Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dunn’s Source Theory part 2

Previously I commented briefly on the source theory of James D. G. Dunn (it appears he is proposing that although "Q" eventually became a written document the Q traditions were still known and used in oral form by the Jesus communities and the Evangelists). I only just yesterday discovered that he has a book dealing more specifically with his source theory _A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed_ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) and I wish to make several small comments.

Much of the book is really an introduction to Dunn’s source theory and it even includes a newer version of his "Altering the Default Setting: Re-envisaging the Early Transmission of the Jesus Tradition" published NTS 49 (2003): 139-75, as an appendix. I guess it goes to show just how relevant is one’s source theory to a quest for the historical Jesus and I have to admit that what Dunn is advocating about the earliest period of transmission is basically what I had been imagining already. But I also have some hesitation about Dunn’s so-called oral period. Dunn quotes p141 of Sanders and Davies _Studying the Synoptic Gospels_ (my copy arrived last Thursday, yay!) I give the original sentence:

"The problem is that we don’t know how to imagine the oral period neither how
long it lasted nor how oral transmission actually functioned."

Dunn also mentions that "one or two voices even question whether there ever was a period of oral transmission in the first place" providing two references in the footnotes (W. Schmithals and E. E. Ellis), neither of whom doubt the presence of traditions (instead they believe the traditions were simply literary from the very start). But Dunn overlooks the more skeptical position that the Jesus traditions could have developed much later, during the "written period." I would like to support Sanders & Davies point that we just don’t know how to imagine the oral period, but I would also like to suggest that to me the notion of an oral period is really just a negative one, and not much more. And by that I mean that it really means (for want of a better term) "pre-written period" i.e. "prior to the period when the Gospels were written." The terminology "oral period" might, misleadingly, seem to suggest a period where material stemming from Jesus is transmitted in unbroken fashion until the "written period." Dunn is to be congratulated for pointing out that the material was not necessarily memorised or handed down directly from Jesus himself, but more likely represented the impact that Jesus had (already) made on people as they began to remember him and his actions and teachings.
Dunn does not explicitly discuss the idea that perhaps some of the actions and teachings attributed to Jesus were due to them being (or seeming) appropriate to the kind of person Jesus was, the kind of things he did or said (or was thought to have done, or would have or might have done or said) even though the were things that were not necessarily unique to Jesus. But I think this possibility needs to be included in the discussion. There were plenty of proverbs, aphorisms, parables, and miracle reports circulating before and after Jesus. I presume that there was undoubtedly plenty of wisdom being passed down and recycled both in and outside synagogue (addressing morals, ethics) as well as prophecies made or interpreted from the Scriptures. It would be ridiculous to be able to claim originality for many sayings, and I don’t think we should read the Gospels as necessarily claiming complete originality but rather they provide traditions that were likely the best fit with Jesus’ intentions and of the kind of things that were important to him. Much of the wisdom teaching we find in James also turns up in "Q" material on the lips of Jesus. I suggest that this is: 1) because such wisdom was widely available and widely known and widely applied by numerous teachers, and, 2) that Jesus would be expected to be familiar with such things and obviously would have taught something similarly wise to those who wanted to know more about God’s reign, applying his own emphasis and adapting the common stock themes to his own context as good teachers did.

I am most surprised that in a book on the historical Jesus, Dunn has also overlooked what seems to me one of the strongest traditions—that Jesus was a healer. I understand that over time Jesus was recognised more and more in a prophetic role and a teaching role as the significance of his life and death and mission took on more meaning. But to me the healing traditions cannot be overlooked. I do not wish to evaluate the type of historical healing he did (or was thought to have done) since I cannot see how the healing of one’s body or mind or social being can be separated off in the first place. A Jesus who came to inaugurate God’s reign goes hand-in-hand with a Jesus who heals, and it seems just as likely that the latter preceded (as it assumed) the former. Otherwise I think we would need to deny both as somewhat unoriginal and as reapplied to Jesus (but I’m now a bit off-topic).

So what I’m suggesting is that the so-called "oral period" may well have included material being "transmitted" orally, but perhaps not in such an unbroken line of tradition as implied by Dunn’s theory (of remembering Jesus impact and then going over the stories again and again). I wish to uphold the point that we still cannot imagine what the pre-written period was like and how much people "remembered" and how much was told "in remembrance" of Jesus. We do not know whether the pre-written period should be granted as being as active (as the written period) in giving shape to the Jesus traditions, although I expect Dunn is largely on track for explaining some of the traditions. I applaud Dunn for calling attention that the importance lies in the significance of Jesus’ "impact." I am also suggesting that the healing traditions are probably quite old (and popular) traditions. Since we expect more variation with oral versions than we see in the synoptic Gospels (hence theories of literary dependence) there may be something still considerably "oral" about the shared healing stories (since they don’t share as many verbal agreements as some of the other traditions).

I also discovered that what I had been calling "secondary orality" Dunn calls "second orality" and I recall the term re-oralisation also being used by someone else which I think is even clearer. I wish I had the time and energy to find out who else deals with this phenomenon.

1 comment:

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I've always called it "secondary orality" too, but I have to admit that I really like the term "reoralization" better. Thanks for the suggestion!

Please post if you find out where you got that term from.