Before proceeding to the next main topic in this series on “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“, focusing on the Galilean Ministry Period of Jesus, it may be useful to examine briefly, over the next few notes, how the various traditions came to be joined together. This study will deal primarily with the Synoptic Gospels—the Synoptic Tradition—since it provides the best evidence for how the original historical traditions may have been combined.
The various traditions may be classified in different ways. We can note generally the following types:
- Sayings of Jesus, sometimes combined in fundamental groups or clusters of sayings, or set within a very simple narrative framework.
- Parables of Jesus, often preserved in distinct blocks of parables.
- Miracle stories, which also be joined/grouped into sequence; sometimes the miracle tradition is presented as a pronouncement story, in which the narrative climaxes with a saying or declaration by Jesus.
- Encounter scenes, which, in the Synoptics, often involve conflict and debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (typically specified as “Scribes and Pharisees”). These traditional scenes occasionally take the form of pronouncement episodes as well.
- Pronouncement stories of other kinds, often involving Jesus together with his disciples.
Other categories might be added, but these cover the majority of traditions, especially as they occur in the core Synoptic Tradition; for the purpose of this series, I have used the Gospel of Mark as representing this “Synoptic” material generally. If Matthew and Luke did not make use of the Gospel of Mark, then they must have used material which had a very similar outline and arrangement of content.
The Markan Outline
The Galilean Ministry period, which makes up the first half of the Synoptic narrative, is covered by 1:14–8:30 in Mark. There is evidence of a careful, thematic treatment of the traditional material, which indicates some degree of literary development, presumably by the Gospel writer. It is very difficult to tell how much of this occurred within the traditional material prior to its inclusion in Mark’s Gospel. Some signs are present, however. Consider, for example, Mk 2:1-3:6, a block of five traditions, or episodes, which are preserved, in sequence, by Luke (5:17-6:11) and also by Matthew (though separated in Mt, 9:2-17 and 12:1-14). All five episodes share the common theme of (negative) reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his miracles, teaching and the conduct of he and his disciples—by the religious authorities (“Scribes and Pharisees”, etc), or by people with a strict traditional-religious mindset. This thematic association could easily have taken place well before Mark’s Gospel was composed. Almost certainly this is the case with the last two episodes (2:23-28; 3:1-6) which involve the observance of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath regulations.
While it is possible that a sequence of events such as Mk 2:1-3:6 may be presented in its chronological order—i.e., as the events actually occurred—nothing in the text requires that it be read this way. There are many differences in the order of scenes and sections in the Gospels, and, in most instances, this reflects a literary, rather than historical/chronological, arrangement. In the case of the Sabbath Controversy episodes (Mk 2:23-28; 3:1-6 par, discussed in the previous notes), Mark gives the impression that these occurred on the same day, while Luke clearly states that they took place on different Sabbath days (Lk 6:6). At the historical level, the second episode conceivably could have occurred prior to the first episode. In a number of places, Luke has the same traditions as Mark, but in the reverse order, or even an entirely different arrangement (more common in Matthew).
An interesting example involves the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ Walking on the Water. These two episodes are joined together in both the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Johannine tradition—Mk 6:30-52; Matt 14:13-33, and John 6:1-21. The combination of the episodes in two entirely separate lines of tradition means that they were likely joined together prior to their inclusion in Mark. Moreover, since there is no obvious thematic association between the two episodes, this could indicate an original historical-chronological connection—Jesus’ walking on the water was remembered as occurring (right) after the feeding miracle. The association of the episodes was so strong that the Johannine Gospel writer (trad. John the apostle) was compelled to include the walking-on-water scene even though it interrupts the sequence of the Feeding miracle followed by the Bread of Life discourse. There is no clear and discernable reason why it was included, other than the strength of the early tradition which set the two episodes together.
As I have indicated, many traditions are joined together by a common theme, or sometimes a common word or phrase, referred to as “catchword bonding”. Most likely this took place at a very early point in the transmission of the material, perhaps even at the point of oral transmission, when such organization based on theme and key word or motif would have helped early believers retain disparate traditions in their memory, and make it easier to pass them along to others by word of mouth. However, while this traditional material is presumably at an earlier stage of development in Mark, than it is in the other Gospels, the precise literary arrangement still show considerable signs of development, by the writer (trad. Mark). I recognize four units which make up the Galilean Period material in Mk 1:14–8:30. I outline these as follows:
- The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry—1:14-45. This includes:
- Reaction to Jesus’ Ministry: conflict/debate with religious authorities—2:1-3:6
- Jesus’ Ministry with the disciples (theme of discipleship)—3:13-6:13
- Reaction to Jesus’ Ministry: including conflict/debate with religious authorities—6:14-8:30
This essentially divides the Galilean period into two main sections, which have a similar (and parallel) thematic structure. I take this to be largely a Markan development; and, to the extent that this outline is preserved in Matthew and Luke, it supports the critical hypothesis that those two Gospels each made use of Mark. Here is an expanded outline of the last two units, covering 3:13-8:30:
- Calling the Twelve—3:13-19
- Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; 3 traditions joined together:
3:20-21, 22-30, 31-35
- Parables of Jesus—4:1-34, a distinct block (or sub-unit) of traditional material, organized as follows:
- Miracle (Calming the Storm): Jesus with the Disciples together in the boat—4:35-41
- Healing Miracles: 2 Episodes (3 miracles)—5:1-20, 21-43
- Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; episode at Nazareth—6:1-6a
- Mission of the Twelve—6:6b-13
I have pointed out the symmetric (chiastic) structure of this section in an earlier note; it is framed by the two episodes involving the Twelve—their calling/naming, and their mission.
- Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16
[inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
- Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44
Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52
(they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
- Healing Miracles—6:53-56
- Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23
including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
- Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
- Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10
Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21
(they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
- Healing miracle—8:22-26
- Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30
Again, there is a symmetric/chiastic structure, with parallel episodes involving (1) the public reaction to Jesus’ identity, (2) a feeding miracle with similar details and associated traditions, and (3) healing miracles. At the center is the debate of Jesus with the “Scribes and Pharisees” regarding religious tradition and ritual behavior.
A Point of Development: Mark 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13
The traditions involving Jesus’ calling of the Twelve (Disciples/Apostles), and their mission into the territory of Galilee as Jesus’ representatives, are instructive for examining how different lines of tradition were joined together, i.e. in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I have already discussed Mk 3:13-19 and its Synoptic parallels in prior notes; here I want to point out again how the Gospels writers incorporated additional material into the Synoptic (Markan) outline at these points. As a result, the narrative was expanded and enhanced considerably, creating a more complex structure. This will be discussed further in the next note, focusing on the Lukan treatment of the Synoptic material corresponding to Mark 3:13-8:30.