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More Background on Oral Traditions

Up until the 1920s, critical scholars who were deep into questions of New Testament studies had focused a lot of their attention (not all of it, obviously) on questions of textual criticism (how do we know what the “original” text was?) and source criticism (what are the written sources lying behind the New Testament – especially the Gospels?). The former was a matter of concern largely because it was thought that the words of Scripture were inspired by God – so it was important to know what those words were! The latter was a matter of concern in no small measure because of the intriguing questions themselves (was Mark the first Gospel? Did Matthew and Luke copy it? Did Q exist? and so on) but even more because of the significance of their answers for understanding the historical Jesus. If we want to get back to Jesus, and the later Gospels represent alterations of the traditions about him by later authors, then surely the best procedure is to determine our *earliest* sources. And if Mark is our earliest source, then it is the most historically accurate.

And so, scholars in the second half of the 19th century, especially, wrote numerous “Lives of Jesus” based on the premise that Mark was the earliest and therefore most historically reliable Gospel. This entire episode in historical Jesus scholarship is chronicled with unparalleled wit and intelligence by none other than Albert Schweitzer in his great classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book still very much worth reading today. In German it was entitled Von Reimarus zu Wrede, not a very catchy title, in that it was simply called by the names of the first and final historical Jesus scholars it discussed.

Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) was the very first scholar of modern times to attempt to describe what the historical Jesus was *really* like, given the fact (that he saw as a fact – a prescient insight, as it was not widely shared or even thought of in his day) that our Gospels have so many historical problems with them. They do not give a historically accurate account of what happened. So what did happen?


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Form Critics and Oral Tradition
Background to the Interest in Oral Traditions



  1. Avatar
    Billypaul49  May 22, 2014

    Can’t wait for your next post

  2. Avatar
    ben.holman  May 22, 2014

    Speaking of oral traditions…what are your thoughts about A.N. Sherwin-White’s proclamation (or rather, the apologists who interpret him), saying that myth/legend/false-stories can’t develop within ‘x’-amount-of-years to wipe out a “historical core” of facts? If the apologists are right, just how many years DOES it take for legend to develop? Blog post perhaps?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

      In my experience legendary stories about a living person can literally appear overnight — even in a written culture where the facts can be immediately checked! (Would Sherwin-White insist that the made-up stories about Barack Obama are unthinkable during his lifeime???)

  3. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 23, 2014

    I very much enjoyed this post. Thanks!
    Why such strong NT scholarship in Germany?

  4. Avatar
    Scott F  May 23, 2014

    This is a topic I have often been frustrated by. Lay books and articles often mention Oral Transmission but in such a perfunctory way that I am left with the impression that it is a straight-forward process of eyewitness testimony – like in a crime drama. And yet I know from listening to recollections of the Reagan years that it is often not that simple 🙂

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 23, 2014

    This is a terrific post. One of your best and I have read them all. I look forward to your upcoming post on “Form Criticism.” Thanks.

  6. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 23, 2014

    I know this is off topic, but could not resist since I see Aslan’s name in this post.

    I send this excerpt from the John P. Meier’s conclusion to his magnificent Volume 3 of “A Marginal Jew” on the historical Jesus’ relations to those around him. (Thank you Bart for recommending this series.) It reminded me of your extensive review of Reza Aslan’s recent Jesus the Zealot. (Meier’s book came out in 2001.) Bart, note the second to last sentence! Sound familiar?

    “The Fourth Philosophy
    While there was no doubt political discontent and social unrest among Palestinian Jews at the time of Jesus – though more so in Roman-ruled Judea than in Herodian-ruled Galilee – there is no evidence of an organized group of armed revolutionaries active during the public ministry of Jesus. What Josephus explicitly refers to as “the fourth philosophy” was a group of Jews who opposed the Romans when the latter converted Judea into an imperial province in A.D. 6 and imposed a census in preparation for taxation. Despite Josephus’ desire to connect this group with the revolutionaries of the First Jewish War, there was probably no direct historical link via an ongoing organized movement. In Josephus, the term “Zealots,” when used to describe an organized band of armed revolutionaries fighting against Rome, refers to a movement that emerged in Jerusalem ca. A.D. 68. Hence to talk about Jesus’ relationship to or sympathy for either the fourth philosophy or the Zealots makes no historical sense. *The idea of Jesus as a Zealot or Zealot-sympathizer regularly resurfaces in popular books, which often read more like novels; such novels have no basis in serious scholarship.* Jesus’ day was not unacquainted with violence and banditry, but organized armed revolt against Rome is not attested during the public ministry.”

    • Avatar
      kidron  May 25, 2014

      I think that the problem with the use of the word Zealot is that it has two meanings. The first and most common as you note is that of the militant group which eventually led to the armed conflict with Rome. These are the ones who eventually ended up at Massada. However there is a second meaning which is noted as those Zealous for the Law. These are listed in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the hints about James and his followers in the NT. These are the ones who were the bane of Paul as they consistently followed him with the message that those converts should be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law. There is no doubt that Jesus and his immediate followers were Zealous for the Law. The group that James inherited obviously were also zealous for the Law and as hinted in the book of Acts, this included many of the lower priests in the Temple.

      • TracyCramer
        TracyCramer  May 30, 2014

        Hi, sorry for the delay. You are right. People do get confused (especially with books like Aslan’s) because the term Zealot, as in militant fighter, did not exist at the time of Jesus, though of course there were genuine rebels from Galilee and Judea who did fight Rome *prior* to Jesus’ ministry.

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    jhm  May 23, 2014

    Off topic, but this seems weirdly parallel to what I’ve been reading lately about the history of scholarship concerning the interpreting, reconstructing and translating of Greek tragedy (including the importance of the German Academe). Much of it has been over my head, but I wonder if there are similar strains of scholarship in NT studies?

  8. Fearguth
    Fearguth  May 23, 2014

    Although I had heard of Schweitzer’s ‘Quest’ when I was undergraduate Bible major in the early 1960s, I did not get around to reading it until 1979. Like you say, it’s still worth reading today, but I would make that, ‘essential reading’.

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    Wilusa  May 23, 2014

    All those authors between Reimarus and Schweitzer…was there a consensus in their beliefs about whether Jesus was or was not resurrected? And which position did *Schweitzer* take?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

      No, just like now there was a range of views. Schweitzer did not believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection.

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    adamsmark  May 23, 2014

    I note that the messianic secret ends at the transfiguration. After then, Jesus never silences anyone and is more open and direct, even more confrontational, e.g. temple cleansing and certain theological discussions. Also, even while demanding silence (first half of gospel) Jesus is largely unsuccessful. The remarkable nature of his ministry, how ever that is to be understood, made it impossible to enforce strict secrecy. In chapter 7, Mark notes that Jesus grew all the more popular. Then follows Peter’s private declaration and the transfiguration.

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    Peter  May 23, 2014


    Do you think what Wrede wrote about the Messianic Secret stands up?

    For Wrede, did the MS have anything to do with the various characters’ (in Mark) “not getting it” in relation to who Jesus really was (in Mark’s opinion)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 24, 2014

      Yes, I think it did. As to its standing up, I think today more scholars are inclined to see the motif as more literary trying to teach a theological point of some sort (possibly about even those closest to Jesus not really understanding him; possibly so Jesus, in Mark, can have repeated chances to teach that contrary to expectation the messiah must suffer), rather than as an explanation of the historical situation that Wrede supposes.

      • Avatar
        Peter  May 25, 2014


        Just to clarify!

        Specifically, do you think that Wrede was correct when he said that Mark didn’t receive from his sources accounts of Jesus’ publicly referring to himself as the Messiah? If so, don’t you find it strange that such accounts wouldn’t have been made up, as accounts of Jesus’ miracles were, by someone during the 40 years between Jesus’ death and Mark’s gospel’s being written?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

          Wrede thought that this view was not originated with Mark, but was the view found within his community; so in that sense Mark *did* have a source.

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