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

Stage Two in the Early Development of the Christian Tradition: The Resurrection Experience

(This is the eighth 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.)

There were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. In the postings of the last two weeks, we examined the first stage, the life of Jesus.

There we saw a Jesus who was (1) an insightful teacher, (2) a faith healer, (3) a prophetic critic, (4) a Jewish mystic, and (5) a movement founder. More specifically, Jesus scholarship has uncovered a prophet who was baptized by John and was probably John’s disciple. This Jesus carried on a ministry in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, and finally in the urban center, Jerusalem.  He was an exorcist and miracle worker. He didn’t follow Jewish laws about fasting. He practiced table fellowship with the poor and outcasts.  Finally, this Jesus was crucified by Rome with the form of execution reserved for rebels and revolutionaries. Scholars draw these conclusions by applying the “criteria of discernment” described earlier in this series of postings.

The focus of today’s entry is Jesus’ resurrection, the second of the five stages in the early development of the Christian tradition.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, Jesus was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion. The exact nature of the experience remains unclear.

In Paul (the earliest 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience is clearly visionary: he sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, the original Marcan manuscript ends without any narrations at all of resurrection appearances. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). The absence of resurrection appearances in Mark indicates either that he (writing about the year 70) didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection is powerless to explain the profound change that took place in the disciples after Jesus’ death. After all, before the resurrection they were fearful and cowardly; afterwards they were bold and courageous. However, according to the early traditions, it was not the resurrection that transformed the disciples in this way. It was the specifically spiritual experience of Pentecost with its “descent of the Holy Spirit” upon them (Acts 2).

What do you think? Do such reflections make it easier or more difficult to accept the Christian message?