Book Review: James Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition

Dunn, James. The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 390 pp. pb; $45.00. Link to Eerdmans.

This new collection of essays published by Dunn from 1977 to 2011 on topic related to oral tradition standing behind the New Testament. Some of these essays were articles in journals, but others were in difficult to find Festschrift or essay collections published in expensive European series. Unless you are blessed to have a major theological research center nearby, most readers are not able to easily find access to this rich material. That these essays focus Dunn’s view of oral tradition is an additional benefit of the collection. While his work over the last 30 years on the topic resulted in the massive Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003).

Dunn OralIn the introduction to this book, Dunn recalls that an early “shaping influence” in his thinking about how oral traditions develops was Kenneth Bailey’s anecdotal reports of how oral tradition still functions in communities in Egypt and Lebanon. This collection includes a spirited defense of Bailey in a 2009 issue of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.

The first part of the collection includes 7 essays from 1977 through 2011 on how gospel writers adapted oral tradition in their gospels. The first three essays in this section lay out a kind of method that Dunn for studying the oral tradition that stands behind the written text of the Gospels. In Dunn’s mind, he is trying to “alter the default setting” of studying the gospels as literature to studying the gospels as reflections of an oral tradition that remember the words and deeds of Jesus. Even studies of Q approach the sayings source as if it were a written document, despite the fact that a model of oral tradition might better explain the formation and content of Q more satisfactorily.

Oral tradition is necessarily different than a literary document, but as Dunn points out in his essay on “Altering the Default Setting,” there were very few people who would have read a document in the first century. Most would have heard the book read to them. Even the letters of Paul were oral performances by a representative of the Apostle. This means that oral tradition is communal in character (p. 54). Rather than a solitary reader silently scanning a text, oral tradition was spoken for the whole community in a public performance. This means that we ought to pay more attention to studies on reception theory (Dunn cites J. M. Foley, for example). Since the community gathered and heard the tradition in a public performance, there were one or more people in the community who were responsible for maintaining the community’s tradition (p. 55). These persons would function as guardians of an apostolic tradition.

If this is an accurate picture of how oral tradition functioned, then Dunn points out that it subverts the idea of an “original” version. While this is not to say that there was no “event” that serves as the origin of an idea or teaching, it does mean that there is no single “pure” form of a saying that is the original. Variations on a saying may be the result of different memories and retellings of a saying rather than a single original that is edited by a theologically motivated Gospel writer. Dunn thinks that it is misleading to present the history of the Jesus tradition as a search for the “original version” of Jesus’ sayings. Any given saying may be remembered and re-performed in a variety of contexts, but there is a stable tradition in the midst of various performances. Oral tradition is therefore characterized by both stability and flexibility (p. 57). Oral tradition can help explain why there is “variation within the same” in the Synoptic Gospels (p. 58).

This section includes two essays on the Gospel of Matthew and two on the Gospel of John. These are something like practical examples of how a method that properly emphasizes oral tradition works out in practice. In “John and the Oral Gospel Tradition,” Dunn examines three stories that are found in the Synoptic Gospels and in John (the healing at Cana, John 4:46-54), the feeding of the 5000 (6:1-21), the anointing at Bethany and Triumphal Entry (12:1-8, 12-19). Of the three, the Healing at Cana displays the most diversity, enough that it is probably the case that John 4:46-54 is not the same event as Matt 8:5-13/Luke 7:1-10. Dunn argues that the stories share the same core even if the location is different. The Feeding of the 5000 and Walking on the water do share the same tradition (p. 149). The Anointing is usually “strongest evidence that John knew Mark” (p. 151), but there is enough diversity in that John to lead Dunn to deduce that both stories are drawn from the same oral tradition rather than John redacting written sources. This is what Dunn means by “altering the default.” Rather than a later writer redacting a written source, the later writers work with an oral form of the gospel and report it with variations of the same story.

The second part is a collection of response to criticisms of Jesus Remembered.  This section deal with some of the more technical aspects of Jesus Remembered, History, Memory and Eyewitness (a response to Bengt Holmberg and Samuel Bryskog) and a dialogue with Birger Gerhardsson and Richard Bauckham. Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript (1961) is one of the earliest monographs written on the concept of oral tradition and pioneers the concepts Dunn developed more fully in Jesus Remembered, although there are significant differences between the two. Both Gerhardsson and Bauckham have critiqued Dunn and Dunn’s response is irenic, attempting to find many points of agreement and clarification. Dunn’s treatment of Theodore Weedon’s critique of Kenneth Baily is less friendly. Dunn is clearly enamored with Baily and finds Weedon’s criticisms of Bailey in a 2009 article to be wanting.

Part three of the collection considers the oral gospel as it relates to the “quest for the historical Jesus.” In “Remember Jesus: How the Quest for the Historical Jesus Lost Its Way” (chapter 12), Dunn first lodges a protest against the false dichotomy – “Jesus of History” vs. “Christ of Faith.”  The Quest for the Historical Jesus was motivated by the desire to find the “real Jesus” that stood behind the layers of dogma created by the church, as if they were rescuing Jesus from the church (p.270). Dunn finds this wrongheaded. The “quest” ought to begin with the assumption that Jesus evoked faith from the very beginning and that faith is “the surest indication of the historical reality and effect of his mission” (p. 271). Jesus did things that were believed and remembered from the moment it happened. Second, Dunn argues that the reliance on literary sources short-circuits the Quest, rather scholars ought to investigate the oral tradition used by the written sources. Third, Dunn protests against looking for a Jesus that is different than his environment. Here he has the criterion of “double dissimilarity” in mind, the idea that Jesus’ words are more likely to be authentic if they are different from both Judaism and later Christianity. This is part of a “dismaying trend” to separate Jesus from Judaism (p.283), something that the “New Perspective on Paul” has battled in Pauline Studies. Rather than a non-Jewish Jesus, the Quest ought to be looking at the Gospels for a Jewish Jesus, since that is exactly what he was! Here he cites E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James Charlesworth as scholars who are in fact approaching Jesus with this understanding.

Conclusion. There is nothing new in this volume of essays from Dunn, but each article is a contribution worth reading. Eerdmans is to be thanked for drawing together these articles on Oral Tradition from diverse sources into a single convenient volume.  This book makes an excellent companion to Jesus Remembered.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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