The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in Its Transmission -- By: Michael F. Bird

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 15:2 (NA 2005)
Article: The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in Its Transmission
Author: Michael F. Bird


The Purpose and Preservation
of the Jesus Tradition:
Moderate Evidence for a Conserving
Force in Its Transmission

Michael F. Bird

University of Queensland

An important preface to historical Jesus research involves formulating a theory of the transmission of the traditions underlying the Gospels. Scholarship frequently exhibits either an inherent skepticism toward trying to uncover how this tradition was handled or else is saturated with multiple proposals concerning the means of its formation. In any event, important questions to be asked include what purpose the Jesus tradition had in early Christian circles and what factors or controls may have enabled that tradition to be pre served effectively. In this study I address questions of this sort and, with careful qualification, contend that the Jesus tradition probably had a variety of functions in the early church, and there were several reasons why the words and deeds of Jesus may have been consciously preserved.

Key Words: Jesus tradition, Gospels, historical Jesus

A study of the dynamic process from oral tradition to Gospels text is a necessary prolegomenon to Jesus research, because conclusions drawn here largely determine one’s methodology and the profile of the research project. One immediate dilemma is suspicion toward the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. This suspicion is generated by a perception of the oral tradition as being fluid and vulnerable to unsupervised alteration, the theological creativity of the Evangelists in refashioning the tradition, as well as postmodern misgivings with regard to attempts to uncover history itself. For similar reasons, Harm Hollander advocates that “the Christian gospels do not give us a historically reliable account of his [Jesus’] life.”1 This understanding of the formation of the Gospels may effectively derail historical Jesus study before it has scarcely even

begun,2 in which case, one would have to concede to Martin Kähler’s claim that historical Jesus research constitutes a “blind alley.”3 Another obstruction is encountered by the plurality of proposals available in articulating the formation of the Jesus tradition, ranging from models that espouse strong control of the tradition to models that advocate a liquid tradition created out of the life-setting of the early church. The impact of this multiplicity is pointed out by David du Toit, who attributes the current diversity in Jesus research to a lack of consensus regarding the formation of the Jesus tradition....

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