From Good News to Gospels: What Did the First Christians Say about Jesus?
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.
Available at amazon.com
David Wenham has written a short – only 108 pages – and yet informative book on the origins of the Gospels, in particular, how they are rooted and shaped by the oral tradition of the early church. Wenham shows how the genesis of the oral tradition began with Jesus himself and was taken upon into the teaching, learning, witnessing, and remembering of the early church. Paul is naturally a key witness who has clear contact with primitive oral tradition as evidenced by his exhortations which explicitly rehearse Jesus’s words and narrate the story of his life. Finally, Wenham contends that oral tradition rather than pure literary dependency accounts for various features of the Gospels.
I think Wenham is correct that we should not automatically think in terms of literary dependence and literary relationships for everything in the Gospels. Similarly, it might be possible that Matthew and Luke knew of Mark’s material in a different form, so for instance, Mark 4 was not the first time they heard some of the parables of Jesus since they already knew them in some form from oral tradition. That said, I do not think it is possible to dispel literary dependency among the Synoptic evangelists as the main factor determining their content, even if oral tradition was a kind of x-factor that also shaped the content of the Gospels. The idea that Mark 13, Luke 12, Matthew 24-25, and 1 Thessalonians 4-5 are drawing on a pool of oral tradition about Jesus’s eschatology could contain some partial truths, but I wouldn’t make it my main thesis explaining the eschatological discourses on the Synoptic evangelists. I’m also not sure that Gal 4:4 is proof that Paul knew about the infancy stories of Jesus, we just don’t know what Paul knew or didn’t know about Jesus’s birth, paternity, and early life.
That said, I think Wenham’s overall observations are sound: (1) There was a strong oral tradition of sayings from Jesus and stories from/about Jesus; (2) This tradition was extensive, it wasn’t just aphorisms, it includes narratives, parables, eschatological and ethical teaching, and stories about Jesus; and (3) Paul and the Evangelists both knew and drew on this pool of oral tradition.
It is when Wenham seeks to use oral tradition to explain the similarities in the Synoptic Gospels that I must politely demur. I just don’t think the similarities in wording, order, parenthetical remarks, etc. can be explained without postulating literary dependency in a strong form (even if oral tradition was an on-going, albeit indeterminable factor).
Otherwise, a very useful book, simple, user-friendly, very good for people beginning Gospel studies.