Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Paul and Oral Tradition about Jesus

Paul and Oral Tradition about Jesus

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Paul, who had been educated as a Pharisee and had spent some years in Jerusalem as a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22,3), knew how to read and write in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. But in the rabbinical school he had learned the interpretation of the Law through oral instruction. Opinions of famous rabbis were committed to memory according to rigorous patterns; then explained. These concerned `the traditions of the elders’ which were contained in the mishnah. The traditions of the elders laid down the observance and practice of Mosaic Law and the mishnah was the collection of these oral traditions (from 200 BC to 400 AD).

See: BICKERMANN, ‘La Chaine de la tradition Pharisienne’, Révue Biblique 59 (1952) pp. 44-54

It is difficult for us to imagine the place which memorisation held in the transmission of rabbinical religion. Learning by heart of key texts was at the heart of it. Here are some of the features of such oral teaching:

“Great care and attention was given given to preserving the exact wording of the teachings of an ancient master. A careful study was made regarding the authenticity of the tradition. The words of the master, tersely expressed, were not synopsised. They were quoted as the master had said them - together with the name of the one who had uttered them. An ancient rule for the pupils was this: It is a man’s duty to state a tradition in his teacher’s words.”

“While the pupil was thus in duty bound to preserve his teacher’s exact words, the teacher was responsible for drilling his pupil in their memorisation. A teacher could not simply mention the oral material (his own doctrinal statements or teachings handed down to him) in a general fashion. He must repeat it over and over again, and make his pupils repeat it, until they know it by heart. The rule was: A teacher’s duty is to repeat a passage to his pupil until he has learnt it.

“Although some written notes may have existed, it was not these but the oral traditions that were normative. The rule was: You shall not transmit in writing what has been transmitted orally. Until quite late in Rabbinical history, in any case of doubt it was not a written text, but the memorised form of a tradition that was held to be authoritative.”

I have extracted these excerpts from B.GERHARDSSON, Memory and Manuscript. Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, Uppsala 1961, esp. pp. 122-144.

This was the religious practice Paul and many Christian converts were used to. Written notes were only a help, to recall certain prominent features. For the ordinary person - and we can be sure that this is what most early Christians were - learning things by heart was the only way to retain precise information; and they were better at it than we are.

The origin of the traditions

Paul’s teaching, no doubt, consisted to some extent in a renewed exposition of the Old Testament prophecies; such as he does in part of his letters. But his teaching also included a passing on of a fixed body of information which he calls ‘the tradition that you received from me’ (2 Thessalonians 3,6). He always urges that the traditions be strictly maintained:

  • ‘Remember me in everything and maintain the traditions precisely as I have handed them on to you’ (1 Corinthians 11,2).
  • ‘Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us’ (2 Thessalonians 2,15).
  • ‘I sent Timothy to remind you of my ways in the Lord as I teach them everywhere in every community’ (1 Corinthians 4,16-17).
  • ‘You have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed’ (Romans 6,17).

To this tradition belonged information

  • about Jesus’ passion, death, burial, rising on the third day and the resurrection appearances (‘I handed on to you what I have also received . . . .’; 1 Corinthians 15,1-11);
  • the institution of the Eucharist (‘I received from the Lord what I in turn handed on to you’, 1 Corinthians 7,10);
  • the prohibition of divorce (1 Corinthians 7,10);
  • and many other sayings of Jesus.

Compare 1 Corinthians 9,14 and Luke 10,7; Galatians 6,2-3 and Mark 9,33; 2 Corinthians 10,1 and Matthew 11,29; Romans 12,14-17 and Matthew 5,38-44; Galatians 5,14 and Luke 10,25-28; see also D.L.DUNCAN, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul, Philadelphia 1971; F.NEYRINCK, ‘Paul and the sayings of Jesus’, in L’Apôtre Paul, ed. A.VANHOYE, Louvain 1986, pp. 265-321.

It presupposes a collection of memorised traditions. When did this collection arise?

It is clear that some traditions must have arisen after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The passion narrative belongs to this category. The passion stories in all four Gospels are remarkably similar, as anyone will have noticed from the readings during Holy Week. In fact, if one matches Mark 14,1 - 16,8 with Matthew 26,1 - 28,8 and Luke 22,1 - 24,11, one will find that the three evangelists recount 25 episodes in more or less the same sequence and with more or less the same formulations. We may surmise the existence of an oral account of Jesus’ passion that preceded the three Gospels and that was known to Paul.

See: J.FINNEGAN, Die Überlieferung der Leidens- und Auferstehungsgeschichte Jesu, Giessen 1934.

There also existed an oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings as has been abundantly documented.

John Wijngaards

Return to Oral Tradition overview?   Return to Gospel Formation overview?

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.