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Background to the Interest in Oral Traditions

Just to give a bit of background to the work I’ve just started doing on the question of the oral traditions about Jesus in the years before the Gospels were written, some initial points:

1) I am not, decidedly NOT, the first scholar to think this might be of some interest! On the contrary, it has long been intriguing to scholars, and there are a number of important books that have appeared in recent years, for example, James Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition (just last year!) and, even better known, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (a fat and very important book.) I would make two points about these (and other similar) books: they are not written for general audiences but for scholars, and I fundamentally disagree with lots of their views and claims! My approach will be very different, as, no doubt, will be my conclusions and arguments.

2) I am just at the beginning stages of my work. My plan is to read as extensively as I can over the next three months on the issues of memory (cognitive and neuro-science perspectives, more cognitive than neuro-science, since I’m interested more in the phenomenon than in the brain science that explains it), collective memory (from a sociological perspective), and orality (from anthropological and folkloric perspectives). I’ll then sit back and see what I need to read next. I’ll then read it. I’ll then figure out what the book might look like, and figure out what more I need to read and think about it order to write it. Then I’ll write it. But only if I’m ready.

3) As I pointed out, all this reading is necessary, and all these modern works of scholarship have emerged because, the older view among New Testament scholars, developed in the 1920s – the first time oral tradition was taken with utmost seriousness by scholars – is subscribed to precisely no one today (to my knowledge). This was the view of the form critics. In my last post I indicated that I would say something about them, and here I will do just that. Well, I’ll begin to do that, by giving some necessary background to the background.

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More Background on Oral Traditions
My Other Next Book



  1. Avatar
    bamurray  May 21, 2014

    Have you thought about collaborating with a cognitive scientist on this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

      I have actually; but I’m not sure enough of the book will be about cognitive science to justify it. But I’ll keep thining about it.

  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  May 21, 2014

    Bart, it’s not directly related to what you have written above but ,would you be so kind as to answer the following question please. I’m curious to know if –in the field of biblical scholarship – there are many or any (properly constituted) biblical scholars who are also believing Christians. Do you know any biblical scholars whose academic credentials are every bit as impressive as yours are, who are also believing Christians?

  3. Avatar
    gavriel  May 21, 2014

    As for the problems of “memory”, your point 2, Dale C. Allison Jr. has an interesting opening chapter on memory and method in “Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History” . Your approach will be very different?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

      Yes, it’s a nice and well-documented chapter; and yes, my interests and approach will be very different.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 22, 2014

    The big question for me, so far is how in the world does one find any reliable historical information about the oral tradition?
    I also think one could spend a lot of time reading about memory and not get very far with it helping with these oral tradition questions. But you continue to surprise and amaze me.

  5. Avatar
    toejam  May 22, 2014

    I recently bought James Dunn’s “Jesus, Paul & the Gospels”, but haven’t read it yet. I’ve been tempted a few times to pick up Bauckham’s book, mostly on the recommendation of Christian friends of mine, but I keep resisting because my intuition is telling me it’s going to be heavily apologetical. To be honest, I’m quite skeptical that we can say much about the oral traditions that circulated prior to Mark.

    On a sort-of-related note, what are your views regarding Kloppenborg’s ‘layers’ behind Q? I think it’s one thing to deduce that there was probably some written source shared by Matthew and Luke that we call “Q”, but I think it’s going too far to say that we can reconstruct it to the point of determining its own layers. Surely that is going too far. I can’t help but feel the same regarding the oral traditions behind the gospels – sure, there are good reasons to positing their existence as a likely source, but determining them succinctly separate from their final gospel renderings might be going too far…

    So I look forward to you (and maybe Dunn and Bauckham, if I end up picking up his book) proving me wrong (if indeed I am wrong LOL).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 22, 2014

      I”m afraid I’ve never been persuaded by the layers of Q. It’s a hypothetical document. So how we can establish the multiple layers of a document that we don’t actually have is, well, more than I think possible.

  6. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 23, 2014

    Dear Bart,

    Although I think your writing a book on Paul and his theology are a loss to the general reading public (namely me), either of your two book ideas will more than compensate! Your proposal for a book on “how Christians appropriated the Jewish Scriptures for themselves” would definitely be interesting, but I’m glad you are tending toward the latter book as I’ve already profited by your lectures on that topic (Book 1) in your Teaching Company lectures.

    I think the period you are interested in (30 to 50 CE) has been referred to as the “dark tunnel”, or something like that, by scholars, as there are no records from that time.

    Have you read “Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History” by Dale C. Allison and is it related to your topic? (It is on my reading list.)


  7. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  May 23, 2014

    If you pursue this, would your thesis be that there are no shared sources and that each book is written from a separate oral teadition that is affected by memory flaws?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

      No, I think the Synoptics did share sources. But all sources ultimately go back to oral traditions, so it would be interesting to see what we can say about oral traditions….

      • Avatar
        Pofarmer  May 29, 2014

        So is there anything to, in your opinion, the thought that Mark was pretty much a Greek literary creation, possibly/probably based very loosely on some vague oral tradition, or possibly on the writings of Paul? After all, the Gospel of Mark was said to ne written in Rome, correct? How easy/hard would it have nee for a messianic oral tradition to be transferred from Ancient Palestine to Ancient Rome in some recognizable form? It just seems like so much of the synoptics rely on the Septuagint instead of the torah, and have Greek literary forms, that I think it would be awfully hard to say what part of some obscure oral tradition played into it.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2014

          Mark can’t be “based on” Paul because virtually none of Mark’s stories can be found in Paul. My sense it that it is not based on vague tradition but on lots of available orla traditoins, and that the vast majority of its stories were not made up by the author himself.

          • Avatar
            Pofarmer  May 29, 2014

            I suppose what I mean by “based on” is that it seems like the Gospel of Mark fleshes out the divine Jesus that appeared to Paul. How would you determine if the stories were the Authors or belonged to a previous tradition, especially given the nature of the stories?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 30, 2014

            It’s very difficult! One looks to see if the stories are multiply attested. And if they contain any vocabulary, stylistic features, and themes otherwise foreign to the author who preserves them. And whether they presuppose a different setting from that which appears to be the author’s own. And so on.

          • Avatar
            Pofarmer  May 31, 2014

            Thank you.

  8. cheriq
    cheriq  June 1, 2014

    Something that I’ve found disconcerting has been the accounts of the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both Matthew and Luke accounts speak of his companions sleeping. So, who recorded his ORAL prayer to his Father?

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