Baker Academic

Friday, December 22, 2017

Oral Tradition and Synoptic Verbal Agreement

In the published version of his University of Oxford doctoral thesis, Oral Tradition and Synoptic Verbal Agreement (Pickwick, 2016), Travis M. Derico takes a different approach to the question of oral tradition and the development and composition of the Synoptic Gospels. In the main, Derico notes, oral tradition is invoked by gospels scholars to explain variation among the gospels, since variability is the “one characteristic that is now almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars as being essential to oral tradition” (5). Nearly by default, stability and agreement—especially verbal, but also of order—is an index of the influence of written tradition.

Rather than appeal to the [in]famous variation of our Synoptic Gospels and offer an oral-traditional explanation of that variation, Derico takes aim at the assumption that stability results from the influence of written, literary tradition. (To be sure, the claim that written tradition is not or cannot be subject to similar forces of variability have been falling out of favor for some time now; see David Parker’s now-famous book, The Living Text of the Gospels [Cambridge University Press, 1997], and Parker’s massive influence over the practice and conception of NT text criticism.) If—Derico would say “Since”—we know that oral Jesus traditions influenced the Synoptic Gospels’ composition, we cannot equate agreement with literary influence and variability with oral.
[W]e do not know how [oral Jesus] traditions were composed, preserved, or transmitted; so we do not know the extent to which the Synoptic Evangelists might have produced the kinds of features we observe among the texts of their Gospels by reference to orally transmitted Jesus traditions; and so neither do we know the extent to which they produced those features by strictly literary means. (10)
Derico proposes an alternate research agenda. He suggests “we could hunt down and survey a large number of comparable parallel oral-traditional texts, and see whether they bear any relevant similarities to the Synoptics” (11). For this, Derico turns to the programmatic work of John Miles Foley (1947–2012), who offers three principles for identifying appropriate and relevant comparanda and for their comparative analysis: tradition-dependence (respecting the particular, idiosyncratic forms, features, and functions of each tradition), genre-dependence (comparing like with like rather than dissolving the vast variety of types of oral tradition into a single typology [viz., oral tradition]), and text-dependence (taking into account the textual dynamics of our evidence and its relation to oral verbal art, including especially the willingness to admit our ignorance in the face of lacunae in our evidence).

Derico sets out to “address the agreement in wording displayed among many parallel Synoptic pericopae,” in particular to “expose the consensus view [that agreement is evidence of the influence of literary, written tradition] to serious scrutiny” (15). Though Derico’s analysis privileges and focuses on verbal similarities among the Synoptic Gospels, the Introduction does end with one reference to that other significant kind of agreement among Matthew, Mark, and Luke: agreement in order (see p. 16).

Derico begins with a dense and careful discussion of the theoretical and empirical basis for the claim that verbal similarities of the kinds we see in the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., between Matt 16:24–28||Mark 8:34—8:1||Luke 9:23–27) could only result from a literary relationship and, moreover, that this literary relationship is the dominant or most important relationship between our texts as wholes. After spelling out the "standard argument" for this claim (see p. 28), Derico calls out one particular premise for further discussion: "Kinds or amounts of verbal similarity found in these Synoptic parallels could not have been produced by exclusive reference to oral traditions, except for oral traditions produced by means of a formal program of rote memorization" (28). The majority of the volume is devoted to discussing "four kinds of empirical evidence that New Testament scholars have used to support or rebut [this premise]" (37). These four kinds of evidence are: anecdotal evidence from common experience (see Chapter 3), anecdotal evidence from uncommon experience (see Chapter 4), transcripts of actual oral literature (see Chapter 5), and scientific studies of human memory (see Chapter 6). Derico summarizes the discussion of these four chapters on pp. 202–4:
Our examination has produced two main findings. First, the empirical evidence that has been presented in confirmation of statements of [this premise] is much weaker than is generally supposed. . . . Second, the evidence presented against [this premise] is rather stronger than has been advertised. (203)
None of this proves one way or another whether the patterns of verbal similarities between our gospels result from the use of oral or written sources, and Derico doesn't offer his argument in support of one or the other kind of sources. Instead, Derico's argument is much more restrained: The evidence underlying the claim that the Synoptic Gospels' verbal agreements must result from a literary relationship is "much weaker than is generally supposed," and, conversely, the evidence against this claim is "rather stronger than has been advertised." In other words, Chapters 2–5 don't argue for oral rather than written sources behind the gospels' verbal agreements; they only undermine gospels scholars' confidence that verbal agreements must be indicative of written rather than oral sources.

The last chapter presents the real innovation for gospels scholarship. In 2002–2003 Derico did ethnographic fieldwork in northern Jordan, in which he "recorded several oral-traditional narratives concerning an American missionary called Roy Whitman, who helped to found the small Jordanian evangelical Christian community in the late 1920s and served as its primary leader until his death in 1992" (205). Derico presents transcripts (in Arabic) of those oral-traditional narratives, along with English translations. Derico compares his recorded narratives with similar pericopae from the Synoptic Gospels (viz., narrative tradition without sayings of Jesus or John the Baptist), analyzing the appearance of verbal similarities between his (certainly) oral-traditional narratives and the gospels. Again, Derico's analysis is modest. He doesn't claim the transcripts of his narratives prove the gospels' similarities stem from oral rather than written sources; he demonstrates only that the kinds of similarities we see in the gospels appear also in oral-traditional narratives. Those same similarities in our gospels may result from the use of written sources, but thanks to Derico, we now know beyond any reasonable doubt that these similarities may also result from oral sources. This includes parenthetical agreements (e.g., Matt 4:18||Mark 1:16||Luke 5:2). I quote Derico's conclusion at length:
[I]n each of these cases it seems reasonable to argue cautiously ab esse ad posse: if we observe that one rather casual oral-traditional process produces certain kinds of verbal agreement, then we are probably justified in supposing that another equally or more deliberately controlled oral-traditional process could (ceteris paribus, and given a basic generic congruency between the texts transmitted in the two traditions) produce those kinds of verbal agreement too—and it seems a good bet that the mechanism of the first-century oral Jesus tradition was at least as deliberately controlled as the mechanism of the twentieth-century oral Whitman tradition. But in that case it is also possible that those kinds of verbal agreement could have found their way into the Synoptic Gospels by the Synoptic Evangelists' independent reference to oral Jesus traditions. (265)
Derico ends with a call for gospels scholars to pursue or commission ethnographic fieldwork seeking to discover, analyze, and comparatively present "the relevant sorts of oral-traditional data" in order to shed light on what is actually possible in the production of written texts like our gospels (266). The book also includes two appendices, the first with transcripts of Derico's oral-traditional narratives and the second with comparative analyses of the verbal similarities in those narratives. There is also a bibliography and three indices (modern authors, subject, and gospel and other ancient texts).

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was negatively predisposed to Derico's thesis when I first picked up his book. My own skepticism toward source-critical theories—Alan Kirk has not unfairly called me a "Synoptic source-critical agnostic"—is not motivated by a belief that oral-traditional phenomena fully explain the composition of and relationship between our Synoptic Gospels. Instead, my skepticism is a reaction against the confidence with which synoptic source critics build upon their presuppositions of literary source relationships between Mark, Matthew, and Luke. That does not, however, predispose me to prefer over-confident presuppositions of oral relationships.

But this is the beauty of Derico's argument: Nowhere does he over-extend his evidence. He clearly demonstrates (some of) the kinds of verbal similarities we see in the Synoptic Gospels within certainly oral-traditional narratives; he does not claim that those similarities prove our gospels are orally and not literarily related. Moreover, his use of comparative analytical methods strikes me as a significant advance over other gospels scholars' comparative works, especially the psychological experiments of Robert K. McIver and April D. DeConick. Derico is careful to compare like with like (the experiments described by McIver and DeConick do not provide useful comparanda for the Synoptic Gospels); he also remains circumspect in his conclusions.

Derico spends all his analytical energies on verbal similarities between the Synoptic Gospels (and comparable verbal similarities in his Whitman transcriptions). He does not address that other pillar of source-critical analysis: similarities in order of pericopae. This is a lacuna Synoptic Gospels source critics will want to address, either to redress Derico's thesis or to extend it.

On my reading, perhaps the most helpful aspect of his discussion concerns the individuated, particular phenomena that scholars lump together under the label "oral tradition" (or, worse, "orality"). In Chapter 2, Derico briefly critiques "speculative accounts of the characteristics of a universal 'orality' in which the early Christians are supposed to have participated" (33–36; p. 33 quoted). I quote him at some length:
To put it bluntly: there is no such thing as 'orality.' There is no monolithic psychological or sociological phenomenon that is uniformly displayed among or uniquely experienced by the members of 'oral cultures,' or the partially or totally illiterate members of 'chirographic cultures.' . . . Likewise, there are no universal oral forms or characteristics of oral literature which, when recorded in written documents, can be reliably distinguished from literary forms or characteristics. (34–35)
Biblical scholars interested in questions of media criticism, performance, oral tradition, etc. ought to commit this to memory; it would help them to do so if they read my Oral Tradition and the New Testament: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2014), esp. Chapter 4. The oral expression of tradition (or even of information more generally) is subject to the entirety of the breadth of human variability, whether at the individual, social, or cultural levels: it can be impromptu, scripted, or something in between. It can be informal or ritual, or something in between. It can be sacred, deviant, or something in between. It can be spoken by educated elites, illiterate peasants, or someone in between. And so on. The categories typically offered to us (e.g., "oral" or "literary"), these are inadequate at every level.

I might add one final recommendation. I'm not a fan of Kenneth Bailey's theory of "informal controlled oral tradition," and I'm particularly skeptical of the uses of that theory by gospels scholars (esp. James D. G. Dunn, but also N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham, as well as those influenced by these three). Bailey's theory has been subjected to repeated (and thorough) debunking, and I've commented elsewhere that the debunking itself has been problematic. Derico spends over 50 pages discussing Bailey's theory (pp. 63–114), with over half of that space devoted to Theodore Weeden's critique (pp. 89–114). Those of you who think Weeden has disproved Bailey's theory—of which, again, I am no advocate—will need to deal with Derico's analysis, which I think puts Weeden's objections to rest.

This is an important book for everyone interested in the composition of the Synoptic Gospels, whether your interests are primarily source-critical (identification and analysis of written sources) or performance-critical (analysis of oral sources).


  1. Thank you Raphael Rodriguez for your very insightful review of T. M. Delrico's Oral Tradition and Synoptic Verbal Agreement . . . As a student of "Christian origins", I continue to be amazed that so many biblical scholars whose training and scholarship is focused on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth rely so heavily on the "canonical gospels" as the more authentic and reliable vehicles for determining what can and cannot be reliably known about the person and the work of Jesus of Nazareth . . . It does appear that more and more scholars formally trained in the area of Christian origins are more and more willing to consider the extra canonical or extra biblical gospel traditions, oral or written, pertaining to the person and the work of Jesus of Nazareth, even as Advent, this year, is poised to give way to the first day of Christmas, this year . . .

  2. "I'm not a fan of Kenneth Bailey's theory of "informal controlled oral tradition," and I'm particularly skeptical of the uses of that theory by gospels scholars (esp. James D. G. Dunn, but also N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham, as well as those influenced by these three). Bailey's theory has been subjected to repeated (and thorough) debunking, and I've commented elsewhere that the debunking itself has been problematic."

    This is worth another blog post.

    What then is the real problem with Bailey's theory if Weeden gets it wrong? And what is the "right" view (or at least your conjecture?)

    Oh, and help a guy out: where have you commented elsewhere on this?

  3. I don't (yet) have a copy of Dericos's book, but I do have a question in response to your review, Rafael: In talking about verbal similarities, does Derico look at lengths of strings and/or types of wording? I think that the only way that the 50-60 or so word strings of more or less verbatim correspondence between some Synoptic passages might be the result of oral rather than written transmission is if there was rote learning involved. There would need to have been a particular motivation for this to have happened since the evidence that I have seen suggests that oral traditions in general don't worry about rote learning (Jewish Scripture, however, being a significant exception). I think using written sources to produce this kind of correspondence would have been less complex than using rote-learned oral sources, although that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen. Shorter strings, especially with striking turns of phrase or containing accounts of surprising but not totally unbelievable events could, however, have come about through oral transmission because they are much more likely to be retained as packages in human memory. (This is an exact copy of my comment on your Facebook page, Rafael).