Oral and literary tradition in the (synoptic) gospels.
Is there a synoptic problem?
How much of the obvious similarity between the (synoptic) gospels owes itself to the oral transmission of Jesus traditions, and how much owes itself to the literary interrelationships of the gospel texts themselves? The range of possibilities could be scaled up or down as far as one wishes, but I propose a simple fivefold division of the spectrum. The (synoptic) gospels could be related to each other in any of the following combinations of orality and literacy:
The present survey of the evidence is meant to help the reader (and the author!) decide which option best represents how our canonical gospels, especially the synoptic three, came into being. I will concentrate on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but will not feel compelled never to speak of John, especially as a control over certain data.
In a very real way my purpose here is to decide whether there is any such thing as the synoptic problem. The scholarly inquiry that goes by that name presumes that there is some kind of literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke that, properly interpreted, will account for their numerous similarities. If it turns out that there are no actual literary relationships between these three gospels, that their parallelism is to be fully explained as a triplicate manifestation of purely oral transmission (option 1 above), then there is no synoptic problem as we like to think of it. The similarities would be due to the tight control of the oral process, the differences due to individual evangelistic expression. In fact, if it turns out that the gospels were the result of mostly oral processes with some literary overlap (option 2 above), or even about half of each (option 3 above), then the synoptic problem ought to at least be approached in a very different manner than the scholarly inquiry has tended to approach it so far.
If, however, it turns out that literary relationship accounts for most (option 4 above) or all (option 5 above) of the synoptic data, then there is indeed a synoptic problem as it is usually conceived, and it will have to be approached principally from a literary perspective.
I will examine, then, two sets of evidence, one set for the oral transmission of Jesus tradition, the other for the literary relationship of the synoptic gospels among each other.
Evidence of oral transmission.
Before I list the positive evidence for oral transmission of the Jesus materials, let me draw attention to two false leads that I think it important to avoid.
First, the same story told in different words is not in and of itself evidence of orality. It can be tempting to find a pericope in the synoptic tradition which is perhaps found at different points of the three gospel narratives and with very different wording, then leap to the assumption that this pericope came from different strands of a lively oral tradition.
And indeed oral tradition can not necessarily be ruled out in such a case. Nor, however, can it be assumed. For it is simply a brute fact of ancient historiography that authors often preferred to rewrite their sources almost beyond recognition. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, preface 5 (translation modified from William Whiston):
The synoptic problem is actually notable in that the synoptic authors often did much more straight copying, not less, than other writers of antiquity.
The ancient custom of reworking written sources means for us that we usually cannot tell oral from literary tradition just by setting two passages side by side. If the percentage of words in common is very high, oral tradition may be precluded (since even the practiced bards studied by Parry and Lord did not perform their poems verbatim), but its being very low does not guarantee oral tradition. It is, in other words, easier to prove a literary connection than an oral one.
Second, the researches of Milman Parry and Albert Lord into the nature of oral epic poetry (such as that of Homer) apply to practiced bards chanting to the rhythm of an instrument such as the gusle, and the epic songs so chanted usually do not describe the entire life and death of the main character, according to Lord himself, The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature, in William O. Walker, Junior, The Relationships Among the Gospels, An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, pages 39-40:
In their normal tellings, oral traditional narratives about individuals, whether in verse or in prose, only rarely include a single account that begins with birth and ends with death. Most commonly, the separate elements or incidents in the life of the hero form individual poems, or sagas.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, do in fact begin with birth and end with death. Those of Mark and John lack only the birth narratives. One must mount a positive argument for analogy between epic songs and gospel materials before assuming that Parry and Lord can be of service in retracing the oral process that led to Matthew, Mark, and Luke as we know them.
I recommend scanning my page on the sayings of Jesus found in sources other than gospels for an overview of materials all of which may have been transmitted orally at some point. I myself find it rather unlikely that there was no oral transmission of the Jesus materials in the early church, as this present section will make clear.
A few likely passages.
Let me lay out a few passages that I think, based on the evidence of the extant texts, quite likely candidates for oral transmission in the early church. A prima facie case can be made for the oral transmission of any saying, collection of sayings, or story that we find Jesus in the gospels either telling his disciples to repeat or foretelling that they will repeat. Other interpretations are possible, to be sure, but if we are looking for positive evidence of orality it would be remiss not to look for dominical commands or predictions entailing orality.
First, the dominical prayer, or paternoster (so named after its first two words in the Latin liturgy, pater noster, or our father), of Matthew 6.9-13 = Luke 11.1-4 (confer Didache 8.2) claims on its face to be a prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and commanded them to pray. It is not difficult to imagine different versions of such a prayer circulating through various Christian liturgies.
Second, the dominical instructions concerning divorce in Matthew 5.31-32; 19.3-12 = Mark 10.2-12 = Luke 16.18 (confer 1 Corinthians 7.10-11) Paul tells us Jesus himself commanded for his followers. Variations of this same set of instructions appear also in Barnabas 19.14a, in the Shepherd, Mandate 4.1.4-10, and in Justin Martyr, Apology 1.15.1-4 (confer Matthew 5.27-28).
Third, the mission materials in Matthew 10.5-16 = Mark 6.7-13 = Luke 9.1-6; 10.1-12 (confer 1 Corinthians 9.3-14) do not appear to have gone unused in the first and second Christian generations. Parallels may be found in Didache 11.3-6, 11-12; 13.1-2, in Ignatius to Polycarp 2.2, in 2 Clement 5.2, and in Thomas 14d, 39c. Paul explicitly takes the command of Jesus to his disciples as applicable to his own day in 1 Corinthians 9.14.
Fourth, the story of the anointing of Jesus in Matthew 26.6-13 = Mark 14.3-9 = Luke 7.36-50 (John 12.1-8) closes in the Matthean and Marcan versions with Jesus predicting that, wherever the gospel is preached in the entire world, the reverent deed of the woman who anointed Jesus would be retold in her memory. It is not difficult to imagine this story circulating and changing until it became our three fairly distinct versions (Matthew and Mark share a version; Luke and John each offers his own).
Fifth, the words spoken over the bread and cup in Matthew 26.26-29 = Mark 14.22-25 = Luke 22.14-20 (confer 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 6.26-59) are said in the Pauline version and possibly the Lucan version to have been enjoined upon the disciples. We know that Christian churches regularly practiced such a rite, implying an oral circulation of the words of institution.
Preaching and teaching.
The gospels repeatedly assert that Jesus himself preached something called the gospel during his ministry:
Likewise, the gospels also repeatedly assert or assume that the disciples themselves either did or would preach the gospel:
As for teaching, I will not bother to list all of the references to Jesus himself teaching here (there are dozens!), but I will list the few instances in which it is asserted or assumed that the disciples would teach others:
Also noteworthy in this connection is one of the Greek words for instruct, κατηχεω, which we find in Luke 1.4...:
...and in Galatians 6.6:
These verses imply that regular catechetical activities were taking place amongst the early Christians. That such instruction was (at least partly) oral in nature follows from the facts that (A) Paul probably wrote before any of our extant gospels were written, (B) it is assumed in these passages that it is a person who is doing the instructing, not a text (even if the instructor himself perhaps used a text), and (C) it is hazardous to assume that all or even most converts in this period were literate; the case has doubtless been exaggerated in both directions, but I think it safe to say that literacy was less common in the ancient east than it is today in the modern west.
Finally, I must point out that the entire second volume that Luke wrote, the Acts of the Apostles, portrays the apostles as engaging in regular oral preaching and teaching, and never describes any written work being used besides (the Greek translation of) the Hebrew scriptures. Refer especially to Acts 2.22-24, 32-33; 3.17-18; 4.27-28; 8.35; 10.36-43; 11.16; 13.27-31; 20.35.
Receiving and delivering.
In Mark 7.13 Jesus condemns those who invalidate the word of God with traditions which they have handed down (παρεδωκατε). Surely the word of God intended in this context is holy scripture. The tradition (παρεδωσει) that has been delivered, then, must be something other than holy scripture. I hold that, while the scripture was of course written, this side tradition was predominantly unwritten, at least at the time, and was the kind of Jewish tradition that eventually wound up in the Mishnah.
The language of delivering (or handing down), in fact, smacks of oral transmission. Such language appears in Luke 1.2...:
...in a context that virtually demands oral transmission; Luke has just mentioned the many who have arranged or ordered (αναταξασθαι, a common Greek term for writing a history) a narrative of certain events, and now says that those writings at least attempted to follow what the eyewitnesses themselves had delivered (παρεδοσαν). Since Luke distinguishes this delivery of information from the writing of narratives, he must have in mind an unwritten, or oral, transmission.
The language of delivering, or handing down, certain materials appears, then, to reflect an oral transmission of those materials. This helps to confirm that certain passages in Paul came to him from oral sources, for the apostle uses such language to describe how he received both the words of institution from the last supper (1 Corinthians 11.23-26) and the summary of the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15.3-7). He also describes how he himself delivered certain teachings to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11.2).
Remembering the words.
Several of our extant apostolic and patristic sources refer explicitly to the act of remembering the words of the Lord in what appears to be an oral process (refer also to my piece on the sayings of Jesus).
The gospel of John several times notes that the disciples later remembered something that Jesus had said during his ministry (John 2.22; 12.16; 14.26; 16.4), and once it has Jesus commanding his disciples to remember his words (John 15.20).
Luke twice portrays an apostle (first Peter, then Paul) remembering the words of Jesus in speeches delivered orally (Acts 11.16; 20.35b; this second instance roughly parallels Didache 1.5).
Both Clement and Polycarp enjoin their readers to remember the words of the Lord just before giving what appears to be a catechism of sorts, a list of certain teachings of Jesus (1 Clement 13.1-2; Polycarp to the Philippians 2.3a). Clement does the same thing again just before offering some teaching on scandals (1 Clement 46.8; confer Matthew 18.6-7 = Mark 9.42 = Luke 17.1-2; Mark 14.21).
1 Clement 13.1-2:
Polycarp to the Philippians 2.3a:
The language of remembering the words of the Lord appears to belong within the sphere of oral transmission of the Jesus materials.
The last stages of oral transmission.
We can be certain that the oral transmission of gospel materials reached well into century II because of what is left of the five books of Papias. Eusebius explicitly tells us in History of the Church 3.39.11 that Papias retold many things that he had received from unwritten tradition (εκ παραδοσεως αγραφου). Papias himself as quoted by Eusebius, ibidem 3.39.3-4, informs us that he got most of his material from his inquiries as to what the disciples of the Lord had said, and that he himself preferred this kind of living voice to written books. A survey of his extant fragments will not necessarily give one confidence in the quality of these oral traditions, but will coddle no suspicions as to their quantity.
Eusebius also attributes to both Papias and Clement of Alexandria a brief story about how the gospel of Mark came to be written. History of the Church 2.15.1:
This passage, which I suspect comes more from Clement than from Papias, affirms that the rule before the advent of written gospels was oral transmission of the material, and indeed states that it was dissatisfaction with the oral process that first led to the writing up of a text.
In another passage, this time one that Papias does not share with Clement of Alexandria, he hands on the following tradition about the origin of the gospel of Mark (text from Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.15):
Note the language of remembrance! Again it is used to describe an oral process, in this case Mark remembering what Peter had preached.
I take it, then, that oral material was certainly available to our canonical evangelists. The synoptic three very well could have composed their gospels entirely from oral traditions, as indeed John 20.30-31; 21.25 asserts hyperbolically.
But did they? Or did they borrow from one another (or from other written sources now lost to us)? That is the topic of the next section.
Evidence of literary relationship.
Before I list the positive evidence for literary relationship of the synoptic gospels, let me draw attention to a false lead that I think it important to avoid.
There is no firm evidence of Jesus materials being written down during the ministry of Jesus, pace (for instance) John Wenham, who on page 114 of Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke quotes P. H. Davids approvingly as follows:
There is no reason to assume that the early transmission was exclusively oral. The apostles may not have been studied in the Jewish law (so Acts 4:13), but due to the prevalence of education in the Jewish communities many, if not most, of them must have been literate. We should not therefore be surprised if at least a minimal amount of the testimonia, narratives, and teaching which found their way into the gospels was recorded in writing before or soon after Easter.... The pre-Easter Sitz-im-Leben of such material was the mission of the twelve and the need to leave teaching behind as the itinerant band travelled.
While I agree that the mission of the twelve would have been the most likely sitz for teachings written while Jesus was still alive, the notion that the apostles took along notes or scrolls or parchments or any other writing material seems doomed from the start if we read the texts themselves. The list of allowed and disallowed travel items in Matthew 10.9-10 = Mark 6.8-9 = Luke 9.3; 10.4 (confer Luke 22.35-36) may be fuzzy when it comes to the staff and sandals or shoes, but certainly no writing materials appear on the list, a silence fatal to the idea that they were allowed anyway, since the Marcan and Lucan lists in particular are introduced by the prohibition take nothing (μηδεν αιρωσιν in Mark; μηδεν αιρετε in Luke), and the allowed items in Mark have to be listed as exceptions (ει μη).
There is just no room for written teaching materials on the mission trip of the twelve.
Let me point out that, if it turned out that the early church transmitted the Jesus materials via an oral process capable of producing the kinds of phenomena that I intend to highlight in this section, then I hold that we would have every right to treat the individual oral performances within that process as if they were texts, virtually memorized and altered in ways usually associated with textual transmission. (I myself prefer the more obvious option, that a literary process has taken place.)
Correspondences in passages related in the same order.
An interesting fact emerges from a close study of the order of pericopes in the synoptic gospels: Mark is the middle term between Matthew and Luke. That is, Matthew and Luke never place the same triple tradition pericope at the same spot of their respective narratives unless Mark also does so. Matthew and Luke, in other words, never agree against Mark in pericope order.
There is to the best of my knowledge exactly one pericope that Matthew and Luke simultaneously relocate against the Marcan order; they do not, however, relocate that pericope in the same way. The pericope in question is Mark 3.13-19. The Lucan parallel is 6.12-16, which Luke has locally transposed with Mark 3.7-12 = Luke 6.17c-19. The Matthean parallel is 10.1-4, which Matthew has altogether moved to a different context, making it precede Matthew 10.5-16 = Mark 6.7-13 = Luke 9.1-6.
That there should exist a normative order at all (id est, the Marcan one) in our gospel texts is somewhat surprising in any case. The synoptics as we have them require an overall order from birth through baptism to death, and there are pockets of material that might reflect memorable sequences (such as the day in Capernaum, Mark 1.16-39 = Luke 4.16-44; confer Matthew 4.18-25). But by and large the individual units of the synoptic tradition between the baptismal and passion narratives are rearrangeable. I say this not only because in each case at least one of the gospels often has rearranged things but also because each episode is usually self-contained, requiring no knowledge of previous episodes.
Yet as we examine the evidence from order we find that at least two of the synoptics are following the same order at any given point, and Mark is the middle term.
But why should Mark be the middle term if all three synoptic gospels are mutually independent performances of the same oral tradition? The only way to account for such a pattern on the oral hypothesis is to presume that all three of our authors received their oral tradition in the same order, the Marcan order, but Matthew and Luke decided to mix things up while Mark kept the original order.
Such a scenario inspires a few probing questions. If the order of pericopes was so important to the tradition that the narrative reached Matthew, Mark, and Luke in nearly identical order, why did two of them feel so free to change it? If the order of pericopes was not that important, how do we explain the fact that the Marcan order was normative? Do we have any evidence at all of this kind of memorization going on? And how do we explain John, who only rarely reflects the synoptic order?
I think it much more likely that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are literarily related. Oral and literary explanations are in this case very different things. Any written text must have an order, even if a completely arbitrary one, and anyone who copies from that text is free to either retain or change that order at will. But if two oral performances happen to reflect the same order of events, then a high degree of memorization of that fixed order must have taken place.
It is also important to observe that relationships of order exist between each pair of synoptic gospels:
Correspondences in passages related verbatim, or nearly so.
Some passages in the synoptics are so nearly verbatim that, even if we are imagining highly practiced or even trained oral performers of the Parry-Lord variety, we must hypothesize a literary connection.
It would be advisable to remember as you scan and compare the following passages, particularly the sayings, that Jesus presumably did not preach in Greek. He probably used Hebrew or Aramaic, yet the Greek translations of his preaching have often come out nearly identical, suggesting a Greek literary connection of some kind rather than reflecting a Hebrew or Aramaic oral background.
For the following passages I am mostly dependent upon J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae, page 66. The actual passage references may or may not be identical with the extent of each of my own pericopes; in those cases in which the references account for only part of the overall passage, the references represent the area or areas of the most concentrated agreements in wording.
Collocations of close verbal agreements between Matthew and Mark:
Collocations of close verbal agreements between Matthew and Luke:
Collocations of close verbal agreements between Mark and Luke:
Collocations of close verbal agreements between Matthew, Mark, and Luke:
These correspondences in all four categories of synoptic overlap suggest literary connections between each pair of synoptic gospels.
Correspondences in rare or awkward words or phrases.
Let me set the force of this argument out as plainly as I can. The rarer the word or phrase or the more awkward the construction shared by two or more synoptic gospels, the more likely a literary text is responsible for the correspondence.
What follows are words or phrases of a kind unlikely to be brought to mind independently by two individuals, unless one of them is copying from the text of the other. I am dependent on J. C. Hawkins, Horae Synopticae, pages 55-65, for these examples and most of the accompanying notes. I have culled what are in my opinion the most striking examples for my tabular presentation, then dropped the rest into a footnote. The references are arranged in Marcan order, or in Matthean order where Mark is lacking.
Unusual usages common to Matthew and Mark:
Unusual usages common to Matthew and Luke:
Unusual usages common to Mark and Luke:
Unusual usages common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke:
The parallel usage of such striking words or phrases, usually at the expense of more common ways of expressing the same thought, suggests a literary connection between all three pairs of our synoptic pairs, not merely oral transmission.
Correspondences in parenthetical material.
Parenthetical material is by definition not required for the narration of a story. Even two eyewitnesses of the same event, viewing it from the same perspective, will not employ parenthetical items identically. Any oral theory of gospel origins will have to explain why such items sometimes appear at the same point between the synoptic gospels, even when their employment is awkward or quirky:
Any student of the text is welcome to attempt to explain the above correspondences by recourse to a tightly controlled oral tradition or other entity, but in my humble opinion such attempts have not as yet proven at all convincing. They require feats on the part of the tradents that are either unparalleled elsewhere or paralleled only in nonanalogous contexts. Furthermore, if the oral tradition was so tightly wound that it demanded of the preacher even the same uniquely worded or counterintuitively placed parenthetical material as his predecessors, then it may as well have been a written text, and we would still have every right to treat it as such.
Correspondences in redactional and editorial material.
Redactional or editorial material is matter that an author has used to guide his composition to the point or points he wishes to make.
One kind of redactional material in the three synoptic gospels is the summary statements. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all give the consistent impression that Jesus was preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising most of the time, and the author has just picked out certain instances of each activity to actually narrate. The primary way in which the authors convey this impression is by occasionally ceasing from the narration of specific incidents and instead summarizing the general activities of Jesus.
On an oral hypothesis of gospel relations I see no reason why these summaries should correspond as frequently as they do. Hypothetically they could fall almost anywhere. Yet Mark 1 and Luke 4 happen to share the same four distinct summary statements at the same points in the chapter. (Matthew has all four summary statements, too, but relocated to different points of his narrative.)
Such statements seem to me to imply a literary connection of some kind.
But the most persuasive single kind of evidence for a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is, in my opinion, the evidence from redactional tendency and editorial fatigue. Examples of these phenomena not only imply literary copying but also imply the direction in which such copying took place; powerful stuff indeed.
I will not go into the matter at this juncture because the page linked to above is designed to handle redactional and editorial evidence. I suggest printing that page out so as to peruse it in hardcopy, agree or disagree.
In my judgment, the literary phenomena that I have described in this section suggest a literary connection between each pair of synoptic gospels.
I remind the reader of my fivefold spectrum of possibilities for the relative weights of oral and literary tradition in the synoptics:
What is telling to me is that the redactional and editorial considerations span close to the entire length of the gospels. It is not as if they are concentrated only in sayings or only in stories, only in the first or last part or only in the middle. This suggests that (at least a recension of) the entire text written by one author was known to another; this appears to be the case in each pairing of synoptic gospels.
The prevalence of such literary relationships throughout the synoptics indicates to me that the synoptic gospels are probably related to one another in a mostly literary, partly oral, fashion. I pick option 4. Options 2 and 3 are viable, in my opinion, but less likely.
Could the gospel authors have composed entirely from oral materials? I say yes. Did they? I say no. Once the move to a complete narrative gospel had been made, there was no need to reinvent the wheel. Each successive author absorbed much of the groundwork of his predecessor(s) into his own text.