Oral Tradition

After the death of Jesus, his followers of Jesus formed a small community with a mission: continued the evangelical outreach. Their fervor to spread the Good News stemmed from their apocalyptic world view. The dreaded Day of YHWH would soon arrive. They felt compelled to gather in every potential believer, at first Jewish, then Gentile, before the feared time of divine judgment. At first, they had no time to write down their reflections on the Christian life. They were too busy involving outsiders face-to-face, spreading their message by word-of-mouth.

Oral traditions arose in the early Church of the Apostolic era. Using modern literary tools, scholars have detected two such traditions that revealed early roots and showed development: the Passion-Resurrection narrative and the “Q” source.

The Passion-Resurrection Narrative:

This tradition consisted of six scenes tracing back to late 30’s to early 40’s CE. Comparing the Synoptics’ accounts with that of John’s, parts of Luke and parts of Matthew made their way into John independent of Mark. Yet, key phrases exist word-for-word in all four narratives. In other words, those who told the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection added to the narrative, yet strove to be faithful to certain elements, all the while allowing for some flexibility in oral recitation.

Two factors encouraged continual repetition of the tradition: 1) the urgency of sharing the apocalyptic message and 2) the immediacy of the Spirit in the community. Retelling the story acted as evangelization, reaching out to those not familiar with the salvific nature of Christ’s death. It also helped reinforce the charismatic nature of the Christian community, prophesied by sages at points in Israel’s history. In other words, the Passion-Resurrection narrative was the raison d’etre of the Church.

The “Q” Source:

This tradition consisted of passages shared by Luke and Matthew, but not found in Mark. Scholars have traced its roots back to the late 30’s to early 40’s CE. “Q” verses have far more word-for-word instances than the Passion-Resurrection narrative, thus leading many scholars to posit the source as a written document. Nonetheless, an analysis of its passages revealed a diversity of genres and topics while focusing on teaching community members and defending the faith. A majority of the passages consist of short sayings, useful for memorization, while extended passages allowed for flexibility in oral recitation. Taken as a whole, the “Q” source has a thematic arc similar to Mark (sans the Passion-Resurrection narrative): from a beginning of ministry with the Baptist to concluding comments on the eschaton. In other words, it was compiled, either through scribal redaction or organic additions, into an oral Gospel, meant to be memorized and passed along by word-of-mouth. Any written version of the “Q” stood as a step in a developing oral tradition.

And, so, let’s dive deeper into these two traditions to help peak behind the veil of pre-literary Christianity.