Review: James D. G. Dunn. The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

James D. G. Dunn. The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. x + 390 pp. $45.00.

This excellent book is a collection of fifteen essays previously published by Dunn mostly in the wake of Jesus Remembered (vii-viii), although three do predate that volume: “Prophetic ‘I’-Sayings and the Jesus Tradition” (1978); “John and the Oral Gospel Tradition” (1991); and “Matthew’s Awareness of Markan Redaction” (1992). Overall, the collection is historically stimulating and Dunn’s appreciation for the liveliness of oral traditioning is on display throughout (pp. 41-79; 138-63; 193-5; 237-47; 267-89; and 314-44). He frequently emphasizes both communal (pp. 54-5, 58, 75, 277-82, 316-20, and 340) and performative (pp. 53-4, 56-7, 74-9, 86-90, 94, 123-4, 211, 244-7, 250, 264, and 278-82) aspects of oral traditioning, and includes an essay on “Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition” (pp. 230-47).

The book is divided into three parts thematically arranged, with Part I (pp. 13-195) mostly comprised of essays on Gospel pre-history or the Gospels themselves (including two essays on John’s Gospel, pp. 138-63 and 164-95). Part II (pp. 199-264) is a busy section focusing on present research related to Dunn’s oral emphasis, and engages Dunn’s interlocutors, including Bengt Holmberg and Samuel Byrskog (pp. 199-212), Birger Gerhardsson and Richard Bauckham (pp. 213-29), and Theodore Weeden’s firm critique of Kenneth Bailey whose model Dunn relies heavily upon (pp. 248-64). Part III’s essays (pp. 267-380) involve more syntheses of Dunn’s overall contributions and are excellent resources, specifically “The History of the Tradition (New Testament)” (pp. 313-63), which is the clearest and briefest though comprehensive treatment of Dunn’s thinking on oral tradition available.

Fundamental for Dunn is his concern to alter “the default setting” of Gospel criticism (“Altering the Default Setting,” pp. 41-79), from the stratified and composition-laden “literary paradigm,” i.e., form criticism’s continued and undue influence (pp. 44-9), to one more welcoming and appreciative of the oral culture surrounding the development of the Gospel tradition (pp. 49-59), and the tradition’s own lively character (p. 79; Dunn does not, however, dismiss the two-document hypothesis, p. 61). Although he does not dispense with Q, the oral traditioning model, according to Dunn, has better explanatory power than the literary paradigm in accounting for the same-yet-different character of the Jesus tradition (p. 59). On the heels of this essay Dunn presents “Q1 as Oral Tradition” (pp. 80-108). Here Dunn ably demonstrates the varied character of the six clusters of wisdom sayings (seventeen examples) identified as Q1 by John S. Kloppenborg with telling insight for his oral thesis of the tradition, concluding, against Kloppenborg, that the evidence for “a discrete compositional unit or stratum is weak” (p. 107).

Dunn has long been intrigued with Bailey’s thesis of informally controlled tradition, and this collection of essays reprints his rebuttal of Weeden (pp. 248-64). Dunn’s preference for Bailey over Gerhardsson’s better attested “model of rabbinic traditioning,” though admittedly “closer and works to a substantial extent,” is due to the rabbinic model’s “formal and even regimented process” (p. 249), something Dunn feels cannot account for attested variation. Neither does Dunn find much value in folkloristics (p. 249), in contrast to his student, Terence C. Mournet, who is more appreciative. Dunn’s response to Weeden’s critique of the haflat samar leaves much to be desired, since Weeden firmly showed that the practice was akin to evening entertainment (see pp. 251-2 n.9). When Dunn explains that Rena Hogg’s book, which was used by Bailey to demonstrate the stability of traditioning, is not actually traditioning material (pp. 251-2, 253), he is on firmer ground. Both Bailey and Weeden make the mistake of casting Rena Hogg as a tradent, since both presuppose that her book provides a crystallization of the same traditioning process that was accessible to Bailey. Her account, however, was not a representation of village tradition, but a memoir about her father. Dunn’s response may have fared better in emphasizing this rather than suggesting contextual differences in hafalat samar traditioning.

In his discussion with Bauckham (pp. 213-229, esp. 222-9), Dunn reveals that he and Bauckham have different understandings of Gospel pre-history, though they can and should be taken as complementary (as I. Howard Marshall notes, “A New Consensus on Oral Tradition? A Review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 [2008]: 190). If, as Dunn writes, Bauckham “wants the eyewitnesses themselves to bridge the gap between initial formulation and transcription in written Gospels, he may be pressing his case beyond the evidence as it has come down to us” (227). But this ignores the significance of Luke’s prologue and eyewitness tradents (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 34 n.71; also noted by Marshall), who are just one link in the chain of transmission removed from Luke’s account. Dunn’s rich and lively historiography needs more of the complementary project of eyewitness traditioning to assist in offering stability in the similar-yet-dissimilar character of the tradition.
In closing, Dunn’s work on orality is remarkable in the greatest sense of the word. It brings a richness to the text that is seldom accentuated so expertly. Gospel history and liturgy are illuminated in new and rich ways that open up imaginative historical vistas. Dunn’s work deserves appreciation and thankfulness from any student interested in Gospel pre-history.

Michael Metts
The University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland

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The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.