Baker Academic

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oral and written authority in early Christianity: A review on Jürgen Becker: Schriftliche und Mündliche Autorität im frühen Christentum, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2012

Recently Rafael Rodríguez introduced Francis Watson’s new book “Gospel Writing” in this blog. Watson’s monograph is one of a series of books that have been published in the last years which deal with the development of Jesus tradition in the 1st and 2nd century and the process of canonization. In 2012, the German New Testament scholar Jürgen Becker also published a book that focused with these topics. However, he reaches quite different conclusions.

At the center of Becker’s interest lies the relationship between orality and literacy, between the oral Jesus tradition, the oral Gospel, on the one hand and the written sources on the other. This interest is embedded in a long history of research. Since the 18th century and the beginning of historical-critical research on the Gospels, the relevance of oral tradition in early Christianity has been an issue of debate. How influential was oral Jesus tradition? How long was it maintained and cultivated, even after the emergence of written Gospels? In what way did the oral tradition influence Gospels that would become canonical as well as those that would become apocryphal? And, finally, how reliable was oral Jesus tradition in general? Was it trustworthy or rather prone to variation and transformation?

The debate on oral Jesus tradition emerged in connection with the “synoptic problem”. Scholars from different fields became interested in folk poetry and folk tales. In this intellectual climate Johann Gottfried Herder interpreted the relationship between the synoptic Gospels through their dependence on an orally circulating proto-Gospel. That would implicate that the tradition was handed down anonymously for a time, and that it may have been subjected to fictional inventions and further elaborations. In order to put the Gospel tradition on a firm and reliable foundation (and also as an argument against the myth criticism of David Friedrich Strauss), Christian Hermann Weisse developed the two-source-hypothesis (1838). It was intended to explain the entire synoptic tradition through relying on literary sources, leaving no room for oral, uncontrollable changes of the tradition. However, at present there are, as is well known, several objections at least against Weisse’s simple version of the two-source-hypothesis: One of the main objections is that not every single textual phenomenon can be explained through literary sources. Whether “Q” was oral or written is disputed in current scholarship. We can find many echoes of synoptic tradition in the writings of the so-called Apostolic fathers that differ from the written Gospels in their actual wording. Furthermore, apocryphal writings in the 2nd century are sometimes based on synoptic tradition without referring to it explicitly. All of this suggests a living oral tradition, a common practice of citing from memory and the phenomenon of “secondary orality”.

Jürgen Becker draws the conclusion that the one, oral Gospel about Jesus Christ was popular until well into the 2nd century. In comparison to that Gospel, the first written Gospels were regarded only as secondary and derivative. They only slowly gained popularity and were not very widespread at first. The high importance of the oral Gospel, Becker argues, can be traced back to Jesus. He was illiterate, preaching orally in the synagogue and using motives and themes of the Scriptures freely, and he did not refer to written texts.
The first Christians followed his example by orally handing down Jesus tradition and orally proclaiming the kerygma of Christ and the prophetic announcement of his coming. The Gospels which would become canonical were not read in Christian liturgy immediately after their emergence. Their later, gradual use in the Christian service also initiated the liturgical practice of reading from the Scriptures of Israel. Both practices, reading Christian Gospels and the prophets of the LXX, evolved in a parallel process. The Christians first had to develop a sense for literacy.

Becker regards the “apocryphal” Gospels as products of the reception history of the four oldest Gospels: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. They were formed mainly on the basis of secondary orality. In comparison to the synoptic Gospels they show significant differences in their content and their intent. Often they filled out the narrative of the life of Christ, for example by elaborating on the infancy stories, or by focusing on the post-Easter events. Appearances and instructions of the risen Christ are especially popular components of Christian pseudepigraphic writings of the 2nd century. It is then the risen Christ who, instead of the earthly Jesus, proclaims his authoritative teachings, and only the apostles (or only some of them) become exclusive recipients of his teaching. By referring to the example of the Epistula Apostolorum, a pseudepigraphic letter of the apostles, Becker demonstrates that in some cases “apocryphal Gospels” were written to settle Christological debates. Such writings transmitted Christological convictions under the authority of Jesus Christ and his teaching.

Although there are some points to be criticized, Becker’s monograph is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about oral tradition and written texts and their influence on the process of canonization, and the book can be read as a counterpart of Watson’s conception of early Christian literature.


  1. To me, for complicated reasons, it seems highly likely that before the gospels, there was an oral or volks tradition. But that tradition in turn was likely not about or from a single historical individual. But from various somewhat-related martyred and other sons tales.

    I see as the source of later Jesus tales, a large confused body of dozens of rumors of various often dying, martyred Jewish and Greco Roman heroes or sons of lords or holy men or gods. Including say Jesus Bin Sirach;the seven dying and resurrecting sons of God in 2 Mac. 6-7; Dionysus (as per Herder, c. 1806); and the unjustly killed sons of the Lord and King of the Jews, Herod. By his wife "Marianne." Or in English, Mary.

    These were mixed up together, concerted, in confused popular oral culture. They were confused, since all were tales of suppressed sons of lords and of gods.

  2. Please, I want to know Rafael Rodriguez's blog.

  3. Professor Hurtado seems to favor Christianity being very "bookish" almost from the start - see his response to a question regarding Jürgen Becker's book at:

    Has there been any estimates as to how rapidly codices might have been copied and circulated in the late first century? I'm asking because if the average early Christians were generally not that literate and also somewhat apocalyptic in worldview, then oral tradition might seem to be the more natural route, at least among the first generation or two of Jesus followers with an occasional inter-church letter being read at a meeting.

  4. Hurtado does seem to be professionally focused, specializing, on epigraphy and texts. This professional specialization may cause him to accidentally understate the importance of orality, and folk culture.

    Oral culture is evanescent, and relatively hard to track. Though the social sciences, folklore studies, and common sense, tell us it is always there: people constantly talk to each other.

    In particular, past studies in Anthropology and folklore are extremely valuable. Not enough of these sources has yet been assimilated by religious scholars.

    Probably the best simple student intro to it all though, is to have students play the "telephone game."

    1. Thanks for your comment. I suppose that I should consider going through Bart Ehrman's upcoming release "Jesus Before the Gospels".