Thursday, January 06, 2011

the anonymity of gospel tradition

The opening words of the English translation of Martin Dibelius's landmark work, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (1919):
There is a theory that the history of literature is the history of its various forms. This may be true of literature properly so-called, but it cannot be applied indiscriminately to every kind of writing. It has, however, special significance when applied to materials where the author's personality is of little importance. Many anonymous persons take part in handing down popular tradition. They act, however, not merely as vehicles, but also as creative forces by introducing changes or additions without any single person having a "literary" intent. In such cases the personal peculiarities of the composer or narrator have little significance; much greater importance attaches to the form in which the tradition is cast by practical necessities, by usage, or by origin. The development goes on steadily and independently, subject all the time to certain definite rules, for no creative mind has worked upon the material and impressed it with his own personality. (From Tradition to Gospel [trans. by Bertram L. Woolf; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935], 1)

It would be difficult to explain how strongly and how thoroughly I disagree with just about every word with which Dibelius characterizes the early Christian tradition. That this is our received heritage should give all of us currently involved in exploring and reconstructing Christian origins pause to consider just how far astray our forebears drifted. We should also expect that breaking free of this heritage can only happen with tremendous and focused and sustained effort.

1 comment:

Rafael said...

As I continue reading Dibelius I'm amazed by what I find. For example, notice how the following is really only a justification for the form-critical procedure of ignoring the larger narrative logic sustaining each gospel. The form critics, that is, stripped each and every pericope out of its context and analyzed it as an independent, self-standing, self-interpreting unit of tradition, like Melchizedek (appearing out of nowhere).

"The criticism of the Form of the Gospel . . . does not begin, therefore, with the work of the evangelists, for it has rather already reached a certain completion of development by the time we have reached the form of the evangelical books" (4; original emphasis)

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