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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

A Brief Discussion of These Questions

1. Orality As the first volume in a trilogy on Christianity in the Making by James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (2003b) seeks to provide fresh perspectives both on the impact made by Jesus and on the traditions about Jesus, regarded as fundamentally oral tradition, and so justifying the use of the title Jesus Remembered. The characteristic features of that tradition are analysed, comprising the tradition of John the Baptist, the motif of the kingdom, the call to discipleship and its nature, what Jesus' audiences thought of him, what might be known of what he thought of himself, the reasons why he was crucified, and how and why belief in Jesus' resurrection began. The impressions made within such an oral tradition may well be contradictory, since it is usually the editorial processes associated with a written tradition that seek to impose consistency.

The literary mindset (‘default setting’) of modern Western culture prevents those trained in that culture from recognizing that oral cultures operate differently. The classic solution to the Synoptic problem, and the chief alternatives, have envisaged the relationships between the Gospel traditions in almost exclusively literary terms. But the earliest phase of transmission of the Jesus tradition was without doubt predominantly by word of mouth. (Dunn 2003a: 139)

It is vital to recognize the impact of orality in the way it was used in an ancient culture. It is equally important to seek to be sure where the dividing line comes between the oral tradition and the written text. In the growth of the New Testament this boundary line is crossed; or it may be more strictly accurate to say that the transitions from oral to written, and back again, take place on several occasions. When working backwards from the finished product, it is not always easy to identify the signs of these transitions.

2. Quotations After we have raised and discussed the question of orality, this next question runs the risk of lapsing back into a literary mode. Burton Mack offers a colourful but anachronistic description of Mark as a New Testament author (1988: 322–3):

Mark's gospel…was composed at a desk in a scholar's study lined with texts and open to discourse with other intellectuals. In Mark's study were chains of miracle stories, collections of pronouncement stories in various states of elaboration, some form of Q, memos on parables and proof texts, the scriptures, including the prophets, written materials from the Christ cult, and other literature representative of Hellenistic Judaism.

A much more realistic scenario of writing in the first century CE is depicted by Raymond Brown when he describes the creation of the Gospel of Peter (Brown 1994: ii. 1336):

GPet was not produced at a desk by someone with written sources propped up before him but by someone with a memory of what he had read and heard (canonical and non-canonical) to which he contributed imagination and a sense of drama.

This could apply equally well to the writers of the canonical texts of the New Testament.

The ancients lacked rigorous protocols for quoting and acknowledging, as opposed to manipulating and often ‘cutting and pasting’, their predecessors' work.…Ancient scholars were not thereby condemned to being necessarily derivative; they were engaged in a fluid, ongoing process of recomposing and re-evaluating their cultural past.

This acknowledged quotation (Halliwell 2003:11) accurately illustrates the contrast between ancient and modern practice, showing the fluidity in the interpretive use of writing throughout the classical world. Having acknowledged this different ethos, modern commentators are naturally still interested in the sources of ideas and the processes involved in recycling and developing thoughts. So the modern scholar will seek to apply strict (or more flexible) criteria in the recognition of quotations. The position of the New Testament texts and their ‘re-scripturing’ is analogous in this respect to the critical questions raised about the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament (see Court 2002).

Outside the New Testament, the field of study is among the fathers of the early church. Echoes of a New Testament text in e.g. Clement of Rome's first letter to the Corinthians (c.95 CE), or the correspondence of Ignatius of Antioch with chosen churches on his road to martyrdom (c.110–15 CE), can supply important evidence for the distribution of such a text at this period, and perhaps also its authority in the church. Fairly strict criteria need to be applied in identifying a quotation, in terms of distinctive words, or a number of words in matching order, especially when no indication of the source is given by the church father. So Clement is said to know Paul's letter to the Romans and 1 Corinthians, but reminiscences of the sayings of Jesus cannot be attributed to a particular gospel source. Ignatius probably writes from memory on his journey; he is aware of the status of Paul's letters, and seems to know Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 3: 15 in Ignatius, Smyrnaeans, 1. 1) and possibly also John's Gospel. A good case can be made for dependence by the Didache on the traditions of Matthew's Gospel (see Court 1981, but also Garrow 2004; Gregory and Tuckett 2006a, b).

The other dimension of this question concerns the internal evidence within the New Testament for literary dependence and the possibilities of intertextuality. The principal data of scholarship here are the researches of recent centuries on the synoptic problem. While there may be a significant majority view, if not a consensus, for the dependence of Matthew and Luke upon Mark, further debates are far from resolved both about a literary relationship between Matthew and Luke (a reconstructed document known as Q), or an alternative explanation in terms of oral tradition, and also on the question of whether the author of the Fourth Gospel knew any of the texts of the other three gospels (as opposed to the traditions of Jesus). Some have argued that John knew Luke, or perhaps Mark, but in this area the pendulum has swung violently from positive to negative and back again. The criteria for identifying quotations are at their most specific in these debates, involving combinations of agreement in vocabulary, word order, and syntax, as well as matching ideas and contexts.

3. Development Textual and literary critics of the New Testament in nineteenth-century Germany had constructed a theoretical framework to explain the development of the gospel stories about Jesus. There was considerable agreement that the text of the Gospels must have taken a couple of centuries to evolve, before the point at which it was written down. One indication of this was the fact that the earliest of the great manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, dated from the fourth century. After so many centuries, it must have seemed unlikely that there were any earlier manuscripts which could have survived.

But counter-indicators soon emerged. In 1888 an Arabic translation was discovered of the Diatessaron compiled by Tatian. He had been a disciple of Justin Martyr (the church father who had referred to the gospels as the ‘memoirs/remembrances’ of the apostles). Tatian's Diatessaron assembled a collage of quotations from the four gospels into a single narrative (see Petersen 1994). The fourth-century church historian Eusebius said that Tatian had compiled this work before 172 CE. No full copy of the original text in Greek had (or has) been found, although a Greek fragment was found at Dura Europos in Syria, which attested to its circulation prior to the conquest of Dura in 256 CE. The absence of a full manuscript of the text inevitably led to some scepticism about its existence or character. But the discovery of the Arabic version was at least an important indicator of the date by which the texts of the individual gospels must have been fully in circulation. More evidence was forthcoming by the end of the nineteenth century, in the discovery of manuscript fragments on papyri at Oxyrhynchus, to the west of the Nile, during archaeological investigations by Oxford University. One triangular fragment, which was acquired by the library in Manchester set up in memory of John Rylands, carries text from the Gospel of John, namely 18: 31–3, 37–8, including the context of Pilate's question, ‘What is truth?’. This fragment (Rylands 457 = P52) is dated to approximately 125 CE.

Such findings indicate the strong possibility that the date of composition for such texts can be pushed back into the first century CE, although it is unlikely that actual manuscripts will be forthcoming to provide external evidence. To establish any indications of date and early provenance for particular texts of the New Testament will then involve internal investigation of the contents of the text. Source criticism may focus on the dating of early elements included in a later process of composition. As J. A. T. Robinson expressed it, when he reopened the question in the 1970s:

[I]n New Testament chronology one is dealing with a combination of absolute and relative datings. There are a limited number of more or less fixed points, and between them phenomena to be accounted for are strung along at intervals like beads on a string according to the supposed requirements of dependence, diffusion and development. (Robinson 1976: 1)

Development, the last of these requirements, may well prove to be the most contentious. Much depends upon what yardstick is employed, in order to determine how long it takes for the germ of an idea to develop into an acknowledged concept or doctrine. John Robinson argued that the whole of Paul's extant correspondence could be fitted into a period of nine years:

This gives us some objective criterion of how much time needs to be allowed for developments in theology and practice.…The whole of Jesus' teaching and ministry (which I believe to have involved at least three fundamental shifts in the way he saw his person and work) occupied at most three or four years. And the whole development of early Christian thought and practice up to the death of Stephen and the conversion of Paul, including the first Hellenistic statement of the gospel, took place within something like the same period. Indeed [Martin] Hengel [1972]…argues strongly that the crucial stage in the church's basic understanding of Christ and his significance was represented by the four to five ‘explosive’ years between 30 and 35 [CE]. (Robinson 1976: 84–5)

Whereas an earlier generation had been characteristically pessimistic about New Testament history and chronology—there is safety in dating as late as possible—Hengel and Robinson, armed with their optimistic yardstick of development, were able to argue for a fast and accelerated growth of the New Testament. The truth may well lie somewhere between—or is that also a measure of caution?

4. Cultural transition The early church lost touch with its Jewish roots in or before 70 CE. Various passages in the NT suggest that Christians were excommunicated from the synagogue before the NT canon was completed, and certainly before 70 CE. This marked the beginning of the loss of Jewish culture within the church. A few Christian groups such as the Nazarenes and the Ebionites continued to follow Jewish customs, but these soon died out. The church very quickly forgot its Jewish roots, and thereby lost contact with much of the Jewish background of the NT writings. (Instone-Brewer 2002: 238)

An alternative angle on this:

…the question of why the Judaeo-Christians, the first of Jesus' followers, withdrew so relatively fast from the main body of the church.…the most likely reason was that the Ebionites became convinced that they were witnessing in the Hellenistic communities a fatal misrepresentation of Jesus, a betrayal of his ideals, and their replacement by alien concepts and aspirations. (Vermes 2003: 24)

Both of these viewpoints represent entrenched conclusions, seeing the original relationship between the family of Judaism and nascent Christianity as essentially severed. Judaism resembles a dysfunctional family, and the hostility involved in the breakdown renders the situation irreparable, at least in those days. The result in Christian terms was an attitude of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, reflected strongly in some texts of the New Testament itself.

As Judith Lieu (1996: 1) observed:

It has, in recent years, become something of a truism to assert that in order to construct her own identity, early Christianity had to construct for herself the identity of the ‘other’, of Judaism within which she was born, of ‘paganism’ from which before very long most Christians came. Whereas the latter exercise has caused little anxiety, the process by which the former becomes synonymous with Christian anti-Judaism or antisemitism has justifiably provoked searching analysis.

The original picture is likely to have been quite complicated: ‘the discovery of a relentless and endemic Christian anti-Judaism has been succeeded by the detailed mapping of the complex interplay of individual personalities, situations, theological traditions and literary forms which make up the early Christian responses to and constructions of Judaism’ (Lieu 1996: 1). At the very least, one should speak not of a single parting but of a pluralist process of partings of the ways.

‘The authors and addressees of the New Testament scriptures all lived in the Roman empire’ (Stegemann and Stegemann 1999: 2). It would be surprising, then, if these circumstances did not have some effects (however varied) on their descriptions of Christianity. The most striking effects are to be seen in the two-volume work Luke–Acts, and in the book of Revelation. Since the Christian church was apparently going to continue its earthly existence within the political context of the Roman Empire, there were two opposite courses of reaction to the situation: a total withdrawal, damning society to an apocalyptic hell; or some measure of accommodation to the political, cultural, social, and economic context, for the sake of further expansion of the church. In the book of Revelation there is a selective (rather than total) critique of what Rome represented, attacking the structures of power, of trade, and of emperor worship, that were seen as at variance with Christian ideals.

Luke's choice of the second course of action, in an attitude of positive thinking and creative theological accommodation, is evident throughout his two-volume work. For example, Luke (unlike the Jewish historian Josephus) takes a positive view of the Augustan census associated with the time of Christ's birth:

Organized government had at last come to Judaea.…The beginning of a new order for the holy land under Caesar Augustus also marks the beginning of a new order for the holy people under Jesus Christ. Luke had no intention of positing an affinity between the rise of the Zealots and the birth of Jesus, nor of challenging the ideal of pax Augusta. Rather the ‘world-wide’ decree which Luke records united the world under a universal politic of peace, and it provided a fitting birth announcement for him who would found a universal religion of peace. (Walaskay 1983: 27–8)

Luke seeks to present simultaneously two faces of an apologetic within his narrative. He seeks to demonstrate the essential continuity of Christianity with Israel as heir to the promises of salvation history. At the same time he needs to distance Christianity from Israel for the benefit of politically sensitive readers. Unlike the Judaism which brought about the costly Jewish War, Luke represents Christianity as neither rebellious nor legalistic. He claims that it was widely recognized as normal and supportive of good government, for Christians did not set themselves up as critics of Rome's political supremacy. In Luke's narrative, both Jesus and Paul were declared by Roman administrators to be totally innocent.

5. Priority of teaching Baird (2002) seemed to claim an objectivity for his own reconstructed paradigm of development (not absolute, but ‘sufficiently’ certain). But what he regarded as his primary evidence, based on the statistics of vocabulary use and the association of terms (patterns of word usage taken as characteristic of Jesus' teaching, or alternatively of the process of redaction—see Baird 1969) may well be deceptive in this respect. It is only by actually presupposing a certain kind of movement, from the oral and recorded basis of teaching to the biographical and explanatory interpretation of narrative, that one can accord any historical objectivity to this reconstructed version of events. Alternatively, someone who advocates the primacy of story-telling as the heart of the kerygma, and as the basis of narrative theology, would take a different order of priorities. Word-thinking, or such a focus on the ultimate source of teaching, could be either a primary instinct of faith or a theological refinement (a kind of movement of ‘back to basics’). The use of a particular vocabulary to express this may actually be formulated to reflect the later realizations, as in Logos doctrine, just as readily as (or more so than) it can express a fundamental instinct.

6. Shape of the canon According to its present appearance, the New Testament clearly prioritizes the four gospels. This can be reflected in common usage, as when, for example, Libby Purves writes in The Times (10 July 2003) : ‘The later strictures of St. Paul are, I think, less binding than what we find in the true core of the Bible, the four Gospels.’ There is in the New Testament a substantial collection of letters written to various churches, but these might seem to be subordinated (like an extended appendix of documentary evidence) to the narrative account of the mission of the early Christian church, to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. The book of Revelation comes last, either because its subject-matter concerns the trials and final triumph of Christianity in the ultimate cataclysm at the end of time, or because this book is a reluctant addition to the canon, rather like Daniel among the category of Writings at the end of the Hebrew Bible. None of these empirical observations of the appearance of the New Testament throughout the majority of the Christian centuries seems to be accurate or helpful when it comes to determining how the New Testament actually grew.

Just as we may need to adjust the priorities in, or deductions about, the contents of the New Testament canon, it may also be appropriate to ask about the other early Christian writings which were ultimately excluded from that canon. For this reason some recent writers on the New Testament, with Dominic Crossan (1991: Prologue) as a notable example, have insisted on using the widest range of data and establishing their independent critical methods in doing so. There is then no a priori reason why one should exclude evidence, for example, from the Gospel of Thomas in this enquiry. It is necessary to set every work in a historical context, establishing its provenance, and being prepared to distinguish between the earliest context and the later contexts of use or disuse.

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