Last night I read chapter 10 of Baukham: "Models of Oral Tradition." (Links to Baukham and the book can be found in previous posts on this blog.) This chapter was an absolutely devastating criticism of Form Criticism which has dominated New Testament scholarship for a century. It is the contention of Form Criticism that the traditions of Jesus handed down to us in the New Testament are the results of generations of oral story telling. The traditions, Form Critics tell us, tell us more about the communities that produced them rather than about the historical Jesus. The oral transmission of these stories had no formal control mechanism and the traditions were modified to meet the current needs of the community. These communities had no interest in preserving the historical past. Baukham notes that while nearly all of the early contentions of Form Criticism have been refuted by subsequent scholarship, the picture of the process of oral transmission of the Gospels by Form Criticism still dominates the views of New Testament Scholars and their students. Early form critics, such as Bultman, classified the Gospel as folk literature which was developed in the same manner as other folk literature, the process determined by Sitz im Leben, the setting in life, of the community. There was a pure first version of the Gospel, according to Bultman. Each retelling of the Gospel was a new layer, adding onto and editing the previous layer, until there was no resemblance of the latest version to the original. As stated earlier, Form Critics believed this process lacked all formal control.
Subsequent research of Folklore development has refuted the theories of Form Criticism. First, research has shown that the roots of folk tales are not pure in that the original telling of them contained mixed and modified messages. Second, there is often no correlation between form and Sitz im leben; there was no correlation between the historical information preserved in these tales and the subsequent communities that repeated them. Some communities valued the preservation of history more than others and one cannot determine the ages of tradition using Form Criticism. More recent scholarship has determined a greater role for authoritative individuals in passing on folk traditions than uncontrolled communities. Concerning the Gospels, the evidence is overwhelming that the timeline for the transmission of the teachings of Jesus into the Gospels we now have is considerably shorter than the traditional development of folklore over many generations. In the end, it has been shown that while Form Criticism can deal with matters of form, it cannot be used to help determine the ages of traditions.
A recent attempt to explain the transmission of the oral teachings of Jesus to the written Gospels has been done by Kenneth Baily. Baily has spent considerable time in Middle Eastern villages and has witnessed how villages preserve local traditions concerning their own past. Villages gather formally to recite traditions. Anyone who has grown up in the village is allowed to be a reciter of tradition, although other factors such as status and wealth determine who recites. If there is any major deviation from accepted tradition, the village may correct the reciter. In this way, traditions concerning the past are preserved primarily intact. Baily believes that this mode of preservation may be the best explanation of how the teachings of Jesus were preserved until they were written down. This theory has greatly influenced the work of James Dunn and N.T. Wright. Baukham believes that this theory has great merit, though there are some questions it leaves unanswered. Baily's model does not adequately explain the role of the original eyewitnesses in preserving the teachings of Jesus intact. Nor does it give the Church in Jerusalem an authoritative role that evidence indicates that it actually had. Baily's model may give too much of a role to entire communities at the expense of individual authorities in preserving the Gospel's message. Yet Baukham still believes this explanation is a great step forward in scholarship on this issue.
I still have eight chapters to go in Baukham. All other blogger activity will be halted till I finish this book.