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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


Book Review – The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Michael Bird)

Michael F. Bird. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 408 pp. $30.00.


I’m fairly certain that Michael Bird publishes more books per year than the average person reads. But it’s not just the quantity of his output that’s impressive – the depth and quality across a wide range of topics (e.g. 1 Esdras, Pauline studies, historical Jesus, Christology, systematic theology, etc.) is just as notable. And sprinkled throughout his excellent scholarship is always a generous dash of humor.  Bird’s latest book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, is “concerned primarily with the questions of how the Gospels came to be, what kinds of literature they are, and how they relate to Christian discourse about God” (viii). Hence it’s not a gospels survey, as it doesn’t deal with issues typically found in books on the gospels such as provenance, content overview, and life of Christ. “Primarily this volume is focused on the origins and development of the books we call ‘Gospels’ in the context of the early church” (ix).

After some introductory remarks, the first issue The Gospel of the Lord tackles is the purpose and preservation of the Jesus tradition. Some of the questions addressed are: “Why did Jesus’s followers attempt to keep his teachings alive, tell stories about him, and narrate the story of his death and resurrection? In addition, did they transmit these stories and traditions in a way that faithfully communicated what actually happened?” (22). Next, Chapter 3, “The Formation of the Jesus Tradition”, explores the process from Jesus tradition to text. Here Bird summarizes the various models of oral tradition, noting pros and cons of each and illuminating his own position; he then devotes some time to social memory theory.

Chapter 4, by far the longest chapter in the book, addresses the literary issues of the Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question. After surveying the issues and the primary positions from the history of research, noting pros and cons of the various approaches, Bird offers his own perspective. On the Synoptic Problem he ultimately argues for the Holtzmann-Gundry Hypothesis (alternatively know as the three-source theory). In regards to the Johannine Question Bird suggests that the way to move forward is to develop new categories, because the relationship between Synoptic tradition and Johannine tradition is more complex than a simple dependent/independent dichotomy.

Chapter 5 goes on to examine the genre and goal of the Gospels. After explaining the prevailing perspectives on the genre of the gospels and noting their pros and cons, Bird contends that the Gospels are broadly a type of biography, and most analogous to Greco-Roman biographies. And like Greco-Roman biographies, the Gospels had a variety of purposes. The final chapter explores the issue of why we have four gospels. Why not just one? Why not a dozen? This chapter aims to “plot the origins of the fourfold gospel collection (i.e. tetrevangelium), to evaluate the theological rationale for the fourfold gospel, and to explicate the significance of a fourfold gospel collection for the wider biblical canon” (300). After each chapter there is an excursus, and they address a variety of interesting topics such as the “other” gospels (typically referred to as “non-canonical,” but Bird provides good reasons for not using that designation).

The Gospel of the Lord is a fantastic book on the gospels that complements the existing introductory/survey books in gospels study. While covering some of the same topics, it also addresses topics typically neglected in those types of books and typically not given a lot of attention in gospels/NT survey courses. As such, this book would be an excellent text for gospels survey or NT survey courses and truly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with academic interest in gospels studies. This book is an especially valuable resource for those potentially interested in pursuing doctoral studies in the Gospels because of Bird’s (as always) impressive mastery of scholarly literature. He even provides potential dissertation topics in the beginning and exudes a contagious excitement for how much work there remains to be done in the area. The Gospel of the Lord is a particularly beneficial resource for the budding NT/Gospels scholar, but is also an outstanding book for all looking for an introduction to how we got the Gospels. As is typical for the Conan O’Brien of biblical studies, Bird offers the occasional humorous line and cultural reference that makes you chuckle.

Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!

Purchase: Amazon
Visit: Publisher page

*Modified from a review originally posted at Grace for Sinners*