Story as History-History as Story. the Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History

Article excerpt

Story as History-History as Story. The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. By Samuel Byrskog. WUNT 123. TUbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000, xix + 386 pp. DM 98.

The present volume follows closely on the theme and methodology of Byrskog's Jesus the Only Teacher (Almqvist & Wiksell, 1994), which addresses the matter of oral tradition and transmission in ancient Judaism and the Matthean community. Briefly put, Byrskog's purpose is to gain a better understanding of the dynamics involved behind history, the past in the present, and story, the present in the past, as the Gospel tradition evolved and became narrativized (p. 6). His search for a comprehensive approach to this problem interacts with multiple perspectives, including redaction criticism based on Markan priority, oral history theory, Greco-Roman historiography, and narrative criticism. There are six chapters in the book, beginning with a survey of the decline and revival of oral history and its use by NT scholars. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the use of autopsy (meaning eyewitness information in this context) by ancient historians and by the early Christians. Byrskog concludes that such a visual linkage to past history played a prominent role, and that in the case of the NT, the eyewitnesses personally experienced the stories later narrated as history. For Byrskog this does not necessarily eliminate fiction from biblical narrative, but it does render the common bifurcation of history and story facile, anachronistic, and untenable.

Chapter 3 covers the linkage between past history and present story by exploring the relationship of orality to both autopsy and literacy. The upshot of all this for the formation of the Gospels is that their writing should not be viewed as a secondary stage subsequent to the primary oral tradition stage. Rather, the formation of the Gospels should be viewed as reoralization involving constant interaction of oral and written material. Chapter 4 examines how the present story develops from past history by interpreting autopsy. Here Byrskog explains how eyewitnesses are necessarily subjective in their perceptions since as humans they are informed by conscious and unconscious cultural and ideological factors. Of particular interest here is how the author puts to rest the common notion in biblical criticism that only a detached, uninvolved witness should be considered reliable (pp. 166-67). According to Byrskog, ancient historians preferred involved, participating eyewitnesses. Yet at the same time ancient historians sought factual truth through the interpreted truth of the eyewitnesses because they realized that such witnesses could be biased.

Chapter 5 carries the argument further by unfolding the interplay between interpretation and narration in the present communication of past history. …