Words and deeds.

Discourses and narratives in the Jesus tradition.


The modern distinction between sayings and stories in the Jesus material is actually ancient. Already within the first Christian generation or two we find the words of Jesus receiving somewhat different treatment than the stories about him.

Catechismal catenae.

We have access to several ancient Christian catenae of teachings, or catechismal materials. Miniature catechisms of this kind are to be found at least in our canonical gospels, in Clement of Rome, in Polycarp, and in the Didache. They consist entirely of Jesus sayings, and are often brought into the discussion with an injunction to remember.

I recommend reading more about such catechismal catenae on my page dedicated to two of them.

The Matthean discourses.

It is no secret that the gospel of Matthew contains exactly five instances of εγενετο (happened) followed by a finite verb, and that each of these five occurrences is found in the phrase και εγενετο οτε ετελεσεν ο Ιησους (and it happened that when Jesus finished). We find these five identical phrases, which I call discourse finales, in Matthew 7.28; 11.1; 13.53; 19.1; 26.1.

Nor is it a secret that each of these finales wraps up one of the five principal blocks of teaching in the book of Matthew. These five blocks are Matthew 5.1-7.29; 10.1-11.1; 13.1-53; 18.1-19.2; 24.1-26.2.

Already we notice that Matthew has set aside the discourses of Jesus for special treatment. Certainly we can discern collections of, say, miracle stories within his gospel, but nothing as well defined and bounded as these five collections of sayings.

But what I find quite interesting is that Matthew actually had (at least) six blocks of teaching at his disposal, but officialized, as it were, only five of them. For Matthew 23.1-39 is also an extended discourse, yet it does not conclude with the usual phrase marker. Matthew has, for whatever reason, decided to keep the number of official discourses to five.

And it looks to me like Matthew has actually tried to make 23.1-39 a part of his last teaching block by butting it right up against 24.1-26.2, the Olivet discourse. (A block similar to Matthew 23.1-39 appears in Luke 11.37-54, but nowhere near the Olivet discourse.) In order to do so, however, Matthew had to eliminate what in both Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4 immediately precedes Olivet, namely the story of the widow and her two mites. Why? Because that story is a narrative, and Matthew wanted a block of pure discourse. By eliminating the story of the widow he has created a block of teaching in 23.1-26.2 comparable in length to his first block, the sermon on the mount in 5.1-7.29. This longer discourse is interrupted only by the brief change in venue in 24.1-3, a pericope which nevertheless (and fittingly) is mainly about the words, not the deeds, of Jesus.

Matthew, then, has tried awfully hard to preserve as many sayings as he can in pure discourse blocks. His endeavors in this regard point up an ancient distinction between the sayings of and the stories about Jesus.

The prologue of Acts.

In the prologue to the Lucan book of the Acts of the Apostles we find a bifurcated way of referring to the totality of the ministry of Jesus:

...περι παντων... ων ηρξατο ο Ιησους ποιειν τε και διδασκειν....

...about all the things... which Jesus began to do and to teach....

Note the distinction between what Jesus did and what Jesus taught. Luke subsumes the scope of his entire first volume under the umbrella of these two dominical activities.

The Thomasine sayings.

In the gospel of Thomas we find a shining example of a pure sayings gospel. What Matthew did with his five discourse blocks Thomas has done with an entire gospel.

The prologue and first saying run as follows in lines 1-5 of papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654:

Ουτοι οι {οι} λογοι οι [αποκρυφοι ους ελα]λησεν Ιη{σου}ς ο ζων κ[αι εγραψεν Ιουδας ο] και Θωμα{ς}. και ειπεν· [Ος αν την ερμηνει]αν των λογων τουτ[ων ευρη θανατου] ου μη γευσηται.

These are the {the} [hidden] words [which] Je{su}s the living one [spoke] a[nd Judas wrote, who] is also Thoma{s}. And he said: [Whoever finds the interpreta]tion of the[se] words shall not taste [of death].

The rest of the gospel is true to this thesis statement. It consists entirely of the words of Jesus, with occasional statements from his disciples to move the sayings along or set up a reply from Jesus. True narrative is entirely lacking. Clearly the sayings part of the Jesus tradition has been singled out for special treatment.

The Papian fragments.

We come now to what I regard as the most intriguing example of sifting words from deeds. Papias describes the origin of the gospel of Mark as follows, citing a certain elder (text from Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.15):

Μαρκος μεν ερμηνευτης Πετρου γενομενος, οσα εμνημονευσεν ακριβως εγραψεν, ου μεντοι ταξει, τα υπο του κυριου η λεχθεντα η πραχθεντα.

Mark, who had become the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, yet not in order, as many things as he remembered of the things either said or done by the Lord.

Notice that Papias (or his elder) pegs Mark as an account of things said or done by the Lord. Luke uses similar words in the prologue to his second volume to describe his first. And I think that our canonical gospel of Mark, likewise, is accurately summarized as a record of what Jesus both said and did.