from jesus to christ - the first christians

Importance of the Oral Tradition

Before the gospels were composed, Jesus' first followers sustained his memory by sharing stories of his life, death and teachings.


L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


It's rather clear from the way that the stories develop in the gospels that the Christians who are writing the gospels a generation after the death of Jesus are doing so from a stock of oral memory, that is, stories that had been passed down to probably by followers. But if we think about the death of Jesus and remember a group of people who would have still been attached to him and to his memory after his death, it must have been a rather stark and traumatic period of time. Many of their initial hopes and expectations had been dashed. All of this talk of the kingdom of God arriving soon seemed to be disconfirmed with his death.

And yet there's that story of his resurrection of his coming back to life. And it's around that memory, around that set of concerns that a lot of the earliest oral stories about Jesus must have circulated and must have been built. So we have to imagine the followers of Jesus getting together around the dinner table probably and talking about their memories, maybe it was the memory of something he actually said once upon a time or maybe it was a glimpse of an image that they had of him. Surely they thought it was some image of great power.... But the thing that keeps coming back is they tell the story of who he was in retrospect from the experience of what he became through his death and through the story of his resurrection....

Story telling was at the center of the beginnings of the Jesus movement. And I think we're right to call it the Jesus movement here because if we think of it as Christianity, that is, from the perspective of the kind of movement and institutional religion that it would become a few hundred years later, we will miss the flavor of those earliest years of the kind of crude and rough beginnings, the small enclaves trying to keep the memory alive, and more than that, trying to understand what this Jesus meant for them. That's really the function of the story's a way for them to articulate their understanding of Jesus. And in the process of story telling, when we recognize it as a living part of the development of the tradition, we're watching them define Jesus for themselves. At that moment we have caught an authentic and maybe one of the most historically significant parts of the development of Christianity.


We have to remember that Jesus died around 30. For 40 years, there's no written gospel of his life, until after the revolt. During that time, we have very little in the way of written records within Christianity. Our first writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his first letter is dated around 50 to 52, still a good 20 years after Jesus, himself. But it appears that in between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it....

The fact that we're dealing in oral medium of story telling is very important to the development of the tradition itself because stories tend to be told in some units that can be passed along easily, easily remembered. Sometimes they may even be put in different order or you may only tell certain parts of the story. They're indications that we may have collections of miracle stories that circulated independently and maybe collections of teachings, as well. But, probably the core of all the oral tradition is the summary of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Passion tradition.

How did this start to get written down, these stories that people are telling one another?

In the development of the oral tradition then, it seems that over time some of these stories came to be written down, and the use of these summary statements about the contents of the story of Jesus are what came to be thought of as the gospel, the good news, the story of Jesus. But the term gospel, or good news, itself, means just a proclamation of the information, of what happened - The Great Story. And that's what the gospels are, a narrative tradition, the story of Jesus.


How did the resurrection story get started? We have to remember that the gospels themselves and their full account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus came a good bit after the fact, a full generation, in some cases perhaps even sixty years, two generations later. So those stories had a long time to evolve and develop. But we can see that they're based on some smaller units of oral tradition that had been circulating for many years before. We see this even in Paul's letters. Paul himself, remember, doesn't write a gospel. He actually doesn't tell us much about the life of Jesus at all. He never once mentions a miracle story. He tells us nothing about the birth. He never tells us anything about teaching in parables or any of those other typical features of the gospel tradition of Jesus. What Paul does tell us about is the death, and he does so in a form that indicates that he's actually reciting a well-known body of material. So when he tells us, "I received and I handed on to you," he's referring to his preaching, but he's also telling us that what he preaches, that is the material that he delivers, is actually developed through the oral tradition itself.

Now one of the most important examples of this comes in the First Corinthian Letter. On two separate occasions in First Corinthians, he actually gives us snippets of early pieces of oral material which he repeats in a way, so as to remind his audience of what they've already heard. In other words, it presupposes that they will recognize this material. And because we can isolate it out of his letters, the way he describes, we then are able to reconstruct...what that early body of material would have looked like at a time before it's ever written down.Now one of these is First Corinthians 11 where Paul describes Jesus instituting the last supper. And that's one of the early pieces of oral material. The other one is First Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the story of the death, burial and resurrection. In First Corinthians 15, Paul's description of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is the earliest account that we have in any written form. And it's clearly what Paul himself had heard and learned over a period of several years. So it's one of those little blocks of material in Paul's letters that pushes us that much farther back toward the historical time of Jesus.

Now here's what he tells us, he says that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, he relates it to prophecy. Then he says, "Jesus appeared". He doesn't tell us about the empty tomb. There's no reference to that part of the story at all. Instead he tells us Jesus appeared, first to Peter and then the twelve, next to 500 people, some of whom had already died by the time Paul heard the story.

Now in each of these two cases it's interesting that we have information that we don't get anywhere else in the gospels tradition. So it's a unit of oral material that is very important to the development of the tradition....

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Now what happens as an oral tradition arises about an historical event or an historical person is that, strangely enough, the first oral tradition is not an attempt to remember exactly what happened, but is rather a return into the symbols of the tradition that could explain an event. Therefore, one has to imagine that legend and myth and hymn and prayer are the vehicles in which oral traditions develop. The move into a formulated tradition that looks as if it was a description of the actual historical events is actually the end result of such a development. Only the later writer would bring a report about Jesus' suffering that has the semblance of the report of the actual events, one after another, that happened. One could, for example, imagine that the oldest way in which the early Christians told about Jesus' suffering and death was the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2, about the one who was in the form of God who humiliated himself and was obedient even to death on the cross, and was therefore raised high up by God. This was a very old hymn. Paul quotes this hymn when he writes Philippians, that is, in the early 50s of the first century. He quotes this as a hymn that probably was sung in the Christian communities, ten or twenty years earlier. That is the way in which you first tell the story. And that you tell the story in the form of a hymn also shows that the telling of the story is anchored in the worship life of the community. So here is really the beginning of the oral tradition. And it becomes story as it is retold, resung.... It could be resung as a hymn, but retold as a narrative, again in the worship setting of the community.

So oral tradition develops as the community looks for a recreation of memory in community life. The same thing also happens to the words of Jesus as they are remembered, because the words of Jesus are not remembered in order to record Jesus' wonderful preaching, but they are remembered in order to find in the words of Jesus wisdom for the ordering of the life of the new community. The earliest quotations or words of Jesus that we have are not in our gospels, but they are in the letters of Paul. And each one of these words of Jesus that appears in the letters of Paul is advice for the regulation of the life of the community. That's where they function. And what does not serve such purpose would not enter the oral tradition....

We cannot go back and peel the later ecretions away, and outside we have the earliest layer of the words of Jesus, and this is what Jesus must have said, because even the earliest layer of the tradition of Jesus' words has already been formulated, not for the purposes of memory, but for the purposes of community life....

Why do these stories and these oral traditions finally get written down is the question.... Perhaps because in order to communicate from one community to the other. The only way in which different Christian communities who had contact with each other could assure that their traditions were uniform and could be shared was by writing them down, and by thus exchanging those stories. It could also be written down in order to be used as letters of recommendation. Now let me explain this because this sounds a little strange. We do know that Christian apostles traveled around not only doing miracles, but also bringing records of miracles they had done at other places and at the same time miracles of Jesus they had written down in order to be used as accreditation as they came to a new community....

And so the writing was for particular purposes, probably this passion narrative was written down also in order to assure among different communities that the story that they would tell of Jesus' suffering in the celebration of the Eucharist would be stories told along the same lines. But even the writing down of a story at one point does not mean that it is now fixed. Because we go from telling of a story to writing of a story, but that written story is now used again in the telling of the story in a new liturgical situation. So that the next process of writing would look different than the first writing in fact was. And therefore we can not just simply talk about a tradition that was once oral and then it's fixed....

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published april 1998

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