This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site. An initial series of notes and articles were originally posted on the earlier version of Biblesoft’s online study site in 2019, and are being reposted here (with some modification) leading up into Easter season 2020. Eventually, new articles will be added which expand and build upon these original notes.
This subject, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:
- Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
- Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
- Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.
When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:
- The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
- Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
- Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
- The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
- The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.
Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.
If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:
- Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
- Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
- Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
- Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
- Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.
Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scripture, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.
I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.
When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.
As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:
- The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
- The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
- Details unique to Matthew
- Details unique to Luke
- Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John
In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—
- The ministry of John
- The relationship between John and Jesus
- Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John
and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.
The initial set of notes will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).