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The idea that God was “updated” is not restricted to the OT, a topic we’ve looked at in several recent posts, focusing on the work of Mark S. Smith (begin here with several follow up posts). Smith’s work suggests that post-exilic priest-scribes revised and edited older traditions in order to contemporize God as new circumstances and challenges arose.

In this post, we’ll look briefly at the work of NT scholar James D. G. Dunn and his identification of a large swath of gospel material as giving literary expression to pre-existing oral traditions. Through the course of his research Dunn investigates all four gospels. Our focus will remain on the Gospel of John.

What Dunn has found in his study of the fourth gospel is that the fourth evangelist retold, re-worked, and elaborated quite freely upon the traditions he was familiar with in order to address the contemporary concerns of his own religious in-group.

In The Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn acknowledges that most scholars agree the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are more historically oriented than the Gospel of John. But based on what researchers have found when studying the transmission of stories in oral cultures, Dunn explains that even within the (more historical) synoptic gospels, what readers encounter are traditions of the sayings of Jesus and “not the saying itself” (307).

If this applies to the synoptic gospels, it applies to the Gospel of John with greater force.

Building on studies by C. H. Dodd and others, Dunn marshals an persuasive list of loose correspondences between John and the Synoptics, correspondences that are certainly tight enough to establish links to synoptic material but interestingly loose enough to render “John’s direct dependence on one or more of the Synoptics as such highly unlikely” (163).

In other words, some are convinced that the evangelist is drawing on earlier traditions. Even so, the fourth evangelist only possessed “knowledge of Synoptic-like tradition but not of the Synoptic version of it” (145, emphasis added; see also 185–86):

According to Dunn, what we have in the Gospel of John includes considerable elaboration on various oral traditions that were still in circulation about Jesus. Dunn explains:

John or his tradition felt free to document Jesus’ mission with parabolic stories and not only actual remembered events. . . . John may have concluded that to bring out the full significance of Jesus’ mission he had to retell the tradition in bolder ways that brought out that significance more clearly (183).

John’s Gospel shows just how diverse and varied the Jesus tradition could become in its various retellings. . . John’s Gospel shows clearly the degree to which the memory of Jesus could be, and was, informed by subsequent insight and conviction, and shaped to portray Jesus as the Johannine author(s) or communities now saw him or wanted to present him to their contemporaries. . . At one and the same time, however, John demonstrated that for the remembered Jesus to continue to be seen as relevant to subsequent generations, the way he was remembered would have to be adaptable if the same Jesus was to speak to these generations (195).

What if the OT is not the only part of scripture that was updated and revised by later writers to contemporize scripture, making it fit with sensibilities of later times? In this post, we took a brief look at James D. G. Dunn’s research suggesting that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been updated and revised in controlled but creative attempts to contemporize the Christian proclamation of good news. The motivation was to make it more amenable to current habits of thinking. The gospels, and in particular the Gospel of John, appear to display analogous features to the updating and revising witnessed in the OT.

Today’s post is by Carlos Bovell, whom many of you know from some previous posts here. Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.