How Did Jesus’ Original Listeners Remember and Share What Jesus Said and Did?

How did Jesus’ listeners remember what Jesus said and did? They didn’t take notes, and Jesus didn’t leave any writings. There were no current newspaper accounts for them to check to refresh their memories. All they had was what they could personally remember, and yet they were able to go out after Jesus’ death and resurrection and share with others what they had seen and heard. Many years later they even recorded these things in the gospels.

How did they remember it all?

Jesus Made it Easy for His Listeners to Remember

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Heinrich Bloch 1876

Have you ever had a teacher or professor who was an expert in their subject and spewed facts all throughout the class sessions? How well do you remember the wondrous facts they related? Perhaps you took notes, but what if you did not and had to rely on memory alone? Had Jesus taught like that we would probably know nothing about him today. Instead, Jesus spoke and acted in ways that caught people’s attention and really made an impression.

Jesus told stories and parables. Who can forget the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, or the lost sheep? What about putting new wine in old wine skins? These stories create images in one’s mind that last a lifetime.

Jesus used imagery and hyperbole to make the essence of what he said easy to remember. The camel going through the eye of the needle is unforgettable, as is picking at the speck in someone’s eye. He spoke of the fires of Gehenna on several occasions. And he said ‘I am the bread of life; eat my body and drink my blood.’ Whether you think you understand these references or not, I bet you remember them.

Jesus wrote on the ground. It was on the occasion when a group of men were about to stone a woman to death for adultery. What did Jesus write? We don’t know, but I am sure those who were there remembered it for the rest of their lives.

Jesus used familiar passages from the Old Testament. Recall Jesus’ quote from of Isaiah in Nazareth at the beginning of his mission in Luke 4, and in which he omitted the reference to judgment. He also discussed Old Testament laws with ‘You have heard..but I say!’ What a shocker that must have been.

Jesus took dramatic actions. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, talked with women—even questionable women, Samaritan women, and Canaanite women. In his last public act, he staged a demonstration against the misuse of the Temple in a very memorable way.

Jesus healed people publicly. And these were no simple healings but included very severe physical issues like withered hands, leprosy, paralysis, and constant bleeding. He healed mental illnesses, which some thought were caused by demons, and he even dramatically healed Lazarus from a coma.

I am sure you can think of many more memorable examples. Had I followed Jesus during his short ministry, I don’t think I would have difficulty remembering what he said and did—I would have difficulty forgetting it!

Do the Gospels Relate Exactly What Jesus Said and Did?

Jesus’ words and actions were often very memorable, and many of them were written later in the gospels, but this does not mean that what we read in the gospels are precise details of his actions or are word-for-word what Jesus said. Jesus’ original listeners remembered the things that impacted them most, and they often remembered the significance of things, not necessarily the exact words or details. The gospels are not written as biographies but as reports of the impact Jesus had on the people around him.

When the gospels were written they also addressed issues going on at the time of their writing. It seems that Matthew reflects the later intensification of opposition from the Pharisees, so he emphasizes Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees in his gospel. John seems, perhaps, to be dealing with an early form of Gnosticism which influenced the writing of his gospel.

The audiences of each gospel writer also influenced what they emphasized in their writing—the Romans for Mark, the Jews for Matthew, and Gentiles for Luke. The writers also made connections between Jesus and familiar passages in the Old Testament, just as Jesus did, even though they often twisted the original meaning of the Old Testament passages to do so. Sometimes they used the Jewish technique of Midrash, which does not use literal interpretation; Matthew’s flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt is probably a good example.

Must we have the exact words of Jesus? Must we have the precise detail on things that happened? Why does that matter? I believe that the significance of what Jesus said and did, and the impact he had on his listeners, is more important. And yet, the picture of Jesus we see in the gospels is remarkably consistent, even though some details vary.

What Does This Do for Inerrancy?

We cannot claim the gospels present to us the precise words of Jesus or precise details of what he did, so I don’t think (for this reason and others) that we have any foundation for saying that the gospels represent the inerrant word of God. They don’t have to. They don’t need to.

Inerrancy is a very harmful assumption that often leads to rigid theological conclusions. But Jesus did not speak in terms of theology—God, sin, heaven, hell, the end times—so we should not be looking for clues to detailed theology in the gospels; Jesus spoke in broader terms of love, positive behavior, relationships, and the expanding kingdom of God on earth.

I think the gospel writers captured all this very well. We get to participate in the early followers’ experience of hearing and observing Jesus. And it is that which compels us to follow Jesus just as they did.

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38 Responses to How Did Jesus’ Original Listeners Remember and Share What Jesus Said and Did?

  1. tonycutty says:

    I liked this article a lot. In particular, this: “…Jesus did not speak in terms of theology—God, sin, heaven, hell, the end times—so we should not be looking for clues to detailed theology in the gospels; Jesus spoke in broader terms of love, positive behavior, relationships, and the expanding kingdom of God on earth.”. That is just golden – thank you! It’s going in my next ‘quotations’ – style blog post 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Anthony Paul says:

    Tim: I’ve been following your recent series of excellent articles on the transition of the gospels from the oral to the written tradition for several weeks now. I’ve not commented much simply because this is an area of discussion to which I have had very little exposure over the years because it has been very difficult for me insofar as so many writers seem to have a personal agenda on the subject. On the one hand, we have the evangelicals who need total biblical certainty and, in wanting to interpret all things scriptural as literal, seem to me to be in a deep sense of denial over some very basic issues which must arise from forty to sixty-five years of elapsed time before the words and actions of Jesus were even put into writing. On the other hand we have the critical thinkers who almost seem to want to show us that nothing (or at least very little) in the gospels is valid. I’ve found your position to be fair and even-handed and well balanced all around. Thank you for that!

    Because of the ways you describe your own views, I find it quite reasonable to accept the idea that Jesus’ words as they appear are not literal, but that the essence and meaning of who Jesus is and what He said are still held intact by the gospels. As Marcus Borg writes in Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time, the gospels speak with at least two voices: the memory of those who related the stories as they remember them and also the voice of tradition which already started to creep into the Christian narrative. What I find most interesting at this point in time is that there appears to be a healthy evolution of thought about the entire Bible — many are beginning to face certain facts squarely and have also come to understand that the Bible reveals God to us in a manner which reflects His own nature to some degree…. paradoxically, the Bible tells us a great deal about God and ourselves, but always with a large mystical element of “unknowing”. I suppose it is this unknown which makes too many uncomfortable… but perhaps that is why we are told “the just shall live by faith”.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anthony, you said, “On the one hand, we have the evangelicals who need total biblical certainty and, in wanting to interpret all things scriptural as literal, seem to me to be in a deep sense of denial over some very basic issues which must arise from forty to sixty-five years of elapsed time before the words and actions of Jesus were even put into writing. On the other hand we have the critical thinkers who almost seem to want to show us that nothing (or at least very little) in the gospels is valid.”

      I have noticed this very thing. So many believers insist that the gospels are totally accurate, while other believers insist that there is little that is dependable in the gospels. Obviously, I take a middle road on this one.

      I must read Borg’s book. I have read some of his other stuff but not ‘Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time’. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Andrew Meredith says:

    Tim not at all sure what you think theology is?!
    In your article you make mention of Jesus talking several times of the fire of Gehenna surely those are references to hell? How many times does he speak about God? Or sin – come on he does all of those things. Or do you feel that they are not ‘proper’ theology because they are not expressed in a v dry academic way? Or is it just a pop at the extreme US Evangelicals?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ancadudar says:

    Tim,
    I’m growing and learning so much from your blog! Thank you, this has been a Godsend for me. I’ve understood things along these lines for a little over a year now, but I could not articulate it the way you and others have here.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. newtonfinn says:

    Simply a marvelous and illuminating post this week, Tim–a burst of sunlight breaking through the dark clouds of the ever-divisive theological storm. A kindred spirit I’ve mentioned before, who likewise emphasizes the crucial significance of the overall impression that Jesus left upon his contemporaries (and the world), is Princeton Seminary’s Dale Allison. His “The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus” provides additional support for the clarifying and uplifting views you put forward with direct and simple elegance. I’m moved to quote again my favorite written prayer from the hand of Soren Kierkegaard, especially because the line I’ve capitalized dovetails so beautifully with the thoughts you’ve expressed.

    Pattern and Redeemer

    O LORD Jesus Christ, it was not to plague us men
    But to save us that Thou didst say,
    “No one can serve two masters” —
    Oh, that we might be willing to accept it, by doing it,
    That is, by following Thee.
    Thou who art both willing and able to help, help us all and everyone,
    Thou who art both the Pattern and Redeemer,
    And again both the Redeemer and Pattern,
    So that when we sink under the Pattern,
    The Redeemer raises us up again,
    And, at the same instant, Thou art also the Pattern,
    To keep us continually striving after Thee.
    Thou, our Redeemer, by Thy blessed suffering and death,
    Hast made satisfaction for all and for everything;
    No eternal blessedness can be earned by desert–it has been deserved.
    YET THOU DIDST LEAVE BEHIND THEE THE TRACE OF THY FOOTSTEPS,
    Thou the holy pattern of the human race, and of each individual in it,
    So that, saved by Thy redemption, we might every instant have confidence and boldness
    To will to strive to follow Thee!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, thanks for the kind words! I really enjoyed Kierkegaard’s poem. Thanks for sharing it. I marked “The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus” for investigation and likely to order. Thanks for this as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Paul says:

      What a beautiful post… it truly made my day.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. scraffiti says:

    Hi Tim, I like what you’re saying but there are still questions that have no answers. For example when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Who was there to record that? Or the ‘ let this cup pass from me..’ when they were all asleep. Did somebody really memorize that incredibly long prayer in John 17. Then there are the incredible passages. Do we really believe that God spoke in an audible voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism? Or, for my part the silliest story of all when Jesus met up with Moses and Elijah. Did they discuss the weather? Bible scholars dispute whether Moses actually existed. I’m afraid that I’m one of those dreadful people that doesn’t believe the miracle stories either – why should I? The thing is, historians dispute what happened in WW2 never mind twenty centuries ago. I think that so much embellishment has happened that we will simply never know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Scraffiti, I agree. In fact, I agree with you on every example you mention. My point was more along the lines of what Jesus said and did that impressed his listeners, and even that would not be remembered in every detail.

      Like

    • newtonfinn says:

      I’m with you, scraffiti, on many of the miracle stories. I don’t buy a lot of them at face value, either, and see them as more symbolic or metaphorical than literal. But I believe that NT scholarship has indicated that the accounts of HEALINGS by Jesus, along with his sayings and parables, are part of the earliest layer of the Jesus tradition that we can uncover. And then, of course, there is the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. Even my hard-nosed NT professor in seminary had to admit that there was what he called a “surd” in attempting to explain how totally demoralized and devastated followers of Jesus could suddenly become energized and enthusiastic preachers of a resurrected messiah, to the point of being willing to suffer and die to bring that message to the world. If you accept the possibility of the miraculous as I do (which is another subject Tim might wish to tackle, probably all over again, in an upcoming post), the various miracle stories in the NT and OT as well become matters for case-by-case discernment rather than blanket rejection. But one surely need not believe in the miraculous to believe in Jesus, because he was so much more than just another ancient miracle-worker. To each his own on this issue.

      Liked by 2 people

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Newton, I agree with you that Jesus’ healings are likely genuine but many of the ‘miracles’ might not be as we understand them. And, of course, I do believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

        Liked by 2 people

    • id8364222.btrdo.website says:

      What ?

      Like

  7. Paz says:

    Thank You for a wonderful post Tim!
    It seems that the unknown or this mystery is an essential element of (religious) faith.
    I like this quote by C. S. Lewis where he says…
    “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
    C.S. Lewis

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’m a bit baffled when you speak as if you accept the miracles of Jesus in your post, then deny they were real in the comments.
    And to say that Jesus wasn’t teaching theology? Anyone who teaches anything about God, is teaching theology. And Jesus is therefore the ultimate theology professional, as he not only taught about the nature of God, he lived out God’s love perfectly. Do the accounts have to be word for word. No, but they have to be indwelled by the spirit to be understood by the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Wild, I don’t think I accepted Jesus’ miracles and then denied them. I do think Jesus was a healer, and perhaps you can call that a miracle though I think he was drawing on principles of physics we do not understand. The sort of miracles I question are those like walking on water and turning water into wine. I don’t even know why he would do such things.

      Many believers today have very detailed theologies; take a look at any systematic theology book. Jesus did not produce detailed theologies like that. He focused on practical issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anthony Paul says:

        “…. The sort of miracles I question are those like walking on water and turning water into wine. I don’t even know why he would do such things.”

        Tim, I would like to point out something interesting about the miracle at Cana that was once pointed out to me… irrespective of whether you believe it to have actually happened or not. It tells us a great deal about the character of Jesus who lived in a culture whose conventional wisdom spoke of a strict code of purity for anyone who would be considered holy and righteous — while Jesus pointed out that compassion and justice are at the heart of true holiness and righteousness.

        First of all, as I understand it, many of those wedding parties would sometimes go on for days depending on the wealth of the families throwing the festivities. Secondly, the party was just about over once the wine ran out… when Jesus turned the water into wine, He essentially said, “Let the party go on… let the good times roll!” People were having a great time (after all, the wine had run out) and Jesus, a guest, was being “gracious” by providing more wine. He didn’t say, as do many legalistic Christians, that God doesn’t approve of drinking alcohol and that the sooner this ended the better.

        If you doubt that there is a deeper message here, let me ask: has anyone ever noticed that the jars which Jesus commanded be filled with water for the party wine were jars which were to be used for ritual purification? (John 2:6). I believe that too many Christians today feel more comfortable with rituals and not with partying… that’s one big reason why so many aren’t much fun to be around. As long as we continue to see the Bible as God’s rule book of mostly prohibitions, then Christianity, as Richard Rohr points out so well, “…. will be duty instead of delight, jars of purification instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party!”

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Anthony, your analysis might very well be correct. I don’t deny his turning water to wine; I just question it. Another possibility is that Jesus was at the very beginning of his ministry and was still much influenced by his mother and conceded to her request against his true wishes. Who knows?

          But I do like your scenario.

          Like

    • But let me back track a bit and tell you what I did like about the article. I believe you had an excellent point about the way Jesus taught using stories and miracles. How many of us retain what we hear in the average sermon? I don’t learn well that way typically. But give me a story or an object lesson or put it in picture or song and it sticks. Life is ultimately a story, and Jesus uses pieces of that story to teach us in ways that one more seminar is unlikely to do. I’m eternally grateful for that, because he knows what lessons I need when I need them.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Paz says:

      Wild, I think you are right when you say that Jesus taught us about God and I believe that he was the perfect teacher or “rabbi”! I also believe that Jesus had to have a belief system which was necessary for him to express to support his teachings, what he said and what he did; But I think Jesus certainly demonstrated this with a positive focus and with a purpose of opening the path to God by making it accessible to ALL (to seek, learn, understand, heal, see, hear, enjoy, experience, being, to be transformed by, to feel in the presence of) the nature of God and His perfect Love.

      Liked by 3 people

      • ” God is so vastly wonderful, so utterly and completely delightful that he can, with out anything other than himself, meet and overflow the deepest demands of our total nature. Such worship…can never come from a mere doctrinal knowledge of God.” (A. W. Tozer) Just reading this tonight and it reminded me of your comment. I don’t disagree. That is not to say theology is not important.

        Liked by 2 people

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Wild, I agree that theology is important even though relationships based on Jesus’ teaching and example are also very important.

          Like

  9. A coma? Why don’t you think that Lazarus was dead?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Waking, Lazarus might have been dead but I doubt it. I think true death was permanent before Jesus’ resurrection, but now we can look forward to our own eventual resurrections. However, Lazarus would have appeared to be dead by observers.

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      • People in comas still breathe and their hearts still beat, all of which even people in that time would have known to look for. 🙂 Verse 44 says that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days when Jesus arrived and that he had begun to stink. This also suggests that he was actually dead. Even if death was usually permanent before the resurrection (as it is now), wouldn’t Jesus still be able to break that rule?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Waking, I am sure you have heard numerous stories about corpses ‘coming to life’ after being pronounced dead. And I think his sister said that he stank, not because she could smell it, but because that is what normally happens after being dead four days.

          Again, Lazarus might have been dead but I doubt it. Jesus was a great healer but I don’t think he manipulated the laws of physics.

          Like

          • Death has nothing to do with physics. The healings of people like the paralytic and the man with the withered hand bend physics more than resurrection does. I say this as someone who IS paralyzed. If Jesus is God, and was himself resurrected, I have no doubt he was able to raise Lazarus from the dead. It’s okay to disagree, but I do find it weird. 😛

            Liked by 2 people

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Waking,

            Whether Jesus could raise people from the dead is a question; whether he would is another question; and whether Lazarus was actually dead is a third question. I have no answers to these questions only speculation.

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  10. So, what was Jesus crying about? The whole account makes no sense if Lazarus wasn’t dead.

    Liked by 2 people

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