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November 17, 2012

Early Christian Prophets and Sayings of Jesus:
Continuing “A Question of Identity”

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One little-known, or little-discussed, “wolf in sheep’s clothing” may be hiding in the Jesus tradition—sayings of early Christian prophets masquerading as sayings of Jesus. The early Christian prophet was one of the offices in Pauline congregations (1 Corinthians 11:4-5; 12:28-29; 14:29, 32, 37, 39), and they are mentioned in Acts (11:27-30; 13:1; 19:6; 21:9-11). Among other things the early Christian prophet, like his or her counterpart the Old Testament Prophet, spoke divine oracles (an oracle is an utterance of God, a phenomenon also known from the Graeco-Roman tradition). For example, John of the Apocalypse (book of Revelation) describes the words of his book as “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3). While in the spirit on the Lord’s Day John hears what he describes as the voice of the Lord, who “appears” to him and directs him to write about his “vision” and what the Lord told him (Revelation 1:10-19)—These oracles of the Lord take up two chapters in Revelation as sayings of the Lord to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3).

     These oracular utterances are not statements made by Jesus during his lifetime, but sayings that are formed in the mind of the prophet John while he is in a state of ecstasy, under the influence of the resurrected Christ, or the spirit of Jesus—or so he tells the reader. Hence they are not things the historical man Jesus formed in his own physical brain/mind and spoke with his tongue from his own lips. They are the statements of an early Christian prophet, which John credits to the inspiration of the resurrected Christ. To be precise, I am describing two different social locations—the mind of the historical man, Jesus, and the mind of the early Christian prophet, John. The sayings of Jesus the Jewish man before his death applied to the social context of ancient pre-Christian Judaism, but the sayings of early Christian prophets apply after the death of Jesus to the context of the post-Easter Christian church.

     Early Christians believed that Jesus was alive; his spirit survived the crucifixion and he continued speaking through early Christian prophets new messages for the church’s changed post-Easter situation. Early Christians made no distinction between these two different social locations, for in their faith the voices of early Christian prophets were the continuing voice of Jesus.

     Here are two examples of new sayings of Jesus being generated in the minds of early Christian prophets specifically for the post-Easter situation of the church. The first is quite clear. In 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, while praying about his “thorn in the flesh,” Paul received this message from the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” If we take Paul’s statement in the letter seriously—that is to say, trust that he is not lying to the reader, this saying is not a saying of the Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth before he was crucified, but it is a saying of the resurrected Christ to the early Christian prophet, Paul. The oracular utterance of the resurrected Lord never formed in the mind of the Jewish man Jesus, but rather it first formed in the mind of Paul under the influence, he would insist, of the resurrected Lord.

     A second example is found in Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Matthew situates this saying as a post-Easter saying of the resurrected Lord (Matthew 28:5-7), but there are at least three options for classifying the saying. We can think of Matthew as an early Christian prophet through whom the resurrected Lord has spoken this oracular utterance for the church’s new reality in the world—his followers are to be a missionary people to all the nations of the world. To be sure under this option it is not a saying of the Jewish man, since Matthew clearly situates it after the crucifixion as a post-Easter saying of the resurrected Lord.

     Of course, it is always possible that Matthew had no idea about the timing of the statement when he heard it as part of the oral tradition. He simply knew it as a traditional saying of Jesus. But he decided to fit it into his gospel as a saying of the resurrected Lord, where it gains great authority in Matthew’s story as the testament of the Lord to Matthew’s church. Matthew, as Luke does, will create different literary contexts for sayings that he copies from Mark, or receives from the oral tradition.

     A third possibility exists. This saying is part of Matthew’s special tradition. It is not to be found in Mark from whom Matthew drew the bulk of the material he included in his gospel. It does not come from the hypothetical gospel Q[uelle] (a German word meaning “source”), a source from which Matthew and Luke drew much sayings material. We know this because it is not paralleled in Luke (scholars reconstruct Q from the material that Matthew and Luke share but is not found in Mark). Although a similar testament appears in Luke 24:47-48, Matthew’s Great Commission is not attested elsewhere in the Jesus tradition and may therefore be considered suspect as Matthew’s fiction—that is to say he invented it! Such a thing is not unusual since he invents many of the literary contexts in his gospel in which he embeds sayings from the oral tradition and from Mark.

     In The Five Gospels (1993, p. 270) the Jesus Seminar considers the saying to be an invention of the author Matthew. However the fact remains that Matthew portrays the statement as an oracular utterance of the resurrected Lord. That is enough to raise the question: are there sayings of early Christian prophets in the gospels that were caught up in the oral tradition as sayings of the pre-crucifixion Jesus? M. Eugene Boring (The Continuing Voice of Jesus, 1991), who has made an exhaustive study of the subject, finds only one such saying that fits his literary criteria for identifying sayings of early Christian prophets: Mark 9:1, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” But if there is one, might there be more?

     I raise the question again: how else can readers of the gospels resolve these difficulties, except by carefully sifting the Jesus tradition in terms of originality and in-authenticity of the sayings? If Christian faith is based in some way on Jesus of Nazareth rather than the resurrected Lord, how do you really know it is Jesus who speaks?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:20pm