The Oral Gospel Tradition
James D. G. Dunn
Church Times Bookshop £27 (Use code CT477
IN HIS presidential address to the international Society for New
Testament Studies at Durham in 2002, James Dunn made his famous
appeal towards "Altering the De-fault Setting: Re-envisaging the
Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition". What had been this
"default setting"? For decades, the focus of scholarship had been
on a primarily literary approach to the tradition as revealed to us
in the written Gospels. There was little need to go back behind the
literary stage of the Synoptic Gospels; similarities and
differences in the tradition were explicable by editorial
In contrast, Dunn had long championed an understanding of the
key contribution of orality within the tradition. "A tradition
which focused on the substance and gist of what was being narrated
or taught and was freely expressed in varied words, in different
combinations and with different emphases, looked more and more like
oral tradition - the forms in which the traditions of Jesus'
mission and teaching were celebrated and taught before they were
written down." This was made clear in his important book Jesus
Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003).
The argument did not depend on a particular theory of memory,
but rather on understanding how an oral society worked (as in the
studies by Kenneth Bailey in the 20th-century Middle East).
Literacy in ancient Galilee approximated to ten per cent of the
population. Also, an early stimulus to Dunn's own thinking had been
an academic interest in the Holy Spirit and Christian prophecy.
The present book offers a splendid and welcome opportunity to
follow the evolution of his thinking in a collection of 15 essays,
reprinted with a new introduction from a span of 34 years since
1978. The essays are arranged in three sections: initially, seven
presenting the main case for the argument; second, four that take
seriously a range of critical reactions; and, finally, another four
that explore the wider contexts and implications of this study,
from the quest of the historical Jesus, and the process of
transition to the written Gospels, to the meaning of a living
tradition that is still alive today.
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical
Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.