Oral Tradition and the New Testament - Rafael Rodriguez - a Review

In the Preface, Rodriguez introduces what will likely be a new concept for you (it was for me) - “NT media criticism”. It is “the analysis of the function and dynamics of various media of communication (speech, writing, ritual, etc.), and especially of the significance of shifts from one medium to another (e.g., from oral to written expression).”

The book is intended to be both “an introduction to NT media criticism” and to be his “proposal for the future agenda of NT media criticism”. His handling of “oral tradition” is within these contexts.

In fact, in what came as something as a shock, Rodriguez says in Chapter One, “We simply do not know anything concrete or specific about early Christian oral tradition”. And then says, “For all the talk of oral tradition among NT scholars, we must remember that we are only ever studying and explaining written— not oral— tradition”.

The obvious question to ask is, “So why name the book Oral Tradition and the New Testament?” To make sense of this, one has to know that he is working with two definitions of oral tradition. “We should not think of oral tradition as a source lying behind oral-derived texts [the first definition]. Instead, oral tradition…provides the context in which the oral-derived texts developed and were experienced by their readers and/ or audiences” [second definition].

He elaborates on the second definition as follows – oral tradition “describes the multisensory, multilayered, totalizing social context that enabled the early Christians to interpret and respond to their written texts”. It is “the context that enables an oral-derived text to convey its meaning…”

So when he says we “do not know anything…about early Christian oral tradition” he is referring to the first definition. He is not denying the oral culture of Christianity’s origins.

The meat of the book is Chapters Four and Five. In Chapter Four he describes the “morphological approach to oral tradition and the NT” and the “contextual approach to oral tradition and NT”. The first is the approach to “NT media criticism” with which he disagrees. He sees it as heavily influenced by form criticism.

He describes the morphological approach as having two fatal flaws. The first is its claim that oral transmission produces certain unique “features of linguistic style or certain narrative features” that written transmission does not produce.

The second is its claim that these unique oral “features” survive the process of transformation into written form. In other words, this is the idea that we can tell what parts of the texts are the “oral” parts. And therefore get back to the original “oral” tradition behind the written tradition.

His conclusion, “I do not think the morphological approach to oral tradition and the NT can work”.

He then begins the section on the contextual approach, “If we cannot find oral tradition in the NT, are there other ways that oral traditional research might help us better understand the written texts of the NT?”

Rodriguez says the contextual approach “does not look for the shape of oral tradition in the written texts of the NT. Instead, the contextual approach posits the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed and were written by authors, recited by lectors (and/ or oral performers), and received by audiences (and/ or readers)”.

To unfold the contextual approach, Rodriguez borrows from scholar John Miles Foley’s concept of “verbal art”. It gets a bit technical at this point – “conferred versus inherent meaning” and “connotative and denotative meaning”, etc. – but he aptly demonstrates their value. He shows how these function as what Foley calls the “silent partner”; the context behind the written text. He also presents Foley’s insightful “model of oral and written traditional verbal art”.

Rodriguez’s contextual approach is put to the test in Chapter Five. Here he offers “some suggestive comments on various texts from the NT to demonstrate the consequence of approaching the NT corpus as a collection of oral-derived texts”. His “various texts” are Mark’s “casting Jesus out into the wilderness”, John’s prologue, Romans 10:5-9, and the throne room scene from Revelation 5.

Throughout his discussion of these texts, he highlights the importance of the “enabling referent” of the written text. He seems to use this phrase as a catchall for the contextual method. It appears to refer to the contextual background (OT, culture, etc.) that informs the reader or hearer’s understanding of the text – perhaps a synonym for “silent partner”.

After his examination of these texts he concludes that his approach “offers us analytical questions and tools” that ultimately serve “to interpret and explain the function of our written texts within their originative contexts, including our texts’ composition, performance, and reception”.

The obvious question here is, “Did he demonstrate this?”

I have two thoughts on this question. The first is that he does introduce “questions” and “tools” that bring a new dimension to our relationship with the Bible. For example, using Foley’s “verbal art” categories, he classifies Paul’s letters as “Voiced Texts”. By this he means, “They were, in a very real sense, ‘incomplete’ until the act of public performance”.

Immediately, one can take such a concept and expand its implications. If this is correct, for example, does this elevate the importance of Phoebe and her role in delivering and presumably reading the text of Romans? If so, how does this add to our understanding of Paul’s view of women? This is just one of the questions that came to my mind as I read his book.

Additionally, his contributions to the texts in Mark, John, Romans and Revelation were very good (I won’t give them away here). And in many cases, I could not find similar views espoused in other resources. This is not definitive evidence of the usefulness of his method, but certainly worth noting.

My second thought is that his “suggestive comments” about Mark, John, Romans and Revelation are supposed to be grounded in his NT media criticism contextual approach. But as I read and re-read them, they seemed to be simply grounded in a thorough and robust use of word studies, OT-NT allusions and parallels, commentaries, and an understanding of 2nd Temple Judaism.

I can certainly take blame for missing something. However, had he been more methodical and transparent in applying his approach to his sample texts his case would have been more compelling. In other words, he shows the tools to build the house. He shows the materials used to build the house. He shows the finished house. But he doesn’t show how he used the tools to assemble the materials to build the house.