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The Synoptic Gospels: Oral Sources

Evidence for the oral tradition:

  • It was an oral culture with low literacy rates; even the written Gospels were primarily heard by their audiences in an oral performance
  • A plausible explanation for some of the variations in detail in the Triple or Double Tradition and for the doublets in the Synoptic Gospels
  • A plausible explanation for some material in the Gospels of John and Thomas that is paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels if these are judged to be literarily independent
  • The many predecessors in Luke 1:1-4
  • Not enough books to cover Jesus’s deeds in John 21:24
  • Christian writings (e.g., New Testament Epistles, Apostolic Fathers, non-canonical Gospels) that may independently attest to sayings or traditions appearing in the New Testament Gospels
  • The agrapha or “non-written” sayings of Jesus that are unparalleled in the New Testament Gospels (e.g., Acts 20:35)
  • The preference for the viva voce or “living voice” (Papias, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4)

The tenets of Formgeschichte (form history) or Form Criticism

  • The Gospels retell the story of Jesus through a post-Easter theological lens (cf. William Wrede).
  • Low literacy rates and imminent expectations of the end of the age did not encourage writing, so isolated sayings of Jesus or short memorable episodes were passed down by word of mouth.
  • Except for the previously interconnected Passion Narrative, the evangelist “Mark” linked independent oral traditions together in a loose chronological framework (e.g. note the literary seams from the phrase “and immediately” to non-specific temporal references and locations) or grouped them topically (e.g., controversies in 2:1-3:6 or parables in 4:1-34).
  • The oral units can be classified according to their literary forms:




    (Tradition to Gospel)

    Paradigms, Tales, Legends, Exhortations, Mythological Stories


    (Synoptic Tradition)

    Apophthegms (controversial, scholastic, biographical); Dominical Sayings (Logia, Prophetic, Legal or Church-Rules, I-sayings, Similitudes); Miracle Stories (Healing, Nature); Historical Stories and Legends


    (Gospel Tradition)

    Pronouncement Stories, Miracle Stories, Sayings & Parables, Stories about Jesus
  • A form corresponded to a Sitz im Leben (“situation in life”): missionary preaching, catechetical teachings, guidelines on church discipline, worship, or debates with outsiders.
  • Traditions grew over time: forms were combined (e.g. Mark 2:1-12: pronouncement or miracle story?), sayings were lengthened, details were embellished, prophetic utterances in the name of the risen Jesus were read back into Jesus’s earthly life, and there was cultural translation from a Jewish to a Hellenistic milieu.
  • Redaction criticism: how the evangelists selected, arranged, and edited their oral and written sources.
  • Key names: Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann.

Assumptions of form criticism that are open to critique

  • modern form classifications that are unparalleled in ancient rhetoric
  • original unitary forms that had a single function in one setting
  • set trajectories for how traditions expand over time (cf. E. P. Sanders)
  • individual sayings or deeds of Jesus circulated in isolation from larger interpretive frameworks (e.g. longer thematic discourses, social memories of the general outline of Jesus’s ministry or his individual character)
  • the form critics downplayed the literary and theological skill of the evangelists when they were treated as compilers of tradition
  • the early Christ followers did not distinguish Jesus’s authoritative teachings from their own personal declarations (contra 1 Corinthians 7:8-16)
  • eschatological enthusiasm as an impediment to writing (contra the Dead Sea Scrolls) and an alleged lack of interest in written sources
  • the Jewish versus Hellenistic dichotomy (cf. Martin Hengel)
  • See Stephen H. Travis, “Form Criticism” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1977).

Alternative models to Form Criticism:

  • An analogy of how oral tradition was controlled by authorized teachers and strictly memorized in rabbinic literature. See the work of Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gerhardsson.
  • An analogy of Middle Eastern village communities informally exercising control over how oral traditions are retold based on their communal memory and deciding how much flexibility is permitted in the retelling (e.g. poems or proverbs were unaltered while parables or stories can vary in the details as long as the “punch line” is intact). See the work of Kenneth Bailey taken up by James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright.
  • The Gospel writers name (or occasionally use “protective anonymity” for) their eyewitness sources and local informants within their narratives. See the work of Samuel Byrskog and Richard Bauckham.
  • The effort to reconstruct Aramaic sources behind the Greek Gospels. See the work of Maurice Casey.
  • More sophisticated studies of individual and social memory that emphasize how the past is both preserved and interpreted in the present. See Anthony Le Donne’s “Social Memory Theories and Gospels: A Preliminary Biography” and the video lectures about memory studies on the website Biblical Studies Online.

Example: The Pronouncement Story

  • “a brief narrative in which the climatic (and often final) element is a pronouncement which is presented as a particular person’s response to something said or observed on a particular occasion of the past. There are two main parts of a pronouncement story: the pronouncement and its setting, i.e., the response and the situation that provoked the response.” (Robert Tannehill, “Introduction: The Pronouncement Story and Its Types” Semeia 20 [1981]: 1)
  • The χρεία (chreia) as defined by Theon in the Progymnasmata (96) as “a brief saying or action making a point, attributed to some specified person or something corresponding to a person…” For a list of 14 rhetorical exercises, see Gideon O. Burton’s page on the Progymnasmata.
  • For further research, see Vernon K. Robbins’ “Chreia & Pronouncement Story in Synoptic Studies“, Ben Witherington III’s “NT Rhetoric: A Handbook“, and Keith Reich’s “Rhetoric and the NT” blog.
  • For specific cases in the Synoptic Gospels, see Mark Allan Powell handout on “Pronouncement Stories in the Gospels: Some Examples

Example: The Parable

  • From the Hebrew mashal and the Greek parabolḗ
  • The allegorical method: see David B. Gowler’s discussion of Saint Augustine’s interpretation on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Questions on the Gospels 2.19) on his blog “A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables
  • Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938): Jesus’s authentic parables were simple comparisons between an image and the object that it corresponded to (e.g. the kingdom is like a mustard seed [Mark 4:30-32], leaven in dough [Matthew 13:33/Luke 13:20-21], buried treasure [Matthew 13:44], and a dragnet full of fish [Matthew 13:47-50]). Allegorical elements in the Gospels are secondary (e.g. parable of the sower [Mark 4:1-20]).
  • De-contextualized parables in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (compare the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12:1-12 with Thomas logion 65 + 66). To compare the parables in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, see Anne McGuire’s “Parallel Versions of the Parables of Jesus” and “List of the Parables of Jesus.”
  • Literary (e.g. structuralism, reader-response theory) and political approaches to the parables.
  • The parables in canonical contexts: extended metaphors (even a chastened return to allegory?), a comparison with rabbinic parables, and prophetic challenges.
  • A brief bibliography (see also Philip J. Long’s review of parable research at his blog “Reading Acts“)
    • Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
    • Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.
    • Dodd, C. H. The Parables of the Kingdom. London: Nisbet and Company, Ltd, 1935.
    • Funk, Robert W. Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper, 1966.
    • Herzog II, William The Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
    • Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus. Translated by H. Hooke. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.
    • Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. New York: HarperOne, 2014.
    • Linnemann, Eta. Jesus of the Parables: Introduction and Exposition. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
    • Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. See also his Bible Odyssey post “The Parables of Jesus
  • Example: Miracle Stories
    • Divided into Healing and Nature Miracles
    • See this post for a closer examination of the miracle stories in the Gospels


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