By Joshua Orsi, The Catholic University of America
Following the zenith of form criticism in the first part of the last century, a variety of theories have arisen to explain the development of the written Gospels as we now possess them. Like form criticism, these theories rely on a twofold concept of orality (oral tradition, which is verbal transmission across multiple generations, and oral history, which is “reminiscence”) and are in the main more amenable than form criticism to the direct or indirect contributions of actual eyewitnesses, either as curators of the oral tradition (as in the theories of Birger Gerhardsson and Kenneth Bailey) or as sources or even authors of the written text (as in the proposals of Richard Bauckham, John Robinson, and others). While the more radical ideas of this latter group, such as the apostolic authorship of John and, regarded the Synoptics, even Matthew, hold especial interest for the Christian, this paper will confine itself to an evaluation of form criticism and a presentation and critique of two alternative models (indirect and direct apostolic witness).
Long the undisputed champion of liberal Protestant scholarship, form criticism has been substantially discredited over the past several decades, though its ghost still haunts the academy. Most illustriously represented by Germans such as Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, the central conceit of form criticism was the “pearl necklace” theory: the idea that the Gospels were composed of independent pericopae. These pericopae, many originally historical, were defined by their threefold “life-situation”: their Sitz im Leben Jesu, or their relation to the Jesus of history, their Sitz im Leben der Kirche, or relation to the life of the Church, and finally their Sitz im Evangelium, where these pericopae were strung together by the Evangelists like pearls on a string, depending on how they were employed. Dibelius and Bultmann then classified these pericopae in roughly similar ways: Paradigms, Tales, Legends, and Paraenesis, depending on the form or framing of the stories. A minute explanation of the components of this taxonomy is unnecessary in the present circumstances, but it might profitably be noted that both Dibelius and Bultmann derogated the literary contribution of the Evangelists, preferring to speak of the Gospels as Kleinliteratur, implying by this term collected material and not substantially original work.
Form criticism vaguely invoked an oral tradition, the idea that, in Dibelius’ phrasing, “many anonymous persons” handed down the memories of Jesus, but which were increasingly edited to suit certain circumstances in which the infant Church found itself: missionary work, apologetics, moral edification, etc. As textual evidence for their theory, the form critics adduced the opening verses of Luke, as well as St. Paul’s rendering of Christian formulae in 1 Corinthians 15, to demonstrate the historical consciousness of the primitive Christian communion and the various streams which moderated the story of Jesus.
One of the principal criticisms levied against the form critics is that the whole hypothesis of Sitz im Leben, the identifiable connection between literary form and historical origin, has been found wanting in the case of oral poetry, as documented by anthropologist Ruth Finnegan. Another critique involves the literary virtuosity of the Evangelists, as the notion that ancient texts can be “archaeologically” studied, layer by layer, to discern a “pure” substratum of historicity, is highly dubious. Even conservative scholar Richard Bauckham, whose work will be evaluated later on, has suggested dropping the concept of a “Jesus of history” for a “Jesus of testimony,” as the accounts have been ideologically colored by the history of the Church, and reminiscence has been translated through the lens of dogma.
Nonetheless, while the “anonymous,” socially-defined processes of form criticism have been somewhat discredited, the theory itself still offers valuable insights into the formation of the Gospels. Two may be considered especially pertinent: first, that excepting the Passion and infancy narratives, the Gospels are indeed composed of independent pericopae edited together by the Evangelists, although today more credit is allotted their style and sense of literary architecture. Second, the Gospels are existentially imperative writings, not strictly biographical literature; they are concerned with the forms and norms of ecclesiastical life in the primitive Christian period.
Thus, while form criticism has provided the background for most Gospel scholarship in the twentieth century, it has also been weighed and found wanting. If the social settings of the early Church only exercised a limited influence on the original pericopae, traces of the apostolic witness may yet be found, and room is left to establish new, sounder models of oral transmission. While each of the authors to be discussed represents his own school, for the sake of convenience they have been agglomerated and divided more simply along the lines of “indirect” or “direct” witness, that is, whether or not the witness of the original Apostles might be found in the text of some or all the extant Gospels. The first of these two camps, the “indirect” school, is represented by Birger Gerhardsson and Kenneth Bailey.
Indirect Apostolic Witness
Whereas the form critics hypothesized an anonymous oral tradition, this school prefers to ground the origins of the written Gospels in the persons of the Eleven Apostles. This does not imply actual apostolic authorship of any of the Gospels or even the presence of any apostolic eyewitness testimony, but rather regards the oral tradition as more or less supervised by those who participated in the ministry of Jesus. Gerhardsson and Bailey take differing positions themselves, the former articulating a theory of transmission heavily influenced by the customs of later rabbinic Judaism, with the Apostles, having formally memorized the teachings of Jesus, passing them on under strictly controlled circumstances in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and the latter preferring a model in which the Christian laity would meet to discuss and preserve the memory of Jesus on their own terms, for which Bailey claimed precedent in the traditions of the contemporary Near East.
Gerhardsson’s theory roots itself in the practice of late antique rabbis, who learned Torah through constant repetition and committed vast tracts of Jewish learning to memory, only occasionally penning an “aide-memoire” for personal reference. Like the form critics, Gerhardsson appealed to the text of Scripture to justify his comparison, in this case to the frequent descriptions of Jesus as teacher, and he concluded that despite the paucity of evidence suggesting the existence of post-A.D. 70 customs in late Second Temple Judaism, the proximity in time allowed Jesus and his followers to operate in a manner similar to later rabbinic Judaism. In practice (here Gerhardsson relied on the picture established in Acts), Jerusalem was the locus of intense and authoritative discussion of the Jesus tradition among actual eyewitnesses, who curated an official tradition and transmitted it through verified channels (St. Paul’s remarks in Galatians, where he mentioned traveling to Jerusalem to check in with Sts. Peter, James, and John, were adduced as explicit textual evidence).
Naturally, Gerhardsson’s theory was criticized for importing late antique Judaism into a first-century Christian context, for the most part an intellectual backwater to which the formal technique of educated society would be largely foreign. More damningly, Gerhardsson could cite no specific passage of the New Testament which described his theory in practice, despite appeals to St. Paul (who alone in the canon uses the technical terms for transmission) and certain verses in the Gospels which show Jesus explaining his parables to the disciples. Although his theory provides a response to the anonymous tradition of form criticism, it is a reaction too strong for the evidence at hand.
Somewhat more plausible is Kenneth Bailey’s proposal of an “informal controlled oral tradition,” an attempt at a middle ground between form criticism and the rabbinic model. Based on his observations in the Near East, Bailey proposes a first-century version of the haflat samar, an informal community gathering where stories and other local traditions are rehearsed. In these circumstances, Bailey notes, there is both “flexibility and control,” where “the central threads of the story cannot be changed, but flexibility in detail is allowed.” Despite its acceptance by such contemporary luminaries as N. T. Wright, other scholars have offered a variety of convincing criticisms.
For example, central to Bailey’s account is his treatment of various legends concerning John Hogg, a Scottish missionary to the Near East in the nineteenth century. Stories about Hogg were still extant in various communities in the middle of the twentieth century, when Bailey conducted his research, and he was impressed by the apparent continuity of tradition. Yet a reading of Hogg’s biography, written by his daughter in the early part of that century, fails to substantiate many of these stories and even flatly contradicts the ones it contains. One can easily see how such tales as Hogg’s supposed conversion of a pack of bandits arose out of a more mundane incident: Hogg’s companion, whom his daughter reports was more agitated by the encounter with strangers, delivered a sensationalized sermon shortly thereafter, jumpstarting the discussions in the hafalat samar. Indeed, it is unclear how Bailey’s anecdotal evidence offers anything like support for orthodox Christianity, as a skeptic might credibly point to the documented gestation of the Hogg legends as evidence that the stories of Christ were dramatically exaggerated by their primitive hearers.
In sum, the indirect model of apostolic witness, while attractive to the person of faith, is, like form criticism, wanting. Though aspects of Gerhardsson’s theory are plausible, such as paradosis by leaders of nascent Christianity, his theory demands too much formalization for the historical record or biblical text to support, and while Bailey’s proposal is an appealing compromise, there is no associated guarantee of accuracy.
Perhaps the proponents of the indirect model have not been ambitious enough. The united tradition of the Christian Church has always testified to the apostolic origins of the four Gospels, with Matthew and John belonging to the Twelve and Mark and Luke having long associated with apostolic men. Arguing for the traditional authorship of the Gospels is tendentious, but the proffered solution reduces the need for minute speculation into a hypothesized oral tradition. The second school of thought, that of direct apostolic witness, is championed by Richard Bauckham, who has written extensively on the subject in the last twenty years. Prior to Bauckham, an energetic promoter of this view was the Anglican Bishop John Robinson, whose controversial Redating the New Testament never received wide support in the academy but nevertheless retains considerable intellectual potency.
Direct Apostolic Witness
N. T. Wright has noted a tendency in historical Jesus scholarship to reduce accuracy to questions of date, which he considers unfortunate:
“The historicity and accuracy of the Gospels depends on our putting together the whole jigsaw of the first century, with Judaism and early Christianity side by side (and indeed confusingly intertwined with each other), and with Jesus as the middle term straddling both. The historicity of the Gospels depends, not on when they were written, but the historical plausibility of the picture they describe.”
Despite this, the “direct witness” school tends to make bolder pronouncements on Gospel dating, since its arguments tend to defend the traditional narrative of the composition of the Gospels. As a result, especially with Robinson and Wansbrough, maintaining an early date for the texts or the prototypical versions of them plays a prominent role in their treatment of apostolic origins.
When Richard Bauckham published his authoritative Jesus and the Eyewitnesses in 2006, one reviewer called it “a bomb thrown into the playground of ‘historical Jesus’ scholarship.” The book’s controversial thesis, that the Gospels are substantially direct eyewitness accounts, mostly removed from any curated, let alone anonymous, oral tradition, has been much disputed, and despite the approbation of a number of distinguished scholars (N. T. Wright once again among them), many academics remain skeptical of Bauckham’s conclusions.
Most controversial is Bauckham’s signature argument, the inclusio, which posits that subtle literary devices were employed by the authors of each Gospel to identify their primary sources, and which Bauckham maintains has precedent in the ancient world. While John is one of his chief subjects, Bauckham also spends time with Mark and Luke, arguing that, in the case of the former, because St. Peter is the first-named and last-named disciple, the Evangelist is implying he was one of his principal sources. In the case of the latter, Luke names a particular group of women toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry who appear again at the empty tomb. Bauckham assures the reader that this technique was known in the ancient world and that the original audiences of the Gospels would have understood it.
As winsome a theory as this is, several critiques can be launched. Bauckham’s argument for a Petrine influence on Mark relies in great part on St. Peter’s appearance at the end of the work, but the Apostle only appears in the longer endings of Mark, which are generally considered inauthentic. Regarding Luke, the putative inclusio is rather weak, as the women are introduced eight chapters into the Gospel.
Bauckham’s argument can be made more plausible, argues Brant Pitre, if it is assumed that the Gospels were always named. Pitre argues that the manuscript tradition of the Gospels testifies to the originality of the titles and claims that if this were the case, the original audiences would have understood the inclusio immediately. This makes a case for Matthew, which lacks an inclusio according to Bauckham’s criteria, but does have a special treatment of St. Matthew’s character. Pitre presupposes the validity of the patristic traditions concerning the Gospels, in which case “The Gospel According to Mark” would automatically be associated with Peter. Luke is an outlier here, and it is unclear if Bauckham’s inclusio might be made to work, but the credibility of his overall argument would be strengthened if the foregoing aspects could be confirmed.
Richard Bauckham’s understanding of the oral tradition as oral history (remembering the distinction made in the introduction) is a contemporary approach to the origins of the Gospels. Several decades ago, his fellow Anglican Bishop John Robinson authored a brief work titled Redating the New Testament, which argued that no compelling reason exists to believe that any of the New Testament books were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. Robinson contended that no definitive indication existed in the New Testament that the Temple had been destroyed, and that the prophecies of its destruction were too vague to be ex post facto. Robinson argues that “So far as any historical event has colored the picture, it is not Titus’s capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but Nebuchadnezzar’s capture in 586 B.C. There is no single trait of the forecast which cannot be documented directly out of the Old Testament.”
Robinson defends his thesis at some length, but it has proven tendentious with most New Testament scholars. To the point of the Synoptics, he dates Luke prior to A.D. 62, since the text of Acts ends abruptly with St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, and Robinson (paraphrasing Adolf von Harnack) adds, “if the outcome of that trial (or a subsequent one) was already known, it is surely incredible…that no foreshadowing or prophecy of it after the event is allowed to appear in the narrative.” This throws a wrench into the standard solution to the Synoptic Problem, which assumes Markan priority from about A.D. 65-70. Robinson is himself skeptical of the two-source hypothesis, citing E. P. Sanders that “the evidence does not seem to warrant the degree of certainty with which many scholars hold the two-document hypothesis,” but he also notes that “the question of relative order is secondary to that of absolute dating” for his thesis.
When it comes to the question of direct apostolic witness, Robinson takes for granted that St. Luke was personally acquainted with St. Paul, as was intimated above. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are more difficult, as the former has undergone considerable revision. Grounding himself in the patristic tradition, Robinson argues that there is no solid reason for denying that John Mark was St. Peter’s companion in Rome, and he sets down the first collection of Petrine material in about A.D. 45, following the Apostle’s visit to Rome in 42. This document was then refined into proto-Mark, which was finalized (along with the other Synoptics) by about A.D. 60.
Nine years after the publication of Robinson’s book, the Catholic priest Henry Wansbrough mooted a similar argument in the “Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels” included in his New Jerusalem Bible. Unlike Robinson, Wansbrough believed that much of the New Testament canon was dateable to after A.D. 70, including Matthew and Luke, but he did maintain a form of the traditional narratives of authorship.
Consider the case of Matthew. Whereas Robinson posits a proto-Mark in the 40s, Wansbrough believes the first Gospel pericopae to have been collected during that time, in Aramaic, by “an author…who, according to tradition which there is no reason to doubt, was Matthew the apostle.” This, it should be noted, runs counter to the argument of Frederick Gast, O.C.D., who in his article “Synoptic Problem” stated “Any use of Papias to prove the priority of Mt has the hidden assumption that Mt is somehow related to the Aram collection of the logia of Jesus of which Papias spoke, and this is simply an unproved assumption.” In Wansbrough’s defense, Gast goes on to say that Papias should not be totally doubted in claiming the existence of said logia, and at any rate Wansbrough identifies three broad stages of Gospel formation, of which this is only part of the first, and he holds that proto-Matthew and any other primitive Jesus documents were swiftly put into Greek.
At this stage, one might sum up the textual arguments of the “direct influence” camp as “critically engaged” with the traditional Christian narrative. Whereas Gast avers that “to presume that either Q or S is Aram M or Mg [the Greek translation of the alleged Aramaic Matthew] is arbitrary,” Robinson and Wansbrough are less sanguine about the scholarly consensus. While much of their writing is too technical to afford thorough explication, it can be noted that Wansbrough in particular mistrusts Q, and Robinson, besides his skepticism about vaticinium ex eventu, is not persuaded by standard dating of Luke. Considering Bauckham, his arguments, tendentious on their own, might be formidably combined with an attempt to redate the Synoptic texts. Finally, to modify N. T. Wright’s passage at the beginning of this section, the question of direct apostolic witness in the texts might be best articulated in terms of what fits the structure of the text as well as the nonbiblical tradition.
An evaluation of a methodological system to establish the origins of documents two millennia old, written in a language no living human knows how to pronounce, permeated by a culture destroyed by siege and attrition and which survives only in partial memory, and penned by men who were convinced their subject was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is essentially impossible. Such an evaluation carried out by a novice may omit the adverb. Nonetheless, however Lacedaemonian, let an attempt be made.
The scholarly examination of the Gospels, or any historically grounded religious text, is fraught with challenges for the believer. The invocation of faith, while inevitable, is frequently forestalled as long as possible, risking a cession of the field to the materialist. On the other hand, as Avery Cardinal Dulles phrased it, “Christian faith does not normally arise from, or rest on, a critical examination of the New Testament evidence concerning the Jesus of history. Rather, it comes from God’s revealing word as conveyed by the testimony of the Church. But since the word of God tells us something about past events, faith cannot be insulated from history in the broad sense of the term.”
Per the teaching of the Church, the Gospels need not be eyewitness accounts, nor need they contain eyewitness accounts, strictly speaking. The Church is flexible. But flexibility has a limit, and orthodox Christianity of every stripe has always favored a close link between the eyewitnesses and the completed Gospels. Yet as N. T. Wright has said, “the argument for the substantial historicity and accuracy of the Gospels never depended on their dating, anyway. True, lots of scholars have argued as though that was the case, with ‘radical’ scholars dating the Gospels late (and so darkly suggesting that they were all unreliable) and ‘conservative’ scholars dating them early (and so brightly suggesting that everything in them was taken down by eyewitnesses at the scene). But this is actually a mistake.” Wright’s solution, given earlier, is to evaluate the “shape” of the Gospels, or how well they understanding and integrate with the Jewish context of the first century. But Wright himself is a leading proponent of Bailey and Bauckham. Given that those two scholars are representative of the direct and indirect models of apostolic witness, the evaluation with begin with them.
Part of the issue with commenting on Bailey’s hafalat samar and Gerhardsson’s “rabbinic academy” (a phrase about which he became rather cagey) is that both assume a level of organization in the early Church which cannot be established without dating the text. As with the rise of the monoespiscopate, a great deal changes whether or not one regards the Pastoral Epistles as genuine or pseudepigraphic. If they are considered genuine, then the ecclesiastical infrastructure even for Gerhardsson’s rabbinic model could be presumed to exist. Regardless, the criticism remains that Gerhardsson was simply importing a later development of Judaism without substantial reflection in the biblical text.
This would put the weight of evidence toward Bailey, but would this be a benefit for the believer? None of the anecdotal evidence cited by Bailey, when compared to the originals, appeared convincing; in fact, the hafalat samar behaved just like the old game Telephone, of which the Synoptic Gospels are accused. It could be counterargued that the stories about Jesus which would be shared by the primitive Christian hafalat samar were considered too valuable to distort, leaning again in Gerhardsson’s direction, but if Bailey’s framework is assumed this is just special pleading. Special pleading itself could be justified by invoking the unique character of the Christ event, but this appears tendentious.
The future of biblical criticism lies with the eyewitnesses. Historically, this has been assumed by the tradition, and contemporary scholars such as Richard Bauckham make a compelling case in this direction. Still, Bauckham alone is insufficient. His argument from the inclusio is oversubtle, and it only works with two of the Synoptics (Matthew being the exception). Bauckham’s argument could be made more potent by constellating with the more strictly historical arguments of Robinson and Wansbrough; if the Synoptics were written in the mid-first century, the reliability of the tradition could be assumed.
Using the tradition to confirm the tradition, however, is circular, and it is doubtful whether or not the origins of the Synoptics can ever be finally adjudicated, at least with the way the academy is now. However, this does not prevent decisive arguments regarding the origins of the Synoptics from being made. The centrality of A.D. 70 has been too long taken for granted; while it is entirely possible the consensus is correct, the claims of vaticanium ex eventu should be measured against actual examples both inside and outside the biblical text. Can Luke’s reference to armies surrounding Jerusalem really be compared with Daniel’s elaborate description of post-Babylonian Near Eastern history, for example?
In sum, while the question of eyewitnesses and the Synoptics is troublesome, a potent case can be made for the traditional beliefs concerning the origins of the Synoptics (howbeit modified; consider Robinson and Wansbrough’s stages of composition) by a concatenation of redating and first-century sociology. While the finer points of Gerhardsson and Bailey might not stand scrutiny, the essential claim that the Gospels are founded on the direct apostolic witness is indeed built on the rock.
 Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (London: James Currey, 1985), 12-13, cited in Eric Eve, Behind the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1
 Eve, Gospels, xiiis
 John S. Kselman, S.S., “Modern New Testament Criticism” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 14
 Eve, Gospels, 18
 Eve, Gospels, 17
 Eve, Gospels, 16
 Eve, Gospels, 17
 Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 260, cited in Eve, Gospels, 28
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 473
 Eve, Gospels, 29
 Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Dove: 1998), 288-91, cited in Eve, Gospels, 34
 Eve, Gospels, 35-37
 Eve, Gospels, 41
 Kenneth E. Bailey, ‘Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,’ Themelios 20 (1995), 4-11, cited in Eve, Gospels, 67
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, 2; London: SPCK, 1996), 133-6, cited in Eve, Gospels, 66
 Eve, Gospels, 68
 Rena L. Hogg, A Master-Builder on the Nile: Being a Record of the Life and Aims of John Hogg, D.D., Christian Missionary (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1914), cited in Eve, Gospels, 69-73
 Chris Tilling, “Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Summary and Short Critical Reflection,” 1
 “Praise for the First Edition” of Bauckham, Eyewitnesses: “The question of whether the Gospels are based on eyewitness accounts has long been controversial. Richard Bauckham, in a characteristic tour de force, draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the world of the first Christians to argue not only that the Gospels do indeed contain eyewitness testimony but that their first readers would certainly have recognized them as such. This book is a remarkable piece of detective work, resulting in a fresh and vivid approach to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of well-known problems and passages.”
 Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 124-47, cited in Eve, Gospels, 144
 Edward J Malley, S.J., “The Gospel According to Mark” in Jerome, 60
 Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus (New York: Image, 2016), 207
 John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 27
 Robinson, Redating, 85
 E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge, 1969), 278f, cited in Robinson, Redating, 86-87
 Robinson, Redating, 86
 Robinson spends several pages discussing the evidence for this in the Fathers and proposes multiple scenarios of composition. The chief objection to Robinson’s position here appears to be that if his theory is assumed, given Markan priority, that Gospel must have been written several years before the martyrdom of St. Peter, much earlier than the scholarly consensus and even some of the Fathers. Robinson can escape this by claiming, with substantial argumentation, an extended redaction process for the Synoptics, which obviates this difficulty.
 Robinson, Redating, 106
 Robinson, Redating, 108
 But not necessarily – “It is true that neither Greek Matthew nor Luke suggests that the destruction of Jerusalem has already taken place (not even Lk 19:42-44; 21:20-24 which employ cliches from the prophetic books to describe an event that cannot have been hard to foresee) …” Henry Wansbrough, The New Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1603
 Wansbrough, New Jerusalem, 1602
 Frederick Gast, O.C.D., “Synoptic Problem” in Jerome, 4-5
 Wansbrough, New Jerusalem, 1602
 In his essay Wansbrough rejects the existence of Q in favor of “A collection, called S(ource) by some which Luke has substantially adopted for his Perean section, while Matthew scattered the elements throughout his discourses, and the Gospel of Matthew in an earlier form”; he can thus somewhat evade Gast’s censure. Wansbrough, New Jerusalem, 1601
 Gast, “Synoptic Problem,” Jerome, 6
 Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Historians and the Reality of Christ” (First Things, 1992)
 N. T. Wright, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 129