J.D.G. (Jimmy) Dunn’s newest book, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, is nothing short of an introduction to his seminal theories and proposals, and we looked at one of those proposals Monday and a second one today. Today’s concerns what happened between Jesus and the first written Gospels.
The problem can be put this way: When we open up our Bibles to one of the Gospels and see red letters for the words of Jesus we make the (unfortunate and unhistorical) jump to this idea: these words are verbatim quotations of what Jesus said — just like that. Beside the fact that two or more Gospels often diverge, sometimes dramatically, on the specific words, verbatim quotations were not the way of the ancient world. A good example: Did Jesus say “poor” or “poor in spirit”? Did Peter say “You are the Messiah” or the “Messiah, the Son of the living God”?
How do you explain variations in the Gospels? Do you think red letter editions give a false impression of what the sayings of Jesus are?
Well, anyone who has examined a Synopsis of the Gospels knows these problems. The evidence is two-fold and it very simple: sometimes the Gospel accounts are nearly identical, as if they are copying one another, and other times they are telling the same story or same saying but there are notable differences. Lots of them.
The standard explanation of this “Synoptic Problem” is something I call the Oxford Hypothesis or The Four Document Hypothesis. Mark was first, Matthew and Luke copied from Mark; Matthew and Luke also copied from a hypothetical source called “Q” — and this explains when Matthew and Luke are nearly identical but both diverge from Mark.
Jimmy Dunn’s big theory is that this doesn’t explain enough. Instead of literary model wherein authors borrow from written documents, Jimmy suggests we should see the whole thing from the angle of an oral culture and an oral traditioning process. He does admit that Matthew and Luke used Mark, and has some form of a Q hypothesis. But he doesn’t think they explain enough.No one questions the general possibility of his theory, it is the proof that is hard.
What characterizes oral memory and oral tradition is both stability and diversity, the same yet different. It recalls what is important but gives the oral traditioner freedom in expressing what is inconsequential. Jimmy further thinks when the tradition was written out (and this didn’t happen all at once or only one time) they writers/redactors had the same freedom to adapt and adopt the oral traditioners had. This explains the passages where the Gospels differ so much but still tell the same story or report the same saying.
Yes, there was an originating event or saying of Jesus, and that event or saying had an impact on the audience, but the traditions were varied from the beginning. There wasn’t just one tradition; there wasn’t just one way to tell the story or report the event or saying. Variety and flexibility obtained from the beginning.
This means “authentic” takes on new meaning. And I agree with him that it was a living tradition and not a fixed tradition. And I agree that Evangelists operated as did the oral traditioners. But there are questions… what are yours?