Tag Archives: oral tradition

On the Speeches In Acts – Part 2 of 8

With an understanding of how speeches were crafted in historical narrative, and some background information presented regarding Luke’s sources, a brief sketch of the traditional views regarding the speeches in Acts may now be addressed.

It is not an understatement to point out that Martin Dibelius’ work on the speeches in Acts cleared the way for the recent tide of research on the topic.  As Joel Green points out in his article on the “Acts of the Apostles,” since Dibelius, there have been two schools of thought with regard to the study of the speeches in Acts.  One school, led by Dibelius, classifies the speeches in tradition and history and examines them as Lukan instruments of discourse.  The other led by more recent scholars such as Tannehill and Soards classify the speeches by their setting and elements and seek to understand how they unfold the narrative (Green 11).  In the midst of this has surfaced, as Green puts it, a “via media” in the writings of C. H. Gempf, through which,

literary aspirations do not preclude historical value, and the presence of Lukan style and theology in the speeches of Acts does not necessarily lead to the inference that these speeches are Lukan in origin. (11)

Clearly, while the extremes of two schools of thought have been established, the false dilemma of having to accept one or the other is absurd.  Yet, a via media, which states that Luke “would compose a speech in keeping with what could be known of the traditional data available to him” seems to be nothing more than a nod in the direction of Dibelius (Achtemeier 264).  More realistically, if one school of thought states that Luke made up the speeches because it was an accepted method of writing, and another school of thought states that he carefully sought to represent actual speeches in his writing, then perhaps a more pure via media would acknowledge that Luke used credible sources to carefully transmit, albeit according to both popular and Lukan style, the content of actual speeches given according to God’s purposes.

Then again, what if the whole idea of creating speeches cannot be clearly proven?

From this perspective come the words of some who think it quite impossible to assert that the fashioning of speeches “in character” can even be proven at all.  Stanley Porter has come up with “several problematic words or phrases” in Thucydides’ statement on speech writing (Paul, 110).  He even questions the idea of the legitimacy of a “Thucydidean View” (NovT, 121-142).  Others, who comparatively scan the historical horizon for writers who practiced such methods concede, as C. W. Fornara did, that, “there was no convention of inventing speeches for historical works,” and McCoy goes on to state “though some armchair and highly encomiastic historians, who did not bother to investigate their subject matter closely or inquire of the witnesses what was said, did so” (28).  As already clearly stated above, Luke does not fit into the category of an “armchair historian.”  McCoy further points out that there was an ongoing debate in Luke’s time and just before it regarding this issue.  He writes that, “Livy, whose use of sources can be checked when he draws on a speech from Polybius, does not seem to have engaged in the free invention of speeches; rather ‘he substantially reproduced the source-content of the speeches he inherited from others’” (McCoy 28).  It seems, then, that there might be more similarity between Luke and Polybius than Luke and Thucydides.  If we believe Luke really did careful research, then it makes sense to put these two men in the same class of writers.

One final and most compelling point that McCoy makes is regarding the “internal debate among historians” even before the Roman Empire who argued “whether distortion or free invention was allowable in a historical work in the service of higher rhetorical aims” (McCoy 29).  It becomes increasingly clear, then, that the idea of a “Thucydidean View” is a phantom, perhaps only visible to a few.  In light of this evidence, perhaps it should not be so difficult to give Luke the benefit of doubt with regard to his sources and purpose in the faithful representation of the speeches of the book of Acts, especially when he can be so trusted with other historical facts, names, and places.

How, then, did Luke shape and craft the speeches to fit into the whole of the book of Acts?  What was their substance?  How did they relate, if at all, to those of his contemporaries?

To begin to answer these questions, the issue of form should first be addressed.  In short, Luke’s speeches had similar essential elements to those of his contemporaries, yet were specifically diverse.  In general, the essential elements, at least in the major speeches and somewhat in the minor speeches, can be seen in the standard forms of the Greco-Roman speech:

1.        exordium/prooimion…catches the audience’s attention

2.        narration/prothesis…sets forth the facts / proof/pistis…sets forth the arguments that support one’s case

3.        peroration/epilogus…sums up arguments and stirs audience…often an impassioned summary  (Lanham 171…114)

4.        interruptio/aposiopesis…stopping suddenly in mid-course, leaving a statement unfinished…sometimes for effect  (Lanham 20)

The points at which Luke’s speeches essentially replicate are seen in the following points:

1.     appeal for hearing, including a connection between the situation and the speech,

2.     christological message supported with scriptural proof,

3.     offer of salvation, and (often)

4.     interruption of the sermon by the audience or by the narrator himself (Achtemeier 264).

Again, in general, these are the four points where most, if not all of the similarities will be found.  Therefore, while there is a similarity in form and style, there are no further viable points of comparison with Greco-Roman speeches (Soards 143).  Beyond that, one may wonder what, if any points of comparison may be found in the Deuteronomic or Hellenistic speeches.  Soards succinctly states that there are some similarities, but especially because of the apologetic tone of many of the speeches of Acts, that there are no real points of comparison (157-160).

At this point the forms and content of the speeches must not only be seen as their most distinctive feature, but their most purposeful as well (Soards 161).  While purpose will be examined more specifically in the next post, one point must be made clear: Luke’s concern was to advance through these speeches a distinct (though not at all points distinctive) view of God’s purpose (Achtemeier 264).  So, while conventional similarities exist in the style or structure, the content forcefully drives home the point of the story – the supernatural revelation of the gospel to all nations through common means.

Achtemeier, P. J., J. B. Green, M. M. Thompson.  Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature

and Theology.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Aune, David.  The New Testament in Its Literary Environment.  Philadelphia: Westminster,

1987.

Dibelius, Martin.  “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography.”  Studies in the Acts of the

Apostles. Ed. Heinrich Greeven.  Trans. Mary Ling.  New York: Scribner’s, 1956.

Green, J. B.  “Acts of the Apostles.”  DLNT.  Eds. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids.

Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1997.

McCoy, W. J.  “In the Shadow of Thucydides.”  History, Literature, and Society in the Book of

Acts. Ed. Ben Witherington.  Cambridge: University Press, 1996.

Porter, Stanley.  The Paul of Acts: Essays in Literary Criticism, Rhetoric, and Theology.

WUNT 115.  Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.

_____.  “Thucydides 1.22.1 and Speeches in Acts: Is There A Thucydidean View?”  NovT 32.

1990.  121-142.

Soards, Marion.  The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Contexts, and Concerns.  Louisville:

Westminster/Knox, 1994.

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On the Speeches In Acts – List of Speeches

Here are a list of the speeches in Acts to go with the series:

  1. The words of the risen Jesus and the angels to the apostles  1:4b-5, 7-8, 11
  2. Peter’s speech and the disciples’ prayer prior to the enrollment of Matthias  1:16-22, 24b-25
  3. Peter’s speech at Pentecost  2:14b-36, 38-39, 40b
  4. Peter’s speech in Solomon’s portico of the Temple  3:12-26
  5. Peter’s speech to the Jewish authorities after his and John’s arrest  4:8b-12, 19b-20
  6. The prayer of the apostles and their friends  4:24b-30
  7. The speech of Peter and the apostles to the council  5:29b-32
  8. Gamaliel’s speech to the council  5:35b-39
  9. The speech by the Twelve prior to the appointment of the Seven  6:2b-4
  10. Stephen’s speech  7:2-53, 56, 59b, 60b
  11. Peter’s speech in Cornelius’ house  10:28b-29, 34b-43, 47
  12. Peter’s speech to the circumcision party  11:5-17
  13. Paul’s speech at Antioch of Pisidia  13:16b-41, 46-47
  14. The speech of Barnabus and Paul at Lystra  14:15-17
  15. Peter’s speech at the Jerusalem gathering  15:7b-11
  16. James’ speech at the Jerusalem gathering  15:13b-21
  17. Paul’s speech in the middle of the Areopagus  17:22-31
  18. Paul’s speech to the Corinthian Jews  18:6b-d
  19. Gallio’s speech to the Corinthian Jews  18:14-b-15
  20. Demetrius’ speech  19:25b-27
  21. The speech of the Ephesian elders  19:35b-40
  22. Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders  20:18b-35
  23. Agabus’ speech in Caesarea  21:11b-c
  24. Paul’s speech to the disciples in Caesarea  21:13b-c
  25. The speech of James and the Jerusalem elders  21:20b-25
  26. The speech of the Jews from Asia  21:28
  27. Paul’s speech to the Jerusalem Jews  22:1, 3 to 21
  28. Paul’s speech before the council  23:1b, 3, 5, 6b
  29. The Pharisees’ speech in the council  23:9c-d
  30. Tertullus’ speech  24:2b-8
  31. Paul’s speech before Felix  24:10b-21
  32. Paul’s speech before Festus  25:8b, 10b-11
  33. Festus’ speech  25:14c-21, 24 to 27
  34. Paul’s speech before King Agrippa  26:2-23, 25 to 27, 29
  35. Paul’s speech(es) during the sea voyage to Rome  27:10b, 21b-26, 31b, 33b-34
  36. Paul’s speech to the Roman Jewish leaders 28:17c-20, 25b-28
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On the Speeches in Acts – Part 1 of 8

In this extended series of posts, I hope to shed some light on the issue of how authors in the first century went about recording speeches in historical writings and more specifically, Luke’s account of the speeches found in his Acts of the Apostles.

There are several questions at hand: How did Luke include speeches that most likely he did not hear in person in his account of the Acts of the Apostles?  Can these speeches be taken as authentic?  Did Luke fashion the speeches to fit the story he was writing?  How might this affect the veracity of the account?

My investigation will focus more on the historical and literary points to consider, but ultimately, the study has important apologetic implications and  I will address those in Part 7.

So, let’s begin!

Upon even a cursory reading of the book of Acts, the importance of the speeches contained therein is readily apparent.  The sheer amount of space given over to this type of discourse reveals one overarching fact: the author of this book used speeches with purpose.  Of course, discerning this purpose within the study of Luke-Acts has been the quandary of bible scholars for years.  Questions regarding the authorship of the speeches, their historicity, and their theology abound.  As such, the purpose of this essay will be to survey the speeches of the book of Acts with a view to answering some fundamental questions that arise from their study.  Upon review of some very general observations about these speeches, topics such as the sources of the speeches, traditional opinions on the speeches and how they should be studied, their form, function, and themes will be analyzed with a view to proposing their purpose within the book of Acts.

The speeches of the book of Acts occupy some 25 percent of the narrative within the book of Acts (Aune 125).  Stated from another angle, Marion Soards wrote that 365 verses out of the total 1000 in the book of Acts are given over to speeches and dialogues (Soards 1).

In order to grasp the basic message of these speeches and their placement within the book, Soards’ model of delineating them in sequence can be referenced in the Appendix.

One of the first things a modern student of the book of Acts must do is realign their understanding of how historical narrative, and especially in this case, the speeches within the narrative were written.  In the twenty-first century, moderns seem to want “just the facts.”  Yet, curiously, despite the popularity of The History Channel, it is a good story that causes millions to flock to the box office every year.  This is just the type of realignment necessary for a more pure understanding of the writing of historical narrative in Luke’s time.  In a recent work, Barbara Shellard wrote that,

ancient historians were primarily trained not in history but in rhetoric, which formed the basis of their educational system.  They aimed to convince the reader of the truth of their account of events, and the speeches they wrote were appropriate for the circumstances rather than verbatim records. (19)

Therefore, ancient historians such as Thucydides in the fifth century B.C.E. used speeches to enhance their report by fashioning speeches “in character” (Bailey 166).  The ability to do this was a rhetorical skill known as “prosopopoeia,” which might be better understood in this generation as a form of literary impersonation (Lanham 124).  The question of why this was done is a valid one, especially because it seems foreign to our twenty-first century understanding of history writing.  One must consider at least two main reasons, and yet a third that should set the mind at ease concerning the constructing of speeches.  First, as a rhetorical device, a speech might have been inserted to make the narrative more interesting for the reader.  Second, even if a speech was actually given by the character in question, it was most likely not transcribed for the history writer to reference at a later date.  Finally, it developed one’s impression of the character, just as similarly, in the movies, the personality, motives, and actions of characters are developed (Bailey 166-167).  It is important, then, in the words of Shellard, to “judge Luke’s writing by the standards of his own time, and not our own” (19).  Perhaps, then, a more realistic appreciation for Luke as a writer in his own day as compared to ours can be grasped.

However, must the conclusion be reached that all writers of history used such fanciful methods in the improvising of speeches?  Moreover, would Luke have done this?  The answer is increasingly being answered in the negative as scholars of late have begun to look past a historical-traditional approach and move toward a more focused understanding of the importance of each speech within Luke’s narrative (Green 11).  From the opening of his gospel, Luke’s intent can be discerned. For he states that he desired to:

set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4 NRSV)

These words clearly affirm that the research Luke did was indeed “careful” and “orderly.”  Luke’s choice of the word diegesis, “an orderly description of facts, events, actions or words” (Lk. 1:1) and diegeomai, “to give a detailed account of something in words” (Lk. 8:39; 9:10; Acts 16:10; 9:27; 12:17; 16:40) reveal that he went to great lengths to ensure a truthful account (BDAG).  As such, Luke’s purpose in writing historical literature can be placed in a most honorable category, in that he chose to see truth reign in his account in comparison to what was both accepted and popular within the same genre of his day.  Further, one must not forget that had Luke not, as best he could have, faithfully represented the speeches of the apostles of the early church, Luke-Acts most likely would not have achieved canonical status after generations of careful review and critique by his peers in the faith.  A final note on the issue should also be made regarding Luke’s choice of the word “diegesis” in Luke 1:1 over Mark’s use of “euangellion” with reference to the gospel narrative (Aune 116).  This drives home the point that Luke clearly chose to be as faithful as possible to the truth of the events of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, to prove that his intent had changed with the Acts narrative would be no simple feat.  In fact, Gasque explicitly writes, “those who believe that the author of Acts invented speeches tend to dismiss the speeches of the third gospel…as evidence for the author’s methodology in the Book of Acts” (62).  To posit that Luke did not remain faithful to his stated purpose is tantamount to discrediting him; the burden of proof rests with the critic.

At this point, the sources Luke might have used must be considered.  Invariably, Luke could have used any combination of eyewitness accounts, oral traditions, and written reports available to him at the time of his writing Luke-Acts.   Aune, while revealing the unlikelihood that written evidence was in existence, wrote that Luke had three options with regard to the material used for the speeches:

(1)     To interview those present or (if he were present) to recall the substance of what was actually spoken,

(2) To freely improvise speeches according to the principle of appropriateness

(3) To combine research and memory with free composition. (125)

Aune goes on to state that Luke used option number three.  This is highly plausible, but quite possibly insufficient.  If, as James Dunn has so well stated in his recent work “Jesus In Oral Memory” that oral tradition played a large part in the sources used to compose the gospels, perhaps it is just as plausible that such oral traditions were passed on from gathering to gathering as the early church met and discussed the faith, words, and deeds of the major characters in the book of Acts.  Dunn even uses Luke’s retelling of the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts as the primary example of his faithful handling of oral tradition, stating that he would indeed handle the oral traditions of Jesus in like manner (9).  More will be written about this in the discussion of the content of the speeches in Acts, but Dunn’s point about the oral traditions of the early church, especially as they relate to Luke, must not be overlooked.  Further adding to the category of Luke’s credibility, Dunn writes that,

Luke was himself a good story-teller, and that his retelling of the story of Paul’s conversion is a good example not simply of the use of oral tradition in a written work, but of the oral traditioning process as a whole.” (9)

So then, it appears that at the very least, there was also the well of oral tradition that Luke would have been able to draw from in order to carefully transmit the essence of the speeches within their proper historical context, thus fulfilling his purpose from the beginning.  Overall, for these reasons, it seems unlikely that while some ancient historians could and did fashion speeches for the sake of their purpose that Luke would have done the same.  Perhaps, in Luke’s estimation, this literary device was simply an unnecessary convention for the material he was writing.

Aune, David.  The New Testament in Its Literary Environment.  Philadelphia: Westminster,

1987.

Dunn, James D.G.  “Jesus in Oral Memory: The Initial Stages of the Jesus Tradition.”

NTGateway. June 2000.  <http://www.ntgateway.com/Jesus/dunn.rtf&gt;

Gasque, W. Ward.  “The Book of Acts and History.”  Unity and Diversity in New Testament

Theology: Essays in Honor of George E. Ladd. Ed. R. A. Guelich.  Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1978.

Green, J. B.  “Acts of the Apostles.”  DLNT.  Eds. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids.

Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1997.

Lanham, Richard A.  A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms.  Second Ed.  Berkeley: University, 1991.

Plumacher, E.  “diegeomai.”  Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament.  Vol. 1.  Eds. H. Balz

and G. Schneider.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Shellard, Barbara.  New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources, and Literary Contexts.

JSNT Supp. 215. Exec. Ed. Stanley E. Porter.  London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

Soards, Marion.  The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Contexts, and Concerns.  Louisville:

Westminster/Knox, 1994.

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Forensic Analysis of the Gospel of Mark – Via Stand To Reason

Found an excellent bit of research regarding a Forensic Analysis of the Gospel of Mark.

Original link on the Stand To Reason blog at STR.org.

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Eyewitness Testimony and the Gospels

Between work, Christmas and jury duty I lost track of time, but had an interesting thought while on a case.

The judge was reading the jury instructions and told us that even if we hear different accounts of the same incident from differing eyewitnesses that both or all are to be weighed for validity.

It made me think of how many times I have heard/read a “new atheist” state that the differences of the eyewitnesses in the four gospels prove errancy.  While this can be answered on two fronts: testimony and errancy, I’ll stick to testimony for this post.

I especially like what Richard Bauckham had to say over on Chris Tilling’s blog on the subject:

Like most historical evidence, what we have is testimony, and it is the kind of testimony ancient historians most valued: the testimony of involved participants who spoke of the meaning of events they experienced from the inside. Dispassionate observers are not the best sources for much of what we want to know about history. Especially with uniquely significant, history-making events, where crude ideas of uniformity in history break down, we need testimony from the inside. The Holocaust is the signal modern example of an event we should have no real conception of without the testimony of survivors. Moreover, trusting testimony is a normal, perfectly rational thing to do. One can try to test the reliability of witnesses, but then they have to be trusted. We cannot independently verify everything they say and that’s the point of testimony. So while I’m not trying to remove faith in the special sense of faith in God and in Jesus or that such faith is response to the disclosure of God in the Gospel history, I do think that historiographical and theological considerations converge in the nature of the Gospels, rather than tearing faith and history apart.

I guess lawyers don’t get much of a choice whether their witness is a “dispassionate observer” or not.  During the trial, the best witnesses were those who were indeed passionate about what happened.  They had the most detail and the most information.  Those who literally were there on the street had a story to tell, but it lacked precise detail and clarity.  Indeed, it was confusing at times to tell who had it right. 

So, I see a connection with the eyewitnesses to the gospel accounts and the stories of Jesus.  Seems it would be difficult to find a dispassionate eyewitness to the things Jesus said and did!  He couldn’t even keep it a secret by asking, for people who experienced Jesus rarely, if ever, went away unchanged physically, mentally or spiritually.

It is fair to assess, then, that the eyewitnesses told the Jesus stories because of the effect he had on their world.  As such, it makes perfect sense to weigh all the testimony for validity – and that testimony is significant. 

What do you think?

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Gospel Tradition Formation – Vincent Taylor (Part 2 of 2)

50-65 AD

The second period (50-65 AD) evidences attempts “to gather the scattered elements of the tradition into groups.”  (175)

This early in the development of the church, one must wonder what the main reasons were for beginning to collect and catalog the Jesus stories.  Taylor believes that his was done topically rather than chronologically with a view to Christian instruction and apologetic, with the Pronouncement Stories given the most attention.  (175)  I believe Taylor to be correct in stating that “apologetic” and “instructional” reasons must have been at the forefront.  However, I also believe there to be other reasons as well, Gospel writing for one, and use in the meetings of the church second.  Taylor proposes:

“Could not these stories be arranged in such a way as to promote instruction, and to serve the ends of attack and defence in the face of hostile Jewish criticisms?  In isolation the stories had proved to be valuable; might they not be still more effective in combination?”  (176)

I see his point as plausible, but perhaps this rationale is too aggressive, taking a strong apologetic stance in the face of debate or persecution and minimizing other more practical reasons.

It is the vision of a practical community assemblage of stories into which a Gospel narrative would be formed by a writer among the community that Taylor suggests reveals “like purpose in the pre-Gospel period, the results of which Mark took over and embodied in his work.”  (176)  The focus, then would not be what did the community need that necessitated Mark to write as he did, but how was the community using the Jesus stories that allowed Mark to fashion his literary narrative alongside the use of the oral tradition.  So, Taylor rightly points out that “for all its originality, Mark was not a work begun de novo, but a composition which gathered into itself earlier attempts to serve religious and apologetic needs.”  (180)

Too often, perhaps, we read the gospels with an authorial view similar to that of the epistles, as if Mark sat down to compose the first Gospel on his own much like we see that Paul may have done or like a modern-day author composes a book.  Yet, one of the most important things to take away from a study of the Gospel tradition formation would be that this was a collective work…a communal work.  The Gospel writers had material to use that was both theologically consistent and practically effective because it was maintained by early Christians as they met and shared their faith in Christ and life with Christ with one another.  Perhaps the takeaway hermeneutical principle here is less attention to authorial intent and literary analysis and a more purposeful study of what the early churches held dear and why.

Finally for this period, Taylor believes that the “sayings collections” were the source of Q.

“Although Q was the work of an individual, it was rooted in the life of primitive Christianity, and its fortunes must have reflected the circumstances of its origins: it changed, as it was bound to change, because it was the responsive to the life it fed…The simplest and most natural view is that Q began as a sayings-source pure and simple…Q was an innovation prompted by the needs of catechetical instruction.”  (182)

I find this short collection of quotes problematic on a number of fronts.

  1. How is Q believed to be the work of an individual?
  2. Why do we have no physical evidence for Q?
  3. When did the churches actually begin catechesis,which appears to be later than 50-65 AD, how can we be certain that Q was used?

That said, it does make sense that somewhere among the churches, someone was writing and gathering sayings and stories about Jesus, but I see no legitimate reason to classify them as a single source document.

65-100 AD

According to Taylor, the third period (65-100 AD) consisted of Gospel compilation, during which time “on a much larger scale, the Evangelists carried forward the work of those who first grouped Pronouncement-Stories and expanded Q.”  (185)  Personally, I believe a pre-65 AD date for Mark is most probable.  Whatever Mark’s sources, most likely he had quite a bit of first hand knowledge of material from Peter.  Here, Taylor writes with a more definitive tone:

“The Petrine stories and a knowledge of the progress of events derived from Peter, supplied him with an outline into which he inserted single stories and small collections of primitive material in such a way as to show how Jesus, the Messiah, came to His Passion and His Cross.  The links with earlier stages are unmistakable.  Mark is not a skilled writer; and the developments of his Story is due, not so much to his editorial powers and doctrinal ideas, as to the tradition he knew and the special advantages he enjoyed.”  (187)

So, we see that Taylor supposes that much of Mark’s genius comes from sources outside himself, specifically Petrine material, oral tradition, and perhaps even other written traditions/compilations.  Again, we revisit the idea of a consistent storyline and recall of events sufficient enough to be crafted into a narrative that the church received and confirmed.  While it may be true that Mark pulled from other written documents such as Thomas and Q, one must answer the question that begs an answer: Why was Mark so eagerly received by the church, but other sources such as Thomas were found to be less appealing?  I believe we can easily conclude that perhaps Mark simply provided the most accurate rendition of the historical facts, which resulted in a robust transmission of the Gospel among the churches.  To me, this makes the best sense given the evidence.

Finally, Taylor closes with the following:

“Far from losing the idea of Inspiration, we are led to see that the Spirit of God must have been at work upon a grander scale, not coercing men or using them as blind instruments, but elevating their minds to perceive, to transmit, and to interpret the best elements in the tradition.  Literature has no books which can justly be compared with the Gospels, which indeed come from men, but in the last analysis are the gift of God, seals of His grace and sacraments of His love.”  (189)

Perhaps the simplest and best answer regarding Gospel tradition formation is that God himself was involved in the process to ensure that the truth was preserved.  I would agree with Taylor, the evidence presented only strengthens the idea of divine inspiration and in no way diminishes it.  It is in the formation of the Gospel traditions that I see both a high view of the Gospel accounts (and therefore the scriptures as a whole) as well as a high view of the church dynamically and spiritually preserving the truth about Jesus Christ.

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Gospel Tradition Formation – Vincent Taylor (Part 1 of 2)

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 [1935]), 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)

30-50 AD

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)

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