Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel

07.13.09 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Tom Thatcher

    Craig Blomberg's review of "Jesus, the Voice and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel" by Tom Thatcher

    book-Jesus Voice Text

    Tom Thatcher, ed., Jesus, the Voice, and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel.  Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008.  $39.95.  Pap.   viii + 317 pp.   ISBN 978-1-932792-60-7.

    This anthology was published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Werner Kelber’s highly influential book, The Oral and the Written Gospel, which argued for a significant rupture in the way the stories about Jesus were transmitted at the time of the publication of Mark’s Gospel. What had once been a very fluid oral tradition was now an unchanging written narrative; what had once promoted apostolic teaching and leadership now seriously challenged them. Thatcher himself sets the stage for this wide-ranging treatment of oral tradition and the Gospels, which is scarcely limited to issues Kelber raised; even while considering what another quarter century of research has disclosed about them. After his detailed introduction, Thatcher interviews Kelber, in which Kelber concedes that he today believes in a less clear break or rejection of past tradition but a reshaping and transformation of it.

    Richard Horsley and Joanna Dewey proceed, in consecutive essays, to sketch what they have also published elsewhere about the plethora of features of Mark’s style and content that suggest he has preserved the form and message of the oral traditions he inherited. Holly Hearon, on the other hand, reinforces much of Kelber’s study more generally and concludes that “the emergence of written story, then, has the potential to reorganize social relations to the degree that it transcends the authority of individuals embedded in local communities” (p. 110).

    Jonathan Draper next shows how the arrangement of key terms in vice catalogues in ancient Christian non-canonical texts can serve as mnemonic tools for oral tradition. The “two-Ways” genre, best known in the Gospels from the Sermon on the Mount, thus can be seen to preserve in writing key dimensions of oral tradition. April deConick uses tests with contemporary audiences, including her students, to reinforce what the classic form critics regularly assumed, namely, that the gist of stories or teachings are preserved better than their exact wording, with particularly unusual, memorable, or significant words or expressions most likely to be recaptured verbatim.

    In a fascinating study, Arthur Dewey compares the shift from Augustus’ Res Gestae with its wide-ranging catalogue of the emperor’s great accomplishments to Trajan’s column with its spirally sculptured cameos of consecutive episodes of two crucial wars to the narrowing in on a select collection of stories about Jesus when the oral tradition was encapsulated in the written Gospels. Chris Keith and Tom Thatcher then challenge head-on Kelber’s thesis that a passion narrative would not have emerged in oral tradition by appealing to studies of social memory and the need for communities to create explanations for trauma or crises (like the crucifixion) almost immediately after they happened.

    Alan Kirk turns to what happens after a document of community traditions is put in writing, noticing the freedom some scribes had to rearrange and interpret small details as they copied the document. This calls Kelber’s sharp dichotomy of oral and written media into question not by studying the oral tradition but by showing that even putting something in writing didn’t completely crystallize its contents. Scribal changes of these kinds would have been welcomed and seen as signs of scribes’ skill rather than as a weakness calling into question the reliability of their material. Kirk notes here the irony that Bart Ehrman’s assessment to the contrary “is predicated on the very print assumptions that underlie the view of scriptural authority (God’s Word fixed in originals) that he has come to reject and now makes the chief butt of his criticism” (p. 233).

    Kelber himself concludes the volume with reflections on his research and convictions since The Oral and the Written Gospel came out, and he interacts with the essayists in this volume as well. He reiterates the eleven tenets of form criticism that his work initially challenged, noting that even those most critical of his theses in this book for the most part agree in challenging those tenets—isolated sayings, circulating apart from context, used according to social needs, evolving in linear fashion into longer and longer accounts and eventually written down with minimal editorial contributions by the Evangelists. Although the book never references the Jesus Seminar, it is clear that all contributors to this volume would disagree entirely with the dominant role such early form-critical tenets played in their criteria of authenticity. Interestingly, Kelber also observes the degree to which his work has been co-opted by others for much broader agendas than he himself initially established. Does this also call into question how much, even in our modern world, putting one’s thoughts into print does not entirely crystallize what one might want to control?

    Given the inevitable diversity of interests of a multi-author work of this nature, especially when its editor did not impose any tight, thematic unity to the volume or the sequence of its chapters, this is not exactly a statis questionis report on oral and written media in the ancient Mediterranean world and its significance for New Testament studies. But until such a work appears, this is the best book on the topic to reflect the diversity of most influential perspectives, at least in North American, today.

    Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    July 2009

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