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Oral tradition and mnemonic devices

Oral tradition and mnemonic devices

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

People who have to learn texts by heart know this can be done more easily if there are little `helps' in the text. These are called mnemonic devices (from the Greek mnêmoneuein, ‘to remember’).

One such sign of oral transmission is the modelling of a text in a pattern that can easily be remembered. If we reconstruct the oral tradition that underlies Mark 7,1-13 and Matthew 15,1-9, we discover a powerful text. The occasion apparently was a visit to Jesus by scribes from Jerusalem. They objected to the fact that Jesus’ disciples ‘had not washed their hands before eating’. What was at stake was not a hygienic matter. The Jews observed hundreds of little rules concerning ritual washing.

This is my own reconstruction; but see L.de GRANDMAISON, Jésus Christ, Paris 1931, vol. I , introduction; J.HORST, ‘Die Worte Jesu über die kultische Reinheit und ihre Verarbeitung in den evangelischen Berichten’, Theologische Studien Kreise 87 (1914) pp.429- 454.

Reconstruction of the oral tradition on handwashing My comments

The occasion

Then came to Jesus from Jerusalem the Pharisees and scribes saying:


“WHY do your disciples TRANSGRESS the TRADITION of the elders?

Note the three key words: why, transgress and tradition.

For they do not wash their hands when they eat!”

Jesus’ reply

Jesus replied:



Note the three key words: why, transgress and commandment of God.

For you make void God’s word for TRADITIONS of men!”

First Recital
Exodus text

And he said to them:


“RIGHTLY - is it? - you put aside the precept of God in order to keep your traditions?

Key word: rightly (corresponds to Aramaic hêbi construction of the verb)

For Moses commanded: ‘HONOUR your father and mother’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, dying let him die’,

Keyword: honour

text from Exodus 20,12; 21,17; Leviticus 20,9; Deuteronomy 5,16.

but you say: ‘If a man tells his father or mother“what you would have gained from me is korban”, he need not honour his father or mother’.

This was a‘legal escape’, an ‘erub’. Suppose a man’s father was in financial need. To escape having to support him the son might make a conditional vow, stating: `What you could gain from me, I would make an offering (korbân) to the Temple’. This absolved the son from all obligations. He could no longer give help to his father (for the vow would oblige him to change it into an offering). Nor did he need to make an actual offering, because the vow was only conditional!


Thus you make void the word of God
for the traditions you hand on.
And many similar things you do.


Second Recital
Isaiah text

And he said to them:


“RIGHTLY did Isaiah prophesy of you, hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people HONOUR me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching as teachings the commandments of men!’

Key word: rightly (corresponds to Aramaic hêbi construction of the verb)

text from Isaiah 29,13

For you wash the cups on the outside, but the insides are full with the fruits of your extortion and greed.”

See also Matthew 23,25; Luke 11,39-41.


Thus you make void the word of God
for the traditions you hand on.
And many similar things you do.


Notice the use of key words: WHY - TRANSGRESS - TRADITION (which identify the whole unit) and the two words RIGHTLY and HONOUR that link the two recitals. The structure is also simple: the opening question raises the issue; Jesus’ reply is first summed up in a terse statement, then repeated in the refrain; the recitals provide two proofs. In this form even a complicated argument could be easily and accurately retained. But when remembering the text, people would obviously `hang’ them on the key words and refrains; that is why the order could be easily switched.

The key word HONOUR would remind people of both the texts in Exodus and in Isaiah but not of their sequence. Some people might, therefore, switch the order of the recitals; and this is exactly what happened. In fact, we do not know for sure which was first, which second. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark present Jesus’ saying in a different sequence. This could not be due to copying from a written text. The switch in sequence was due on the oral tradition on which each depended.

Matthew 15,1-9

Mark 7,1-12

Exodus recital

Isaiah recital

Isaiah recital

Exodus recital

The tradition as we have it now, has been cast into a highly stylised mould. The debate which it summarises was probably a much more chaotic affair, with questions and accusations, arguments and counter-arguments. Who formulated the text in its present shape, with summaries, recitals and refrains?

Many scholars would ascribe its formulation to a catechist in the Early Church. They would defend a later date of origin responding to a life situation (German Sitz-im-Leben) of conflict between orthodox Jews and their Christian neighbours. This is, indeed, possible. Even then the originally Aramaic form postulates a time of origin in Palestine not long after the Easter event.

It is equally possible, however, that the formulation goes back to Jesus himself. Already during Jesus’ ministry a similar life situation existed. Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and they must have felt the urgent need to defend themselves against rabbinical opposition (see Luke 9,1-6; 10,1-20; Matthew 9,35 - 10,16). Let us not forget that it was this conflict that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ death. It is likely that after a debate, or a number of debates, Jesus formulated a succinct answer and made his disciples learn the text by heart. This is precisely what Rabbis used to do whenever they had had important debates with their opponents. The memorised tradition itself would then owe its formulation to Jesus.

See: H.SCHÜRMANN, ‘Mt 10,5b-6 und die Vorgeschichte des synoptischen Aussendungsberichtes’, in Neutestamentliche Aufsätze, Regensburg 1963, pp.270-282. Also W.GRUNDMANN (in Die Geschichte Jesu Christi, Berlin 1957, p.21) highlights the likelihood of Jesus making his disciples learn key texts by heart. There is absolutely no ground for reducing memorised traditions to short ‘gnomic sayings’ as I.HENDERSON would have it; see ‘Sententiae Jesu’: Gnomic Sayings in the tradition of Jesus, Oxford 1988.‘Jesus recruited and trained apostles and sent them out to be fishers of men. Part of the training they received was memorising a collection of stock parables and other teachings necessary to the answer the questions put to them’; G.W.BUCHANAN, ‘Chreias in the New Testament’, in Logia. The Sayings of Jesus, ed.J.DELOBEL, Louvain 1982, pp. 501-505.

How not to forget

People who have to learn texts by heart know this can be done more easily if there are little ‘helps’ in the text., as I stated before There are a number of such mnemonic devices that were used in oral tradition.

‘Catch words’ are one of them. They frequently serve to string shorter passages together in an oral chain. Mark 9,37-50 provides an example. Ten passages are strung together: four through ‘little one & name’ - transition to ‘stumble’; then four through ‘stumble’; then two through ‘fire’ - transition to ‘salt’; then two through ‘salt’.

  • 9,37 receives a little one in my name
  • 9,38-40 casting out devils in my name
  • 9,41 name of Christ
  • 9,42 if you cause a little one to stumble
  • 9,43 if your hand causes to stumble
  • 9,44 if your foot causes to stumble
  • 9,47 if your eye causes to stumble
  • 9,48 where there is fire
  • 9,49 salted with fire
  • 9,50 salt is good but . . . .

We can see how the passages were linked together by the catchwords: little one - name - stumble - fire - salt. There are also hidden connections that we may have lost. For example, verses 42-47 speak of amputations (`cut off your hand, etc.’); fire and salt were used to cauterise wounds.

See: J.D.M.DERRETT, `Salted with Fire. Studies in texts: Mark 9,42-50’, Theology 76 (1973) pp. 364-368

Examples like of such a linking of passages can be multiplied.

See: E.SCHWEIZER, Das Evangelium nach Markus, Göttingen 1967, p.111; H.W.KUHN, Ältere Sammlungen im Markusevangelium, Göttingen 1971; J.M.ROBINSON, ‘Early Collections of Jesus’ Sayings’ in Logia, ed.J.DELOBEL, Louvain 1982, pp. 389-394.

Before the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written down, much of the material recorded in them existed as oral literature. This is not to be confused with rumour, hearsay or even ‘oral history’, i.e. the way individuals may remember and recount events or people they have known. Oral literature is literature because it is transmitted in well- defined forms, such as epics, ballads, legends, or, as in the Gospels, the words and deeds of a great master.

Oral literature is more flexible than written literature. It allows for elaboration and expansion of individual episodes and of sequences. The sequences are frequently switched round (AB in one and BA in another), as we have seen above in the example of the ‘handwashing’ tradition. Compare in the temptation story DESERT - PINNACLE OF THE TEMPLE - MOUNTAIN in Matthew 4,1-11 and DESERT - MOUNTAIN - PINNACLE in Luke 4,1-13.

About oral literature, read A.B.LORD, The Singer of Tales, Harvard 1960; further literature in E.R.HAYNES, A Bibliography of Studies Relating to Parry’s and Lord’s Oral Theory, Harvard 1973.

The same episode is often repeated in slightly different forms. For example, the healing of the blind man near Jericho (Matthew 20,29-34; Mark 10,46-52; Luke 18,35-43; notice the variations!) gave rise to a derived version (Matthew 9,27- 31). The multiplication of the loaves was recounted in two versions (Matthew 14,13-21; Mark 6,31-44; Luke 9,11-17 and Matthew 15,32-39; Mark 8,1-10).

The Gospels, therefore, still bear the traces of the oral traditional literature on which they were based.

See A.B.LORD, `The Gospels and Oral Traditional Literature’ in The Relationship among the Gospels, ed. W.O.WALKER, San Antonio, pp. 33-91; see also E.L.ABEL, `The Psychology of Memory and Rumor Transmission and Their Bearing on Theories of Oral Transmission in Early Christianity’, The Journal of Religion 51 (1971) pp. 270-281.

This then was the tradition which Paul and other teachers handed on to the Christians at Antioch. It was, we can be sure, not just a question of sermons and pious reflections which would occasionally refer back to what Jesus had said and done. It was a matter of real instruction, of transmitting and explaining the various sections of the Jesus tradition:

  • who Jesus was;
  • his preaching of the Kingdom of God;
  • the events that led up to his passion and death;
  • sayings of Jesus related to everyday life;
  • how Jesus as the Risen Lord was now present in their assemblies and in all they did.

This was the oldest ‘Gospel’ of Jesus Christ, a memorised Gospel as it lived in people’s memories and hearts.

John Wijngaards

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