesses in their work, and I found myself agreeing with his assessments. In the process of reading this chapter, I met one or two people whose work I have not read and found that there are one or two things that ‘everybody knows’ about orality that are not actually true – for example, that all reading in antiquity was reading aloud!! I found the fact that there were four different examples of applications of the method helpful, because each required a somewhat different approach. I now need to think about how it might apply to my work with Gos Thom. What I have noticed in the parable of the banquet is that the way that Thomas tells it seems much more like something that is designed to be remembered and retold orally than are either Luke or Matthew’s versions. It reminds me quite a bit of the Three Little Pigs, where the words of the pigs and the wolf are stable and the sequence of events is stable, but the narrative that surrounds the pigs’ and the wolf’s activity is left to the creative imagination of individual storytellers. The words of the host’s servant are stable and the response of the invitees is set in a stable format, except for the second invitation, which suggests to me editing by another person later and also that the original author of this version of the parable was interested in having it easily remembered by an oral tradent – but perhaps I am stuck in the morphological model. 🙂

The thing that I found most problematic is not a content issue, but a formatting one, and one I need to learn to live with if I want to buy relatively cheap books: I hate endnotes! I never know which chapter I’m reading without thumbing back to the beginning of it, so finding the relevant note in the back of the book is tedious. Other than that, I thought that some of the definitions in the glossary were unnecessarily complex – but the fact that some readers would not be happy with all the definitions was something that Rafael expected. I am familiar with the words biosphere and homeostasis from my previous studies in the sciences and I did not think that they were used particularly differently in the field of oral tradition, but I found that I needed to read them through several times in order to make sure that I was right.

This is a book that I am glad that I bought. It provides a good overview of the field and helped me to put together some things that have been roaming free in my mind for some time, as well as showing me some new and interesting things. And it wasn’t as peripheral to my current chapter as I had feared, so reading it could count as working on my thesis. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Rodríguez: Oral Tradition and the New Testament

  1. Thanks for this review, Judy. Btw it didn’t come to me via e-mail, as your posts usually do, but I noticed your update note on previous “apology” post that you’d finished your review. I have Rodriguez’s book on order and will read it with your remarks as background. I look forward to asking ‘new’ questions of NT texts based on an understanding of its oral context. N.b., wouldn’t Acts 20: 35 count as a written report of an oral performance of a Jesus tradition?

  2. Hi Paul,
    Yes, I think Acts 20:35 would count as a written report of an oral performance of a Jesus tradition. Actually, On thinking about this and the other things by Rafael that I’ve read recently, I would like to alter his questions. He asks:
    Why would an author want to produce this image? How would it be accepted? Why did it work?
    Given what we know about both individual and community memory, I think I would rather ask: Why would the author/his community remember the event in this way? (and then the other two) But I also think we need to ask whether those things that are commonly called parallels are actually different versions/performances/memories of the same story or whether they are actually different stories with similar themes. And I think we need to ask this for every story.

    • Thanks Judy. Yours and Rodriguez’s questions for the texts we’re interested in require thought on my part as to how to answer them, since I don’t have much experience with social memory theory and oral transmission theory. Your last question concerning parallel passages seems to me a consequence of looking at NT era writings in the new way that goes with these new interpretive strategies. I guess I have some familiarity with these new perspectives through my reading of DeConick, Kelber and Girhardsson, but not enough. I’m becoming more eager to read Rodriguez’s new book!

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