Book Review: Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition by Eric Eve

Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition by Eric Eve, Fortress Press;  Reprint edition (July 1, 2014), 224 pp.

Even though  the Christian can always offer certain dates for the Gospels, it should remembered that there was a gap of time between the ascension of Jesus and when the Gospel authors actually wrote their individual biographies about the life of Jesus.  Therefore, there was  a period where the words and deeds of Jesus were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. The home, the synagogue, and the elementary school was where Jewish people learned how to memorize and recall information such as community prayers. There is  evidence for “oral tradition” language in the New Testament. For example:

If we look at Luke 1:1-4, we see even though Luke was not a direct eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, he says the information he received was given to him by those who were “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (1:2). Luke’s reference to the information as being “handed down” would be understood in a Jewish culture as something a rabbi did when he would “hand over” a body of teaching or legal opinion to his disciple or disciples (Mark 7:3-5).

Paul  employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters in the following places:

Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”

1 Corinthians 11:23: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.

Philippians 4:9: The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

1 Thessalonians 2:13: For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.

2 Thessalonians 2:15: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

In Eric Eve’s book, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition, we find a critique of various scholars who have written on the oral tradition topic. Eve discusses scholars such as Birger Gerhardsson (the rabbinic model), and  Kenneth Baileys model (Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels). Bailey discusses his observations of three types of oral transmission: informal uncontrolled tradition, informal controlled tradition, and formal controlled tradition.

In Bailey’s research, he concluded that the oral culture of the New Testament period can faithfully record and hand down what Jesus would have said. Interestingly enough, prominent New Testament scholars such as James D.G. Dunn have adopted Bailey’s model for oral tradition. Eve critiques Bailey, Dunn (author of Jesus Remembered), Richard Bauckham (author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) Samuel Byrskog (author of Story and History) Richard Horsley, Jonathan Draper, Rafael Rodriguez (author of Structuring Early Christian Memory) and Walter Kelber (The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q). 

Eve is fair handed in offering both the positives and negatives of each model. Regarding defining oral tradition, Eve says “to call something oral tradition is to imply that it has been handed on over a period of time”-pg, 1. He goes onto say “Oral Tradition is to be distinguished from oral history. According to Jan Vansina oral tradition is that which is passed down from one generation to another, or persists over a number of generations, while oral history (or reminiscence) is what you get when you ask eyewitnesses (or those whom they have informed within living memory) for their recollections. To survive, oral tradition has to be both memorable and significant to the society or group that transmits it, which means among other things that it must be shaped in such a way as to allow it to endure.”- pg 1.

Eve shows the strengths and limitations of each model.

Questions that need to be addressed are the following:

1. Can we trust memory?

 2. If there is a oral tradition, what kinds of controls were in place? Were there mechanisms in place to control the passing on of the tradition? 

3. Is the tradition ‘fixed, ‘stable,’ or ‘fluid’? In other words, was the tradition capable of being changed before its final form? If there were witnesses that were the bearers of the tradition, wouldn’t they be interested in stabilizing the tradition?

Eve is correct when he says the following:

It seems equally possible to start with skeptical or with credulous presuppositions about the nature of the Jesus tradition, and arrive at reasonably consistent results. If one approaches the tradition with radical skepticism, then it becomes entirely possible to account for nearly everything in the tradition as late, secondary, unhistorical and shaped by the interests of the Church without obvious contradiction, since any evidence that might potentially challenge one’s skeptical approach can be skeptically dismissed as suspect. Conversely, if one approaches the tradition with broadly credulous presuppositions, than one can consistently appeal to aspects of the tradition (the role of apostolic witnesses in Acts say) that appear to support one’s view”-pg 177-178.

Implications of Oral Tradition for Historical Jesus Research

One might ask what are the implications of oral tradition/oral history for Historical Jesus studies? First of all, from an apologetic perspective, when skeptics try to say the Gospels are dated late and this means that they contain legendary or invented material, we tend to forget there was an oral period. In other words, even if the Gospels were actually written 50-90 A.D. there was an oral phase that proceeded the written phase.

Eve says that Rodriguez and Dale Allison (author of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History) have noted “the project of trying to separate from authentic and inauthentic material is fundamentally misconceived. The workings of memory and oral tradition simply do not allow such a neat separation.”- pg 181.

Some Conclusions About Eve’s Research and Oral Tradition

1. Yes, there was some kind of oral tradition. He says “the evidence seems to suggest that Mark and the other evangelists had access to, and were some extent constrained by earlier traditions and did not invent their own material”- pg 176.

2. Despite all the models that the scholars have out on the table, we still don’t seem to know for sure what conditions were in place to show us whether the tradition is ‘fixed/stable’ or ‘fluid/open to change.’

3. We have no evidence that Jesus was a gifted oral poet contributing to the Jesus tradition; it is an assumption scholars seem quick to adapt.-pg 163.

4.Memory: Memory can be distorted: Eve says some of the Jesus tradition may have come to us through a distorted lens. I think that Bauckham went to great lengths to show the way memory/testimony works in his work. High impact events can be remembered with great accuracy. Eve also says that “the Gospels do contain genuine memories of Jesus, but not everything in the Gospels is a genuine memory in the sense of approaching what we would regard as an objective historical fact”- pg 180.

5. At this point, as Eve says “it seems the oral tradition model has come to be understood in the context of social memory, and it may be that in future research memory will turn out to be a more useful category than oral tradition”- pg 185.

If your’e interested in an overview of oral tradition, this is an excellent, evenhanded treatment.


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