Greg Boyd is on a roll this week. Check out “Gospel ‘Contradictions’ and Orality Studies.” It’s a good survey of how to read the Gospels in light of what can be known about how oral traditions function in preliterature cultures.
Boyd makes five key observations:
- The presence of supposed contradictions in the Gospels is not a new discovery; they have been debated and hashed over almost literally from the beginning of Christianity. What is relatively new is the prejudicial attitude of skeptical scholars that discounts the general trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts a priori.
- By definition, written accounts play only a minor role in oral cultures. Therefore, ancient documents always presuppose a wider scope of knowledge on the part of the readers (and hearers). The Gospels are necessarily elliptical: they leave a lot out because there is no need to tell it. And in what is left out, there may have been the information we moderns need to make sense of the conflicting data.
- Memory in oral cultures focuses on things, not words. Oral performers thus enjoy a good bit of leeway in how the tell their stories. What matters to an oral tradition is the essence of what Jesus said and did; not the minute details.
- Memory in oral cultures focuses more on schematic wholes, not discrete facts. Thus, the form critics of a hundred years ago were precisely wrong: oral performers would have generally considered the “big picture” most essential—”extended narratives functioning as integrated schematic complexes.” The constituent parts, how they are worded, and how they are ordered, will vary with each performance of the tradition.
- Jesus was an itinerant preacher who, of necessity, would have repeated the same oral performances over and over during the course of his ministry. Thus, it is certain that there were numerous (conflicting?) versions of many of Jesus’ sayings even during the time of his ministry. It is quite plausible that this fact alone can account for at least some of the discrepancies we see in the Gospels in comparing their various accounts of the same stories, anecdotes, or aphorisms.