The many sources for the historical Jesus.

Oral and written traditions in primitive Christianity.


Early Christian traditions, both oral and written.

Oral traditions.
The agrapha.
The sayings of Jesus.
The fragments of Papias.
The traditions of the elders.

Written traditions.
The Jewish-Christian gospels.
The gospel of the Egyptians.
The gospel of Peter.
The preaching of Peter.
The gospel of Thomas.
The traditions of Matthias.
Dura-Europos 0212.
Papyrus Egerton 2.
Papyrus Cairensis 10735.
Papyrus Merton 51.
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840.
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1224.
Papyrus Vindobonensis 2325.

(The secret gospel of Mark used to make this list, but not anymore. Its date of composition is too late, middle of century XX).

N. T. Wright writes on pages 423-424 of The New Testament and the People of God:

It seems to me that the evangelists may well have faced, as a major task, the problem not so much of how to cobble together enough tradition to make a worthwhile book, but of how to work out what to include from the welter of available material. The old idea that the evangelists must have included everything that they had to hand was always, at best, a large anachronism.

It seems to Wright that the evangelists may have had a great deal of information about the historical Jesus at their disposal. It seems to me that Wright is probably right.

On my first pass through this important book by Wright, as I was reading those very words above, two passages immediately sprang to my mind in support of his contention, and I was not surprised to find that Wright himself had included those same passages in a footnote.

I refer, of course, to Luke 1.1-4...:

Επειδηπερ πολλοι επεχειρησαν αναταξασθαι διηγησιν περι των πεπληροφορημενων εν ημιν πραγματων, καθως παρεδοσαν ημιν οι απ αρχης αυτοπται και υπηρεται γενομενοι του λογου, εδοξε καμοι παρηκολουθηκοτι ανωθεν πασιν ακριβως καθεξης σοι γραψαι, κρατιστε Θεοφιλε, ινα επιγνως περι ων κατηχηθης λογων την ασφαλειαν.

Inasmuch as many took in hand to arrange an account about the facts that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and who became attendants of the word delivered them to us, it seemed fit for me also, having followed all things from the first, to write to you accurately, in order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you might know the secure basis concerning the words which you have been instructed.

...and to John 21.25:

Εστιν δε και αλλα πολλα α εποιησεν ο Ιησους, ατινα εαν γραφηται καθ εν ουδ αυτον οιμαι τον κοσμον χωρησαι τα γραφομενα βιβλια.

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose that not even the world itself would have place for the books that would be written.

And it would be neglectful not to notice the parallels with Acts 1.1-3...:

Τον μεν πρωτον λογον εποιησαμην περι παντων, ω Θεοφιλε, ων ηρξατο ο Ιησους ποιειν τε και διδασκειν αχρι ης ημερας εντειλαμενος τοις αποστολοις δια πνευματος αγιου ους εξελεξατο ανελημφθη, οις και παρεστησεν εαυτον ζωντα μετα το παθειν αυτον εν πολλοις τεκμηριοις, δι ημερων τεσσερακοντα οπτανομενος αυτοις και λεγων τα περι της βασιλειας του θεου.

The first volume I made about all things, O Theophilus, which Jesus began to do and teach until the day in which he was taken up after commanding through the holy spirit the apostles whom he had elected, to whom also he presented himself living after his passion by many sure proofs, for forty days being seen by them and saying the things concerning the kingdom of God.

...and John 20.30-31:

Πολλα μεν ουν και αλλα σημεια εποιησεν ο Ιησους ενωπιον των μαθητων, α ουκ εστιν γεγραμμενα εν τω βιβλιω τουτω· ταυτα δε γεγραπται ινα πιστευητε οτι Ιησους εστιν ο Χριστος ο υιος του θεου, και ινα πιστευοντες ζωην εχητε εν τω ονοματι αυτου.

Many other signs, therefore, did Jesus do before the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these things have been written so that you might have faith that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that having had faith you might have life in his name.

These passages together cover both halves of early Christian tradition history. Luke assures us that there was no lack of written information about Jesus...:

...πολλοι επεχειρησαν αναταξασθαι διηγησιν....

...many took in hand to arrange a narrative....

...John that there was no lack of oral information about Jesus:

...πολλα α εποιησεν ο Ιησους... εαν γραφηται....

...many things which Jesus did... if they were written....

Luke, incidentally, does not limit his statement to written materials alone. He asserts that certain things have been delivered to him, and assumes that Theophilus will have been exposed to catechetical material. Nevertheless, it is the ordering of a written narrative that he claims that the many (πολλοι) have undertaken. John, on the other hand, assumes that the many (πολλα) things that Jesus did have not yet been written down.

But, if there were so many sources (both oral and written) from which the evangelists might have had to choose which materials to include and which to exclude, has this plethora of sources left any traces? Do we have evidence of much oral and written early Christian tradition?

Keeping in mind the vicissitudes of history, and that we ought not to expect even a decent percentage of all historical material to have survived the centuries, the answer is yes.

Many sources preserve for us certain floating words or deeds of Jesus, and bear evidence to a rich oral transmission of early tradition. Furthermore, many actual texts have been unearthed in the desert sands of Egypt and other arid regions. We do not always know the exact provenance of each text or tradition, but they are evidence that there was no shortage of people willing and eager to pass on, both in writing and orally, the stories and sayings of Jesus.

Not all such items carry equal merit and authority. It is not my purpose here to either defend or attack the contents of any such traditions.

Furthermore, it is not my intention to state or imply that any or all such traditions predate Luke or John. They are adduced only as support for what Luke and John have to say about written and oral information. The Lucan and Johannine statements stand out all the more in the light of this plurality of tradition, even if all that we have extant turns out to be later than either Luke or John, or both.

These traditions, then, examined in the light of both Luke 1.1-4 and John 21.25, argue eloquently that there was in the primitive church no scarcity of traditions, both in oral and in written form, about Jesus of Nazareth.

It must ever be remembered that these are merely the traditions that we have uncovered. And it is beyond doubt that we have not discovered all that was ever spoken or written about Jesus.