In preparatory reading for the study of Mark, I found that R. T. France and others referenced Vincent Taylor quite a bit, so I perused his work, The Formation of the Gospel Traditions. (London: Macmillan, 1953 ), and discerned quite a bit of good information relating to oral tradition in the earliest church.
As an aside, I also found a nice little story relating to Vincent Taylor over the pond on Jim Gordon’s blog Living Wittily.
In this study, Taylor is looking specifically at oral traditions told by the early church before the Gospels were written. He proposes three periods of development: 30-50 AD, 50-65 AD, 65-100 AD (169)
The first period began with Jesus stories, remembrances of things Jesus said or did. Eyewitness testimonies, both in the disciples of Jesus as well as others who had seen his miracles and deeds or heard his teachings circulated through the early church.
Taylor was the first to refer to these as “pronouncement stories” concerning Jesus, and he believed that the early pronouncement story was “of interest to the first Christians because it bore directly upon questions of faith and practice.” (23) Basically a pronouncement story is a short story about something Jesus said (pronounced) in a situation that reveals his seemingly unique ability to discern and reply wisely to potentially compromising situations. This is very much the sort of story that early Christians would recall when discussing situations in which the wisdom of Jesus Christ would sustain and encourage them as the church met with one another in various gatherings. Soon these stories became an early oral form of the Gospel tradition.
Taylor writes that M. Albertz believed this tradition:
“took shape in the early Christian assemblies where individual Christians had the right to bring forward narratives for the strengthening and instruction of their fellow-members. ‘If,’ he says, ‘we want to make for ourselves a vivid picture of the teachers of primitive Christianity, we must not forget these narrators who understood how to serve in the meetings the growing apologetic interests of the members of the community by the presentation of apposite words of the Lord.’” (27)
And quoting Schmidt:
“When Christians were together, they narrated one to another concerning the words and deeds of the Lord, one relieving, one supplementing one another.” (27-28)
These early stories and traditions formed immediately following the Resurrection, as the first Christians preserved:
“cycles of connected reminiscences associated with the various centres of the Ministry of Jesus…Naturally this information was very much fuller than that which is accessible to us in the Gospels; but it was not guided and sustained by a biographical interest, and accordingly it soon began to perish by an inevitable process of attrition. Practical interests were uppermost, and thus is was that within about a decade the Gospel tradition came to be mainly a collection of isolated stories, sayings, and sayings-groups.”(169-170)
Both fascinating as well as frustrating is the idea that early on the information was “much fuller” (John 20:30 comes to mind), giving the impression that the early church perhaps forgot much of what Jesus said and did, or perhaps carefully retained by divine inspiration only that which was necessary for faith and practice, or perhaps anything of a myriad of options in between! But this I will save for a future post.
The one exception to a diminishment of material would seem to be the Passion story, which was preserved more fully in preaching, teaching and during the agape meal. This makes sense given the accounts in the written gospels as well as the Pauline material.
So who shaped and preserved these early stories? Taylor believes,
“The principal agents who shaped the tradition were eyewitnesses and others who had knowledge of the original facts. Constant repetition, especially in connexion with early celebrations of the Supper, gave relative fixity to the Story, and yet not such a fixity as to leave no room for additions. Early Christian leaders moved from one community to another (cf. Acts 8:1, 14, 26; 9:32, etc.), and, as a result of this, details prized in one community would find entrance into the story of another community. Moreover, the Passion Story as it was told in important Churches would often replace local versions, which were felt to be less worthy, or wanting in Apostolical authority. In this way the Markan Story came to establish itself far and wide.
Now this is a truly fascinating point: there were room for additions to the stories. Imagine a time before any written New Testament texts were available to the church. How interesting that the church sought out verity regarding Jesus among one another, and primarily as “told by those who had seen the Risen Lord.” (171) How did they do this? What was the process? It seems there was a large degree of honor and trust as well as knowledge of those who had truly been an eyewitness to Jesus’ words and deeds. Further, it seems that they did this in community.
Taylor comments further on the eyewitnesses,
“That many saw Jesus, and that the women visited the Tomb were known, but the exact nature of the Resurrection Body of Jesus and the precise succession of events were not known, with a result that our knowledge to-day is limited to what, after all, is the essential thing – traditions of men who affirmed that they saw Jesus after His death. (171)
So we see, then, that Jesus’ words continued to live and provide support as they were told and retold, as the community went about the daily tasks of fitting their faith in Jesus to the world around them and answering challenging questions with Jesus’ words of spirit and everlasting life.
While the daily use and remembrance of Jesus’ words was an integral part of the life of the first Christians, the narrative tradition suffered. Seemingly, the early Christians were “interested in the actions of Jesus, but they were more interested in His Passion and in what He had said.” (174) They loved to tell both the pronouncement stories as well as the action stories revealing the supernaturality of Jesus, believing that absolutely nothing could overpower his might. (174) One can imagine sitting among fellow Christians recalling Jesus’ mighty deeds…”Remember when Jesus said or did…”
Yet, this communal strength soon began to reveal a loss of connectedness. The larger story, the complete story, the cohesiveness had begun to unravel. Perhaps this is where the Gospel writers stepped in. Perhaps, here the writer of Mark sought to weave it all together again, so that the church would not lose the whole story. It is here, at the end of this first period, that Taylor describes the situation as follows,
“Christian hands are full of jewels, but there is no desire to weave a crown.” (175)
(See Part 2 of 2 here)