I’m discussing how scholars came to realize that Mark our earliest Gospel is not simply a nuts-and-bolts, unembellished, accurate report of what Jesus said and did. This kind of scholarship reached a kind of climax about a century ago with a group of scholars called “form critics.” To make sense of what they said and why they said it, I need to start where I left off yesterday — and so I’ll repeat the end of yesterday’s post to get us a running start on today’s, taken from my book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne 2016).
Where did the stories found in the Gospels themselves come from? The “form critics” (a term I’ll explain below) maintained that they did not come from authors who were themselves followers of Jesus or who acquired their information directly from eyewitnesses. The stories instead came from oral traditions in circulation in the years prior to the Gospels.
The authors of the Gospels – all of them, not just Mark – wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they wrote. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities. For Dibelius, “stringing together” is precisely what the Gospel writers did. The Gospel stories are “pearls on a string.” The authors provided the string, but they inherited the pearls.
Form critics such as Dibelius and Bultmann were principally interested in the pearls, not the string. They wanted to learn more about the kinds of stories that had been circulating orally within the Christian churches. We have access to these stories, of course, only in their written form as they appear in the Gospels. But by examining these stories we can acquire a better understanding of where they came from and how they came to acquire the shape that they have.