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Kenneth E. Bailey’s theory of “informal controlled oral tradition” developed further

Of the several hundred books and articles that I have worked on over the last few years there is one that stands out to me:

Kenneth E. Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991): 34-54. = Themelios 20.2 (1995): 4-11.

Writing with the unique insight into Palestinian culture afforded by 30 years of teaching in the Middle East Bailey’s theory seems to make sense. I was very pleased therefore to read Michael F. Bird’s article “The Formation of the Gospels in the Setting of Early Christianity: the Jesus Tradition as Corporate Memory,” Westminster Theological Journal 67.1 (2005): 113-94. Bird builds on Bailey’s arguments further and suggests that it

…needs to be supplemented with a theory of corporate remembrance,
that is, a theory which characterizes the Gospels as the memory of Jesus
interpreted and applied to the context of the early Christians. The term “Jesus
in corporate memory” is useful as a categorization since it enables one to unify
the diverse elements of bias and biography. What the Gospels produce is not the
Christ of faith superimposed on to the historical Jesus; rather, they offer a
dramatic representation, much like a docu-drama, of Jesus’ actions in the past
and his voice for the present available through the public memory of Jesus.
Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both
authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic. The
objective of the Evangelists is not to write a Life of Jesus to satisfy a
positivistic epistemology, but nor is it to offer an image of Jesus concocted
out of thin air to be used as a weapon of intra-Christian or inter-Jewish
polemics. The Gospels intend to narrate a story and to evoke the significance of
the one called Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s rightful Lord.

The article is well worth reading in full.

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  1. Fellas,
    Thomas Weeden has prepared a fairly rigorous (if not devestating) critique of Bailey’s theory at the forthcoming SBL conference. I like Bailey’s theory and I think it is more defensible than form critical models – but Bailey’s stuff is really an analogy drawn from experience and not a full blown social theory of group culture and memory.

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