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Oral and Written Gospel: A Critique of Werner Kelber

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

John Halverson
(Stevenson College, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA)


In The Oral and Written Gospel, Werner Kelber argues that the first written gospel was an attempt to supersede oral tradition by the creation of a literary ‘counterform’. It aimed to discredit ‘oral authorities’ (identified as the disciples and family of Jesus and Christian prophets). Similarly, the paucity of sayings in Mark indicates a suspicion of the sayings genre, which is taken to be the oral genre par excellence. The sayings represent the living voice of the living Lord. The substitution of a written gospel would silence that voice as an ongoing phenomenon by relegating it to the dead past. The passion narrative is essentially the creation of Mark, and with its emphasis on the death and post-resurrectional silence of Jesus, creates a new Christology in opposition to the ‘oral Christology’ of the sayings, which never refer to the death of Jesus. The net effect of the written gospel was to inaugurate a theology (or ‘hermeneutic’) of death and absence in contradiction to the principle of presence that informed the oral tradition.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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12 Roberts, ‘Books in the Graeco-Roman World’, 48.

13 Among the references I have been able to find to audience participation in oral performances in nonliterate societies, there are no instances of anything that could be perceived as dialogue. The normal pattern of audience participation is occasional words of encouragement or approval – ‘amens’ or the equivalent. See, for example: Biebuyck, Daniel P., ‘The African Heroic Epic’, Heroic Epic and Saga (ed. Oinas, Felix J.; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1978) 336–67Google Scholar; Clark, J. P., The Ozidi Saga (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University and Oxford University Nigeria, 1977)Google Scholar; Finnegan, Ruth, Limba Stories and Story-telling (Oxford: Oxford University, 1967)Google Scholar; Ibid., ‘What Is Orality – If Anything?’, Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1960)Google Scholar; Notopoulos, J. A., ‘Homer and Cretan Oral Poetry: A Study in Comparative Oral Poetry’, AJP 73 (1952) 225–50Google Scholar; Okpewko, Isadore, The Epic in Africa (New York: Columbia University, 1979)Google Scholar; Ron, and Scollon, Suzanne B. K., Narrative, Literacy and Face in Interethnic Communication (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981)Google Scholar; Tedlock, Dennis, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wrigglesworth, Hazel, ‘Sociolinguistic Features of Narrative Discourse in Ilianen Manobo’, Lingua 41 (1977) 101–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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18 Ibid., 199.

19 Clearly the abundance of sayings in Matthew and Luke is due to their incorporation of Q. Interestingly, without the Q material, the later evangelists would have proportionately fewer sayings than Mark.

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21 Ibid. 322.

22 A random comparison of the first 25 verses of Chapters 9 and 15 shows a slightly greater number (19) of subordinate clausal forms in 9 than in 15 (17).

23 Meagher, John C., Clumsy Construction in Mark (Toronto Studies in Theology 5: New York: Edwin Mellen, 1979)Google Scholar.

24 Yet I might observe that the earliest clearly literate poets in the Hellenic tradition, such as Archilochus and Sappho, are very life-oriented, indeed celebrants of life in contrast and conscious opposition to epic thanatopsis.

25 The Growth of Literature 3.854.