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Essays from 34 years of NT research

21 March 2014

John Court follows the development of a leading scholar's ideas

The Oral Gospel Tradition
James D. G. Dunn
Eerdmans £29.99
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 means.

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.

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