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.

Behind the Gospels: Form Criticism

Form Criticism was applied to the New Testament by K. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. Their work was based on the form criticism popular in Old Testament studies which divided the text into individual sections (pericope, plural, pericopae) and determined a “mini-genre” for each pericope. These sub-genres included proverb, wisdom saying, I-saying, myths, legends, etc. Once a pericope has been determined and a sub-genre assigned, the form critic would then attempt to construct a plausible Sitz im Leben for the pericope – the “situation-in-life” that might have generated the story.  For example, a miracle story could have been invented in a situation where the divinity of Christ was in doubt. Such a “legend” attempted to give Jesus divine qualities in order to support developing Christology of the early church.

Not all form-critical studies assume stories are fabrications, it is possible a story is a genuine recollection of an event. It is possible to ask why was “a particular story was remembered, retold, and adapted for teaching and preaching in the church. Not everything Jesus said and did was recorded, the things that were served some purpose for the writer. Form Criticism is therefore a logical step from Source Criticism.  If the writers were using sources, what can we know about the sources? It is at least possible to trace the origins back to a pre-textual, oral phase. In order to achieve this, Form critics make a few assumptions.

Oral TraditionFirst, early form critics assumed no one wrote anything down during Jesus’ life time or in the early years of the church. The assumption is that the early Christians relied on oral tradition and at all on written documents. The reason often given for this is the belief that the earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return very soon and establish his kingdom, thus there is no need to write books.

Second, oral traditions are seen as discrete, independently circulating rather than a larger narrative. The units circulated among story-tellers and teachers who incorporated them into their teaching, The model for this process is the history of oral folklore in other cultures such as European or African story telling. Since stories developed in Europe in this fashion, so to must have the Christian mythology.

Third, the material preserved had some sort of function in the life of the community that preserved it. This makes sense since it is obvious not every word Jesus said was preserved. But the situation of the community preserving the material is more important than the context of the life of Jesus. The question shifts from “what did Jesus mean?” to “how did the community use a particular saying?”

Fourth, some Form critics assumed very few details of the life of Jesus were preserved. As a result, we cannot really know much about a Historical Jesus from these stories since the oral transmission of stories tends to strip away actual biographical historical or geographical information in favor of local church contexts. Again, it is possible to use some methods and language Form critics and argue the Gospels preserve real history, but that was not the original intention of the Form critics.

Like Source Criticism, Form Criticism can be useful because it establishes a connection between the original event (Jesus tells a parable) and the eventual writing of that parable, fixing the form in a text. Like Source Criticism, the Form Critics are studying the forty or so years between the events and the writing of the Synoptic Gospels. But the assumption that the stories floated freely and were greatly adapted and changed (or created) to fit new situations is problematic. As Michael Bird says in his new book on (The Gospel of the Lord, Eerdmans, 2014), if this process happens within forty years (A.D. 33-70), then there are eyewitnesses to “police” the developing oral tradition.

What sort of traditions would the Gospel writers have used? We cannot imagine they found boxes of unused tradition stored away in the back of a teacher’s house (Michael Bird, p. 66, citing James Dunn). The traditions preserved through the early, oral period used because they were the stories used in the regular preaching and teaching of the church! While not precisely “Form criticism” in the traditional sense, scholarship has been working on the “oral period” quite a bit lately, attempting to describe how people remembered Jesus and how those memories were passed along to the next generation.

Like other forms of “higher criticism,” Form Criticism is not necessarily a destructive project. It can serve those who study the Gospels well by shedding light on the time between Jesus’ life and ministry and the writing of the Gospels.

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.