19.1. A New Perspective on the Jesus Tradition
In the opening chapters I reviewed the 'quest of the historical Jesus' as an ongoing dialogue between 'faith' and 'history'. I pointed out that the roots of this quest, and in effect the opening exchanges of the contemporary dialogue, can be traced back to the emergence of 'a sense of history' in the Renaissance. The developments and fruits of historical philology and textual criticism from that time began the provision of a resource and base which is still fundamental to all scholarly work on the New Testament and life of Jesus research. The emergence of the model of scientific inquiry brought a rigorous methodology to historical study and raised many hopes regarding the objectivity of historical 'facts' which have in hindsight proved elusive, not to say illusory. But there is an equal danger of a postmodern over-reaction to the older historicist over-confidence. A model for historical study along the lines of 'critical realism', which recognizes the dialogic nature of inquiry into that which may be known concerning persons and events of the past, seems to provide the most promising way forward.
The study of the past as a hermeneutical problem also highlighted a number of significant findings: the importance of recognizing a historical text as historical text; the importance of retaining an active concept of plain meaning', at least to the extent of endeavouring to listen to the text speak in its own language and idiom; the importance of respecting the intention of the text (entextualized), even when the questions being asked seek to draw other information from it or through it; and the importance, not least, of acknowledging and allowing for the nature of the hermeneutical process of dialogue between text and hearer/reader.
In addition, I argued that the source-critical findings of study of the Gospels in the second half of the nineteenth century (John as a much less direct historical source than the Synoptics, the two-source hypothesis for the Synoptics)
still provide the best working hypothesis for an initial analysis of the Jesus tradition. however much they made need to be qualified. as to some extent I do wish to qualify them. On the other hand. the newer sources recently proposed and the attempts to stratify the hypothesized Q document are much overblown and draw firmer and more far-reaching conclusions than are justified by the data. Similarly. I have no doubt that any historical study of Jesus has to take seriously the character of the Judaism of the time and the social and political circumstances in which Jesus undertook his mission. as illuminated by archaeology. The use of sociological theory and generalisation. however. has always to be tempered by the realia of artefact and text.
All these. however. are in effect prolegomena to the main thrust of this book. which can be summed up in a number of bare propositions before being further elaborated below. (1) The only realistic objective for any 'quest of the historical Jesus' is Jesus remembered. (2) The Jesus tradition of the Gospels confirms that there was a concern within earliest Christianity to remember Jesus. (3) The Jesus tradition shows us how Jesus was remembered; its character strongly suggests again and again a tradition given its essential shape by regular use and reuse in oral mode. (4) This suggests in turn that that essential shape was given by the original and immediate impact made by Jesus as that was first put into words by and among those involved as eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did. In that key sense. the Jesus tradition is Jesus remembered.
Let me restate this thesis in terms of the twofold new perspective on the Jesus tradition and its earliest transmission which the thesis embodies: (a) first regarding the primary formative force which gave the Jesus tradition its character. and (b) second. the character of oral tradition and of the traditioningprocess in the earliest disciple groups and churches. This has been united with (c) the methodological strategy of looking at the broad picture. focusing on the characteristic motifs and emphases of the Jesus tradition. rather than making findings overly dependent on individual items of the tradition.
a. The primary formative force in shaping the Jesus tradition was the impact made by Jesus during his mission on his first disciples, the impact which drew them into discipleship. (1) The initial formative impact was not Easter faith. The impulse to formulate tradition was not first effective in the post-Easter period. The tradition available to us. particularly in the Synoptic Gospels. has certainly been structured and regularly retold in the light of Easter faith. But again and again the characteristic motifs and emphases of the individual traditions show themselves to have been established without and therefore probably prior to any Easter influence. The initiating impact was the impact of the pre-Easter call to faith. (2) We can certainly hope to look behind that impact to the one who made that impact. But we cannot realistically expect to find a Jesus ('the historical Jesus') other than or different from the Jesus who made that im pact. Any other 'historical Jesus' will, unavoidably and inevitably, be the consequence of inserting other factors and ideological concerns into the business of constructing 'the historical Jesus'. (3) The impact itself, in large part, took the form oftradition. For most of those who had been so decisively influenced by Jesus, who had found his challenge literally life-transforming, could not have failed to speak of that impact to others who shared the new appreciation of God's kingship and its consequences for their living in the here and now. That impact-
was itself the beginning of the Jesus tradition proper — as also of embryonic ritual, as the disciple groups met together to share that tradition, no doubt regularly in the context of the shared meals which had themselves been so characteristic of Jesus' mission.
b. The new perspective on the Jesus tradition as oral tradition dovetails into the new perspective on the initiating formative influence determining that tradition. It constitutes a deliberate attempt to break out from the centuries-old cultural conditioning of a literary, print-dominated mindset which has determined how the early transmission of the Jesus tradition has been conceived by NT scholarship generally. It does not deny literary interdependence between the Synoptic Gospels. But it questions whether the interrelations between the traditions utilized by the Synoptics are adequately conceptualized in exclusively literary and intertextual terms. It disputes a conceptualization of the Jesus tradition as in effect restricted within the bounds of two or four literary channels. It disputes even more fiercely any suggestion that any such channels were in effect independent of the others and exclusive to one or more churches. It asks whether it is not more realistic in historical terms, in reference to groups/churches functioning initially in a highly oral society, to conceive of these groups/churches all having quite extensive repertoires of Jesus tradition, overlapping with that of other groups/churches and regularly shared by those (apostles, prophets and teachers) who moved among these groups/churches. And it asks for a reconceptualization of the use made of Jesus tradition, including its transmission to new converts and other groups/churches, in terms of oral performance rather than of written editions.
The strength of this new perspective lies in the conjunction of two factors. One is the character of oral tradition as it has been illuminated by repeated studies of community tradition (quite different from personal reminiscence) as a combination of stability and flexibility, of stories and teaching material being maintained in identity of subject matter and/or structure and core content, in and through the diversity of detail in sequential performances. The other is the character of the Jesus/Synoptic tradition as attesting the same type of traditioning process. Characteristically in the Synoptic tradition we see traditions which were all important in one degree or other to the identity of the communities which rehearsed them. In the stabilities and diversities of the tradition, still evident in its permanent form (textual variations apart — or included!), we can trace the conti nuities and variations in the performances/retellings of the tradition. In the stabilities we see the identity of the tradition; in the diversities its vitality. The written Gospels are frozen (and extended) performances which commanded such assent, and such widening assent among the first churches, that they count as normative forms of the tradition. But initially, the Gospels were little different in character from the countless oral performances which had preceded them.
The two perspectives come together in the hypothesis that the tradition's continuing identity was given in the first formation of the tradition and is to be seen as evidence of the impact made by the words or events thus recalled.
c. I believe that the method followed in the above pages has confirmed the value of these perspectives. In the first place, the elements of the portrayal of the remembered Jesus have been drawn consistently from regular emphases and motifs in the Jesus tradition. A working rule of thumb has been that a characteristic and relatively distinctive feature of the Jesus tradition is most likely to go back to the consistent and distinctive character of the impact made by Jesus himself. In contrast, jarring and widespread features are unlikely to have been drawn into the tradition at a later stage precisely because they jarred and were thus unlikely to have received widespread acceptance among the communities that cherished the tradition.
In the second place, by regularly setting out the Jesus tradition synoptically I believe I have demonstrated the strength of the model of oral traditioning proposed. For again and again it has been clear that there is no consistency of interdependence between the parallel texts, some parts being closely parallel, others quite remote in vocabulary used. At the same time, again and again it has been clear that there is a stability of subject matter and of structure, and often of some core element (usually something said by Jesus), while the supporting details and particular applications demonstrate a considerable diversity. Such regularly recurring phenomena are not best explained by a uniform conception of literary dependency and redaction. They are best explained, in my view, in terms of the oral character of the tradition and/or the oral mode of transmission (even of read/heard written texts), where concern was for theme and core and where subsidiary details were treated as subject to the freedom of performance variation.
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