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Telling it just as it was?

12 July 2013

Henry Wansbrough on whether memory and the word of mouth can be trusted

Behind the Gospels: Understanding the oral tradition
Eric Eve
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 

IT IS now generally accepted that the Gospels came to be written in the last third of the first century, but in the intervening half-century since Jesus's death and resurrection how was the memory of what he said and did preserved, and how did it develop? Dr Eve presents, with remarkable clarity and good sense, the principal theories about these hotly debated topics, and adds his own valuable conclusions.

First, the characteristics of oral transmission are explored; for this is totally different from transmission by writing or print. Oral transmission is always an event in itself, vividly formed by the circumstances and purpose of the retelling. In a culture in which literacy was as low as three to five per cent, we should not reckon on note-taking. This first chapter is heavily indebted to the researches of two scholars in the 1930s on the Yugoslav oral bards and the transmission of their epics, where each performance was a unique, extempore event.

Then are examined various models of the traditioning process which have been influential. The study began immediately after the First World War, with the findings that each Gospel unit must be taken on its own, and the research into different forms of these units, associated with the great names of Bultmann and Dibelius. Their contribution has been immense, but the usefulness of their conclusions is limited by their use of an outdated concept of folklore, and the view that the Evangelists were mere collectors of scraps of historical information.

After the Second World War, a rabbinic model was put forward by Birger Gerhardsson: as in the later rabbinic schools, Jesus's disciples will have conscientiously memorised their master's sayings. Paul twice appeals to this method of tradition, but the variations among the Gospels suggest that, if this took place, it was not as tightly controlled as the later rabbinic methods demanded.

Among the models proposed, one of the most important is that of James Dunn. Drawing on the Middle Eastern data of Kenneth Bailey, he proposes three different standards of strictness of control, according to the material, and importance of the story or saying being handed down. Eve examines more closely the cases quoted, discerning factors in the growth and development of stories which will be used in the rest of the book, such as varying motivations of the story-teller, stress on varying personal features, and social pressures.

Another vital factor in the development of the Gospel stories is "keying" on to Old Testament stories, where the understanding of the story is given by allusion to OT figures and stories.

Finally, two highly instructive parallels are studied: the accounts of the death of John the Baptist in Mark and in Josephus, and the biographical details of Jesus given by Paul and by the Gospels.

The book is not easy reading, but the complicated history of discussion is laid out with admirable patience and clarity, and with full awareness of the many human and social factors involved in story-telling. Even Peter could not be treated as a "high-fidelity recording device" 20 years after the events. Do not the stories you tell vary according to your audience and the impression you wish to make?

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, Emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.



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