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Behind the GospelsReview - Behind the Gospels
Understanding the Oral Tradition
by Eric Eve
Fortress Press, 2014
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Oct 21st 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 43)

Jesus of Nazareth is the hero of the many stories in the New Testament of the Bible. He is believed by many to be God, or the son of God, or both. He is an important part of the three person god of the Christian faith community. Millions of people send prayers to Him daily, for He is believed to be at the right hand of God. Further He is believed to be part man, part God. A saviour. The lamb of God. (John Dominic Crossan's witty remark, ""Just because the Bible says "Jesus is the Lamb of God," it doesn't follow that Mary had a little lamb" comes to mind) And yet, of course, most of what we know of Jesus we know through the text of the canonical books of the NT. How reliable is that text? When the Gospel writers disagree is there any way to determine who is correct? Since Jesus lived at a time before there were fixed texts to document his life and sayings all we have are the memories of witnesses who passed their oral stories on to others in the newly formed group which later became the Church. How reliable are memories? Is there any chance we can uncover the real historical Jesus and say with high probability that he said this or that? To what extent do oral poets change their poems through performance and to respond to audience? Can we re-capture the intention of the original speaker when all we have is a record written by a writer who lived many years later and who himself depends upon oral reports from others for whom the growing tradition is emerging in time and place?

Eric Eve has set as his task to try to understand the oral tradition from which the New Testament works must have come. In a scholarly and important book he reviews the recent scholarship that has to do with the oral tradition of the first century drawing on work done in anthropology, media contrast, form criticism, memory, and the reliability of eye witness accounts. He considers many current works by specialists in these disciplines - presents their arguments, offers criticisms, and assesses the success of the conclusions. The book is comprised of ten chapters:

1.    The ancient media situation (discussion of oral tradition and writing)

2.    Form criticism (Dibelius, Bultmann)

3.    The rabbinic model (Gerhardsson's thesis)

4.    The media contrast model (Güttgemanss and Kelber)

5.    Informal controlled oral tradition (Batley's model)

6.    Memory and tradition (individual and collective memory, performance)

7.    Memory and orality in the Jesus tradition (Dunn, Horsley, Rodriguez)

8.    The role of eyewitnesses (Byrskog, Bauckham)

9.    Probing the tradition

10. Conclusion

Each chapter follows a form: presentation of a position or theory, application of the theory to the texts, evaluation of the theory or approach. As Eve says in the introduction, "The main task of this book is thus to present its readers with the principal lines of thinking about the oral tradition behind the gospels (although it may turn out that 'memory' proves to be a more helpful category than 'oral tradition' and that the use of the preposition 'behind' is questionable in this context)."  Chapter 1, for example, starts with a discussion of "What is oral tradition?" by pointing out that "Oral tradition is always something spoken, but not everything spoken is oral tradition." Oral tradition, we are reminded, is closely related to memory; speech is an event and not a thing (like text). There are in short many ways we can go wrong when claiming that the historic Jesus said this or that.

Most of us use the words "the bible" confidently, sure that they refer clearly to some text, some specific book. They do not. Often we hear someone say, "It's in the Bible," or "but the Bible says...," and for the most part we understand what they mean, though it is important to notice that there is no unambiguous "thing" the words "the Bible" refer to. In some sense, of course, the same may be said about any book: when we say, for example, The Great Gatsby, do we know exactly what object in the world has that name? Fitzgerald's novel existed first in manuscript form, then was printed, and was a set of galley proofs; they in turn were corrected and reset for printing. In spite of the care taken there may have been errors (in spelling, punctuation, a word changed here or there) that were not found and corrected until the second edition or later. Which is the unique object picked out by the words "The Great Gatsby"? Is it the manuscript? The galley proofs? The first edition? Or is it the "critical" edition published later which includes all of the amendments and variants over the history of the edition? Many of us would argue that it is the latter edition, the critical edition, combining as it does all of the changes, authorial emendations, printer's errors, and editorial corrections that is The Great Gatsby, and we would use any such edition in doing any critical analysis of Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald wrote about fifty-five years ago and he wrote in English. We have the manuscript and all of the editions of The Great Gatsby. Furthermore, Fitzgerald was alive when it was published and could go over the text after printing to insure its accuracy.

Or, think of a somewhat earlier book, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. When we use the words "The Waste Land" to refer or pick out some item in the world, what exactly do we refer to? Is it the handwritten manuscript? The corrected copy with Pound's changes? The typescript? The fair copy? The first edition? If we look at T. S. Eliot The Wasteland: A Facsimile And Transcript Of The Original Drafts Including The Annotations Of Ezra Pound we find all of these drafts and changes and can see how much influence Ezra Pound had on the final poem. Pound made hundreds of corrections and suggestions to the handwritten manuscript, many of which were incorporated by Eliot. Studying that facsimile gives the reader an idea of the organic nature of a text. Pound's editorial pen wipes out whole stanzas as he prunes the manuscript, or adds as he makes suggestions about changes and alternatives. Part of the initial excitement of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was that we hoped to have something like the Eliot book to give us a better idea of the history and development of the Biblical texts.

The text of a creative work, like stories, which are related orally, is a constantly changing, almost living, thing. The arrival of the printing press made for more textual stability since there is something fixed about the printed word, which is not present in the spoken word. Legends and sayings of cultural heroes related as part of a culture's oral tradition would obviously have had less stability than those texts that were written down and later printed. In the examples of Fitzgerald and Eliot we have two writers who were alive while their work was maturing and who were able to follow it through the maturation process from initial intent to final production. We must struggle to find anything like that trail of sources when we approach the New Testament stories.

Eve writes in the final chapter, Part of the problem lies with the potential circularity of any informed guesses we care to make. It seems equally possible to start with sceptical or with credulous presuppositions about the nature of the Jesus tradition and arrive at reasonably consistent results."

We are reminded that looking at a text closely is like looking in a mirror. Eve's book can help us with the distortions the mirror reflects.


© 2014 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia and the author of "Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation".


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