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Sources: Oral Transmission

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Jesus Traditions

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The Period of Oral Transmission

For almost a generation before our earliest written sources, in the period between A.D. 30 and 65, the gospel material circulated by word of mouth. We may be surprised, given the high esteem in which Jesus was held by his earliest followers, that they did not very soon in the post-Easter period begin to commit their recollections to writing. That they were not busy writing gospels in those early days may be accounted for by the following considerations:


His disciples (as we may refer to the community of early believers) were living in an atmosphere of intense expectation of the end-of-time, when Christ would return on clouds of glory; hence there was little incentive to record their memories for generations to follow.


Since apostles and others who had been close to Jesus were a ready source of information about episodes in his life, these believers had no need to consult written records; indeed, Christians in the first century seem to have preferred the living tradition to writings, even when gospels became available.


The urgency of proclaiming the gospel may well have crowded out any literary inclinations there might have been among the apostles, who were in any case more accustomed to casting a net than wielding a pen.

That gospels were eventually written is likewise accounted for by a change in the foregoing factors: the continued delay of the Second Coming; the death of the apostles and others close to Jesus; and the presence of people with literary inclinations, who were led to proclaim the good news of Jesus in writing.

But in the pre-literary stage of the gospel tradition, there were various reasons for the existence of a lively tradition of Jesus’ deeds and sayings. 


The early Christians kept alive their memories of him because they were busy making converts to the community, and Jesus was the subject of their preaching; see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, for an early stage of the message, a message which focused on his death and resurrection; click on Beginnings (1). Mark, our earliest gospel, is from one point of view an expanded version of the passion narrative, with an extended introduction.


From probably a quite early time, end-of-time expectations figured prominently in early Christian proclamation (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 5:9-10; cp. Galatians 1:1-5); that is, within the second decade after the death of Jesus.


In these early years, the Christian community was also busy assimilating these new converts into the Christian way; they would be made familiar with recollections of what Jesus had taught about God as Father, about duties to neighbors in the spirit of love (Greek, agapê), about prayer, about possessions, and other themes. In the course of time, these teachings came to be written down, and gathered into collections, one of the most important of which is the source  Q .


During these same early decades of the church’s life, it was likely engaged in disputes with the synagogue over questions such as diet, Sabbath observance, and divorce. What Jesus had taught, how he and his disciples had lived, and his arguments in controversies with the Pharisees would have been useful for early Christians too.


The Forms the Material Took

Recognizing that, for the better part of a generation after his death, the gospel material circulated not in written form but by word of mouth, we begin with the basic insight of form criticism (Formgeschichte) that the sayings of Jesus or episodes in his life circulated as separate units, or pericopes. Only later would these units be collected into the literary sources from which the synoptic gospels were fashioned.


Thus, so far as the sayings material is concerned, the discourses which we encounter in these gospels, such as the “Sermon” on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), are compilations of individual sayings by the gospel writers or their sources, originating perhaps as manuals of instruction for the early Christians.


So far as the narrative material is concerned, the reader of the gospels needs to appreciate the fact that the apparent continuity of the narrative we find in the gospels is provided by the writers, in the absence of a sequential narrative surviving during the period of oral transmission. An illustration of this process is to be found in Mark 2:1–3:6, where several controversy stories are arranged topically; i.e. logically rather than chronologically. 

In the absence of a connected account in the oral tradition of what Jesus had done and said, the gospel writers did their best: the final journey to Jerusalem, his death and his resurrection they would know to place at the end, and his baptism at the beginning. Most of the rest of the material was connected with vague time designations. The study of the ways in which the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke went about incorporating these oral traditions into their gospels is called redaction criticism (Redaktionsgeschichte). Of particular interest are the editorial interests and habits of the author of Matthew, for which special pages are provided here; click on Matthew’s Tendencies (1).

As the gospel material circulated orally, for the most part as separate units, it would quite naturally be passed down in certain forms: narrative episodes; brief pithy sayings, or proverbs; parables of various sorts; stories of healings or some other wonder performed by Jesus; and pronouncement stories, which are brief episodes coming to a climax with a saying of Jesus.


What Happened Along the Transmission Way?

Inevitably the question arises as to how reliably the gospel material was transmitted during the pre-literary period. Memory can be tenacious, and sometimes fragile; it is usually selective. Not surprisingly, the gospel material suffered various fates.

     Remembered: In a time and culture when learning and recollection were less dependent upon a written (or electronic!) record than is the case today, the Christian community was able to hand down much valuable material from Jesus’ public activity in relatively reliable form.

     Forgotten: Human memory being what it is, much was lost, especially (as we have noted) the overall sequential structure, which may have been of little interest or utility in the church’s life. Furthermore, while parables were relatively easy to remember, the occasions or life situations in which they originated were seldom transmitted, so that their meaning was sometimes puzzling to the gospel writer, as it still is to the modern reader (the parable of the Corrupt Estate Manager, in Luke 16:1-8a, is a useful example).

     Extra Baggage: The point the Christian teacher was trying to make sometimes became part of the unit of tradition, and was transmitted along with the original Jesus material; as in the early Christian sermon in Mark 4:13-20, on the text of the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-9. In some cases the sayings of inspired teachers or prophets in the early church may have found their way into the gospel tradition during a period when few were inclined to distinguish them from authentic sayings of Jesus. 

     Admiration Becoming Extension: We find examples of heightening the miraculous element in narratives, an understandable process when we consider the high esteem in which Jesus was held by the early Christians. In the so-called cursing of the fig tree, we may compare Matthew 21:18-19 with the earlier Mark 11:12-14, 20-21 (click on heightening). Such heightening may have taken place in other instances during the pre-literary period also.

With this summary survey, we may appreciate the fact that the material does not exist for writing a life of Jesus. Though the synoptic gospels provide significant samplings of the kinds of things Jesus did and said, we need to keep our expectations within reasonable limits. 



Revised July 24, 2003


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