When did traditions recording Jesus' teachings
and deeds begin to be formed?
and deeds begin to be formed?
It is often assumed that traditions about Jesus' teachings and actions did not begin to be collected until after his death and reported resurrection. Support for this is sometimes seen in Paul's obvious focus on Jesus' death and resurrection and the fact that the Passion Narrative expressed by all four canonical gospels seems to have been one of the first traditions to be become gathered together.
But there is good reason to doubt this picture. Jesus had a public ministry that lasted around three years. He traveled throughout Galilee and Judaea during this time, teaching to various crowds. But in addition to the speaking to crowds, Jesus had his followers. The Twelve Disciples are the best known, but there were many others. And it seems clear that Jesus' followers did more than just follow Jesus around and listen to what he said. They were charged with their own missions to spread the message of Jesus independent of his presence. In Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 9:1-6 (as well as Matt. 10:16), Jesus sends out the Twelve in pairs to preach his message to various villages and audiences. Their teachings and deeds echoed Jesus, for "they went out and preached that men should repent." Mark 6:12-13. Luke records that they went forth to "proclaim the kingdom." Luke 9:1-2. They went forth and were "preaching the gospel everywhere." Luke 9:6. They also performed exorcisms and anointed people for healing.
In Luke we also have the sending out of the Seventy. Luke 10:1-20. The Seventy went before Jesus into the places he would go, apparently prepping those places for his arrival and ministry. They were told to teach that the "kingdom of God has come near you." Luke 10:9, 11. Additional evidence that the disciples of Jesus ministered apart from him is found in Mark 9:14-22 and Luke 9:40 . While Jesus was away with Peter and John, the rest of the disciples had been attempting to perform an exorcism. They had been unsuccessful and Jesus had to dispatch the evil spirit himself. Yet another example of Jesus' disciples engaging in independent ministry.
Jesus' ministry, therefore, was not just engaging in his own preaching and deeds. It was about training others to spread his word and perform similar deeds. Obviously, they had to be taught what to teach and preach and how to perform exorcisms. This teaching was implemented during Jesus' ministry by independent missions conducted by his disciples. No doubt they learned the contents of their teaching from Jesus, and perhaps from the Twelve as Jesus' inner circle.
Furthermore, the evidence indicates that this was an ongoing activity. Training disciples and followers in Jesus' message and sending them out to propagate it themselves was central to Jesus' own ministry. Thus, formal training and tradition formation began while Jesus was alive. And the scope of such training seems to have been rather broad--with many followers being trained in Jesus' teaching and deeds. Moreover, their learning did not end at hearing, it became sharpened and set by repeated preaching and teaching to different towns and audiences.
But perhaps the most important point is this: the earliest formation of Jesus' teaching traditions was overseen by Jesus himself--not by some of his followers after his death trying to remember words spoken years before. This suggests that scholarship should probably have a higher degree of confidence that many of the teachings ascribed to Jesus by the canonical gospels were established during Jesus' ministry and under his oversight. It may also explain why there were independent sources of Jesus' teachings and deeds, such as became part of Mark, Q, the special L material, and the special M, material. Perhaps even the Gospel of Thomas.