Jesus Tradition in the Apostolic Fathers: Their Explicit Appeals to the Words of Jesus in Light of Orality Studies

Stephen E. Young Coronet Books, Tübingen December 6, 2011

Young’s study shows that the differences between Jesus sayings found in the Apostolic Fathers and the canonical Gospels highlight the critical role of orality in the life of the early church into the mid-second century. This claim is not new. Young, however, points out that many New Testament and early Christian scholars fail to recognize its implications. Previous scholars assumed that the church made use of an active oral stream up to the second century, but they generally concluded that individual traditions came from a written source. Young notes that this conclusion reflects the assumptions of modern scholars who are more comfortable working with written texts than spoken words. Based on the literacy rate, which Young concludes was 3 percent among Jews in Israel during the first century, along with the normal practice of publicly reading texts, makes Young’s conclusion “almost self-evident” (p. 105). This thesis calls into question the methodology of locating the date and publication of a Gospel by how an ancient writer used it. A quotation by an ancient writer does not predicate the knowledge of a particular Gospel in a specific area. The tradition could have circulated in that area through oral performance.

The basic difficulty for Young’s project is locating oral traditions in written texts. He makes use of the latest spate of oral studies to delineate oral performances in a written text by pinpointing characteristics of a saying that suggest an oral context (pp. 81–97). For instance, clauses in an oral performance will be strung together with coordinating conjunctions, rather than subordinating conjunctions. Oral material is generally circular. Since writers recall oral traditions from memory, certain segments will have variability and others will be more stable. Oral performances will show signs of mnemonic construction. Young develops this list of characteristics from Parry and Lord’s work on the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were transmitted orally for five centuries before they were recorded. This analogy is limited. The Homeric epic poems were recorded five centuries after they were composed. The written Gospels were published fifty to ninety years before the Apostolic Fathers. Because scholars work exclusively with written texts, this type of study can show only the probability of the oral performance. In this regard Young’s study is somewhat circular—an observation that Young himself makes (pp. 9–11).

Despite these difficulties, Young’s thesis is convincing. It is doubtful that ancient writers worked at a desk with their personal Bible on hand. It would have been natural for them to make use of the oral performance. Rather than citing a tradition from memory (i.e., memory of a written text), or from a different textual tradition, the writer used material from an oral performance. Gospel traditions existed side by side in oral and written forms into the second century. This raises a question about of the role of the written gospel texts in the first and second centuries. Did the fathers place equal authority on the written gospels and on the oral performances, or did they favor one over the other? The simple fact that many of these traditions continued to circulate in an oral fashion long after the publication of the Gospels calls for a number of once unanimous conclusions to be reevaluated.

—Benjamin I. Simpson

January 1, 2014

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2014 vol. 171 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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