The written documents that constitute our Bible are snapshots of an evolving, developing, dynamic faith frozen in time.
The faith reflected in these written sources thrived in an oral culture that did not depend on written materials. Writing materials were expensive and few could actually read and write. So the stuff of faith – stories, poetry, wisdom sayings, etc. – were passed down orally. This oral tradition was flexible, fluid, and easily adaptable to different situations and historical contexts.
This process meant that faith was constantly on the move – changing, growing, branching out into new forms, and always finding fresh expressions in different settings.
Consider one example: The various ways the Jesus saying, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” is interpreted and employed with other Jesus sayings in the Gospels.
In Mark it occurs in a context where Jesus assures Peter that those who have left much to be his followers will gain much,
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:28-31).
In the parallel passage in Matthew 19:27-30 Matthew makes a significant alteration (redaction) of Mark’s version. In Matthew Jesus begins by responding,
Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28).
No such promise is ever made in Mark’s Gospel. Does Matthew’s statement reflect an actual historical promise made by Jesus of Nazareth which Mark intentionally omits or didn’t know about? Was this part of Matthew’s oral tradition or did Matthew create this saying to serve his own theological purpose?
Matthew also omits Mark’s reference to “persecutions.” Mark’s Gospel was probably written about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans around 70 C.E. No doubt Mark’s Jewish followers of Jesus were facing great opposition and suffering. By the time Matthew was written (80 to 90 C.E.) the intensity of the earlier wave of Roman persecution would have subsided.
In Matthew 20:16 this saying shows up again in the parable of the landowner (Matt. 20:1-16). The landowner hired day laborers at various intervals throughout the day. At the end of the day beginning with the last workers hired, the landowner paid each of the workers the same wage. This meant that the first workers hired who bore the heat of the day were paid last and paid the same wage as those who worked only one hour. They “grumbled against the landowner.” Wouldn’t you?
The landowner says to one of them,
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matt. 20:13-15).
Is this intended by Matthew to be the conclusion of the parable by Jesus or did Matthew include the saying here as his own interpretation of the parable?
This saying also appears in Luke’s Gospel (written around the time of Matthew or possibly even later – 90 to 100 C.E) in a judgment context. Luke’s Gospel takes on national and religious exceptionalism (see Luke 4:16-30). In Luke 13:22-30 Jesus challenges those who think their futures are secure because they belong to the right group. Jesus says to them,
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:28-30).
Notice that here Mark and Matthew’s “many” is changed by Luke to “some” – “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Why the change? We might also ask how much of the passage in Luke 13:22-30 actually goes back to Jesus and how much was creatively added by Luke?
Finally, a form of this saying also shows up in the Gospel of Thomas in Logion 4:2, “For many of the first will be last and will become a single one.” An emphasis on oneness between God and humanity and within humanity was characteristic of the Christianity that flourished in Syria toward the latter part of the first century, which the Gospel of Thomas represents (see Logion 22, 23, 48, and 106).
So what does this one example from the Gospels demonstrate? Namely, that the sayings, teachings, and stories attributed to Jesus, as well as stories about Jesus were constantly in flux rather than fixed.
This is how oral tradition works. The early disciples were much more creative than many Christians today – altering, changing, adapting, and appropriating the Jesus traditions in ever fresh and new ways.
Stephen J. Patterson, a scholar of Christian origins describes the process this way,
Oral culture was more fragile [than cultures pervaded by written texts]. Texts endure; the spoken word does not. Oral tradition relied for survival on constant repetition and use. It had to be useful. If something was not useful, it was not repeated, and if not repeated, it very soon vanished. . . . The skilled sage was one who was able to render things useful in new and ever-changing settings. Oral tradition was malleable. It had to be. One may see this even in the literature of early Christianity. Literature that comes from a predominantly oral culture behaves more or less like oral tradition itself. So when one compares a saying or parable of Jesus as it appears in two or more gospels, it is often striking how differently it has been rendered. This is true of the stories about Jesus as well . . . . Each of the gospel writers also exercised great liberty and creativity with the tradition. This reflects quite simply the oral mentality of the ancient world. Things were never simply repeated; they were repeated and interpreted. (The Lost Way, 197-88)
The Christian Gospels give us a glimpse into the diverse ways the Jesus traditions were appropriated by early Christian communities. These traditions contain both echoes and memories of historical reality and creative theological interpretations not rooted in historical memory at all but expressing the dynamic unfolding and developing spiritual experience of the communities themselves.
Christians who claim that the Bible gives us an infallible, fixed revelation of truth for all time must deny or completely ignore the historical processes of evolving faith that the Bible clearly mirrors.
Shouldn’t we be at least as spiritually and theologically creative and imaginative as the first disciples? Shouldn’t we be as open to a changing, expanding, evolving faith as they were?
(This piece was first published on the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.)