Botha, P.J.J. "Chapter Seven: Transmitting the Jesus Traditions." Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013, 146-173.
The way in which the Gospel, and other elements of early Christianity are transmitted is important to our understanding of the resulting message (Botha 2013, 145). It is part of understanding the source as a whole. Botha emphasizes that this task is critical in understanding the growth of "the Jesus movement" in all regards. The interplay of orality and literacy serves as a key to understand the nature of the compositions we now have.
Botha sees the developments between the time of Jesus and the publication of the Gospels as an essential part of the equation. For insight, he turns to classic works of form criticism. Bultmann took the period to be one of "informal and uncontrolled oral tradition" (Botha 2013, 147). Botha rightly describes both the terms "informal" and "uncontrolled" as current oral traditional scholars would interpret them.
Bultmann sees the resurrection as the point at which tradition became uncontrolled. Botha, however, thinks the nature of the community would imply a controlled, though possibly informal, spread. The apostolic group was influential in maintaining the message (Botha 2013, 147). There is reason to think the existence of eyewitness testimony would tend to regulate the content presented. Botha notes that the idea of a radical change has been influential in New Testament scholarship. As an example, he adduces the work of Kelber, who, in a rather sophisticated way, shifts the time of change to the time of inscripturation (Botha 2013, 148).
Dibelius, in contrast to Bultmann, takes the process to be controlled. Botha even characterizes it as "static" (Botha 2013, 148). Birger Gerhardsson goes farther than Dibelius by seeing "the primary situation within the community for the transmission of Jesus tradition as tradition itself" (Botha 2013, 148). The acts and words of Jesus were guarded and passed on as a matter of authoritative teaching. Botha finds this as analogous to the rabbinic transmission of oral Torah.
Botha finds a difficulty with these critical views because they fail to explain the variety in the written Gospels and the inconsistencies in identifying Jesus' "ipsissima verba" (Botha 2013, 149). Botha suggests that there is a way forward. He suggests "the possibility of re-applying the concept of informal, evolutionary models in a social-scientifically responsible way to parts (emphasis his) of the tradition process underlying some of the gospel traditions" (Botha 2013, 149).
If I understand Botha rightly, he is suggesting a synthesis of recent insights from the worlds of oral tradition and storytelling with the classic practices of hermeneutics, as an attempt to rightly identify the context in which the message was derived from an initial event to the point it was presented in essentially the written form in which we find it.
Botha moves on to discuss the transmission of the Jesus traditions in terms of rumor and folklore research (Botha 2013, 149). He observes that the nature of rumor suggests unreliable information, which is usually negative in its assessment of the subject (Botha 2013, 150). However, the dynamic may be applied appropriately to positive information. Rumor tends to follow a particular logical pattern based on the credibility of certain fundamental claims. A rumor, by its nature, is not an attempt to create something incredible, but to make sense of (often jumbled and confused) reality (Botha 2013, 151). There is regularly an element of imagination, though some rumors are predominantly constructed from factual information. They always, however, bear some sort of cultural or sociological selectivity (Botha 2013, 152).
Botha moves on to discuss the early research in rumor phenomena, in which details are quickly omitted from a message 152). After a period of reduction of the message, some details receive greater emphasis and elaboration. The elaboration tends to emphasize culturally acceptable standards (Botha 2013, 153). Counter to the experiments, however, oral exchange of rumors is not one-directional. A narrative held in community involves interaction of the community. In essence, there is a communal consensus which governs any developments.
Within the context of the Gospel accounts, there may well have been a particular ritual function (Botha 2013, 154). Within the first century community which gave rise to the canonical Gospels, the disciples who were involved in the fishing industry would have had access to a wide variety of settings in varied social strata, in which oral "news" would have spread readily. The communication by these disciples may well have opened relational doors with people and groups from varied backgrounds (Botha 2013, 155). Botha describes the interactions of these groups. indicating means by which an oral tradition about Jesus could have penetrated to many in the culture. The presence of a number of people who were eyewitnesses to events could tend to control the development of content (Botha 2013, 156).
Botha notes that stressful conditions, such as economic uncertainty or social or religious upheaval, can tend to increase rumor activities (Botha 2013, 157). Uncertainty in terms of health and mortality could be a strong factor in spreading discussions of Jesus' healing and raising the dead. Military conflicts and policies which led to conditions of poverty would only have increased uncertainty (Botha 2013, 158). This would make the message of Jesus increasingly attractive, especially among the extensive peasant population. Economic difficulties in the general population could easily account for a misplacement on the calendar of a census, which may simply have reflected a typical explanation for Joseph and Mary's presence in Bethlehem, or the particular sudden need to move to Egypt. The situation could be very real, even if the provocation was not at the exact time (Botha 2013, 160). Botha suggests that some details which may have been ambiguous could have been asserted as plausible reasons for actions. He goes on to describe a number of concepts, such as the work of the Magi, the penetration of legal imperatives into village life, and the presence or absence of political figures which could certainly influence explanations of the forces impelling actions recorded in the New Testament. What people thought the government was doing or not doing may have been more important influences on real actions than the actual deeds or inaction of governmental officials.
Another important feature of rumor is the use of counter-rumors, those intended to disarm harmful rumors. Botha sees evidence, in Matthew 28:11-15, of an official report of some sort with verses 1-10 and 16-20 constituting a Christian response to the report (Botha 2013, 164). This concept may explain many of the polemical statements recorded in the Gospels.