In Summary

This has been a lengthy chapter, so let me sum up what has emerged about the Jesus tradition prior to its being written down.

First (§8.1), I noted the strong circumstantial case for the view that, from the beginning, new converts would have wanted to know about Jesus, that no church would have been established without its store of foundation (including Jesus) tradition, and that the churches were organised to maintain and to pass on that tradition. The importance of remembering Jesus and learning about him and of responsible teachers is attested as early as we can reach back into earliest Christianity, in Jewish as well as Gentile churches. The apparent silence of Paul and the character of the Gospels themselves provide no substantive counter-argument.

Second (§8.2), the assumption that prophecy within the earliest churches would have added substantial material to the Jesus tradition has been misleading. It is not borne out to any great extent by what we know of early church prophetic activity. On the contrary, recognition of the danger offalse prophecy would almost certainly have been as widespread as prophecy itself, and the first churches would probably have been alert to the danger of accepting any prophetic utterance which was out of harmony with the Jesus tradition already received.

When we turned, third (§8.3), to examine the relevance of oral tradition to our quest, we noted the widespread recognition among specialists in orality of the character of oral transmission as a mix of stable themes and flexibility, of fixed and variable elements in oral retelling. But we also noted that such insights have hardly begun to be exploited adequately in the treatment of Jesus tradition as oral tradition. However, Bailey's observations, drawn from his experience of oral traditioning processes in Middle Eastern village life, have highlighted points of potential importance, particularly the rationale which, in the cases in point, determined the distinction between the more fixed elements and constant themes on the one hand, and the flexible and variable elements on the other. Where stories or teaching was important for the community's identity and life there would be a concern to maintain the core or key features, however varied other details (less important to the story's or teaching's point) in successive retellings.

Our own examination, fourth (§§8.4, 5), of the Jesus tradition itself confirmed the relevance of the oral paradigm and the danger of assuming (consciously or otherwise) the literary paradigm. The findings did not call into serious question the priority of Mark or the existence of a document Q. But, in each of the examples marshalled, the degree of variation between clearly parallel tra ditions and the inconsequential character of so much of the variations have hardly encouraged an explanation in terms of literary dependence (on Mark or Q) or of literary editing. Rather, the combination of stability and flexibility positively cried out to be recognized as typically oral in character. That probably implies in at least some cases that the variation was due to knowledge and use of the same tradition in oral mode, as part of the community tradition familiar to Matthew and Luke. And even if a pericope was derived from Mark or Q, the retelling by Matthew or Luke is itself better described as in oral mode, maintaining the character of an oral retelling more than of a literary editing.314

In both cases (narratives and teachings) we also noted (1) a concern to remember the things Jesus had done and said. The discipleship and embryonic communities which had been formed and shaped by the impact of Jesus' life and message would naturally have celebrated that tradition as central to their own identity as disciples and churches. We noted also (2) that the memories consisted in stories and teachings whose own identity was focused in particular themes and/or particular words and phrases — usually those said by Jesus himself. And (3) that the variations and developments were not linear or cumulative in character, but the variations of oral performance. The material examined indicated neither concern to preserve some kind of literalistic historicity of detail, nor any readiness to flood the tradition with Jewish wisdom or prophetic utterance.

Finally (§8.6), we have observed that the pattern of the oral traditioning process was probably established more or less from the beginning (before the first Easter) and was probably maintained in character through to (and beyond) the writing down of the tradition. The first impact (sequence of impacts) made by Jesus resulted in the formation of tradition, which was itself formative and constitutive of community/church through Easter, beyond Galilee and into Greek, and was preserved and celebrated through regular performance (whether in communal or specifically liturgical gatherings) or reviewed for apologetic or catechetical purposes. In other words, what we today are confronted with in the Gospels is not the top layer (last edition) of a series of increasingly impenetrable layers, but the living tradition of Christian celebration which takes us with surprising immediacy to the heart of the first memories of Jesus.

On the basis of all this we can begin to build a portrayal of the remembered Jesus, of the impact made by his words and deeds on the first disciples as that impact was 'translated' into oral tradition and as it was passed down in oral performance within the earliest circles of disciples and the churches, to be enshrined in due course in the written Synoptic tradition.

314. R. F. Person, 'The Ancient Israelite Scribe as Performer', JBL 117 (1998) 601-609, argues that the scribes understood their task as re-presenting the dynamic tradition of their communities, as illustrated from some of the scribal interventions in

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