The Elephant in the room.
So far no one I have noticed has remarked on or dealt with the elephant in the room that is politely being ignored and yet we all are in danger of being squashed by it. The elephant is revealed in Dickson’s short statement that “I hope readers will find that the following historical observations, none of which are controversial in scholarship today, will clarify rather than confuse the meaning of 1 Tim 2” reference - Dickson chapter 2 ‘laying it down: what teaching really is.’
What isn’t controversial for Dickson is both the dating of the Gospels and the Oral Tradition and he immediately goes on to talk about the oral tradition in section 2.3. I have no problem with the dating of the Gospels as I see that as subsidiary to the issue before us, my main beef is with moving from how oral traditions are passed on via story etc to the notion that these somehow influence the meaning and content of NT passages.
But before I deal with the question of the content of these oral traditions, what about the support of scholarship regarding oral traditions. Dickson infers they support his thinking regarding 1 Timothy 2:12 but does it?
Of course I thank Dickson for making me read Dunn’s ‘Jesus Remembered ‘ even if it has been done rather too quickly and I am in danger of misunderstanding some of Dunn’s arguments. Even so I am sure some will generously point out my misreadings and mistakes.
Central to Dunn’s approach is to build upon the so called fruits of form criticism. Fruits which I myself take to be rotten because they are grounded in Kantian ideals and enlightenment ideas. I too had to study and write essays on form criticism as a requirement of my Bth but that doesn’t mean I agreed with the assumptions and approach of form criticism. It is just in my mind merely a nefarious notion.
We see form criticism mentioned frequently in Dunn, picking up as he does the advent of the oral tradition enquiry beginning with Bultmann and form criticism, Dunn page 193, But let’s be gracious and for the moment assume form criticism is a viable approach. And let’s also take Dunn as representative of the oral tradition hypothesis even though I admit I would do well to read Keener and Bauckham. But time for the non academic is of the essence and other priorities often must take precedence.
What I see Dunn saying in regard to oral tradition has more to do with the methods of transmission of oral traditions and how they work out in communities. I do not see it evidencing the content as to oral traditions or in particular the oral traditions of the apostles, and nor does Dunn provide any evidence of what those traditions were. Even when talking about Paul and his conversion Dunn is still very much only concerned with character and transmission of oral traditions. And even at that level he makes assumptions that can be regarded as controversial.
For example, using the three accounts of Paul’s conversion as attested in Acts 9, 22 and 26 Dunn sees them as valuable examples of the way oral tradition functioned. It seems for Dunn that central to his analysis of the biblical accounts is his assumption from Bailey that the significant thing to focus in on as evidence of an oral tradition is the core element, one can readily acknowledge this core even when there may be a difference in supporting details. However in regard to Acts 9, 22 and 26 this assumes that Luke is not using Paul’s conversion theologically. That is, he is being truthful to the facts of the event of Paul’s conversion but selecting details to make a point within the movement of his Book. Why assume these passages reflect the ‘oral principle of variation within the same’ pg 212 rather than it is Luke’s inspired use of the essential reality of Paul’s conversion which Luke sourced out from eyewitnesses? Luke 1:2 Further we need to ask what is the practical application of assuming the passages are examples of the way oral traditions functioned. Even if we go so far as to grant the possibility of the source of the event Luke uses to be an oral tradition one has to be careful in how they use this to determine the meaning of the passage. Far too often they are in danger of missing the point drawn out by the supporting details eg Paul before Ananias in chp 26, that Luke is making and settling instead for some generic understanding and application. This approach can be likened to how some take from the three parallel accounts of the Gospel stories where they dealt with as similar instance and preaching an amalgamated message.
At the one point Dunn veers more towards considering the content of the oral traditions, namely in the post Easter emphasis of the Jesus tradition that Moule’s work focuses on, but even then there is little by way of the content of those traditions discussed and certainly no compelling evidence presented.
So as far as I can see Dunn addresses the character and transmission of oral traditions but doesn’t speak of the content of those traditions.
The point I then have to ask is how one determines what the content of these oral traditions are when there is no extant documentation of their content. To presume that the content is the New Testament is to presume too much. It is pure speculation. It becomes even more precarious when Dickson claims that the oral traditions of the Apostles were so important that special care had to be taken in passing them on to others, and thus the implied restriction of teaching oral traditions by women. Yet we must ask, if these traditions are so important as to their content how come there are no sources regarding their content, either in the period before the writing of the New Testament or even via way of commentary by Church Fathers. An reference to Papias does not support the importance or content of these apostolic traditions and that reference in Dunn only picks up on his statement that snatches of prayer and hymnody flow in and out of the texture of pastoral exhortation. However to presume that such an expression in writing must have some causal link to oral traditions because oral traditions reflect a similar character makes a big assumption that is without supporting justification. Be that as it may, Papias still doesn’t mention content regarding the oral traditions of the apostles. See Dunn. ‘Jesus Remembered’ Pg223 and footnote 216. I would have thought if these apostolic traditions were so authoritatively important someone would have made notes somewhere and these sources would have been found. It is sounding far too much like an argument from silence.
Consider how Dickson sees the historical support of the oral tradition as working out in his argument.
He says “Christian doctrine in the early decades of the church was maintained, for the most part, not in writings but through the memorizing and rehearsing of all the fixed information the apostles had laid down for the churches”, and says we see a glimpse of this in the Lord’s Supper of 1 Cor 11 “as I passed on to you”.
He then makes the remarkable statement “Epistles like 1 Corinthians were not the principle means of laying down the apostolic traditions; they functioned as written supplements to an oral tradition that had already been ‘delivered to’ and ‘received by’ the churches over many years. This may require some imagination to think through but it cannot really be disputed.”
I may have misconstrued Dickson’s point here in thinking the above statement seems to put more weight and importance on the oral traditions than the New Testament Scriptures, they are just “supplements”. But however we take this, it remains strange that such weighty and authoritative traditions have no extant documentation nor are mentioned by the Church fathers. That is an historical gap the size of a black hole – nothing is left but supposition or as Dickson says a bit of imagination.
Let me make one final point which is not at all related to historical scholarship. See how Dickson moves his argument regarding 1 Timothy 2:12. First that oral traditions were in play before the writing of the New Testament documents. Second, that there were oral traditions of the apostles in play. Third, that he then takes “teach” in 1 Tim 2:12 in a technical sense so that Paul equates teach with the passing on and laying down these oral traditions of the apostles. What he needs to show clearly is that this was Paul’s intent in using the word teach. That Paul clearly links the word teach with apostolic traditions and their passing on. But Paul doesn’t do that. Indeed he says in the Pastoral Epistles which Dickson wants to say is the documentary range for considering this notion of teach, that in Titus Paul says women can teach other younger women. One would then have to conclude that the limitation in 1 Tim 2:12 has to do with men and women in meeting together, not the restricted role of such teaching to men! Of course Dickson could say that teach in Titus 2:3 is a compound of teach and good, so it’s “teach what is good” and so is not used in the technical sense he gives teach in 1 Tim 2:12.
Just my two cents worth in a very limited time frame. Certainly John Dickson has stimulated me in thinking about such references in the epistles that speak of the prior teachings of the apostles to the Churches before the inscripturation of the New Testament.