Contents: Introduction * Signsof Oral Transmission * The Effects of Oral Tradition* An Example of the Parallels between Folk Balladsand Biblical Manuscripts * Try It Yourself * Footnotes
It is generally conceded that the material that made up the gospelswas originally transmitted orally -- that is, by word of mouth. After all,neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have written anything (withthe possible exception of 1 Peter and perhaps the writings of John -- buteven these were written much later, and probably from dictation).
However, oral tradition did not die with the writing of the gospels.Papias, we are told, always preferred oral traditions of Jesus to the writtenword. And, until very recently, the common people learned about Jesus primarilyfrom oral tradition, for they could not read the gospel.
Even today, there are people in Appalachia who sing songs like "TheCherry Tree Carol," (Child #54)telling a story of Jesus found only in the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew.
Oh, Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
When he courted Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee,
When he courted Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee.
(The song goes on to tell how, as Mary and Joseph travelled, Mary askedfor cherries because she was pregnant. "Then Joseph flew in anger,In anger flew he. Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!"The unborn Jesus commanded the cherry tree to bow down to feed Mary. Josephrepented of his anger at her.)
Modern examples of this sort could be multiplied indefinitely, and thereis no reason to believe it was otherwise in antiquity: Folklore aboutJesus must have been extremely common.
Even scribes might have heard these stories in their youth. At times,the well-known tale might influence the way they copied the Biblical text.And while it may be objected that oral tradition experienced less "control"than the carefully written copies made in a scriptorium, it should be notedthat oral tradition often has controls of its own -- stress, metre, rhyme, melody.It's not likely that a singer will change a text so that it no longer fits its tune!
At least one Biblical variant almost certainly comes from oral tradition."John 7:53-8:11" is clearly no part of John's (or any other)gospel. What's more, the text as it stands has all the signs of oral transmission:Variations in wording, incidents in different order, irrelevant but livelydetails, an economical plot.
One example does not a rule make. But one is tempted to list other longinsertions as the result of oral tradition. "Mark 16:9-20" isobviously a literary creation, but Luke 22:43-44 (the Bloody Sweat) looksoral. Luke 23:34 ("Father, forgive them") and Matthew 16:2-4(the Signs of the Times) might also have been transmitted by word of mouth.The famous insertion by D at Luke 6:5 (the man working on the Sabbath)is almost certainly oral; the insertion by D and Φ at Matthew 20:28 mayalso come from tradition. It is even conceivable that the Doxology of Romans(16:25-27) comes from an oral source. One suspects that much of the materialoffered by Codex Bezae in Acts is also traditional.
Oral tradition probably did not cause many of the minor variantswe see in the Biblical text; the division between the secluded world of monksand the bustling villages where folklore spread was usually too wide. Butscholars cannot be certain of this without testing the hypothesis. (It shouldbe noted, e.g., that many of the English Miracle Plays, usually regardedas folk productions, had clerical authors.) The following list shows some of the hallmarksof oral tradition, illustrated (where possible) both by traditional balladsand by reference to Biblical variants (usually from the story of the adulteress,since it is the largest oral insertion in the gospels).
As an aside: Extreme claims are sometimes made of oral tradition --e.g. in the past attempts to break the Odyssey up into dozensof smaller fragments cobbled together into an epic. That sort of schoolmight claim the same for much of the New Testament. This is flatlysilly. The gospels used oral sources, and at least one of these sources(the elements in "Q," where Matthew and Luke have substantiallydifferent versions) was probably oral. (This is also the position ofWilliam F. Albright and C. S. Mann in their Anchor Bible edition of Matthew,p. CLXVII, but their reasons are different.) But the gospels as they standare literary compositions, and so are most of their sources.
See also the article on memes, which discussesthis rather universal phenomenon of collective memory.
Some of the effects of oral tradition are described above. Others haveyet to be explored. Consider the Gospel of Thomas. Its relationshipto the synoptic "Q" source is obvious -- but the differences areas striking as the similarities. My personal suspicion is that both Thomasand Q go back to a common oral tradition, with the forms drifting apart oversome generations of storytelling.
On the other hand, oral tradition can also "level" differences.Storytellers describing the life of Jesus will often combine incidentsfrom different accounts. This, rather than literary influence, may explainsome of the "Diastessaric" readings that scholars often pointup in different sources. Such readings need not be from the Diatessaron;they could be just a story a scribe heard as a child!
Malcolm Laws, in American Balladry from British Broadsides,makes an interesting comment (pp. 95-96):
For some time scholars have recognized opposing but not contradictorytendencies in ballad transmission. The more familiar is the tendency towarddegeneration. Degeneration refers to the obvious corruptions and omissions froma text which are caused by the singers' failure to remember or understand whatthey have heard.... The opposing tendency is that toward deleting from the storymuch of the tiresome detail which burdens many broadsides. If this process...is not carried too far, the result may be a more compact and effective ballad thanthe original.
Compare these two phenomena with the scribal processes which produced thetexts of P66 and P45, respectively! (see Colwell,"Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66,P75," pp. 196-124 in Studies in Methodology).A further tendency, when faced with this sort of degeneration, is therebuilding of songs from other materials -- there are any number of balladtexts which are hybrids of multiple songs. Sometimes the combination willbe simply a matter of adding a verse or a line here or there, but in othersit will be a detailed conflation of two texts. This, in turn, appears stronglyreminiscent of the process which produced Codex Bezae. (See also the articleon Destruction and Reconstruction.)
Few scholars have paid much attention to oral tradition; it's hard tostudy something one cannot verify or see in action. But we would be wiseto keep it in mind; we never know where it might turn up. There are a numberof myths which survive via oral tradition. Consider,for example, how many people will say "Columbus discovered that theearth was round." That is false on all counts; first, every educatedperson of the fifteenth century knew the world was round, and second, Columbusnever managed to sail around the world to prove its spherical shape. Infact, Columbus was consistently wrong about the earth's shape; hethought it was a third smaller than its actual size, and so insisted tohis dying day that he had discovered a western passage to the Indies, nota new continent!
In the above, we have generally treated the case of material initiallytransmitted by oral tradition. We should note that this doesn't alwayswork this way. Some works start out in print and go into oral tradition.(This happens with many modern songs. It is still happening, occasionally,with Christmas songs -- the one form of oral tradition commonly encounteredby ordinary people.) And there are interesting cases of oral and writtentraditions interacting. We mentioned the example of preachers harmonizingstories. The works of Shakespeare are another example. The plays were initiallywritten, but these autographs have perished. Moreoever, these are not necessarilythe plays as performed. In rehearsal, the plays could have been, and probably were,modified at least slightly. So the text of the plays as performed is notthe text of the autograph. If the "original" is preserved at all, it is probably preserved inthe so-called "bad folios." These are believed to have been takenfrom actors' recollections -- from oral tradition (although first-handtradition). Without getting into Shakespeare criticism (a field in which Ihave no competence at all), this makes matters much more complicated....
Another interesting point, which might affect such things as harmonization ofparallels, is the ability to different traditions to produces very similar results.Consider these two accounts, one from the account of how the Anglo-SaxonCædmon became a poet, the other from a tradition of the revelation toMohammed:
|From the Venerable Bede's History of the English Church and People,iv.24:||From Islamic tradition (as described in the English translation ofthe Quran by N. J. Dawood; compare Surah 96 of the Quran itself):|
|"[Cædmon] did not gain the art of poetry from human beings orhuman teachers but as a free gift from God.... [At first he was so poor atpoetry that] when he saw the harp coming his way [to sing a piece, as wasexpected at Anglo-Saxon entertainments], he would get up from the table andgo home.... Suddenly in a dreamhe saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. 'Cædmon,' hesaid, 'Sing me a song.' He answered, 'I don't know how to sing. I left the feastand came here because I cannot sing.' [The other said,] 'But you shall sing tome....' And Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of Godthe Creator."||One night in Ramadan, when Mohammed was in a dream, the Angel Gabriel cameto him and said, "Recite." Mohammed answered, "What shall I recite?"This was repeated three times, then Gabriel said, "Recite in the name ofyour Lord who created, created humanity from drops of blood."|
|Bede proceeds to quote "Cædmon's Hymn," a praise to thecreator said to be Cædmon's first writing, composed in that dream.||The result, of course, was the Quran. But even the Exordium to the Quranhas parallels to Cædmon's Hymn. Both start by praising the Lord ofCreation.|
Bede's history was finished in 731, and so this account must be older thanthat. Mohammed began to receive the Quran in about 610, so this legend must bemore recent than that. Bede lived and died in England; he could not have knownan Islamic legend. The two are independent stories -- but they arose at thesame time, and nonetheless are fundamentally the same legend.
The failure to understand folklore and its effects has significantlyaffected textual studies in at least one instance, though it is in theOld Testament rather than the New. This is the case of 1 Samuel 17-18 --David and Goliath and the meeting of Saul and David. The Hebrew textis long; the Greek text of Vaticanus and other LXX manuscripts is muchshorter.
Some scholars have explained the shorter LXX text as eliminatingdoublets. Well, this is formally true -- and completely fails to lookat the evidence. If one takes the material found in both types oftext, and the material found only in MT, a folklorist can instantlysee the difference: The material found in both is history of the sort foundin the rest of 1 Samuel. The material peculiar to MT is a folktaleof how David met Saul. Neither more nor less. In fact, it's afundamental type of the folktale, found, e.g., in pre-ChristianScandinavian myth: The commoner performs an act of heroism and socomes to the attention of the king. The MT-specific material is nota doublet of the other story; it is a folktale grafted onto theinitial text of the court history which comprises the bulk of 1 Samuel.Even the language is that of folktale. (Note, e.g., that in 17:16the Philistine challenges Israel for forty days -- far longer than anarmy could have stayed in camp without facing starvation and disease.)Textual criticism of this passage must start from the factthat the MT-specific material is a Hebrew folktale.
Perhaps the best-known of all traditional English ballads is "BarbaraAllen" (Child #64). Some 600 texts and 200 tunes have been recorded.The outline of the text is as follows: A young man is dying for love ofBarbara Allen. He begs her to come to his side. She comes, but refusesto pity him (in some versions, when he was drinking, he toasted "theladies all" rather than Barbara). She leave; he dies. She "hearsthe death bell knelling." She takes to her bed and dies for sorrow.They are buried next to each other in the churchyard. From his grave growsa rose; from hers, a briar (or other objectionable plant). The two twinetogether on the churchyard wall.
Observe the following parallels to the Biblical tradition:
Obviously we should not make too much of the analogies above. The examples I have offeredare all from traditional ballads, and the ballad form (particularly with referenceto rhyme, but also regular metre) cannot be verified before about the twelfthcentury. And yet, previous oral tradition had much in common with the folkballad. The earliest long pieces in oral tradition were poetry, not prose.(Witness Homer or Beowulf. The epic form of these pieces, with their metreand conventional expressions, made them much easier to remember than anequivalent prose form.) It is true that there are prose folktales -- indeed, they receivemore scholarly attention than folk songs. But these are relatively unfixed;two tellers will tell the same story with entirely different language. Whereaspoetry always has something to hold it in place. In modern ballads, it isrhyme and metre. Rhyme was not at all common in early epics, but Beowulfhas its alliteration, and all ancient epics have some sort of metre. They alsohave their formulae. In Beowulf and other early Germannic poetry, for instance,we have the "kennings" -- two words put together to mean somethingelse while preserving metre and alliteration (the first of these occurs inline 10 of Beowulf: "hron-rade"=whale-road, i.e. the sea). In Homer,the equivalent is the epithet (a feature found in most folk forms, but mostdeveloped in Greek poetry. These actually take two forms. One is a set ofkey synonyms for particular virtues such as bravery; these are similar tothe cliches found in English folk songs. The other is the standard epithet,from "bright-eyed Athena" to "Diomedes of the mighty war cry."These generally occupy one or two or three complete metrical feet, givingthe poet, in effect, an automatic half line without having to think about it.)
If the above doesn't convince you, I'd like to offer you the specialopportunity of trying to work out this process yourself, to see theparallels between oral transmission and written transmission. It alsomay give you a chance to see how critics can go wrong.
What we'll do is take a sample piece, the American folk song"Old Dan Tucker," by Daniel Decatur Emmett. This is a songfor which we have the original sheet music printing, which I've shownat the end. But before that, I'm going to print assorted versionscollected from oral transmission. You are welcome to try getting fromthose to the original.
Example 1: Collected by Vance Randolph from Carl Durbin ofPineville, Missouri on June 4, 1927. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs,Volume III, p. 302.
Old Dan Tucker down in town,Swingin' the ladies all around,First to the right an' then to the left,An' then to the one that you love best. Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker, He's too late to git his supper, Supper's over an' breakfast a-cookin', An' old Dan Tucker standin' a-lookin'.Old Dan Tucker down in town,A-ridin' a goat an' a leadin' a hound.The hound give a howl an' the goat give a jump,An' throwed Old Dan a-straddle of a stump.Old Dan Tucker he got drunk,Fell in the fire an' kicked out a chunk,Fire coal got in Dan's old shoe,Oh my golly how the ashes flew!
Example 2: Collected by Vance Randolph from Jewell Lamberson ofBentonville, Arkansas on November 21, 1935. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs,Volume III, p. 303.
Old Dan Tucker is a fine old man,Washing his face in the fryin' pan,Combed his hair with a wagon wheel,An' died with a toothache in his heel!
Example 3: Collected by Vance Randolph from Mabel E. Muller ofRolla, Missouri on April 5, 1938. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs,Volume III, p. 303.
I went to town the other night,I heard the noise and I saw the fight,The watchman was a-running round,Cryind Old Dan Tucker's come to town!Old Dan he worked in the cotton field,He got a stone bruise on his heel,He left the field and went through the woodsTo the little pond where the fishin's goodOld Dan he went down to the millTo get some meal to put in the swill,The miller he swore by the point of his knife,He never seen such a man in his life.And now old Dan is a done gone sucker,And never will go home to his supper,Old Dan he has had his last ride,And the banjo's buried by his side.
Example 4: Collected by John Meredith from Herb Tattersallof Australia. From John Meredith and Hugh Anderson, FolkSongs of Australia, p. 263.
Old Danny Tucker was a dirty old man,He washed his face in the frying pan,Combed his hair with the leg of a chair,Died with a toothache in his hair.
Example 5: From Jon & Marcia Pankake, A Prairie HomeCompanion Folk Song Book. Informant not named.
Old Dan Tucker was a fine old manHe washed his face in a frying panHe combed his hair with a wagon wheelAnd died with a toothache in his heel.CHORUS: So get out of the way for old Dan Tucker He's too late to get his supper Supper's over and dinner's cookin' Old Dan Tucker just stand there lookin'.I come to town the other nightI heard the noise and saw the fightThe watchman was a-runnin' roundCrying "Old Dan Tucker's come to town."Old Dan Tucker is a nice old manHe used to ride our darby ramHe sent him whizzing down the hillIf he hadn't got up, he'd lay there still.Old Dan begun in early lifeTo play the banjo and the fifeHe played the children all to sleepAnd then into his bunk he'd creep.
The Original Sheet Music Text
From sheet music published 1843 by Chas. H. Keith.The cover of the sheet music is generic: OLD DAN EMMIT's ORIGINAL BANJO MELODIESEMMIT, BROWN, WHITLOCK, PELHAMThe interior page is headlined The Original OLD DAN TUCKERAs sung by the Virginia Minstrels Words by Old Dan. D. EmmitI come to town de udder night,I hear de noise an saw de fight,De watchman was a runnin roun, cryinOld Dan Tucker's come to town, SoGran' Chorus.get out de way! get out de way!get out de way! Old Dan Tuckeryour to late to come to supper. 2Tucker is a nice old man,He used to ride our darby ram;He sent him whizzen down de hill,If he had'nt got up he'd lay dar still. Get out, &c. 3Here's my razor in good orderMagnum bonum -- jis hab bought 'er;Sheep shell oats, Tucker shell de corn,I'll shabe you soon as de water get warm. Get out, &c. 4Ole Dan Tucker an I got drunk,He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk,De charcoal got inside he shoeLor bless you honey how de ashes flew. Get out, &c. 5Down de road foremost de stump,Massa make me work de pump;I pump so hard I broke de sucker.Dar was work for ole Dan Tucker. Get out, &c. 6I went to town to buy some goodsI lost myself in a piece of woods,De night was dark I had to suffer,It froze de heel of Daniel Tucker. Get out, &c. 7Tucker was a hardened sinner,He nebber said his grace at dinner;De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squalHe 'hole hog wid de tail and all. Get out, &c.
This is, of course, an extreme case, because there is no coherentnarrative to the song. (That may be a warning in itself.) But eventightly plotted songs can go widely astray, or show extreme variationson particular points. Child #286, for instance, involves a ship, awicked captain, and a heroic sailor who saves the ship from an enemywarship. But the English ship may be the "Golden Vanity,"the "Sweet Trinity," the "Merry Golden Tree,"the "Sweet Kumadee," the "Golden Victory,"or any of a dozen others.
As a last reminder of the importance of understanding oral traditionto the practice of textual criticism, consider this: Textual criticismwas originated by the Greeks to deal with the text of Homer -- a worktransmitted orally for centuries. Modern manuals tend to make fun ofthose early scholars, and rightly so. But their biggest single faultwas their failure to take oral tradition into account.
1. I would like to thank Ulrich Schmid forasking the questions that helped me formulate the points in this article.[back]
2. Francis James Child, The English andScottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898. At the time it was a comprehensivecollection of British ballad texts, and "Child Numbers" (rangingfrom 1 to 305) are still the standard way of referring to the songs itcontains. For further information about Child and other basic ballad works,as well as a large on-line bibliography of traditional song, I would suggestvisiting TheTraditional Ballad Index . [back]
3. The "A" texts of Child 1-10. [back]
4. W. Edson Richmond, "Some Effectsof Scribal and Typographical Error on Oral Tradition," first printed in theSouthern Folklore Quarterly and now printed in MacEdward Leachand Tristram P. Coffin, eds., The Critics & the Ballad, 1961.The quote and the following example are from page 227. [back]
5. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of theNew Testament (2nd/3rd Edition, Oxford, 1992), p. 195. [back]
6. This effect can be even more clearlydemonstrated in non-Biblical literature, where we have external sourcesto refer to. An excellent example is found in the Middle English romanceSir Gawaine and the Green Knight. In line 958 of the only survivingmanuscript we read Chymbled ouer hir blake chin with mylk-quyte vayles,"Covered over her black (i.e. dark, swarthy) chin with milk-whiteveils." But the alliterative metre makes it imperative that, insteadof milk-white, we have a word beginning with "ch." Alleditions of Sir Gawain therefore emend the text to read chalk-quyte,"chalk-white." But this is no ordinary error; clearly the scribewas influenced by the many folktales and songs that use the phrase "milk-white"("milk-white steed," "milk-white hand," etc.).
A similar example occurs in an Australian poem/song called simply"Holiday Song." One verse reads
Come with me, merry and free,
Gay as a bird on the spray,
Grief and care, come if you dare;
We will be happy today.
Reciters regularly give the second line as "Gay [or FREE] asa bird on the wing," even though this ruins the rhyme;the idiom is just too strong.[back]
7. Quoted by Child in his introduction to theballad he calls "Bonny Barbara Allen." This appears on p. 276of volume II of the Dover edition of Child (the most widely available printing).[back]
8. Private communication, based on a previousjournal article. The four "basic" first lines are "All inthe merry month of May," "It fell about the Martinmas time,""So early, early in the spring," and "In Scarlet town whereI was born." [back]