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The oral handing on of Jesus' teachings

The oral handing on of Jesus' teachings

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).

Many oral traditions go back to the time of Jesus’ ministry itself. Jesus gathered disciples around him, as Jewish teachers did. He gave them special instructions. On certain occasions he sent them out to preach his message to villages and towns in Galilee and Samaria. Since the disciples were Jesus’ messengers who spoke on his behalf, they took the contents of their preaching from what Jesus had said and done. They would repeat Jesus’ call to repentance. They would reiterate his challenging images and parables. They would narrate Jesus’ prophetic miracles and would impose healing hands in his name. They would defend him from criticism by repeating his indictments of pharisaic legalism. In the Gospels Jesus is called a ‘teacher’ 45 times, ‘Rabbi’ 14 times. Although Jesus did not undergo the normal training of a Rabbi, his ways of acting and teaching resembled those of a Rabbi in many ways.

For a reconstruction of the pre-Easter settings of Gospel formation and the contents of the earliest preaching, see H.RIESENFELD, ‘The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings’, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 73 (1959) pp. 43-65; H.SCHÜRMANN, ‘Die vorosterlichen Anfänge der Logientradition’ in Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatische Christus, ed. H.RISTOW and K.MATTHIAE, Berlin 1960, pp.342-370; G.DELLING, `Geprägte Jesus- Tradition im Urchristentum’ Communio Viatorum 1 (1961) pp. 61-71; P.E.DAVIES,‘Experience and Memory’, Interpretation 16 (1962) 181-192; X.LÉON-DUFOUR, Les Évangiles et l’Histoire de Jésus, Paris 1963, pp. 301-314.

That is how the earliest oral tradition arose. It was a collection of Aramaic, memorised texts in which Jesus’ teaching was remembered and passed on. The existence of this oldest, Aramaic, layer has already been demonstrated in the previous chapter when we discussed the `measure’ and `salt’ passages. What I did not point out at the time was the fact that the peculiar mix of differences and samenesses in many synoptic passages cannot be solely due to the pen of the evangelists but requires an underlying oral tradition.

Compare, for instance, this simple question in Matthew, Mark and Luke: ‘What need I do to obtain eternal life?’

Matthew 19,16

Mark 10,17

Luke 18,18


Good master,

Good master,

what good should I do to obtain eternal life?

what should I do to inherit eternal life?

having done what will I inherit eternal life?

Notice not only the small variations in wording (obtain / inherit; what should I do / having done what), but especially how the word ‘good’ has travelled (good master what / master what good). In Greek there can be no mistaking: ‘good’ in the address is kale (Matthew, Luke) but as object kalon (Mark); and also its location in the sentence is different.

But in the underlying Aramaic, confusion was well possible, for the word ‘good’ (tôb) has the same form and could have stood in the middle:

rabbi, tôb mâ - master, what good . . . ?

rabbi tôb, mâ - master good, what . . . ?

Like this, words often ‘slide’ to new locations, showing the hand of an oral tradition. Words are fixed in written texts, not when they have been learnt by heart. ‘What I say in the dark, say in plain daylight’ (Matthew 10,27) becomes `what you say in the dark, will be heard in plain daylight (Luke 12,3). This is the kind of thing that happens when people recall texts from memory.

More examples can be found in A.ROBERT and A.FEUILLET, Introduction à la Bible, Paris 1959, pp. 269-271.

John Wijngaards

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