Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Botha, P.J.J. "The Social Dynamics of the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition." Neotestamentica 27 (2) 1993, 205-231.
Botha observes that the eventual production of a written version of a Gospel was necessarily influenced by the way traditions were developed and transmitted in the culture and time between the events and the production of the enduring account. This information in turn influences our understanding and interpretation of the texts (Botha 1993, 205).
The period of transmission has not necessarily been studied as thoroughly as we could hope (Botha 1993, 206). Botha looks for insight into this period by reflecting on the approach of classic form criticism. Bultmann understood transmission of the events to be "informal and uncontrolled oral tradition" (Botha 1993, 206). Here Both finds little concern for accuracy. However, the disciples must be seen as a link of continuity between Jesus and "the Jesus movement" (Botha 1993, 207). Counter to Bultmann, Dibelius sees a relatively restrained process of transmission in the hands of disciples who were faithful to their memory of events (Botha 1993, 208).
Botha observes that either point of view has some strengths. Consideration of the issues is additionally hampered by "the tendency to project (anachronistic) concepts onto the traditions themselves" (Botha 1993, 209). Botha cites Gerhardsson as wishing for a more serious effort to understand period transmission of authoritative narratives. For this, Botha suggests scholarship on orality and folklore is of value.
Botha suggests that folklore research is not taken as seriously as it might be due to a bias in favor of texts themselves rather than the process that leads to the production of texts (Botha 1993, 210). If, in fact, rumor is not assumed to be false, it is an entirely appropriate practice to study its role in transmission of a message. Botha observes that rumors are not necessarily incredible, but that tey often contain "raw, confused facts" and that they represent an attempt to understand those facts (Botha 1993, 211). Societal stories, therefore, may well be seen as a kind of rumor. Transmission of these stories follows predictable patterns (Botha 1993, 213).
Botha considers transmission models which have been studied, particularly the "telephone" experiments (Botha 1993, 213). These typically found some details to disappear from a narrative and others to be added. However, in reality, rumors rarely lose details in transmission. Additioanlly, actual transmission of rumors is usually a reflective process involving two-way communication (Botha 1993, 214).
Botha continues by considering the social dynamics inherent to some of the "Jesus stories." Discussion of the events of Jesus' work would be akin to the passing on of rumors of various kinds (Botha 1993, 214). Botha observes that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all of the social class which routinely was of low reputation and in which storytelling is known to have been a common process (Botha 1993, 215). Though the people themselves might not bear much social influence, their stories could, especially as they passed into the knowledge of more influential functionaries, such as Levi, Judas Iscariot, the people from Jairus' house, the centurions, and the tax collectors. For this matter, the Pharisees and scribes would fit into the class of functionaries who could and would take the stories with them and communicate some to the upper classes (Botha 1993, 216).
Botha further observes that rumors, collected into a coherent body, can unify people who are suffering from some sort of stress or anxiety. The gospel stories centered around healing may have spoken to significant anxieties due to high infant and youth mortality rates (Botha 1993, 217). Many other gospel accounts have to do with threats of violence, another common issue in Palestine during the first century (Botha 1993, 218). A third area of concern was financial in lature. Poverty was rampant and was made more troublesome by tax burdens, hence the importance of these narratives in the Gospels (Botha 1993, 219).
Botha then sees rumor not only as a means of building a cohesive group identity i nthe face of common challenges, but also as a means of resolving ambiguity in information. In effect it turns information into news (Botha 1993, 220). It may be a valid means of seeking ou ttruth in the absence of a formalized statement of truth (Botha 1993, 221). These attempts to understand and articulate truth also apply to political scenarios, a common theme of discussion and one which appears frequently in the Gospels (Botha 1993, 223). A third common application of rumor is to contradict an official account. This may be seen in Matthew 28, where an official account of the disappearance of Jesus is countered with a Christian rebuttal (Botha 1993, 225). A fourth application of rumor is to analyze strikingly significant events, such the transfiguration or Peter's confession. These events are discussed over and over in an attempt at understanding (Botha 1993, 226).
Botha concludes that the Gospels have significant elements of oral tradition which served to mold and organize the accounts, resulting in a later written account wich makes an effort to explain the significance of the events (Botha 1993, 227).