James D. G. Dunn is Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Durham in England and a New Testament scholar. He is widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars in the world today on the thought and writings of St. Paul.
In this interview he talks about his latest book The Oral Gospel Tradition. When we read about the life of Jesus, we forget that the gospels were written down many decades after Jesus’ life and during that gap between his life and the written gospels there was a rich oral tradition about Jesus that the gospel writers were dependent upon.
In our writing-saturated world, we forget that in ancient times it was a predominantly oral tradition-dominated society, and writing was considered inferior to speech for the most part. As Prof. Dunn says in the interview, historical “accuracy” wasn’t that important in ancient times, so we’ll see contradictions here and there throughout the gospels; and those insistent on biblical inerrancy today are just missing the point. (And we shouldn’t be alarmed about this.) If we are ignorant about the fact that the oral tradition came first, way before gospels were written down, then we lose a great deal of understanding of the meaning and purpose of the gospels.
It’s so fascinating (and depressing most of the time) to see how Bible scholars and those in the church (i.e. pastors and lay persons), for the most part, will read, approach, and understand the same biblical text so differently.