The title may sound like a joke, but the truth is that most recent discussions of oral tradition in the Gospels have made use of the Lord-Parry school’s work on folk songs and epics. I have some significant problems with this, given the role of meter and rhyme and the assistance to memory provided by music in the case of this very different genre. Nevertheless, there are useful comparisons that can be made.
Recent works on oral tradition in the Gospels (most notably perhaps James Dunn’s recent books) have emphasized the inappropriateness of speaking of an ‘original form’ of a saying or story. Although I am not persuaded that it is inappropriate for historians to seek to recover the earliest version possible, the point is that each new performance can significantly add to and alter a song, although it can in the end take on a relatively definite form through repetition.
By way of illustration, I offer the demos of songs that one can now find shared on the internet and more frequently through peer-to-peer hubs and chat rooms (I recently downloaded some of Phil Collins’). Those of us who have written songs (remember your garage band?) know that they rarely come into existence fully-formed. There are various steps – happening across a catchy chord progression, starting with a verse or a chorus while the rest follows, honing it and improving it, eventually sharing it with the band, having your vocalist make suggestions, and so on. When Jesus went away into the wilderness to pray, was this also time spent ‘composing’? Did he return with ‘new material’ from such times? Were the disciples, sent out to convey his message, like ‘performers’ of his ‘compositions’? How useful is this comparison.
Those who are fans of Anton Bruckner’s music are probably aware that, in the case of his symphonies, he continued revising them after their initial performances and publication. This is not that unusual – but Bruckner has more of a penchant for it, perhaps, and this is one of the things that gave rise to the saying that he didn’t compose 9 symphonies, he composed one symphony nine times. In relation to the Jesus tradition, it is fair to ask whether there might not have been revision, adaptation, improvement and other modification to sayings and stories after their first performance. Many historians are hesitant to pursue this line of reasoning because it has so often been misused by fundamentalists seeking to harmonize the various Gospels by asserting that ‘they are all correct – Jesus just said all these different versions’. But the possibility needs to be explored, even if it is ultimately rejected.
The short story in Matthew’s Gospel about two sons, one of whom obeys (after saying he wouldn’t) and the other of whom disobeys (after saying he would) may be an earlier version (a ‘draft’, if you will) of the story in Luke’s Gospel that we know as ‘The Prodigal Son’. But who is responsible for elaborating it into the fuller form we have in Luke? Kenneth Bailey, responsible for some important work on oral tradition and on the cultural setting of the parables, suggests that the poetic genius behind the Lukan parables he studied was perhaps none other than Jesus himself. However, the extended chiasms or inverted parallelisms Bailey identified seem more characteristic of written composition than orality, where the earlier lines are not visible, are not there to be set side-by-side with later parallels. Short chiasms are typical of orality; longer structures are not (one may think of the alphabetic acrostics found in some psalms, which by virtue of the fact that they use the alphabet imply literacy).
I had a conversation about memory and orality with a friend of mine, also a New Testament scholar. He found much encouragement for the possibility of precise preservation of information through an experiment with student memorization. But such experiments fail to ask the question of how one memorizes a ‘text’ when there is no static written version to go back to. What are needed are experiments involving composition of oral pieces with similar length and structure to the longer Lukan and Matthean parables. For the study to provide genuine light on the subject, however, we would ideally need to have test subjects whose primary mode of communication and thought was not literature. It is not appropriate to assume that Jesus and his followers were not literate – neither Galilee nor its neighbors were purely oral cultures at this stage. Neither is it appropriate to assume, however, that those whose literacy may have been rudimentary, of the form most common in this time and place, would have composed lengthy works with elaborate structures and parallelisms, utilizing the method that would perhaps be most natural to us: imagining it written.