09 June 2009

over word-studying?

One of the benefits of the publication of new books in multi-volume works is that it tends to push me to catch up on areas which have fallen through the cracks. I have documented this before. Now I am addressing Dunn's series, Christianity in the Making, with the recent publication of the second volume: Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Before I can get into this much-anticipated work, I have portions of the first volume to work through - I interacted with bits of it on my thesis. With that in mind, I am engrossed in Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

Chapter 8 is part of Dunn's establishment of his hermeneutic, both by giving an historical overview of methodology as well as asserting his own perspective on interacting with the New Testament documents (specifically the Gospels and Acts). I am reminded throughout of his shorter and significant: A New Perspective on Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), a more accessible read of much of the same material. Here Dunn discusses the nature of oral transmission and its significance for understanding the gospel tradition within the earliest Christian communities.

While I am not looking to recount his perspective in detail, I do wish to raise a particular question (I am by no means the first) which stems from the concept of oral transmission. Dunn's assertion is that the development of the oral tradition remains fluid through its telling, and is shaped by the community which preserves it. This can be difficult to summarize with much justice to the position, but simply is an acknowledgment that the tradition was being shaped and formed from the moment it began; there is an immediate 'performance' of the tradition as it is preserved within the community. This is a completely cultural assertion here, one which is unlike modern or postmodern perspectives.

Dunn states: "An oral retelling of a tradition is not at all like a new literary edition" (248). So, the method of preserving history itself is completely different in the Semitic culture of the first century than it is in the modern and postmodern Western cultures. If this is indeed the case (and I believe that it is entirely the case), then we have better ground on which we may examine the parallels and distinctions within Synoptic material and other repetitious narratives. And it further provides an immediate reason for such shaping - these are good storytellers in their culture.

And one final question: If this is indeed the case, that community and culture were shaping the tradition as it emerged (a fluidity and flexibility joined with static accuracy), then can we be rightly accused of overusing the word study as a means by which we can understand the biblical text? It appears that our approach to hermeneutics can sometimes push for accuracy beyond that which the tradition expects. And when this happens we are thrust into finding meanings which are not necessarily central to the text itself. (We find too much significance in the trees because we have lost sight of the forest.) Further, we could also consider the study of Greek for what was originally preserved in Aramaic (a point which may need a bit more discussion than Dunn included in Chapter 8).

I say this not to get rid of word studies, they can be of great importance for biblical interpretation. My point is that we rather seek to discover the tradition as it emerged and enter into the world of the first century church when trying to get at their preservation work. Otherwise we are imposing a foreign way of thought upon their words - or, we could say, adding to the words given to us. Are we over-doing-it with the word studies?

Tools, but not the ultimate road to full and final meaning.

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