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.


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)