THERE has been a sea change in New Testament scholarship over the past 50 years, towards a greater acknowledgement of the part played by oral tradition in the first century of the Church. This has significantly displaced the older speculation about now lost documents on which the canonical Gospel-writers relied.
Contemporary appreciation of the part that memory and memorisation have played in non-literary societies has undergirded this change in biblical scholarship.
For David Wenham, it was the need for a strong and coherent storyline from the beginning of the Church, to explain and advocate the striking claims about Jesus, which required a controlled oral tradition that was faithfully handed on.
This renewed emphasis on the significance of the oral tradition generates its own questions. How corrupted could it become, both historically and theologically? Wenham acknowledges that the Apostles and others were free to retell the story, bringing in a variety of perspectives and experiences, but he does not address the question of the influence of literary imagination in the Gospels.
Does this approach cast light on the question which Gospel was written first? If the case for Mark still stands, Matthew and Luke may have incorporated elements of the pre-Markan oral tradition, so that the Matthaean or Lukan version may be more original.
There is little discussion about St John’s Gospel. Wenham refers to it as “a more personal version that is less tied to the tradition”, but that assumes a more static understanding of “the tradition” than the thrust of the argument here suggests.
For Wenham, focusing on the tradition as oral enables an easier understanding of its influence on St Paul. Yet, if so, why doesn’t St Paul quote more of the strong and coherent oral account of the “story about Jesus”, and less from the Old Testament?
Puzzles abound, and this short, lively book summarises recent scholarly debate in an accessible way.
Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.
From Good News to Gospels: What did the first Christians say about Jesus?