The president of the Board of Commissioners here in St. Bernard Parish, just outside of New Orleans, drove me around yesterday, telling me all about Katrina in 2005 and how it affected this area. We had a lovely dinner and continued talking about material from the class and some things in life he and I have in common. I’m fortunate to be here teaching these people and I know it.
Day 2 of the Historical Jesus class is about the eyewitnesses, people such as Jairus, Bartimaeus, Cleopas, Joanna, Susanna, Malchus, Simon of Cyrene, Lazarus, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and, of course, Mary Magdalene. They’re characters who are neither members of the Twelve nor public persons (Herod, Pilate) who are nonetheless named in the Gospels.
The Difference Between Oral Tradition and Eyewitnesses
A lot of people have heard, unfortunately, that the Gospels were passed down to us in a clumsy process comparable to playing the kids’ game known as “telephone.” One person told a story or related a saying of Jesus and it passed down the line from person to person. After a few iterations of being told and retold, the details were garbled and the story altered. By the time these stories and saying were written down 40 and 50 years later, very little of the original material probably remained, right?
Richard Bauckham in his landmark book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, presents a compelling theory about where the Gospels came from.
The first written accounts about Yeshua came about four to six decades after the resurrection. The Gospels only appeared when the eyewitness generation was nearly dead and gone. There were two probable reasons for this delay. The earliest believers expected Messiah to return quickly and did not think the story needed to be put in writing. And there was a preference for eyewitness accounts of important events in the ancient world. Storytelling was more important in general than literature.
The people who told stories about Yeshua were Jews who encountered him in the land of Israel and a few non-Jews. They were people like Simon, a Jew from Cyrene (North Africa), and his sons Rufus and Alexander. They had come to Jerusalem for Passover, a very expensive voyage for anyone to make. And Simon had the misfortune of being pressed into service by a Roman guard to carry the execution post of Yeshua.
When the Gospel writers named people like Simon of Cyrene (and his sons), they did so according to a principle of ancient biography. Eyewitness sources are named while those in the stories who were not eyewitnesses are left unnamed.
Other Jews whose testimony was crucial for making the deeds and sayings of Yeshua known included Mary of Magdala (a village on the shores of Galilee), Peter (Kepha/Cephas, Shimon/Simon), Jairus (a synagogue ruler), John (the Beloved Disciple), Joanna, Susanna, Cleopas, Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, and a number of different Mary’s.
How did the Gospel writers come to know about these individuals? They were well-known because their stories were sought after. People in the early congregations wanted to hear Bartimaeus’s story or Jairus’s. They wanted Mary of Magdala to tell them over and over again what it was like to be the first person to see Yeshua risen. The high priest’s servant, Malchus, must have been an amazing person to listen to.
Whenever people heard one of the eyewitnesses speak, they would report to others in their travels what they heard. The ways these people who had seen Yeshua told their stories became a fixed pattern of oral tradition. There were variant tellings, with minor differences in things like the number of healings or varied forms of Yeshua’s sayings. Storytelling was the way Yeshua’s life was known during the first five decades of the Yeshua movement. And those stories originated where they happened, in the land of Israel.
This was not oral tradition (the thing that can become the game of telephone) but is, rather, oral history. And in a group of people who are about the stories enough to base their meetings completely on them, it is more than possible for them to be preserved accurately. The retelling of these eyewitness stories is what they called “the Gospel.”
More About Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
Following roughly the outline of the first half of Bauckham’s book, we talked first about Papias and a famous saying recorded in Eusebius of Caesarea. Papias, writing about 110 CE, spoke of work he did collecting traditions and sayings about Jesus from “those who had been in attendance on the elders” when he was a younger man. We glean a few things from his saying:
- Papias had the chance to speak with people who had heard members of the Twelve and other disciples of Jesus speak.
- Two of the Lord’s disciples — Aristion and John the Elder — were still alive when Papias was a young man.
- Papias shared the belief of many others in his time, that hearing a “living and surviving voice” was far better that hearing sermons, philosophy, or reading about a person in a book.
- Papias didn’t care so much about people “who had a lot to say” or those who knew commandments from someone other than the “Lord’s own commandments.”
Once we saw Papias’s own attitude about the living, surviving voice, we looked for evidence in the Gospels of a similar pattern. It turns out Greco-Roman biographies and histories were based on the same preference for people who were involved in the events as eyewitness sources. And the method of revealing a writer’s sources is simple: name the character.
So we talked about:
- Named and unnamed characters.
- Why are some characters named and others unnamed in the Gospels?
- Why are some characters named in one Gospel but unnamed in the parallels?
- We looked in depth at the names of those said to be present at the cross, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus in all four Gospels.
- We found in Mark an inclusio — a literary device in which the first character named and the last is the same — with Peter, part of a larger case that Peter was the primary source for much of the Gospel of Mark.
- We found in the Fourth Gospel that the Beloved Disciple was emphasized with the same inclusio device (and I touched on Bauckham’s case that the Beloved Disciple and author of John is none other than the elder John from Papias’s saying).
- We discussed the women in Luke as the inclusio.
- We talked about protective anonymity — the reason Peter isn’t named in Mark as the one who cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave and neither is the slave mentioned. But they are named in John. This may be because it would have been dangerous to name people in a story about something Rome could perceive as an act of rebellion. But by the time the Fourth Gospel was written, the war was over.
- Of course, we talked about a lot more. Students met in breakout groups and did research and reported back in a full classroom discussion.
Imagining the Early Believers Telling Gospel
When we read the Gospels, we find material that is sparse in description and, more importantly, there is an absence of sermons and theological expansion. They don’t preach. They don’t expound on immortality and afterlife. They don’t expand the material.
They tell it in a manner similar to the way the eyewitnesses would speak. This probably is because the early believers in their meetings would rehearse what had been passed down to them from the eyewitnesses and would tell and retell it in that same style.
They told and retold the stories, at first, without explaining the meaning. But no doubt in their meetings, gathered together, they would then discuss what it meant and how it applied to them. This was to them “the Gospel.” The first and most important part of it was the story of the cross, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances. That is why Paul calls this Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.
It was when — very much to their surprise — Jesus had not yet returned and the eyewitnesses were dead and dying that they finally wrote it down.
They left us with a “living and surviving voice.”
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