Saturday, November 14, 2009

Synoptic Solutions: Oral Tradition

Ok, The reason I started this blog in the first place was actually to get my theory on the compositions Synoptic Gospels out there, but I wanted to spend some time getting a few readers, make the posts a bit episodic so I didn't just drop the whole theory on you all at once, the theory I came up with shortly after finishing my BDiv. A year and a half ago.

Let's make a quick review:

June 7, 2009. I state my difficulties with the typical Q hypothesis; ie: no external evidence exists, but I go on to hint at another kind of Q, Hebrew Matthew.

June 15. I provide a small list of references to Hebrew Matthew found in the Church Fathers, The most interesting being the earliest, Papias, who says that Matthew published the sayings of the Lord in the language of the Hebrews, and that each interpreted them as they were able.

Oct. 9. I explain what kind of a document I think Hebrew Matthew was: similar to other rabbinic collections; the collected wisdom of a great teacher containing mostly sayings, occasionally with bits of narrative material to situate the sayings. In this case, I believe the the material was arranged topically in five sections, those we see reflected in our canonical gospel of Matthew. Of course, this is very tentative, and much more work must be done on the relevant texts before more can be said (and really, this is already too much).

So, let's begin to paint the historical portrait:

Jesus teaches his disciples and the crowds. This is the beginning of what we call the oral tradition. In an Eastern context, a great teacher teaches and says many of the same things over and over again, and people memorize it. Of course, his close followers will get the inside scoop on his total world-view simply by being with him, seeing how he lives and how he thinks. In all of the Synoptic gospel account we have Jesus, at one point or another (or more than once), sending out disciples to proclaim his message. We must assume that the core of Jesus' early message had begun to crystallize into distinct oral forms within his lifetime if he was already sending out his followers to preach it. This oral tradition must have been in Hebrew or Aramaic or both.*

Certainly shortly after his death, oral forms of the sayings would have been quite fixed. This represents the earliest forms of the sayings material in the Gospels. In the transmission of such material in an Eastern culture, there are also sometimes narratives, but the narrative material is not as closely controlled by the community as the sayings. This may be a partial explanation to why he have such close affinities in all the sayings material, and less continuity in the Gospel narratives (though they are obviously also in close relation).

I think Hebrew Matthew must have contained a direct record of these original sayings, probably composed in Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, if my intuition is correct. I don't want to make any bones about it at this point in my research, however (not to mention that my personal grasp of Aramaic is still in its infancy).

After the dispersion of the Apostles, at the beginning of the spread of the Gospels in the wider Roman world, the early preachers and teachers necessarily began to translate Jesus' teachings into Greek. The Greek oral tradition would necessarily be more free in early stages, but would still be controlled by the rigid underlying semitic tradition. Still, different forms of the sayings would have developed in different regions. There's more than one way to translate anything. That's just how it is.

Mark is probably our earliest example of this. I will accept the testimony of the early Church that Mark is a collected narrative based on Peter's preaching until I find a good reason not to do so. He probably wrote around the time of Peter's death in 64 AD, but who really knows? However, Mark is much more than a mere translation and recording of the primitive oral tradition. It contains eyewitness narratives. In addition, the arrangement of the material is a unique work of art, creating a narrative super-structure that is at once both cryptic and enticing. I can't get too heavily into this discussion, as I'm still something of a neophyte (aka: n00b) in Markan studies.

However, what I will say is that the publication of a Gospel in Greek must have had a tremendous impact on the stabilization of the Greek Oral tradition.

That's all I'm saying for now. Next post will deal with my theory on the composition of Luke and Matthew.

* Note concerning language: According both to the Mishnah and Josephus, all Jewish boys learned to read speak some level of Hebrew from the age of six onward. It is often said that Hebrew was the language of literature and religious discourse, and Aramaic was the everyday spoken dialect. Well, I'm not sure about that. At Qumran they were writing religious texts in Aramaic as well as Hebrew, and Josephus transliterates some direct speech of the soldiers during his defense of a Galilean outpost, and the soldiers are speaking Hebrew. Some have suggested that Hebrew was still a colloquial language in Galilee, but Aramaic was the language of the street in Judea. I honestly have no idea what language Jesus was teaching in, but probably a bit of both. He certainly would have been able to speak both, and it is not uncommon to find that rabbinic and Qumran texts are very much a sort of hybrid between the two.

In any case, the two languages are not very different, and it is not overly important. Most of the saying can be reconstructed into Hebrew or Aramaic with equal ease, as the syntax of Palestinian Hebrew and Aramaic had almost completely merged by that time, with only a few unique uses of the ancient Hebrew tense system being used for literary effect in an artificial way (very much as you still find some people praying in botched King James English today). The vocabulary in Aramaic and Hebrew is also quite similar, and the primary difference between using one language or the other (at least in Rabbinic writings) was changing some endings, using different roots for a few common words, and putting the article in front or behind the word. It's a bit like the difference between Danish and Swedish, as far as I can reckon (by contrast, pre-exilic Hebrew differs much more from Official Aramaic, the dialect of the Persian Empire)

It is also very possible that Jesus spoke Greek at times to gentiles, though he may have also spoken Aramaic to them. Difficult to say, really.


  1. Considering your posts about bible translations it's kind of sad you're way out in Israel, since you'll not be able to attend this awesome bbq

  2. Man, they served fried chicken and everything!

    Seriously, where do you find this stuff?

  3. Through the Biblioblog thing, I signed up with gmail and they offer this "google reader" where you can subscribe to blogs, so you don't have to bookmark them and check them all for something new. I've subscribed to I don't know how many, and unsubscribed to several already...
    This gmail thing is kind of cool, I can post here through my google account and the calendar feature is really cool.

    But this site is totally high on crack! Endless spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, like "we belive that a women shouldn't teach", Joyce Myers and Mark Driskoll are innovative ways to spell those names.

    I just loved the fact that they had Bbq chicken... but seriously, Halloween? They couldn't pick a better day to burn bibles than halloween?!
    This is funny in a crazy way, all the more sad since it's true...

    Have you been baptized in the Jordan yet?

  4. I wrote the pastor an Email to alert him that he shouldn't endorse Wycliffe's translation because it's based on the Vulgate, not the Textus Receptus, as his site claims.

    I'm going to be the last to throw stones about spelling mistakes, however, or grammatical errors. most of the posts here go through a couple editions before I get the kinks worked out... like, I start to write a sentence, and then I decide to put it another way, but I'll forget to change the verb or something. It's terrible.

  5. ooh, you got me interested... give us the next post!

  6. BTW, I tried to write further on the oral tradition and biblical evidence for Mary's continued virginity, but Sir West would not moderate them.

    irishanglican (Fr. Robert)