Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 19
Chapter 10. Models of Oral Tradition
‘The main purpose of this chapter and the next is to consider the implications of putting the eyewitnesses back into the picture [of theories concerning oral tradition], not merely as the original sources of Gospel traditions, but as people who remained accessible sources and authoritative guarantors of their own testimony throughout the period between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels’.This project involves setting the role of eyewitnesses in the broader context of the nature of the transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church, and focuses, for now, on the Synoptics ‘since it is generally agreed that the Gospel of John is a special case’ (for which see chapter 14-16). To do this, Bauckham analyses the three main models of oral tradition, namely those associated with Rudolf Bultmann, Birger Gerhardsson and Kenneth Bailey. After summarising the history of ‘form critical’ scholarship, its significant insights, its theories concerning the original ‘form’ of an oral tradition, its stress on Sitz im Leben, anonymous transmission and the emphasis given to the supposed analogy of Jesus tradition with folk literature, Bauckham launches a devastating attack on ‘Form Criticism’. He concludes: ‘There is no reason to believe that the oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann envisaged it’. However, it is not merely Bultmann that concerns Bauckham, but the shadow of form criticism which still darkens much NT scholarship, namely ‘the largely unexamined impression that many scholars - and probably even more students - still entertain: the impression of a long period of creative development of the traditions before they attained written form in the Gospels’ (249).
The ‘Scandinavian alternative’ of Bauckham’s subtitle refers to Gerhardsson’s contribution in his book Memory and Manuscript (1961). This model, based on a study of oral transmission in rabbinic Judaism, placed more emphasis upon memorisation and mnemonic techniques and thus posited more control in the transmission of tradition. Noting more negative scholarly evaluations of this work, Bauckham is quick to point out how unfair some criticism has been. Nevertheless, he turns quickly to assess the contribution of Bailey, a potential middle way between Bultmann and Gerhardsson, and discusses his threefold typology (informal uncontrolled - informal controlled - formal controlled). To the possible surprise of some, Bauckham has a fair amount to say in critique of the Bailey typology, and Dunn’s adoption of the ‘informal controlled’ model. Bauckham distinguishes two questions that Dunn muddles together, namely ‘who does the controlling, the community or specified individuals?’ and ‘how is this control exercised?’. This leads to the observation that the matter of stability and flexibility is really a third factor besides controlled or uncontrolled, formal or informal. Hence Bauckham can argue that ‘the threefold typology has probably had a somewhat misleading effect on scholars who favour Bailey’s informal controlled tradition as the best analogy for the Gospel tradition’ (258). Indeed, despite the merits of Bailey’s model, it leaves important questions unanswered, especially as it relates to the role of eyewitnesses in the earliest Christian communities – questions provoked all the more urgently by Dunn’s treatment of oral tradition.
Bauckham sets out the questions that need attention in the following way:
‘(1) Was the tradition controlled in any way? (1a) For what reasons would control over the tradition have been thought necessary?Questions 1, 1a and 2 will be addressed in the following chapter, while question 4 involves direct interaction with the contention of Bauckham’s book.
(2) If the tradition was controlled, what were the mechanisms of control?
(3) Were different kinds or aspects of traditions treated differently with regard to the degree of flexibility permitted? (3a) What was the relative balance of stability and flexibility in the treatment of these different kinds or aspects of traditions?
(4) How are the Gospels related to the oral tradition?’ (258).
However, before finishing this chapter, Bauckham presses the point that neither Bailey nor Dunn have explored the matter of eyewitnesses in sufficient depth. They confuse matters and ignore important distinctions (such a between minor eyewitnesses and those who were ‘from the beginning’). To an extent they even continue to propagate the form critical picture of an oral tradition for which eyewitnesses were only a starting point. While Dunn in particular has made some progress in terms of the questions Bauckham draws attention to, in the next two chapters Bauckham will develop appropriate solutions in far more detail, and seek to understand how eyewitnesses play a part in the picture.