Saturday, March 03, 2012

Rodríguez on Jesus, Oral Tradition, and the Two-Source Hypothesis

I've been working through Rafael Rodríguez's provocative monograph, Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus Tradition, Performance and Text (London: T & T Clark, 2010). There's so much to say about this book, but I want to highlight one aspect of his work in particular.

Many historical Jesus scholars assume the Two-Source Theory (i.e., Q and Mark were the "two sources" primarily used by Matthew and Luke). Aside from the fact that scholars such as E.P. Sanders and Mark Goodacre have written absolutely devastating critiques of this theory (which are far too often ignored--did you even know Sanders opposed Q?), this hypothesis has other pitfalls. As Rodríguez explains, it fails to take into account oral tradition--the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition. In my mind, this tendency is clearly the result of Protestant tendencies passed on since the Reformation (i.e., sola scriptura), but that's for another post.

Rodríguez writes,
No one seriously disputes the fact of the oral gospel tradition; what to do with this fact is another matter completely. Some critics conceptualize the so-called 'oral period' of the transmission of Jesus traditions as a period of uncontrollable instability; others suppose that oral transmission of tradition, at least of Jesus traditions, is completely stable. Others, however, postulate some level of correspondence between written and oral transmission, so that one's stability (and instability) is comparable to the other. . . . Though 'historical Jesus' scholars frequently invoke the oral Jesus tradition, many appear to have spent little time among the vast and diverse body of literature, from multiple disciplines, that specifically addresses the dynamics of oral traditions from various epochs and locales. (pp. 19, 20).
Rodríguez goes on to talk about how ignoring oral tradition poses problems for redaction criticism. In particular, he shows why the Two-Source theory may ultimately read too much into the data:
Did the evangelist Matthew have access to the gospel of Mark? Perhaps. Would he have consulted that gospel in the process of developing and writing his own gospel? Perhaps. Was his gospel more closely related to the text of Mark than to patterns and experiences of his own performances of the Jesus tradition in the context of concrete social groups in the period (days? weeks? months? years?) before he wrote his gospel? Probably not, though in this scenario Mark may have influenced Matthew’s performative style.* We cannot reasonably assume, without argument, that Matthew’s written sources exerted a greater influence over the written text of his gospel than do his own experiences of the Jesus tradition in oral performance. (p. 30)
*The footnote reads:
This question, and my own negative response to it, concerns the a priori determination of whether or not the evangelists (esp. Matthew and Luke) had access to the Jesus tradition prior to having access to the texts of Mark and Q. It seems to me, on an a priori basis, more probable that the stories found in Matthew and Luke—at least the majority of them—would have been familiar to the evangelists and their communities before they encountered them in Mark’s gospel. Dunn provides a similar perspective: ‘The claim that there were churches in the mainstream(s) represented by Matthew and Luke who did not know any Jesus tradition until they received Mark (or Q) as documents simply beggars belief and merely exemplifies the blinkered perspective imposed by the literary paradigm.’ (2000: 305–306).
I'm still working all of this out in my mind, but I think Rodríguez makes an important point: to view the Gospels' relationship with one another in merely "literary" terms probably oversimplifies things--and causes people to read too much into the available textual data. In other words, scholars often get hung up on all the slight differences between the Gospels and assume that the variations are evidence of "reactions" to the other Gospels and/or clear evidence of a particular theological agenda. But maybe that's just reading far too much into things.

A classic example of this which Rodríguez explores is the first Beatitude (pp. 33-34). Of course, in Matthew we have "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3), while in Luke we simply have, "Blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20). Most often scholars assume Matthew "added" "poor in spirit", insisting that he "spiritualized" the beatitude. However, Rodríguez lists other places where it is Luke who appears to offer the most "spiritual" version of Jesus' teaching (cf. Matt 7:11; Luke 11:13).

Other issues might also be mentioned:
  • Luke has a special interest in the poor and the oppressed (Luke 1:52-53; Luke 4:18; Luke 14:7-11; Luke 16:19-31).
  • The assumption that Jesus must have uttered this saying only once is probably wrong. Jesus was an itinerant preacher. Indeed, it seems entirely plausible to me that Jesus could have said both things and that both versions therefore appear in the tradition. Can we absolutely rule this out? 
  • Insisting on finding the ipsissima verba may be a wild goose chase, as the various versions of Eucharistic words show us (cf. Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25). These all report the same substance of Jesus' teaching, but in slightly different detail. Indeed, this comports well with what we know of ancient conventions.  
There's so much more to say. Indeed, I think we need to think more about how the Jesus tradition was transmitted orally. I believe Rodríguez's work deserves serious attention. However, until I can offer further thoughts, I should also add that Rodríguez has an excellent blog, which I just discovered. I shall be adding him to our blog roll!

1 comment:

Fred said...

Hi Dr. Barber,
Thanks for this post! I have a couple questions:
1. As authorship of Matthew's Gospel is dated some time around 70 AD, is it the case that before the time of this authorship, Matthew's Gospel, itself, was orally passed on? (Was there no "Matthew's Gospel" until it was actually written?).
2. "...scholars often get hung up on all the slight differences between the Gospels and assume that the variations are evidence of "reactions" to the other Gospels and/or clear evidence of a particular theological agenda." I do not necessarily consider this a bad thing. For instance, I have heard that a reason for the differences between the fourth Gospel, and the Synoptic Gospels, is that John presupposes that which was said in the Synoptics. Would this be reasonable speculation? Or is it making too much of a big deal on the "variations?"

God bless.