Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, has three chapters about the oral transmission of the stories about the words and ministry of Jesus.
He outlines three approaches to this. First and most common even today is the form critical approach. The form critics say that the churches, through an informal, fluid and creative process, formed the individual stories of Jesus for use in teaching. The gospels came about at a late stage.
Then, second, a Scandinavian approach associated mostly with Birger Gerhardsson said that there was a formal transmission of oral tradition from designated teachers who memorized and controlled an authoritative tradition.
Finally, Kenneth Bailey has taken a middle way and people like James Dunn and N.T. Wright have followed. Kenneth Bailey lived in the Middle Eastern villages and he followed how tradition got passed on in such communities. He proposed an informal process that the community itself monitored for accuracy.
Bauckham ends up taking a position closer to the Scandinavians. He believes that the process was more formal and more controlled than most scholars believe.
But, from Kenneth Bailey, he does take the idea that the oral process involved performing the stories. In the communities Bailey observed, the oral transmission of tradition meant community gatherings where storytellers performed.
Today a performance often involves music or a scripted drama. But in village society the telling and retelling of stories before the community was performance.
For Bauckham’s take on all this to be true, there must have been officially designated performers. The “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” in Luke 1:4 would be people recognized from the early days as the authorized performers of the gospel tradition.
He turns to the letters of Paul to argue that such officials existed. He uses the two passages in 1 Corinthians where Paul uses the language of passing on and receiving tradition, 11:23 and 15:1-3. He argues that there had to be a formal process of passing on and receiving involving authoritative bearers of tradition.
Here is why this does not convince me. First, these passages about the Lord’s Supper and the Resurrection have to do with the very important events at the end of Jesus’ ministry. They do not show that stories of teachings, parables, and healings came down in the same way. Second, Bauckham tries to make Paul’s recognition that there were “teachers” in his churches into the designation of an official position for passing on traditions about Jesus. That this was the function of Paul’s teachers does not seem at all obvious to me. Also Bauckham still has not offered an explanation for why the parallel traditions in the gospels vary so much. I would not expect this in a process that was formal and controlled.
However, I am intrigued by the idea that at least the passion story was regularly performed in the churches. Paul says to the Galatians that before their eyes someone had vividly portrayed Jesus as crucified (Galatians 3:1). I had always assumed that Paul was talking about his own preaching. But maybe he was accompanied by an eyewitness or someone steeped in the Jerusalem church’s passion story. Maybe this storyteller had the job of performing the passion story before the gathered community.
Paul’s tradition about the Lord’s Supper in i Corinthians 11:23 ff. differs from Mark’s. It is closer the Luke’s. We know that John Mark sometimes accompanied Paul. So, if Mark’s gospel came from John Mark, one would expect Paul to have received Mark’s version of the passion story. Bauckham earlier argued that Luke got his unique eyewitness material from the women who accompanied Jesus. So I wonder if one of the women performed the story for Paul’s churches.
In Luke 8:3 a woman named Joanna is listed right after Mary Magdalene in the list of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples. In Romans 16:7 Paul greets Junia, which could be the Greek form of Joanna. He says she was once a prisoner along with him and that she is prominent among the apostles. So. . . . Was Joanna an eyewitness source of Paul’s information about Jesus? It is speculation, but I would like to think so.
Anyway, I am not convinced by Bauckham’s idea that the process of oral transmission was formalized and controlled from early on. As I have said before, I think authority early on was more charasmatic than formal and official. Later in the first century the church tried to make things more official. There seems to be some reading of that back into the early days. Nevertheless, Bauckham is making a valuable case that eyewitnesses were more important than we have thought and that form criticism has some big holes in it.