A fundamental conclusion from our studies thus far is that the Scriptures (of the Old Testament), while continuing to be authoritative for early Christians, possessed a secondary, or supplemental, authority. The primary source of religious authority was located in what may be labeled broadly as the Apostolic Tradition. In the mind of first-century Christians, the Scriptures support and confirm the Apostolic Tradition. In turn, the Apostolic Tradition formed the basis of the New Testament Scriptures. There are three main components to this Tradition:
- The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel, and the seminal Gospel narrative that developed from it.
- The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—transmitted from the apostolic witness of what Jesus said and did.
- The inspired teaching and instruction by the apostles (as representatives of Jesus).
The first of these was discussed in the previous study; here we will be examining the second—the words of Jesus.
2. The Words of Jesus
The apostolic witness (of what Jesus said and did) was at first (c. 35-50 A.D.) transmitted orally; gradually, the sayings and teachings of Jesus were preserved in written form—a process that likely took place during the years c. 45-60. There are three main lines of tradition in this regard:
- The Synoptic Tradition, as represented principally by the Gospel of Mark
- The so-called “Q” (for German Quelle [“source”]) material, and
- The Johannine Tradition (represented by the Gospel of John)
These are altogether separate lines of tradition, with very little overlap, except insofar as each draws on some of the same historical traditions. For the most part, the Synoptic Tradition and the “Q” Tradition, drew upon separate sets of sayings and parables of Jesus; only occasionally do we find Synoptic and “Q” versions of the same historical tradition. Many scholars assume that “Q” existed as a single written document—that is, as an early written Gospel containing sayings and parables (with little in terms of narrative episodes), arranged and joined together based on common themes and shared words/phrases (“catchword-bonding”). I am not so convinced of the existence of a single, distinct Q-document; however, a parallel to such a theorized document can be found in the Coptic/Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”.
The Gospels themselves clearly demonstrate the primacy of Jesus’ words and teachings as a source of authority for early Christians. This is further confirmed by the witness of the other New Testament Writings, though actual quotations or citations of sayings by Jesus are much rarer than one might expect. This can explained according to a number of factors.
In the book of Acts, for example, the focus is almost entirely on the early Gospel preaching (cf. the previous study), and on the confirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. The seminal proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel was centered, almost exclusively, on the death, resurrection and exaltation (to heaven) of Jesus; and, the concern of demonstrating Jesus’ Messianic identity prompted the early preachers and missionaries to focus on the Old Testament Scriptures to support this message. The communication of Jesus’ sayings and parables, etc, would have been reserved for the early instruction (by the apostolic missionaries) in the newly-founded congregations. The preaching in Acts is generally located prior to such instruction, and the teaching in the Letters is subsequent to it.
1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25ff
Paul’s teaching on marriage (and sexual relations) in 1 Corinthians 7 is instructive in terms of the early Christian understanding on the sources of religious authority. Three distinct sources of authority are involved: (1) a command based on Jesus’ words (vv. 10-11), (2) an inspired apostolic directive (vv. 12-14), and (3) an authoritative opinion by an apostle (giving his advice/recommendation, vv. 25ff). Let us consider the first of these:
“And to the (one)s having been married, I give along (this) message—not I, but the Lord—(that) a woman is not to make space (away) [i.e. separate] from her husband” (v. 10)
The verb paragge/llw simply means “give along a message,” but it is often used in the context of transmitting a directive or command, and that is certainly the sense here: the directive is that a woman is not to separate from her husband (and vice versa). Paul claims here that this directive comes from Jesus (“the Lord”) himself, indicating that Paul was aware of the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce (Mark 10:11-12 par; Matt 19:9). Jesus’ teaching is thus the basis for the instruction that Paul gives here, but it is limited to the specific issue in vv. 10-11; for, in the very next verse (12), we read:
“And to the rest (of you) I say—not the Lord—if any brother has a wife…”
In other words, the instruction Paul gives in vv. 12-14 is not based on a transmitted teaching of Jesus, but comes, we may infer, from Paul’s authoritative (and inspired) teaching as an apostle. The implication is that, if a teaching by Jesus is known which directly addresses the issue, then that teaching/saying is given priority. Since no relevant saying was known for the issue in vv. 12-14, Paul had to rely on his own authority as an apostle. This is comparable to a judge or lawyer who cites earlier precedents, when they are on point, as a source of legal authority in making decisions.
Paul speaks even more cautiously regarding the issue in vv. 25ff:
“Now (on the issue) about the virgins, I do not have an order by (the) Lord on (it), but I give (you) a gnw/mh, as (one) having received mercy under (the) Lord, to be (taken as) trustworthy.”
Here he has neither a command from the Lord, nor does he give an apostolic directive, but offers what he calls a trustworthy (pisto/$) gnwmh/. The noun gnwmh/ essentially means “something made known,” usually in the sense of an opinion or advice, etc. Paul’s advice, in this instance, is that believers who are not currently married (or engaged to be married) ought to remain single; yet he is careful not to present this as a directive that needs to be obeyed.
Paul’s tendency to give priority, whenever possible, to sayings/teachings by Jesus, we can assume was commonplace among apostolic missionaries and church leaders. The relative lack of quotations or direct allusions in the New Testament Letters may simply reflect the fact that, for the majority of issues and concerns addressed by the writer, there was no saying or teaching of Jesus, known to the writer, that was on-point.
A notable occurrence of a Jesus tradition cited by Paul is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (cf. also 5:1-7), clearly drawing upon eschatological teaching by Jesus, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus). Other clear allusions to teachings by Jesus are in Rom 12:14-21; 13:8-10 (cf. Gal 5:14); 14:14; 1 Cor 9:14. Many other loose allusions and general parallels (to Jesus’ teaching) can be cited, which demonstrates that, by the 50s A.D. (when Paul was writing), many Christians had assimilated the authoritative teaching of Jesus to the point that it pervaded their own thought and mode of instruction. As a vivid demonstration this, cf. on the letter of James, below.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
A distinctive citation of a Jesus tradition by Paul is found at the heart of his instruction regarding the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this instruction, Paul addresses problems he sees (and which were reported to him) in how certain believers at Corinth were conducting themselves in relation to the Supper. In particular, their behavior was disrupting the unity of the congregation that should be made manifest through participation in the Supper (vv. 18-22, 33-34). Paul warns that treating the Supper in an unworthy manner was dangerous, and could lead to divine punishment (vv. 27-32).
At the center of this instruction, as a way to exhort his audience to work toward the ideal of unity in their handling of the Supper, Paul cites a Jesus tradition that conforms closely to what we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22-24 par). Paul introduces it this way:
“For I received along from the Lord, that which I also gave along to you…” (v. 23)
The chain of tradition is indicated by the use of the parallel verbs paralamba/nw (“take/receive along”) and paradi/dwmi (“give along”). Paul says that he received this tradition “from the Lord”; this should be understood as something that ultimately comes from Jesus (his words), as preserved through the apostolic witness, rather than being the result of a direct revelation to Paul from the risen Christ (cp. 2 Cor 12:9).
The Letter of James
The Letter of James provides a good example of how first-century Christians assimilated the sayings and teachings of Jesus, and how these teachings came to take the place of the Old Testament Scriptures as a primary source of authority for religious and ethical instruction. There are many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel.
This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source; cf. above). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the written Torah. There is no indication that the author knew any of the Synoptic Gospels; and, indeed, he may have been writing prior to the publication of the Gospels. Whether or not he was drawing upon some kind of written source, or was simply relying upon oral tradition, is difficult to say.
The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:
- James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
- James 1:4—Matt 5:48
- James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
- James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
- James 1:20—Matt 5:22
- James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
- James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
- James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
- James 2:13—Matt 5:7
- James 2:15—Matt 6:25
- James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
- James 3:18—Matt 5:9
- James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
- James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
- James 4:8—Matt 6:22
- James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
- James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
- James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
- James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
- James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
- James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
- James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
- James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37
And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:
- James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
- James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk 14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
- James 1:12—Matt 10:22
- James 1:21—Lk 8:8
- James 2:6—Lk 18:3
- James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
- James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
- James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
- James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
- James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
- James 4:17—Lk 12:47
- James 5:5—Lk 16:19
- James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
- James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
- James 5:17—Lk 4:25
- James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3
Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).
This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus.