Book Review: David Wenham, From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus?

Wenham, David. From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 124 pp. Pb; $16.   Link to Eerdmans

This new book by David Wenham is an attempt to address the forty years between Jesus and the writing of the canonical gospels. What was the content of the message the earliest Christians preached during this period? Since we only have access to reports written a generation after the fact, scholars have suggested a collection of Jesus’s sayings developed and used as a source for the three Synoptic gospels. This two-source hypothesis has dominated scholarly discussion of the origin of the written gospels, but in recent years it has been attacked, modified and sometimes dismissed as an adequate origin for the various material which eventually became the canonical gospels. The reason for this in part is a growing interest in oral tradition as a source for the Gospel writers. Both James Dunn (The Oral Gospel Tradition, Eerdmans 2013) and Francis Watson (Gospel Writing, Eerdmans 2013) have made significant contributions to a better understanding of how Oral Tradition functioned in the period between the ministry of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

The main problem with oral tradition is a modern prejudice against oral sources (or the modern preference for written sources). When Form Critics described the growth of oral tradition they often assumed early Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return very soon and establish his kingdom, thus there is no need to write books. They simply told stories about Jesus, and as Christians began to understand Jesus as in some sense divine, they began to embellish the sayings and stories in order to enhance the status of Jesus as well as to address particular problems in their own community. Someone passing along an oral tradition about Jesus was not particularly concerned with accuracy (in the modern sense).

Based on a better understanding of how oral tradition works in ancient cultures, Wenham’s main thesis in the book is that oral tradition was carefully preserved by the earliest Christians. He also demonstrates that this oral tradition is far more substantial than often assumed, freeing New Testament scholarship from the “hazardous hypothetical document” Q (p. 99).

In order to support this thesis, Wenham examines the evidence for an oral tradition in the book of Luke-Acts (chapter 2), the evidence in Mark, Matthew, and John (chapter 3) and in Paul’s letters (chapter 4). Wenham argues for the accuracy of Luke-Acts as a witness to the preaching and teaching of the early church. This resonates with the Synoptic Gospels description of the as invited to follow Jesus and to “be with him” (p. 29-30). Those who followed Jesus were commanded to pass along to the nations everything Jesus had instructed them (Matt 28:16-20).

Wenham finds confirmation of this passing of tradition in the Pauline letters. In this chapter Wenham follows the same trajectory as Jerry L. Sumney in his recent Steward of God’s Mysteries (Eerdmans, 2016). Beginning with 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, Wenham identifies a series of traditions embedded in the Pauline letters. Wenham answers the objection that “Paul knows nothing of the life of Jesus” by pointing to several examples where Jesus tradition is assumed. Since letters are occasional literature, there is no need for Paul to outline the life of Jesus before alluding to the Sermon on the Mount or the Olivet Discourse.

Chapters 5-6 trace the evidence for an oral tradition in the Gospels.

Wenham offers two examples where an appeal to oral tradition provides a more satisfying solution than literary dependence. First, Matthew 10:11/Luke 10:7 is usually considered a Q passage. The phrase “the laborer deserves his wages” appears in Luke 10:7 and 1 Timothy 5:18. There are allusions to this same idea in 1 Corinthians 9 as well.

His second example is Paul’s allusions to the Olivet Discourse in 1 Thessalonians 5. The parable of the Thief, followed by five foolish virgins who fall asleep, much the way Paul’s thief sayings in 5:2 and 5:4 are followed by a an admonition not to sleep “as the others do.” Wenham argues 1 Thessalonians 5 is evidence Paul knew an oral tradition later incorporated into Matthew 25. That Paul seems to know material from all potential literary traditions (Mark, Q, M and L is evidence Paul has extensive knowledge of Jesus’s teaching in an oral form.

At this point Wenham needs to address two potential objections to his view that oral tradition better explains Paul’s use of Jesus tradition than a literary theory involving some sort of written source like Q. First, it is almost certain Paul knew the material eventually included in Matthew 24-25 (although the influence on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is less obvious than for 1 Thessalonians 5:1-9). Although it is entirely possible Paul knew this material via an oral tradition handed down to him by Jesus’s disciples, it is equally possible Paul did have written notes of the things Jesus said, something like a Q document. That Paul may allude to as many as four pools of literary sources (Mark, Q, M, L) seems to favor Wenham’s thesis, but since the allusions are all from an eschatological discourse, it is at least possible he had a written collection.

A second objection is the possibility Paul alludes to another source than the oral tradition standing behind the Gospels or a literary tradition like Q. For the laborer saying, Jesus and Paul may both allude to Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15, or similar rabbinic interpretations of these texts (b. Bek. 29a: “Just as you received it [Torah] without payment, so teach it without payment”). The same could be said for 1 Thessalonians 4-5 since non-canonical apocalyptic literature describes the end of the age as labor pains. Does Paul’s phrase “peace and security” in 5:3 refer to Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:36-39 (the “days of Noah”) or is he parodying the claims of the Empire to bring “peace and safety” to the world.

Overall I am in agreement that there was an extensive oral tradition which the first generation actively passed on and guarded tenaciously. As Wenham said, the oral tradition was the “story of Jesus, not just pithy creedal statements or disconnected stories” (p. 94). He is certainly correct to say the earliest Christians told and retold the story of Jesus as accurately depicted in the book of Acts (p. 100). But is this an issue of either oral or written sources?

Despite these caveats, Wenham’s book is good entry point into a sometimes contentious debate on the status of an oral tradition in the earliest church. Wenham properly calls attention to the pervasive use of oral sources in the earliest written documents as well as the trustworthiness of the oral tradition used by Paul and the Gospel writers.



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

11 thoughts on “Book Review: David Wenham, From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus?

  1. I always thought that the accuracy of the earliest Christian oral traditions was a matter mooted by the textual evidence that Matthew thought many things Mark said were in error.

    If Markan priority is valid, as the scholarly consensus says, the way Matthew changes text he borrows from Mark, or the way he omits some Markan story material, strongly suggests he thinks Mark got those matters wrong. For example, Mark 6:5 (Jesus “could not” do many miracles there), and Matthew 13:58 (the parallel, but changing it to “did not” do many miracles there, thus getting rid of what would otherwise be evidence that Mark had a lower Christology than Matthew).

    And Matthew’s dropping Mark’s comment at 6:6 that Jesus “wondered” at the unbelief of the crowd.

    In the inerrancy-driven New American Commentary series, Craig Blomberg and others often admit Matthew and Luke have “toned down” something Mark said, and it’s difficult to believe Matthew could view Mark’s gospel as “inerrant” or “reliable” if he thought any part deserved to be “toned down”.

    • I think your observation is good here, although it moves into the area of redaction criticism rather than oral tradition (which might be a form of source criticism, stepping back to the pre-literary form of the gospel sayings). I enjoy a good redaction study, so that is cool.

      I will clarify, though, to “admit Matthew and Luke have ‘toned down’ something Mark said,” or dropping a word or using a different word in the sayings of Jesus is not necessarily a knock against Blomberg’s belief in inerrancy. Since Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the Synoptic gospels are translations and can have some variation in terms of reporting the words of Jesus. Blomberg (and most legitimate scholars who have a faith commitment to inerrancy) is writing with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, which is not as strict as is often assumed.

      Your comments sound like you are responding to someone with a very strict view of inerrancy, maybe a “king james only” fundementalist. That is not Blomberg (or others like him).

      • Differing translations from Aramaic do not explain the many examples in Matthew of the author toning down the most embarrassing parts of Mark and also adding aggrandizements to other Marian stories (the fig tree withers “immediately” rather than the next day as in Mark, the blind man is healed without hesitation with no second go needed, the daughter is already dead, not merely on the verge of dying when Jesus is asked to come heal her, to name a few instances, there are more).

        This happens too frequently to be mere coincidental differences in Aramaic translation of oral tales on the part of Matthew. Matthew also adds to the beginning and end of Mark miracles recounted no where else, but within the body of his text of Jesus’ ministry in which allegedly multitudes are healed we see mere repetitions of Marian healing and miracle tales, and those, as I said aggrandized. But then the added miracles that appear in Matthew’s beginning and ending which appear no where else and that lie outside of Markan storytelling boundaries are also aggrandizements.

        An article in New Testament Studies, 2011, raises a further question: 
        “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?*” by David C. Sim [School of Theology/Centre for Early Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University]   The abstract reads: “Most scholars acknowledge Matthew’s debt to Mark in the composition of his own Gospel, and they are fully aware of his extensive redaction and expansion of this major source. Yet few scholars pose what is an obvious question that arises from these points: What was Matthew’s intention for Mark once he had composed and circulated his own revised and enlarged account of Jesus’ mission? Did he intend to supplement Mark, in which case he wished his readers to continue to consult Mark as well as his own narrative, or was it his intention to replace the earlier Gospel? It is argued in this study that the evidence suggests that Matthew viewed Mark as seriously flawed, and that he wrote his own Gospel to replace the inadequate Marcan account.”

      • I would not explain all changes as variations due to Aramaic, my point above is that there were editorial choices at the earliest level, Jesus’s words as remembered by his followers.

        Although this discussion has strayed far from the thesis of Wenham’s book, I will state my general support for a two-source hypothesis (although tempted by recent non-Q solutions), as well as the gospel writers as active redactors of their sources in order to use tradition to fit their theological motivations.

  2. Our common friend, Brian Leport, noted your review, with another scholar’s, on this book. Thanks for posting it.

    I’m wondering if he anywhere deals with the likely explanation of why G John is so clearly and widely, often on key issues, outside what may be a solid oral traditional represented fairly consistently in the Synoptics? (This issue is not one easily “solved”, but I think the main answer revolves around social needs and theological agendas, blatantly in John, and also, if less extremely, in the other gospels.)

    • Just the opposite, he uses the parallels between the synoptics and the Gospel of John to argue for the existence of an Oral Tradition. But it is a short book with only a brief section on John. Maybe four pages? Not much room to argue out the details.

      There is a trend in GJohn studies to back away from the community theory and see John as intentionally addressing the whole church. this is true for the other gospels as well, but it has more ramifications for John.

      I’m torn on this issue since I do think the gospel writers addressed issues (social and theological) which were important to them; they were part of a community so it makes sense the community influenced what bits of their traditions (whether oral or written) were included or omitted in their version of the story of Jesus.

      • Thanks. Glad you’re willing to be “torn”, whereas so many supposed scholars (esp. but not exclusively of conservative orientation) will merely submit to whatever position their pre-set bias fits better with, on any given issue. (Being even generally “objective” takes hard work, runs risks. Cf. Thomas Kuhn for this even in hard sciences, let alone history and theology!)

      • Re-reading your review and the newer comments brings this to mind: While the oral vs. written tradition issue is of some importance, esp. toward broader understanding of ANE literature, I’m not sure how much the “answer” affects either the historical or the theological issues involved. For example: The above discussion illustrates how heavily theological and agenda-driven each gospel is, even within the Synoptics, let alone the departures of John. (And whether this is more “community” oriented or universal doesn’t change things much, in itself.)

        So one of my questions would be: “Didn’t even oral tradition develop in varying forms in ‘pockets’ or affinity groups which ALSO reflected often-differing “recollections”, with major embellishments?” (Embellishment was almost certainly present in early oral chains of transmission as well as it exists, incontrovertibly, in written traditions; and of course interpretation is necessary and automatic… and even among disciples, interpretation was bound to have varied, as is also reported in the Gospels.)

        When it comes to Acts, I frankly can’t see basis to conclude that Luke there accurately depicts the “telling and retelling” of the Jesus story… unless he means that in a VERY broad, general way, without much in the way of theological conclusions (especially around the “deity of Christ” or even “substitutionary atonement” and certainly definiteness on “supercessionism”). Acts is quite clearly more “story” with broad historical structure than serious “history”…. Historical reportage is sometimes seemingly accurate and often not… thus the work is not at all “historically reliable” in my opinion (a much-studied one), as opposed to heavily “spun”. I’m unable to figure how Wenham (from a largely traditional perspective) can separate out the elements or aspects of Luke’s story to represent some things as accurate, others not, unless he does defend overall historical accuracy and Luke’s intent to report the “facts” the most unbiased and balanced as he can.

      • Your question: “Didn’t even oral tradition develop in varying forms in ‘pockets’ or affinity groups which ALSO reflected often-differing “recollections”, with major embellishments?”

        I think this is what Wenham (and others) avoid by reducing the oral stage to less than forty years. The “canonical” collection of sayings of Jesus begin to emerge withing twenty years of Jesus in the apostolic (eyewitness) preaching and teaching. So the Communion text in 1 Corinthians 11 or the resurrection text in 1 Corinthians 15 are traditions Paul can call “passed down to him” 25 years after they occurred. At least the Communion text is relatively fixed since it appears in the Synoptic gospels with nearly similar wording (after Paul). I would include Philippians 2:5-11 and several lines in 1 Thessalonians 5 (from the Olivet Discourse, so Q material, if there was a Q).

        Much of this was in Jerry Sumney’s recent book from Eerdmans, trying to identify bits of tradition already present in Paul’s letters.

        As for Acts, it would be harder (if not impossible) to argue for an oral tradition (unless 9:32-12:19 is a “Peter Chronicle”). Your comment makes me think you have Luke-Acts as a unit in mind, for Luke the “Jesus Story” is drawn from somewhere, Luke must have had sayings source, Q or Oral Tradition, etc. Without any parallel documents, I am not sure we will ever know Luke’s sources for Acts.

        I am going to throw this out there (even though I know you would not agree): Luke’s source for most of Acts is Paul himself, people Luke knew from the Caesarea imprisonment, and with Luke’s own recollections of his involvement for Acts 16-28).

      • Thanks for the further reply, Phillip. I wasn’t specific enough, probably, in my comment about differing versions of oral tradition. What I refer to is an almost immediate process. I don’t see that limiting an oral-only period to around 40 years (or even less in relation to certain statements by Paul) makes much difference at all.

        What I refer to seems to happen within days and weeks/months, not years or decades. I’m not a student of oral tradition specifically, but do have a good bit of anthropology, missiology, social and individual psych, biblical and ANE studies and religion/myth under my belt. We humans are interpretive “machines” (only figuratively, of course). We are driven to fill gaps, find patterns (when they often don’t exist), relate things to what we already believe. This creates threads of both continuity and creativity. And it happens continually. When people gather or converse, they influence each other’s points of perception and the interpretation of those perceptions. Egos also enter in… part of the dynamic of embellishment and filling of gaps with what is actually mere speculation or fancy much of the time.

        It would be extraordinary indeed if this process was NOT going on even during Jesus’ ministry and certainly immediately upon his death. We can see it frequently within the Gospel accounts. If nothing else (e.g., to unbelievers), they are keenly aware of “psychology” (human nature and interpersonal, institutional dynamics). Upon looking in the NT beyond the Gospels, we see repeated evidences, from Paul to the latest of the “General Epistles,” that from VERY early on, interpretations of Jesus and of the implications of his life and death in terms of beliefs and religious practices (e.g., how much to be “observant” if one was Jewish, etc., etc.) varied both from place-to-place and often within a relatively small community… things central enough to cause “church splits”.

        So to whatever extent there was a widespread oral tradition, it apparently did not include the kinds of theological points emphasized in John or in Acts, to leave Paul out of the picture for now, with all his creative theology. Otherwise, if “apostolic authority” and having BEEN with Jesus both in his lifetime and the supposed 40-day period of teaching them after the Resurrection meant much, there would have been more clarity and a movement that at least BEGAN relatively united. (Paul vs. “people from James” and even James/Peter themselves shows it did not.) A careful reading of the NT shows the strong disparities. Luke, in Acts, knew this was a major problem and would be for distant readers, including Theophilus, so he did major spinning, including minimal details of the range of church and theology development, and actually succeeding in creating a plausible picture (for those already “converted” or interested/open) of supernaturally-guided unity and miraculous church development.

        BTW, there actually is a fair body of evidence, tho not real broadly agreed about, that Luke had Josephus as one key source for “secular” history of the period. I’m wondering if you’ve encountered these specifics much, such as in the work of Steve Mason, particularly “Josephus and the NT”? Even he does not claim complete proof of Luke’s use of J., but I think his case is pretty strong.

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