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Form Critics and Oral Tradition

Once it came to be realized that Mark’s Gospel – the earliest of our surviving accounts of Jesus – was driven not purely by historical interests in order to record biographical information with historical accuracy, but was (like the other Gospels) written in order to convey theological ideas in literary guise, the movement to use Mark to write a “Life of Jesus” more or less collapsed on itself, for a time and among most New Testament scholars. What arose from the ashes of this “Quest of the Historical Jesus” could not have been foreseen by its devotees – as often happens in times of disciplinary progress and change.

The big breakthrough came with the work of Karl Ludwig Schmidt (whose most important book was never translated into English, to my knowledge). Schmidt realized that the theologically loaded parts of Mark’s Gospel were not found in the core stories found throughout its account, but in the “framework” for these stories, that is, in the narrative transitions that the author himself provided for moving from one story to the next. (That’s where the “messianic secret” identified by Wrede is found – not in the stories themselves but in the aftermath). This raised the possibility that the authors of the Gospels – who were known by this time not to have been the disciples of Jesus himself – were incorporating stories into their Gospels that they inherited, and that they themselves were merely providing the transitions from one story to the next and making the overall structure of the Gospels so that the stories would cohere into a unified whole.

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The Next Step: Redaction Criticism
More Background on Oral Traditions



  1. Avatar
    Jim  May 23, 2014

    Speaking of oral traditions, I’ve been listening to a recent debate between Zeba Crook and Richard Carrier on the historicity of Jesus (link posted on McGrath’s exploring our matrix blog). At 1 hour 16 minutes, Carrier mentions that you agree with him that Phil 2.5-11 refers to Jesus as pre-existent. I didn’t realize that you learned that info from Richard. 😉 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      Ha! How funny. I agree with *him*!?! That’s good. (Actually, I first started thinking that in roughly 1971 or 1972; he was born in 1969. I first started studying the passage seriously in 1973; I wrote an extended essay on it arguing for this in graduate school in 1979. So, well, you do the math…)

      • Avatar
        toejam  May 25, 2014

        Hmmm… I’ve watched that debate. To be fair to Carrier, I don’t think he was implying that Ehrman only *now* agrees with him on the issue of Phil 2:5-11. He just mentioned Ehrman in passing as an external authority – that Ehrman had discussed the issue in his latest book. If anything, Carrier was simply letting the audience know that his view on Phil 2:5-11 wasn’t something that was far-fetched (Crook had earlier challenged Carrier’s claim that Phil 2:5-11 refered to a pre-existent Jesus).

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  May 23, 2014

    I’ve had several Christian friends who insist that cultures with an oral tradition were faithful in recalling details perfectly. What do you think about that?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      Anthropologists who have actually studied oral cultures have shown that that is absolutely and precisely wrong! The only people who say this are the ones who have not become familiar with what scholars have been saying about it for over 50 years. (There’s not a dispute about this among experts)

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  May 25, 2014

        I’ve also seen scholars who write about literacy in 1st century Palestine, rabbis who had trained followers who wrote down their school of thought and village scribes. The implication is that Jesus’ followers would have been similar and could accurately record his sayings and deeds. However none of what is discussed actually seems relevant to Galilean fishermen. Do you think that Jesus can be compared to a rabbi with trained followers writing down his words and deeds?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

          No, we have no evidence of that happening in the first century. The literacy rates in Palestine at the time were around 3%; virtually no one in rural areas could read and write….

  3. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  May 23, 2014

    If there’s anyone who could give a hop-skip-and-a-jump overview of New Testament scholarship in the tweitieth century and make it thoroughly understandable, it’s Ehrman. Thanks. You have a real talent for this.

  4. Avatar
    TomTerrific  May 23, 2014

    Good info, well presented, Dr. E.

  5. Avatar
    nichael  May 23, 2014

    If I could be so bold as to recommend a book on this topic to other readers here, they might find “The Bible: Now I Get It! : A Form-Criticism Handbook” by Gerhard Lohfink useful.

    A very enjoyable, very accessible introduction to the topic.

  6. Avatar
    toejam  May 23, 2014

    I’m enjoying this series of posts. The history of ‘the Quest’ is almost as fascinating as ‘the Quest’ itself!

  7. Avatar
    Scott4686  May 24, 2014


    I am enjoying this “hop skip and jump” historical lesson over the last few blog posts.. Are these topics covered in your New Testament college text books as well? I would like to learn more about this without necessarily having to jump into the “deep end” of the knowledge stream.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      No, I don’t coer these anywhere really. You might try the book by Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright on the Interpretatoin of the NT as a way to start.

  8. Avatar
    RyanBrown  May 24, 2014

    Is it probable that the gospels weren’t written until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion because the stories simply hadn’t fully developed? I wonder what a gospel written in the 30s CE would have looked like. Perhaps like what we glean of Jesus’ life from Paul’s letters?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      I speculate on what an early Gospel may have looked like in my recent book How Jesus Became God. My guess is that it would have looked very different indeed from the way our current Gospels look.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 24, 2014

    This is extremely interesting, especially the part about “narrative transitions.” If you have not already read it, Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” presents one psychoanalytic view about the “form” of fairy tales. Although Bettelheim was a controversial figure, especially with regard to the etiology of autism, all psychological studies about the transition of fairy tales start with his book.

    • Avatar
      HowardPepper  May 29, 2014

      Ronald, I’m glad you mentioned Bettelheim’s work. I once read at least part of that book… long ago now, but can’t remember much. But I do remember being impressed and I realize it’s definitely worth looking at again. Yes, our understanding about autism is far advanced (and not as psychoanalytically oriented) since that book, but I imagine the insights more broadly are timeless. It may be worth mentioning that Christian Process thinkers, in their balanced interest in science and in strong philosophical foundations, often speak of the need for “Re-enchantment”.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 24, 2014

    P.S. My guess is that you as well as many of your readers, have already read a lot written by Joseph Campbell, but, if not, “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell are good places to start.

  11. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  May 24, 2014

    Is there an opinion from the language on whether the author of Mark was local to where Jesus preached? I keep thinking that the time from Jesus death to the writing of Mark is about the same as John F Kennedy’s death to now. Jesus’ life would have been within the personal memory of the author, wouldn’t it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      Yes, actually it’s just hte opposite. Mark was written in Greek, whereas in Jesus’ locale the language was Aramaic. Mark lived in a different part of the world. Imagine someone for the *first time* writing an account of JFK’s words and deeds today (with no written sources to base the account on!)…

  12. Avatar
    fishician  May 24, 2014

    Do you think the miracle stories are purely theological inventions, or did Jesus have a miracle ministry akin to modern faith healers and exorcists? Or a combination of both: like Jesus praying for the sick, or a large crowd sharing food together, which later was amplified for theological purposes?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      I go back and forth; my sense is that he was known in his lifetime as someone with remarkable abilities like this. Whether he actually *did* anything to deserve it is another quesiton….

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 25, 2014

        Hmm. But haven’t you said elsewhere that if he really was thought of as a miracle worker during his lifetime, there would have been mentions of him in other written sources from the era? The reason the lack of mentions didn’t support the theory that he never existed was that he *wasn’t* really doing anything spectacular.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

          I think what I said was that if he really was healing the sick and raising the dead and feeding 5000 with a few loaves, he would have had a much larger following and would have been more widely noticed.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 26, 2014

        And how do all these thoughts relate to the Gospel interpretations that sought to explain all the “miraculous phenomena” as misunderstood normal happenings? (I’m thinking in particular of their explanation for the feeding of the multitudes being that when Jesus broke out the loaves and fishes, that was a signal to everyone that it was time to eat the lunches they’d brought with them.)

    • Avatar
      kidron  May 25, 2014

      I think that there is possible connections between some of the miracle stories and actual historical events. For example, the miracle story of the feeding of the five thousand most likely had its origin not in Jesus but in Queen Helen and her feeding of the many Jews who were caught up in the famine in Jerusalem. It is also possible that the stories of Paul raising money for the poor in Jerusalem also are tied to this contribution of money by Helen and her sons to buy grain and figs from Egypt for this same historical event. And even further you can add the story of Phillip and the Eunuch to this same historical kernel.

      • Avatar
        HowardPepper  May 29, 2014

        As to “stories of Paul raising money…”, he speaks of this directly himself, in the “genuine” epistles, so that is apparently not mere conflated story. And it makes sense in his situation and his motivations… a newly released finely illustrated documentary film (on DVD) on this is “A Polite Bribe” by Robert Orlando… can be bought online.

  13. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 24, 2014

    This is great stuff! Very interesting.
    I’m sure you’ll never run out of things to write about in the blog. I, on the other hand, may run out of brain capacity soon…

  14. Avatar
    JBSeth1  May 24, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    In his book, “Jesus for the Non-Religious”, John Shelby Spong states an interesting approach to what he believes happened during the “oral tradition”. He says that during the “oral tradition” the stories of Jesus were told “exclusively” inside the Jewish synagogue. He goes on to explain why he believes this to be true. In his explanation he explains that in many cases the very words written in the 3 synoptic gospels are those taken directly out of the Jewish scriptures, right from the very beginning words of Mark regarding the “good news”. Finally he references Acts 13:13 – 16, which talks about how Paul preached about Jesus in the synagogue. I know he’s not a historian, but he presents an interesting argument for his case.

    I have noticed in several of your books that when you talk about the “oral tradition” you typically explain that during this time period, people passed on the stories about Jesus via word of mouth from husband to wife, neighbor to neighbor to neighbor, etc. but it seems to me you never mention anything one way or the other about whether this also occurred in the Jewish synagogue.

    To me, a layman in all of this, it seems that it would have taken place both inside and outside the Jewish synagogue.

    I was wondering, do todays historical scholars believe that during the oral tradition, the stories of Jesus were not discussed in the Jewish synagogues? If so, I was wondering if you could briefly explain why?

    Thank you


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      Well, there’s no way the traditions about Jesus were told *only* in synagogues. Absolutely no way. They certainly were sometimes. But I don’t think we have any way of knowing which stories were told there, where, or when…..

  15. Avatar
    Christian  May 24, 2014

    Is there a book on the history of NT studies, like there are on the history of the history of philosophy?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      A classic is Werner Georg Kummel, The new Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. A recent fuller account is the three volume History of NT REsearch by William Baird.

  16. Avatar
    richard gills  May 25, 2014

    Dr Ehrman, you wrote ,

    …and they came up with stories about Jesus that could justify their own approach to the Sabbath based on clever sayings of their master himself…

    jesus uses the story from 1 Samuel 21 to justify his actions on the sabbath. notice in the next chapter god allowed the whole village to be slaughtered? the christians who were cooking up arguments to justify thier own approach weren’t interesting in the next chapter, right?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      Well, Christians in support of the book of Revelation very much think that God is willing to slaughter not just a village but the entire world of those who do not line up with him!

  17. Robertus
    Robertus  May 25, 2014

    James Crossley says social memory studies are ‘form criticism in drag’.

  18. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 25, 2014

    I can understand how the “form critics” interpreted the oral traditions about Jesus’s arguing with other Jews about rules and regulations. Claiming they were really about situations facing the early Christians meant to hear the stories.

    But how did they fit the “miraculous healing” traditions into that pattern?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

      Different form critics have different understandings how different forms of stories functoined. But one way such stories almost certainly would have functoined was in evangelism — convincing non-believers of the superiority of Jesus.

  19. Avatar
    richard gills  May 26, 2014

    could the pharisee’s have used the next chapter to refute jesus and tell him that disobedience caused god to slaughter the whole village?

  20. Avatar
    TomTerrific  May 26, 2014

    Bart Ehrman May 26, 2014
    My view is that readers can use texts just about any way that suits their purposes.


    “Can” and do!

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