June 14, 2014

Early Jesus FAQs

How did Jesus engage thousands? Consider the twelve. When asked about Jesus, what would they say? What *could* they say? Although we can't know whatever they did say, their immediate options are obvious. They could talk about him. They could try quoting him. When people asked about Jesus, what else would the twelve talk about. I think their most likely response was telling stories about Jesus.

First, let's realize that TV and movies usually present the Galilean crowds as passive listeners, like a congregation hearing a sermon. But even if that was sometimes true, every moment around Jesus wasn't always a sermon. At the very least, there was not a recessional march afterwards to clear the hillside of listeners. More realistically, the gathering crowds would have been milling around and having side conversations before and after any presentation, probably more like the attendees at a conference or convention than a platform speech or a concert. There were plenty of times it was all ears on Jesus, but it was not that way constantly.

Next, although many people may have been quite content merely to see Jesus, just to be a part of the crowd where something special was happening, there must have been many (especially among those who'd walked many miles and/or risked social catastrophe to approach the radical preacher) for whom the experience would not be complete without a personal audience. What I find difficult to imagine is that there was not frequently a large push to get "backstage" after the "show". If even ten or twenty percent of a crowd wanted personal access, then days with large crowds were days when Jesus did NOT get to see all such petitioners. 

But as often as anyone was waiting to see Jesus, there were always the disciples. 

In side conversations, what would people engage them about? There's only one obvious topic of interest they would all have in common. These days, people might chit chat, "Isn't Jesus great? What do YOU think about Jesus?" and I can see that happening, in some sense or another. What seems certain is that there must have been a lot of newcomers with a lot of basic questions like "Who is this guy?" and "What does he have to say about (___X___)?" One might suppose other frequently asked questions ran somewhat along the lines of "Where is he from?" and "Who taught him?" or "What do the authorities say about him?" 

And what could the disciples say? Certainly, they could all give their opinions, but I doubt many pilgrims to see Jesus were thrilled to find out what Bartholomew thought about the Law, Life, and God. No, if they'd come to see Jesus, then they wanted to find out more about Jesus. And what, really, could the twelve say to such people?

The most natural response would be telling stories about Jesus and repeating his words. "Does he really heal people?" I've seen him heal lots of people. "Is he going to be our next king?" He talks a lot about the God's kingdom. "Has he said anything about Herod?" He once called Herod a fox. Obviously, these pretend quotes I just made up are simply one idea of the kinds of Q&A topics that might have come up.

Hopefully it's just as obvious that these are only for illustrating the point. Actually, I think we can do better.

The Gospels record many questions being presented to Jesus. Suppose some were asked frequently.

Further, suppose some were asked indirectly.

The more frequent the question, the more likely it seems that such a question at times, often times of necessity, could only have been posed to Jesus indirectly, by posing it to his disciples. Regardless of whether these FAQs came more often to Jesus directly, being overheard by the disciples, or came more often by proxy, being posed to the disciples, it seems likely in the overall aggregate of experience that these FAQs would have generated, among the earliest Jesus community, what FAQs always generate among genuine community. The repetitive questions likely developed a few standard responses, a few stock stories, a few representative teachings, a few solid quotes that seemed most worth repeating, or something very much like all of the above.

In short, if the earliest Jesus community received visitors as frequently as the Gospels suggest, and if the earliest Jesus community followed Jesus as much as the Gospels suggest, then the earliest Jesus community must have spent plenty of time overhearing one another responding to visitors' FAQs.

While I feel certain their actual responses must have included some variation, possibly a very wide variation, I also feel that within some limits this must be the proper context which provides us with the very earliest beginnings of oral tradition. What else could we suppose were the earliest re-tellings about Jesus? Preserved or forgotten, the earliest stories ever told about Jesus were the stories people told one another about Jesus while Jesus was still alive.

Recognizing this truth, there stands every conceivable chance that those earliest stories were preserved, in some form or another, and that this process, thus originated, eventually led to the bulk of the source material that informed all four Gospels. My point at the moment, however, is merely that this early origination of that long-term oral transmission process may have begun as something which was driven partly or largely by the community's experience of having to respond ad nauseum to the most pertinent FAQs.

Finally, let's consider the Gospel texts for what evidence they might provide, in considering my proposal.

For present purposes, let's forget about how "accurately" the entire tradition might have been kept, or how closely any FAQ responses might have preserved Jesus stories, and saying, or whether such things were kept "verba" or "vox". For now, rather, let's merely consider these hypothetical Frequently Asked Questions themselves. While occasioned responses might differ a lot, the FAQ's (by definition) would be inherently representative of the kinds of questions people wanted to ask Jesus, or to ask the disciples about Jesus. Considering the nature of FAQs as being a representative sample (in themselves showing variation from the very beginning, but a much slighter variation than the responses provoked) we might reasonably deduce the basic topics some of the historical FAQs might have centered on, and we might do this by loosely categorizing the types of questions being posed to Jesus in the Gospels. That is, questions in the text ostensibly being posed directly to Jesus, either by visitors or by the disciples, may be taken as reflections (or refractions) of the kinds of questions that Jesus and his disciples were actively fielding together, during their travels.

And so, without further ado...

Here is my loose rephrasing of some questions in the Gospels that seem to drive the story and/or dialogue. Regardless of which Gospel characters ask these types of questions in the Gospel texts, I have re-framed each of these loosely rephrased questions to sound like questions being posed to the disciples from visitors. I have also sorted them into the following five categories. Judge for yourselves how plausible and/or probable it might be that precisely these kinds of questions were being asked frequently of the disciples.
Questions regarding Jesus' identity, background and credentials:
 What was his connection to John the Baptist?
 Where did he get this wisdom? These powers? Where did he come from?
 Is he educated? Does he know the Law? Where did he study?
 Does he really claim to forgive sins? Who does he think he is?
 Where does he get his authority? What sign or proof does he offer?
 Does he have a demon? Is he working for Satan?
 Does he think he's greater than Abraham?
 Is he the Christ? The messiah? The son of God? Who is he?
 Who is he really? Who do you think he is? 
Questions regarding issues of Law, Custom and Morality:
 What does God want us to do? What must I do?
 What does Jesus say about ____ in the Law?
 (sin, forgiveness, marriage, divorce, sabbath, commandments, etc...)
 Where is he going? Is he going up to Jerusalem? Is he going to Passover?
 Why is he with tax collectors and prostitutes?
 Does he really speak with Samaritans? Gentiles? And even their women?
 Who is the worst sinner? Who sinned? Who can be saved?
 How can I enter heaven? Be saved? Receive eternal life? 
Questions regarding some of Jesus' specific teachings:
 Why does he speak in parables? What did he mean when he said ____?
 Are there only a few people who understand him?
 Is he crazy? Do you really believe these things? Who actually listens to him?
 Does he teach you guys different things than he teaches everyone else?
 Why does he keep a small circle instead of telling the world? (Instead of going to Jerusalem?) 
Questions regarding Authority and Politics:
 What does he mean about God's kingdom? Is he going to make himself king?
 Does he answer his critics? Does he know what they say about him?
 Do the Pharisees like him? You know the Pharisees don't like him, right?
 Are they trying to kill him? You know they'll probably kill him, right?
 Aren't they trying to kill him? Why is he going there? 
Questions regarding the Jesus Community's Group Experience:
 Why don't you guys do ____ like John's disciples, or like the Pharisees?
 Did you really leave everything to follow him?
 Doesn't he care that my brother/sister/father has left us at home, to travel with you all?
 Why are you spending money so he can travel and preach? Why not give to the poor?
 Which of you disciples are going to sit at his right and left? Who will be great in his kingdom?
That's quite a list, in my humble opinion. Judge for yourselves.

If the kinds of questions being posed in the Gospels seem like good candidates for being the kinds of questions that people naturally and frequently would have been asking of the historical Jesus' actual disciples... then my proposal is that scholars should consider more rigorous ways to test this basic, simple hypothesis.

The earliest stories being told about Jesus were being told by people while Jesus was still alive. If the kinds of questions that drive Gospel storytelling match the kinds of questions people would have asked his disciples about him, then the most likely origin of oral tradition is with Jesus' earliest followers, probably in Galilee. The earliest occasion for repetitive storytelling on particular topics would have most naturally arisen as the Lord's followers found themselves regularly fielding frequently asked questions.

By the time the entourage moved from Galilee into Judea, and faced the prospect of addressing a whole territory full of new strangers, undoubtedly bringing many of the same questions they'd regularly fielded in Galilee, the five percent of Jesus' 120 (or so) closest followers who could read might even have thought about getting somebody to begin writing some of their FAQ responses on paper! (?) (!!!)

But of course, that's a whole other issue.

Please, somebody-other-than-me, please make this your thesis project.


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