Remembering Jesus, The McIver Book— Part Seven

Scholarly books should not be evaluated on the basis of their length. A weighty tome may not be a useful one, just a verbose one. On the other hand, some short books are rich and rewarding and repay close study. Robert McIver’s book is one of the latter sort of books.

In the ninth chapter of this brief but important study the stress is on the significance of the fact that Jesus was a teacher. Indeed, some 56 times he is addressed as teacher or rabbi in the Gospels. Further, of the 55 times that the verb didasko (to teach) shows up in the NT all but nine times are direct references to Jesus’ doing the teaching. And further of the 48 uses of the term didaskalos (teacher) all but five refer to Jesus. Contrast this with the fact that of the 138 uses of the term prophet in the NT, Jesus is called prophet only in 8 of those instances in the Synoptics, and only 5 further times in John. Further, of the 60 occurrences of the verb ‘to preach’ (kerusso), only nine times does it refer to Jesus’ activities. In short, Jesus’s teaching is the main thing the Gospels want to say about his activity.

McIver spends some time on the now familiar subject of ancient pedagogy, and yes, indeed memorization and repetition was an essential part of such education all over the Greco-Roman world. One needs to bear in mind that in an oral culture, where texts were not ready to hand, one usually had to rely on one’s memory when it came to things learned. McIver rightly notes the evidence of teachers in almost any town or village or city one would care to visit in the world of the NT. Sometimes it is assumed that education was only for the elites, but in fact this is not true when it comes to early Judaism and young boys of whatever social status. Because Jews were the people of a sacred book, there was importance placed not only on the basic ability to read, but also on learning the Torah. The evidence that Jesus did in fact learn and could read Torah can be found in a variety of Gospel traditions, as we have previously noted in our discussions of Millard’s book some weeks ago on this blog. It would be strange indeed for Jesus to upbraid his adversaries ‘have you not read the Scripture which says….’ if in fact he could not read at all. McIver is able to cite early evidence imbedded in the Torah for the responsibility Jewish teachers had to make sure their disciples could read the Torah. We would expect that Jesus would do the same with his disciples. The fact that Jesus was recognized by one and all as a teacher, both friend and foe, means his activities were familiar enough to be identified as a kind of Jewish teaching. We must also remember that repetition was the essence of ancient teaching, and so we may envision the disciples often hearing the same teaching in various settings at various times. This cannot explain all the small differences between parallel traditions in the Synoptics, but we must reckon with some duplication with slight variation by Jesus himself.

There can be little doubt as well that Jesus’ inner circle received special instructions just for them, and in various settings (cf. Mk. 4, Mt. 5.1,13.10-23,36). It is not for nothing that the same disciples, after Pentecost are depicted as being teachers (Acts 2.42; 4.2). They must have felt that Jesus had prepared them for this. The point of all this is that there had to be already a Jesus tradition for them to do such teaching about, and based on the teaching of, Jesus. McIver acknowledges that this sort of evidence suggests that there was a chain of transmission of the Jesus tradition— from Jesus, to the Twelve, to other teachers they taught. This is possible. To judge from Papias there is no long chain of tradition— in the case of Mark it is Jesus to Peter to Mark. In the case of Matthew, it is Jesus to Matthew. McIver is aware of, and also endorses the cautions of W. Kelber about how ‘hot memory’ works, and suggests this is what we have, not ‘cold fixed memory’.

McIver goes on to spend time on the now familiar subject of how parables and aphorisms are forms of tradition that are easily learned, and in the case of aphorism, easily memorized verbatim. Actual study of the parables shows gist memory, rather than verbatim is mostly what we find reflected in the parables in the Synoptics. He demonstrates quite readily in parable parallels that while there is relatively high common vocabulary the verbatim sequences are quite short— often no more than five straight words. McIver points out that parables are rather like modern jokes, the basic structure and punch line must be fixed or the joke fails. More to the point the story before the punchline needs to be consistent with, and lead up to the punchline. This analysis however is better suited to chreiae (see the previous posts) than parables.

How long winded was Jesus? Rainer Reisner says that of the 247 independent units that make up the Synoptic sayings of Jesus, a whopping 42% are just one verse long, a further 23% are just 2 verses long, and only 12% are longer than four verses. It is hard not to see that this was deliberate on Jesus’ part. Short pithy aphorisms are both memorable and memorizable. Further, there is now clear evidence that aphorisms are indeed stashed in the verbatim memory system in the brain. There are even studies showing how proverbs are preserved verbatim orally over a millenium!! Writing something down does tend to stabilize a tradition, but in an oral culture no one thinks ‘this is the whole tradition’ indeed they often prefer the living and infinitely expansive voice to the limited text.

McIver then quotes C.H. Dodd who stressed the coherency of the Jesus tradition, indeed it is on the whole so coherent and consistent and distinctive, that as Dodd says, the most reasonable explanation is, it came for a single, singular source—- Jesus.

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