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the gospel of the good news

Importance of the Oral Tradition

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….