98extending the notion of "oral performance"
- May 3, 2001My 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.
Haddonfield, NJ USA
La Salle University
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