Culley focuses his review of the study of oral tradition and biblical studies by breaking it into three stages: first, up to the early 20th century, second, to about 1960, and third, up to the time of his writing (Culley 1986, 30). He observes that the term “biblical studies” is somewhat ambiguous because scholarship is often divided into Old Testament and New Testament studies. He also observes that the study of oral tradition as it overlaps with biblical studies is, by and large, a 20th century study (Culley 1986, 31). The study is complicated by the fact that we have very little definitive information about specifically how the biblical texts came to be written in their current form.
Culley first considers scholarship “up to the time of [Hermann] Gunkel (d. 1932)” (Culley 1986, 32). Specific debate about oral traditions as well as written source materials which could be used in the composition of biblical texts arose in the late 18th century, specifically in the work of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Christoph Nachtigal. About 100 years later, the work of Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Gunkel draws the attention of Culley (Culley 1986, 32). Wellhausen, best known for his postulation of the J, E, D, and P sources for the Pentateuch, assumed oral (and unreliable) sources for the stories gathered into the biblical texts (Culley 1986, 33). Gunkel took the texts to have a strong relationship to “folk literature” and to fit genres formed in an oral tradition. Culley finds Gunkel to have a relatively high opinion about accuracy of oral transmission, yet observes that he considered shorter narrative to be, by definition, older. He considered written transmission to be the only appropriate means of transmitting history (Culley 1986, 34).
Culley next considers developments in scholarship up to the early sixties (Culley 1986, 35). He notes that relatively little scholarship emerged from Germany during the period, however, the work of Martin Noth recognized oral legends at the heart of aetiological stories. Noth frequently treated oral and written traditions as bearing equal weight (Culley 1986, 36). In Scandinavia, studies focused not only on oral tradition but also on the role of rites and sacral kings in Israel. Oral tradition was normally considered relatively accurate. Nyberg, in particular, saw the oral tradition as authoritative and the use of written texts primarily as props for memory (Culley 1986, 37). Other Scandinavian scholars considered that the methods of Nyberg and Gunkel needed to interact with one another. Particularly Culley mentions Sigmund Mowinckel, who considered writing to be essential to unchanging traditions and G. Widengren, who considered that Arabic poetry was not as much an oral creation as did Nyberg (Culley 1986, 38). This led Widengren to propose a robust written tradition in the Hebrew literature. The scholarly literature in North America at the time was not as extensive as that of Germany and Scandinavia (Culley 1986, 39). Culley does discuss William Foxewell Allbright and his view that oral and written traditions could coexist, with oral transmission continuing in cases of written literature which is disseminated orally (Culley 1986, 40).
Culley sees 1963 as the time of a major ground-shift in studies of oral tradition and the Old Testament (Culley 1986, 41). Much of this was related to an interest in Serbo-Croatian oral poetry as well as more archaic English classics. Culley’s working thesis at that point was that there were particular, often repetitive, patterns, which could be cataloged and identified in texts which depended heavily on orality.
Culley further considers attempts, beginning in the 1960s, to catalog the characteristics of Hebrew poetry. Most scholars agreed that Hebrew poetry is related in some ways to pairs of synonyms in different lines and to repeated phrases in different lines (Culley 1986, 42). The discussion is made more challenging because Hebrew does not make very clear distinctions between poetry and prose. Culley’s own work with biblical Psalms in 1963 and onward found stock phrases in traditional poetry from numerous cultures (Culley 1986, 43). The research continued into the 1970s as some scholars attempted to treat repetition of ideas, rather than repetition of phrases, as the structural unifying factor in Hebrew poetry (Culley 1986, 44). Oral formulas as a feature of composition was a popular field of study, especially among students of Frank Cross ad Harvard in the late 1960s. These students tended to find patterns which suggested an origin of Hebrew poetry in oral tradition.
One of the difficulties in the field, stated purposefully or not by Culley, is identification of formulae which would imply an oral origin. Culley’s statement of this may be telling of the discipline as a whole. “In selecting formulaic phrases, Urbock was less restrictive than I was, not demanding as great a measure of semantic identity” (Culley 1986, 45). An assessment of parallelism in ideas would predictably be highly subjective, and could be interpreted quite freely. This is affirmed by the fact that several scholars, through the 1970s and up to 1980, developed alternative theories about oral and written origins of precisely the same works, based on data gathered and analyzed in earlier years (Culley 1986, 46).
Culley next considers biblical Hebrew prose, beginning with the work of David Gunn, who, in the 1970s, produced articles analyzing prose. “In his approach to the biblical text he makes a distinction between what he calls traditional material, conventional for the author and his audience, and oral traditional material, where the mode of composition of the conventional material can be specified as oral” (Culley 1986, 47). Culley identifies the non-oral material as more elaborate motifs, and the oral material as short patterns. While this is an interesting analysis, it still does not provide definitive measures to identify oral and written sources. Culley goes on to describe his work with a blend of stable tradition and narrative variety (Culley 1986, 48). Other studies likewise apply tools to the biblical narratives, frequently using the methods applied to folklore, but without significant success in distinguishing among oral and written source material (Culley 1986, 49). This difficulty may have moved authors such as John Van Seters to seek written roots for virtually all texts (Culley 1986, 49-50).
Culley recognizes that interdisciplinary studies may be valuable, though they bear their own challenges. However, he does survey the work of two anthropologists, Robert R. Wilson and Burke O. Long (Culley 1986, 51). Both are cautious in their approach and note features such as repetition and variation in genealogical lists as signs of orality (Culley 1986, 52). The overall consensus, as observed by Culley, is that oral tradition is of questionable usefulness in reconstructing history. We simply know little about how it has been transmitted.
The New Testament has not been considered in terms of oral tradition as much as the Old Testament. However, Culley notes that Bultmann’s work with form criticism acknowledges both oral and written roots. “However . . . he makes the claim that one cannot distinguish in the end between oral and written traditions since the written material displays no specifically literary character” (Culley 1986, 53). Others, such as Birger Gerhardsson, in 1961, suggested that much of the New Testament was passed on orally, just as were many of the traditions of Judaism (Culley 1986, 53). Culley acknowledges that Gerhardsson’s work has been sharply critiqued, but still has redeeming characteristics. As we would expect, studies of orality and the New Testament have focused on the move from some sort of spoken tradition to a written manuscript. There is considerable difficulty in distinghishing the nature of oral and written sources which we don’t posssess (Culley 1986, 54).
In the late 1970s, work which may prove fruitful began as the nature of orality and textuality in the New Testament was studied. Of note to me, Culley mentions the work of Werner H. Kelber, with an article on oral tradition in 1979, followed by The Oral and the Written Gospel (1983), dealing with the interaction between oral and written texts (Culley 1986, 55).
In his concluding remarks, Culley restates the difficulties inherent in assessing oral roots of a written text, but does note there are numerous scholars who are beginning to sort out characteristics of orality and textuality. The interactions of oral and written sources can be a valuable means of understanding the nature and implications of many pieces of literature.