Christian Prophecy and the Words of Jesus

There has been some discussion in the biblioblogosphere in recent days about the possibility that words of Christian prophets, which would have been understood to be the words of the risen Christ, became intermingled in the oral (and eventually the written) traditions about Jesus in early Christianity. The conversation began at Singing in the Reign and continues at Metacatholic and Sean the Baptist.

The clearest evidence that I can think of for Christian prophecy being attributed to the figure of Jesus during his public ministry is the Gospel of John. The author is quite explicit that Jesus will continue to speak to and through the community by means of the Spirit (John 16:12-13). And the stylistic differences between John and the other Gospels provide clear indication that, whatever one may make of the other Gospels in terms of their historicity, the Fourth Gospel gives us a voice speaking on behalf of Jesus, as it were, or in terms that the author would have agreed with and which relate to the present discussion, the words of a Christian leader who believed that Christ spoke through him by means of the Spirit, the Paraclete.

The case of John is fairly clear, given the author’s explicit statements and the ease of comparing the Synoptics to John. But I suspect that if we were to engage in a fair comparison, between the material that seems to be the historical bedrock of what Jesus actually said, shared between many sources, and the material that is unique in content and style to each Gospel, we might find that John simply has more material that is obviously created subsequently. It may also be the case that those who elaborated on the parables and created their own did not view themselves as engaging in prophecy in the way John did.

At any rate, it seems fair to emphasize that we are not dealing with a case of three against one agreement. Mark, Q and John are independent, and each has a certain uniqueness of style and content. And so it may be that none of the material we have gives us the style of Jesus, as it were.

In the case of all of the material we have in the earliest tradition, except for small snippets of words in Aramaic and a few poetic/rhyming sayings that could engrave themselves immediately on the memory almost verbatim, we have at best the gist of what Jesus said. And so it is crucial to ask not only whether Christian prophets created new sayings attributed to Jesus that became part of the oral tradition, but also how we distinguish such cases from the inevitable repetition in one’s own style and free performance that inevitably occurred in this predominantly oral context as Jesus’ deeds and teaching were remembered and repeated.

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  • James Pate

    That idea is appealing because it presents the Gospel authors as not “making stuff up” when they put words in the mouth of Jesus. But I wonder how to reconcile the idea with what John 16 actually says. In John 16, Jesus says the Spirit will tell the disciples things that they cannot bear at that time–the time being before his death and resurrection. That seems to contradict a view that John thinks he’s projecting Jesus’ post-resurrection sayings on the pre-risen Jesus.

  • James F. McGrath

    In theory your point is a good one. But in practice, it seems that when we find Jesus presented as speaking to his disciples before the crucifixion about their being thrown out of the synagogue (something not mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels, but 3 times in John), we in fact are dealing with the author doing precisely what he describes in John 16: addressing the later needs of the community on Jesus’ behalf, as a Christian prophet.Does that clarify what I think is going on in John’s Gospel? I’m happy to say more! :)

  • Doug Chaplin

    I did wonder whether to discuss John, but knew someone else would bring him up. I’m not sure that John would describe his literary artifice as prophecy, or that we can fairly do so. You might be on better ground with Thomas – although then there’s that pesky dating question. But I don’t think this outweighs the attitudes apparently reflected in Paul in the mid first century even before the Jesus tradition appears to start taking written form.

  • Michael Barber

    Thanks for the link and for your comments. When it comes to John’s reference to the synagogue, certainly we know from Acts that Christians in the earliest Church were in fact met with resistance there. Is it really hard to imagine Jesus could forsee this? I wonder. Furthermore, to use Theissen and Winter’s criterion of historical effect, one has to ask: where did the early Church get the idea that the Spirit would speak to the community? If it could come from an early Christian, why could it not come from Jesus? Finally, I think we have to be careful about how we read John 16. Jesus is specifically talking to the disciples. Note in John 17 that he turns to pray “not only for these” but for those who believe in him through THEIR word. If this was an invitation for some kind of annonymous charismatic activity, it sure was an odd way to go about it.

  • James F. McGrath

    I don’t doubt that Jesus could have foreseen hostility against his followers – and against himself. But it remains the case that no other Gospel presents speaking about precisely this isssue in precisely this way, while John has the term itself (aposynagwgos) three times. Having said that, I’m not sure that any of your points really address the fact that we have a Gospel which (1) claims that Jesus will say things to the church through the Spirit after his departure, and (2) presents Jesus as saying things that, if we read the earlier Gospels, he apparently did not say to his disciples before his departure, and (3) does so in terminology and style that is uniform in this Gospel regardless whether it is the narrator, John the Baptist or Jesus who is speaking, and which differs from the language attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics.