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Importance of the Oral Tradition

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.