Early Jesus Notebooks as Aides-Mémoire

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 28, 2012


Michael Bird has recently posted a very helpful analysis of the interplay between written and oral traditions in early Christianity.  Unfortunately, modern scholars often pit these two modes of transmission against one another, as if early Christians could only have used one or the other.

But, we have every reason to think that both would have been used–and would have interfaced with one another–from the very start. Written notebooks/codices would have been aides-mémoire for recalling oral tradition.  Moreover, as eyewitnesses (the “living voice”) began to die out, early Christians would have wanted to preserve their voice for later generations.

Thus, written traditions did not exist in opposition to oral tradition, but were viewed as the permanent embodiment of oral tradition (see similar practices in ancient historians like Polybius, Galen, Thucydides, Tacitus). If so, then this presents a fundamental challenge to the classic form-critical reconstructions of early Jesus tradition made so popular by Bultmann and Dibelius. I address these issues further in chapter 5 of my book Canon Revisited.

Bird comments:

But if the lines between orality and textuality were fluid –and they were– with oral material written down and written materials delivered orally; and if the Jesus tradition was carried in a mix of oral and textual media beginning in Jesus’ own life-time all the way through to the Gospels and beyond; then we need to take serious heed of the interface between the oral and written forms. More specifically, we should take seriously the possibility of notebooks being used to aide in the remembrance and transmission of Jesus’ teachings


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