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98extending the notion of "oral performance"

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  • Tony Prete
    May 3, 2001
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      My interest is not primarily in the formation of the Synoptics, but in the
      extent to which the process of "oral performance" might be applicable to
      the narrative traditions in the Old Testament. Applying to these traditions
      the characteristics that Prof. Dunn ascribes to the development of the
      Jesus tradition seems to shed new light on them, especially in the thorny
      area of reactive interpretation (when presenting academic insights to a
      non-academic group in a Bible study setting).

      To think of the ancient biblical stories as based on communal celebratory
      performances takes away some of the burden of facticity that people want to
      read into them. The same is true of seeing them as sharing the impact
      of the events they describe, rather than the details. In short, Prof.
      Dunn's description of the oral performances as being "...in the nature of
      sacred repetition in celebration and affirmation of a community's
      identity-forming tradition" (just before 3.2) seems to reflect the process
      behind the development of Israel's traditions as well.

      Of course, there are differences. What the early church did in decades, the
      Israelites did over centuries. And whereas the early church had the direct
      and concrete experience of Jesus to work with, the ancient Israelites--in
      my opinion--didn't have anything so tangible. For them, I think, reflection
      on apparently ordinary events led to awareness of Yahweh's involvement in
      those events, and they told about this awareness in a way that emphasized
      the involvement over the specifics of the event. I also think that, over
      time, they came to distill out of these experiences a collection of core
      convictions (e.g., in Exod. 34:6-7), which then influenced how they
      reflected on subsequent events and narrated subsequent experiences.

      Finally, I understand Prof. Dunn to be saying (in part) that the early
      church communities needed first to trust in the witness of visiting
      storytellers and accept the validity of what they were saying; only then
      could those communities filter the message through their own experiences
      and retell it in their own words. (The Didache, in its suggestions about
      visiting prophets, indicates that this trust was not always forthcoming--or
      even warranted). And this, too, seems to apply to the Old Testament: first
      we seek to grasp and appreciate the core convictions that the written
      narratives communicate (in a communal and celebratory way); only then can
      we create our own stories that celebrate the communal impact of these core
      convictions on our own lives.

      A professor of mine once explained that "The Bible is not the words God
      spoke; it is the words through which God speaks." If my application of
      what Prof. Dunn presented (and further explored in his responses to
      questions) is valid, he has provided additional impetus to focus on
      listening carefully for what God is saying through the OT narratives,
      before we jump in with our own comments and reactions.


      Anthony Prete
      Haddonfield, NJ USA

      Masters Candidate
      La Salle University
      Philadelphia, Pa.

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