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Oral and Written Gospel: A Critique of Werner Kelber

  • John Halverson (a1)

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.

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1 Kelber Werner H., The Oral and the Written Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).

2 Kelber Werner H., The Kingdom in Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974); ed., The Passion in Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976); Mark's Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).

3 Ong Walter J., The Presence of the Word (New Haven: Yale University, 1967); Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1977); Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982). Eric Havelock A., Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1963); The Greek Concept of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1978).

4 Farrell Thomas J., ‘Kelber's Breakthrough’, Semeia 39 (1987) 2745. Though somewhat more cautiously, most of the reviews of the book welcomed the oral approach as promising for New Testament studies.

5 Finnegan Ruth, ‘What Is Orality – If Anything?’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 14 (1990) 130–49.

6 Street Brian V., Literacy in Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1984).

7 Tannen Deborah, ‘The Myth of Orality and Literacy’, in Linguistics and Literacy (ed. William Frawley; New York: Plenum, 1982) 3750.

8 Harris William V., Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1989).

9 Roberts C. H., ‘Books in the Graeco-Roman World and in the New Testament’, in The Cambridge History of the Bible 1: From the Beginnings to Jerome (ed. Ackroyd P. R. and Evans C. F.; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1970).

10 Lord Albert B., ‘The Gospels as Oral Traditional Literature’, The Relationships among the Gospels (ed. Walker William O. Jr; San Antonio, TX: Trinity University, 1978)3391.

11 Charles H. Talbert, ‘Oral and Independent or Literary and Interdependent? A Response to Albert B. Lord’, The Relationships among the Gospels, 93–102.

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) 336–67; Clark J. P., The Ozidi Saga (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University and Oxford University Nigeria, 1977); Finnegan Ruth, Limba Stories and Story-telling (Oxford: Oxford University, 1967); Ibid., ‘What Is Orality – If Anything?’, Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1960); Notopoulos J. A., ‘Homer and Cretan Oral Poetry: A Study in Comparative Oral Poetry’, AJP 73 (1952) 225–50; Okpewko Isadore, The Epic in Africa (New York: Columbia University, 1979); Ron and Scollon Suzanne B. K., Narrative, Literacy and Face in Interethnic Communication (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981); Tedlock Dennis, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1983); Wrigglesworth Hazel, ‘Sociolinguistic Features of Narrative Discourse in Ilianen Manobo’, Lingua 41 (1977) 101–24.

14 Scott Bernard Brandon, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 35–7.

15 Edmonson Munro S., Lore (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971); Chadwick H. Munro and Chadwick N. Kershaw, The Growth of Literature (3 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 19321940); Finnegan Ruth, Oral Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1977).

16 Jeremias Joachim, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1972).

17 Boring Eugene M., Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982).

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.

20 See discussions of these issues in Aune David E., Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983); Dunn James D. G., ‘Prophetic “l”-Sayings and the Jesus Tradition: The Importance of Testing Prophetic Utterances within Early Christianity’, NTS 24 (1977/1978) 175–98; Richard Edwards A., A Theology of Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976); Hill David, New Testament Prophecy (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979); Kloppenborg John S., The Formation of Q (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

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).

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.

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New Testament Studies
  • ISSN: 0028-6885
  • EISSN: 1469-8145
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