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.