Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

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by Tim Widowfield

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...
“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.'”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:

But who, then, was telling the stories about Jesus? Just the apostles? It can’t have been just the apostles. Just the people whom the apostles authorized? No way. Just people who checked their facts to make sure they didn’t change any of the stories but only recounted by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, among lots of people in different parts of the world, in different languages, and there was no way to control what one person said to the next about Jesus’s words and deeds. Everyone knows what happens to stories that circulate this way. Details get changed, episodes get invented, events get exaggerated, impressive accounts get made even more impressive, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman’s argument suggests that the stories Christians retold decades later differ from the stories told by the disciples of Jesus chiefly because of transmission errors and embellishment. Even the part about episodes getting invented needs to be understood within his framework of stories being told and retold. For Ehrman it’s part of the natural inclination of people recounting oral tradition to adapt stories to the audience and the times.

Eventually, an author heard the stories in his church — say it was “Mark” in the city of Rome. And he wrote his account. And ten or fifteen years later another author in another city read Mark’s account and decided to write his own, based partially on Mark but partially on the stories he had heard in his own community. And the Gospels started coming into existence. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

The end of the chain of oral transmission ends with our first evangelist, Mark, who apparently wrote his first gospel using what we would call, essentially, rumors as his primary source material. Other streams of oral tradition coalesced into a sayings source, Q, which Matthew and Luke used along with Mark’s gospel.

I still remember the dream there

Conservative scholars take exception with Ehrman’s telephone game model, mainly because it diverges from their fantasies about reliable transmission of oral and written traditions. For example, in The Reliability of the New Testament (TRNT), Daniel B. Wallace deflects the question to issues of textual transmission and insists that:

There was at least one very carefully produced stream of transmission for the New Testament manuscripts. And there is sufficient evidence to show that even a particular fourth-century manuscript in this line is usually more accurate than any second-century manuscript. (TRNT, p. 36)

On the other hand, an apologetic scholar like Darrell L. Bock may misdirect the reader with discussions of textual transmission (see pp. 44-45 of Dethroning Jesus), or he may face the oral tradition question squarely (warning: PDF), but offer folksy, anecdotal responses which conveniently ignore decades of research that would prove he’s just winging it. For example:

My third example is my own grandson. If I read a story to my grandchild and I change that story significantly, he will tell me that is not how the story goes. He lives in an oral world. Not able to read yet, my grandson processes everything orally by what he hears. Because he knows the story well enough to know how it ought to be told, he will correct me. That is how tradition worked within the church – in that kind of a way. (The Issue of Oral Tradition, p. 2)

“Vansina, Schmansina! Lemme tell you about my grandson.” Bock believes “the kind of oral tradition we are dealing with in the gospels is a carefully overseen kind of oral tradition,” because he wants to believe it. He rejects Ehrman’s telephone game model because it produces results that he does not like.

I still remember the time you said goodbye

A less conservative scholar, Mark Goodacre, also sees problems with the telephone game analogy, as you can tell from his NT Pod 66 (Oral Traditions and the Game of “Telephone”). He reminds us that it’s difficult to say much about the period between the life of Jesus and the first gospels, because it’s a “dark period.”

By its nature, we don’t know about that period when the oral tradition was circulating — well, you know, some things we’ve got clues about it, but all of our come in written texts. Oral tradition only survives insofar as it gets crystallized in text, and that’s our problem.

A bigger problem, he continues, is for people like us in a heavily literary society to imagine a completely oral society where memories were stored in minds and transmitted via speech. But in fact Goodacre says he never uses the game in his classes on the New Testament.

. . . it’s not something that I’ve ever done in the classroom myself. I haven’t gone for a little game of telephone to try and illustrate how oral tradition works. And my reason for that isn’t that I’m some sort of spoilsport and I don’t want my students to have fun, but it’s because I think it’s an incredibly bad analogy for the way that oral tradition probably developed. And as a teaching tool it’s kind of counter-productive, and I think it teaches people . . . things that may not have been the case in Early Christianity.

At this point I’m hoping Goodacre will finally hit the points that should be quite obvious. But he just ever so slightly misses the mark, and even retreats into some wishful thinking of his own.

Who’s to say that when [Paul] then came across Peter — because we know that he met Peter in his travels — who’s to say the Peter didn’t say, “Oh, no, no, actually, Paul, I think it was a little bit like this,” or “I think it was a little bit like that”? And there would have been a process of interaction going on. I mean, I don’t know if that’s exactly how it worked, but the Chinese whispers/straight telephone idea doesn’t quite grasp some of those interactive possibilities by always having it as something that’s going in one direction — there’s only one direction of traffic.

He also sees the fact that in playing the game there’s almost always some smart-aleck kid who deliberately changes the message just to be funny. And for that reason, too, he sees the telephone model of transmission as “problematic.” These are borderline apologetic arguments; they assume that the Jesus tradition had a self-correcting nature about it, which is not demonstrable. If anything, the early Christians like Paul who had visions of Jesus and received his pronouncements would not have been amenable to “correction.”

Goodacre is quite right and very perceptive in his next critique. The model itself does not make sense, because it presumes a stream of story-telling from person to person, but no religion spreads like that, least of all one with embedded social rituals like baptism, the Eucharist, weekly meetings with hymns and scripture readings, etc. He says:

There’s a sort of sense when you use that kind of analogy where you imagine the process of passing on oral tradition as if it goes from person A to person B to person C to person D to person E, and so on. And, really life isn’t like that. And traditions, I’m sure, would have been shared in communal context, in congregational sort of contexts, within sermons, within people thinking about biblical study, within people reflecting on the scriptures, and that isn’t just speculation, because we know again from looking at Paul that a lot of his sharing of the tradition takes place in letters that he’s writing to multiple people. So, he’s giving his examples of Jesus tradition, which he’s telling to lots of people. So again, the telephone analogy just doesn’t work there. 

Did we really tell lies?

Christianity is and has always been much more than a personal decision; it’s a cultural identity that requires membership in and interaction with a group that has longstanding and well-rehearsed rituals and traditions.

American biblical scholarship today is so dominated by Evangelicals and ex-Evangelicals that I’m afraid this issue has sailed over their heads. They imagine Christianity as an individually centered religion in which people accept Jesus “as their personal savior.” However, that is not how it worked in the past or how it works today in traditional, non-Protestant Christianity. Christianity is more than just confessing Christ. And a network of door-to-door salesmen cannot account for its spread. Christianity was and is a social and cultural movement — a group of people working together within a common framework to achieve certain goals.

So what if Ehrman’s mythical merchant on a trip to Smyrna tells his waitress a story about Jesus? “Sure, pal. Sounds like a nice guy. So . . . more bread sticks?”

Moreover, your “conversion” often had nothing to do with whether you personally had accepted the new religion. While I think most of the Acts of the Apostles is historical fiction, the stories of entire households accepting Christianity after the master or mistress of the house converts ring true. So if you were a slave and your master became a Christian, guess what — you’re now a Christian, too. Welcome aboard! Check out Acts 16, where Lydia’s household converted and were baptized.

Christianity is and has always been much more than a personal decision; it’s a cultural identity that requires membership in and interaction with a group that has longstanding and well-rehearsed rituals and traditions.

Finally, Goodacre points out that playing the telephone game with students may lead them to the false conclusion that we can explain the differences and similarities in the gospels as the end result of four separate oral streams. In fact, that sounds intuitive to most students.

But the thing we need to press more than anything else is the much less intuitive notion to most students that the synoptic gospels especially — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — are related at the literary level. The kind of verbatim agreement that you see between Matthew, Mark, and Luke witnesses, I would say, to very, very close copying at points.

I don’t disagree with Goodacre at all here, but I’m less concerned about students misunderstanding literary dependencies than I am about the telephone game presenting a false model of how tradition was passed on. More than that, I’m concerned that it completely ignores the bigger problem — namely, the unreliability of the traditions’ sources and the lack of tools to determine which traditions are inauthentic and which, if any, are authentic.

Letting in the sunshine

It appears that today’s scholars cannot see the elephant in the room or perhaps they have trained themselves to ignore it. When apologists talk about tradents having a vested interest in keeping the memory of Jesus alive and remaining faithful to the traditions they received from the apostles, they’re leaving out a critical point. What was different about Jesus’ apostles and the disciples of OT prophets? Or the disciples of Socrates and Plato? Or the followers of Hillel?

The difference is stark. Their teacher stayed dead. The followers of Jeremiah wanted to preserve what he had said. The followers of Jesus were still processing incoming messages.

How does an undead, risen Jesus change the game? Here’s what it means: Jesus had a post-historical career in which he met with people and talked to them. If you’re a believer, this news won’t come as a surprise. But to the rest of us, it should give us pause. What happened when people started seeing visions of the risen Jesus? How does that affect our understanding of the tradition if this wasn’t just a Jesus who smiled and waved, but one who passed on instructions?

Paul, for example, talks of tradition received “from the Lord,” but as Norman Perrin pointed out in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus:

. . . he also there means the Risen One, the Lord of the Church. Even if the Lord’s Supper paranese [i.e., an element of exhortatory composition] which follows (I Cor. 11.23b-25) should ultimately be based upon a historical reminiscence of an actual Passover celebrated by Jesus with his disciples shortly before his death — and that is in itself a very considerable ‘if’ — there is no doubt but that the original paranese represents an extensive development away from that original reminiscence. At the very least, all the Passover aspects have disappeared, the ‘words of institution’ have been reformulated in light of early Christian eucharistic practice (‘Do this as often as you drink, in remembrance of me’), and the paranese concludes with an injunction (v. 26) which cannot have come from the earthly Jesus.

Now, none of this would matter to Paul. Precisely because for him risen Lord and earthly Jesus are one and the same person, it would be a matter of complete indifference to him whether all, some, or none, of the words ascribed to the ‘Lord Jesus’ of the paranese had, in fact, been spoken by the earthly Jesus at an actual Passover, since they were being spoken by the risen Lord to his Church at the Eucharist. (p. 27, bold emphasis and reformatting mine)

M. Eugene Boring says it even more succinctly in Sayings of the Risen Jesus:

From all this it is clear that Paul does have a tradition of sayings of the Lord, a tradition that includes both sayings of the historical Jesus in various degrees of reinterpretation and sayings of the risen Lord derived from Christian prophets. Paul’s gospel is both tradition-receiving and tradition-creating. (p. 75, emphasis mine)

Did we really count to one hundred?

Charismatic prophets in the early Christian movement — well before the canonical gospels were written — channeled the resurrected Jesus and created tradition. I would go a step further and say that if Paul’s Christology was one of exaltation after death, then when he writes about words of “the Lord,” he always means utterances received via prophecy. Even if you accept the presumption of a historical Jesus who taught his disciples, you cannot escape the fact that the early Church did not distinguish between a historical Jesus (which is an anachronism, as any scholar ought to know) and the Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And because they did not, we cannot.

By comparison, then, errors in transmission, as posited by Ehrman, look rather trivial. But even if we could account for all the embellishments and all the garbled text, even if we could (as Maurice Casey dreams) reconstruct the Aramaic behind the Greek, we simply can’t get past the problem of invented tradition. Undoubtedly one of the very reasons Christianity drew followers was its vibrant worship service with congregation members exhibiting the gifts of the spirit — including prophecy. Hence, one of the features of early Christianity that contributed to its success also helped to make the recovery of the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus impossible.

Perhaps now that we can all see the elephant in the room we can finally talk about it.


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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23 thoughts on “Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?”

  1. Ehrman’s analogy seems simple and solid. It really only comes down to one thing: people talked. Whether it was one on one or a speaker addressing a 100 people, it doesn’t really matter– people had to tell each other about it and we know people are fallible. Even in the modern era and as much as we are drilled by the radio and TV people botch the words to songs and the punchline to jokes they’ve know their entire life.

    1. For anyone who didn’t have time to read the post, here are the two biggest issues with Ehrman’s analogy.

      1. It wrongly implies that the changes in the tradition are essentially transcription errors.

      2. It ignores the fact that early Christians received prophetic messages from the risen Jesus, which were added to the tradition.

      Regarding your points — yes, when people repeat stories, they change. But there is a different dynamic involved in the process of oral tradition within a group context. Storytellers in this environment do not merely embellish and misremember; they change, rearrange, and adapt stories to make them relevant to the audience at hand. It is a conscious and observable phenomenon. (Read Vansina.)

      The bigger issue, the elephant in the room, is the big difference between the keepers of tradition in Vansina’s tribes and the keepers of tradition in early Christian communities. Jesus, for them, is still alive and still has things to say.

      So now when we look at sayings like — “The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath” — we must wonder, is this bit of wisdom something a later Christian received as prophecy? Perhaps when the followers of Jesus began to become more Gentile and break away from their Jewish roots, they needed to explain why they no longer kept the Sabbath as strictly. And so this saying became part of the tradition, and when Mark wrote his gospel, he constructed a story around it. Or perhaps the story was created before Mark. Or maybe it really happened.

      The problem is how can we know which things were said and not said by the historical Jesus? As I said, because the early Christians did not differentiate between the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ, we cannot.

  2. thanks for a look at the kind of problems underestimated with over dependence on the Ehrman type analogy…not so much embellishment as variety built in , with prophesying, to the oral transmission [let us not say tradition , tho elements of the transmission no doubt formalised in way or ways ] Presently reading E Doherty v Ehrman on this blog…thanks

  3. Tim,

    I think the Dead Sea Scrolls are relevant to the issue of the existence of oral teachings or traditions. They express reverence for the Righteous Teacher without explicitly saying what all of his teachings were. He must have taught something impressive on the whole, since 1QpHab says:

    “[T]his concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets.”

    Additionally, 1QS says that the leader of the sect shall “instruct them in the mysteries of marvellous truth.”

    While the reason the teachings are not explicilty stated may have been because the sect practiced “faithful concealment of the mysteries of God (1QS),” in any event the Scrolls are evidence of “marvellous” oral teachings existing within a highly literate society, even after the death of the Righteous Teacher, when the Pesharim were written.

    Now, this doesn’t mean I think all or any of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are genuine. I just think it’s not out of the question that, if Jesus existed, his teachings likewise could have been preserved orally in his lifetime and after his death (to whatever degree of accuracy), and then later written down.

    I’ve been giving more thought to the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew lately, and perhaps the interesting puns and connecting words in the sayings in it (even taking into consideration the gospel’s uncertain transmission history) could provide some insight into how they might have been passed on orally (if so), in a way that is not apparent in the Greek.

    The fact that ancient Jewish Christians were said to have used some sort of Hebrew Matthew makes it even more interesting.

    While this is all extremely uncertain and a bit beyond my abilities, it’s where my mind goes when I consider the idea that there might have been an oral tradition.

    1. John: “Now, this doesn’t mean I think all or any of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are genuine. I just think it’s not out of the question that, if Jesus existed, his teachings likewise could have been preserved orally in his lifetime and after his death (to whatever degree of accuracy), and then later written down.”

      I can accept your assumptions. If Jesus existed, and if he was a teacher (can Paul corroborate this claim?), his followers would likely have preserved some of his sayings. If he was a faith healer (Paul says nothing about this), they would have preserved some of his deeds.

      The trouble with the telephone model has nothing to do with whether Jesus existed or not, but rather the implication that we can account for state of the received texts by appealing to transmission errors between the time of Jesus and the time the evangelists wrote their gospels. The model ignores entirely the fact that early Christians believed that the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ were identical and that both had something to say. Need I point out that the risen Jesus is a myth?

      I would add that when Ehrman describes the process, he says Christians amplified and perhaps even invented stories in order to excite and entice prospective converts. That’s not what the research in oral tradition tells us. Instead, stories are altered or created to meet the current needs of the community. There are telltale signs of this process in the gospels. Notice how Jesus heals the children of Gentiles (the next generation). Recall how the opponents of Jesus ask why his disciples do such and such.

      I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but I’m not saying Jesus did not say things that were remembered. However, I am saying that the early Christians believed he said other things after he died. And they clearly had no problem inventing stories that fit what they believed Jesus “would have taught” — whether they thought they received commandments in visions or they knowingly committed pious fraud hardly matters. The problem remains.

      A story can seem realistic. A saying can be plausible. Some of the stories and sayings may contain “Semitisms.” So what? We still can’t tell tell if it’s authentic.

      Even if you accept the presumption of a historical Jesus who taught his disciples, you cannot escape the fact that the early Church did not distinguish between a historical Jesus (which is an anachronism, as any scholar ought to know) and the Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And because they did not, we cannot.

      1. Tim,

        You wrote:

        “… the early Church did not distinguish between a historical Jesus … and the Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And because they did not, we cannot.”

        Aside from maybe Paul (assuming it was by necessity because he never met the historical Jesus, if there was one), I can’t think of any early Christians who transmitted sayings of a heavenly Jesus. Visions perhaps, but not sayings.

        I’m making a distinction between the resurrected Jesus and the heavenly Jesus, though, since what few post-resurrection sayings exist are still from an earthly, pre-ascended Jesus, however his form was understood (or imagined). I’m unaware of any sayings attributed to a Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, aside from maybe Paul.

        Not to say I’m certain there aren’t any, because I’m still looking into it, but I haven’t seen any yet. if anyone here can think of any, that’d be great. There would be nothing to distinguish if the context of all the sayings (aside from Paul) is earthly, even if they were all made up.

        1. John wrote: “I can’t think of any early Christians who transmitted sayings of a heavenly Jesus. Visions perhaps, but not sayings.”

          For starters, I’ll direct your attention to the Gospel of John, chapters 14 through 17. None of that is historical; it’s all either fiction or historicized Christian prophecy placed back into the past.

          1. I meant sayings of a Jesus in heaven, “at the right hand of God,” not of a Jesus believed to be from Heaven while on Earth.

            But I agree that the sayings in John 14-17 (and plenty of sayings in every gospel) are probably made up. Jewish Christians were said to have thought as much, which is why I focus on the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew, since they were said to have used a Hebrew version of Matthew and rejected other NT gospels.

            1. John: “I meant sayings of a Jesus in heaven . . .”

              Ah, but the ascension is a later fiction invented to put a lid on prophecy. The original understanding was that when Jesus was resurrected, he was immediately translated into a perfected spiritual body, then exalted to heaven.

              We shouldn’t think of the exalted Christ as bolted to his throne. When the spirit moved him (so to speak), he came down and talked to people. He was, after all “The Word” of God, i.e. the mediator between God and Man, the Divine Logos through whom the world was created, the path to salvation, and so on.

              1. “The original understanding was that when Jesus was resurrected, he was immediately translated into a perfected spiritual body, then exalted to heaven.”

                That is the impression I get from Paul, at least, and this is how I understand your meaning of “the Christ sitting at the right hand of God.” We are on the same page here.

                “When the spirit moved him (so to speak), he came down and talked to people.”

                But who else besides Paul said that the post-resurrected, spiritual Jesus communicated with them from Heaven? What texts actually say this and have these sayings?

              2. John: “But who else besides Paul . . .?”

                The most obvious is John of Patmos, who quotes the resurrected Jesus extensively in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation.

  4. Note that there didn’t seem to be a pushback against receiving instructions or prophecies from Jesus until around the time that the written Gospels start gaining renown in the mid 2nd century. This is the reason for heretics like Montanus being the focal point of the ire of church fathers like Tertullian; T himself having his writings no longer being relevant once he converts to Montanism, since this means he’s no longer orthodox.

    1. Yes, and I think one of the main reasons for the invention of the doctrine of the Ascension was to create a defined period in which Jesus met only with select people (i.e., his disciples) to pass on special teaching. The original tradition combined his resurrection and exaltation. Mark says the disciples “will see” Jesus in Galilee — but would that be as a vision or would it happen in the parousia? Paul’s descriptions of his vision(s) don’t seem to be categorically different from his descriptions of Cephas’ or James’ visions of the risen Lord. He could even “appear” to 500 people at once.

      But as you say, at some point the open microphone had to get shut down. In Ehrman’s latest book he rightly points out that during the post-resurrection sojourn, Jesus has to prove continually that it’s really him — bodily resurrected, wounds and all. So the gospels are already trying to push back on “heretical” ideas like docetism. “I’m not a ghost; watch me while I eat this fish!” To that I would add that they were also trying to stop the innovations (i.e., squelch the prophets).

  5. John: “But who else besides Paul . . .?

    Tim: “The most obvious is John of Patmos, who quotes the resurrected Jesus extensively in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation.”

    Thank you. I’ve never taken those into consideration as being sayings of Jesus before (heavenly or otherwise), but now it is obvious. There are also a few more in the rest of Revelation.

    The only other visions and sayings of the heavenly Jesus I’ve found so far are in Acts, where he is said to have appeared to Stephen (7:55-56), and appeared and spoken to Paul (9:3-6; cf. 22:6-10 and 26:13-18), Ananias (9:10-15), and Peter (10:11-16; cf. 11:5-10).

    Now I can see your previous statement in a new light.

    “… the early Church did not distinguish between a historical Jesus … and the Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And because they did not, we cannot.”

    But as far as Acts goes, Peter is presented as making a distinction between sayings of the ascended, heavenly Jesus and the earthly, resurrected Jesus when he tells the apostles about his vision (11:5-10) and then says:

    “Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (11:16; cf. 1:5).

    This then (along with the gospel of Luke) distinguishes the sayings of the earthly and resurrected Jesus and the ascended, spiritual, heavenly Jesus.

    And that brings us back to your other statement:

    “Ah, but the ascension is a later fiction invented to put a lid on prophecy. The original understanding was that when Jesus was resurrected, he was immediately translated into a perfected spiritual body, then exalted to heaven.”

    If this is true, then Acts and Luke (and all the gospels) do not represent this original understanding.

    That brings us back to square one. What other texts (aside from Paul and now Revelation) are representative of this original understanding and present sayings of a spiritual, heavenly Jesus?

    1. In Acts, we appear to have remnants or an earlier understanding that the mission to the Gentiles was sanctioned after the resurrection. “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat” (Acts 10:13) is probably meant to be the voice of God (not Jesus) from Heaven. However, it points to likelihood that the new understanding that Gentiles could join the movement and not defile Jews by their very presence was a conclusion based on prophecy.

      This new understanding was pushed back into history in the Gospel of Matthew, where in the last few verses Jesus commands the 12 (11?) to make disciples of all the nations. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt 28:19, KJV) We appear to be getting the first whiffs of the three-part godhead here, too. This saying has to be either a later prophetic understanding put on Jesus’ lips, or else it’s Matthean fiction.

      Oh, and the new understanding in which all animals are clean was retrojected into Mark’s gospel (7:19). It’s long been thought to be Markan redaction, but it’s a redaction based on later prophecy which Mark has historicized.

      1. Tim,

        I appreciate all your responses. I don’t have a position on any of these matters, and I’m just trying to sort everything out in addition to understanding your point of view.

        As for Peter’s vision, I was relying on the biblehub’s translation, which puts the words of Jesus (in this case “the Lord”) in red letters, so maybe “the Lord” is God here.

        Regarding Matthew 28, the Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew, interestingly, doesn’t mention Gentiles or the Trinity.

        1. Tim,

          I think I’m getting a clearer picture of the sayings of Jesus, and they appear to be presented in three ways:

          1. Sayings given while on Earth, pre-crucifixion
          2. Sayings given post-resurrection while on Earth
          3. Sayings given post-resurrection or post-ascension from Heaven

          The sayings are at least contexualized this way in the gospels, Acts and Revelation.

          So I’m trying to square this with your statement:

          “… the early Church did not distinguish between a historical Jesus … and the Christ sitting at the right hand of God. And because they did not, we cannot.”

          But if the writings that contain the sayings make this distinction, isn’t it simply a matter of considering their context (even if they are all fictional)?

          1. John: “But if the writings that contain the sayings make this distinction, isn’t it simply a matter of considering their context (even if they are all fictional)?”

            It depends on how you think the gospels were created. I tend to go with Bultmann in thinking the narrative context surrounding most (if not all) of the sayings was in a great deal of flux, and that they were recontextualized to fit the needs of the church. Dibelius, on the other hand, thought there was a controlled process the whole way through. Perrin assumed it was pretty much a free-for-all and there was no way to tell where and when a saying came from (save for double dissimilarity, in some particular cases).

            As an example, I would argue that the context around the saying “The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath” is a later story that was created to fulfill current church needs. So the first time I heard a scholar talk about using the story of the disciples plucking grain as a way to determine the length of Jesus’ ministry, I was amazed.

            They spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the husk. It’s like trying to learn about doors through a careful study of knock-knock jokes.

            I think the “Lord of the Sabbath” saying itself came from Christian prophets, channeling Jesus under the influence of scripture. I could be wrong; it could be authentic. But the point is we have no set of criteria that will help us decide one way or the other.

            This conundrum leads to what Neil was saying recently about the way today’s scholars have latched onto the criterion of plausibility. The other criteria simply don’t get them all the answers they want. What we’re getting now is a flood of fat books that could be summarized with, “Hey, why not? It could’ve happened.”

            1. I’m going to guess that the textual root for the idea that the sayings of Jesus in the gospels, Acts and Revelation were originally understood as being received from a heavenly or mythical Jesus (and later recontexualized into three contexts) is 1 Cor. 15:3-8 (and the like).

              I’m assuming this from reading this blog and the online writings of Doherty and Carrier and related internet writings over the last several years.

              Since a lot is being based on it, I’ve taken a fresh look at 1 Cor. 15:3-8.

              I noticed that v. 3 doesn’t say that (only) the death of Jesus was
              “according to the scriptures,” but that his death was “for our sins” according to the scriptures.

              This explains why v. 4a doesn’t say that his burial was also according to the scriptures, like he didn’t die according to them, because it is unremarkable if someone dies and is buried. What was “according to the scriptures” was the idea that he died *for our sins*.

              Likewise, the idea in v. 4b that he was “raised on the third day” was according to the scriptures.

              So this means that his death and burial (whether on Earth or in a vision) were not derived from scripture, only the ideas that his death was “for our sins” and that he was then “raised on the third day.”

              Then vv. 5-8 say that “he appeared to Cephas” (etc.). It doesn’t say that his death, burial and resurrection appeared to them, but that after these things (“and that” or “also”) he appeared to them.

              There is also no mention here (or anywhere else in Paul’s writings) that this post-resurrected/spiritual or heavenly Jesus said anything to Cephas, the Twelve, the 500 brothers and sisters, James and all the apostles who saw him, only that he appeared to them.

              Now, this is not to jab you, but it sounds like the idea that Jesus said something here that was later recontexualized in the gospels, Acts and Revelation is only something that “could’ve happened.”

              Is there anything else that you feel supports your view point, or is there a better way of looking at 1 Cor. 15:3-8?

  6. Tim,

    I apologize for citing your “could’ve happened” statement in the way that I did if it came across as mean spirited. It was not my intention to sound disrespectful. My internet time is limited, and as I was wrapping up that last comment it seemed easier and more direct to cite your statement than to think of another way to put it. I’ve enjoyed learning from you and Neil over the years, and I appreciate your willingness to indulge my thoughts. Even if it caused you no offense, I just wanted to get that off of my chest.

    I’ve had some additional thoughts regarding 1 Cor. 15:3-8 regarding Doherty and Carrier’s theory that it refers to a vision. my understanding is that this is because 15:3 begins with:

    “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance …”

    And Paul says in Gal. 1:11-12 that:

    “[T]he gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

    I think the differences between these two statements are twofold. Paul’s “gospel” that was not of human origin” refers to “the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles” that was presented to the apostles in Jerusalem in 2:2. That this is distinct from whatever gospel James and Cephas may have had is clear from Gal. 2:12-14, when Paul says that Cephas and others under the influence of people sent to Antioch by James “were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.”

    So Paul’s gospel that *he* preached and that he “received by revelation of Jesus Christ,” included the idea tha tit was no longer necessary to observe Jewish Law after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and because it differed in this way from the gospel of James and Cephas, Paul tried to correct it.

    1 Cor. 15:3-8 is only about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he says in 1 Cor. 15:11:

    “Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach.”

    This is what Paul, James, Cephas and all the apostles preached, what Paul says he “received [and] passed on to you as of first importance” in 15:3.

    Elsewhere, when he imparts something that he received by a revelation, he specifically says so, like in Gal. 1:12:

    “I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

    and 1 Cor. 11:23:

    “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.”

    and 1 Cor. 7:10:

    “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord).”

    and 1 Cor. 14:37:

    “[W]hat I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.”

    So 1 Cor. 15:3 is more like the information that didn’t come to people through a revelation, like in 1 Cor. 15:1-2:

    “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received … the word I preached to you.”

    and 1 Thes. 2:13:

    “[W]hen you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as … the word of God.”

    1. No offense taken. These are all good questions, worthy of serious research and more posts.

      It’s a core issue that is often ignored. Stay tuned.

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