National Lutheran News

Written Scripture holds clues to oral tradition, Bible scholar says

Kenneth Bailey sees Middle Eastern storytelling devices embedded in New Testament texts

How did the first stories about Jesus circulate, and what were the earliest listeners like?

Most Bible scholars agree the stories were oral (word of mouth) before they were written, and that the audiences were almost entirely made up of people who could not read.

How would a storyteller shape a story so that his listeners would be able to learn, and faithfully recite, the pieces? According to a Scripture scholar who spent nearly his entire career teaching in Israel and Lebanon, in the culture where the Bible originated, a common memory device used was “ring composition” (see diagram elsewhere on this page).

Dr. Kenneth Bailey un-packed several New Test-ament stories featuring ring composition during a two-day lecture series in Apple Valley, Minnesota, March 17-18. Speaking at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, in a three-part program sponsored by Crossways International, Bailey said, “Only around 30% of the population of the Roman Empire could read. Only 3-10% of Jesus’ listeners could. For that reason, the stories about his life and teaching, told and remembered before they were written down, took on a special oral style. We are not used to Jewish oral language. We have to learn it. When we do, we are able to spot the patterns.”

The theme for Bailey’s presentations was “Jesus Interprets His Own Cross.” He used familiar stories from the Gospels, describing the suffering and death of Jesus, to illustrate how ring composition was used. He said first century Jewish rabbis never wrote anything down. Instead, they expected their pupils to memorize what they taught and then repeat it. In similar fashion, the writer of Mark’s Gospel includes stories with built-in memory devices, enabling listeners to remember the pieces and, therefore, re-member the whole story.

Some of what the Scripture scholar had to say raised a few eyebrows. He argued, “Christianity is an older religion than Judaism.” This sounds counterintuitive, since the former grew out of the latter. But, Bailey explained, “Christianity crystallized into a religion before rabbinic Judaism did. There were other Jewish strains in the first century, competing with rabbinic Judaism, but none of them survived.”

Bailey also took on conventional biblical scholarship, which believes that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark when writing their longer versions of Jesus’ ministry.

According to Bailey, Luke was the first Gospel. He said, “I think Luke did field research for his Gospel while Paul was in prison in Jeru-salem for two years, around AD 55. Then he went with Paul to Rome, where he [Luke] wrote a prototype which Mark used for his Gospel.” Bailey thinks Mark also got input from Simon Peter.

“A second, more finished version of Luke came about ten years later,” Bailey thinks. He also believes that Luke has the correct historical sequence for Jesus’ passion, but that Mark changed it in his version.

Any historical event’s meaning is unlocked by authoritative in-sider interpretation, Bailey said. “The New Testament is interpreted history. There is a relationship between event and mystery. Until an event can be given meaning, it remains misunderstood.” That, he said, is why the Gospel writers interpret the stories about Jesus — so that the real meaning of each can come through.

Bailey drew a contrast between Muslim and Christian ways of understanding inspired Scripture. He said, “Muslims believe the Q’ran is the ‘perfect’ word of God, from eternity. Therefore it should only be read in Arabic, in a ‘pure and untranslated form.’”

In contrast to Islam, there is no “sacred Christian language or culture,” Bailey said. “The Bible can be, and has been, translated into hundreds of languages, because — except in periods of narrow orthodoxism — Christians have not believed their Scripture dropped out of heaven in final, finished, perfect form. Instead, he said, “For Christians, biblical inspiration is a four-stage process.” He listed the steps:
1. Jesus’ life and teaching;

2. Oral tradition;

3. Translation into Greek;

4. Final Gospel editions.

Said Bailey, “The process could seem risky, but God’s Spirit inspires the process.”

Bailey may have had the recent best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, in mind, as well as the recently-publicized Gospel of Judas when he said, “There were two criteria for deciding which documents made it into the Bible. First, do they go back to the apostles? Second, are they universally accepted? It took 300 years to decide which documents to keep.”