Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30.   Link to Eerdmans

This is the second part of my review of Michael Bird’s new book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus is a study of the origins of the New Testament Gospel. Click here for part one of the review.

In the third chapter, Bird examines the formation of the Jesus Tradition. His interest here is primarily in oral tradition, something scholars have occasionally argued is irretrievably lost. On the contrary, Bird believes he can “map the shape of the tradition in its pre-gospel form” (79). This requires attention to the “telltale signs of orality”: looking for mnemonic devices, detecting local color from Galilean or Judean settings, and identifying stereo-typical oral forms in the text. There is a spectrum of views on oral tradition from a “free, fluid and flexible” tradition all the way to “formally controlled,” like a rabbi forcing his students to memorize his teachings. To some extent there is some truth to all of the suggestions surveyed by Bird in this chapter since there is evidence some traditions were passed formal ways (1 Cor 15:3-5), and others stories may have been adapted to new situations. Like many Evangelicals, Bird is impressed by Kenneth Bailey’s “informal controlled oral tradition.” Bailey is well-known for examining how modern Middle Eastern village life is not unlike the world of the New Testament. While Bird does acknowledge some of the shortcomings of Bailey’s method, but he finds it more useful than early form critical models.

Bird, Gospel of the LordPrimary interest in this chapter is Birds discussion of social memory. This method was developed by James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and has become a very hot-topic for Gospels scholars. Dunn sought to establish a new hermeneutic for the study of historical Jesus which avoided some of the historical skepticism of the previous generations. This “social memory movement” has produced a remarkable number of monographs in the past 10 years and is producing excellent results in Gospels studies. A Bird explains it, past memories are mounted on mental artifacts that are reconstructed in the light of the needs of the present” (99). Simply put, the people who experienced Jesus remembered what he said and did. The year 100 CE did not “cause instantaneous and widespread amnesia” since people were teaching and preaching what Jesus said and did throughout the first century.

Bird explores evidence from the early second century to support this continuity in tradition. Papias, for example, could claim that he “carefully remembered” everything he learned from the elders (103). Polycarp claimed to have remembered what he gained from eyewitnesses, and Irenaeus said he made notes about these things not on paper but on his heart (105). But as Bird acknowledges, memory is not always accurate. He cites the work of John Dominic Crossan who argued people remember things that are both fact and fiction, memory and fantasy, recollection and fabrication. However, Bird thinks that these examples of failures of memory can be fairly described as merely incidental and not tied to core beliefs. People do not misremember absolute fantasies, but they do remember accurately general facts.

Second, if one thinks Jesus closest disciples and journal supporters were inclined to create memories only a decade or two after they allegedly occurred, then the studies of memory studies are obviously of little value. However the Jesus movement was formed around networks and clusters of believers and memories about Jesus were retrieved in that “net context” (109). They remembered “as a community” not as individuals.

Third, “remembering Jesus” was not an isolated instance of remembering some fact. Key to the accuracy of memory is frequency of retrieval. If the apostles really were teaching and preaching the stories and sayings of Jesus, then memory of Jesus was constantly being recalled. Those who suggested the disciples suddenly forgot what Jesus taught a few months after the crucifixion are overly skeptical. While The Gospels are theological documents, they are based on community memories. “Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic” (113).

In his excursus on the “Failure of Form Criticism,” Bird argues virtually “every single presupposition and procedure in form criticism has been thoroughly discredited” (114).  One major reason is form criticism never understood Judaism or Hellenism properly, tending to make them as separate and distinct as possible. Martin Hengel and others have called this assumption into question, eroding this important foundation of the form critics. The form critics also held erroneous views of oral tradition. They tended to see the role of Christian prophets as “creators of dominical tradition,” yet as James Dunn has pointed out, later Christian writers demonstrate a “healthy degree of skepticism towards prophecy” (120). Last, Bird discusses the unlikely link between the pre-literary forms the imagined Sitz im Leben. Form critics can justly be accused of making a circular argument when they argued the Gospels were allegories created by the church to address a current situation. But Bird says “all history telling is a mixture of fact and interpretation,” and communities do in fact retell traditions. This retelling may color the Jesus tradition, but it does not create the tradition. Every preacher attempts to contextualize Scripture for a new community, but the preacher does not create new tradition and place it in the mouth of Jesus.

Part Three of the review appears here.