Obviously, for the Christian, the gospels are the primary source for information about Jesus. However, critical scholars and skeptics have called into question the reliability of the gospels. By even the most conservative reckoning the earliest gospel (usually understood to be Mark) cannot have been written before the mid 50’s CE (Carson, Moo and Morris, An Introduction, 21.). Therefore, at the very earliest, the first gospel must have been written at least twenty years after the events of Jesus’ life. We must, then, come to grips with the gap from the events to the writing of the events. Does this mean that the outlook for seeing any historically accurate information about Jesus is, as one scholar has commented ‘bleak’? I do not think so. But, we have to accept that behind the literary texts we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there is an oral tradition spanning at least 20 and possibly 40 years. For us to have any faith in the historical accuracy of the gospels we must have an understanding of this oral transmission.
Bultmann: Informal Uncontrolled Tradition
In order to understand how important a proper view of the oral tradition is for historical Jesus study, we must at least have a passing understanding of the view that has dominated much of New Testament study in the last century. The person most credited with this view is Rudolph Bultmann. He argues that “we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist” (Bultmann, Jesus, 8). His view was that the sources (i.e., the gospels) do not tell us anything about Jesus but about the early Christian community. He writes that “What the sources offer us is first of all, the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus” (Bultmann, Jesus, 12). In other words, when we read the words of Jesus in the gospels, what we are really reading are the words of the early church which they attributed to Jesus. So, according to this view, we cannot know anything about Jesus, the best we can do is to know something about the early church which created much of the tradition we find in the gospels. Obviously, if this view is accurate it has massive implications for our faith in the historical viability of the gospels.
Informal Controlled Tradition
In 1991 Kenneth Bailey wrote a really fantastic essay in which he proposed another way to view the oral tradition behind the gospels, a view he called informal controlled tradition (more…)