A Critique of Oral Tradition

January 31, 2011

Below is another Amazon review just posted, of The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings by Thomas Brodie.


This is a landmark book in biblical studies, not so much because of its Proto-Luke hypothesis as because of its first 9 chapters that present and justify the author’s methodology. These chapters are clearly and effectively argued, and they are extremely important because they undermine key parts of the paradigm subscribed to by most biblical scholars.  Much of this has been argued elsewhere of course, but this is to my knowledge the most comprehensive and effectively argued attack on the idea of oral tradition that has yet been published anywhere, and it should be read by anyone who is inclined to take that idea seriously.

These nine chapters offer an account of the incredible variety of ways that people in the ancient world created new works of literature by copying old ones; they refute the idea that the Old Testament or New Testament were unique exceptions to this pattern; they create and defend a series of criteria that scholars can use to determine when one literary work is dependent on another; they provide a brief history explaining how the process of creating literary works worked in the ancient world; they refute the idea that the New Testament authors could have been so isolated that each could somehow write in complete ignorance of the others’ works; and they reach a well-substantiated conclusion that much of the New Testament – even including the epistles of Paul — was produced by a single far-flung community rather than by isolated individuals.

The remainder of the book presents Brodie’s application of his methodology at some length, including his Proto-Luke hypothesis. I personally found this rather more of a mixed bag than the first nine chapters. In particular, Proto-Luke seems little different from Q or oral tradition insofar as it amounts to an attempt to explain by appealing to an unknown quantity for which there is actually no hard evidence. Nevertheless, this does not reflect negatively at all on Brodie’s presentation of his methodology. The very fact of "authorial complexity" which he so forcefully defends in the first part of the book means that no criteria no matter how well thought out and applied will reliably tip the hand of an author who was not inclined to tip his hand.

The book is very long and is written largely by a scholar for scholars; nevertheless I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the foundations of biblical scholarship, especially with regard to the Gospels or attempts to find "the historical Jesus." At the very least, read the first nine chapters.  Those chapters alone are worth the cost of the book.  Regardless of whether you agree with everything you read there, when you’re done you will be less inclined to blindly accept statements by other biblical scholars that are presented as fact, but are actually highly questionable.

Michael Goulder–Five Stones and a Sling

January 30, 2011

After a hiatus from blogging I’m getting started again by posting here a review of Five Stones and a Sling: Memoirs of a Biblical Scholar, by Michael Goulder, that I just posted on Amazon.


I only expected to get a mildly interesting memoir when I ordered this book, but it unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most revealing books about biblical scholarship I have ever read. As one might guess from the title and its explanation on the back cover, the book is an excellent introduction to Goulder’s contributions to biblical scholarship, which itself makes reading it more than worthwhile to anyone not already familiar with those contributions. More than that, though, the book left me with a profound admiration for Goulder, not only on account of his academic brilliance but beyond that and even more importantly for his integrity and honesty coupled with a marvelous sense of humor. The book also graphically depicts a biblical studies field in which those qualities are especially rare.
The book is written in a very accessible style. It is essentially a narrative composed of many truly "fascinating and delightful" (as Goodacre puts it) personal anecdotes but also explains in terms anyone can understand the arguments behind some of the major controversies that Goulder got involved in. Anyone who is interested in biblical studies, general reader or specialist, would find reading this book to be a rewarding experience.
For a taste of the revealing anecdotes to be found in the book I relate here one about Raymond Brown.  Before this point in the book Goulder has explained his own arguments that Luke chapters 1 and 2 were created by borrowing from and reworking Old Testament texts.  After Goulder published those findings, Brown came to give a lecture on the subject at the Society of New Testament Studies.  Goulder writes,

. . . it was by now widely accepted that Luke 1-2 was much indebted to types and prophecies in the Old Testament; but Brown was a faithful Catholic, and could hardly come to the same skeptical conclusions as I had about the historicity of the birth narratives. At first his lecture followed my article step by step: he cited most of the passages which I had used, and referred to me by name; he thought I had gone too far in trying to explain the names, and tried to raise a laugh at my expense, but to my relief nobody responded.  Eventually he turned to the crucial question of history. How much then of these two chapters could we think was historical? Three things, he answered: Johns’ parents really were called Zechariah and Elizabeth; his father really was a priest; and Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception. When he had finished Barnabas Lindars, an Anglican Franciscan, sitting next to me, rose to ask the first question: ‘You have cited a good number of passages from the Old Testament. But you did not mention Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14.’ This verse reads, ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a child . . .’ Raymond replied weakly. ‘I do not think that Luke had noticed that text.’

Goulder goes on to explain,

It was scandalous to suggest that these narratives were not historical, but I had been bold enough to draw the obvious inference. Raymond however looked as if he had ducked the clear but unwelcome conclusion. Where the parallels in the Old Testament to a story in Luke did not threaten a cherished belief, Raymond was happy to accept that Luke had inferred the stories from the OT texts, without having evidence that they were actually historical; but the Isaiah text would imply that Luke had also inferred the Virgin Birth, and this was a cherished belief which he was not willing to abandon. There are many places not only in Luke 1-2, but throughout the Gospel and Acts, where Luke shows a close knowledge of Isaiah’s prophecy, and it was just special pleading to suggest that he had not noticed Isa. 7:14. This was only the first of many occasions in which I came to find that the holding of religious belief proved an obstacle to the impartial evaluation of evidence.