Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jesus Tradition 1: Paul's Writings

Since I've been looking at the gospels recently, I thought I would do a brief series showing some dynamics of the gospels that are common knowledge, yet often unknown.  I'm calling this brief series, "Jesus Tradition."

For example, there is often an assumption that the gospels are earlier writings than the rest of the New Testament, because they are about Jesus, and he was before Paul.  This reflects a fascinating dynamic where the content of a story is confused with when it was written, or the main character of a story is confused with its author.  In actuality, all or almost all the gospels were written after Paul's lifetime.  There are some who date Mark to the early 60s (not me), which in that case would leave a small overlap there.  Even then, however, it would be after most of Paul's writings were written.

Paul thus gives us the earliest witness to Jesus.  Paul does not give us much Jesus tradition, but he arguably does give us some (I'm using "Jesus tradition" in a very broad sense here, including storied material).  One such example is what he says about the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.  From the standpoint of an objective historian, this is incredibly important because it makes it very hard, in my opinion, to argue that Jesus did not have a final meal with his disciples in which he likened the wine of the meal with the blood he was about to shed.

What is revealing, then, is to compare Paul's version of this last supper with the gospels:

Paul (1 Cor. 10:23-26)    
bread
cup after supper that inaugurates the new covenant

Mark (14:22-24)
bread
cup, blood of the covenant


Matthew (26:26-28)
bread
cup, blood of the covenant


Luke (22:17-20)
cup
bread
cup after supper that inaugurates the new covenant

The second part of Luke's version is very similar to Paul's and perhaps reflects the influence of Paul on the way it tells the story.  Nevertheless, Mark is very similar as well, and Matthew follows Mark very closely as it usually does.

Luke for some reason has moved the "I will not drink the fruit of the vine again" to an additional cup drinking during the dinner (in fact, some early manuscripts have deleted the second cup drinking after supper to simplify the story).  It is not likely that Jesus said this both during and after dinner but rather that we have here varying traditions, one of which has him say it before dinner and the other after.  This is not important, except that it is one of thousands of illustrations that the gospels are not precise historical accounts at every point.

John does not record these words at all.

2 comments:

Scott F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott F said...

"but rather that we have here varying traditions"

I know it is not fashionable to portray the evangelists as altering their material (even though ironically we accept alterations if they occurred during "oral transmission") but I think we have ample evidence that each gospel author was tweaking story elements to fit his style and purpose. So, in this case, Luke might be moving the cup to after the supper for his own purposes figuring that as long as he gets the point across the exact location in the story is not important.

Quibble? Maybe. But, even allowing that such a thing as an amorphous "oral tradition" existed and had influence, I see the explanatory power of authorial creativity as far more fruitful. And like you say, it is one of thousands of illustrations that the gospel writers did not intend to provide precise historical accounts at every point. ;)