Once again I was thinking about Papias of Hierapolis. I was thinking about how he tells us that Mark based his gospel upon Peter's oral teaching, a statement of some interest given the recent emphasis upon the oral world in which Mark’s Gospel is thought to have originated. We have to be careful here, and eschew any narrative that would programmatically suppose that the gospel tradition en toto underwent a period of lengthy and exclusively oral development before anything was written down. Such a supposition was been around for some time, and more recently has become associated with the work of Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Walter Ong. In recent scholarship Werner Kelber and James Dunn have especially emphasized the notion of an oral-only phase, and this is an area wherein Dunn’s significant achievement in Jesus Remembered perhaps could use some correction. Consider. Second Temple Jewish groups produced a significant amount of textual material. Thus they demonstrably could and would produce textual material. Christian groups and persons—most of whom were Jewish in background—are by no later than 50 also producing textual material, and thus they demonstrably could and would produce textual material, and this well before c. 69 or 70, the most commonly held date for Mark’s Gospel. Why, one wonders, they could or would not have produced textual material c. 30-50? Was there something about the Jesus tradition that made writing it down verboten? If so, what changed by c. 70? I know of no data that would either indicate the existence of such a prohibition or the subsequent dispensing therewith.
In this connexion the rate of literacy in early Christianity is altogether irrelevant. There is no evidence that the early Christians c. 30-50 differed notably in terms of literacy from Second Temple Judaism more broadly, and yet Second Temple Judaism quite happily produced texts throughout this period. There is no evidence that the Christians of c. 30 differed notably in terms of literary rate from the Christians of c. 50, and yet the Christians of 50 also quite happily produced texts. Let us consider the numbers. Let us suppose as given the much-vaunted but hardly unassailable 10% literary rate in the ancient Mediterranean and let us further suppose, for the sake of argument, that the statistics of church membership given in the New Testament are inflated to ten times their historical reality. That would still leave 12 persons in the upper room when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, of whom 1.2 would be literate (cf. Acts 1:15); 300 who joined the movement at the first Christian Pentecost, of whom 30 would be literate (cf. Acts 2:41); and 50 who saw the resurrected Jesus, of whom 5 would be literate (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6). The point here is not to pass judgment upon the historical reality to which any of these passages attest, if any, but rather to demonstrate that even with a relatively low rate of literacy and assuming gross hyperbole in our sources regarding ecclesiastical demographics the earliest Christians had sufficient numbers to begin writing and reading each other’s work. After all, it only takes one to write and another to read a text. Compounded with the reality of the Second Temple Jewish world’s cultural and social investment in written text this is more than sufficient to call into question the “oral-only" hypothesis.
This hypothesis does not adequately apprehend media diversity in the production of Mark’s Gospel because it treats orality and literacy functionally as a contradictories when in fact they are contraries. They coexist quite happily: texts are dictated during composition and read orally. Dialectically we might suggest that the material permanence of the written corrects for the material impermanence of the oral. We are now in a position wherein we can better understand the Israelite and later Jewish urgency to render their insights intelligible through the work of writing: it generated a material permanence that aided in the conceptual articulation of emergent insights that orality alone would not fashion. This in turn allows us to further situate the origins of the gospels more fully in the historical reality of Second Temple Judaism than might otherwise be the case, recognizing that there was for a Jewish movement nothing more natural than to communicate through writing what they believed that the God of Israel was doing in their time. That is to say, rarely did Mark reflect as fully his Jewish background than when he decided to write down Peter’s teaching about Jesus, and he did this within a wholly Jewish context.
The oral-only hypothesis faces another, insuperable, difficulty: if the oral tradition was so distinct from the written tradition, and given that we can know the oral tradition only through data that comes to us through written material, then how can we define the content or form of the oral tradition? And if we cannot define the content or form of the oral tradition then how can we know that it is so distinct from the written? And if the oral tradition can be defined via the written data then how can it be so distinct at all? It is Papias that cuts the Gordian Knot by telling us that what we find in Mark’s Gospel is something that is close to the oral world of the church than is, for instance, Matthew’s Gospel; far from being opposed to the work of Kelber, Dunn, and others, Papias provides much-needed evidentiary confirmation of what otherwise would remain but an interesting proposal. It does so however by leading us to the conclusion that either the literary remains represent fairly well the form and content of the oral tradition or we can never know much about the oral tradition at all. Thus it is alas a Pyrrhic victory, and one that sends us back to the actual data in front of us, namely the gospel texts.