New Testament Studies

Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition 1

a1 Department of Theology, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham DH1 3RS


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.


1 The Presidential address at the 57th Annual Meeting of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas at the University of Durham 6–10 August 2002. I wish to acknowledge my debt to Annekie Joubert for advice on current research into oral culture in southern Africa, and to Werner Kelber for several helpful comments on an earlier draft of the paper. But particularly also to Terence Mournet who has worked closely with me on the theme of oral tradition in the Gospels for nearly three years. Not only has he provided invaluable advice on bibliography and the Powerpoint oral presentation of the ‘live’ paper, but several of the insights and observations developed in the paper are the outcome of our joint deliberations over the past two years.