Contents: Introduction * Signs of Oral Transmission * The Effects of Oral Tradition * An Example of the Parallels between Folk Ballads and Biblical Manuscripts * Try It Yourself * Footnotes
It is generally conceded that the material that made up the gospels was originally transmitted orally -- that is, by word of mouth. After all, neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have written anything (with the possible exception of 1 Peter and perhaps the writings of John -- but even 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 written word. And, until very recently, the common people learned about Jesus primarily from oral tradition, for they could not read the gospel.
Even today, there are people in Appalachia who sing songs like "The Cherry 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 asked for 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. Joseph repented of his anger at her.)
Modern examples of this sort could be multiplied indefinitely, and there is no reason to believe it was otherwise in antiquity: Folklore about Jesus 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 noted that 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 lively details, an economical plot.
One example does not a rule make. But one is tempted to list other long insertions as the result of oral tradition. "Mark 16:9-20" is obviously a literary creation, but Luke 22:43-44 (the Bloody Sweat) looks oral. 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 F at Matthew 20:28 may also 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 material offered by Codex Bezae in Acts is also traditional.
Oral tradition probably did not cause many of the minor variants we see in the Biblical text; the division between the secluded world of monks and the bustling villages where folklore spread was usually too wide. But scholars cannot be certain of this without testing the hypothesis. (It should be noted, e.g., that many of the English Miracle Plays, usually regarded as folk productions, had clerical authors.) The following list shows some of the hallmarks of oral tradition, illustrated (where possible) both by traditional ballads and 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 dozens of smaller fragments cobbled together into an epic. That sort of school might claim the same for much of the New Testament. This is flatly silly. The gospels used oral sources, and at least one of these sources (the elements in "Q," where Matthew and Luke have substantially different versions) was probably oral. But the gospels as they stand are literary compositions, and so are most of their sources.
See also the article on memes, which discusses this rather universal phenomenon of collective memory.
Some of the effects of oral tradition are described above. Others have yet to be explored. Consider the Gospel of Thomas. Its relationship to the synoptic "Q" source is obvious -- but the differences are as striking as the similarities. My personal suspicion is that both Thomas and Q go back to a common oral tradition, with the forms drifting apart over some generations of storytelling.
On the other hand, oral tradition can also "level" differences. Storytellers describing the life of Jesus will often combine incidents from different accounts. This, rather than literary influence, may explain some of the "Diastessaric" readings that scholars often point up 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 contradictory tendencies in ballad transmission. The more familiar is the tendency toward degeneration. Degeneration refers to the obvious corruptions and omissions from a text which are caused by the singers' failure to remember or understand what they have heard.... The opposing tendency is that toward deleting from the story much 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 than the original.
Compare these two phenomena with the scribal processes which produced the texts 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 the rebuilding of songs from other materials -- there are any number of ballad texts which are hybrids of multiple songs. Sometimes the combination will be simply a matter of adding a verse or a line here or there, but in others it will be a detailed conflation of two texts. This, in turn, appears strongly reminiscent of the process which produced Codex Bezae. (See also the article on Destruction and Reconstruction.)
Few scholars have paid much attention to oral tradition; it's hard to study something one cannot verify or see in action. But we would be wise to keep it in mind; we never know where it might turn up. There are a number of myths which survive via oral tradition. Consider, for example, how many people will say "Columbus discovered that the earth was round." That is false on all counts; first, every educated person of the fifteenth century knew the world was round, and second, Columbus never managed to sail around the world to prove its spherical shape. In fact, Columbus was consistently wrong about the earth's shape; he thought it was a third smaller than its actual size, and so insisted to his dying day that he had discovered a western passage to the Indies, not a new continent!
In the above, we have generally treated the case of material initially transmitted by oral tradition. We should note that this doesn't always work 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 encountered by ordinary people.) And there are interesting cases of oral and written traditions interacting. We mentioned the example of preachers harmonizing stories. The works of Shakespeare are another example. The plays were initially written, but these autographs have perished. Moreoever, these are not necessarily the 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 not the text of the autograph. If it is preserved at all, it is probably preserved in the so-called "bad folios." These are believed to have been taken from actors' recollections -- from oral tradition (although first-hand tradition). Without getting into Shakespeare criticism (a field in which I have no competence at all), this makes matters much more complicated....
Another interesting point, which might affect such things as harmonization of parallels, is the ability to different traditions to produces very similar results. Consider these two accounts, one from the account of how the Anglo-Saxon Cædmon became a poet, the other from a tradition of the revelation to Mohammed:
|From the Venerable Bede's History of the English Church and People, iv.24:|
From Islamic tradition (as described in the English translation of the Quran by N. J. Dawood; compare Surah 96 of the Quran itself):
|"[Cædmon] did not gain the art of poetry from human beings or human teachers but as a free gift from God.... [At first he was so poor at poetry that] when he saw the harp coming his way [to sing a piece, as was expected at Anglo-Saxon entertainments], he would get up from the table and go home.... Suddenly in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. 'Cædmon,' he said, 'Sing me a song.' He answered, 'I don't know how to sing. I left the feast and came here because I cannot sing.' [The other said,] 'But you shall sing to me....' And Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator."||One night in Ramadan, when Mohammed was in a dream, the Angel Gabriel came to him and said, "Recite." Mohammed answered, "What shall I recite?" This was repeated three times, then Gabriel said, "Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created humanity from drops of blood."|
|Bede proceeds to quote "Cædmon's Hymn," a praise to the creator said to be Cædmon's first writing, composed in that dream.||The result, of course, was the Quran. But even the Exordium to the Quran has parallels to Cædmon's Hymn. Both start by praising the Lord of Creation.|
Bede's history was finished in 731, and so this account must be older than that. Mohammed began to receive the Quran in about 610, so this legend must be more recent than that. Bede lived and died in England; he could not have known an Islamic legend. The two are independent stories -- but they arose at the same time, and nonetheless are fundamentally the same legend.
The failure to understand folklore and its effects has significantly affected textual studies in at least one instance, though it is in the Old 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 text is long; the Greek text of Vaticanus and other LXX manuscripts is much shorter.
Some scholars have explained the shorter LXX text as eliminating doublets. Well, this is formally true -- and completely fails to look at the evidence. If one takes the material found in both types of text, and the material found only in MT, a folklorist can instantly see the difference: The common material is history of the sort found in the rest of 1 Samuel. The material peculiar to MT is a folktale of how David met Saul. Neither more nor less. In fact, it's a fundamental type of the folktale, found, e.g., in pre-Christian Scandinavian myth: The commoner performs an act of heroism and so comes to the attention of the king. The MT-specific material is not a doublet of the common material; it is a folktale grafted onto the initial text of the court history which comprises the bulk of 1 Samuel. Even the language is that of folktale. (Note, e.g., that in 17:16 the Philistine challenges Israel for forty days -- far longer than an army could have stayed in camp without facing starvation and disease.) Textual criticism of this passage must start from the fact that the MT-specific material is a Hebrew folktale.
Perhaps the best-known of all traditional English ballads is "Barbara Allen" (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 of Barbara Allen. He begs her to come to his side. She comes, but refuses to pity him (in some versions, when he was drinking, he toasted "the ladies all" rather than Barbara). She leave; he dies. She "hears the 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 grows a rose; from hers, a briar (or other objectionable plant). The two twine together 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 are all from traditional ballads, and the ballad form (particularly with reference to rhyme, but also regular metre) cannot be verified before about the twelfth century. And yet, previous oral tradition had much in common with the folk ballad. The earliest long pieces in oral tradition were poetry, not prose. (Witness Homer or Beowulf. The epic form of these pieces, with their metre and conventional expressions, made them much easier to remember than an equivalent prose form.) There are prose folktales -- indeed, they receive more scholarly attention than folk songs. But these are relatively unfixed; two tellers will tell the same story with entirely different language. Whereas poetry always has something to hold it in place. In modern ballads, it is rhyme and metre. Rhyme was not at all common in early epics, but Beowulf has its alliteration, and all ancient epics have some sort of metre. They also have their formulae. In Beowulf and other early Germannic poetry, for instance, we have the "kennings" -- two words put together to mean something else while preserving metre and alliteration (the first of these occurs in line 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 most developed in Greek poetry. These actually take two forms. One is a set of key synonyms for particular virtues such as bravery; these are similar to the 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, giving the 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 special opportunity of trying to work out this process yourself, to see the parallels between oral transmission and written transmission. It also may 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 song for which we have the original sheet music printing, which I've shown at the end. But before that, I'm going to print assorted versions collected from oral transmission. You are welcome to try getting from those to the original.
Example 1: Collected by Vance Randolph from Carl Durbin of Pineville, 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 foat 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 of Bentonville, 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 of Rolla, 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 woods To the little pond where the fishin's good Old Dan he went down to the mill To 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 Tattersall of Australia. From John Meredith and Hugh Anderson, Folk Songs 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 Home Companion Folk Song Book. Informant not named.
Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man He washed his face in a frying pan He combed his hair with a wagon wheel And 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 night I heard the noise and saw the fight The watchman was a-runnin' round Crying "Old Dan Tucker's come to town." Old Dan Tucker is a nice old man He used to ride our darby ram He sent him whizzing down the hill If he hadn't got up, he'd lay there still. Old Dan begun in early life To play the banjo and the fife He played the children all to sleep And 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 MELODIES EMMIT, BROWN, WHITLOCK, PELHAM The interior page is headlined The Original OLD DAN TUCKER As sung by the Virginia Minstrels Words by Old Dan. D. Emmit I come to town de udder night, I hear de noise an saw de fight, De watchman was a runnin roun, cryin Old Dan Tucker's come to town, So Gran' Chorus. get out de way! get out de way! get out de way! Old Dan Tucker your to late to come to supper. 2 Tucker 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. 3 Here's my razor in good order Magnum 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. 4 Ole Dan Tucker an I got drunk, He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk, De charcoal got inside he shoe Lor bless you honey how de ashes flew. Get out, &c. 5 Down 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. 6 I went to town to buy some goods I 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. 7 Tucker was a hardened sinner, He nebber said his grace at dinner; De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squal He 'hole hog wid de tail and all. Get out, &c.
This is, of course, an extreme case, because there is no coherent narrative to the song. (That may be a warning in itself.) But even tightly plotted songs can go widely astray, or show extreme variations on particular points. Child #286, for instance, involves a ship, a wicked captain, and a heroic sailor who saves the ship from an enemy warship. 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 tradition to the practice of textual criticism, consider this: Textual criticism was originated by the Greeks to deal with the text of Homer -- a work transmitted orally for centuries. Modern manuals tend to make fun of those early scholars, and rightly so. But their biggest single fault was their failure to take oral tradition into account.
1. I would like to thank Ulrich Schmid for asking the questions that helped me formulate the points in this article. [back]
2. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898. At the time it was a comprehensive collection of British ballad texts, and "Child Numbers" (ranging from 1 to 305) are still the standard way of referring to the songs it contains. For further information about Child and other basic ballad works, as well as a large on-line bibliography of traditional song, I would suggest visiting The Traditional Ballad Index . [back]
3. The "A" texts of Child 1-10. [back]
4. W. Edson Richmond, "Some Effects of Scribal and Typographical Error on Oral Tradition," first printed in the Southern Folklore Quarterly and now printed in MacEdward Leach and 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 the New Testament (2nd/3rd Edition, Oxford, 1992), p. 195. [back]
6. This effect can be even more clearly
demonstrated in non-Biblical literature, where we have external sources
to refer to. An excellent example is found in the Middle English romance
Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. In line 958 of the only surviving
manuscript we read Chymbled ouer hir blake chin with mylk-quyte vayles,
"Covered over her black (i.e. dark, swarthy) chin with milk-white
veils." But the alliterative metre makes it imperative that, instead
of milk-white, we have a word beginning with "ch." All
editions of Sir Gawain therefore emend the text to read chalk-quyte,
"chalk-white." But this is no ordinary error; clearly the scribe
was 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] as a 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 the ballad he calls "Bonny Barbara Allen." This appears on p. 276 of volume II of the Dover edition of Child (the most widely available printing). [back]
8. Private communication, based on a previous journal article. The four "basic" first lines are "All in the merry month of May," "It fell about the Martinmas time," "So early, early in the spring," and "In Scarlet town where I was born." [back]