The Oral and Written Jesus Tradition Prior to the Gospel of Mark

It is often assumed that there was a long period of time in which the stories about Jesus and the retelling of his teaching was passed along orally. The assumption arises from the notion that the Gospel of Mark, written between 65 and 70 AD, was the first written gospel and until then the Jesus tradition was a perhaps loose oral one. There are several problems with this assumption. Although Jewish Palestine at the time was an oral culture, it was also to a limited degree a literate one. There is evidence that Jews of the time and era took notes of contemporary events on wax tablets. Allan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, pages 26-28. According to Jewish scholar Saul Lieberman, it was a “regular practice” for the disciples of rabbis to take notes of their masters’ teachings." Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, page 203. For example, in the Qumran community it appears that the teachings of the Teacher of Righteousness were written down during his ministry. Accordingly, there is reason to believe that the oral Jesus tradition prior to Mark coexisted with written notes recording at least parts of Jesus’ teachings.

Even conceding the likelihood of there having existed contemporaneous notes of Jesus’ ministry, the question of the oral Jesus tradition remains. Roughly speaking, oral traditions can be casual or formal. A casual tradition is one that is passed on by the stereotypical village storytellers who value entertainment over tradition. It would be marked by flexibility and a lack of accountability. No one attempted to place “controls” on the stories. Another kind of casual tradition could be called, “from many to many.” The story was repeated from one set of people to another to another casually. There was no choke point or attempt to control the tradition.

In contrast, the oral Jesus tradition appears to have been formal and influenced by the rabbinic practices of Jesus’ day. Such a practice involved the teacher preaching and teaching to his disciples, who were then charged with controlling and disseminating the tradition. As explained by Paul Barnett, “[o]ral transmission of the NT era was not the orality of the village raconteur or of a shared community transmission (‘by many to many’), but the narrowly focused ‘traditioning’ of instruction from master to disciple.” The Birth of Christianity, The First Twenty Years, page 116.

The evidence that early Christianity employed a more controlled, authoritative oral transmission is found throughout the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke is the most obvious place to start. In his prologue, Luke explains, “[i]nasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” Luke 1:1-2.

First, Luke tells us that “many” had compiled accounts of Jesus prior to his writing. This likely refers to preceding written accounts and therefore is evidence of the coexistence of written notes and accounts along with oral traditions. Second, Luke refers to traditions being “handed down” by “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” The phrase “handed down” is “a technical term for the handing down of material, whether orally or in writing, as authoritative teaching.” I. Howard Marshal, Commentary on Luke, pages 41-42. Though the exact relationship between the two groups (“eyewitnesses” and “servants of the word”) is often debated, it seems clear that the source of the Jesus tradition was firmly rooted in personal experience with Jesus and that another group (perhaps overlapping the eyewitnesses) was responsible for accurately conveying that tradition. As Joseph Fitzmyer notes, this passages suggests that “there was a controlled transmission of the words and deeds of Jesus in the early church that shaped the tradition to which Luke refers in these verses.” Luke I-IX, page 295.

The evidence in Paul’s letters is just as clear. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul twice refers to traditions being “received” and “delivered.” (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3). This is technical rabbinical language for the passing along of a controlled oral tradition. According to a leading Jewish scholar, "[h]e also discloses that the doctrines of Christianity were received and passed on--likely to be Greek translations of the two technical terms for the transmission of oral tradition within Pharisaism: kibel and masar." Alan Segal, Paul the Convert, page 2. Paul, as a former Pharisee, would have been very knowledgeable with rabbinic practices and methods of transmission.

Additional evidence of controlled transmission among the early Christians is evident from Paul's letter to the Romans. Paul did not found, and apparently was not closely affiliated with those who founded, the church in Rome. Nevertheless, Paul refers to the “pattern of teaching” which had been “handed over” to them. Rom. 6:17. The phrase “handed over” is the same phrase as used in Luke’s preface. Moreover, at the end of Romans, Paul admonishes his audience to be faithful to the “teaching which you learned.” Rom. 16:17. This language is also reminiscent of the passing on of a controlled oral tradition. Moreover, it is significant that Paul is endorsing, without reservation, traditions he had nothing to do with passing on. His faith is in the accuracy of the tradition and, necessarily, its method of transmission.

Yet more evidence can be gleaned from the Letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews refers to the “confession” and teachings of Jesus and is clear that they were passed on from Jesus through his disciples to the early church (“After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard” Heb. 2:3”). In Jude, the author uses the phrase “handed over” to refer to the teachings of early Christianity. Additional evidence for a controlled oral Jesus tradition can be found in Papias and the Didache (as discussed in my article, Doherty and the Apostolic Tradition).

Furthermore, there is the fact that Paul, who had the authority of one who had witnessed the resurrected Jesus, felt compelled to present his teachings to the leaders of the Jerusalem Church in order to gain their approval. Although Paul was stressing the independence of his apostolic authority, he had to admit that “I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles.” Gal. 2.2. He did so because he was afraid that if he did not gain their approval that all of his teaching and preaching would have been in vain. This is powerful evidence that the traditions concerning Jesus were being controlled to some extent by those who knew Jesus best in the Jerusalem Church. At the least this group included Peter, Jesus’ disciple, and James, Jesus' brother. Moreover, the influence of this group over the Jesus tradition extended beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. There was a faction in Corinth, a church founded by Paul, which submitted itself to Peter. Peter also traveled to fellowship with the young church in Antioch. People at least claiming to represent James did so as well.

In conclusion, it seems likely that the oral Jesus tradition that preceded the Gospel of Mark coexisted with earlier written notes also preserving aspects of the Jesus tradition. It is more certain that the oral Jesus tradition was a controlled one, with eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry attempting to ensure its validity even decades after his death. It is from this value for the eyewitnesses to Jesus and the accurate transmission of traditions about him that the Apostolic Tradition arose in content and rationale.


BK said…

This is excellent, and very useful information. Thank you.

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

The Bogus Gandhi Quote

Discussing Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?

Revamping and New Articles at the CADRE Site

A Botched Abortion Shows the Lies of Pro-Choice Proponents

Jewish writings and a change in the Temple at the time of the Death of Jesus

Tillich, part 2: What does it mean to say "God is Being Itself?"

The Folded Napkin Legend