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Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition (Eric Eve)

Eric Eve. Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014. 224 pp. $29.00.

Behind the GospelsThere is currently to my knowledge no book-length survey of and introduction to scholarship of the oral tradition behind the Gospels. As such, Eve’s Behind the Gospels is a valuable contribution and should be read by every student of the gospels. It is also accessible, with technical terms defined rather than assumed; therefore, it’s also a good book for laypeople and nonspecialists interested in the cutting edge of Gospels studies and specifically oral tradition. This work is not concerned with source criticism or the Synoptic Problem; Eve assumes Marcan priority and leaves open the question of “Q.” While Behind the Gospels is primarily descriptive in that it surveys the main movers and shakers in this area of NT scholarship and provides an overview of the main models of oral tradition, Eve does also evaluate the main positions. He begins in Chapter 1 with providing a general orientation to the subject matter by briefly addressing what oral tradition is in the first century Mediterranean context – “one factor (albeit often the dominant one) of a complex interplay of memory, orality and scribality (the use of texts in a pre-print culture)” (17)*. Chapter 2 deals with form criticism, examining the constructive method of Martin Dibelius and the analytical method of Rudolf Bultmann.

In light of the weaknesses of form criticism, the rest of the book looks at alternative models that have been proposed in its place. Chapter 3 examines the rabbinic model (in which the passing on of Jesus tradition is seen as a tightly controlled process), focusing primarily on the work of Birger Gerhardsson. Next, in Chapter 4, Eve addresses the media contrast model, looking at the work of Erhardt Güttgemanns and Werner Kelber. He subsequently looks in Chapter 5 at Kenneth Bailey’s model of informed controlled oral tradition, which is a sort of via media between the informal uncontrolled model and formal controlled model. The final chapters address issues that relate memory with the oral tradition. Chapter 6 lays the foundation for these chapters by first surveying the role of memory in the pre-modern era before examining individual memory (the psychology of memory) and collective memory (the sociology of memory), and finally looking at social memory of performance tradition. Chapter 7 looks at how these concepts of memory specifically apply to the Jesus tradition, paying particular attention to the work of James Dunn (Jesus Remembered), Richard Horsley with Jonathan Draper, and Rafael Rodriguez (Structuring Early Christian Memory). Chapter 8 considers the role of eyewitnesses, focusing on the work of Samuel Byrskog and Richard Bauckham.

In Chapter 9 Eve begins to draw out implications of this book by probing the gospel tradition to get a sense of its nature, comparing Mark to Paul and Josephus. He concludes,

The traditions we have sampled in this chapter thus exhibit the kind of mix of stability and variability described in previous chapters’ discussion of social memory and oral traditions rather better than the kind of fixity suggested by Gerhardsson or the reliable eyewitness testimony urged by Bauckham. At the same time, the evidence tends to suggest that Mark and the other Evangelists had access to, and were to some extent constrained by, earlier traditions and did not simply invent all their own material. It does not, however, show that these traditions were necessarily being controlled for historical accuracy; as in the case of Bailey’s data, Kelber’s notion of preventative censorship, which accords well with social memory theory, would seem to be a better fit (provided it is not pushed to a radically skeptical extreme). Although it would be perilous to conclude too much from a mere pair of such probes, they do appear to lend general support to the convergence of the more workable ideas we reviewed in Chapters 4 to 7.

(Eve 199)

A concluding chapter draws the threads together and considers some implications for historical Jesus research and source criticism. Eve argues for a model combining the features of those advocated by Kelber, Dunn, Horsley and Rodriguez and notes that in light of research on memory and oral tradition, the criteria of authenticity and the Synoptic Problem need to be rethought.

As I mentioned right of the bat, Behind the Gospels is unique in the overview it provides of the oral tradition behind the gospels and is an excellent survey for anyone looking for an introduction to the topic, from the interested layperson to the biblical studies student. It’s definitely essential reading for those interested in the academic world of NT studies and especially Gospels studies.

*page numbers are from an epub version and may differ from print and Kindle page numbers.

I received a digital copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase: Amazon

Leave a comment


  1. jamesbradfordpate

     /  April 2, 2015

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Thanks for posting your review Jennifer, sounds like an excellent book!

    Liked by 1 person


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