Last week we heard from a husband and a wife who live with their children in a country where it is illegal for anyone to share the Christian faith. In fact, they told us about believers who must guard the secret of their faith so closely, that they do not even tell their husbands, or their wives that they are Christians. The man who visited with us has a secular job, and he earns money at that job, so he can support his family. But his true vocation, his calling, is composing oral Bible stories that Christians in the country where he lives can use to understand and to share the story of Jesus Christ. He told us that he had isolated 31 stories from the Bible that he thought would make up a good core for the believers in that place.
When I met with him briefly on Thursday afternoon, I told him he was compiling “the Oral Canon of That Country.”
Our Canon consists of 66 books, 39 Books in the Old Testament, and 27 Books in the New Testament. The Oral Canon of That Country consists of 31 stories; there is quite a contrast.
In point of fact, Christians in That Country are re-entering a period of oral tradition not unlike that which was once the rule both in Israel, and in the Early Church.
A period of the oral tradition preceded both the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and the written canon of the New Testament.
Consider the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. If you search the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament you will find that the phrase “to this day” occurs 92 times. The phrase “to this day” indicates a gap in time, whether short or long, between the time something happened, and the time the story of what happened was written down. Let me give you just one example.
In Joshua chapter 4 we read that Joshua is about to lead the children of Israel over the Jordan into the promised land. At the command of Joshua, twelve men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, carry the Ark of the Covenant to the brink of the Jordan River, and the waters from above ceased to flow, and stood in a heap, and the river bed dried up, and Joshua led the children of Israel across on dry ground. And when they had all crossed over, Joshua set up twelve stones in the place where the feet of the priest bearing the Ark had stood. And the text declares, “(the stones) are there to this day.”
The period between the event, and when the event was written down, was the period of the oral tradition. The Children of Israel told one another, and their neighbors, the stories of what God had done for them. They told how God led them out of Egypt, and across the Red Sea. They told how God fed them with manna in the wilderness. Or, to use the example we just talked about, they told how God dried up the Jordan for Joshua, as he had once dried up the Red Sea for Moses.
Israel used many devices to help them preserve the tradition in stories, They used stones, and monuments, and songs, and poems, and mezuzahs, and body parts.
Yes, body parts. Martin Buber once wrote that God gave us Ten Commandments because we had ten fingers.
And what about a song? When Israel passed through the Yom Suph (Reed/Red Sea) as on the dry ground, and the armies of Egypt were swallowed up behind them, Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
That is a short little song, hardly worthy of the “top forty,” but scholars tell us it is the one of the earliest snippets of tradition in the Hebrew Bible. It may indeed go all the way back to the day that the Children of Israel marveled that God gave them victory over their oppressors in the sea.
And what about the Mezuzah? The Mezuzah is a little box, made of metal, in which the Jews put a tiny scrap of paper on which they have written a prayer that begins, “Shema, Yisrael.” These are the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; 5 and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Moses was all about the oral tradtion. In Deuteronomy 11 Moses told the Hebrew children to lay up these words in their hearts, and in their souls, and to bind them as a sign upon their hand, or between their eyes, and to teach them to their children, and to talk of them when they are were sitting in their houses, or when they were walking by the way, or when they lay down, or when they rose up.
Even after the Shema was written into the Law, it was still a part of the oral tradition.
There was a period of Oral Tradition before the New Testament was written down, too.
Scholars agreed that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again, at the festival of Passover, sometime between 30 and 33 AD.
The earliest of the four gospels, Mark, was not written down for almost forty years. The remaining three were written down over the next thirty years.
The earliest stories about Jesus in our New Testament are in the epistles of Paul. Paul was not a disciple of Jesus in the days of his flesh. In fact, he regarded Jesus as a blasphemer, and he was still persecuting the church when the Risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do are you persecuting me?” Paul tells several times that he received much of what he knew about Jesus as “tradition,”and then passed it on to those to whom he preached. Let me give you a few examples.
Paul passes on Jesus’s teaching about clean and unclean foods, and about marriage, and about divorce, and about the end of the age, etc..
Paul tells us that Jesus was betrayed, and that, on the night when he was betrayed, he instituted the Holy Supper.
Paul tells us that Jesus died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and on the third day, he was raised from death, in accordance with the scriptures. Paul tells us that the Risen Christ appeared, to Peter, and to the twelve, and to five hundred brethren at one time, “most of whom,” he says, “are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” He says that the Risen Christ also appeared to James, and to all the apostles. Finally, he says:
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Some people think that Paul is the creator of Christianity as it exists today. What we just read is not the language of the inventor of Christianity. It is the language of one who joined the church, later, after it was well established, and only then because he could no longer deny the evidence he had seen with his own eyes. For Paul, Jesus had indeed been “…designated Son of God, in power, through a Spirit of Holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4)
Paul not only tells us about Jesus, his letters are a treasure trove of information about how the stories of Jesus may have been passed on.
In Galatians 1, we read how, after God revealed Jesus to Paul that he might preach him among the gentiles, he did not go up to Jerusalem to visit with those who were apostles before him. Instead he went into Arabia. Then after three years he did go up to Jerusalem and he spent 15 days with Peter, and with James, the Lord’s brother. He does not say what they talked about, but we can be reasonably sure that they did not just talk about the weather. I have no doubt that Peter eagerly told Paul all he remembered about his time with Jesus. And I am pretty sure that James must have told Paul about how, he, too, though a brother of Jesus, had once thought Jesus “beside himself” and had come to faith only after the Risen Jesus had appeared to him.
Then, says Paul, after fourteen years, he went once more to Jerusalem, taking Barnabas and Titus along with him. He says he went up to lay his gospel before them in case he had run, or was running, in vain. He says that on this visit he saw Peter, and James the brother of the Lord, and John, the son of Zebedee. He says that though they were regarded as “pillars of the church,” they added nothing new to his gospel. They just agreed that they would go to the Jews, and that Paul would go to the Gentiles, and that Paul should also remember the poor, which thing Paul himself was eager to do.”
There is one other pretty special episode in Galatians 2. Paul and Peter end up together in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. They are there for a covered dish supper. Peter gets into trouble with some of his Jewish friends, because those Gentiles were serving Barbecue*(*Actually Peter got into trouble just for sitting at table with Gentiles—I put in the part about the Barbecue to make it memorable.); and then he got into trouble with Paul for dumping his plate* (*Being insincere and leaving the Gentile table for the Jewish table). And Paul had to remind him that Christ Jesus was the end and perfection of the Law, and it was not by keeping kosher that one got back to God, but through faith in Christ. But my purpose is simply to remind you how wonderful it was for one Gentile Church to have a covered dish supper that featured at least two, and maybe more, eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. I have no doubt that Peter told them about what Jesus said and did in the the years he was a disciple of Jesus. Maybe he even told them how he denied Jesus not once, but three times just before his crucifixion. And maybe Paul talked about how he persecuted the church. I am sure he told them about his Damascus Road experience
Some people want to know, “Why didn’t the first Christians write the gospels down earlier?”
The answer is simple. The first Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus in the same way that you believe in the NCAA Tournament. They believed that Jesus was the first-born from the dead, but not the last. They believed that he was the first fruits of them who had fallen asleep in death, and that they themselves were the harvest. They thought that Jesus was coming back, soon, maybe today, or next Tuesday, and that at his coming, the dead in Christ would be raised, and they themselves would be changed, and they would all be caught up to meet him, and go with Him into the more immediate presence of God. They were too busy looking for him and for the future that was coming to them in him to spend too much time looking back.
Some people want to know, “Why did they write the gospels down when they did?”
They wrote the gospels down when they did because the first generation of witnesses, the apostles, and the first generation of believers began to die out, and Christ had not yet come back, and the last of the first generation and the first of the 2nd generation which was not the last, began to be concerned about how all future generations of believers would learn about Jesus. I suspect their attitude was like that of the man we call Luke, the beloved Physician, to whom tradition attributes the Gospel of Luke. According to J.B. Phillip’s translation, Luke introduced his Gospel saying:
Dear Theophilus, Many people have already written an account of the events which have happened among us, basing their work on the evidence of those whom we know were eye-witnesses as well as teachers of the message. I have decided therefore, since I have traced the course of these happenings carefully from the beginning, to set them down for you myself in their proper order, so that you may have reliable information about the matters in which you have already had instruction. (Luke 1:1-4)
It was after the first Generations that the gospels were written down, and the period of the oral tradition came gradually to a close.
Or did it? That delightful young couple is composing an oral tradition for their country, and the truth is that all of us have an oral canon, too. There are certain stories from the Bible that live just behind our lips, and when the occasion arises, we tell them.
This is true even of our children. In the years before John’s arrival, I regularly taught catechism. I always included a session on the Life of Jesus. I would stand before a blank page on a flip-chart, and I would ask the people in the room to tell about Jesus.
- One said, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”
- Another said, “Mary was his mother, and Joseph (as was supposed) was his father.”
- “Jesus visited the temple when he was twelve because he had to be about his (Heavenly) Father’s business.” (“And he was already a Bible whiz, too!”)
- “Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, by John the Baptist.”
- “Jesus was tempted by Satan.”
- “Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.”
- “Jesus healed a man blind.” “And caused the lame to walk.” “And cleansed the leper. “
- “Jesus wept.” “Jesus raised Lazarus from death.”
- “Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass.” “And people welcomed him with Hosannas!” (Jesus did this to fulfill the word of the Prophet, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Zechariah 9:9)
- “Jesus made a whip of cords, and cleansed the temple of the money changers.”
- They remembered how Judas betrayed Jesus, and how Peter denied Jesus, and about how all the disciples forsook him and fled.
- They knew how Jesus was rejected by his own people, and condemned to die by Pontius Pilate.
- They remembered that he had been crucified between two thieves, died, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
- They remember how, on the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead, and appeared to his disciples on many different occasions. And how he said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again to receive you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”
Those young people knew the Oral Canon of Confirmation. And that is not insignificant. St. Augustine said, that if we know His-Story, and if we know Him, and if we have faith, and hope, and love, we can grow as a disciple, even if, for some reason, we don’t have the Bible.
Augustine wrote when books were still rare and expensive. Today, we can buy a Bible for at the Good Will for a dollar, or we can get one from the Gideon’s, or we can download a Bible onto our computer for free. Even so, we need to lay-up the stories of the Scripture in our hearts, and one of the most important stories we can lay-up is our own Jesus story. Now you have heard my Jesus story before.
You know how I was living in San Diego on the night when I knelt down, stuck my finger into the air, and said, “O.K., God, if you are real, just touch the tip of my finger.” I have told you before that there was no touch, no shaking of the foundations, no bursting visions of light. Instead, I stook up and said, “O.K., God, I will do it your way. I will put my faith in your son, Jesus Christ.”
St. Paul had a Jesus story, too. I think we should finish with that. In Philippians 3:4-14 he writes:
4 If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, 6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
What is your Jesus story? What is your oral canon? How much of the gospel can you tell a friend later today, or a co-worker next week? Thirty-one stories? That is not a bad goal.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.