Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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APPENDIX 1: The Origin of the Gospel Records

Reading Luke and Acts through together, it becomes apparent that the author [Luke] saw the acts of the apostles as a continuation of those of the Lord Jesus. This is why he begins Acts by talking about his “former treatise” of all that Jesus had begun to do, implying that He had continued His doings through the doings of the apostles (cp. Heb. 2:3, Jesus “began” to speak the Gospel and we continue His work). The Acts record repeatedly describes the converts as “the multitude of the disciples” (2:6; 4:32; 5:14,16; 6:2,5; 12:1,4; 15:12,30; 17:4; 19:9; 21:22), using the same word to describe the “multitude of the disciples” who followed the Lord during His ministry (Lk. 5:6; 19:37). There is no doubt that Luke intends us to see all converts as essentially continuing the witness of those men who walked around Palestine with the Lord between AD30 and AD33, stumbling and struggling through all their misunderstandings and pettiness, the ease with which they were distracted from the essential… to be workers together with Him. Luke describes the Lord and His followers as ‘passing through’ and teaching as He went (Lk. 2:15; 4:30; 5:15; 8:22; 9:6; 11:24; 17:11; 19:1,4); and employs the same word to describe the preaching of the apostles in Acts (8:4,40; 9:32,38; 10:38; 11:19,22; 12:10; 13:6,14; 14:24; 15:3,41; 16:6; 17:23; 18:23,27; 19:1,21; 20:2,25). He uses the same word translated ‘preach’ in both Luke and the Acts [although the other Gospels use it only once]. In Luke we find the word in 1:19; 2:10; 3:18; 4:18,43; 7:22; 8:1; 9:6; 16:16; 20:1; and in Acts, in 5:42; 8:4,12,25,35,40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7,15,21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18. Luke clearly saw the early ecclesia as preaching the same message as Jesus and the apostles; they continued what was essentially a shared witness. This means that we too are to see in the Lord and the 12 as they walked around Galilee the basis for our witness; we are continuing their work, with just the same message and range of responses to it. Lk. 24:47 concludes the Gospel with the command to go and preach remission of sins, continuing the work of the Lord Himself, who began His ministry with the proclamation of remission (Lk. 4:18 cp. 1:77). Acts stresses that the believers did just this; they preached remission of sins [s.w.] in Jesus’ Name, whose representatives they were: Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18.  
Luke describes the “amazement” at the preaching and person of Jesus (Lk. 2:47,48; 4:36; 5:26; 8:56; 24:22), and then uses the same word to describe the “amazement” at the apostles (Acts 2:7,12; 8:13; 9:21; 10:45; 12:16). This is why the early brethren appropriated prophecies of Jesus personally to themselves as they witnessed to Him (Acts 4:24-30; 13:5,40). The same Greek words are also used in Luke and Acts about the work of Jesus and those of the apostles later; and also, the same original words are used concerning the deeds of the apostles in the ministry of Jesus, and their deeds in Acts. Thus an impression is given that the ecclesia’s witness after the resurrection was and is a continuation of the witness of the 12 men who walked around Galilee with Jesus. He didn’t come to start a formalised religion; as groups of believers grew, the Holy Spirit guided them to have systems of leadership and organization, but the essence is that we too are personally following the Lamb of God as He walked around Galilee, hearing His words, seeing His ways, and following afar off to Golgotha carrying His cross. Luke concludes by recording how the Lord reminded His men that they were “witnesses” (23:48); but throughout Acts, they repeatedly describe themselves as witnesses to Him (Acts 1:8,22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39,41; 13:31; 22:15,20; 26:16). This is quite some emphasis. This Christ-centredness should also fill our self-perception; that we are witnesses to the Lord out of our own personal experience of Him. They were witnesses that Christ is on God’s right hand, that He really is a Saviour and source of forgiveness (5:32); because they were self-evidently results of that forgiveness and that salvation. They couldn’t be ‘witnesses’ to those things in any legal, concrete way; for apart from them and their very beings, there was no literal evidence. They hadn’t been to Heaven and seen Him; they had no document that said they were forgiven. They were the witnesses in themselves. This even went to the extent of the Acts record saying that converts were both added to the ecclesia, and also added to Christ. He was His ecclesia; they were, and we are, His body in this world. 
Preaching Christ
The Gospel records, Mark especially, often paint a broad scene and then zoom in upon the person of Jesus. Mark does this by using a plural verb without an explicit subject to paint a picture of the disciples or crowd generally; and then follows this by a singular verb or pronoun referring specifically to Jesus (1). Here are some examples: "They came to the other side... and when He had stepped out of the boat" (Mk. 5:1,2); "when they came from Bethany, he was hungry" (Mk. 8:22); "they went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples..." (Mk. 14:32). The grammatical feature is more evident in Greek than in English. If the writer of Mark had been a cameraman, he'd have taken a broad sweep, and then suddenly hit the zoom to focus right up close upon Jesus Himself. This is what is being done with words, and it reflects the Christ-centredness of the whole narrative and preaching of the Gospel, of which the Gospels are transcripts.
The early believers spoke constantly in their preaching of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:21,23; 3:13-15; 5:30,31). The logical objection to their preaching a risen Jesus of Nazareth was: ‘But He’s dead! We saw His body! Where is He? Show Him to us!’. And their response, as ours, was to say: ‘I am the witness, so is my brother here, and my sister there. We are the witnesses that He is alive. If you see us, you see Him risen and living through us’. In this spirit, we beseech men in Christ’s stead. Paul in Galatians 2:20 echoes this idea: "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me”. The spirit of the risen Christ lived out in our lives is the witness of His resurrection. We are Him to this world. The cross too was something which shone out of their lives and words. They sought to convict men of their desperation, the urgency of their position before God, the compelling nature of the cross, that they were serious sinners; that a man cannot behold the cross and be unresponsive, but rather must appropriate that work and gift to himself through baptism. The urgent appeal for repentance was quite a feature of their witness  (2:38; 5:31; 7:51; 11:18; 17:30; 18:18; 20:21; 26:20; Heb. 6:1). May I suggest there needs to be a greater stress on repentance in our preaching, 20 centuries later. This is why baptism was up front in their witness, for it is for the forgiveness of sins; thus in 22:16 they appealed for repentance and baptism in the same breath. And this was the implication of the Lord’s parabolic command to His preachers in Mt. 22:9: “Go ye therefore [cp. “go ye therefore and teach all nations”] unto the partings of the highways” (RV) and invite people to the wedding feast of the Kingdom. The point from which He foresaw us making our appeal was a fork in the road. We are to appeal to men and women with the message that there is no third road; that it truly is a case of believe or perish. There is no example of apologetics in their preaching, but rather an utter confidence that they were holding out to men the words that gave eternal life. Their words, lives and body language reflected their deep sense of the peril of those outside of Christ. By preaching, they were freed from the blood of men (20:26); evidently alluding to how the watchman must die if he didn’t warn the people of their impending fate (Ez. 3:18). In line with this, “necessity is laid upon me… woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). Paul felt an ineffable sorrow and personal responsibility for the unbelieving Jews, to the point that after the pattern of Moses he would fain have given his salvation for theirs (Rom. 9:1). This was quite something. And it would have been noticeable in the style of his witness, and such a level of love would surely have found response. This alone would have convinced the hearers of his genuineness. Paul had a debt to preach to all men (Rom. 1:14). But a debt implies he had been given something; and it was not from “all men”, but rather from Christ. Because the Lord gave us the riches of His self-sacrifice, we thereby are indebted to Him; and yet this debt has been transmuted into a debt to preach to all humanity. Reflection upon His cross should elicit in us too an upwelling of pure gratitude towards Him, a Christ-centredness, an awkwardness as we realise that this Man loved us more than we love Him...and yet within our sense of debt to Him, of ineffable, unpayable debt, of real debt, a debt infinite and never to be forgotten, we will have the basis for personal response to Him as a person, to a knowing of Him and a loving of Him, and a serving of Him in response. If we feel and know this, we cannot but preach the cross of Christ. 
This is why those who heard the message wanted baptism immediately; they had been convicted by the preacher of a Christ-centred message, not just intellectually teased (Acts 8:36; 9:18). Lydia, the Philippian jailer, Paul, the Ethiopian eunuch, the crowds at Pentecost… were all baptized immediately. The Lord added daily to the church (2:27; 16:5)- they didn’t tell candidates for baptism to wait even until the next Sunday, let alone for a few months ‘to think it over’. They understood the first principle: baptism is essential for salvation. Believe or perish. They saw the absoluteness of the issues involved in the choice to accept or reject the Son of God. “Beware, therefore…” was their warning to their hearers (Acts 13:40). They made no apologies, they didn’t wrap up the message. They taught the need for repentance more than seeking to prove that they were right and others wrong (although there is a place for this in our witness in the right contexts). They made it clear that they were out to convert others, not engage in philosophical debate or the preaching of doubtful interpretations. They spoke with a boldness and freedom (Acts 2:29; 2 Cor. 3:12). They weren’t interested in giving good advice, but rather good news. They were pressed in their spirit, that they had to appeal to men (13:43; 18:13; 26:28; 28:23; Gal. 1:10). They persuaded men, convinced and confounded the Jews, reasoned, testified and exhorted, disputed and converted (8:25; 18:13,19,28; 2:40). In short, they so spake that multitudes believed (14:1). Paul was not against using persuasion; he didn’t just ‘preach the truth’ and leave it for others to decide. Agrippa commented: “With but a little [more] persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that whether with little [persuasion] or with much, not only thou but also all that hear me this day, might become such as I am” (Acts 26:28,29 RV). Paul wasn’t against using persuasion to bring men unto his Lord, and neither should we be. He realized the methodology we use with people can affect their conversion. And he knew that personal contact was by far the best. “For this cause therefore did I entreat you to see AND to speak with me” (Acts 28:20 RV). He called men to have a personal meeting with him, rather than just to hear the theory. Not just to hear him, but to see him… for we are the essential witnesses.
(1) This grammatical feature is explained at length by C.H. Turner, 'Notes on Marcan usage', in J.K.Elliott, ed., The Language And Style Of The Gospel Of Mark (Leiden: Brill, 1993).

The Implications of Illiteracy

An Oral Culture
We need to reflect upon the implications of the fact that the vast majority of the early Christians were illiterate. Literacy levels in first century Palestine were only 10% at the highest estimate(1). Some estimate that the literacy level in the Roman empire was a maximum of 10%, and literacy levels in Palestine were at most 3%(2). Most of the literate people in Palestine would have been either the wealthy or the Jewish scribes. And yet it was to the poor that the Gospel was preached, and even in Corinth there were not many educated or “mighty” in this world within the ecclesia. Notice how the Lord said to the Pharisees: “Have you not read?” (Mk. 2:25; Mt. 12:5; 19:4), whilst He says to those who responded to Him: “You have heard” (Mt. 5:21,27,33). His followers were largely the illiterate. As the ecclesial world developed, Paul wrote inspired letters to the ecclesias. Those letters would have been read to the brethren and sisters. Hence the great importance of ‘teachers’ in the early churches, those who could faithfully read and transmit to others what had been written.
It’s hard for us in this century to understand what it would have meant to live in a largely illiterate society. We inevitably assume that written text, be it printed or electronic, is the only way in which important things can be explained, or significant words recorded and shared with others. When we want to learn about what happened in the past, we think of what we can read about that time. But the early Christians lived in an oral culture rather than a literary one. News, theories, history, was passed on by orally recounting it within a group. Some are concerned that there must have been a gap between the actual words of Jesus as He spoke them, and the day they were written down. Our belief in Biblical inspiration means that this isn’t an issue for us; but it’s worth pointing out that several societies have had their folklore analyzed, and the accuracy of transmission of the stories is amazing, over centuries. Albert Lord made his life’s work a research into the folktales and sagas handed down in communities within the former Yugoslavia. He found amazing accuracy of transmission over centuries; very little was ‘lost’ in transmission(3). The same has been found in studies in Africa(4). And yet there was a gap of at the most 50 years [probably far less] between Jesus actually speaking His words and them being written down. So there is no reason to think that somehow the Gospel writers didn’t accurately have the record of the actual words of Jesus.   
The Origin of the Gospel Records
One point that all the referenced studies make is that the stories were passed on in a collective form- it was groups of people and communities who told and re-told the stories, and this was how the transmission was so accurate(5). We can imagine what happened in the first century. The groups of people who believed in Jesus told and re-told the Gospels. It’s likely that each of the Gospel writers wrote their records for a specific group of their converts, who had been telling and re-telling to others the record which under inspiration the writers ‘wrote up’. This is why each Gospel has its own themes and characteristics, based around the same authentic words of Jesus. Hence the Gospels were initially a body of tradition and later documents which were used not only for maintaining and clarifying the beliefs of the earliest ecclesias or groups, but as a vehicle for preaching that Gospel to others. We have mentioned studies in Europe and Africa, but most significant of all is the 30 years work of Kenneth Bailey in exploring the oral culture of village groups in the Middle East(6). He likewise found very little lost in transmission over centuries; but he draws attention to the vital importance of the haflat samar, the gathering of the village at the end of the day to re-tell stories and traditions, especially stories of what had happened in the village or to the villagers in the past. It seems likely that in the same kind of gatherings in first century Palestine, those who had believed in Jesus told and re-told the Gospel records. We can imagine that this would especially have happened in the villages where the Lord Jesus had taught and healed. This was how the earliest ecclesias would’ve developed, how the Gospel would first have been preached in a systematic way, and here surely is the beginnings of the Gospel records as we have them. Lk. 1:4 mentions that the history of Jesus was something in which a new convert was “instructed” or [Gk.] catechized, as if the Gospel record was learnt by repetition. Luke as a serious historian mentions his sources, describing them as "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word". The Greek hyperetes which translates "ministers" is the Greek form of the Hebrew hazzan. The word recurs in Lk. 4:20, about the "minister of the synagogue". The task of the minister was to look after the scrolls- "the chest with the books was brought in to the synagogue when required from an adjoining room and brought back there afterwards" (7). Luke's idea is that instead of humping a bunch of scrolls around, the 'ministers' were the eyewitnesses who recited what they had heard of Jesus. But because they would die out, there was a need for people like Luke to compose documents which recorded their testimony.
All this has major implications for our church today. In that oral culture, there was obviously no written statement of faith. The average Christian heard and remembered what they heard. Some could probably quote a Gospel and maybe some letters of Paul from memory. But at the point of conversion their memory would have been limited. They heard a message and believed it. But it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to answer a detailed set of say 300 questions as some give candidates for baptism today, nor would they have had detailed grasp of an intricate ‘statement of faith’. Even today in the mission field, it’s evident that illiterate people have a far simpler understanding of doctrine than those who are literate. It’s very hard for people to enter into the mindset of the illiterate, like it’s so hard for sighted people to enter into the world-views and perceptions of the blind. One thing is clear. The understanding held by an illiterate first century Christian convert was likely far simpler, less detailed and more elastic than that held by many 21st century converts to Christ. And yet the basis of the Gospel, the basis of salvation and entry into the body of Christ by valid baptism, has of course not changed. The phenomena of widespread literacy has led us to have a more detailed and even more ‘correct’ understanding of many things than they would’ve had then; but we can’t insist that therefore there is now a far higher level of knowledge required for baptism than there was then. Many of the finer points of Biblical interpretation over which our community has divided simply wouldn’t have been points of division in the first century illiterate church. And they are our example, rather than us pretending that we are their example, and seeking to rewrite our perception of their history so that they had the same level of knowledge of the Gospel as ourselves. For a start, the ‘Gospel’ which they believed was the good news of the work, teaching, demands, story, death and resurrection of Jesus- the sort of thing we find in the Gospel records.  
So we can imagine our brethren hearing the Gospels and Paul’s letters, and believing what they heard. But we have to ask whether illiterate people would have understood and interpreted that oral material in the same way or to the same detailed extent as we analyze and accept the written word.  Christianity in its earliest form therefore was a question of recounting, meditating and reflecting upon the basic message of the Gospel records, the actions and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament letters were to communities formed around these very things (8); but sadly at our distance from the first century, our Christianity can so easily become about so many other things apart from the essence of the Gospels.
The emphasis in the New Testament upon teachers is understandable- their duty would have been to recite accurately the teachings of Jesus as they are recorded in what we now have as the Gospel records. And there was a Holy Spirit gift available to enable the apostles to remember what Jesus had said and done. All this further explains why the Gospel records are comprised of what have been termed ‘blocks of tradition’- parables and accounts of miracles are recounted [especially in Mark] in ‘blocks’. This would’ve had its origin in how the material was recounted by those telling the story in the first place. And we can imagine how it would’ve been recounted countless evenings in the villages of Palestine, where there were people present who’d actually known Jesus or met Him. The Gospel records, therefore, were initially transcripts of preaching material.
Oral Performance of the Gospels
It's difficult to enter into the mind of the illiterate first [or twenty first] century Christian. People communicated differently in the first century- just as in our own era, the online generation communicate differently to those who don't have internet access. We are used to mostly silent reading of the Biblical text, involving the eye and brain. But "First-century literary works were almost always heard in a communal setting rather than read silently by individuals... an oral performance involves the ear, the eye, and whole body. The meaning of the Gospel in its original setting would not be found in the text. It would be found in its performance within a community" (9). For most of our generation, the meaning of the Bible is found through our reading of the text; but for the illiterate, that's not the case. Time and again, churches and individual relationships have sundered over a different reading of a few texts [e.g. Paul's words about women and headcoverings]. Division over matters of close textual interpretation are unheard of in illiterate communities. Yet those believers were and are legitimate and valid before God. The basis of their fellowship and relationship with God wasn't on the basis of a text read and dissected in accurate detail; and therefore we shouldn't think that such intellectual exercise is vital to relationship with God and each other. Revelation, Thessalonians and Colossians contain specific statements that the material was to be read out loud to the [illiterate] church members (Rev. 1:3; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16); but the contents of those books require quite detailed analysis, which we tend to wrongly assume can only be given by reading the text. The processes of occasional listening to a text [employed by most first century believers] and reading a text [employed by many twenty first century believers] are quite different. We can go back to a text, re-read it, re-access it at will. Someone who occasionally hears a passage read, and who maybe only heard parts of the New and Old Testaments read once or twice in their lives, simply relates to the text differently. Further, the nature of the reading of the text, the delivery of the speaker, would've played an important part in the interpretation of it by the illiterate hearer- hence the greater responsibility of teachers in the first century than today. For the illiterate audience, the message was tied up with the messenger to a huge degree. Hence Timothy is told to pay attention to his [public?] reading, preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). It has been observed that oral performance of texts like e.g. the Gospel of Mark was designed towards producing an emotional impact upon the hearers. We who read the same text and seek [quite rightly] to understand from it doctrine and practical commands for living somehow miss much of this; we inevitably subject the text to intellectual analysis, whereas the first century audience would have felt from their performance an appeal to convert, to accept, to feel something in response towards the Man Jesus who was presented there. Perhaps this is why a reading of the Gospels produces less response in us than that from a first century group hearing the same Gospels read / performed to them. Thus a first century reciter / listener would have paid special attention to the way Mark indicates the emotional state of Jesus as He said His words- angry (Mk. 3:5), compassionate (Mk. 1:41), snorting like a horse (Mk. 1:43 Gk.), troubled and distressed (Mk. 14:33). Likewise Mark's constant use of the term "immediately..." in his early chapters would've created a sense of urgency, fast flowing narrative, perhaps matched by the reciter speaking quickly. The changes of tense in the Gospel records suggest an eye witness telling the story. Take Mk. 4:37: "And there arises a great storm of wind , and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling" (RV). But the rest of the account in the surrounding verses is in proper past tenses- e.g. "He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said..." (Mk. 4:39). The impression we have is of the author getting carried away with the memory of the event, and telling it as if it's happening. And this is especially fitting if in fact the Gospels were performed live rather than coldly memorized as prose.
I have made the point elsewhere that the Gospels are transcripts of the preaching of the Gospel by, e.g., Mark or Luke; and that the texts were memorized by the believers. This would be in line with the way that "the ancient Mediterranean cultures valued oral performance... as a result, texts were generally memorized for performance" (10). Oral performances or recitations were done in the Roman world just about everywhere- on street corners, in the baths etc. We are therefore to imagine the texts of the Gospel being recited aloud by Christian preachers and performed before an audience- e.g. when the text says that the Lord spoke with a loud voice or looked around in anger, the preacher would do likewise. And in doing so, he would be a manifestation of Jesus to the world around Him; preaching was and is all about incarnating the Lord Jesus in our own flesh and words and body language. And this process would've required the performer to meditate upon the body language and likely facial expressions of the Lord Jesus in order to accurately render them to the listeners. The unusual thing about Christianity, however, was that those who accepted the message were also expected to memorize and perform / recite / relate the Gospel text to others. Perhaps in all this we have a little recognized partial explanation of why the Gospel spread so powerfully and so quickly amongst the illiterate in the first century.
It's noteworthy that public recitations were something that women were allowed to participate in; hence Paul's advice not to waste time listening to the fables / recitations told by old women (1 Tim. 4:7- cp. wasting our God-given time watching soap operas today). Slave women especially were known to make such recitations to the women of a large household, including the female freewomen. This doubtless laid the basis for the phenomenon [portrayed on some frescoes] of female house churches, with slave women leading the gatherings even when their mistress was present.
Mark as the Disciples’ Gospel
Mark repeatedly uses the Greek term “on the way” to describe how the disciples and converts to Jesus followed Him in His way (Mk. 8:27; 9:33; 10:32,52), which was to Jerusalem, to death and thereby to glorious resurrection. The account is punctuated by reference to the various stages of the journey, the areas and towns along the Jerusalem road. Like all the Gospel writers, Mark writes in such a way as to carry the readership along with actual involvement with the disciples and the people Jesus is recorded as meeting, so that we too may be the followers of Jesus in our day and context. The Gospels are therefore intended as encouragement to those who have already believed to keep on following; and also an attempt to persuade unbelievers hearing the story for the first time to identify with those who first followed Jesus through the streets and lanes of Palestine so long ago. The tradition that Mark’s Gospel had to be recited by heart by baptismal candidates therefore has the ring of truth about it, as does the suggestion from literary analysis that Mark’s Gospel was first intended to be read out loud in public places as a true ‘evangelism’ of the Gospel. The Gospel opens with a purposefully ambiguous genitive: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”. It could mean ‘the Gospel about Jesus’, or, ‘the Gospel [told] by Jesus’. In hearing the words of the preacher, performer or reader of Mark’s record, the audience were and are hearing Jesus telling His own story.
Mark emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, giving focused in pictures of His body language and facial reactions; and stresses His preference to speak of Himself as “Son of man” rather than “Son of God”. Thus Mark records how when asked at His trial if He were the son of God, Jesus replied that He was “Son of man”. Mark likewise in his choice of material develops the theme of suffering being an inevitable result of following Jesus. Further, he seems to highlight those who failed under pressure- the disciples, the way Mark’s Gospel gives more attention to Peter’s denials than the other Gospels. We can identify with this, and perhaps Mark’s initial audience could likewise. It has been argued that Mark was in passing also addressing an early heresy of Jesus being a theios aner , or ‘divine man’ (11); an idea which would finally come to term in the doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise from early on in the Gospel, Mark brings out how the shadow of the cross was always there for Jesus. Those who have heard the message of Jesus all down the centuries have always been tempted to evade and play down the element of suffering which there has to be in the experience of following Christ. This has been manifest in attempts to make Jesus out to have been so Divine that He wasn’t really and genuinely human; for this thereby demands so very much of us who as humans seek to follow the Son of Man. Mark seeks to address this tendency of ours, by presenting Jesus as so human, and yet carrying us along in the narrative to identify with the disciples who followed Him. For this is indeed how even modern writing works- the success of the writing depends upon getting ordinary people to feel able to identify with the characters.
In this case, the characters with whom we are led to identify are the disciples and those who were healed by Jesus; perhaps this is why Mark rarely gives the names of the healed, and uses the ambiguous word sozein to describe the healings, meaning as it does both ‘to heal’ and ‘to save’; and he often links the word with the idea of living or coming to life (Mk. 5:23,28,34; 6:56; 10:52). Likewise forgiveness of sin and healing are associated in Mk. 2:1-12, and ‘cleansing’ both from leprosy and sin in Mk. 1:40-45. Whilst in this dispensation such miracles no longer occur, this is not to be a barrier between us and those healed folks; for we too are cleansed and saved from sin by the same Lord. And yet Mark portrays the followers of Jesus as failing and ungrateful, as weak in behaviour and understanding, and yet their basic loyalty shining through in the end by God’s grace. And we can easily identify with this. Note too how Mark makes a point of recording how many events and teachings of Jesus occurred in homes- perhaps because the community for which he was initially writing met in homes. These early house churches were thus invited to see themselves as continuing in the spirit of those who first encountered the Lord in homes.
What It Means For Us Today
The idea that the Gospels are transcripts of the early preaching of the Gospel becomes more obvious when we start to probe how the Gospels would have originated. As accounts and rumours about Jesus and His teaching began to spread around, some would have been sceptical. Those who had met Jesus would have wished to persuade their neighbours and friends that really, what they had seen and heard was really so. People who had met Jesus would share their impressions together and reflect upon the striking things He had said and done. The beginnings of the Gospels were therefore rooted in preaching the good news about Jesus(12).  
The Lord speaks of us abiding in His word (Jn. 8:31) and yet also of His word abiding in us, and us abiding in Him (Jn. 15:7). I suggest this refers in the first instance to the new Christian converts reciting over and over in their minds the Gospel accounts. In all situations they were to have the ‘word of Jesus’ hovering in their minds. To abide in Christ was and is to have His words abiding in us. Paul’s evident familiarity with the Lord’s words is an example of how one of our brethren lived this out in practice. We have to ask how frequently in the daily grind the words of the Master come to mind, how close they are to the surface in our subconscious… for this is the essence of Christianity. It’s not so much a question of consciously memorizing His words, but so loving Him that quite naturally His words are never far from our consciousness, and frequently come out in our thinking and words. No wonder it seems the early church made new converts memorize the Gospels. Perhaps 1 Jn. 2:24 has this in mind, when we read that what the John’s community of converts had heard from the beginning [i.e. the words of the Gospel of John?] was to abide in them, so that they in this manner would abide in Jesus. And perhaps too 1 Jn. 3:9 has similar reference- the seed of God [the Gospel- of John- which the converts had first heard] must abide in the convert, so that he or she doesn’t [continue in] sin. The continual meditation upon the Lord’s words as we have them in the Gospels will have the same effect upon us. This is the real way to overcome sin and to achieve genuine spiritual mindedness, to know the mind of Christ; in this way the Lord Jesus abides in us by His Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24). Abiding in the word of Christ, His words abiding in us, abiding in love, abiding in the Father and Son (1 Jn. 4:16) are all parallel ideas. Jesus Himself ‘quickens’ or breathes life into us (Jn. 5:21)- but His Spirit does this, in that His words ‘are spirit’ (Jn. 6:63). Again we see how His personal presence, His life and Spirit, are breathed into us through His words being in us. In the mundane monotony of daily life, doing essentially the same job, travelling to work the same route, the alarm clock going off the same time each morning… there can be breathed into us a unique new life through having His words ever abiding within us. And this ‘quickening’ in daily life now is the foretaste of the ‘quickening’ which we will literally experience at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:22- ‘made alive’ is the same Greek word translated ‘quicken’ in Jn. 5:21; 6:63).
We shouldn't be unduly phased by the idea of the early Christians memorizing the Gospels.Even today in the Islamic world, students in religious schools are expected to memorize the entire Koran, which is roughly the same size as the entire New Testament. There are reports of this even being achieved by a seven year old (13). The whole structure of Mark's Gospel seems designed for memorization- the material is arranged in triplets, and the sections have chiastic structures [e.g. material arranged in the form ABA, ABCBA, ABCDCBA]. Even within the triplets, themes often occur in triplets- e,g, the three experiences in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:32-42), Peter's three denials (Mk. 14:66-72), three wrong answers about the identity of Jesus (Mk. 6:14-16; 8:28). The use of triplets and tripilisms is common in folk stories- to aid memorization. And the actual Greek text in Mark often has a rhythm and rhyme to it created by similar sounding words. Just one example from Mk. 1:1:
Ar-khay tou you-ang-ge -lee-ou Yay-sou Khrees-tou whee-ou the -ou.
The 'ou' endings are somehow rhythmical. Especially do we see this rhythmical quality in the phrase used for "Jesus Christ the Son of God" in Mk. 1:1: "Ieso-u Christo-u huio-u Theo-u".
If we “keep” in mind the Lord’s words, we will never “see death” (Jn. 8:51)- death itself will be perceived differently by us, if our hearts are ever with Him who conquered death, and is the resurrection and the life. If our view of death itself, the unspoken deepest personal fear of all humanity, is different… we will be radically different from our fellows. ‘Abiding’ is a major theme in John. Several times he records how the Lord Jesus ‘abode’ in houses or areas during His ministry (Jn. 1:38,39; 2:12; 4:40; 7:9; 10:40; 11:6), culminating in the Lord’s words that He was still abiding with them, but would leave them soon (Jn. 14:25). And yet the repeated teaching of the Lord is that actually, He will permanently abide in the heart of whoever believes in Him. And all the stories of Him ‘abiding’ a night here or there prepare the way for this. Those hearts become like the humble homes of Palestine where He spent odd nights- the difference being that there is now a permanent quality to that ‘abiding’, “for ever”. This is how close and real the Lord can come to us, if His words truly abide in us. So why not try to learn at least part of a Gospel? (14). But above all, to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, affecting our very core values and every aspect of human character, perception and sensitivity.
(1) A. Millard, Reading And Writing In The Time Of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) pp. 223-229.
(2) See C. Hezser, Jewish Literacy In Roman Palestine (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
(3) His work is summarized in A.B. Lord, The Singer Of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). Note especially in our context chapter 5.
(4) See R. Finnegan, Oral Literature In Africa (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970); I. Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
(5) See M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992).
(6) K.E. Bailey, Poet And Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976). In another book, Bailey makes the significant point that "Although he wrote nothing, Akiba (first and second centuries) is quoted more than 270 times in the Mishnah alone"- K.E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) p. 29. This shows how verbal statements were accurately recorded and later produced in written form. It's not therefore too much to believe that the words of Jesus of Nazareth were likewise recorded.
(7) S. Safrai, 'The Synagogue', in The Jewish People in the First Century (ed. M. Stern and S. Safrai), (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) Vol. 2, p. 915.
(8) It's worth noting the evidence that the entire New Testament was written before AD70:
- If any of the Gospels were written after AD70, their total silence as to that cataclysmic event is strange. The synoptics all record a prophecy of the events of AD70, and yet there is no reference by any of them to its fulfillment; whereas the Gospel writers aren't slow to comment on the way the Lord's words came true. Mt. 24:20 speaks of those events as being in the future- "Pray that it may not be winter when you have to make your escape". Surely there'd have been some reference to the fulfillment of the Olivet prophecy, if the records were written after AD70? Jn. 5:2 speaks as if Jerusalem and the temple area were still standing when John was written: "Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool". The record of the Jews' proud comment in Jn. 2:20 that Herod's temple had taken 46 years to build includes no hint nor even presentiment that it had now been destroyed.
- Paul on any chronology died before AD70, so his letters were all before that. We need to marvel at the evident growth in spirituality and understanding which is reflected within Paul's letters, and realize that he grew very quickly.
- Hebrews speaks of the temple and sacrifice system in the present tense, as if it were still operating (note Heb. 10:2,11,18). The 40 years of Israel's disobedience in the wilderness are held up as a warning to an Israel approaching 40 years of disobedience after the death of Jesus (Heb. 3:7- 4:11). "You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (Heb. 12:4) sounds like Nero's persecution hadn't started.
- The letters of Peter warn that a huge calamity is to come upon the Jewish churches, couched in terms of the Olivet prophecy. Thus they were written before AD70. 2 Peter also speaks as if Paul is still alive at the time.
- Acts stops at the point where Paul is living in his own house in Rome quite comfortably, and spreading the Gospel (Acts 28:30). And yet we know from 2 Tim. 4 that ultimately he died in Rome, presumably after being released and doing more work for the Lord. The obvious conclusion is that Acts was written before Paul died. Acts also implies that Jews were living at peace with Rome (Acts 24:2; 25:1-5; 15:13- 26:32)- a situation which didn't apply after AD70.
- This leaves James, which is widely regarded as the earliest letter- the Christians are still meeting in a synagogue, there is no reference to any division or false teaching, and there are many allusions to Stephen's speech and martyrdom. A good case can be made that James was written as a follow up to the Council of Jerusalem- there are some marked similarities [James 1:1 = Acts 15:34; James 2:5 = Acts 15:13; James 2:7 = Acts 15:17; James 1:27 = Acts 15:29].
- A pre-AD70 date for Revelation has been well argued by J.A.T.Robinson, H.A.Whittaker and Paul Wyns. John would've been pretty old if it was indeed given in AD96 as claimed by some. The many connections between Revelation and the Olivet prophecy and 2 Peter 3 all suggest that it too is a prophecy of AD70. The historical connections are too great to ignore, and seem of little value if the book is simply alluding at a later date to what happened in AD70. Rev. 17:10 speaks of the leadership of the Roman empire, speaking of “five that are fallen”- clearly referring to:
1. Julius Caesar the first Roman Emperor (44 BC-26 BC).
2. Augustus (27 BC – AD 14).
3. Tiberius (AD 14 – 37).
4. Gaius (AD 37 – 41).
5. Claudius (AD 41 – 51)
The leader who "is" would therefore refer to Nero (AD54-68), and the context of persecution would then be that of his reign.
(9) Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming The Gospel (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2003) p. 1.
(10) Whitney Shiner, Proclaiming The Gospel (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2003) p. 4.

(11) On this see Ernest Best, Mark: The Gospel as Story (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), p. 46.
(12) This point is well developed in Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (London: S.C.M., 1987).
(13) See D. Ben-Amos and K.S.Goldstein, eds., Folklore: Performance and Communication (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) p. 156.Other examples from the first century are to be found in Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1992) pp. 113-127.
(14) See

The Nature Of The Gospel Records

In my book Peter and Paul , I published my statistical analysis of Paul’s allusions to the Gospel records. And according to my [surely very incomplete] analysis, he was regularly alluding to the Gospels, and so were Peter and the other early believers whose words are recorded. One thing is clear from all this. Those early brethren knew their Gospel records by heart; and not only that, they meditated on them to the extent that they bubbled out of them as they thought and wrote. F.F. Bruce correctly observes that Paul's thinking and reasoning was based on his appreciation of the personality of Jesus: "Paul's chief argument in his ethical instruction is the example of Jesus Himself. And the character of Jesus as Paul understood it is consistent with the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. When Paul speaks of "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:1) we recall the claim of the Matthean Jesus to be "meek and lowly in heart" (Mt. 11:29). The self-denying Jesus of the Gospels is the one of whom Paul says that " Christ did not please himself" (Rom. 15:3)...when Paul invites his Philippian friends to reproduce among themselves the mind which was in Christ Jesus, who "took the form of a slave" (Phil. 2:5-7), we may think of Him who said to His disciples at the Last Supper, " I am among you as the servant" (Lk. 22:27)" (1). Paul's focus on the personality of Jesus means that he was no hypocrite when he asked the believers to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ... put on the new man" (Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:10). 
On average, every 6 verses Paul is making an allusion to the Gospels (2). That's quite something. His mind must have been saturated with those records. And remember that almost certainly my analysis is incomplete; the real figure is probably more like once every 4 verses. It also needs to be remembered that Paul probably knew words of Jesus which we don't have, and alluded to them. He memorized Christ's words of commission to him, and they were still in his mind when he stood before Agrippa (Acts 26:18). Also in Acts 20:35 he says he is quoting " the words of the Lord Jesus" , although they are not recorded in our Gospels (3).  But our real character and thinking tends to come out more in our spoken rather than written words. When we are speaking 'off the cuff' we don't have time to consciously frame our language in Biblical terms and reference. If when we speak we are still making such allusions, it is because the word is truly in our heart. It is significant that Paul's spoken words (as recorded in Acts; see table) allude to the Gospels even more than he does in his writing (once every four verses rather than once every six verses for written words). The second table above presents the figures chronologically. The general trend suggests that in his writing, Paul increasingly alluded to the Gospels in the last ten years of his life. And in his time of dying (in which he wrote 2 Timothy), the intensity of his allusions to the Gospels reaches an all time high. The above table shows that in 2 Timothy he is referring to the Gospels at least once every 3.9 verses- and almost certainly more than that, seeing that my analysis is certainly incomplete. The old-time believers who raised me were likewise saturated with the word. They could quote and quote and quote; and in their last years, their ability to quote the word to themselves gave them untold comfort and strength. Yet now, as a community, such brethren and sisters are a dying breed. The word is simply not in our hearts as it should be.  
So what am I suggesting? That we go off and learn the Gospels? Well, yes, although not so that we can quote them at appropriate times. Know them and live them, feel them, think them. It's my observation that those who could really quote and quote were normally not the intellectuals. Illiterate Peter almost certainly had Mark's Gospel off pat. And John was another fisherman, learning verses was not the kind of thing he'd been brought up on. But it was possible, even easy for these brethren, because they were Christ-centred. Not Bible-centred, but Christ-centred. The focus of the New Testament is without doubt upon the Lord Jesus; he is the one whose word and example should utterly dominate our consciousness. Sadly our Christian heritage has taught us that if we zip through our Bible readings in 15 minutes a day we're not doing so badly; it's also taught us that " the meat of the word" is speculating over the fulfilment of Daniel and Revelation; the Lord's parables, the image of the spotless lamb of God moving around daily life in the petty minded, self-centred small towns of first century Israel...these were for Sunday School children (and the very young ones at that). And this all meant that we (as a community) never gave the Gospels of the Lord Jesus the serious attention and place they deserve. If the first century converts were seriously expected to learn the Gospel of Mark, and their elders (e.g. James, Peter, John and Paul) all set them this example (regardless of their intellectual background)- what of us today? " Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16) may well be an allusion to the tradition of learning the Gospel of Mark. How can it richly dwell in us if we do not daily meditate upon those inspired records?  
It would seem that the Gospels were so clearly etched in the minds of the first century believers because the message of the Gospel was preached in the form of reciting a 'Gospel', a record of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This is why 'gospel' as in the message and 'Gospel' as in the four Gospels are the same word, although this seems to be overlooked by many. The Gospel according to Matthew is the good news about Christ which Matthew preached and then wrote down. John of all the Gospel writers makes it openly apparent that his preaching of the Gospel is based around a recital of the things which he himself saw and heard in the Lord's life (1:14; 19:35; 21:24). His Gospel is full of what have been called " the artless notes of the authentic eye-witness" (e.g. his comment that " the house was filled with the odour of the ointment" ). 
Significantly, Matthew and Luke start their Gospels with reference to the promises to Abraham and David; as many of us would. Matthew and Mark both close with an appeal for baptism- as we would. F.F. Bruce comments: " The four Gospels, or rather the four records of the one and only Gospel...are not, as some sometimes imagine, biographies of Christ...they are rather written transcripts of the Gospel preached by the apostles" (4). Acts 10:36 speaks of “the word…which was proclaimed throughout all Judea…how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit…”, as if the word of the Gospel is the Gospel story as recorded by Mark and the others.This would explain the sudden changes of tenses in the synoptics- as one would expect from an author re-telling his memories. John’s Gospel was written for the specific purpose of bringing others to faith- like most of the New Testament, it is essentially a missionary document (Jn. 20:30). Jn. 20:31 makes it clear that the purpose of John's Gospel was to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ: "This has been written in order that you may hold the faith that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that, holding this faith, you may posess life by His name". C.H. Dodd comments: "The tense of the verbs... the aorists... would necessarily have implied that the readers did not so far hold the Christian faith or possess eternal life" (5). “That ye might believe” implies John intended his readership to be unbelievers rather than believers in the first instance. Jn. 19:35 implies that the community for whom John was writing had John as the basic source of their knowledge about Jesus, and was highly respected as their spiritual father. 'John' is therefore his inspired write-up of the Gospel he had taught his converts, and therefore it has various specific features highly relevant to them. Acts likewise seems to be written as a preaching document, recording the speeches of basic apologetics which were made to both Jews and Gentiles. The early preachers would have gone around telling the good news about Jesus Christ, and in so doing would have recited time and again His teaching and life story. Mark records how the Lord commanded the Gospel to be preached world-wide (Mark 16:15); but he surely intends this to be linked with his record of how the generosity of the sinful woman would be told " wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world" (Mk. 14:9). 'The Gospel' was therefore not just the basic doctrines; it was the whole record of the life and works of Christ. This is why each of the Gospels is somehow personalized to the writer. Matthew, for example, changes the Lord's quotation of Is. 9:9 from " the people which walked in darkness..." to " the people which sat in darkness saw great light" (Mt. 4:16), because he was sitting at the receipt of custom when the Lord called him (Mt. 9:9).  Thus the Gospel is called " the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; Rom. 10:7 RV), " the Gospel of Christ" (Rom. 1:16; 15:19,29; 16:25; 1 Cor. 9:12,18; 2 Cor. 2:12; 9:13; 10:14; Gal. 1:7; Phil. 1:27; 1 Thess. 3:2; 2 Thess. 1:8); " the word of the Lord (Jesus)" (Acts 8:25; 13:48,49; 15:35,36; 16:32; 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8; 2 Thess. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:25). The phrase " the word (logos) of God" is used several times with obvious personal reference to the Lord Jesus (Heb. 4:12,13; 1 Pet. 1:23 NIV), who now in His exalted glory is the word of God (Rev. 19:13; 20:4). It is therefore quite possible that the copious NT references to the preaching of " the word of God" (a phrase the NT uses mainly concerning the Gospel, not the whole Bible) actually refer to the preaching of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the word (logos) of God. The " word (logos) of God" is parallel with the " word (logos) of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18), the " word (logos) of Christ" (Acts 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 6:1). The Lord Jesus paralleled "my sake and the gospel's" with "me and my words" (Mk. 8:35,38). He Himself thus understood the Gospel to be His words. 
This is all a tremendous emphasis; that the good news about Christ contained in the Gospel records (Mt. 1:1) was in fact the basic Gospel which was preached. When Paul talks about his Gospel, he surely means his account of the Lord Jesus which he gave, as, for example, Matthew gave his Gospel / account of the Lord. When Paul preached to the Galatians, he placarded forth Jesus Christ crucified in front of them: his preaching of the Gospel involved a repeated and graphic portrayal of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth as a historical event (Gal. 3:1). Thus at the day of judgment, we will admire Christ because we believed the Gospel about Him (2 Thess. 1:10). John seems to suggest that he chose which miracles to record so that " ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name" (Jn. 20:31). The implication is that he wrote his Gospel with the intention of it being used as a preaching document. Luke's Gospel was written for the purpose of preaching to Theophilus, who had already been 'catechized', taught by rote, one of the Gospels (probably Mark), but who wanted to have a more detailed and factual account (Lk. 1:3,4). Luke later describes his Gospel as his logos , his 'word' about all Jesus did (Acts 1:1 Gk.). The Lord seems to have foreseen this when He spoke of how " Wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, which this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her" (Mt. 26:13). There is evident connection with Christ's prophecy of how the Gospel would be preached in all the world (Mt. 24:14; Mk. 16:15). He seems to have seen the 'Gospel' that would be preached as a re-telling of His life and incidents in it, such as the woman's anointing of Him. It is significant that her anointing is mentioned in all four Gospel records (6). In Mk. 14:9 we read that wherever the gospel was to be preached, what she had done would be narrated in memory of her. So ‘preaching the Gospel’ is defined there as a narration of the events and sayings of the Lord Jesus in His ministry.
The Gospels As Eyewitness Accounts
There's been much debate about whether the Gospels fit into any particular genre of writing. Richard Bauckham spent 500 densely written pages making the case that they do in fact fit the genre of eyewitness testimony, and as such share similarities with similar eyewitness accounts from the first century (7). Several times in his work, Bauckham comments that as such, they are documents "asking to be believed". In this we see the appropriacy of the genre- the Gospels are indeed eyewitness accounts, but they are also transcripts of the preaching of the very early believers in Christ- for their testimony, axiomatically as it were, begs to be believed. Their personal testimony is an appeal for us to believe. The modern world appears sceptical of eyewitness accounts, but in the first century they were seen as the basis for true history. Hence Josephus claimed: "My qualification as a historian of the war was that I had been an actor in many, and an eyewitness of most of the events" (C. Ap.1.55). Lucian likewise commented that "Ears are less reliable than eyes" (8). Here's a summary of why we can consider the Gospels to be eyewitness accounts, rather than history written up by a historian:
- There are a large number of personal names in the Gospels. Over time, names tend to be forgotten by eyewitnesses. Their presence in the Gospels suggests the accounts are from fresh eyewitnesses and were written down at an early stage.
- Some of the detail in the accounts is the kind of thing which an eyewitness rather than a historian would put in their account. Likewise there are few references to dating- for this is the stuff of historians (or more correctly, historiography) rather than eyewitness accounts.
- The tenses and grammar at times are only appropriate to eyewitness accounts.
- The Gospels appear to be a collection of brief passages relating specific events or teachings, called "pericopes" by some students. The process of Divine inspiration would have worked through the collecting together, editing and synthesis of these eyewitness testimonies into what we now have as the Gospels.
- There are an unusually large number of named characters in the Gospels, compared to what we meet in other historical accounts of the time. Eyewitnesses tend to forget names and places very quickly; the implication could be that the Gospels are inspired transcripts of eyewitness testimony given very soon after the events. It can be argued that the cases where characters are not named was in order to protect them from persecution (9)-which would again suggest that the Gospels were produced during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, very soon after the events. The fact some of the unnamed characters in Mark are named in John could be because John's gospel was written a little later, perhaps after the death of those named, or when the risk of persecution had decreased (examples include Jn. 12:3; 18:10).
- A case can be made that the Gospel of John is the eyewitness account of John- he says that he testifies to all he has written (Jn. 21:24).

(1) F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle  Of The Free Spirit (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), p. 96
(2) It is quite possible that Paul heard most of the speeches recorded in the Gospels, and saw many of the miracles. The reason is as follows. Every faithful Jew would have been in Jerusalem to keep the feasts three times per year. Jesus and Paul were therefore together in Jerusalem three times / year, throughout Christ's ministry. It can be demonstrated that many of the miracles and speeches of Jesus occurred around the feast times, in Jerusalem. Therefore I estimate that at least 70% of the content of the Gospels (including John) Paul actually saw and heard 'live'. Another indirect reason for believing that Paul had met and heard Jesus preaching is from the fact that Paul describes himself as having been brought up as a Pharisee, because his father had been one (Acts 23:6). Martin Hengel has shown extensive evidence to believe that the Pharisees only really operated in Palestine, centred in Jerusalem, where Paul was “brought up” at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Hengel also shows that “brought up” refers to training from a young child. So whilst Paul was born in Tarsus, he was really a Jerusalem boy. Almost certainly he would have heard and known much about Jesus; his father may even have been amongst those who persecuted the Lord. See Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (London: SCM, 1991).
(3) There are other hints of this. Consider 1 Cor. 9:14, where Paul says that Christ ordained that preachers should be paid by the congregation. Or Mk. 14:58 records people quoting Jesus as saying that he would build another temple " made without hands" . Yet those words are not recorded in the Gospels. However, Paul seems to allude to the idea of Christ as a temple " made without hands" in Heb. 9:11,24; 2 Cor. 5:1. Perhaps he knew Christ had said those words and was alluding to them.
(4)F.F. Bruce, The Books And The Parchments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984) p. 107.
(5) C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation Of The Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1960) p. 9.
(6) See the discussion of Mary Magdalene in Gospel News, Vol. 9 No. 5, May / June 1996.
(7) Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006).
(8) Bauckham, ibid. p. 406.
(9) Detailed analysis of each case in Gerd Theissen, The Gospels In Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) pp. 171-174.

Memorizing Scripture

To learn a Gospel is a possibility. I knew two English Christians who could recite all four of them. One, admittedly, was an intellectual of above average ability. The other: a school caretaker who read his Gospels in a council flat on a rough South London estate, with an unbelieving wife. After our Sunday School lesson, we'd always put Jimmy to the test. "Go on Uncle Jimmy, Luke 10". And out it came. "John 2". Word perfect, as we followed in our Bibles. Jimmy, beloved Sunday School teacher, I salute you, for your unfeigned love of our Lord Jesus, and for your inspiration.  Between them, those two brethren answer all the excuses. Got too much in your mind already because of your job and profession? Harry did it, here and now in the twentieth century; and Paul did it in the first. Too much of a simple soul, not your kind of scene? Jimmy did it, Cockney accent and all. And so did Peter. Yet my sense is that none of them set out to do it. They ended up like that because they loved their Lord, and therefore the word of His grace. It was sweet, truly sweet, to their taste. My point is, quite simply: it is possible, if you want to, here and now in this life, amidst the hustle and bustle of London, Toronto, Moscow, Jo'burg, Nairobi, Manila, Hong Kong... amidst the slow, steady life of a Devon village, the petty gossip and small talk of a small town in the Baltics, or in rural Ontario, or an isolated Siberian village. It is possible, for every one of you. And for me too. 
As a digression, there is evidence within the text of the NT, in addition to church tradition, which would suggest that memorizing Scripture was a common feature of the early believers:
- "Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias...?" (Rom. 11:2) suggests that Paul expected them to know this passage. "What the Scripture saith" rather than "what is written" might suggest that they learnt these passages by heart and spoke them out loud, probably because the majority of the early believers were either illiterate or had no access to the manuscripts.
- A passage in Ps. 118 is referred to in Lk. 20:18; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6-8. One wonders if this was a proof text which the early believers would have known by heart. And one wonders likewise about Psalm 2- it is referred to so often.
- The early believers remained devoted to the instruction (lit. 'doctrinizing') given by the apostles. This might suggest rote learning.
- The twelve gave themselves continually to "the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4); using a phrase used in contemporary literature to describe how the synagogue minister made pupils memorize Scripture texts. Hence Paul reminds the Ephesians to "remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said..."; not, 'how it is written' (for the Gospels were in circulation by this time). He jogged their memory of one of the texts they ought to have memorized (Acts 20:35).
- The letters of Peter and John are likewise shot through with allusion to the Gospels, conscious and unconscious. Peter uses Scriptures like Ps. 110 and 118 in exactly the same way as he heard the Lord use them (Acts 3:34 = Mt. 22:44; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7 = Mt. 21:42). A list could be compiled for Peter's allusions to the Lord as I have for Paul's. It may be that Peter's difficult reference to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19) is a reference to Is. 61 in the same way as Christ used it in Lk. 4:18. This point is meaningless without an appreciation of the extent to which Christ's words featured in the writing and thought of Peter.
- The Old Testament as well as the New is written in such a way as to encourage memorization, although this is often masked by the translation. There are several devices commonly used to assist in this. Not least is alliteration, i.e. similarly sounding syllables: Pantote Peri Panton (1 Thess. 1:2);  Polymeros kai polytropos(Heb. 1:1); hautee protee entolee (Mk. 12:30); aphtharton amianton amaranton (1 Pet. 1:3,4). In 2 Tim. 3:2,3 nearly all words end in (-oi), the masculine plural case termination- when it would surely have been possible to construct the sentence in another way. "We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced (orcheesasthe); we have mourned unto you and ye have not lamented (ekopsasthe)" (Mt. 11:17) could be dynamically rendered: 'We piped for you, and you never stept; we dirged for you, and you never wept". It has been pointed out that if some NT passages are translated into Aramaic, the common language of the day in first century Israel, there would have been ample encouragement for memorization. Thus: We preach Christ crucified (mishkal), unto the Jews a stumblingblock (mikshol), and unto the Greeks foolishness (sekel), but unto them that are called... the power (hishkeel) of God and the wisdom (sekel) of God" (1 Cor. 1:23,24). The device of acrostic Psalms (9,10,25,34,37,119,145) and the use of acrostics in Lamentations and Esther would likewise enable the reciting of them. The repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive sentences is yet another such feature (Dt. 28:3-6; 2 Sam. 23:5; Jer. 1:18; Hos. 3:4; 1Cor. 13:4; 2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 6:12). The same phrase is also sometimes repeated at the beginning and end of a sentence with the same effect (Ex. 32:16; 2 Kings 23:25; Ps. 122:7,8; Mk. 7:14-16; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:8 Rom. 14:8 Gk.).  
It was expected that the disciples of rabbis memorized their teaching (1), and there's no reason to doubt that the Lord's disciples, both those who immediately heard Him and those who subsequently became disciples of their invisible Heavenly rabbi, would likewise have memorized the gospel records of His words. This would account for the way they are arranged [Mark especially] as series of 'pericopes', small bite-sized sections which lend themselves to memorization. This would explain how Paul can use technical terms for handing on a tradition (paradidomi, 1 Cor. 11:2,23) and receiving it (paralambano, 1 Cor. 15:1,3; Gal. 1:19; Col. 2:6; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:6); and of faithfully retaining the tradition (katecho, 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:2; krateo, 2 Thess. 2:15); matched perhaps by John's insistence in his letters that the converts retain that teaching which they received "from the beginning". And so it wouldn't at all be unreasonable to expect that the early Christians memorized a Gospel, perhaps the one they had been taught by the initial preacher of Christ whom they had encountered- be it the account of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Jesus was a wandering rabbi, and "a rabbi was usually someone who had ordered his own teaching into a mishnah (a memorized "repetition") for his disciples to commit to memory and repeat" (2).

(1) Alfred Edersheim (The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah) and J.W. Wenham (Christ And The Bible, Tyndale, 1972) give examples of how even quite ordinary Jews in first century times could quote large sections of the Old Testament verbatim.
(2) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 82.