Oral Forms in the Synoptic Gospels

          Following Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus, research turned away from attempting to reconstruct a scientific life of Jesus and focused, instead, on a new enterprise taken over fr om the emerging discipline of Folklore, pioneered by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century in their study of German Maerchen ("fairy tales").

          The object of the new research was the oral tradition about Jesus. If we cannot recover the data of Jesus' life with certainty, surely the situation is otherwise with the tradition of his life an d teaching, the oral tradition passed from his students to their students. The Gospels, in the view of these researchers, were largely compendia of oral traditions, The new discipline of Formgeschichte ("Form History" or "Form Criticism") created a catalogue of oral forms and studied their development into the written Gospels. (Later form-critical research dealt with other parts of the New Testament, but the early form critics were primarily interested in the first three Gospels.)

          Chief among this new breed of scholars were Martin Dibelius, K. L. Schmidt, and Rudolf Bultmann, but Bultmann became the great spokesman and popularizer of the form- critical movement. His book < I>Die Geschichte Der Synoptishen Tradition (1921; ET History of the Synoptic Tradition) is a zenith of sorts in this kind of research and writing.

          Bultmann deals with four major types (forms) of tradition in the Synoptic Gospels. The first is the saying , a short, pithy aphorism ascribed to Jesus that expresses some kernel of truth from the message of Earliest Christianity. In terms of the tradition the sayings are, in Bultmann's mind, the oldest, and many of them, he believes, go back to the first circle of Jesus' followers.

          In Mark we often find collections of several sayings, together as a short sermon. This weaving together was also, in the form critics' minds, at least, a function of the tradition, not the Gospe l author. Mark 8:34-9:1 is such a mini-collection. On many occasions the mini-sermon is given in answer to a question from someone, most often one or more of Jesus' students. The Sermon on the Mount is a large collection of sayings, with aphorism following aphorism.

          Another form of the saying that begins to have a bit of narrative is the controversy dialogue (Streitgespraech) In some ways such a dialogue is like the next form, the apophthegm, and in some ways like the mini-sermon. In Mark 10:2-12 the Pharisees bring Jesus the famous test case between Hillel and Shammai as to whether it is lawful to divorce one's wife and marry another. Jesus' gives and extended answer to them (10:5-9) then amplifies his answer to his students when they return home (10:10-12).

          In Bultmann's taxonomy, parables are specialized forms of the saying. These extended metaphors may either function as a kind of mini-sermon or be part of a larger sermon or controversy dialogue.

          The next form has been built up by bearers of tradition around particularly difficult sayings in order either to interpret them or, when interpretation is impossible, to highlight them for memory . This form Bultmann calls the apophthegm. An apophthegm is a story built up around a saying in order to highlight or interpret the saying (or both). Indeed, the story of the man let down through the roof is just such an apophthegm designed to illustrate the difficult saying "The Son of Man has exousia in the land to forgive sins." (Mark 2:10) In Mark 6:1-6, Jesus is rejected in his own country and by his own kin to illustrate the saying "A prophet is not without honor except in his o wn country, by his own kin, and in his own house." Or in Mark 10:13-16, the touching story of the chidren coming to Jesus illustrates the extremely difficult saying, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child cannot enter it (10:15)."

          Both the saying and the apophthegm Bultmann would assign to a very early place in the tradition. But the miracle story (Wundergeschichte) is for him a product of a lat er stage in the traditon when the Gospel had turned from its Paslestinian origins and moved into the Greek world where people expected a hero like Jesus to have done miraculous things. Walking on water, healings, and exorcisms are all included in the form .

          We would have to be careful, however, to distinguish between apophthegms which use healings to illustrate their saying as in Mark 2:1-12 and miracle stories proper where the focus i s not on a saying but on a specific wonderful act of Jesus that calls attention to the exousia that he bears (for example, the healings in Mark 5).

          Finally, Bultmasnn pointed to a fouth form, the legend/historical narrative. The clear function of these stories is to say something of who Jesus was. The oldest cycle of legends/histor ical narratives is the Passion Narrative in the Gospels, the story of the suffering and death of Jesus. The resurrection narratives in the Gospels also belong to this form. Such stories do not necessarily have chronological connection with one anothe r but will likely be squeezed into a narrative sequence along with other forms. Other legends/historical narratives include the story of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14; see also 11:21), and the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8).

          K. L. Schmidt gave a useful figure for this narrative arrangement. He likened the Gospels to a string of matched pearls. If the string holding them together is broken, the pearls may be reassembl ed in another order without changing the nature of the string of pearls. The Gospels in Schmidt's view are collections of pericopae (singular pericope, "unit of oral tradition"), loosely strung together by the Gospel Writers.

          It is important that you go through one of the Gospels and discover at least one good example of each form.

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