How did the oral traditions of Jesus start?

There are a lot of long gaps in the early history of the New Testament. Jesus died in 30 CE. Paul doesn’t start writing until 50 CE. And the first gospel (Mark) is not written until 70. What happened to continue the story of Jesus, especially in that period 30-50 CE before anything was written down?

This week we ran across some thoughts on this very thing from Bishop Shelby Spong. We’ve mentioned Spong several times in this newsletter. You’ve got to listen to his YouTube lectures to get a real appreciation of this iconoclast and how he unapologetically deals with the traditional Christian literal approach to the Bible. 

  • Part of the Jewish community. Spong points out that the early followers of Jesus were part of the regular Jewish community, attending the synagogue gatherings just like everyone. Here’s how one of those services might have gone:
    • First you get a long reading from the Torah (first five books of Old Testament).
    • Next you get some more reading from Joshua through Kings.
    • After that you get even more reading from Isaiah through Malachi. Did they stand or sit through all this? How did they stay awake?
    • Finally … someone else gets to stand up and talk about recent events. That’s when the followers of Jesus started relaying their stories around the life of Jesus. They also took that opportunity to point out how Jesus could be connected with many of these endless Old Testament readings everyone just sat through. This happened every week, year after year, until someone (I.e. Mark) finally put quill to parchment to create a combined story we call the first gospel.
  • Old Testament stories redesigned. This also explains why the gospels have so many parallels to stories and prophecies written in the Old Testament. For example, the feeding of the 5,000, flight to Egypt, and healing of lepers were all stories that were written in slightly different form in the Old Testament (think Moses and Egypt compared to Jesus and flight to Egypt). Mark even starts his gospel by saying “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ; as it is written in the prophets.”
  • Paul was part of the Jewish leadership. This also helps explain why Paul (at first a strict traditional Jew) persecuted these “followers of the way,” as the Christians were then called. After his conversion (circa 50 CE), these early Christians were still a part of the Jewish participants in the synagogue. But by about 90 CE, the Jewish traditionalists had had enough of this faction, and expelled them from from the synagogue (John even refers to it).

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