Q&A: A Critique of Form Criticism of the Gospels

A Critique of Form Criticism of the Gospels

How should evangelicals respond to the charge that the gospels are based on faulty oral traditions?

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Most 20th century study of the Gospels was indebted to people who were form critics, who were working at the beginning of the 20th century, and who had certain very definite ideas about how the traditions of Jesus, the traditions of Jesus' teaching, the stories about Jesus, were transmitted orally until they reached the writers of the Gospels. And basically, what they did was to imagine a period of oral transmission between the original eyewitnesses, who must have originated traditions about Jesus, and the writers of the Gospels. A period of oral transmission, in which the sayings and the stories were transmitted from person to person, within the early Christian communities. And they saw this as a potentially very creative process, in which all kinds of developments of the tradition could have taken place, in which many of the contents of the Gospels were created by the early communities. And they also saw it as a sort of process in which the traditions were passed on anonymously. They weren't attributed to Peter or James or one of the eyewitnesses, but simply, the communities kind of owned these traditions and passed them on. So, there was a period, as it were, in which all sorts of things could have happened to the transmission. Many gospel scholars took that basic picture but argued that the transmission was fairly conservative, that the traditions were preserved fairly accurately, but others allowed all sorts of creative developments in that period of oral transmission.

Now, I would say perhaps two main critical points about that picture of how the traditions were transmitted. One is, it seems to me, that the form critics ignored the very simple fact that the eyewitnesses, who were there at the beginning of the transmission of the traditions, were still there throughout the period when the traditions were circulating orally. So, it wasn't as though, you know, these things happened independently. The eyewitnesses were there. They themselves continued to tell their stories and report the teachings of Jesus. They were the, sort of, authoritative guarantors to which one would go, really, if one wanted to know, authoritatively, the traditions about Jesus. And I think by the time that Mark, for example, is writing, probably, the first of the gospels, it would be natural for a gospel writer to turn to the eyewitnesses who were still around to get his material for the gospel. So, I think the continuing role of the eyewitnesses, who weren't simply superseded by this anonymous tradition, is a very important fact.

The other thing that is well worth considering is that the form critics at the beginning of the 20th century were working with probably the best models of oral tradition that were around at the time. But we now know a great deal more about oral tradition. They were reliant, mostly, on the way that folk tales were transmitted in European history. And of course, these are the kind of things that were passed down over centuries. It's a very different process, really, from the transmission of gospel traditions over a few decades in the New Testament period. Folk tales were also, by definition, fictional material, and people who passed on fictional material were often interested in creative development of it. They didn't feel bound to transmit material accurately. But we now know far more about oral tradition. We have studies of oral tradition from all societies all over the world, Africa and parts of Asia, and so forth, lots of data about how oral traditions work. And one of things we can say is… Actually, there is very little we can say about oral tradition in general. The way oral traditions are preserved and passed on and treated, there is very much from society to society. And we have to know something about the particular society. But what we do know is that if an oral society wants to preserve its traditions faithfully, because it regards them as historical — and many oral societies do have a distinction between historical traditions and stories and will treat them differently — but if they have historical traditions that they want to preserve accurately, then they have ways of doing so. For example, they may have techniques of memorization so that, sometimes, things are memorized very closely and in detail. But also, they would have people to whose care the preservation of traditions was committed. So, traditions aren't necessarily, you know, at the mercy of how anybody might pass them on. There were people who are, kind of, authorized to preserve them. And we might, I think in terms of the Gospels, in the early Christian communities, I mean, we might well think of the eyewitnesses, themselves, as being the natural people who were entrusted with the preservation of the traditions. So, I think the form critics worked with a rather inappropriate, and also, very rigid model of oral tradition that we can't, really, now justify. We know a lot more about oral tradition, and there's no reason to think that it worked in the way the form critics proposed.

Answer by Dr. Richard J. Bauckham

Richard Bauckham (M.A., Ph.D. Cambridge; F.B.A.; F.R.S.E) is a widely published scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament.