Saturday, April 25, 2009

the legacy of form criticism

Currently I'm reviewing Jesus, the Voice, and the Text (ed. Tom Thatcher, Baylor University Press), a reflection on the current state of media studies and Christian origins twenty-five years after the publication of Werner Kelber's seminal The Oral and the Written Gospel. I am simultaneously heavily indebted to and highly critical of Kelber's work, so reading this book has been a rather . . . ambiguous experience for me.

In the midst of the essay, "The Scar of the Cross" (Chris Keith and Tom Thatcher), I realized that one of the perennial problems with Kelber's analysis perhaps betrays the influence and legacy of form criticism, despite the awesome and devastating critique of form-critical perspectives that Kelber has levelled over the past three decades. Let me explain.

Keith and Thatcher explain Kelber's critique of the form-critical estimation that the Markan passion narrative (Mark 14–16) preserves an early and integrated account of Jesus' death, especially as that critique focuses on the paratactic, episodic structure of "oral thought" (I have a huge problem with this as an analytical category; see my forthcoming essay, "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts" [JSNT]). Kelber, according to Keith and Thatcher, says that a structured, developed plotline such as we find the Markan passion narrative "are unlikely to have originated in an oral milieu" (271, n. 1). In other words, the oral gospel tradition was aggregating rather than synthesizing, episodic rather than tightly plotted, and Mark's passion narrative reflects a textual/scribal (= later) rather than oral (= earlier) context.

My first response was that Kelber has helpfully challenged us to reimagine the situation in which stories about Jesus were orally performed, but he has unhelpfully continued to assume that Mark's gospel arose in a media situation more like our own than the "oral environment" of the first-century Mediterranean world. But as I thought about this, I realized more is going on here. At the heart of form-critical analyses is the assumption that the Jesus tradition developed along certain trajectories, typically from pristine to corrupted forms but, for Taylor at least, in the other direction. E. P. Sanders, however, demonstrated as early as the late 1960s the problem of assuming uni-directional development; trajectories in early Christian traditioning (and this is the point) simply didn't exist.

Kelber recognizes this; his point (sometimes too vaguely applied) about "equiprimordiality" attacks exactly this assumption. But Kelber has simultaneously preserved this assumption, only this time in the trajectory from "orality" (or oral patterns of thinking) to "textuality/scribality" (or textual/scribal patterns of thinking). But, as I said above and argue elsewhere, trajectories never were operative in early Christian traditioning, and that includes any supposed movement from orality to textuality. This holdover from the form-critical era has also plagued other scholars' work (esp. Joanna Dewey), and media studies would do well to expose and abandon it to the dustbin of academic history.

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