A Long Oral Tradition: Step four in the development of early Christian faith

(This is the tenth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The first three stages in the early development of the Christian tradition – Jesus’ life, the primitive Christian community’s resurrection experience, and the initial proclamation (kerygma) – were followed by a period of about 40 years of oral tradition. During that time, stories about what Jesus said and did were spoken and not written down. This nearly half-century of oral tradition represents the fourth of the five stages in the development of early Christian faith that this series of weekly “mini-classes” is attempting to address. (Find the previous nine postings under the “Historical Jesus” category below the masthead of my blog.)

It is inevitable, of course, that oral tradition varies considerably. Even a group of ten or so people consecutively whispering a single message to their neighbors, can end up changing that message beyond recognition by the time it reaches the last message-recipient. Despite the fact that surviving eyewitnesses surely provided a degree of reality-check, imagine what happened to Jesus’ words and deeds over a half-century as his Aramaic words were translated into Greek, Latin and other languages by people working purely by memory. Imagine what happened to memories of his deeds when they were narrated outside of Palestine by storytellers who were not eyewitnesses, had no knowledge of Jesus’ language, and who possessed little acquaintance with Palestinian geography, Jewish customs, or of Hebrew Scriptures. Imagine what happened to Jesus’ message as Christian storytellers tried to make it relevant to “pagans” who had no knowledge of Judaism. The storytellers would have exploited perceived similarities between Jesus preaching and what the storytellers’ audiences already believed in their own religious traditions. [The Acts of the Apostles provides an example of Paul attempting such cross-cultural explanation (17: 16-34).] Soon Jesus would be explained to Romans in terms of their “mystery cults” with their “dying and rising gods.” As a result, Jesus would be perceived like the sun god, Mithra, whose birthday was December 25th. All such dynamics would have (and did) introduce variations from what the historical Jesus actually said and did.

In the case of Christianity, the obvious confusions of oral tradition were further complicated by the “resurrection factor.” By this I mean that Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection and in the living presence of his Spirit was powerful enough to convince them that the risen Lord continued speaking through community members endowed with the gift of “prophecy.”  They thought that Jesus was still addressing their problems even years after his death. Problems in question had to do with worship, community leadership, resolution of disputes, and everyday matters such as paying taxes, marriage and divorce. So the words of Jesus dealing with such issues and spoken through prophets found their way into the oral tradition about Jesus’ words. Understandably, it soon became impossible to remember which were the words of the historical Jesus and which the words of the risen Christ. Evidently, that distinction wasn’t of much importance to the early Christians. They placed both types of utterance in the same category. All of that further complicates the work of those trying to discern the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus.

Next week: Step Five: writing down the tradition

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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