Chapter 5: The Oral Tradition

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 5: The Oral Tradition

It can be taken for granted that the earliest Christian preaching contained as two of its most important elements a number of facts about Jesus, with the interpretation to be placed upon them, and numerous sayings of Jesus, with their application to the needs of believers. These elements correspond to the two great divisions of Christian evangelism, the Proclamation or Kerygma (from the Greek Keryssein, to proclaim) that Jesus is the Christ of God, and the Teaching or Didache (from the Greek Didaskein, to teach) which those who believe in him must follow.

The Kerygma and Didache

It was essential in the proclamation of the Good News to let all hearers know HOW Jesus had been shown to be in truth the Messiah who was to come again. In the speeches that are scattered through the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Pauline epistles, a skeleton pattern can be traced, which indicates the lines on which Christian missionaries answered this question. Jesus of Nazareth, of the seed of David, was ‘approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you’ (Acts 2:22) He suffered, as had been foretold by the prophets, and after his crucifixion in Jerusalem God raised him from the dead on the third day, and he appeared to witnesses from among his disciples. He is exalted to the right hand of God, and will return again to judge the quick and the dead. What Luke adopts as a short and summary pattern for the missionary speeches which he puts into the mouths of Peter and Paul has to be considered in the light of literary exigencies and of the fuller details which he has already given to Theophilus in his gospel. Paul, although he probably had not himself seen Jesus in the flesh (yet cf. II Cor. 5:15), from time to time makes it clear, not only that the outlines of such a pattern were familiar to him, but that he can supplement it with much fuller details, as when he wishes to support his message to the Corinthians with appeals to the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (I Cor. 11) and to Resurrection appearances (I Cor. 15).(Cf. C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments.

Once the hearer of the Kerygma had been converted he had to be instructed more perfectly as to the implications of the new life. This involved not only the teaching of what Jesus had laid down on particular subjects, e.g. on Marriage or on Swearing, but the illustration from Jesus’ words of the great new principles involved in his message, e.g. the nature of the Kingdom of God, the imminence of the Second Coming and the Judgement, the fundamental nature of the two great commandments. In the process of such teaching examples of Jesus’ teaching were employed which often involved the narration of some scene in Jesus’ ministry. It is probable indeed that most of the facts about Jesus, apart from the great and significant narratives, were handed down almost incidentally as part of the necessary background for the sayings of Jesus which were of supreme authority for guiding the lives of the early Christians.

As the Christian mission spread, so both Kerygma and Didache inevitably expanded, changed their emphasis, and tended to crystallize in form. Papias quotes an Elder as saying of Peter that he used to suit his teachings to the needs (of his hearers), and the needs of Gentile converts were often very different from those of Jewish converts. Jews could understand without difficulty the implications of the title Christ, and much of Christian morality is in fact Jewish morality informed by the Holy Spirit; for Gentiles on the other hand the title of Christ needed explanation and interpretation, and much of Christian moral teaching was new and difficult. Sayings of Jesus that had special reference to Jewish ceremonial customs, such as those on the washing of hands contained in Mark 7, were of little interest to Gentiles and are omitted by Luke from his gospel; Matthew has preserved two sayings connected with the Temple altar (Mt. 5:23, 23:18) which had a special significance for Jewish Christians, but which would lose much of their effectiveness for Gentile Christians. On the other hand, ever new problems arose for the solution of which the authority of a saying of Jesus, originally uttered in a different context, was sometimes legitimately, sometimes illegitimately claimed, and at times even perhaps invented. Thus we have Jesus’ teaching on divorce preserved in three forms. In what seems to be the earliest and best form (preserved in Luke 16:18) Jesus says that a man who divorces his wife and marries another, or who marries a woman who has been divorced, commits adultery. This is in accord with conditions in Jewish Palestine in the first century A.D.; divorce was a prerogative of the husband and the wife had no similar rights. Mark gives a similar saying of Jesus (Mk. 10:11-12) which condemns divorce initiated by the husband or wife; this seems to be a -- legitimate -- adaptation of the principle laid down by Jesus for Gentile conditions under which the woman was in many places able to divorce her husband. Matthew preserves the reference to men alone (Mt. 5:32, 19:9), but inserts the clause ‘except for fornication’, which is widely regarded as a later weakening of what Jesus actually said.

Lack of Biographical Interest

While both Kerygma and Didache involved incidental references to the ministry and sayings of Jesus, there seems to have been comparatively little biographical interest in the minor details of his life. This should not surprise us overmuch. The modern interest in detailed biography was not marked in the ancient world, and Professor Burkitt has claimed the Gospel of Mark as the earliest biography. There can be no doubt that the apostles and the family of Jesus in fact told much more of the life of Jesus than has been preserved, but with the passing of the earliest Christian generation, and with the catastrophe of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which largely severed the communications between the Christians in Palestine and those of the Gentile world, most of this information, preserved only orally and temporarily, was lost to posterity. Here and there an incident in the gospels, such as that of the young man who fled away naked at Jesus’ arrest (Mk. 14:51-52), or that of the friendly Pharisees who warned Jesus of Herod’s plot to kill him (Lk. 13:31), or the connection of Jesus with Nazareth and his approximate age, has preserved such incidental knowledge, but the great bulk of gospel material owes its preservation not to biographical interest but to its value for preaching and teaching.

The Facts About Jesus

1. Old Testament Prophecies fulfilled

Expectation of a Messiah (Greek, Christos = anointed) was widespread among the Jews of the first century A.D. The Christians, in proclaiming that Jesus was indeed the Christ, supporting their claim by appealing to his fulfillment of the prophecies that had been made about the Christ to come. The genealogies, differently given by Matthew and Luke, agree on his legal descent from David. Matthew and Luke, in the course of differing narratives about the birth of Jesus, supported in Matthew by a series of prophecies from the Old Testament, agree again on his birth of a virgin at Bethlehem. Luke prefaces the ministry of Jesus with Jesus’ own summary at Nazareth of his fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2, and with the parallel drawn by Jesus between his rejection by his own people and the missions of Elijah and Elisha to non-Israelites (4:24-27). The reply of Jesus to John the Baptist’s enquiry as to whether he is the Christ (Mt. 11: 5-6, Lk. 7:22-23) is in effect a claim that his words have fulfilled the prophecies. The healings of the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the raising of the dead, and the evangelising of the poor, are recorded in the gospels in detail not least because they illustrate this claim. The teaching in parables (Mt. 13:35) and its purpose that ‘hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand’ (Mt. 13:13 f.) are likewise shown to be in accordance with Old Testament prophecy. So, too, many of the details of the Passion narrative are indicated as fulfillments of the Old Testament, e.g. the entry to Jerusalem on an ass, the price of the betrayal, and the correspondence of many features of the crucifixion with Psalm 22. Finally the resurrection itself, as the suffering before, is interpreted by the risen Jesus as in accordance with the Scriptures (Lk. 24:26-27).

The influence of such Old Testament prophecies in the selection of material for Christian preaching about the life of Jesus is clear. In many points it has been argued that such influence has led to the material alteration of facts to suit prophecies -- the two asses of Mt. 21:2-7, due to a misunderstanding of Zech. 9:9, is a clear case, but it remains true that it also led to the preservation of much valuable material about the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

2. John the Baptist

Another influence which led to the accumulation of a cycle of stories about Jesus was the need felt by Christian preachers to relate the work of Jesus with that of John the Baptist. How far a John the Baptist sect continued after John’s death is uncertain, but John’s fame was widespread, and probably many of the earliest Christians had first been baptised by John (cf. Jn. 1 esp. 35-40). The motive for the several references to John that are found in the gospels seems to have been not primarily one of rivalry with later disciples of John, if indeed such disciples continued to proselytise after John’s death, but the desire to show that John’s place in the scheme of God’s revelation as the forerunner of Christ had been expressly confirmed by the Christ himself. This interest led at any rate to the preservation of much important information about John the Baptist and about Jesus’ baptism and later references to John. Here again the tradition seems later to have gained accretions of doubtful worth, such as the narrative connecting John’s birth with that of Jesus (Lk. 1:5 ff.), the effort to explain away the baptism of Jesus by John (Mt. 3:14-15), and the highly coloured account of John’s death (Mk. 6:17-29).

3. Turning points in the Ministry

It is possible that the gospels have preserved the narratives of the three incidents, outside the Passion Narrative, which mark decisive turning points in the ministry of Jesus, and which were told as such by apostles, although their original significance has been in part lost by the variations in the tradition visible in the gospels as they stand. The motive in all three of these narratives, if they go back to the teaching of Peter, as they may well do, is not so much a biographical one in the ministry of Jesus as an autobiographical one of witness on Peter’s part. The first of these narratives concerns what is told in Mk. 1:16-38 of the call of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the casting out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and of many sick, the departure of Jesus to pray in a desert place next morning, and his words to Peter and others who followed him there. It has sometimes been called ‘a day in the life of Jesus’ but could be even more justly called ‘the beginning of the new life of Peter’. As such it may well have formed a favourite part of Peter’s preaching, although probably in a less bald form than that in which Mark gives it. For us it furnishes, if this theory is acceptable, a starting point for the Galilean ministry of Jesus.

The second of the narratives, the Mission of the Disciples, is recorded by Mark (6:7-13) and seems also to have stood in the now lost document Q (Lk. 10:1-20), with parallels to many verses in Mt.9:37-38, 10:7-16, etc.). Although little is told of the actual mission apart from references to its general success, it clearly marked a memorable stage in the training of the disciples who were now sufficiently advanced to be entrusted with authority to heal and to preach. It also marks, of course, a stage in the ministry of Jesus, who had now achieved both some popular success and a deeper and more enduring task in the instruction of his disciples. While the narrative was probably remembered and passed on as an example and inspiration for later Christian missionaries, it may well preserve also one of the significant steps in the ministry of Jesus himself.

It may even be that this mission was the immediate cause of, and originally connected with, the third narrative, a cycle containing the account of the feeding of the multitude beyond the lake and the signs of great popular success (in John 6:15, Jesus, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone’), a crossing of the lake, a demand for a sign, and then, after an interval, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Christ (Mk. 8: 1-33, cf. Jn. 6:1-69). The substantial agreement of John with Mark here appears to be due to the following of a similar tradition rather than to literary dependence, and it is at least conceivable that we have here a series of consecutive narratives, largely altered in detail during their transmissions, which go back to Peter’s recollections. Peter’s reasons for telling of this connected series of events may well have sprung in part from the memory of the moment of his avowal as at once his greatest and most chastening, but the point of the narrative for missionary preaching lay above all in Jesus’ prophetic rejection of the popular conception of the Messiah-king for the true one of the suffering Son of Man who would rise again. To the student of the life of Jesus the confession of Peter represents in itself a decisive point in the ministry of Jesus. If it is true that we have this confession preserved in its original historical setting, embroidered but not substantially altered by the vicissitudes of oral transmission, a flood of light is thrown on the reasons for Herod’s suspicions and for Jesus’ retirement before his final challenge to authority in Jerusalem.

The treatment of these narratives has been brief and of necessity speculative, yet enough has been said, perhaps, to suggest that the possibility of reconstructing some of the main stages of Jesus’ ministry must not be too carelessly dismissed.

4. The Passion Narrative

While Mark and Luke differ considerably in the substance, order, and arrangement of the events of Jesus’ ministry, and John shows even wider differences from both, all three of these gospels come together again into substantial agreement, although not without quite considerable variations, when they tell the story of the Passion of Jesus. It is generally held that this agreement indicates the existence of a comparatively trustworthy record of the outlines of the Passion story from the earliest days of the primitive church, a record which has preserved the main outlines of what really happened. That this should be so is only natural, in view of the consuming interest and concern of every Christian in this climax of the life of Jesus. The drama and significance of the events have exercised upon Christians of every generation a special influence, and from the very beginning the story has belonged to the essential core of Christian preaching. Professor C. H. Dodd has summarised the nine chief episodes that seem to have constituted the original pattern of the Passion-narrative as follows: (History and the Gospel, pp. 80 f.)

1. The Last Supper. Forecast of the treachery of Judas.

2. Forecast of Peter’s denial, and of the desertion of the disciples.

3. Retirement to a place on or near the Mount of Olives. Betrayal, arrest, desertion of disciples.

4. Examination before the High Priest. Peter’s denial.

5. Trial before Pilate. Declaration of innocence. Condemnation as King of the Jews. Release of Barabbas.

6. Crucifixion at Calvary, with two others.

7. Burial.

8. The Empty Tomb.

9. Appearances to Disciples.

To this we are perhaps entitled to add, in view of Paul’s account in I Cor.11 and in spite of John’s silence, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The general sequence of events from the Last Supper up to the Burial presents a coherent picture, self-authenticating in its simplicity and starkness.

Round this central core there tended inevitably to gather, snow-ball fashion, additional material not all of the same value. While the incident of the young man at the arrest in Mark or the trial before Herod in Luke may represent the filling out of the story from the testimony of eye-witnesses, many of the other additions, notably those in Matthew, seem to be of the nature of ‘pious embroidery’. Yet, whatever difficulties are raised by the variations in the additional details provided by the evangelists, the main lines of the Passion narrative can be clearly traced.

5. The Resurrection

Paul’s list of resurrection appearances in I Cor.15 and his emphatic statements as to the central and vital part of the resurrection in Christian faith illustrate the importance attached to such testimony in Christian preaching. It is possible that Mark’s gospel did originally end at 16:8, and hinted only at an appearance or appearances to come in Galilee (Mk. 14:28,16:7). If so, the explanation probably lies in the fact that he wished to include only the ministry of the earthly Jesus in his book, and counted the appearances as of the heavenly Christ. Yet it was inevitable that those who wrote gospels later, if not Mark himself, should include accounts of some at least of the resurrection appearances. That they should include fewer appearances than those mentioned by Paul as having been received by him is not surprising, but the differences that the gospels show between themselves indicate the speed with which the form of the appearances, as distinguished from the fact of the appearances, could change in the course of oral transmission. They witness, too, to the difficulty, once the apostles were scattered abroad, of harmonising the various strands of tradition that developed. If the problems which the gospel accounts present to the modern reader are largely insoluble, they furnish evidence at any rate of the universal Christian conviction that the risen Christ did in fact appear to his disciples after his death and of the strength and power of that conviction in the face of inconsistencies between different forms of the tradition.

The facts of the gospel material so far discussed have the common characteristic that they have each their particular place in the gospel as a whole. There remain to be considered, besides the sayings of Jesus, a number of stories about Jesus, which seem to have been originally told as single stories to illustrate some particular point of preaching by an appeal to an action of Jesus. While many of these stories are of great value for helping to reconstruct the details of Jesus’ ministry, and may well have been told originally by eye-witnesses of the events, their preservation is due to the aptness with which they supported the missionary preaching, and in a number of cases the stories appear to have undergone considerable changes in their transmission to enable them to be used with ever greater point. They fall into two main categories, evidences of Jesus’ power over disease and nature, and evidences of Jesus’ rejection of the Jewish religion of his time and of his authority.

6. Evidences of Jesus’ power over disease and nature

The number of healings recorded in the gospels is high, but can only represent a selection from a much larger number that would for a time be remembered. The selection seems to have been made in Mark to illustrate the healing of as many different kinds of affliction as possible -- a fever, leprosy, paralysis, a withered hand, madness, an issue, deafness and stuttering, blindness (twice), epilepsy, and even, in the case of Jairus’ daughter, death itself. In oral preaching, where the needs of the hearers had to be considered, such a variety of evidence was both necessary and forthcoming, and Christian sufferers would take comfort from the way in which Jesus had healed in the course of his earthly ministry men, women and children with the same afflictions to which they themselves were subject. So, too, for Gentiles, the healing of the Gentile Centurion’s servant (Q, Mt. 8:5-13, Lk.7:9-10) and of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter (Mk.7:25-30) had a special meaning, although in this latter case Luke seems to have omitted the story deliberately because of Jesus’ apparent depreciation of the Gentiles. That the stories should often have been ‘heightened’ in the telling was inevitable, but in the majority of cases recorded in the gospels it is possible to accept without difficulty the nucleus of the healings as a true reminiscence of Jesus’ activity.

The nature-miracles are harder to assess. The purpose of their telling is clear, the demonstration of Jesus’ mighty powers in stilling the storm, in walking on the water, in feeding great multitudes, in destroying a fig tree, in changing water into wine. The quick growth and wide popularity of such stories in connection with great men in credulous ages serve as a warning against accepting their truth too readily, but that such stories should soon acquire wide currency in Christian circles and be widely employed as evidences of Jesus’ powers is easy to understand. It is only surprising, and to the credit of the general trustworthiness of the oral tradition, that these stories are so few in number.

7. Evidence of Jesus’ rejection of the religion of his time

While most of the gospel material that deals with Jesus’ controversies is contained in his sayings and in stories leading up to sayings, there are a number of incidents which have been preserved whose narration was clearly intended to establish that Jesus judged differently from the Jewish religious leaders of his time and acted with authority, e.g. the call of the publican Levi as his disciple and the cleansing of the Temple.

8. Signs of Jesus’ Divinity

Into a similar but different category fall those incidents where Jesus’ authority is made manifest supernaturally, e.g. at the Baptism, Temptation, and Transfiguration. The effectiveness for Christian preaching of these triumphs of Jesus was undoubted. In each case the story would appear to rest upon what an intimate disciple of Jesus heard from him or saw for himself, although in each case too there is clear evidence of development in the form of the story.

The examples that have been given so far serve to show how a great deal of our gospel material owes its preservation to the demands made by Christian Kerygma for illustrations from the life and ministry of Jesus to support the central proclamation that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Side by side with such material and often -- as in the case of some ‘pronouncement-stories’ --overlapping it stands the mass of sayings of Jesus, often embedded in a small piece of narrative, whose preservation was primarily due to the need for supporting the instruction of Christians with authoritative examples of what Jesus had himself laid down.

The Sayings of Jesus

1. Pronouncement Stories

The gospels contain some thirty or so stories which share a common form in that their main interest is to illustrate the setting for a pronouncement of Jesus, and Professor Vincent Taylor’s suggested title of ‘Pronouncement-story’ (Formation of the Gospel Tradition, p. 30.) is a suitable and convenient one for them. Typical of such stories are those of the controversy about plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, leading up to Jesus’ saying about the Sabbath being made for man (Mk. 3:23-28), or the question of the scribe about the greatest commandment, leading up to Jesus’ great answer (Mk.12:28-34).

This and similar classifications must not, however, be pushed too far. Some of the healing stories, e.g. those of the paralytic (Mk.2: 3 ff.) and of the man with the withered hand (Mk. 3:1 ff.), may have been told primarily for their illustration of Jesus’ healing power and have only incidentally provided examples of Jesus’ claim to authority and to do good on the Sabbath. It is impossible to lay down clearcut definitions in each case. In giving instruction about particular problems, such as the observance of the Sabbath or of fasting, or of regulations about ceremonial purity, or in laying down the great principles of the faith, such as belief in the resurrection, the authority of Jesus, the central commandments, the Christian missionary would drive home his teaching with a suitable story of what Jesus had said in a particular controversy or in answer to a particular question. In the process of such teaching many fragments of the biography of Jesus were preserved, valuable in themselves, though often presenting problems as to their exact setting in his ministry. These problems have been made more difficult, not only by changes introduced into some of the stories to make them more pointed, but by the collection of such stories into artificial groups, such as the collections of Jesus’ controversies in Mark 2:1-3, 6 and Mark 11: 27-35, 12:13-40. Such collections, in a more or less floating form, may well go back to the oral stage of the tradition.

2. Parables and Sayings

Of less value for the facts of Jesus’ life, but of supreme value for his teaching, are the parables and sayings that have been preserved, for the most part in clearly editorial settings and groupings, in the gospels. The parable form, although clearly a favourite one of Jesus himself, was very liable to changes and to incorrect interpretation. A comparison of the parable of the Marriage Feast as it is found in Matthew (22:1-14) with the Lucan form of the parable (Lk. 14:16-24) shows plainly enough that in Matthew another parable of the Wedding Garment has been introduced into an alien context which spoils its point. Some of the interpretations given to parables in the gospels likewise raise doubts as to their authenticity, e.g. Matthew’s interpretation of the parable of the Tares (Mt.13:36-43).(See Dr. B.T.D. Smith, The Parables of the Synoptic Gospels, p.200.)

Even more subject to distortion were the individual sayings of Jesus, once their true context had been forgotten. Thus in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12, Lk. 6:20-23) there is a clear and important difference between the Matthaean emphasis on the kingdom as a reward for spiritual qualities and the Lucan emphasis on the kingdom as a reward for earthly misfortunes. Can Jesus have said both that ‘he who is not against us is for us’ (Mk. 9:40) and that ‘he who is not with me is against me’ (Q, Mt. 12: 30, Lk. 11:23) ? Perhaps the best example of the confusion and error that in oral tradition attack the transmission of sayings is in the Marcan collection of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings (Mk. 13). Here genuine sayings lie side by side with sayings apparently altered in the tradition (Mk. 13:9 ?) and with others whose attribution to Jesus involves grave inconsistencies with the words of Jesus in other forms of the tradition (contrast the signs before the end of Mk. 13:24-26 with the sudden and unexpected coming of the end predicted by Jesus in Q, Mt. 24:37-41, Lk. 17:26-27). The total effect of such an artificial collection of sayings, of which the genuine ones are quite out of their correct context, was to distort the teachings of Jesus under the influence of Jewish apocalyptic expectation.

Yet a process of collection and arrangement was inevitable if individual sayings of Jesus were to be long remembered. Traces of such arrangement made probably in the oral stage of the tradition can still be found in the gospels. Thus, sayings on the same subject tend to be grouped together; a comparison of the twin parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven (Q, Mt. 13:31-33, Lk. 13:18-21) with the single parable of the Mustard Seed preserved by Mark (4:30-32) indicates the kind of way in which such grouping came about. In one case at least (Mk. 9:41-50), the connection appears to be a mnemonic one suggested by a word or theme in each saying.

Form Criticism.

In offering this sketch of the way in which the material of our gospels can largely be derived from the needs of early Christian preaching and teaching, little has so far been directly said of the methods of Form-criticism which have developed, especially in Germany, since 1918. In an attempt to get behind the period of written documents to the development of the gospel-material in the oral stage a number of scholars, notable K. L. Schmidt, Bultmann, and Dibelius on the continent, and at a later stage R. H. Lightfoot and V. Taylor in England, have drawn on the analogies with this material presented by other types of oral tradition. By showing that such material tends to observe certain rules of form and to undergo certain normal processes of development they have endeavoured to trace the kind of developments that can be expected to have taken place in the narratives and sayings of the gospels before the gospels themselves were written. Such methods have in fact proved of great value, especially when used by those who have not been unduly influenced, as Bultmann has, by a radical scepticism as to the historicity of the main lines of the gospel narrative. Yet the rules of oral tradition are not absolute rules, nor are the forms of oral tradition fixed in any than the widest sense. It is significant that the pioneers of Form-criticism found themselves seriously at variance in drawing up their categories of ‘forms’, and that more conservative scholars have been satisfied with very few wide classifications, Vincent Taylor for example (The Formation of the Gospel Tradition) using only those of Passion-narratives, Pronouncement stories, Sayings and Parables, Miracle-stories and Stories about Jesus.

The value, however, of even such a limited use of the methods of Form-criticism is very real, not least in suggesting the main lines along which the stories and sayings of the gospels tended to ‘develop’, and in furnishing certain criteria as to their probable origin and worth. What has been written in the last few pages is dependent on the results achieved by modern scholars in this field. Indications have been given of the more important ways in which the material was subject to change, the tendency to shorten stories in a narrative, the inevitable heightening of the miraculous element and the moulding of material to sharpen the point of the moral, the intrusion of false sayings and incidents and of artificial explanations, the shift of meaning that sometimes followed the loss of the true context, and the growth of cycles of stories and of sayings which gave to the material a new and sometimes unnatural setting, but which once committed to writing was to fix within narrow limits the possibilities of further change.