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Kenneth Bailey's Theory of Oral Tradition: Critiquing Theodore Weeden's Critique

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Abstract

This article is a response to the critique of Kenneth Bailey's depiction of oral tradition made by Theodore Weeden in the preceding essay. The anecdotal evidence for the thesis certainly leaves the thesis open to criticism, but Weeden's critique suffers from a resolute antipathy to Bailey's thesis; it misrepresents the point Bailey is making on several occasions, and it consistently misunderstands the way oral tradition functions, which Bailey's examples well illustrate. Bailey's theory in fact provides a better explanation for the enduring nature and format of the Synoptic Jesus tradition, its repeated character of the same yet different, than any of the alternative predominantly literary explanations.

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... Morgan 1998: 11-12;Kirk 2016: 13) also indicates that field research on living oral traditions over the past 1. See Harris 1989: 22;Morgan 1998: 163;Cribiore 2001: 3, 53-56, 75-76, 249;Hezser 2001: 498; Kirk 2011: 421. 2. For example, Kelber 1983;Mournet 2005;Kloppenborg 2007;Dunn 2009a;Iverson 2009: 71; Kirk 2016. 3. Bailey (1995 argues that the most appropriate model for understanding the Jesus tradition is the 'informal controlled paradigm', which is exemplified in the contemporary gatherings of the Middle East communities called haflat samar. ...
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... Theodore Weedon Sr (2009), criticised this as being anecdotal, rather than research based, but it comes from observation in a real oral community, and this kind of information could not be obtained in a controlled experimental environment. It provides an excellent explanation of the character of the Synoptic tradition (Dunn, 2009). By this stage, however, different communities would have had different stories, each the product of its own original event and unconscious editing and each shaped to some extent by the theological perspective of its community, but none deliberately altered to convince people of a particular theological or doctrinal agenda. ...
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Dunn responds to critiques by Birger Gerhardsson and Richard Bauckham of his thesis in Jesus Remembered (2003) regarding the early oral Jesus tradition. He agrees with Gerhardsson's emphasis on the oral Jesus tradition as taught, but questions his unwillingness to recognize the character of the 1st century oral Palestinian culture and of the Jesus tradition. He agrees with Bauckham's emphasis on eyewitnesses to explain especially the beginning of the traditioning process, but questions the extent to which the tradition was explicitly attributed to eyewitnesses, and argues that his own thesis also covers the cases where the oral Jesus tradition was being passed on by teachers at some remove from the eyewitnesses. The starting point remains the character of the Synoptic tradition, as 'same yet different', and the challenge remains to explain that character in the most historically responsible way.
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The literary mindset (‘default setting’) of modern Western culture prevents those trained in that culture from recognizing that oral cultures operate differently. The classic solution to the Synoptic problem, and the chief alternatives, have envisaged the relationships between the Gospel traditions in almost exclusively literary terms. But the earliest phase of transmission of the Jesus tradition was without doubt predominantly by word of mouth. And recent studies of oral cultures provide several characteristic features of oral tradition. Much of the Synoptic tradition, even in its present form, reflects in particular the combination of stability and flexibility so characteristic of the performances of oral tradition. Re-envisaging the early transmission of the Jesus tradition therefore requires us to recognize that the literary paradigm (including a clearly delineated Q document) is too restrictive in the range of possible explanations it offers for the diverse/divergent character of Synoptic parallels. Variation in detail may simply attest the character of oral performance rather than constituting evidence of literary redaction.
  • M See
  • Halbwachs
See particularly M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992);
Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies, 52 I engage with some of the issues in 'Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition
  • J Assmann
  • Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis
J. Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen (München: C.H. Beck, 2nd edn, 1997 [1992]); A. Kirk and T. Th atcher (eds.), Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies, 52; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). I engage with some of the issues in 'Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition', in S.C. Barton, L.T. Stuckenbruck and B.G. Wold (eds.), Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (Th e Fifth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium, Durham, September 2004; WUNT, 212;
I engage with some of the issues in 'Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition
A. Kirk and T. Th atcher (eds.), Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia Studies, 52; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). I engage with some of the issues in 'Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition', in S.C. Barton, L.T. Stuckenbruck and B.G. Wold (eds.), Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (Th e Fifth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium, Durham, September 2004; WUNT, 212;