Jesus by Martin Dibelius
Martin Dibelius occupied the chair of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg for thirty two years. He wrote extensively, and many of his works have been translated into English. In 1937 he visited the United States, delivering the Shaffer Lectures at Yale University. Jesus was translated by Charles B. Hedrick, teacher of New Testament at Berkeley Divinity School, and Frederick C. Grant (who completed the translation after Dr. Hedrick’s death). Dr. Grant was Edwin Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Published in 1949 by Westminster Press, Philadelphia. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.
Chapter II: The Sources
Our knowledge of the history of Jesus is limited. It is a limitation to start with that we have no direct report of the opinions of his opponents; for but little of the non-Christian testimony about Jesus has been preserved to us, and while that little is interesting, it adds nothing essential to the picture that we get from Christian sources (see § 1, below). Among the Christian sources the New Testament Gospels stand in the forefront; of the Christian reports of Jesus outside the Bible we have only fragments. The Gospels, however, are not literary works. Their authors are not giving independent portrayals of Jesus’ doings based on personal experience and inquiry. They are not to be compared to biographics, either modern or ancient — and herein lies a further limitation of our knowledge (§ 2). Many questions that we should expect to find answered in a historical portrayal of Jesus are not dealt with at all in these books. The Gospel of John is, to be sure, an independent product, but its aim was not primarily to purvey historical information. The three other Gospels, however, are compilations of tradition — and, indeed, of essentially the same tradition, differing only in the way it is shaped up, arranged, and framed. This tradition contains sayings of Jesus and stories about him. And here a third limitation of our knowledge calls for mention. It consists in the fact that what we have here is not consecutive narrative, but simply individual stories —and these are told in the manner of the people — pious people, who marvel at God’s doings rather than ponder over questions of purely human detail (§ 3). It is foreign to this sort of narration to raise critical questions or to examine whether or why this thing could have happened or that thing could have been said. Our positive knowledge of Jesus’ history rests, therefore, on what the first communities handed down from the life of their Master, and it is limited by the special nature of this transmitted material.
1. The non-Christian evidence concerning Jesus ought nevertheless to be mentioned here, because the question is constantly arising as to whether it does not give us other and better information about Jesus than do the Gospels. Of such evidence the most famous — and justly so — is contained in the Annals of Tacitus (xv.44), which were composed soon after A.D. 110. Here Tacitus is telling how Nero met the charge of having been himself responsible for the burning of Rome. We read: “Now in order to put down the rumor, Nero contrived to produce culprits to whom he meted out the direst punishments; these were the people — detested enough already because of all manner of abominable deeds
— whom the populace called ‘Chrestians.’ The name has to do with one ‘Christus,’ whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had caused to be executed during the reign of Tiberius. In spite of being weakened for the moment the pernicious superstition sprang up again, and that not only in Judea, where this scourge originated, but also in Rome, whither everything horrible and shameful pours in from all over the world and finds a ready vogue.” That element in these words which is not just critical opinion (whether of the Christians or of Rome) but rests back on history, Tacitus can easily have learned from any Roman Christian around the year 100. We have no need, therefore, to seek for special sources. They could not have been very good in any case, since Tacitus does not know the name “Jesus” at all and “ Christ” he apparently takes for a proper name. The name was altered by the populace when they designated the followers of the Jewish prophet as “ Chrestians “; this misunderstanding was quite natural under the circumstances because of the familiar name “ Chrestus,” and it is also attested elsewhere. If we can assume that the error was widespread, we then find Jesus mentioned by another Roman historian. In his work The Lives of the Caesars, written somewhat later than Tacitus’ Annals, Suetonius relates (v.25.4) that “the Jews, who under the instigation of Chrestus were constantly creating disturbances, Claudius expelled from Rome.” If this item really has anything to do with Christianity, it relates to disturbances that were caused by the intrusion of Christianity into the Jewish community at Rome. Suetonius would have heard the name “ Christus “ in this connection, construed it as “ Chrestus,” and then mistaken it as the designation of a Roman Jew.
Nor is much to be gained from Jewish sources. In his work called The Antiquities of the Jews (xx.9.I), the Jewish historian of this period, Josephus, mentions the stoning of “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ; James was his name.” This mode of reference is not surprising. Josephus, who Wrote at Rome around the year 90, must have known that the Christians’ Saviour was called “ Christos,” as if this were a proper name; but for him, as a Jew, it was the translation of the title “ Messiah,” and therefore had to be qualified by the derogatory addition, “ so-called.” As soon as this guarded attitude of Josephus is understood, it becomes impossible to attribute to him the language in which the emergence of Jesus is described in another passage of the same work (xviii.3.3). For we read there, among other things, “This man was the Messiah Christos] and on the third day he appeared to them alive again, which indeed, along with many other marvellous things, the divine prophets had said concerning him.” Furthermore, when one reads at the beginning of the passage, “Jesus, a wise man, if he may be called man at all,” hardly any doubt can remain that what we have here is a Christian interpolation, or at least a working over of the passage by a Christian hand. Just which it is, will always be a question. But for our purpose the decision is unimportant, for even if we were quite sure that in the original text of this passage Josephus had said something about Jesus, we still could not get back to his own words. We know only manuscripts with the full Christian-sounding text. There is, to be sure, a Slavonic version of Josephus’ other historical work, The Jewish War, which also mentions Jesus in several places. But since the most important passage seems to be dependent on the Christian testimony just noted in the Antiquities, no historical information of an early kind is to be derived from tins source, either.
Finally, there is still to be mentioned the great compendium of Jewish tradition that arose in the course of the centuries, the Talmud. This contains a few allusions to Jeshu ha-Notsri and his disciples, e.g., that he was hanged on the day of preparation for the Passover (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 43a). But since we have here only the last fading echoes of historical fact, to say nothing of distortions and perversions, the Talmud does not come into consideration as a source for the life of Jesus.
2. We are forced, then, to depend on the Christian witnesses to Jesus. Now there were, doubtless, more accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds than are contained in the New Testament. The Evangelist Luke, who did not yet know the Gospel of John, speaks of “many “ predecessors, and he certainly does not mean by this only Matthew and Mark. And even down to the most recent time fresh fragments keep being discovered which contain collections of Jesus’ sayings or incidents from his life. Furthermore, in writings of the Church Fathers, titles of other Gospels are mentioned, and excerpts from them are quoted.’ But what these “ apocryphal “ texts tell of the life of Jesus is often at variance with the known conditions in Palestine; while at other times it appears to be nothing more than interpretation or elaboration of what we have in the canonical Gospels. Their contribution in the way of sayings of Jesus is of more value. We occasionally find a saying that in form and content is worthy of a place alongside the canonical utterances of Jesus. More important still, we find parallels to the latter which show that Jesus’ sayings were current in different forms. Comparison enables us now and then to fix the earliest form and the original meaning of a saying.
Although the extra-Biblical material seldom enriches our direct knowledge of Jesus, it does nevertheless afford us an insight into the history of the tradition. The essential witnesses to this history are of course, regardless of all fresh finds, the three oldest Gospels of the New Testament, those bearing the names of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. What they contain is substantially tradition of the same kind, i.e., stories from Jesus’ life, parables told by him, sayings and groups of sayings in which he preached his Gospel, and at the close the Passion and Easter stories. And not only is their general character the same, but frequently the text of the individual units is so closely allied in the several Gospels that the differences are best understood as variations of a common type. This can be made evident by setting the texts of these Gospels in three columns side by side. In this way a common view or synopsis is obtained — a fact that has caused these Gospels to be spoken of as the Synoptics and their authors as the Synoptists. The kinship between them is explained therefore as due primarily to the fact that they are all three seeking to assemble the same tradition of the life and death of Jesus — the tradition that was preserved, either orally or in writing, in the Christian communities — and to give it in the form of an orderly and connected presentation. Their ways of doing this were different, but in no case had they the intention of creating something new, something peculiarly their own. That is, they were editors rather than authors. But this close resemblance of the three Synoptic Gospels to one another, not only in the character of the tradition but to a large extent in the text as well, is not to be explained solely by their partnership in a common stock of tradition. It appears that, somehow, these three Gospels are even more closely related to one another.
For a century and more, now, the criticism of the Gospels, especially in Germany and in Great Britain, has been engaged in defining this relationship. The result of this labor has been the so-called “Two-Document Theory,” which in its main features is widely accepted today. By a minute comparison of the texts (especially those of Matthew and Mark) and by comparing the order of the separate units (especially as found in Luke and Mark), criticism has shown that the Gospel of Mark must have been the source of both the other two. Criticism has also made probable a second conclusion, viz., that Matthew and Luke used still another common source as well, for they agree almost word for word in many passages that do not occur in Mark at all. This source can be only approximately reconstructed from the parallel texts, but its contents, as thus arrived at, consist mainly of sayings of Jesus. How much else it contained, in what part of the Church it was read, to whom it was attributed — these are things we do not know. We now call it — but only since the beginning of this century—” Q” (= Quelle, “source”), in order to give it as innocuous a designation as possible.
The Gospel of Mark and the source Q are the most important formulations of the tradition that underlies the two longer Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Mark’s contribution seems to have been more in the way of stories, Q’s more in the way of sayings and collections of sayings, the so-called “discourses.” We do not know what was the source of the rest of the matter contained in Matthew and Luke, e.g., certain sayings in the Sermon on the Mount and in the discourse against the Pharisees in Matthew, or several of the long parables in Luke. The tradition that was cherished in the Christian communities was certainly more extensive than what the Synoptic Gospels contain of it, and doubtless many a genuine bit survives — more or less distorted — only in the apocryphal Gospels, or — independently worked up — in the Gospel of John. In any case what we possess with most certainty from the ancient tradition is to be found in the Synoptics. They were written before the Gospel of John, who evidently knew them. This Gospel, which, as evidenced by that recently discovered bit of papyrus fragment from the first half of the second century, was already being read in Egypt at that time, is to be dated around the year 100. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke already take cognizance of the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 22:7; Luke 21:20). Thus the rise of the Gospels, let us say, belongs in the last thirty years of the first century; the tradition that underlies them must, by the same token, be assigned to the period preceding.
It follows, then, that if we are inquiring about the sources for our historical knowledge of Jesus we must try to reach back and lay hold on this tradition. There is also the question of determining its nature and its worth. The significance of the Gospels lies in their being the mediums of this tradition. Their individual peculiarities, the identity of their authors, the question how far they are justified in bearing their present names (Matthew, Mark, Luke) — these are all subordinate considerations when it comes to the historical treatment of Jesus’ career.
3. We turn, therefore, to the tradition of Jesus as it stands assembled in the Gospels. And first we must let it speak for itself, and say what it has to tell us, especially about the conditions under which it arose. What we glean in this way we can then compare with what we know of primitive Christianity from other sources, especially from the Pauline Epistles.
It is evident at the first glance that the tradition contained both stories about Jesus and sayings of Jesus. Many a story is only a saying fitted out in a narrative frame. A woman pronounces a blessing upon Jesus’ mother and receives back from him the answer, “ No, but instead, happy are those who hear God’s word and keep it” (Luke 11 :27, 28). Or John the Baptist sends messengers from his prison to ask whether Jesus is the promised one or not, and Jesus, after pointing to the signs of God’s Kingdom taking place all about him, closes with the warning, “ But happy is he who makes no mistake about me” (Matt. 11:2—6; Luke 7:18—23). In these cases the answers are not to be understood without the questions; the sayings presuppose their frame. But many words of Jesus have been handed down without any historical frame; being intelligible by themselves, they became disengaged from their historical context; and in this form they come home to the reader even more directly than if they had a narrative frame. That a need for this sort of tradition existed, and kept on being supplied even later, is shown by the two papyrus leaves containing sayings of Jesus which were published in 1897 and 1904 from the finds at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt — the manuscript appears to date from the third century. Here sayings of quite diverse content are strung together, but each is introduced, strikingly enough, with the words, “ Jesus says “ (not “ said “!). In the source Q, in its Lucan and still more in its Matthaean form, these sayings are frequently so linked together that whole “ discourses “ arise, such, e.g., as the Sermon on the Mount. These are naturally not original discourses; they do not take some one theme and systematically develop it; on the contrary they are compilations of sayings and sayings-groups arranged according to topics, showing that they were meant to supply the practical need of the Christian communities — to provide answers to their everyday problems and guidance direct from their Master’s lips. This was the controlling motive in the collection of the sayings of Jesus apart from their historical setting.
We obtain from these collections a very vivid impression of the way in which Jesus spoke. He did not, like the Greek philosophers, for example, take an idea and explore it by means of a dialogue with a pupil or an opponent; nor did he deliver little dissertations like a “lecturer.” Rather, like the prophets of the Old Testament, he proclaimed a message —a message uttered in the name of God. In pronouncements of salvation — such, e.g., are the Beatitudes — and in cries of warning he charged and enjoined his hearers. Or again, like a wisdom teacher, he set forth in short proverb like utterances, often highly picturesque, God’s claim on man and man’s position as regards God. These short aphorisms, appeals, warnings, and commands are for the most part so vividly and impressively formulated that we have no reason to be surprised if they stuck in the minds of the hearers, later got passed from one person to another in the primitive Christian circle, and came in time to be written down without any essential distortion. Since, however, Jesus spoke Aramaic, though the tradition that has come down to us in the Gospels is framed entirely in Greek, the words of Jesus must have been translated. But since the earliest Christian communities on the language frontier in northern Syria — in Antioch, for example — contained many bilingual members, the translation will have been very easily effected through the simple process of repeating in the one language what had been heard in the other. Thus we are not to think of the translation as a single unified process like that underlying our modern translations of the Bible, but rather as a multiple process. Indeed, there are actually instances of the same saying having come down to us in quite diverse dress. But it is just in such cases of double tradition that we see how the form varied without the content’s being essentially disturbed. And in other ways as well, we can see that Jesus’ sayings were handed down with great fidelity, thanks to the unencumbered memory of his unspoiled followers and to their reverence for their Master’s word. Paul, and still more the Church after him, already possessed other forms of expression and a new thought world; if little or no trace of such usage is to be found in the tradition of Jesus’ words, this is the guarantee of the relative primitiveness in the tradition. It may well be that, occasionally, similar sayings from other sources, especially from the proverbial wisdom of Judaism, have been added to the genuine sayings of Jesus; but they have not affected the essential content. It is proper to speak of non-genuine sayings only where the later circumstances, conditions, or problems of the already existing Church are clearly presupposed.
Jesus spoke in longer, interconnected utterances when, in parallel or repeated sayings, he applied the same admonition to different subjects, e.g., to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:2—6, 16—18), or to murder, divorce, and oaths (Matt. 5:21—37, although the passage has been filled out by the Evangelist with individual sayings). But the parallel structure of these “sayings-groups” affords such an aid to the memory — as anyone can test out even in our translated text — that here too a relatively faithful preservation of the text by memory seems quite possible.
Finally, there remain to be mentioned the longest pieces of connected discourse that have been handed down to us as sayings of Jesus: the long narrative parables — not those parables in which, in a few sentences, some incident, usually quite commonplace, is cited by way of illuminating a thought in the Gospel, but rather the detailed stories in which an incident, usually of an extraordinary kind, and sufficiently arresting in itself, is related in order to exemplify some item of the preaching or to throw light upon it from another sphere. It is the best known “parables” that come into consideration here: The Prodigal Son, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Good Samaritan, the Unmerciful Servant, The Unjust Steward, Dives and Lazarus, the Talents (Pounds), The Great Supper. Most of these stories are distinguished by their popular motivation as well as by the popular stylization of the account (the three travelers in The Good Samaritan, the repetitions in The Laborers in the Vineyard, etc.). Narration of this sort is so well fitted to imprint itself upon the mind and the memory that there can be little doubt as to the accurate preservation of these parables. To be sure, however, a comparison of the parables that have been preserved in two forms (The Great Supper, The Talents) shows — and the same thing is disclosed by an examination of the introductions and conclusions of the singly attested parables — that in the communities these parables were often over interpreted, i.e., more was extracted from them than they were actually intended to convey. If what Jesus himself had depicted in The Unjust Steward was a criminally minded but resolute man who, after the collapse of his former mode of existence, built up a new one (by fraudulent methods), there was nevertheless an attempt made later, as the addition in Luke 16:9—13 shows, to draw from it also a lesson on the right use of money and property. The parable of the guests who rejected the invitation to the great supper did not suffice as it stood. It was reshaped in such a way that the fate of the Jewish nation might be recognized in it (cf. Matt. 22 :2—10 with the simpler text of Luke 14:16—24). In general, however, these interpretations and adaptations to later situations are easily recognizable, since they usually stand in a strained relation to the action and meaning of the parable itself. This meaning comes out most clearly when all enframing and explanatory comments are set aside and attention is confined entirely to the text of the narrative. The fact that the text does permit Jesus’ meaning to be so clearly recognized, for the most part, clearly indicates that he himself was but little concerned with these amplifications and interpretations.
So far we have been dealing with the tradition of the sayings of Jesus, our aim being to deduce from the character of this tradition how far those texts that were handed down originally without any biographical context are historically trustworthy and worthy to serve as sources for a historical picture of Jesus. Minor alterations, such as were already involved in the translation from Aramaic into Greek, must also be assumed, although they cannot be established in each individual case. Discussion as to whether a particular saying is
“genuine” is often idle because on neither side are the arguments decisive. In general the historian will do well to look at the tradition as a whole, and not build too much upon an individual saying if it is at variance with the rest of the tradition.
More important alterations of Jesus’ sayings by the communities can be established when the saying has to do with Jesus’ rank and fate. For the communities could not hand on presentiments of Jesus’ rank, and hints of his fate, without giving expression to what they now knew, after the issue, about Jesus’ rank and now, thanks to the Easter faith, understood about Jesus’ fate. This applies to such sayings as the Passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32; and parallels), which, lacking any connection, stand in the text only as pieces of instruction without any special historical occasion. But it applies also to sayings included in narratives, such as Jesus’ famous reply to Peter’s confession of his Messiahship in the form peculiar to Matthew (ch. 16:17—19). Finally it applies also to the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Since the Gospels are not biographies, but rather books aiming to attest and confirm the Christian faith, the Evangelists could not take over these sayings, supposing they had been transmitted to them as presentiments and hints, without filling out the presentiment and stating the full faith in place of the hint. The question is only whether any, and if so how many, such sayings were actually transmitted to them. And this question is for the most part insoluble along literary lines. Behind it, however, stands the question how far Jesus himself had already, in his own lifetime, turned his preaching into a proclamation about himself and his personal status. This question will be dealt with in its proper place (see Chapter VII).
We turn now to the narrative sections of the Synoptic Gospels. These too are not the creation of the Evangelists, but on the contrary have been taken over from the already existing oral, and eventually also written, tradition. Every reader, even of our translated text, can observe how, for example, the “narratives “ contained in Mark, chs. 1 to 12, are completely self-contained units whose positions can be interchanged without affecting the picture of Jesus’ activity. Only the Passion and Easter stories furnish an exception. Events in the main period of Jesus’ ministry are known to us only from these isolated narratives. We are obliged therefore to forego chronological order from the outset, as well as the reconstruction of any development in Jesus, in his success, in his conflict with his enemies — a “ biography” of Jesus in this sense cannot be written. All we know is individual incidents, not interconnected events. But these individual incidents are related at times with great animation. Any person attentive to such things soon notices a striking difference in the style of narration. There are narratives that say only what is absolutely necessary, but say this very clearly. A good example is furnished by the blessing of the little children, Mark 10:13—16, a narrative that is silent as to the scene, the persons who bring the children, or the grounds of the disciples’ protests, but relates in unforgettable language Jesus’ saying and Jesus’ act. The much longer story of the paralytic, Mark 2:1—12, also belongs here: it is concerned solely with the combination of faith, forgiveness, and healing. But here there is no sparing of words: the odd approach by way of the roof attests the faith of the patient’s carriers, the Pharisees contest Jesus’ right to declare the forgiveness of sins, and the healing validates that right. But nothing is said about the patient and his feelings, or the precise nature of the illness or the manner of the cure. Over against this type there stands another, distinguished in the main by its abundance of detail, especially by the matters on which these details center. Here description of the illness, the act of healing, and the assurance of its completeness are the matters stressed. A good example is furnished by the lengthy story of the demon “Legion” (the Gadarene demoniac), Mark 5:1—17. There is a precise description of the man’s behavior as a result of his possession, of how Jesus expelled the demon, and how the demon when expelled exhibited his power and legion-like character by “possessing” an entire herd of swine and driving them into the lake.
It is very instructive to observe both kinds of narration applied to the same theme. In the Gospel of Mark there are two stories of the healing of the blind. In one instance, in Jericho, Mark 10:46—52, it is the faith of the blind man and the command of Jesus that are described; the actual healing is disposed of in a single sentence. In the other instance, in Bethsaida, Mark 8:22—25, attention is focused entirely upon the cure that Jesus performs and upon the steps marking the man’s gradual recovery. Of the “religious” aspects — of the patient’s faith, for example — and of Jesus’ power not a word is said.
This second manner of narrating is decidedly secular. And we know enough about popular narratives — for example, reports of healings outside Christianity — to be able to assert that this second style corresponds with the usual style there. But the style represented, on the other hand, by the blessing of the little children, and the healing of the paralytic and of the blind man at Jericho, is unique and is to be explained only by reference to Christian presuppositions. This way of telling about Jesus is obviously aimed at setting the power of his word and the might of his deed in the foreground. These narratives aim quite directly at proclaiming the Gospel. One can easily imagine that they were shaped in the first instance to enrich, explain, or support the preaching of the Christians, either missionary preaching or preaching at home. They are brief enough -- and at the same time sufficiently complete in themselves -- to be inserted as examples in a proclamation of the Christian faith. I therefore call them “Paradigms.” It is surprising to what a slight extent they employ the otherwise customary means of popular narration, and how little they serve to answer the questions raised by our curiosity. They must therefore have acquired their basic form at a time when the communities had hardly yet come into contact with the Hellenistic world, that is, during the first twenty to twenty-five years after Jesus’ death. ‘We arrive at the same dating if we reflect that Paul himself had already received such pieces of the community tradition as were passed on to him, and that one of these pieces, that relating to the Lord’s Supper, I Cor 11:23ff., exhibits precisely the type of narrative that we know from the Synoptic Gospels. But these traditions must have come into Paul’s hand when he became a Christian (about A.D. 34) or when he became a missionary (some years later). In these Paradigms, therefore, we have before us very early tradition.
In this connection it is not very important for our problem whether these stories were originally told in Aramaic and later translated, or whether bilingual hearers, after listening to the incidents in Aramaic, formed the accounts afresh in Greek. In any case the Greek narratives arose at a period when many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry were still living. They, especially the personal disciples of Jesus, would have been in a position to correct any egregious misrepresentation. Therefore in establishing the early date of these Paradigms we have also gained a guarantee of their relative historicity. To be sure, one can speak of this historicity only as relative, because these narratives have been stylized from the very beginning in order by their means to proclaim the Gospel story. They cannot and do not aim to be historically accurate accounts in the sense in which a modern official report is trustworthy in detail. What they seek to bring out in the occurrence is the action of the Son of God, and they may have attained this object, without the narrator’s always being aware of it, by omitting the unessential, by overemphasizing the main points, by heightening the marvelous. And in general one has to remember that popular narration always works with methods of this sort and never corresponds to an official report. Conversely, if these stories were accurate accounts in the sense of modern historical writing, their origin would have to be placed at the earliest in the second century, the period when Christianity was becoming a concern of the cultured classes. Such as they are, with their excellences and defects, they point to an early origin.
The situation is somewhat different in the case of those more broadly executed stories of which the Gadarene demoniac and the blind man of Bethsaida have been cited as examples. They obviously do not serve the purposes of preaching. In their case narration, at times quite richly colored narration, is pursued for its own sake. Therefore it is no wonder that non-Christian influences are traceable here: either older stories have been supplied, in the course of transmission, with entertaining additions (in which case the substance would still be historical) or else non-Christian material has been attached to the person of Jesus (in which case there could be no talk of historicity). The historical trustworthiness of these stories, which I call “Tales” [Novellen] after their manner of narration, is therefore to be tested instance by instance, and certainty of judgment is not always attainable.
In addition to these Paradigms and Tales, as the sole instance in the Synoptic Gospels of a consecutively flowing account, there is the Passion narrative (Mark 14:1 to 16:8 and parallels). Here the narrator is led, by the very nature of the matter itself, to strive for a continuous account – all the more so because the Passion narrative has a peculiar place within the Gospel tradition as a whole. This is discernible most clearly in the speeches in the book of The Acts. When the preachers described there, Peter and Paul alike, speak of Jesus’ life, they always refer to his Passion and resurrection, but his activity as healer and teacher is mentioned only now and then. Another evidence of the peculiarity of the Passion narrative is afforded by the Fourth Evangelist. Although elsewhere he goes his own way, when he comes to the story of the Passion of Jesus, he cannot, speaking by and large, tell it otherwise than as the other Evangelists have told it. It must accordingly be assumed that even in the earliest period there already existed a fixed model of the Passion story, which could be expanded but not departed from, because it had been handed down from the beginning. This general outline – as distinguished from the details – may therefore be viewed as trustworthy; even in the earliest period the story of how Jesus came to his death was being consistently told in the Christian communities. This happened at a time when numerous witnesses of these events were still alive – Paul makes direct reference to the fact in I Cor. 15:6f.; indeed it is even probable that the oldest Passion narrative refers expressly in one or two places to such eyewitnesses: Mark 14:51, 15:21, and perhaps also 15:40 (see Chapter IX).
Upon what sources, then, can a historical knowledge of Jesus be based ? They are, in the main, Christian sources —above all, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. But it is not primarily a question of what their authors knew and wrote down, but of older traditional material which they incorporated in their books. This material, partly oral, partly written, was already in circulation in the communities before the composition of the Gospels, and it consisted of narratives, sayings, and other bits of discourse (including the parables), and the Passion story. Since the Evangelists merely framed and combined these materials, the tradition can be lifted without difficulty out of the text of the Gospels.2. The original is thus always the single unit of narrative, the single saying — not the connected text, the transitions, or the editorial notes which provide the continuity.
To distinguish the oldest layer in this tradition is therefore not hard, because we can trace the development that leads from the older layer to a later: the recasting of the narratives by the use of a secular style and of secular motifs, the adaptation of the words of Jesus to the later “situation,” the reinterpretation of the parables. Whatever has escaped this treatment may be regarded as old. This older layer of the tradition we may take as relatively trustworthy, for the following reasons:
1. It arose in the period between A.D. 30 and A.D. 70, therefore if not through eyewitnesses at any rate not without some connection with them.
2. It is relatively free from extra-Christian influences; the sayings have neither a Gnostic nor a legalistic ring, the narratives do not yet exhibit the “ secular” technique, the parables permit their original meaning to be recognized in spite of later “reinterpretation.”
3. The brevity and pregnance of these pieces of tradition have the effect of imprinting themselves indelibly on the memory.
4. The oldest parts of the tradition are fitted, by their form, to be included in the sermon; in fact this relationship to the sermon has doubtless often conditioned their form. It is faith that speaks here, not research; and that is just what we ought to expect in the case of communities that were waiting for the end of the world. This means, of course, a certain curtailment of the historicity, but viewed as a whole it serves as its guarantee.
1. Collected in German translation in Hennecke, Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, 2d edition, pp. 1—110; in English, see M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 1 – 227.
2. See the presentation of this material in German translation in Martin Dibelius, Die Botschaft von Jesus Cliristus, 1935; English translation by Frederick C. Grant, The Message of Jesus Christ, 1939.