Some Musings on Rituals and Tradition Transmission

Scholars have been turning and twisting in angst at night for centuries trying to figure out exactly what happened in that relatively tiny gap between Jesus’ actual ministry and the writing down of the letters and the gospels about him. A tiny gap that turns into a gaping black abyss of a hole if you stare at it long enough – like Chinese water-dripping torture. I’ve just recently experienced a surge of interest in this period myself, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to traverse the vast and littered battlefield of different theories and hypotheses. Since I am a student at Uppsala University in Sweden, I felt morally obligated to begin my odyssey with “Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity” by the former Uppsala-educated and Lund-based professor of NT, Birger Gerhardsson. I’m only a couple of pages in, but I can already feel that the book will become a guide of sorts – the Lonely Planet to the world of tradition transmission – for me. Although it is important to remember that Gerhardsson wrote the book in the 60’s, my opinion so far is that, although I might not agree with all the specifics (like his, for me unrealistic, faith in Josephus’ trustworthiness and his approach to the dating of the Rabbinic material he makes use of), his methodological discussions are very interesting, and they propel the mind forwards, to new ideas – which is all one can, and perhaps should, ask of academic literature.

But, I don’t want to make this an entry about “Memory and Manuscript” (although I just have to make a note of how much I appreciate alliterated titles! This one has to be one of the more delightful ones I’ve come across – short, sweet, succinct!). Rather, while reading the first chapter, something occurred to me which I felt I needed to expand upon. The idea of tradition transmission is an interesting one – but is an analysis of literature really the way to go about it? In a context were the majority of individuals were illiterate, are we misleading ourselves by placing too heavy of an emphasis on the literary relationships between the early Christ-believing texts, in some sort of (to me seemingly) banal attempt to extract “red strings” of tradition from them, strings which we hope will somehow lead us back to that hilly Galilean landscape where the words were first uttered? Hansel and Gretel have not wandered into the Gospels before us, leaving breadcrumbs for us to follow that lead us straight to the words of Jesus.

My uncle is a reverend, and he once told my family about a curious phenomenon in one of his old congregations. The actual church building they used was old, pre-dating the Reformation, like many of Sweden’s churches. When Gustaf Vasa imposed Lutheranism on his kingdom, many of these churches were white-washed on the inside, so as to cover up the elaborate, Catholic church art they often boasted. In his particular congregation, there was an old tradition to touch a specific part of the wall just inside the entrance of the building upon entering the church. In connection with the growth of the High Church movement and a general desire to explore the roots of the Church, many of these white-washed churches were restored to their original, more colourful forms. Lo, and behold, when the white paint was chipped away from the interior of my uncle’s church, what do you think they found under the spot which hundreds of church-goers had touched in reverence throughout the centuries without remembering why? A painted icon of the Virgin Mary. What can we deduce from this (apart from the fact that it’s like a commercial for the High Church movement)? That rituals last longer than ideas. The church-goers of my uncle’s former church had forgotten why their parents used to touch that specific spot on the wall – they did it out of habit, ritualized habit – rather than out of some sort of Marian theological convictions. Yet, those first church-goers who began touching the wall, did it out of respect and reverence for a religious figure to which they were no longer allowed to publically display devotion. Rituals outlive theological ideas. Ergo, it is my humble opinion that it would perhaps be more interesting to try to trace rituals rather than literary dependence in the gospels. Admittedly one could probably use literary dependence to trace rituals, but the point I want to make is that it would be interesting if the point of the analysis was to identity traces of early Christ-believing rituals in the Gospels and Paul, rather than trying to identify exactly how certain Jesus Sayings are related to each other from a literary standpoint. Of course, if one views the transmission of tradition as a ritual (which I think one ought to), these Jesus Sayings are still afforded an important role in the investigation.

Although I realize that this post is of a highly fragmentary nature academically, I nevertheless cannot stop myself from feeling that the most important aspect of historical research (for me at least) is to uncover the lives, habits, and convictions of the (ordinary) people behind the texts – the illiterate ‘masses’ who make up the backbone of any group, but who are rarely represented in our source material. Perhaps this feeling is based on a strange sense of displaced responsibility or some sort of Western-scholar-guilt, or perhaps it represents my ideologically-tainted conscience flaring up. Either way, when we place too heavy an emphasis on literary dependence theories and the like, I cannot help but feel that we risk banishing the vast majority of ancient Jesus Followers into the margins of history, when they in reality deserve a place of honour – a place that is perhaps more easily awarded them if we place a greater emphasis on ritual analysis and tradition transmission as performance.

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2 Responses to Some Musings on Rituals and Tradition Transmission

  1. Interesting post. Because I’m not up to date on new directions in scholarship, I hope that you will share any books or articles that you find useful on this topic. What evidence is there that reflects the lives, habits, and convictions of the masses? What methods are used to identify and evaluate such evidence? I’m not asking for answers to these questions, but for insights about where to look for relevant discussion. In other words, I’m interested in this topic, so where should I start?

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    • rebeccarunesson says:

      Thanks! I’m still in the nascent phase of my own interest in the subject, but I would definitely recommend “Memory and Manuscript”, as well as “Jesus Remembered” by James Dunn – and as an extra treat, I would really recommend to read something on the subject by Kenneth Bailey (whom Dunn refers to quite a bit). I found this article an interesting place to start:http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_tradition_bailey.html. As a Swedish university student, I can’t stop myself from also recommending the research of Lund-based Samuel Byrskog, who in many ways has continued in Gerhardsson’s tradition. Again, I’m still new to the subject myself, but I hope these recommendations are at least a little helpful.

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