Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Importance of Oral Tradition in the Old Testament and New Testament

The early Christians used the Septuagint and some other Hebrew Bible manuscripts), and they used it mostly orally, not in written form.




This is what an Old Testament scholar, Dr. David M. Carr said in his book, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible on page 39:
“Though traditions can be written as well as oral, many scholars use the term “tradition history” to refer to the history of oral traditions that existed before and alongside the written texts now in the Bible. Different versions of an oral tradition can be recognized by the combination of thematic or plot parallels on the one hand and variation in characters, setting, and especially wording on the other. Take the example of the parallel stories of Abraham and Sarah at Philistine Gerar with King Abimelech (Gen 20:1 – 18, 21:22 – 34) and Isaac and Rebekah at the same place and with the same king (Gen 26:6 – 33). Look at the similarities and differences! Though the two sets of stories are remarkably parallel, they diverge enough from each other that many believe them to be oral variants of the same tales. Scholars can use the term “transmission history” to refer more broadly to the history of the transmission of oral and written biblical traditions.”


Oral tradition is of supreme importance in a non-literate culture. Only a few scribes could read and write. As the people's oral stories, legal sayings, songs, prayers, etc. grew, eventually they would be grouped into lengthy composites, eventually would get written down in books.

Most scholars of the Pentateuch would understand that the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy grew out of different traditions and sources, some of which grew out of oral traditions among different groups and then came to be written down in various sources (Priestly, non-Priestly—some say Yahwist and Elohist-- and Deuteronomic) and then editors and redactors merged and edited the materials in multiple stages of editing.

There were no "sacred scriptures" until after David. There were some oral traditions about Abraham and Moses, but they would have been more "family/tribal history" than "scripture." 

Most of the Hebrew started in small oral traditions that grew and were combined with similar traditions to form ever-larger complexes, such as the historical narrative from Creation to Moses by the Yahwist and the Priestly source; then the legal materials of P and the Holiness Code were inserted into that narrative as speeches of Moses.

John Collins is one of the well-known scholars.  Professor Collins clarified the documentary hypothesis on pages 53-56 in Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

These books are traditionally known as the Torah and as the book of Moses. Both of these designations are problematic. The Torah is commonly, but not quite accurately, translated as “Law.” Much of the Pentateuch is a presentation of laws, but Genesis and the first half of Exodus consist of narratives. The Hebrew word torah has a broader sense than “law” and includes a sense of traditional teaching. The attribution to Moses, however, arises from the prominence of laws in these books. The book of Deuteronomy is introduced as “the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deut 1:1), and Moses is again said to be the  source of various other parts of Deuteronomy (4:44; 31:24; 32:45). In the books of Joshua and Kings, “the torah of Moses” refers to the laws of Deuteronomy (Josh 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kgs 2:3; 14:6; 23:5). Later books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, refer to the Torah of Moses, with reference to the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus (e.g., Neh 8:1, 13-18). The Torah is commonly regarded as the book of Moses in the Hellenistic period. Ben Sira, who wrote in the early second century b.c.e., refers to “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sir 24:23). The Torah is regarded as the book of Moses in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the New Testament, and in the first-century c.e. Jewish authors Philo and Josephus. The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b) says explicitly that Moses wrote the five books named after him. It seems that this tradition had its origin in the book of Deuteronomy and was gradually extended until Moses was regarded not only as the mediator of the laws but as the author of the whole Pentateuch, although there is no basis for this claim in Genesis or in the narrative portions of Exodus. The problematic nature of the supposed Mosaic authorship was noticed at least as early as the Middle Ages. The medieval Jewish scholar Ibn Ezra (twelfth century) noted that Gen 12:6, which says that “the Canaanites were then in the land,” must have been written at a later time, when this was no longer the case. Similarly, Gen 36:31, which refers to “the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites,” must have been written after the establishment of the monarchy. Other scholars noted that Moses cannot have written the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy. Attention was gradually drawn to various repetitions and contradictions that suggested that the Torah was not the work of any one author, but was rather a compilation of tradition long after the time of Moses. Such observations proliferated in the wake of the Reformation, when the Bible was subjected to a new level of scrutiny. One of the earliest notable critics of the Pentateuch was a Catholic priest, Richard Simon, in the seventeenth century. Simon argued that the Pentateuch could not have been composed by Moses, but was written centuries later by scribes without vowels, YHWH, so as not to profane the name by pronouncing it. Jewish tradition substitutes the word Adonai, “the Lord.” The mongrel form “Jehovah” is a combination of the consonants of YHWH, or JHVH, with the vowels of Adonai.) Astruc supposed that different source documents had been woven together in the composition of Genesis. Astruc’s observation was gradually developed by later scholars into a full-fledged documentary hypothesis, which addressed the composition of the entire Pentateuch. The book of Deuteronomy was recognized as substantially a distinct source. A distinction was made between passages that refer to God as Elohim in Genesis. Some of these passages (e.g., Gen 1:1—2:4a, and various passages dealing with genealogies) were recognized aspart of a Priestly source (P) that is represented extensively in Leviticus. The remaining narrative material was seen as a combination of Yahwistic source (J, following the German spelling Jahweh) and an Elohistic one (E). For much of the nineteenth century, scholars assumed that the Priestly document was the oldest stratum of the Pentateuch. (In German literature from that time it is called G, for Grundschrift, or basic document.) In the 1860s, however, this theory was revised, so that P was viewed as the latest (or next to latest) document, and the order of the sources was established as J, E, D, P (or J, E, P, D). The new order was argued by a number of scholars, notably the German Karl Heinrich Graf and the Dutch scholar Abraham Kuenen. It received its classic formulation, however, from the German Julius Wellhausen in the 1870s and 1880s. The Documentary Hypothesis, or the view that the Pentateuch is a combination of (at least) four different documents, enjoyed the status of scholarly orthodoxy for about a century. There were always variations of the theory. Some scholars identified additional sources, or subscribed to a Fragment Hypothesis that allowed for greater diversity of authorship. For a long time Scandinavian scholars defended the view that the tradition was transmitted orally down to the late seventh century b.c.e. Some scholars extended the division of sources into the book of Joshua and spoke of a Hexateuch (six books) rather than a Pentateuch. But the four-source theory was by far the dominant view. Only in the last quarter of the twentieth century has it come to be widely questioned. Before we can evaluate these objections, however, we need to appreciate the kind of observations on which the hypothesis was based. who drew on archival records. His work was suppressed in France, and he was expelled from his order. Important contributions were made by two great philosophers. Thomas Hobbes, in his master work Leviathan (1651), demanded that people be guided by the statements of the biblical books themselves (as opposed to traditional beliefs about them) and held that these books gave considerable evidence about the time in which they were written. In 1670 the Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza argued in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that the Pentateuch and the following books, down to Kings, were compiled by Ezra after the Babylonian exile. Spinoza allowed, however, that Ezra made use of older sources. (Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, John Collins, Publisher: Fortress Press; 3 edition (April 15, 2018), pp. 53-56)


I know some do not believe this but why do many scholars believe the JEDP?

JEDP is the proper place to start. It was an amazingly intelligent theory, largely provable (maybe not 100%, but perhaps 90%). But it doesn't cover a number of the smaller problems that don't quite fit the diction or theology of J,E,D, or P. It is not just "one of the possible" theories. It is the theory to start with, and then push forward to address the remaining non-fits. Two of the auxiliary explanations that account for some verses beyond JEDP are scribal creativity and oral performance. That is, extra non-JEDP verses were added by creative scribes and/or by religious leaders who inserted their thoughts into the JEDP (mostly) finished Pentateuch. In other words, JEDP is the place to start, and for elements of the Pentateuch that do not seem to stem from JEDP, analyze them and try to determine the rationale for each.

Other Books of the Old Testament and the Oral Tradition

The book of Deuteronomy may have a longer tradition back to the northern kingdom in the 9th or 8th century, many scholars argue that an early version of Deuteronomy was not written down as a book until the 7th century BCE under King Josiah (622 BCE), some time after Hezekiah.  King Hezekiah, however, may have supported the group that carried the tradition orally from the north.
Most scholars would argue that the book of Joshua itself (as part of the so-called Deuteronomistic History—Joshua-2 Kings) comes from a time later in the monarchy.  It may include some older traditions which were carried orally.  So the reference to the “book of the torah” suggests a written document (“book”). 


Most scholars would argue that writing does not appear in inscriptions uncovered in archaeological digs in the land of ancient Israel until the later 9th or 8th century BCE.  Clearly, even with the rise of writing, ancient Israel remained a largely oral culture with traditions primarily handed down by word of mouth alongside textual writings.

Writing and literacy became prevalent only in the late ninth and eighth centuries BCE and later.  So earlier prophets (like Hosea and earlier parts of Isaiah) probably  began as oral prophecies and oracles that were committed to memory by disciples of the prophet and then later written down on scrolls.  Later books like Ezekiel and Daniel seem to have more cohesive sections and so likely originated for the most part as written texts.

We only know that there was oral tradition for most of this material before it was ever written down. So no oral tradition, no written tradition.

What is the connection of the Oral Tradition to the New Testament? 

The New Testament wasn't there as "Scripture" until the early 2nd century. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are the written products of traditional oral tradition.

For the New Testament, they eventually told individual stories, sayings, miracles of Jesus; these too would be grouped into long, oral narratives and discourses during the "apostolic" period. Eventually, in the third generation (ca. 70 CE and later) scribes would write down the teachings ["according to"] "Matthew," "Mark," "John," et al.

There was a belief that long before the four canonical Gospels came to be, there was a tradition in the early church about Jesus – What he said, did and who and what he was. This is considered a "gospel" tradition which was not immediately clear. It was not evident why the literary narrative accounts about him were later known as the "Gospels."

One Bible scholar, Joseph Fitmyzer underscored the importance of oral tradition on page 25 in his book, To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies on page 25:
"Oral tradition has been at work both at the beginning of the gospel tradition and at its end, just before the definitive form of the three Gospels, between the literary contacts and the final redaction. Literary contacts occurred, not between the Gospels as such, but "within a presynoptic documentation already more or less systematized." He would thus postulate five stages of formation: (1) The stage of crystallized oral tradition. (2) The first systematization in Aramaic Matthew. (3) Successive written documents, at least three in number, which enjoyed literary contacts. (4) Oral modifications in the various communities of these documents. (5) The definitive Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Thus there is no dependence of Luke on Mark or on Matthew (as we know them), but only an undefined literary contact between them in an early stage, and modifications from subsequent oral tradition." (To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies , Joseph Fitzmyer, Wm. B. Eerdmans-Lightning Source; 2 edition (April 8, 1998), p. 25)








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