Bauckham, Richard. “Chapter 10, Models of Oral Tradition.” Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.” Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 240-263.
Bauckham’s thesis has been that the written Gospels are not separated from the events they narrate by a very long or creative period of oral tradition. He does observe that this runs counter to the majority view of recent scholarship (Bauckham 2006, 240). Bauckham considers the three main scholarly views of oral tradition, questioning what happens when the accessible and authoritative eyewitnesses are put back into the picture of transmission (Bauckham 2006, 241).
Form criticism, which arose in the early 20th century and has largely been refuted, took the Synoptic Gospels to be an arrangement of individual, isolated incidents (Bauckham 2006, 242). Bauckham agrees that, at least in the case of Mark’s Gospel, the incidents were preserved orally and were not necessarily arranged historically as they are presented. Mark does seem arranged much the way a storyteller might spin a yarn, with some types of incidents grouped together (Bauckham 2006, 243). Form criticism did much more, though, identifying certain forms of narrative and relating them to circumstances and needs in the community. By doing so, it suggests that the real purpose of a Gospel is to tell about the community from which it came (Bauckham 2006, 244). The assumption couldthen develop that traditions were anonymous. They would be adapted freely, or invented. The purpose of retaining history was then lost (Bauckham 2006, 245). Bauckham discusses the ways in which many of the form-critical assumptions have been disputed and rejected. In essence, the disputes have been based on realizations about the fluidity of oral traditions over time and space. Oral traditions which are consistent, such as those used in the Gospels, normally preserve historical information (Bauckham 2006, 246). On the other hand, traditions which speak to a specific community’s needs are normally more fluid than those found in the Gospels (Bauckham 2006, 247). What we see in the Gospels is much more akin to narrative passed on through authoritative witnesses of the events, preserved in writing and speech, then codified in writing as an historical record of real events (Bauckham 2006, 248).
In the 1960s a Scandinavian alternative was developed, based on rabbinic tradition by which disciples would largely memorize the teaching of their masters (Bauckham 2006, 250). While this is an interesting concept, the methods do not seem to have been used prior to the sack of Jerusalem in 70. Aside from this difficulty, the Gospels do not show a great deal of word for word repetition in narratives. The model of orality is not reflected in the Gospel accounts (Bauckham 2006, 251).
In the 1990s Kenneth Bailey proposed three different models of oral transmission (Bauckham 2006, 252). In his conception, the Gospels are an example of traditions passed on from an authoritative teacher through recognized disciples, maintaining a formally structured content (Bauckham 2006, 253). This kind of verbatim tradition is found in modern usage by teachers who have memorized the Koran (Bauckham 2006, 254). Here, the community preserves the teaching very rigorously. Bauckham does not see this as a creative process. However, again, he does not see it fitting the form critics’ model or the differences observed in the Gospels.
The idea expressed by Bailey has been adopted by James Dunn and N.T. Wright. Both assume that the process of transmitting traditions through an informal but controlled method allows for the community to control the message, rather than the message being controlled by a specific storyteller (Bauckham 2006, 257). Bauckham considers that the model does not answer some important questions. The reason for control, the mechanics of control, and the relationship of stability and flexibility of the message remain unclear. It also remains to be shown that the Gospels show signs of this process (Bauckham 2006, 258).
Bauckham closes the chaper with a repetition and explication of his earlier critiques of Bailey’s view of eyewitnesses. Bauckham does not think Bailey treats the role of authoritative eyewitness testimony seriously enough (Bauckham 2006, 261). The concept of eyewitnesses reflected in Bailey’s work is not rigorous enough to explain the attention, citied in earlier chapters of Bauckham’s work, to named eyewitnesses (Bauckham 2006, 262).